Marriage "from the beginning"
Editorial FAITH MAGAZINE September - October 2015
THE SYNOD: MARRIAGE “from the beginning”
Marriage is not a structure invented by man. It is not something that merely celebrates and seals a deep human emotion – although it does echo to the very core of our emotional and psychological needs. It is the “primordial sacrament”. It is the plan from “the beginning”.
Marriage is the union of a man and a woman in a lifelong bond that is a profound echo of Christ's bond with his Church. This is not a bond that can be broken by divorce and “remarriage”.
God's dealings with the human race were not – and are not – a series of human mistakes rectified by God with a sort of “tut tutting” at our irritating inability to fall in with his arrangements, and a sighing decision to make the necessary amendments. His plan was always – from “the beginning” - a nuptial plan. “In the beginning” he called all things into being by his spoken word. And from the beginning the Word was there. And in the fullness of time the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. The Eucharist was, in an important and literally crucial sense, part of it all from the beginning.
God and his people, Christ and his Church, the nuptial plan, is a profoundly Eucharistic plan.
In the Old Covenant, the start of the fulfilment of God's plan, his bond with his people was one of love. It was a matrimonial bond. God chose his bride, his people, and he cherished them and cared for them and prepared them for the greatness of it all.
And in the New Covenant – which does not revoke the Old, because God has an unchanging essence – God brought things to fulfilment. His loving bond with his people was opened to all who would accept it, as Christ stretched out his arms on the Cross, and blood and water flowed from his side. And the matrimonial covenant planned from the beginning was renewed. just as Christ had intimated as the plan began to be revealed in its fullness at the Wedding at Cana when he spoke of his “time”, and turned water into wine.
And human marriage is the living out of his plan: a lifelong bond between a man and a woman: the one blessing “not forfeited by Original Sin, or washed away in the flood”. And the union of Christ and His Church, the union of God and his people, is nuptial, and Christ's sacrificial love on Calvary was nuptial – and the writer of this editorial, and all the baptised, are children of that union – and every Mass is a nuptial Mass, and one day all will be brought to completion in the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.
So when the Synod Fathers gather in Rome to discuss marriage and the family, they are not dealing with human arrangements, but with participation in God's plan and God's love.
Of course human marriages do not follow the perfection of that love. Marriage was not forfeited by Original Sin, but like everything else in creation, it was wounded. In their first innocence man and woman lived in harmony. Genesis tells, in poetry that still makes sense to us today, about man and woman living in the freedom given by God, and the abuse of that freedom.
This didn't wreck the plan, nor did it change it – God kept his Word, and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, just as it had been planned from the beginning. At Cana Christ, the living Word, spoke and people did his bidding, and the water turned into wine because the people had done what he told them. And it was the best wine, and there was a superabundance of it, and it will keep until the end...
Marriage is not a temporary arrangement which when wounded by cruelty or adultery ceases to exist. It is the union of a man and a woman, open to new life, and for the baptised is a sacrament.
Today in the West it is possible for a young man and woman to stand in expensive wedding attire in a flower-decked church in confusion as to what they are actually doing. They are in all probability already living together in sexual communion, and each may also have had other sexual partners. They will be using contraceptive drugs or devices so as to ensure that there is no child of their union. They may not have much human understanding of marriage as each may have grown up with parents who have divorced or never married, and many of their friends and acquaintances will have that experience too. And their spiritual formation for marriage - if any has been given - will have had to be very profound in order to reach through these deep levels of confusion and hurt, and may or may not have succeeded in doing so.
Is such a marriage valid? It is possible that it is null from the start, neither party fully understanding that this is a lifelong union, echoing that of Christ and his Church and open to children as Christ's bond with his Bride is fruitful. The Church is right to recognise that a declaration of nullity is possible, and right to ensure that necessary procedures are not unduly prolonged, expensive, complicated, or burdensome.
