Sunday, August 26, 2018

What can it mean to say "I do"?

Josh 24:1-2a.15-17.18b; Ps 34:2-3.1-21; Eph 5:21-32; John 6:60-69

Jesus tells his listeners in today's Gospel, many, if not most, of whom seem to be in the process of walking away- "the spirit gives life, while the flesh is of no avail" (John 6:63). In a seemingly incongruent manner, he says this in the context of telling them something they found not merely scandalous but deeply offensive to their religious beliefs and sensibilities, something that causes them to walk away from following him and return to their former way of life: "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him" (John 6:54-56). The language that Jesus uses in describing himself as life-giving food and drink is very literal language. His listeners, who the inspired author no doubt conceived of as exclusively Jews, grasped this. Observant Jews are not even allowed to eat (think blustwurst- blood sausage) or drink the blood of animals, let alone human blood. To eat human flesh would be as unthinkable to them as it is to us and probably far more disgusting. There is a reason that one charge that was sometimes brought against Christians in the early Church was that of being cannibals.

Each Eucharistic Prayer in the Roman Missal features an epiclesis. Epiclesis is a Greek word meaning "to call down." Saying the epiclesis with hands extended over the bread and wine, the priest calls down the Holy Spirit upon these gifts. Here is the epiclesis for Eucharistic Prayer II:
Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall, so that they may become for us the Body + and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ
It is the Holy Spirit, then, who transforms our gifts of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Based on this, which, in turn, is rooted in the Incarnation as well as the death and resurrection of the Son of God, it seems the Spirit gives us life through the flesh and blood of Christ. It is by eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ that together we are made the Body of Christ, the Church. The Church is Christ's Bride.

It's not such a big leap from the Body of Christ to the Bride of Christ. In St. John's Gospel, Jesus's public ministry begins with the miracle at a wedding feast in Cana. As I am sure you remember, at his mother's behest, the Lord turned six twenty-to-thirty gallon stone jars filled with water into the most excellent wine so the party could continue unabated. Mary's role in this event is highly significant. This strikes me as a coherent way to connect our reading from Paul's Letter to the Ephesians to our Gospel reading.

I hope that your parish used the longer the version of the reading from Ephesians. I hope this because reading the entire passage is the surest way to understand what is being communicated and to avoid the pitfalls of a truncated interpretation. It is of the utmost importance to note that this passage begins by establishing the equality of wife and husband: "Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Eph 5:21). The equality of spouses is affirmed in the Latin Church's Code of Canon Law:
The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman 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 offspring, has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptized" (Canon 1055 §1)
In Latin, which is the original language of the Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law, the word translated into English as "partnership" is consortium. Consortio ("con" = with + "sortio" = casting lots). Forming a consortium by being married, two people cast their lots together. In English, "consortium" remains part of our business lexicon. Translated a bit more smoothy, a consortium, as it relates to marriage, means for two people to be "bound by the same destiny."

Failing to grasp the fundamental equality of spouses is bound to lead to a disastrous interpretation of this passage, especially verses 22-24. Understandably, many women lectors preparing to proclaim this reading and many who make a point of pondering and praying with readings over the course of the week, dreaded reading or hearing this passage at Mass. Too often these three verses (22-24) are cited independently and so out of context, thus turning Scripture on its head and making a mockery of God's inspired word. The word translated into English as "subordinate" or sometimes as "submit" are the appropriate forms of the Greek word ὑποτάσσω, which transliterates as hypotassō. Hypotassō means "set under." Especially to my female readers, before you start muttering to yourself, "Oh crap, here we go!", let me note that a wife is "set under" her husband as the Church is set under Christ. So, before bailing on me, let me try to answer the question, "How is the Church set under Christ?"

Sticking with St. John's Gospel in seeking to determine how the Church is set under Christ, it is important to point to the section of Jesus's Last Supper Discourse in which he says to his disciples: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father" (John 15:13-15). What command did the Lord give to his disciples? "This is my commandment: love one another as I love you" (John 15:12). As theologian James Alison noted in a deeply insightful essay, "Theology Amidst the Stones and Dust" - "love depends on equality" (in Faith Beyond Resentment, 49). Alison's main thesis in this essay is that Jesus is our teacher because he made himself our equal. Because equality is necessary for love it is a requirement of divine pedagogy.

It is only by dealing with all of that we can move on to how husbands are to set themselves under their wives "out of reverence for Christ" (Eph 5:21): "husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body" (Eph 5:28-30). Because marriage is a sacrament, in this way, too, flesh becomes life-giving spirit by the power of the Holy Spirit. Such a life-giving manner of life was intended by God from the beginning. Genesis 2:28, which is the Bible's Ur verse on marriage, is then cited prior to pointing out that this entire passage is about the relationship between Christ and his Bride, the Church, human marriage serving only as an analogy. It is Genesis 2:28 that proved decisive in Jesus's disputation with the Pharisees about divorce (see Matt 19:1-12 and Mark 10:1-12).

For anyone who is married or has been married it goes without saying that, eventually, there are plenty of reasons to leave, to get a divorce. In order to remain married both spouses must look for reasons to stay. This two becoming one flesh, while nice in the context of conjugal relations and pretty awesomely manifested by having children- a human being who, while being distinctly herself, is also a combination of both spouses- is agonizing work. I think much the same thing can be said about belonging to Christ's Body, the Church, particularly right now. I would imagine nearly all practicing Christians, lay and clergy alike, could tell of times when leaving the Church, or at least quitting our active participation, has been a serious consideration and often for good reasons. Many Catholics have walked away. For example, how could you blame someone for leaving as the result of experiencing abuse? While some who have left have returned, many have not. As our first reading indicates, we must choose each day whom we will serve. Stating it like this makes it seem like the choice is as easy as it is obvious. Often it is neither obvious nor easy. Staying can sometimes be a more difficult choice than leaving.

Whenever we hear or read Scripture we can't help but imagine the scene. It is inevitable that we do this, unless you're not paying attention. Keeping in mind what had happened prior to the passage of the sixth chapter of St. John's Gospel we read today, I don't imagine Jesus asking his disciples the question "Do you also want to leave?" in an accusatory or taunting manner. I imagine him asking it earnestly and with great affection, perhaps in a tone indicating "I wouldn't blame you for leaving." This just goes to show, yet again, that God never compels us, but respects our freedom completely. Our rejection does not unleash God's wrath, as many people have experienced for themselves by staying home on Sunday morning instead of coming to Mass and living to tell about it. Believing otherwise is childish.

A naturally valid and/or sacramental marriage hinges on the free consent of spouses. If there is some defect in the consent of either spouse, meaning if their freedom was impeded in some significant way, there can be no valid marriage and certainly no sacrament. Our participation in Mass also requires our free consent. We have to get out of bed, get ready, and go. With Peter, recognizing Jesus as the Holy One of God, as the one who has the words of eternal life, as the One who is the Word of Life, we come and we stay because we have learned there is no one else to whom we can turn, which is just to say we have experienced the Father's love, given us in Christ, by the power of their Holy Spirit. And so, each Sunday, we participate in Mass, which is both something of a participation in and anticipation of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. Tony Campolo was correct in his assertion, which he used as a title for one his books that I read quite a few years ago, The Kingdom of God is a Party. I don't know about you, but a great party would be suit me down to the ground right about now.

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