“This saying is hard; who can accept it?” The Greek word for “hard” in this sentence is sklayros, which, when applied to things, such as Jesus’ teaching that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (Jn 6:53), can also mean violent, or rough, or offensive, even intolerable. Judging from the reaction of many of those who heard this “hard” saying, it was likely taken to mean all of the above.
What is notable about our Gospel reading today, at least towards the end, is that it is focused on the reaction of those who, up to that point, had been Jesus’ disciples, who, the sacred author tells us, because of this “hard” saying, “returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him” (Jn 6:66).
There are many sayings of Jesus that are hard. These are hard because there is no love without truth. They can also seem hard and offensive because He speaks "Spirit and light" to a world, to people (you and I), in darkness. Especially in these politically correct times His words, spoken through His Church, often give offense and are sometimes intolerable to many people, both Catholic and non-Catholic. Certainly what the Church teaches about marriage often falls into that category.
Marriage is a sacrament (another word for sacrament is mystery) because Christian marriage is a concrete and efficacious sign, “the sacrament of the covenant of Christ and the Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church par. 1617). A sacrament, according to traditional Catholic theology, is an efficacious sign because it does not merely signify something, that is, stand in for something that is absent, “but actually makes present what it signifies” (USCCB, Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan 32). This is exactly what the inspired author of the Letter to the Ephesians says at very end of our second reading, summarizing this lengthy passage by writing, “This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32).
If you’ve ever wondered about the theological grounds on which the Church opposes any and all forms of plural marriage, it is because if marriage is a sacramental sign of the relationship between Christ and His Bride, the Church, Christ has only one bride, namely the Church. This also goes some distance towards explaining much else the Church teaches regarding marriage, including the impermissibility of divorce, the need for sexual complementarity, and, because the passage cites the same Scripture Jesus used in his disputation with Pharisees concerning marriage (Matt. 19:1-12; Mark 10:1-12), keeping in mind that there is no way two people become one more than by having children together, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24), the very current and relevant topic of contraception. Because the purpose of marriage is to make visibly and tangibly present a divine reality, always making it, when lived authentically and joyfully, both revelatory and prophetic, it is not within the purview of the Church to alter it.
As the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, puts it,
"the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission (par. 10)Marriage is not a subordinate relationship, but an equal partnership. Flowing from the Eucharist, it is a communion, a deep communion between persons. One of the reasons the passage that constitutes our second reading today is often ignored, or winnowed down, thus removing all the potentially offensive verses, the “hard” sayings, as it were, is because it is very easy to misinterpret, attempting to make it say something it clearly does not. So, let’s look at the beginning and the end.
The passage begins with the injunction to “[b]e subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). Our reading cuts off verse thirty-three, an important verse that, in the context of the letter, both completes the passage and brings the chapter to its end: “In any case, each one of you should love his wife as himself, and the wife should respect her husband” (Eph. 5:33). I think we would all agree that love, being an act of the will, a choice, and not merely a feeling, or a set of affective feelings, of necessity includes a healthy portion of respect, which necessity Aretha Franklin has catechized us on very well.
Even when we look at how marriage is defined in the Code of Canon Law, we see that it is a covenant a man and woman enter into by which they “establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of [children]” (Can. 1055 §1). By definition, a partnership, at least one that is not a limited partnership, sets the partners on an equal footing. If we must insist that there is an inequality in this passage, the unequal, meaning the heavier burden, is placed squarely on the husband.
So, my dear friends in Christ, keeping in mind that God is merciful, standing always ready to receive us and to reconcile us, we are often faced with the same dilemma as were the Twelve in our Gospel today, Do I stay, or do I go? If you go, to whom will you go? Who else has the often “hard” words of eternal life? Who else loves you enough to tell you the truth? Who else loves your destiny, the end of for which you were made and redeemed? Let us answer as did the tribes of Israel at Shechem, when challenged by Joshua, Moses’ successor, “[W]e also will serve the LORD, for he is our God” (Josh 24:18b). It is only by committing to serve the Lord that we can taste and see His goodness.