Sunday, August 23, 2015

Then Comes Marriage

   Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

The Precepts of the Church
Part V

“Marriage is a wonderful institution,” quipped Grocho Marx.
“But who wants to live in an institution?”

This fifth Sunday in my series of homilies on the Precepts of the Church
brings us to the final one:

6. To obey the laws of the Church concerning marriage

The Code of Canon Law—the “rule book” of the Catholic Church—
contains 111 different laws concerning marriage—
more than for any of the other sacraments.
(Don’t worry: we will not be reviewing each one of them today!)
They cover to whom and how, when and where,
a Catholic can be wed.
This should come as no surprise,
since even secular governments carefully regulate marriage.
The Church’s many laws on the matter
are not because she’s got a hang up about sex—
although that charge is often brought against her;
it’s because marriage is the God-given vocation
of the vast majority of Catholics,
and it has such a very, very crucial place in God’s plan.

There may be a lot of specific rules,
but most of them boil down to some principles
which are really rather simple.

Back in grade school,
when we thought one of the boys
was getting a bit too close to one of the girls,
we had a little rhyme we’d chant that included the verse, 
“First comes love, second comes marriage,
then comes a baby in the baby carriage…”
It wasn’t lofty poetry, but it showed that, even at a young age,
we understood that romantic love, marriage,
sex (although we’d have never said the word), and babies
were all rather intimately connected—
in fact, should even come around in a particular order.
Nowadays, these once linked realities
have grown rather independent of each other:
we have love without marriage,
marriage without babies, babies without sex,
and sex without marriage, or babies,
or sometimes even without love.

And folks say the Church
is making all this stuff too complicated?

Human sexual love has two natural ends:
the union of the partners and the procreation of children.
These are easily seen from the first days of creation,
when God says both, “It’s not good for man to be alone,”
and, “Be fertile and multiply”  (Gen 2:18, 1:28).
Together they also point to sex’s logical, natural setting
within the context of marriage:
a union that is faithful and enduring,
providing the best possible environment for the rearing of children.
So if you want to determine if something is OK
with God and with the Church in this arena,
simply test it by these two essential criteria;
if either one is missing, then you’re out of bounds.
Sex outside of marriage? 
You might get pregnant,
but there’s no lasting commitment to staying together.
The couple may be committed, but they’re not open to life.
Pornography?  Masturbation?
Let’s just say they fail on both accounts.

(Allow me to note that this does not mean
that every act of intercourse—to be licit—must intend pregnancy.
But it must remain open to the possibility.
Let’s not forget that Abraham was 100- years-old and Sarah 90
when Isaac was conceived!  We believe in miracles!)

What I’ve spoken of so far is purely in the order of nature.
By God’s original design,
there’s a physical and emotional complimentarily
between men and women
that’s built right into fabric of our being.

But for the Church, it doesn’t stop there.
Jesus raised the natural institution of marriage
to an entirely new level—
just as he elevated eating and drinking when he gave us the Eucharist.
Among the baptized, marriage is more than a lawful union
for the reproduction of the human race.
Christ endows it with a new beauty, and a new power.
Matrimony becomes a source of holiness
for the couple and their children, for the Church and the world.
It becomes a sacrament.
The love of husband and wife is to be a living image
of the love of Christ and his bride, the Church.

For Christian marriage to be authentic,
the love of husband and wife
must be free and full—without any force or reservation;
it must be faithful—dissolved only by death;
and it must be fruitful—open to the gift of children.
The love of Christian spouses must be thus
because God’s love for the human race,
as revealed most clearly on the Cross,
is free and full—motivated only by love and holding nothing back;
God’s love is faithful—enduring even when we’re not;
and Gods’ love is fruitful—a love which once
breathed life into the dust of the earth, forms life in the womb,
and even draws life up from the grave.

This is the “great mystery” of which St. Paul writes to the Ephesians.
How often his words are misread!
We usually get them completely backwards!
We get all excited by Paul’s advice to women,
“Be subordinate to your husbands”…
…but those words wouldn’t have shocked the Ephesians one bit;
they merely repeated the common thinking of the age.
But Paul’s advice to men, “Love your wives,”
was actually quite revolutionary—
especially when the measure of that love
is the self-sacrificing love of Jesus!
Paul tells men and women alike, “Be subject to one another.”
Don’t treat others (or even yourself) as an object for gratification.
You were made for much more than fleeting pleasure!
You were made for Paradise!
Be subordinate to each other—
giving of yourself, surrendering yourself—
not for the good of society,
and not with a view to personal gain,
but “out of reverence for Christ.”
Christ is the one to whom we must all submit
if we hope to form a household that will serve the Lord.

And so, in Christ, human marriage 
is to be a window onto God’s love.
That’s a mighty high calling!  
Do we do this perfectly?  No, not always.
But with this sacrament comes the grace to live it.

There are two particular related issues in the air these days.
Whether the news is coming out of the U.S. Supreme Court
or the Synod of Bishops in Rome,
there’s plenty of talk about same-sex marriage
and Communion for Catholics
who’ve been divorced and civilly remarried.
“The Church needs to be more like Jesus!”
I’ve heard said on both accounts
and it's hard to argue with that sentiment.
Yet, what does Jesus have to say on these subjects?
He says that God made them male and female from the beginning
so that these two might become one flesh,
and that remarriage after divorce is equivalent to adultery (Mt 19:1-12).

These are Jesus’ own pronouncements, not merely human rules.
Which means it’s not up to us to alter these things.
It’s true: Jesus broke through lots of barriers
and embraced many who lived outside the bounds of the law.
But we need to be sure we read through to the end of the story,
when—out of love for them—Jesus also called them to change:
“Go, he'd say, and sin no more.”  (Jn 8:11)

Catholics who have been divorced and civilly remarried
often say they feel “punished” 
because their irregular situation
(like anyone married outside the Church
or living together without marriage)
cuts them off from the sacraments.
Pope Francis has made it clear:
these men and women must not be shunned,
and any appearance of that sort ought to be avoided.
You continue to belong to the Church!
But it’s important to remember
that what keeps you away from Communion isn’t a punishment;
it’s just the Church holding you to your word—
a solemn, public commitment once made before God,
“till death do us part.”
A sacrament simply can’t be undone.
Yes, the Church acknowledges that, sometimes,
there wasn’t a true sacrament in the first place—
that one of those essential elements was absent from the start.
But when dealing with something this crucial,
that’s not a determination the Church can afford to make lightly.

Similarly, Catholics who experience same-sex attraction
often say they feel like the Church wants to force them
to deny their true self and live without love.
Some protesters recently said it’s “unrealistic and cruel”
for the Church to expect her LGBT members to remain chaste.
Actually, the Church expects chastity of all of us—
which means one thing for those of us who are married,
and another for those of us who are not.
Chaste celibacy is not only possible;
it can actually be quite fulfilling.  
I know firsthand!
No, it’s not easy…but, from what I hear, neither is marriage.
This isn’t about denying anyone’s true identity.
When did sexual attraction become the measure of who we are?
Our truest identity as Catholics, after all,
is that we’ve been adopted as sons and daughters of God.

I’m always deeply moved 
to see those who struggle in these areas
still sitting here in the pews—
in particular, those who cannot receive Holy Communion
and yet remain faithful to Sunday Mass.
That takes a whole lot more courage, a whole lot more faith,
than have those many Catholics who—unthinking—
just go through the motions.
I have no doubt that God responds to that grit
with an outpouring of his grace.
But grace isn’t magic; it requires our active response.
What ought to be done, what can be done,
differs in each unique circumstance.
I urge all of you who are in such situations
to come to the Church to discuss your options.
Christ loves you!  The Church loves you!
Let’s see what we can do.

For four Sundays, 
Jesus has been teachingby word and deed—his doctrine of the Eucharist:
that his flesh and blood are food and rink for our souls;
that he himself is the true Bread from heaven.
This Sunday, like Joshua and the Israelites at Shechem,
we find the disciples who’ve been listening to Jesus
at a clear moment of decision.
Some walked away, returning to their former lives.
How that must have broken Jesus’ Sacred Heart!

The Church’s teachings on marriage are hard, too.
Some—many—will not be able to accept them.
But Jesus won’t change direction,
he won’t re-phrase his words to make them easier to swallow.
There’s too much at stake!
The point of true religion—the pathway to salvation—
is not that God yield his will to ours,
but that we yield our will to God’s.
“It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail.”

Yes, Jesus’ words are pretty demanding.
They promise eternal life…but they also ask quite a lot,
challenging us to let go of things we’ve thought and believed,
to fight against drives and desires
we’ve been told are perfectly “normal.”
Yet when we get close to Jesus,
we start to see everything—including ourselves—rather differently.
This new way of seeing, this new way of living,
might sometimes makes us a bit uneasy.
But where else could we turn 
once we’ve truly come to believe
that Jesus is indeed the Holy One of God?

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