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On marriage and divorce

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In the Revised Common Lectionary‘s readings for the nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost we encounter an odd juxtaposition of texts. With the psalmist, we express wonder at God’s providence: “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” (Ps 8:5) In the letter to Hebrews, we’re reminded that Jesus, our great high priest, has spoken God’s providential word to us (Heb 1:2), and advocates before the Father on our behalf (Heb 2:12). But then, when we turn to that Word, when we turn to receive with gladness this good news, we find there a teaching about divorce (Mark 10:11). It’s a difficult, perhaps painful teaching from Jesus because many of us are divorced, are children of divorce, or worry that our marriages may be heading for divorce. And some of us aren’t married at all. We are tempted to set Jesus’ Word aside, to declare it irrelevant in our time, or to find clever ways to say it does not pertain to us. But faith proclaims that this is God’s Word to us. Our task then, is to ask “how are we to see Jesus’ rejection of divorce for the purpose of remarrying as good news?”

Let’s note at the outset that there is a crucial difference between what the world calls marriage and that Christian vocation that priests bless in the sacrament of holy matrimony. The former is a secular creation, an institution of the state having to do with the sharing of property. What the world means by marriage today is frankly not much different than the ability to hold property in partnership with joint rights of survivorship. The tragic truth is that marriage is for many not much more than a limited liability corporation, an LLC. But, for the church, holy marriage is a vocation into which some (not all) are called. It is a divine gift, a means of grace by which God sustains the Church in our mission of teaching the world how to live in holy friendship with God and each other.

And therefore it is for us a sacrament, a living, ongoing sacrament. Not the ritual itself so much as the common life the couple promises to share. Their common life in Christ is a sacrament to the extent they love one another according to their vows. Holy marriage is a sacrament because it both signifies and enacts God’s love. Two people promise God that they will strive to love each other in the unconditional way that God loves us so that the Church comprehends the content of the love we are to embody. We don’t know what fidelity is unless we see it. We don’t know what forgiveness is unless we see it. We don’t know what charity is unless we see it.

So holy marriage is a communal act that happens within our Eucharistic circle. It is not a private act of the couple, but a divine act that is, ultimately, more about our mission as Israel than about the romance of the couple, and therefore filled with eternal purpose. It is a sign in which we promise God that we will be channels of grace to our beloved in the same way that Christ is grace for us – which is to say that we promise to be present to our beloved because of who God is and because of who we are – and not because of who our beloved turns out to be. We promise God – in advance of the actualization of our life together – to be that channel of grace in gratitude to God for the new identity we’ve been given – the identity of one who knows what forgiveness is and therefore has the possibility and the promise of performing it. That’s the kind of love we receive from God, and that is the kind of love we promise to strive toward, knowing full well we will fail – at times. And at such times of failure we rely on – and imitate – God’s own forgiveness as we continue to walk in the covenant God created.

So that’s holy marriage. But I’ve described it as a vocation into which some, not all, are called. The Jews and the Church together share in the mission of Israel, but there are differences that arise because we Christians are grafted into the mission of Israel through our faith in Jesus (Rom 11:17), while Jews are born into that mission. One difference that is often forgotten is that, for the Church, singleness is also a holy vocation. Because the world is drawn into the Church not through marriage and birth but through conversion of the heart (Col 2:11), the Church is not dependent on marriage to fulfill our mission. So, if you are single, know God may have called you to service through your singleness. Yet the sanctity of marriage ought to be important to you, too. For God blesses the Church through holy marriage as a primary way by which we learn as children what it means to share our daily bread in love. God uses both vocations to bless God’s church, and it is important that we treasure both forms of blessing.

But if marriage is a divine gift we are to treasure, why is this gospel so difficult for some of us swallow? The fact is that many here today have experienced the opposite of what I have described, have experienced marriage as a holy hell of endless pain and heartbreak, as the very sting of death itself. What God intended as blessing was a curse, and the divorce that Jesus condemned turned out to be blessed deliverance.

If that describes you, know that what you experienced was not at all the summit we call holy marriage, but rather the valley of human brokenness. Jesus’ prohibition of divorce did not repeal the Jewish possibility of such deliverance when such sanctuary was the path of life, but rather condemned its abuse. Let me explain.

There is another reality here, another reason many have been divorced. Many of us have experienced abandonment – forsakenness- by the one we loved, just as Jesus experienced abandonment and forsakenness on the Cross. I know a woman whose divorce was finalized just this week. Her husband of more than forty years set her aside like an old shoe, using his money and power to render her penniless and alone in her sixties, all so that he could marry a younger model.

It is this abuse of the divorce for the purpose of marrying another that Jesus condemns. It was legal then and it is legal now, but it is not at all what God intends. Jesus speaks the truth by naming it what it is: serial adultery. It exemplifies our brokenness, our rejection of leadership by God.

Perhaps your situation was like that of the woman. Perhaps it was like that of the man. Either way, know that God doesn’t cause our brokenness or our rebellion, but enters into to our pain to call us out of it, drawing near to heal our wounds. Somehow, some way, God teaches us what forgiveness is, declaring us worthy in the midst of the congregation even when we doubt our own worth, so that we may walk in his ways again, as many of our walking wounded have learned to walk again. If the wounds of divorce are still raw for you, know that you are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses who have walked through that valley, too. As my bishop often observes: because of the resurrection, for a Christian there is no such thing as a dead end.

