Christian marriage

Homily for the twenty-seventh Sunday of Year B. Gn 2:18-24; Ps 127; Heb 2:9-11; Mk 10:2-16

Today's readings are on the subject of marriage and in today's brief homily, I want to look at what is specific to Christian, sacramental marriage.

Now the notion of some kind of institution of marriage, recognised and given cultural and legal status in human society, is not, of course, unique to Christianity. All the ancient civilisations that we know of had some kind of institution of marriage, including legal protections for marriage. The New Testament, however, strongly implies that Jesus has brought a transformation of marriage in some mysterious way. First of all, Jesus works his first miracle at a marriage feast (Jn 2:1-11). At this wedding in Cana, Jesus, at the prayer of his mother, turns water into wine, a miracle that not only to helps this particular couple, but which can also symbolise the transformation of marriage into a sacrament. Second, when discussing marriage in today's Gospel, Jesus refers back to the Book of Genesis, to a mysterious time before the coming of sin into the world. He says, "From the beginning of creation God made them male and female. This is why a man must leave father and mother, and the two become one body ... what God has united man must not divide." The implication of this reference back to Genesis is that one of the consequences of Jesus' mission is that God's original intention regarding marriage is to be recovered and, perhaps, made even more glorious. Third, there are certain mysterious texts in the New Testament in which the relationship between husband and wife is compared to the relationship of Christ and the Church. Indeed, the words just before Communion at Mass are, "Blessed are those who are called to his supper." The original Scriptural verse, however, to the Book of Revelation and refers to marriage, "Blessed are those who are called to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb." In other words, when describing heaven, one of the most potent images of Scripture is that of a wedding feast.

So Scripture indicates, by means of symbols and analogies, that Christ has brought about some mysterious and exalted transformation of marriage. But what, exactly, is this transformation, in practical terms? What makes Christian marriage, prefigured but not fully realised in the Old Testament, specifically different from marriage in general? I propose that the answer must be rooted in the way our relationship to God has changed through the coming of Christ. Now there are many non-Christian cultures, ancient and modern, that have acknowledged the existence of God or some supreme deity. Such cultures, however, do tend to use very different language about God. Aristotle, for example, writing over three centuries before Christ, claims that there is a God, but denies that we can really be friends with God. Now listen to the words of St Augustine, writing over three centuries after the coming of Christ, "Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you! ... You called, shouted, broke through my deafness; you flared, blazed, banished my blindness; you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you; I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst; you touched me, and I burned for your peace." These words of intimate love with which St Augustine addresses God would never have been written by a educated pagan of his day. St Augustine refers to the relationship between the human person and God using the language of love and using the second personal mode of address, "Late have I loved you." Even the use of the first and second person pronouns, "I" and "you" sets this kind of writing apart from that of brilliant pagan philosophers like Aristotle, who does not address God as "You" and rarely even refers to himself as "I".

Now this transformation in the relationship between human beings and God also brings about a transformation in the relationship of men and women. With the coming of Christ, the way in which baptized human beings relate to God is no longer a third-personal relationship to a distant God, but a second-personal relationship to God who has born as one of us. To grasp better what this means, it can be helpful to compare the devotional language of Christianity and Islam. The closest that the Koran ever comes to saying that the deity loves us is Sura 3:31, which promises that, "If you love Allah ... Allah will love you." The language, in other words, is that of a transaction with a distant god, and the difference lies in the fact that Islam does not acknowledge the Incarnation. As a Muslim scholar, Dr Murad Hofman, said recently at a conference in Jordan, "The climate of the Muslim devotion to God differs from the Christian one because for Muslims God has not been incarnated as Baby Jesus in the manger." When, however, one has a second-personal relationship to God, expressed, for example, by St Augustine's phrase, "Late have I loved you," relationships with other persons also change. In particular, marriage is no longer seen merely as a contract, a transaction for mutual benefit, but a covenant based on the love between Christ and His Church. All the specifically Christian understanding of marriage, such as the indissolubility of valid marriages, is an outcome of this transformation.

Given this background, what, then, can we do to improve the state of marriage today, in a world in which the institution is in decline, just as Western societies forget their Christian roots? Well, I think that the best, most simple advice comes from the Irish saying, "The family that prays together, stays together." The challenge is that all of us still suffer from the effects of sin, and sin inhibits relationships of love. It is naturally difficult to stay married to any post-fallen human being. So it is important to keep coming back to God in prayer, both on one's own and together, to receive the grace to make marriage fruitful. But how we behave is also important. I think that one of sadest consequences of the so-called sexual revolution and the widespread use of artificial contraceptives is the damage to personal relationships: men and women relate increasing, not even in terms of romance, but simply in terms of exploitation - often transactions for pleasure that live a person feeling empty. Now, as the example of St Augustine and many others show, it is possible to turn away from that kind of life, but is important to begin by recognising the problem and to resolve to amend one's own behaviour, by God's grace.

So may God give us the grace to recover an authentic understanding of marriage. May God also help anyone here present who is suffering difficulties in marriage or relationships. May our homes become places of prayer and love where we are prepared for the wedding feast of the Lamb.


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