7 October 2018
Deacon Les Ruhrmund
The focus of the readings this weekend is marriage and specifically the marriage covenant according to God’s plan.
In the society in which Jesus lived, divorce was common and the question put to Jesus about divorce by the Pharisees was not only trying to trip him up but was actually addressing a burning issue of the day.
There were two schools of thought in Jewish culture at that time.
The first was the school of Shammai which was very strict and only allowed divorce in the case of adultery (and the women had virtually no rights in these matters – it was always the man’s call).
The other was the school of Hillel which allowed a man to divorce his wife on virtually any grounds; if she spoilt the food, or spoke to a strange man in the street, was argumentative or raised her voice, or if he simply no longer considered her attractive. And again, the woman was at the mercy of her husband’s whims.
Jesus in his reply goes back to the Creation story and quotes from the Book of Genesis saying that from the very beginning God intended marriage to be a permanent bond between a man and a woman; a covenant with God in which the two become as one flesh. In the New Testament, the bond between a man and a woman in marriage is compared to the bond between Christ and his Church; holy and inseparable.
Scripture also tells us that not everyone is called to marry.
Jesus talking to his disciples in Matthew’s Gospel says of marriage: “This teaching does not apply to everyone, but only to those to whom God has given it. For there are different reasons why men cannot marry: some, because they were born that way; others, because men made them that way; and others do not marry for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven.”
Marriage is a calling; it’s a vocation from God and there is no greater vocation. While vocations to serve God outside of marriage – perhaps through the priesthood, religious life or celibacy – are greatly to be admired, they are not any greater than the vocation of marriage.
In the marriage covenant, the spouses are saying to each other: Through my love for you, you are able to be the best person you can be – I complete you – and together we will raise children to know, love and serve God. That’s the promise, that’s the relationship that Jesus is talking about in the Gospel.
In the Sacrament of Marriage, the spouses when they give their consent, when they make their promises to each other in their marriage vows, are acting as Christ to each other; promising to love each other as Christ loves them; unconditionally, in good times and bad, good health and poor, in poverty and in wealth. This is extraordinarily difficult and there is no greater challenge in life.
I speak as a veteran. Claire and I will celebrate our 39th wedding anniversary in December and I am very conscious and incredibly grateful, and I’m sure I speak also for Claire, in saying that we are very thankful, for the grace of the sacrament of marriage that has sustained and nourished our commitment and love. There are no easy marriages and I can’t imagine trying to uphold the promises made, without the bedrock of God’s grace.
That’s why we get married in Church. Not because it’s a family tradition or motivated by romantic dreams and lovely photographs. We get married in Church because we want God to be included in our union.
We know that marriages fail. That’s a reality in our society. It’s interesting that the trend for couples to live together before they get married has proved to be dismal preparation for a successful marriage. If it was good preparation more marriages would succeed and the divorce rate would drop – but the exact opposite is true.
When a marriage fails, the very validity of the marriage covenant, the validity of the couple’s unconditional consent, can, and I believe should, be questioned and that’s what we know as the process of annulment.
Annulment is not a divorce which is purely a legal process to dissolve a legal contract. An annulment recognises that there were factors, often unknown to the couple on the day of the wedding, which render the sacrament of marriage as null and void.
That’s why careful and thorough preparation for marriage is essential. I always encourage newly engaged couples to spend at least as much time preparing for marriage as they’ll spent preparing for the wedding which is just a party that lasts for a few hours; marriage is for the rest of their lives.
There is more written in canon law about marriage than about anything else and I couldn’t possible summarise the conditions for a valid marriage in a few minutes. In our humanity, we continue to grapple today with the complexities and difficulties of the marriage covenant as we have throughout time.
Pope Francis in his exhortation ‘The Joy of Love” addresses the pain and suffering endured by families through broken marriages and reminds us all, clergy and lay alike, that Jesus never failed to show compassion and closeness to the frailty of individual’s like the Samaritan woman and the woman caught in adultery. He says we need always to consider that the complexities and circumstances for each couple, for each individual, are different and that we must not put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That he says is the worst way of watering down the gospel.
As we continue now with the liturgy of the Eucharist let me finish with another quote from ‘The Joy of Love’: He writes “I would also point out that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak”