Last week I talked about how these last three or four Gospel lessons touched upon tough times for Jesus, how He had to endure many hardships, mostly at the hands of His bumbling disciples. What I didn’t mention is that these last three or four Gospel lessons were tough on preachers as well; it’s tough to preach on such things, to extract the good news from so much bad news, it’s tough to talk about Jesus being ignored and mistreated, and it’s tough to talk about the hard sayings of Jesus. And if you thought I would catch a break this week, well….no. This week we get divorce (yay!).
So to get the hard part over with: Yes, divorce really is as bad as it just sounded when I read the Gospel lesson from St. Mark. Man is not meant to be alone, he is in fact about half a person when alone. In the account of the creation of woman we heard in the lesson from Genesis, the familiar translation of the Hebrew is used, God took from Adam a rib, and from that rib He created Eve. But a more proper translation of the Hebrew word we translate as rib is side: God took a whole side of Adam, and from that side He created Eve. It’s almost as if half of Adam was taken and then covered in flesh, and that half remains missing in Adam’s descendants until marriage completes the man. Better half, indeed.
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.
But divorce came, several thousand years before Jesus came, and so it was that descendants of Adam, through Moses and the priests and the scribes and the Pharisees came up with elaborate laws around getting rid of your better half, a privilege almost always granted only the male party. These descendants of Adam argued and argued about the lawfulness of divorce, when it was proper if it was ever proper at all. And then this Jesus came, and it came time to ask Him what He thought. The Pharisees that asked Jesus the question were not so much interested in His answer, as much as using His answer to condemn either their opponents or Jesus Himself, but the truth seldom worries about the way it reveals itself. So the Pharisees ask Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Straightforward question, but Jesus responds with a question: “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away.” But Jesus said to them, “For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” The lectionary stops there, but Jesus continued: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
So we see that because we were sinful, because our hearts were and are hardened, the possibility of lawfully divorcing one’s spouse was allowed into the social structure of the only people which had a covenant with God. But Jesus didn’t come to affirm our sinfulness, He didn’t come to affirm our hardened hearts, He came to, amongst other very important things, fulfill and reveal the perfect Law, which apparently does not include the possibility of lawful divorce.
That said – who among us has not either experienced firsthand the calamity of divorce or had divorce in their family? Not many, I’m sure. Divorce, infidelity, flat-out adultery, there are any number of offenses against the sanctity of marriage we have all seen or experienced. That speaks to our hardness of heart, of course, but it also somehow speaks to the overwhelming, overpowering, all conquering grace of God. Sure, talking about adultery and divorce in church makes us squirm a bit, it’s a horribly uncomfortable subject that we relegate to adult conversations, away from the innocent ears of children, but should we really? Should we squirm now in the face of this sin and not when faced with other sins? I think we should squirm a little bit each week in church, right up until the time we are absolved of all those sins that get brought up in the readings each week and then stare directly at the wondrous grace of God made flesh in the Blessed Sacrament.
So maybe I did catch a break this week; maybe the descendants of Adam and Eve haven’t gotten it together, maybe we still do rend asunder our very beings, but we are still given the grace to see God’s purposes despite ourselves. Through the Church, God has given us three vocations; all of them require fidelity, but only one of them is marriage. The three vocations are marriage, ordination, and religious profession, or being a monk or a nun. All three of these vocations, however differently they are practiced, are essentially marriage. The priest and the Religious are in a manner married to the Church, and she, the Church, is the intended of Christ Himself, the Church the Bride and Christ the Bridegroom. The vocation of marriage, that joining of a man and a woman in sacramental and carnal union, reflects the nature of the love Jesus has for His Church, which, joined with Him at the last, can never be rent asunder. What grace! What love God has for us in revealing such things to us, these things which angels long to look in to, what grace God has given us that we may know that even the simple act of falling in love and giving ourselves to our spouses reflects the same love He has for us! And what grace God has shown us, that even when our hardened hearts cry out for our own destruction, even when we tear apart our very flesh, what grace God has shown us in Christ Jesus, who took our sins and our hearts and our flesh with Him on the Cross, so that we might be presented as a spotless Bride. Praise God.