Eleventh Sunday in Course
June 11, 2010
Liturgy & Sacrament Series
Somewhere between the seventh and eleventh grade, most students learn that there is a difference between the denotation and connotation of a word. The word “statesman” has a dictionary definition almost identical to that of the word “politician.” But, I think, calling someone a politician has a connotation that is, at least these days, pretty low. Likewise, you can call someone “aggressive,” but calling him “pushy,” which denotes the same thing, is considered an insult.
Before the Gospel age, the Hebrew word peroushim was a title of honor, given to Jews who studied the Law of Moses, interpreted it, and lived by its letter. Saul, our St. Paul, grew up as a peroushim. It means the men who were separated from the unwashed masses by their zeal for God’s Law. But in the mouth of Jesus, it became an insult, which we transliterate “pharisee.” To call someone a pharisee today is to accuse him of being a hypocrite, one who pretends to be holy but who, as Jesus puts it, is a whitewashed tomb, all pretty on the outside and corrupt within. That’s certainly the way the Pharisee in today’s Gospel comes out. Even when Simon admits that Jesus is correct, he adds the sneering words, I suppose.
Jesus, the Son of God, did not take on human flesh to separate us, or to create two or three classes of Catholics. His purpose, as the Liturgy puts it, is to bring together the scattered people of God. We effect that here as the priest, acting in the person of Christ the head, calls on the Holy Spirit to make the bread and wine into the Living Bread and the Cup of Blessing, the very glorified Christ present under forms of bread and wine. And as we come up to take communion, we become more and more united to Christ, and united to each other. That communion between Christ and the Church is so profoundly real that St. Paul and St. John refer to this Mass as the wedding feast of the Lamb, a re-presentation of the communion festival of heaven. Christ is the Bridegroom; we, the Church, are His Bride.
This is, in fact, the last portrait painted by the Scriptures of the relationship between the human and the divine–right in the last chapter of Revelations–just as it is in the first chapter of Genesis. The Catechism teaches that “Sacred Scripture begins with the creation of man and woman in the image and likeness of God and concludes with a vision of ‘the wedding feast of the Lamb.’” (1602) “God Himself is the author of marriage. . .The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as [we] came from the hand of the Creator. Marriage is not a purely human institution, despite the many variations it may have undergone. . .these differences should not cause us to forget its common and permanent characteristics. Although the dignity of this institution is not transparent everywhere with the same clarity, some sense of the greatness of the matrimonial union exists in all cultures.” (1603)
“Since God created [humans as] man and woman, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man. It is good, very good, in the Creator’s man.” (1604)
But, although this perfect union is the Creator’s intent, and although we affirm it in our best moments, we are yet weak and sinful people. Here’s King David, beloved of God, king of Israel, tempted by his neighbor’s wife. Now David has a whole mess of wives. This, in itself, is contrary to the way God made humans. He established the marital covenant as one man, one woman, for life. David was operating under a pagan model of marriage, in which women were chattel. If you were rich and powerful, you could have many wives. God intended for man and woman in marriage to be equal in dignity. Different in function; equal in dignity. The wife respects the dignity of her man’s person and headship; the man respects the dignity of his woman’s person and heartship. David missed out. He saw his harem as his property–for pleasure and for sons and for status. Make no mistake–getting sex away from God’s divine design does not lead to better sex. It just leads to heartache and violence. “the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.”
Even in the last words of the Old Testament, we see that the unity and indissolubility of marriage are part of God’s original design of man. The prophet Malachi (2:16) is blunt. God says “I hate divorce. . .and covering one’s garment with violence. . .so take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless.” When the Pharisees objected to Jesus’s prohibition on divorce, reminding Him that Moses allowed divorce, Jesus told them that Moses did it “for your hardness of heart. . .but from the beginning it was not so.” (Mt 19)
That is the reason that the Catholic Church has, from the beginning, insisted on the indissolubility of a valid marriage. That is the reason that the Church has, at much inconvenience, established protocols for examining failed marriages to see if they were sacramentally valid from the beginning. These procedures and courts are acts of mercy that recognize the power of Jesus’s command, the importance and dignity of marriage, and the fact that people often marry without knowing what they are doing, or wanting to enter into a permanent union of mutual love and service. Parish priests spend many hours a month praying and working with couples who have a failed attempt at marriage in their past, and a civil divorce. Such folks want to be married in the Church, want to have the grace of the sacrament, want to return to Holy Communion. It is an act of humility and love on their part to engage in the process, and an act of compassion, love and reconciliation on the part of the Church. Folks who call the declaration of nullity a “Catholic divorce” have no understanding of the healing power of the process. Those who successfully return to the sacraments find closure and healing through the power of the Holy Spirit. With them we can sing “praise the Lord,” or in Hebrew, Alleluia. So let’s listen to and sing together the Alleluia prescribed for this Sunday, as we praise God for his gift of marriage, and his wonderful gift of forgiveness and reconciliation.