The feast of the Holy Spouses, which originated back in the 15th century and has grown in and out of favor ever since, is usually celebrated toward the end of January. This feast and the Feast of the Holy Family a few weeks prior highlight the marriage between Mary and Joseph. And feasts like these, ones that celebrate the gift of family life, are easy to enter into when we can palpably feel the love of God in our own family.
Yet, for many, these feasts can be painful reminders that our vocations have not even “started” or gone the way we expected. I think of many loved ones who are living out the Sacrament of Marriage in a way that can feel unorthodox. People who have walked through painful separations, life changing illness, infertility, mental and physical declines, and somehow still found a way to love their spouse (even if sometimes that love is from a distance). And for those of us who are currently blessed with a spouse who deeply cares for us, this vocation can still carry all the pain and suffering that exists when two people try to make a life together.
Yes, marriage is hard
I don’t think I’ve ever felt as confident about marriage as I did before I was actually married. In the months leading up to our wedding, my husband and I did marriage prep, attended Natural Family Planning classes, and prayed for our life together. I did all the “right” things, but I was quickly disillusioned when marriage brought the exact pain and loneliness I thought it would dispel. It turns out that just because two people love each other doesn’t mean they are always capable of loving each other with the love of God the Father.
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After months of arguing with my husband, I remember attending a wedding and feeling my heart hardening against marriage itself. I left the ceremony crying and angry. This sacrament that was supposed to be beautiful felt like it was mocking me. I’m thankful for the grace that somehow softened my hardening heart, well before I could be assured of a favorable outcome. What kept my faith in the steadfastness of God’s love for me was the witness of other holy men and women living out their vocations through what seemed to be insurmountable odds. Husbands nursing their wives through terminal illnesses, parents who experienced the death of a child, couples who needed to attend therapy and take time apart but didn’t give up on each other. These examples assured me that this vocation feels difficult because for many it is.
Not a ‘picture perfect’ marriage
This is a feast about two people who uphold a model of marriage that many, myself included, find aspirational. But this ideal is not an end in itself; it points us onto something greater. Marriage, as intended by our creator, is a beautiful gift, but many of us won’t experience the fullness of that gift on earth. This feast, wherever it finds you, is worth celebrating, especially when our own vocation feels precarious or even non-existent. Because the thing we are aspiring to is not just marriage; it’s love itself.
The celebration of the Holy Spouses reminds us that God comes to give the most spectacular gifts to the most unlikely people. Mary and Joseph’s marriage doesn’t exactly check off many of the traditional Catholic stereotypes. They only have one child, Joseph isn’t the biological father, and they lived as refugees away from their native homeland. For those looking for a vocal spiritual leader, Joseph has zero speaking parts in the Gospels. In fact, Mark doesn’t even include his name. And Mary hardly follows the trope of Catholic motherhood. Instead of a gaggle of classically trained homeschool children, Mary only has one child — a child, by the way, who grows up to challenge thousands of years of Jewish religious tradition. Their story isn’t the typical template for marital bliss, not by first-century Jewish standards and certainly not by many of the standards that circulate among modern Catholic women.
And yet, this unconventional marriage is worth pondering. Not so we can compare our own life situation to an impossible standard of a perfect marriage, but for the comfort in knowing that Mary and Joseph also found their way through painful and winding roads. They didn’t know what the future held, either for them or for their son; they just kept moving forward, held together by a promise to each other and to their creator. They remained committed to honoring each other, even when that looked different than what they expected. For those of us who can’t relate to the “happily ever afters” we imagined as children, this day can show us that marriage is large enough to encompass both our joy and sorrow.
So, for those of you in a marriage that feels more painful than you can bear: I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the weight of this cross. More than that, I’m thankful for your steadfastness — for those moments, despite everything, where you’ve honored the love that was entrusted to you. And for those who are waiting for a future that feels uncertain: Thank you for your love and friendship. Thank you for supporting the Sacrament of Marriage in your own longing. I see you. And for all of us, myself included, who are yearning for heaven: Godspeed friends. May this celebration today remind us of everything marriage could be, everything we are promised when we meet the eternal Bridegroom at the marriage supper of the Lamb.
Mary and Joseph, pray for us.