Jesus’ Answers to Our Questions about Marriage, Twenty-seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time (B), October 8, 2006

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church
27th Sunday of OT, Year B
October 8, 2006
Gen 2:18-24; Heb 2:9-11; Mk10:2-16

1) At the beginning of time, God created the heavens and the earth, the sun and the moon, the oceans and the mountains, the plants and animals and pronounced each of them “good.” On the sixth day of creation, he created man and called him “very good.” But the first time God found something “not good” we discover in today’s first reading. The Lord God said, “it is NOT GOOD that the man should be alone.” On one level, of course, Adam was not alone — there was God, all of the animals and all of creation. But something — or better, someone — was missing. Even though he was perfectly in the state of grace, Adam was lonely. That’s why God said it was not good for him to be solitary and created a fitting helper for him. When Adam saw Eve, he was finally able to rejoice in his existence, “This is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” He recognized in Eve an equal — taken out of his side so that they could stand side-by-side in front of God — and through her existence he finally learned to how to love: to love another, to love himself through her eyes, and analogously to love God. God had created man in his image and likeness and, as St. John tells us, God is love; so for man to be most God-like, and for him to be most human as God made him, he needed to learn how to love. He learned that through human love. The family based on marriage is the greatest and deepest image of God in the world. The book of Genesis says, “God created man in his image and likeness; in the image of God he created THEM; MALE AND FEMALE HE CREATED THEM,” because man is most fully in God’s image and likeness when he is united to the woman in a communion of persons in love. Just as in God, the mutual love of the Father and the Son eternally generated the Holy Spirit, so the mutual love of husband and wife can generate a third person, who is both an living fruit of their love and a means for that love to grow. In God’s plan, marriage is a singular sign and participation in God’s image and likeness.

2) But God’s plan for marriage goes even further than this. St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Ephesians that every Christian marriage participates in Christ’s marriage to his bride the Church and is called to model that love. “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loves the Church and gave himself up for her to make her holy,” he instructs; “Women, be under this mission of your husbands as you are under the Lord’s mission.” When he cites the passage from Genesis, which the Lord Jesus himself quotes in today’s Gospel — “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” — St. Paul says something stunning: “This is a great mystery, which applies — not principally to human marriage but — to CHRIST AND THE CHURCH” (Eph 5:31-32). Christ has left His Father in heaven and has become one flesh with his Bride the Church, which is why Christians are members of his body. Everything we understand about the meaning of human marriage, especially Christian marriage, comes from this nuptial union between Christ and the Church. Since Christ is always faithful to his bride, human spouses are called to be faithful. Since Christ’s union with the Church is fruitful — overflowing in acts of love — so the human couple is called to make love, to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28 ). And because Christ will never abandon his bride, no matter how many times she (or us individually) may be unfaithful to him, human marriage is indissoluble. “What God has joined,” Christ says in the Gospel, “no man must separate.” Christ, in fact, came, as he said during the Last Supper, so that we “might all be one” (Jn 17:11), so that we might all be united, as the persons of the Blessed Trinity are united. Marriage is part of this great plan of God’s wisdom from the beginning to bring us into the loving union of the Trinity. That is why, in God’s plan for his children, marriage is a sacrament, because like all the sacraments, it is meant to bring us into God’s life, more deeply into his image and likeness, and ultimately to heaven.

3) In recent days, however, the wisdom of God’s plan has been getting challenged from both inside and outside the Church. Many have begun to question openly whether God’s plan for marriage, taught courageously and consistently by the Church since Christ founded her, is true and relevant. These doubts or confusions about marriage are fraught with enormous consequences: for since God designed marriage to help us to discover who we are in his image and likeness and to reflect by analogy God’s own relationship with his people, if we misunderstand what marriage is, we will misunderstand who we are, who God is, and how we’re called to live our life in God’s image and likeness.

