Monday, April 29, 2013

Christ and Questions of Marriage

The Marriage at Cana by Marten de Vos, c. 1596
Awkward.  For the past number of weeks, as Illinois has become another "battleground" state debating the redefinition of marriage, I've been trying to pull together some thoughts on the topic.  Is it just me, or do you also find it difficult to talk about this topic?  So many people know and love someone who has a same-sex attraction, and it is clearly a sensitive topic.  In addition, if religion and politics are the ultimate "No Nos" in polite social conversation, then what happens when we mix both of them together?  Someone is bound to be offended.  (If you're interested in a brief commentary about why these questions are so difficult to, check out Fr. Barron's two brief video clips on the breakdown of moral discourse and the importance of importance of raising questions about the nature of marriage.) 

Christo-centric questions.  In order to focus on the reality of marriage from a Christian perspective, let's begin by turning to the Person of Jesus Christ, on whom everything hinges:  Is he who he says he is?  And, if so, then what does he reveal about the reality of marriage?  And what implications does this have for us?

I.  Who is this Jesus?
Liar, Lunatic, or Lord.  As C.S. Lewis observed, Jesus of Nazareth was not just some really nice guy, some great moral teacher.  Rather, Jesus spoke with an audacity, an other-worldliness and an authority which force us to draw a different conclusion: he is either a deceiver, a madman, or the Eternal One who has entered time.  Among the countless almost-unbelievable statements he makes about himself, at one point Jesus goes so far as to say, “before Abraham came to be, I AM” (Jn 8:58).  Jesus claims to be Yahweh, the one true God, fully present in the flesh.
I AM.  From the very beginning, this Jesus of Nazareth takes us back to the Beginning ("In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" [Jn 1:1]).  He reminds us that the Lord God alone IS; we exist to the extent that we participate in God.  Moreover, the Lord God is not one being among many, but is Being itself, and Jesus discloses the marvelous mystery that Being itself is self-giving, self-sacrificing, and self-emptying Love.  He also reveals that the Creator longs for communion with His creatures, even though we have spurned Him.  To paraphrase St. Catherine of Sienna, the One Who IS thirsts for the love of those of us who are not.  In short, Christ became one of us to share this audacious, other-worldly and authoritative message--and to draw us out of ourselves into the Communion of Trinitarian Love.   
Radical discipleship.  Many religious leaders—both then and now—cannot handle this teaching and therefore seek to kill it (“Liar”—you can’t tell us what God thinks!).  Many pagans—both then and now—cannot handle this teaching and wander away (“Lunatic”—you can’t really expect us to believe and live such a teaching).  Only his true disciples—both then and now—are willing to respond to such a beautiful revelation with radical fidelity (“Lord”—as Peter puts it, “to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” [Jn 6:68])!
II. So what does Jesus teach about marriage? 

"Blessed are the pure of heart" (Mt 5:8).  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus both affirms and elevates the Ten Commandments by teaching that someone who looks on another person with lust "has already committed adultery" (Mt 5:28).  For the One who IS, both actions and intentions must be pure; both body and soul must be clean.  His teaching on divorce also affirms that marriage is meant to be permanent and life-long.  These are clearly "hard sayings" for those who heard Jesus then (as they are for us today), and the Pharisees later return to question Jesus on this.

"From the beginning..." (Mt 19:4). When they confront Jesus regarding what marriage is, he responds by going back to the Beginning:  "Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female'...'and the two shall become one flesh'" (Mt 19:4).  The Incarnate Word quotes the written word of God from the Book of Genesis, and he affirms that God has woven the reality of marriage into creation itself.  He reveals that the complementarity of men and women is an essential element of marriage.  He also highlights the fundamental communion of persons which is possible when a man and woman become "one flesh"; such a communion of body and soul is alone able to fulfill the first commandment of the Scriptures, "be fertile and multiply" (Gen 1:28).

"Because of the hardness of your hearts" (Mt 19:8).  As the exchange continues, Jesus remains unwavering in the face of tough questions.  He reiterates his teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, "whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery" (Mt 19:9).  This teaching stands as simultaneously more ancient and more radical than that of Moses, who had allowed divorce because of the hardness of people's hearts.  The disciples themselves suggest that it might be too difficult to live up to, however, and they raise the question of whether they would be better off not marrying.  Jesus has already confirmed that life-long, faithful, and fruitful marriage is a fundamental part of God's plan for creation, and he then goes on to affirm that there is also a special calling for those who "have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 19:12).  Celibacy for the sake of the kingdom is no less challenging than sacramental marriage, though it offers a direct imitation of the life of Christ.  For Christians, either path requires a transformation of heart thanks to the gift of God's grace.

"Whoever can accept this ought to accept it" (Mt 19:12).  Jesus certainly knew of the reality of same-sex attractions, since homosexual activity was widespread in both ancient Greek and Roman civilizations.  He also knew that many people, regardless of their state in life, struggle to practice the virtue of chastity.  While he neither judges nor condemns persons, does call all men and women to radical repentance and to trust in who he IS.
III.  Implications for the current marriage debate?
Cutting both ways.  Jesus calls everyone to whole-hearted discipleship, including those who have same-sex attractions.  He invites everyone to a life centered on self-sacrificing love and rooted in the grace he alone can give--making us both whole and holy.  Though Jesus' teaching clearly supports those who want to protect the traditional definition of marriage, in many ways it poses a challenging threat to a merely conventional understanding of marriage.  It raises the question of whether many people who defend traditional marriage need a radical conversion of heart themselves.  What if part of the gay rights activists' critique is onto something?  What if heterosexual unions which are not permanent and not faithful and not open to new life are not very different from homosexual unions?   
Saving sacramental marriage.  If Christians have accommodated themselves to a less-than-from-the-beginning view of marriage, and if they have failed to live up to this calling to a permanent, faithful, fruitful and total love between husband and wife, then it is time to rediscover God’s revelation in Christ.  We need to preach what Jesus taught, and we need to practice we preach.  In short, perhaps this debate on the reality of marriage is a call to Christians to be more consistent and more faithful witnesses of the fullness of love to which we are all called. 
IV.  Where do we go from here?

Obstacles as opportunities.  It’s time for a radical renewal of the Christian commitment to marriage.  The cultural movement to redefine--or "undefine"--the very reality of marriage poses challenges to all Christians, in all states of life, regardless of sexual attractions or orientations.  But this is an opportunity to give witness to the fullness of love which Christ both reveals and offers. As the Blessed Mother put it at the wedding feast in Cana, it’s time for Christians everywhere to “do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5).

In Christ’s Peace and Love,

P.S.  If you know a Catholic man or woman with a same-sex attraction who is looking for spiritual support and who is striving to live a chaste life, please point them toward the Catholic apostolate, addition, Encourage ministers to family members, relatives and friends.)

P.P.S. Jason Evert proposes some helpful distinctions and invites those with homosexual orientations or attractions to know that they are "Friends of Jesus" in this brief video clip: homosexuality and the Catholic Church.