But we also need to recognise the reality of God's grace. He does not abandon his people. Marriage in a fallen and broken world is possible. It is still God's plan. An assumption of nullity should not be automatic: on the contrary, the reverse should be the case: God is good, and marriage is his original plan. As centuries of missionary endeavour have shown, pagan and semi-pagan people can be taught, helped, and encouraged to live glorious Christian lives from inauspicious beginnings. A marriage that starts with two confused young people can be formed into something great and wonderful. Sin – including sexual sin before and during marriage, including the use of contraception – can be washed away by Christ and life renewed. Marriage between two baptised people is a sacrament – and a sacrament is an outpouring of God's grace.
If a marriage “breaks down”, it is not ended. A validly married couple may choose to separate, even temporarily, to resolve differences, or make some practical arrangement that will make life bearable. But the bond is sustained.
So here is a message to the Synod Fathers in Rome:
As the successors of the Apostles, Bishops are the custodians, not the inventors, of marriage and all the other sacraments. Marriage and the Eucharist are inextricably bound up together. Each Mass is a nuptial Mass renewing the covenant between Christ and his Church. Each Christian marriage echoes that bond. No sacrament is in isolation from others.
Mary, the Woman in whose body the Old Covenant met the New – spoke at the Wedding at Cana “Do whatever he tells you” in words carefully remembered and passed down to us today.
Christ placed the care of his Church in the fragile hands of human Apostles. Over the centuries some of Christ's Apostles have failed him. There is no need for any Bishop today to join that number. The message to the Church from the Pope who took us across the threshold to this 21st century came from the words of Christ: “Do not be afraid.” God is always renewing his Church. This is a time for teaching all the faithful about the Eucharistic plan from the beginning.
Bishops have the task and the privilege of explaining – not as something new but as something renewed – the plan of God for human beings. Marriage is at the core, literally the heart, of that plan.
Each sacrament has its own profound meaning. The Eucharist is bound up with the Paschal Mystery, and Christ's union with his Church: it is no mere celebratory meal but a foretaste of the nuptial banquet of the Lamb. The Sacrament of Penance is there for the forgiveness of sin, and is no mere ritual – it involves the penitent confessing specific sins with the intention of no longer continuing in them, receiving God's grace for this commitment. Marriage is a sacrament conferred by the spouses of one another and bins for life – an awesome reality given into human hands for God's work of establishing a family.
The argument with which the Synod Fathers will be presented is that divorce and remarriage are sins that should be forgiven and that subsequent reception of Holy Communion is an outward sign of that forgiveness. But this is not an honest statement: it ignores the reality. A man or women who, for whatever reason, abandons a spouse and goes through some form of marriage with another can rectify this only by ceasing to be in the new union. That might be by a decision to live as brother and sister – difficult but not impossible – or by a decision to return to the spouse, or by a decision to renounce the new union. This last can sometimes be impractical because of commitments to beloved children. In such a case, it is possible to live with a faithful recognition that reception of Holy Communion is not possible, and quiet humble obedience to God's plan. God honours that, because he knows his children well enough, and knows how much grace and strength he gives them. His Apostles do not need to make the claim to know them better.
The task of Bishops is to teach and celebrate God's plan, making use of the rich insights given through his faithful servants down the centuries. That includes the recent work of Saint John Paul, the pastor whose “theology of the body” was given for our times.
Dear Synod fathers: please know you have the prayers of the ordinary faithful as you speak in faithfulness to the Word, whose bond with his Church is unbreakable and who has never abandoned us, never given up on us.
And dear Papa Francis, successor of Peter, who in his weakness was nevertheless tasked with “strengthening the brethren” - you have our special prayers. Peter, frightened and nagged by a woman while warming himself at the fire, Peter filled with the Holy Spirit leading the Church after Pentecost, Peter enduring martyrdom for his Lord. Dear Papa Francis: do not be afraid! Speak up “boldly” as Peter did, and as his successors must. Please strengthen the brethren in upholding faithfulness to God's original plan for the lifelong union of man and woman in marriage, the plan not destroyed by Original Sin or washed away in the flood, the plan entrusted by God to his bride, the Church.