4) It is very important, therefore, for us to flesh out what these questions or doubts about marriage are, and like Jesus’ contemporaries in today’s Gospel, take them directly to Jesus. I think there are three main categories of challenges about marriage that our contemporaries need to take to Jesus:

a. The first comes from those who try to say God’s plan for marriage shown in the Bible is IRRELEVANT, that marriage is not necessary. They look at marriage as nothing more than a piece of paper given after an empty ceremony. They therefore see no problem in moving in with each other and beginning to behave as if they were, in fact, husband and wife. They may be open one day having a wedding, even in Church, but they look at a wedding as a celebration of their relationship, rather than something that will change them and bring about a new, deeper bond that didn’t exist before. For these people, God really has nothing practical to do with their relationship; if anything, all he does is rubber-stamp with a little bit of holy water something that they, by their own will and choices, bring about on their own. We’ll return to what Jesus says to these people a little later.

b. The second category of challenges comes from those who say that God’s plan for marriage is too DEMANDING. These are the people, generally Christian, who declare that to be married to one person until death is an unrealistic expectation. It’s wrong and almost mean, they say, to have people vow to remain faithful to each other “for as long as they both shall live,” rather than “for as long as they both shall love.” They point out that about fifty percent of marriages end in divorce. They recount heart-breaking real-life stories of husbands or wives that became unfaithful or unloving sadists after marriage. They assert that when marriages sadly break down for whatever reason — but especially because of wrong-doing on the part of the other — they should be free to remarry after divorce. After all, they say, isn’t it unfair for God to demand that they remain faithful until death to someone who in one way or another was unfaithful to them, to God, and to the vows made on a wedding day? Shouldn’t the Church rejoice when they have found a better husband or wife and recognize second marriages even though the unfaithful first spouse is still alive? We’ll return, too, to how Jesus responds to these tough questions a little later.

c. The third and final category of challenges to God’s plan for marriage comes from those who say that marriage is BIGOTED. This challenge is a very recent one, coming from those who have been trying to change what marriage has meant from the beginning of time, so that two people of the same sex can wed. For them, marriage should not necessarily involve a man and a woman, but merely two adults who love each other. To make marriage require a husband and a wife is to base it on biology rather than love, and this is just an effect of “heterosexist bias.”

5) How would Jesus respond to these three categories of challenges? I think he would do in the same way he did 2000 years ago, by taking us back to what marriage really means and then applying it to the particular questions. Just as he did two-thousand years ago, I think Jesus would challenge our contemporaries to overcome the “hardness of heart” due to sin that would cloud their judgment on marriage. Then I think he would repeat the same words about the origin, meaning and mystery of marriage that he said to the Pharisees: “In the beginning, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh;’ so they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” These three sentences contain, in nucleus, his response to the questions of modern man.

a. To those who think marriage is only a piece of paper, Jesus tells them that marriage is a part of God’s plan for man and woman from the beginning. Man, he says, is called to leave his father and mother and cling not to a girlfriend, not to just any woman he pleases, but to his wife, to someone with whom he has been joined in a one-flesh union by God and to whom he has made a life-long commitment. God has made man and woman to desire a one flesh union, but this exceeds man’s and woman’s power to bring about on their own by a change-of-address. Only God can join them in a real union. Jesus might also ask them how there could ever be an intimate and total one-flesh union between them when they are not even willing to unite themselves and their futures to each other by a public commitment. Marriage is not a mere symbolic ceremony, but a sign that by God’s power effects what it signifies; it is the means by which a man and a woman actually become bound to each other in a body-and-soul union based on consensual commitment before God and others to lay down their lives for each other in a bond of self-giving sacrificial love. Those who claim that marriage is simply a piece of paper selfishly want some of the goods of marriage — like sex and accompaniment — without wanting selflessly to make the commitment that true love demands. They want love on the cheap, without paying the price, and this love turns out most often to be counterfeit. For that reason, as long as the situation persists, they will probably never fully experience love, which is based on a total exchange of self-gifts; they will probably never truly discover who they really are and the greatness of their dignity, which comes only through the selfless gift of self to God and others; and they will probably never truly understand or experience the love of God, which becomes intelligible by God’s design mainly through the experience of true human love.

