In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today God-incarnate presents us with his teaching on marriage. Lets let him speak for himself:
From the beginning of creation, `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. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder…. Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. (Mark 10, passim)
It is, frankly, a tough teaching. And note that Jesus doesn’t relax the received religious teaching of his day, from the Old Testament. As the Pharisees point out, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce…” (Mark 10.4). But Jesus says that the truth is that this was only an accommodation of men’s hard-heartedness, but its out of harmony with reality, out of harmony with the truth.
Each time this Gospel comes around in the lectionary, I feel it incumbent upon myself to reiterate what Jesus says here, and what the Church has faithfully handed down from him, contrary to much of the so-called wisdom of our age: marriage is an indissoluble union of one man and one woman.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
This unequivocal insistence on the indissolubility of the marriage bond may have left some perplexed and could seem to be a demand impossible to realize. However, Jesus has not placed on spouses a burden impossible to bear, or too heavy – heavier than the Law of Moses. By coming to restore the original order of creation disturbed by sin, [Jesus] himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the Reign of God. It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses will be able to “receive” the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ. This grace of Christian marriage is a fruit of Christ’s cross, the source of all Christian life. (CCC 1615)
So the vocation to Christian marriage, as radical as it is, is nevertheless possible, by the grace of God.
It should be said, too, that what we call “marriage” in our civic discourse, and what the Church calls “marriage,” though they are certainly overlapping categories, are nevertheless not always the same thing. And sometimes, sadly, it happens that Christians find themselves in a relationship which they, and those around them, thought was a marriage, but turns out never to have been. And this is what an annulment is: an ecclesiastical judgment, given by the bishop, that what seemed like a marriage never, in fact, was one.
Such situations are difficult – but they arise with increasing frequency these days, and so there is a corresponding need to discuss them candidly. But there is inevitably great difficulty attendant upon discovering the nullity of such so-called “marriages” – and not least when there are, for example, children involved. All of which speaks to the wisdom of the Church’s insistence that marriage is not to be entered into “unadvisedly or lightly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God,” and in accordance with the purposes for which God has given marriage to us as a gift. According to the Book of Common Prayer (1662) there are three such purposes:
First, it was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.
Secondly, it was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.
[And] Thirdly, it was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.
I have spoken before of how Christian marriage is, and is intended to be, an icon, as the Prayer Book says, of “the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church,” and how even further, it is an icon of the hypostatic union of divine nature and human nature in the “one flesh” of Jesus Christ – of how, in other words, God and man become one person, whose name is Jesus. God the Son becomes the spouse of human nature, and for the same three purposes that we just saw: 1) for the procreation of children, so that children might be born of the water and the blood flowing from his pierced side (we are those children), 2) for a remedy against sin, and to deliver us from the fornication of idolatry, and our enslavement to false gods – and not just the ancient pagan gods like Zeus and Odin, but from our enslavement to modern gods like avarice and usury and consumerism, and 3) for the mutual society, help, and comfort, we are afforded in virtue of the communion with God that is ours in Jesus.
In what is to me one of the most beautiful and sharply evocative passages in all of Scripture, the Lord speaks to his people, through the prophet Ezekiel, in these very terms. The Lord says that because of his compassion for us, because of his inestimable love for us, he will come and save us by becoming our Spouse. The Lord says:
[You are foreign-born]; your father was an Amorite, and your mother a Hittite. And as for your birth, on the day you were born your navel string was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor swathed with bands. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you; but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born. And when I passed by you, and saw you weltering in your blood, I said to you in your blood, “Live, and grow up like a plant of the field.” And you grew up and became tall and arrived at full maidenhood; your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare. When I passed by you again and looked upon you, behold, you were at the age for love; and I spread my skirt over you, and covered your nakedness: yea, I plighted my troth to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord GOD, and you became mine. Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you, and anointed you with oil. I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with leather, I swathed you in fine linen and covered you with silk. And I decked you with ornaments, and put bracelets on your arms, and a chain on your neck. And I put a ring on your nose, and earrings in your ears, and a beautiful crown upon your head. Thus you were decked with gold and silver; and your raiment was of fine linen, and silk, and embroidered cloth; you ate fine flour and honey and oil. You grew exceedingly beautiful, and came to regal estate. And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor which I had bestowed upon you, says the Lord GOD. (Ezekiel 16.3-14)
This is the truth – foretold by prophets and fulfilled in Jesus – the truth of our salvation. And the proclamation of this truth is the most fundamental purpose of Christian marriage, and the reason that it is the way that it is. By living-out their marriage vows, husbands and wives show unbelievers and remind their fellow Christians of God’s measureless love for the whole human race, and for every person individually – and of the dignity and the beauty and the splendor for which we were created. God the Son became incarnate, he lived and he died, in order to give us this dignity, this beauty, and this splendor. It is ours in him, and only in him.
God calls to each of us in Jesus Christ – in the Blessed Sacrament, in his Word, in the secrecy of our hearts. He offers himself to us as our first and our only true love, the Bridegroom of our souls. When we answer his invitation, when we say “Yes” to his proposal, forsaking all others and clinging only to him, then we become united to him, wedded, as it were to the eternal Word. But this spiritual marriage is contingent upon our “Yes” – because unlike the pagan gods, unlike Leda and the Swan, or Zeus’s rape of Alcmene, our “courteous Lord” (as Julian of Norwich calls him) does not force himself on us. Rather he INVITES us to himself, he calls to us, and allures us; In the words of the Canticle, “My beloved speaks and says to me: ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away,’” (Canticle 2.10) – because of his aching desire for us. It is up to us to say “Yes” to him. And, whenever we feel ourselves to be separated from him, to call him back, echoing his own desire for us with the longing of our hearts.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux put it beautifully:
As often as he slips away from me, so often shall I call him back. From the burning desire of my heart I will not cease to call him, begging him to return… and I will implore him to give back to me the joy of his salvation, and restore himself to me. (Sermon 74, On the Song of Songs)
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.