Sunday, August 23, 2009

Year B 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Josh. 24:1-2a. 15-17. 18b; Ps. 34:2-4.16-21; Eph. 5:21-32; John 6:60-69

What does it mean to be a Christian? I think this is the question prompted today by our readings. Inevitably, this leads to questions about faith or, more precisely, the question what does it mean to have faith? The first thing that needs to be dismissed is reducing faith to mere belief. While believing is necessary for faith, it is not the sum total of faith. Faith is your response to what God has done for you. Hence, faith arises from experience and elicits not only a reasonable response, but the only reasonable response. This much is made clear in our first reading today when the children of Israel respond to Joshua’s challenge:

"Far be it from us to forsake the LORD
for the service of other gods.
For it was the LORD, our God,
who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt,
out of a state of slavery.
He performed those great miracles before our very eyes
and protected us along our entire journey
and among the peoples through whom we passed.
Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God" (Josh. 24:16-17.18b).

To detach faith from experience not only severs it from reason, but from life. Your faith does not merely need to be integrated into your life; you must come to recognize that your faith is precisely what allows you to live a life of integrity. To state it more clearly, faith is the integrative principle of life. Without faith, life lacks coherence and even meaning. Without faith, which arises from our being true and honest about what happens to us, we are not oriented to what is authentic and real. Living a life of integrity takes an objective form. One of the forms an authentic life of faith in the service of God takes is marriage.

Without question, today’s second reading is one of the most misunderstood passages in all of Scripture. This passage is frequently clipped, thus presenting an erroneous understanding of Christian marriage. The clip that is often employed is Ephesians 5:22-24: "Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body. As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything." Two keys to demonstrating that this clip does not capture the intent of the author are the verses that immediately precede and follow it, which read respectively: "Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ" and "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her" (5:21,25). It is also important to recognize that in this passage marriage is used as a metaphor to explain the "great mystery" of the unity that exists between "Christ and the church" (Eph. 5:32).

It is important to recognize that this mysterious unity is not identity and marriage, when lived in a Christian manner, amply demonstrates this, as neither the wife nor the husband ceases to be a unique and individual person. Just so, Christ is not the church and the church is not Christ, if such were the case, the church would be perfect, which we clearly are not. As with all the church’s sacraments, Christian marriage is a sign making the unity between God and His people a visible reality in and for the world and it does so in a very real, human, and existential way.

In the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, when challenged by some Pharisees about the nature of marriage, Jesus takes the origin of the union between woman and man from Genesis as defining the reality of marriage when he responds with these words: "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother (and be joined to his wife), and the two shall become one flesh" (Gen. 2:24; Mark 10:2). Our passage from Ephesians quotes this same verse from Genesis. Fr. Richard Clifford observed that from "the biblical perspective, the origin of a reality often defines the reality." On this basis we can conclude that the view shared by the authors of Genesis, Matthew, Mark, and Ephesians sees that God made marriage part of creation. Biblically, marriage is not abstract, but is a fully embodied reality. The author of Genesis "stresses the fact that [sexual] union," which is bodily union, "is willed by God" (Clifford). This constitutes a deep and irrefutable basis for sexual complementarity and differentiation, as well as the need for openness to children in marriage. Along with the first creation narrative, in which we read, "God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them," this passage lays the biblical foundation for equality between the sexes, which is essential for accurately interpreting the passage from Ephesians as well as correctly understanding and living Christian marriage (Gen.1:27).

In all of this we see that marriage is a concrete value of the kingdom of God, one of the values that we prayed for God’s help in seeking at the beginning of Mass. Like all signs of the kingdom, marriage is not an end in itself; it points us to a greater reality, to what we might say is really real.

While faith gives rise to values, we cannot reduce faith to values anymore than we can reduce it to mere belief. Christian values are only valuable to those who have encountered Christ. Hence, we live them in the awareness that we do not adhere to values, but to Christ, who shows us what it means to be authentically human. If we fail to understand that Christian values arise from Christ made flesh and only become visible, that is, comprehensible, to us in our encounter with Him, then "we will try," as Fr. Julian Carrón recently said, "to beat others over the head with these values, thinking that this will make them understand… then we complain, wondering why they don’t understand. We would not have understood them like this either! Jesus did not become flesh by mistake! No, He became flesh because if He had not, we would not have understood." Jesus tells his troubled, yet faithful, disciples: "It is the spirit that gives life… [t]he words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life" (John 6:63). It is the life of the spirit, the very life of God that this Eucharist invites us to taste and see, then to go forth and give witness.

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