Looking at Marriage During Lent
An Ideal Time for the Renewal of Our Marriages
Lent seems to be the ideal time to look at marriage. How does our Lent journey shape what we are called to do in marriage?
A few decades ago, the word "obey" was removed from wedding vows. Instead we promised to love, honor and cherish each other. Many years later, Jesuit philosopher John Kavanaugh, S.J. lamented how much we had lost by dropping the word “obey” from wedding vows. He said that the root of the word “obey” simply means to put the needs of another ahead of our own.
Obedience in this context has nothing about one dominating another - only two people pledging to put the needs of the other ahead of their own. What a wonderful idea. It seems that this is exactly what we are called to in a gospel-based marriage.
Called by Jesus to be Unselfish
Now during these weeks of Lent we can take some time to examine our marriage. Do we love as deeply as we had originally intended when we first made our vows? As unselfishly? Whether we’ve been married 3 years or 30, this sacred season could be the start of a renewed relationship with our spouse, shaped by our experience of Lent.
We are invited by Jesus to put the needs of another ahead of our own. We can deepen our commitments in marriage and even change the dynamics within our relationships through unconditional love. In loving this way, we transform not only our spouses but more importantly, ourselves.
For those of us who are parents, we have probably always put the needs of our children first – but our spouse? Yes, we care for each other, but do we put the other’s needs ahead of our own? And yet how profoundly would our marriages change if we simply lived that vow for a while?
During Lent, we can make “obey-ing” the special focus of our lives. Instead of giving up chocolate, what if each day during Lent, we asked for the grace to be more unselfish in our marriage? As a first step, what if tomorrow, before we got out of bed, we asked God to help us love our spouse more? To put the needs of this life partner of ours ahead of our own?
Silencing our Disappointments
This Lenten journey begins with prayer and moves into silence. We hold off on the sarcastic comment aimed at our spouse. We silence a cutting remark. We drop the correction before it comes out of our mouths. Neglect the pouting. Stop the stony silence when we are displeased. These behaviors can be long standing and not easy to change. Also, it might take a while before our spouse really trusts these efforts. We will be the ones doing the “giving” for a while.
We are born selfish creatures crying out for someone to take care of our needs. The process of growing in this life seems to be learning how to become less selfish, less self-absorbed. On our good days we can do that, by loving, giving and caring for others before thinking of ourselves. But on our bad days, we look at our spouses and others and grumble about the unfairness: “Why is it always ME who has to do the giving? Why doesn’t my spouse have to care about ME first? Am I always the one who has to apologize first? Ask about the other’s day first? When is it MY turn to be taken care of?”
We are called to love in marriage the way we are loved by Jesus – without figuring out what we will get out of it. “Love one another as I have loved you.” As I have loved you. In the same way Jesus loves us – without limits. And so we love our spouse who is crabby and barking. Instead of snapping a response we can ask ourselves, “What does my spouse need right now?” It’s not about giving up my dignity or rolling over to a bully. It’s about loving someone who might not be very loveable right now.
We can wallow in our own self-pity and self-absorption, but it is in that moment that we are being called more deeply into Jesus’ love. We must die to our own needs and our own longing in order to find a new life in Jesus. In a profound way, we are being called to the simplest task: to care about other people before we take care of ourselves. What kind of people would we be if we got everything we wanted? If we never had to move outside of our own needs and desires? Jesus asks us: What good is it for us to get everything we wanted, if in the process we lose our very selves?
Cherishing Each Other
We've stopped snapping back, held our complaints. What if we add a small goal for ourselves every day? What if we added one positive, loving thing each day of Lent? We might hang up his clothes without complaining about it. Put the cap back on her toothpaste – with a smile. Lay out the crossword puzzle with a fresh pencil for him. Have a pot of coffee ready for her in the morning. Do some of the tiny, thoughtful things we might have done years ago, before we slipped out of the habit.
It’s not spending money, it’s a change of attention. Send him an e-mail of gratitude during the day. Tuck a note into her suitcase as she departs on a trip. A call just to say how grateful I am for you in my life. Each day we ask God for the grace to love as God loves us – without limits.
One final thing is patience. We have to learn to trust that eventually, with our constant loving and God's grace, our spouse will notice the difference. Under the barrage of love, our spouse will begin to soften, bark less, say Thank You more. It takes time to change the patterns and it takes time for our spouse to trust in the changes. It may take months beyond Lent, but if we believe in this, pray about it and trust in God, the changes that happen in our marriages and ourselves can be dramatic.
This isn’t something for women to do for their husbands. Or husbands to do for their wives. It is what each of us as married people are called to do for each other. This is the way of life Jesus calls us to: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.”
Re-focusing our marriage invites us to be more giving, to fight our human nature that has us focused on our own needs. We are asked to stop keeping score with the ones we love and to put their needs ahead of our own. It is then, Jesus promises, that by losing our lives for his sake, we will find real life.