To you children of divorce and those of you struggling now in marriages filled with pain and confusion, know this: divorce is not your destiny. You can break the cycle. I don’t know your story or the stresses you now feel. I don’t know if you are unsafe and in harm’s way. I pray you are not. If so, then clearly space is needed to ensure your safety and the Church is called to be your sanctuary.

Yet, know also that the world will tell you that marriage is merely a partnership that you can dissolve as soon as you both or individually no longer receive from it the utility expected. But that is the pagan form of marriage, and not at all what we mean by holy marriage. The good news is this: because Jesus our great high priest hears our sighs and groans that are too deep for words, and advocates directly for us before the Father in heaven, for a Christian there is no such thing as a dead end. May you find the blessings that God intends for you, and take your vows seriously, striving always to embody forgiveness, reconciliation, and resurrection in the relationship God put together.

I’ve just returned from a few days with my parents. Dad is suffering from melanoma that’s spread to the brain. I mourning even now, anticipating my loss. But as I spent time with Dad this week, I thought of a conversation I had with my bishop about that mantra of Charlie Brown’s: “good grief.”

For I recognize how blessed I have been to have two parents who have embodied holy marriage for me. Dad taught me what it means to be a man, and to treasure the bride for whom God called me to be a channel of grace. I miss that target all too often, but it’s never because I don’t recognize the standard for which I am to strive.

Dad and Mom together taught me what steadfast love looks like, taught me what true fidelity looks like, taught me what it means to be a help and comfort to one another in prosperity and adversity, what it means to to be a strength to each other in need, what it means to be a counselor in perplexity, a comfort in sorrow, and a companion in joy. They taught me, through their marriage, that, for a Christian, there is no such thing as a dead end. And for that reason I say “good grief.” My grief is good, because God blessed me with two parents who did all in their power to make their home a sanctuary of God. God blessed me – and all of our extended family – through their holy union. And that is precisely what the Church celebrates when we speak of holy marriage.

For those of you whose unions have been such blessings – at least at times – and for those who struggle to hang on as life puts pressure on your marital bonds, remember that Christian marriage is, thankfully, bigger than how we feel about it. It’s part of how God is reconciling the world. It has an eternal purpose. What God has joined together, let no one separate. Walk together in such a way that you have no doubt, as your days draw to a close, that God will smile upon you and say, “Now that’s what I meant! Well done!”

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4 Responses to “On marriage and divorce”

  1. Fr Ian Wetmore says:

    I’m continually amazed at how commentators are so reluctant to acknowledge the stark difficulty of our Lord’s teaching on divorce and seek to rationalize it in such a way as to soften it. On this issue, perhaps more than any other, Jesus was blunt to the point of piercing the souls of many disciples. And yet in this article, the author dares to say, “We are tempted to set Jesus’ Word aside, to declare it irrelevant in our time, or to find clever ways to say it does not pertain to us,” apparently unable to see that he has done exactly that. He hints that “it does not pertain to us.” We have to confront this teaching of our Lord head on and wrestle with it. For the reason he says what he says is because Christian marriage is a sacrament, an image, of the faithfulness he has for his Church. No matter how unfaithful she may be to him, he will be a stedfastly devoted husband to her. That’s what we married couples are called to reflect.

  2. Craig Uffman says:

    Fr Ian,
    You did not point to the sermon itself to demonstrate your area of concern. I believe that my presentation is a clear statement that Jesus’ teaching does indeed pertain to us, so if you understood it differently, do be so good as to be specific. I am open to correction. I am confused by your response because you claim I should have said exactly what I do say – describing marriage as a sacrament, etc.

  3. Fr Ian Wetmore says:

    I’m very sorry, Father. I was still upset over a very glaring error in an otherwise decent sermon I heard on Sunday, and overreacted. For years I’ve been hoping to hear a solid commentary on our Lord’s very difficult pronouncement on divorce and remarriage, but it seems that very few preachers are willing to offer one. When tasked with expounding this gospel, they usually conclude with something like “…but the Episcopal Church has said it’s ok to remarry…,” as if GenCon trumps the Word of the Lord. You have actually done a far better job than any I’ve ever heard.

    I guess I was looking for an explicit discussion of how Christian marriage is meant by God to mirror the faithful, unsunderable union of Christ to his Bride, and how the only legitimate second marriage, according to this teaching, is a re-union of estranged spouses. But the preacher must nevertheless be highly sensitive to those who will respond, “This is a hard saying; who can accept it?” Maybe what I really would like to find out is how to rescue the Church from the culture of easy divorce and steer it away from too readily blessing second marriages. Blessings on you and your ministry.

  4. Craig Uffman says:

    We share a passion on this, Fr Ian. It is a pastoral minefield, and one must make homiletic choices. In my case, I wanted to present a high view of marriage to a flock including influential voices who claim the Church should have nothing to do with marriage, and including many folks who’ve experienced divorce. My calculation was that few had every heard an account of marriage that linked it to a transcendent purpose. Causing that account to penetrate barriers was my priority, partly because of a prolonged effort to develop a more missional consciousness in this particular flock.

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