Marriage as a cornerstone of culture and Christian life

“The stone which the builders rejected,” says Psalm 118, “has become the cornerstone.”

The cornerstone is Jesus Christ. He who was rejected by men is the cornerstone of all things—the foundation upon which our faith, and our lives, rest.

We experience Christ most especially through the sacraments. And so the sacramental life becomes the cornerstone of true peace and of the presence of goodness in our lives. In a unique, unrepeatable and important way, each of the sacraments becomes the cornerstone to a life lived in peace and goodness and in justice. And because the sacraments are the cornerstones of our lives, they are the cornerstones of Christian community—of Christian culture.

Marriage, one of the seven sacraments, is a cornerstone on which our Christian culture can rest.  And like Christ, today marriage has become a stone rejected. Its trivialization and its redefinition mean that the importance of marriage has been forgotten. But Christ too, was forgotten. From a place of being forgotten, abandoned and crucified, Christ ushered in our redemption. And through the sacrament of marriage, like the other sacraments, Christ can redeem the world.

Last week, I wrote that stable communities need marriage—that marriage offers something important to the well-being of civil societies. This is true. Marriage offers something unique and important to all of us—even those of us who, like me, are unmarried and have chosen in the Lord celibacy. If we understand the essential properties and goods of marriage, we will understand what it is that marriage has to offer.

Chastity is important. Sexual intimacy should be reserved to marriage of a man and a woman.  Sexual acts outside of marriage do not fulfill the purpose, dignity or truth of the sexual act. The world misunderstands this precisely because the world misunderstands what marriage is really about.

The Church’s canon law teaches that marriage has two essential properties: unity and indissolubility. In a plastic culture, unity and indissolubility are signs of contradiction. I was talking with a woman recently whose husband was unfaithful. Despite the infidelity, she remained in the marriage. Her friends and family encouraged her to leave. They told her to give up on her philandering husband.

The woman remained committed. And through her commitment, her husband was converted to Christ. The witness of her marriage was a witness to the love of God.

A friend of mine is a very good golfer. He tells me that the clubhouse locker room is a place where men complain about their marriages and criticize their wives. Long ago, my friend decided never to criticize his wife. Instead, without being showy or obvious, he finds ways to praise her. My friend tells me that the witness of his unity with his wife is transforming. That when other men are struggling they seek him out for counsel.

St. Augustine says that God “loved us even when we practiced enmity toward him and committed wickedness.” Love that is indissoluble and committed is a sign of God’s enduring and patient love for us. A sign the world desperately needs.

The goods of marriage, too, are essential elements to building Christian culture. Marriage is for the procreation and education of children.

Children need and deserve stable families. Marriage is ordered to that good. Without marriage, children are too often fatherless, motherless or hopeless. When a parent dies tragically, the family is changed forever by the loss of the mother or father. Marriage provides children with a model of life-giving, self-giving love.

But marriage is also for the good of the spouses themselves—especially their eternal good, their salvation.

The job of every husband is to help his wife become a saint. The job of every wife is to help her husband go to heaven. We are a world in desperate need of sanctity. How fortunate are married men and women who are blessed with one person dedicated to helping them know Jesus Christ. If married men and women became saints together, the world would be transformed.

Dear brothers and sisters, I pray you are living your marriage with an understanding of the goods and properties of marriage. Dear brothers, I pray you are helping your wives become saints. Dear sisters, I pray you are helping your husbands become saints. And parents, I pray you are giving your children a model of the Father’s love—stable, patient and present. And I pray that you, dear brothers and sisters, are living your marriages as signs of contradiction—as signs of the living love of Jesus Christ for the world and for his bride the Church.

Marriage, like Christ itself, has been rejected in our world. I pray, by your witness, that it will become again the cornerstone.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.

Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.