b. To those who think that the indissolubility of marriage in God’s plan is too hard, Jesus first states clearly the truth of the matter. He who is Truth incarnate and cannot lie teaches that once God joins a man and a woman in marriage, they are bound to each other until God separates them through death. For that reason, he says, divorce is nothing more than a human legal declaration which cannot change one’s marital status before God, and remarriage is adultery and therefore seriously sinful. On this point, however, I’d like to make several notes:

i. First, Jesus’ first disciples openly admitted the difficulty of the marital commitment. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, after Jesus said marriage is for life and remarriage is adultery, his followers interjected, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Mt 19:10). Jesus responded by saying that to accept and live this reality is a gift of God and that all things are possible for God (Mt 19:11, 26). Although life-long fidelity and commitment may be hard, God’s grace can help the couple fulfill this commitment, if both remain receptive to that grace. Like fine wine, marriage is supposed to become better with age. But for this to occur, each of the spouses must work to fight against the source of all division, which is sin, and replace it with the source of unity, genuine love. Christ in the Gospel once described that there were two types of adultery, one adultery of the flesh — which is obvious — and a second, “adultery in the heart,” when someone lusts after another. In a similar way, there can be two types of divorce: one the legal form of which we’re all aware and the other, a “divorce in the heart” when even though a married couple continues to cohabitate they are no longer committed to laying down their life for each other out of love, to making the sacrifices necessary to forgive, reconcile and begin again. These temptations to an affective distancing of oneself from one’s spouse, to simply keeping the peace rather than confronting and seeking to overcome sources of conflict and division, need to be resisted and overcome. God’s grace will help and accompany the couple that seeks to grow in love through marriage.

ii. Secondly, Jesus does not say that divorce itself is sinful, but only what we would call divorce-and-remarriage: “whoever divorces his wife and marries another.” The Church Jesus founded to carry on his mission has always recognized that sometimes, for the protection of one spouse from the other or for the welfare of children, some legal sanction may be necessary against one of the parties; unfortunately in our society, once divorce became legal and popular, it became practically speaking the only means by which to seek this recourse. It is not divorce itself that is wrong, but thinking and acting as if divorce severs the one-flesh bond that God has brought about through marriage. This is why those who are divorced may receive Holy Communion, but not those who are divorced-and-remarried, because the latter have put themselves in an objective state of adultery, contrary to the vows made on the day of marriage, and contrary to the example of Christ’s fidelity in his marriage to the Church which they are called to emulate. If Christ has remained faithful to us, his bride, despite all our sins that led to his death, then it is possible for husbands or wives to remain faithful their unfaithful or unloving spouses, for all things are possible with God.

iii. Thirdly, what Jesus says about the sin of remarriage while his or her divorced spouse is alive is dependent on whether the first two were really married, whether God had in fact joined them in one-flesh. Sometimes when two people come before God to get married, one or both of them lack what it takes to get married and their marriage is in fact null from the beginning in God’s eyes, even though they, and others, think they’re married. This is what is determined in the process when someone seeks a declaration of nullity. For a couple to be validly joined by God, they must will what God wills for marriage. If, for example, one or the other goes into marriage never intending even to try to have kids, or is psychologically pressured into marriage by family members or by a pregnancy, or rather than loving and honoring the intended spouse intends to physically beat her or sexually use her, then God does not join them in marriage and this is what is recognized by the Church by a declaration of nullity. If someone has received an annulment, they are free to marry, because they are not joined by God to another in marriage. (This situation is more common than many think. As part of marriage preparation, priests in the Diocese of Fall River must give couples a FOCCUS survey to test their compatibility and flag areas of concern. One statement on that survey to which each of the fiancés need to say “agree” or disagree” states, “I could not under any condition remain married to my future spouse if he/she were ever unfaithful toward me.” In my seven years as a priest, preparing well over one hundred couples for marriage, about 19 out of 20 had at least one fiancé respond, “I agree.” When I see that answer, I tenderly say, “If you really mean that on the day of your wedding, then not even Pope Benedict could marry you,” because it is based on the principle of “for as long as we both shall love,” rather than “for as long as we both shall live.” That would mean that on this area alone, without marriage preparation, only five percent of marriages would have been valid. That’s why marriage preparation is so important today and one reason why there are so many annulments, because many couples come in to their preparation for marriage with ideas that would nullify their vows.)

