Sunday, July 24, 2005

What would you do . . .?

(17th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 24 July, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

“What would you do for a Klondike Bar?” No doubt you have heard this question before and seen the TV commercial, which seems to have no end to the possible things people might do for their favorite chocolate ice cream bar. Being no small fan of both chocolate and ice cream, there are few things I wouldn’t do for a Klondike Bar!

In the Gospel this morning, the question could be asked: What would you do for the Kingdom of Heaven? (Or perhaps more correctly: What should we do for the Kingdom of Heaven?) Jesus describes the Kingdom as a treasure hidden in a field. A man finds that treasure, and “out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). Again, it’s like a merchant who finds that pearl of great price, so “he goes and sells all that he has and buys it” (Matthew 13:46).

The answer to the question, “What would you do?” is quite simple: give everything. The Kingdom of Heaven is so incredible, so awesome, that we are moved to give everything we have just to take hold of it. We hold back nothing when we realize that God has held back nothing from us. That’s the true image of love that God offers to us as His people.

Remarkably, St. Paul says that this kind of love—the love between Christ and His Church—is mirrored in the love that a husband and wife share in marriage (Ephesians 5). It’s important to recognize this; he does not say that God’s love for us is like the love between a priest and his parish, or a bishop and his diocese. He says it’s like the love of a husband and a wife. It reveals the great dignity of Christian marriage, yet also the great responsibility married couples have in living out such a high calling. They are called to give themselves to each other completely, even as Christ gave Himself for us, holding nothing back.

A very important document of the Church talks about this marital love, which is a total love. It calls it “that very special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything” (Humanae Vitae, #9). Their love is so complete that it even goes beyond itself, and brings new life into being.

The document that explains so beautifully this great Sacrament of Marriage is called Humanae Vitae, and it was written 37 years ago, almost to the day. But you have probably never heard that quote before. Humanae Vitae is better known for its blanket rejection of all forms of artificial contraception. For that reason, it has become one of the most controversial documents in the Church today. But why?

The teachings of the Church on regulating the size of one’s family, on choosing when and how many children to have, are not excessive nor are they hard to understand. They are based upon that total gift of self, one spouse to another, which fully allows God to be a part of the decision making process.

Built into the very nature of marriage itself is the joy couples share in expressing their love and bringing forth new life. These two powers—the unifying love between two persons, and the creative power to bring about new life—were created to work together from the beginning, and if we want to treasure God's plan, they cannot be separated.

Artificial contraception, by its very nature, separates these two dimensions: the unitive from the procreative. It says, in essence, 'God you are welcome to be a part of our marriage everywhere, but not here.' It excludes the Author of life from an act that—by its very nature—must always be at least potentially open to the gift of life.

And the results of contraception are devastating. Humanae Vitae accurately predicted the drastic increase in the divorce rate, infidelity, abortion, and breakdown of the family's role in society. Most forms of birth control inflict harmful spiritual and physical side effects, almost always upon women. Married love is supposed to be about treasuring the gift of the spouse—body, soul, fertility, everything. Artificial contraception simply does not accomplish this end.

So what is the alternative? This week has been designated by the Church as Natural Family Planning Awareness Week. Natural Family Planning, or NFP, is a natural means by which a married couple can together read the signs of God's plan in the female body. Whether they are seeking pregnancy, or for serious reasons, seeking to avoid it, this natural method honors God's design in a way that contraception cannot.

And the benefits, as any couple that practices NFP will tell you, are outstanding. NFP couples enjoy a 99% rate of effectiveness in avoiding pregnancy, if that is their goal. It’s easy to learn, it helps communication within marriage, and NFP couples have a less than 5% rate of divorce—at least ten times less than the rest of society.

But believe it or not, none of these are the reasons why most couples change from contraception to NFP. The majority of those who make that decision do so because they feel that God is calling them to do it. Which brings us back to our original question: “What would we do for the Kingdom of Heaven?” The decision to practice NFP, as well as any moral decision in our lives, must ultimately be based not on rational facts, or benefits, or fear, guilt and shame, but on love.

We recognize that God has given Himself to us fully, holding nothing back. And this recognition moves us to want to do His will, whether it be in our family, our faith or in our personal life.

Is it easy for married couples to follow God’s will in everything? Of course not. It’s not easy for any of us. Sometimes we are confronted with decisions that require much prayer and a deeper understanding. We have to be willing to admit that we don’t always have all the answers and that we need the wisdom of God.

In our first reading this morning, King Solomon is given great power and authority; he has inherited a kingdom that is vast and expansive. And the first thing he asks for, out of all the things that he could have asked from God, is for wisdom, for “an understanding heart.”

May we be given the grace to ask for that same wisdom and “an understanding heart” in all the decisions of our lives, and may we recognize the value of the life that God has called us to, a sharing in His own Divine life, and a full gift of Himself to us. If people would be willing to do almost anything for a Klondike Bar, what would we be willing to do for the Kingdom of Heaven?