Sunday, October 7, 2018

How do two become one?

Readings: Gen 2:18-24; Ps 128:1-6; Heb 2:9-11; Mark 10:2-16

Given how contentious the subject of marriage has become, I am tempted to avoid our reading from Genesis and the Gospel and focus instead on the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. It is not a surprise to both my readers that, apart from the Gospel of Mark, Hebrews is perhaps my favorite of all books found in the Bible.

It is useful to note that during the long season of Ordinary Time that runs from Corpus Christi to the Feast of the Christ the King, we read from the featured Gospel (we're in Year B of the three-year Lectionary cycle and so that Gospel is Mark's) in a semi-continuous manner. In the Lectionary during this time, the first reading, taken from the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, is harmonized with the Gospel reading. The Epistle readings, on the other hand, are also presented in a semi-continuous manner. And so, we spend several weeks reading from one of the New Testament letters. Last week we finished our time in the Letter of St. James. The Epistle reading may or may not be harmonized with the first reading and the Gospel. It would seem, at first glance, that our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews this week is not harmonized.

Someone may protest - "Wait a minute! The first reading and the Gospel speak about marriage and the Epistle reading tells us how we are made perfect through suffering. How much more harmony could you ask for, dim-witted deacon?" Okay, okay! There is both a mildly humorous, if very clichéd, and a serious sense in which these readings are in harmony or can be meaningfully harmonized. I know from the experience of being married for 25 years that two being made one flesh is a painful becoming. Anyone who has been married for awhile, even if "happily," can also attest to this reality. The secret to remaining married, as far as I can tell, is just not to give up. You're never beaten until you quit.

If the existential realization of becoming one flesh is having children together, then, like marriage, the difficulties and pains, the joys and sorrows, of raising children is a means of sanctification, a way to become holy together. You must become holy together. Nobody is sanctified all by herself. If, as the Buddha asserted, to live is to suffer, to love, which always requires us to take a risk, is not only to endure suffering but to do so by choice. It's not a one-time choice but one you need to make over and over. If we're honest, in marriage and as parents, suffering is not only that which we endure, but is something we inflict on others due to our weakness, our forgetfulness, our tendency to be very self-centered. So, despite the apparent lack of harmony, there is, in fact, a deep harmony between our reading from Hebrews and our readings from Genesis and Mark concerning marriage and not merely a trivial, clichéd, and mildly humorous one.

As the our reading from Hebrews tells us, Christ is our leader on the way to salvation. Therefore, it becomes necessary as we make our way to the Sabbath rest that the inspired author of this letter, which was probably a long sermon, articulates so beautifully, to unite our sufferings to the Lord's so that they might have salvific value not only for us but for the whole world.

Lest I strike too depressing a note, for most of us, marriage and parenting are not only sources of suffering but sources of life's greatest joys. This seems to be a law of human of life: those relationships that cause us the most pain are also, at least potentially, the source of life's greatest joy.

Of course, as Catholics, we believe that marriage is a sacramental sign of Christ's relationship with his Bride, the Church. We believe that the Church is the sacrament of salvation in and for the world. Being not just a sign, but a sacramental one, which means that it is what it signifies (this is what makes it a mystery), married couples mediate Christ's presence to the world and for it. By making their homes a domestic church, married couples give deep meaning to the Church as the sacrament of salvation. Home is a place where everyone belongs. A place where you come as you are, as who are, and are assured of a warm, hospitable welcome.

In what is known as Jesus's High Priestly Prayer, which is St John's account of Christ's prayer in the garden, after which his excruciating Passion began to unfold, the Lord prayed that those who believe in him would "all be one" (John 17:21). In addition to praying that we all be one, as he one with Father, he intimated how this unity is achieved. Praying to the Father in the Spirit, Jesus prayed: "I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one..." (John 17:23). The relevant question this prompts is: How does Jesus come to be in us? The top-level answer is, Jesus comes to be in us by the Holy Spirit. More specifically, that is, more concretely, Christ comes to be present in by means of the sacraments. More precisely still, Christ comes to be present among us, in us, and through us in the Eucharist. It is the Eucharist that makes e pluribus unum - out of many, one.

It is through his self-emptying in the Eucharist that Christ makes manifest his love for his Bride, which is nothing other than love for the world and everyone in it. Among the expressions of the unity wrought by the Eucharist, marriage might just be the premiere expression, if married couples seek to intentionally live their marriage as the sacrament it intended to be. I am hard-pressed to imagine anything in the world designed to make us less selfish, to make us more self-emptying and self-sacrificial than marriage and parenting. Of course, this doesn't happen through mere sentiment, through affectivity- though it would be impossible without any. It happens by engaging daily circumstances, facing life's ups and downs, all of those possibilities mentioned when we make our vows: for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, etc. Like most vows and religious stuff, this much easier sad than done.

While not brought about exclusively through suffering, two becoming one requires endurance through thick and thin. Our Sunday readings these past several weeks have been teaching us about what I like to call the inverse property of salvation: without the cross there is no resurrection and with the resurrection the cross is pointless cruelty. Today's lesson is a powerful one.

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