iv. The last point that I will make here is that Jesus and the Church he founded recognize the pain of divorce. Because of the one-flesh union of marriage, to divorce is like cutting off one’s arm or one’s leg. It is enormously painful, but necessary under drastic circumstances, to prevent worse harm. The Church wants always to remain close to those who have experienced this pain and help them recover. It also wants to help them remain faithful to God and to the promises they have made. If they think that something was defective in their consent on the day of their marriage, the Church also seeks to help them to determine whether their marriage was valid or null. We have an excellent divorced-and-separated ministry in the diocese and I’d encourage you to read the snippet in the bulletin for more information.

c. To the final group of challengers to the truth about marriage in God’s plan, who think that marriage traditionally has been a form of bigotry, we can briefly sketch out, as we have before, Jesus’ response. He said that in the beginning God made the human person male and female, not male and male. For this reason, a man leaves not his two mommies or two daddies, but his mother and father, and clings, not to whomever he wants, but to his wife and they become one flesh. This one flesh union is not simply the ephemeral contact a man or a woman have in the act of making love, but the incorporation of both of their flesh in a new child, who is the instantiated fruit of their love and a means by which that love will grow. This type of union is obviously impossible to those of the same sex. We can go so far as to say that the whole purpose of the differentiation of the sexes by God in the beginning is to allow for procreation, for man’s and woman’s participation in God’s continual act of the creation of new men and new women. Marriage without this procreative aspect is not really marriage at all. Finally, Jesus says, what God has joined, man must not divide. This refers, I think, to more than merely the union of a particular man and a particular woman in marriage, but the heterosexual union of man and woman in marriage in general. God has created man and woman with this complementarity and for that reason marriage should never be allowed to a man-less or a woman-less institution. If this happens, it would only lead to further confusion about what it means to be a man or a woman, what it means to be in God’s image, and what is the proper understanding of the receptivity and fecundity of the Church as a communion of persons vis-à-vis Christ the Bridegroom.

6) To the questions man and woman have in every epoch about marriage, Christ provides the answer in today’s Gospel. By going back to the beginning, Christ cuts across particular fads and misunderstands flowing from our hardened hearts that so often are prone to substitute lust for love, selfishness for sacrifice, and fleeting pleasure for faithful permanence. With amazing precision and clarity, Christ sketches for us the deep and abiding beauty of this great sacrament to guide us and through us to guide the world. He has entrusted the truth about marriage to you and me and has sent us out to proclaim this good news in the midst of a wounded world lacerated by sin, to be the light of the world in the midst of the darkness of so many broken families and pierced hearts. One way we are called to do that is with the light of the truth, using our reason and the revelation God has given us to answer the questions of those around us, and show why the various forms of counterfeit marriage are false and harmful both to societies and individuals. But the most effective way is by the burning light of genuine love, radiating from the hearths of Christian married couples and families who respond to God’s sacramental graces and allow Christ’s own (crucified!) joy to become complete in them (Jn 15:11; 17:13).

7) The greatest way for Catholic couples to become enabled to carry out this crucial mission for the salvation of the world is through prayer. October is the month of the Holy Rosary, and, as Pope John Paul II said over-and-over again during his last years, there is no greater prayer that a family can say at home to make Christ, who is the lynch-pin of the Hail Mary, the center of their familial life. But the greatest help of all, the greatest prayer, the greatest strength for the Christian married couple to fulfill its vocation, happens here at the Mass. As I have stated many times before, the early Christians used to cover the altars of the ancient churches with canopies just like we occasionally cover beds to symbolize that the altar is the marriage bed of the union between Christ and his bride, the Church. On this marriage bed, like any, the bride takes within herself the body of her husband; they become one flesh, and are meant in union to bear fruit in acts of love. The greatest way for Christian married couples to receive God’s strength to fulfill their mission is to come as often as they can together to this marriage bed of the loving union between Christ and the Church, so that they will become equipped to imitate and share this love contagiously with each other and together with the whole world.