Monday, October 23, 2006

On Christian Marriage and Divorce

Fr. Will Brown
October 2006

In today’s readings we have God’s teaching on the relationship between men and women: what it means for men and women to be in relationship with one another. Let’s begin at the beginning. In the lesson from Genesis, we read God’s compassionate utterance with respect to mankind: it is not good for him to be alone. Its not good for him to live by himself, in isolation. And notice that this is the first “not good” to come out of God’s mouth. God beheld everything else that he had made up to this point, and “behold it was good.” But he sees that man is alone, and for the first time he says “not good.” “It is not good for man to be alone.” He needs a companion.

So God decides to fix human loneliness. And how does he do it? He looks around at all the creatures he has already made, but he does not find among them a companion fit for man. And, by the way, this is the real reason the Church has always taught that homosexual practice is wrong. Not because of the ritual impurity passages in Leviticus about it being “an abomination” and what not – but rather because single-sex companionship as an alternative to marriage falls under this category of human isolation that God calls “not good.” So God differentiates between the genders, and institutes a similitude and complimentarity between them such that they are flesh of a single flesh, and bone of a single bone – but in their similitude, in the human nature which men and women share, there is complimentary difference. Man and woman are, according to Genesis, complementary expressions of a single human nature bearing the image and likeness of God. And therefore, it says, a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. In short, God instituted this complementary differentiation between the sexes to fix a situation that was, in his words, “not good” – the situation of human isolation and loneliness.

Jesus comments on this very passage in today’s lesson from Mark. The tricksy Pharisees, “in order to test” Jesus, ask him whether divorce is okay. Lets skip to the end: God Incarnate says its not okay. Jesus says divorce is not okay, and he cites today’s reading from Genesis to explain why: because God himself has instituted marriage between one man and one woman as a component of the goodness of his creation, and in order to remedy the not-goodness of the alternatives, the not-goodness of human isolation. And by the way: the Church has always recognized the only alternative to marriage, the celibate estate, as a special case, a special calling, sanctified by being for the purpose of being more ardently devoted to the Lord’s business (cf. 1 Cor. 7.32-34).

But guess what? Things are not as they seem. They never are, right? Put another way: there’s more to this story than meets the eye. Consider again the problem and its remedy: It is not good for man to be alone…. Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. The real problem of human isolation is not that its another Saturday night and I ain’t got nobody. The real problem is that humanity has been isolated from God – because our human nature has been broken by sin and corruption. Because we are inundated every day with temptation and toil and suffering, all of which seeks further to isolate us from one another… and further to isolate us from God. And that’s real isolation… that’s real loneliness. And if we let that stuff get the better of us, if we let the temptation and the toil and the suffering master us, that’s called Hell.

[And that’s why Christian hermits, who live in caves and see other humans once a year or something… that’s why they’re not necessarily really lonely: if they’ve embraced a special calling to celibacy and solitude in order to devote themselves to intimacy with God, then they’re not really lonely. And conversely, that’s why you can find some of the loneliest people in the world in big cities, surrounded every day by the chatter and bustle of lots of other people.]

Hell is the situation of perfect, unmitigated loneliness. It is not good that man should be alone. That’s the problem. Here’s the remedy: Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife. Things are not as they seem. A man leaves his Father. There was once a Son who left his Father’s house… and then he came down from Heaven, and by the Holy Spirit became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man, and for our sake was crucified. Why did he do it? Because God was not willing that humankind should continue to live in its mortal isolation. It is not good that man should be alone. God was not willing that we should be so subjected to the temptation and the toil and the suffering of our broken human nature that we should die in our isolation from him. So God joined his own nature, his own divinity, to our broken human nature in the one flesh of Jesus Christ, perfect God and perfect man, like us in every respect (Heb. 2.17). Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.

That’s why Christian marriage is for life. Because God joins each of us to himself in the one flesh of his Son, and he said that this union of his divinity with our humanity would be until we should be parted by death, just like in the marriage vows. And then Christ did die, but we were not parted from him: the union of humanity and divinity survived in his resurrection… because God’s love is stronger than death. God took on our broken human nature so that he could break its brokenness. He took on every aspect of our humanity, and he perfected it. He took on temptation, and did not sin. He took on toil, and he did not grow weary. He took on suffering, until he cried out on the cross this marriage is consummated! He took on death, until he rose from the grave. And that life and that death were the perfection (Heb. 2.10) of the union of God and man in the one flesh of Jesus Christ. And there’s no divorce in that union. Its for life, for eternal life, because the one person in whom the union of divinity and humanity is consummated and perfect now sits forever at the right hand of the Father. The one person, Jesus Christ, is forever perfect divinity and perfected humanity. And there’s no turning back.

Take every opportunity to give yourself to the Bridegroom of your soul. Most problems in human marriage boil down to failures of trust – to our inability to give ourselves freely and perfectly to one another. That’s hard – from what I’ve seen, it looks like one of the hardest things in life. That’s the hardness of heart on account of which Jesus says that Moses allowed for divorce. And sometimes it almost can’t be helped. God knows sometimes people’s ability to give themselves freely and completely to their spouses is so corroded by fallen circumstances that its impossible to judge culpability for a marriage’s failure. And that’s why we’re told never to judge others. Only God can judge the causal connections between our choices and the circumstances that formed us. Sometimes people come from alcoholic backgrounds, or sometimes people have been formed by sexual abuse. Overcoming that kind of baggage and getting to a point where you can trust someone totally, where you can freely and completely give yourself to another person can seem impossible. And the Church knows that. She makes merciful allowances.

And our ability to give ourselves freely and completely to Christ, the Bridegroom of our souls, requires inhuman trust. The Church calls that kind of trust faith. It too is corroded by circumstances and can seem impossibly hard. But that’s what the Church is for. If any of you are perfect, you don’t belong here. In fact, if you were perfect, you’d be dead. The world hates perfect people. It nails ‘em up. Rather, the Church is a hospital for sinners – not a fortress for the self-righteous. The Church is sweet counsel for the reticence of our souls. The sacramental life is premarital counseling that prepares us to be joined to Christ in the hour of death, that we may be joined to him in the eternity of his risen life. And he never gives up on us. He was willing for his nuptial bed to be a cross so that our honeymoon might be eternal life.

It is not good for man to be alone. Therefore a Son left his father in heaven (and his mother on earth) in order to cleave to his Bride. And they become one flesh. And Christ woos us day by day from the altar: take; eat; this is my body – drink this all of you; this is my blood.

Happy indeed are those called to the marriage supper of the Lamb. Amen.


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