The Seven Word Sermon: Marriage is God’s idea – a permanent bond.
This Lent, we’ll be reflecting a great deal on marriage – it’s something our bishops have asked us to focus on before the next Vatican Synod on marriage and family life this October. It’s something I’ve talked about in recent sermons, suggesting ways to enrich married life, and reminding us that there is no obligation on Catholics to stay in a situation of domestic violence. But today, at the start of Lent, I want to take a step back and ask why the Church is so concerned about marriage in the first place.
Marriage affects all of us. Some of us are currently married. Some of us will never marry. Some of us are no longer married. But all of us will interact with married people on a weekly, if not daily, basis, and our attitudes and actions can either build up or undermine the marriages around us. So whatever your current status, please join me for this journey through Lent which begins with a very basic question: Why marriage?
Today’s readings contain two powerful themes – Kingdom and Covenant. A Covenant is a solemn promise made between two parties. Sometimes this is by mutual consent. But the covenant God makes with Noah and his descendants is one-sided. After sending a flood to destroy the wickedness of the human race, God spontaneously promises never to do so again. There are other covenants in the Bible, too. Some come with conditions – God tells the people of Israel, through Moses, that He will protect them if they follow the Commandments and other laws set out by Moses. Others are unconditional – King David is told that his descendants will be kings forever. That didn’t happen in the politics of Israel, but it is true of Jesus, the everlasting King of David’s line.
In today’s Gospel, hotfoot from 40 days in the desert, Jesus comes into town to proclaim that “God’s Kingdom is close by!” This is good news – surely things will be better with God in charge – but it’s also challenging. If you haven’t been keeping God’s laws very well, do you want God to turn up in your life? Jesus is firm but fair. You can repent, and make a fresh start with God, but you do have to acknowledge that God makes the rules – that’s the Kingdom.
What are God’s rules? In many cases, Jesus undid the work of Jewish religious leaders who had set out rules much more demanding than those given by God. For Jesus it was not a problem to pick your own lunch or cure a sick person on the Sabbath Day, and it was a religious duty to help a leper or a wounded traveller, even if that made you ritually unclean. But when it came to having a pure heart, Jesus set out a law more demanding than Moses. He pulled no punches in warning us that we are in danger of going to Hell if we let lust master our lives, or fail to restrain our anger towards others, or do not give of our resources to help the poor and needy.
And then there’s marriage. When he spoke about that, Jesus gave a teaching so challenging that even his apostles did a double-take and asked if he really meant what their ears were hearing. Yes, said Jesus, this was God’s plan from the beginning. Once two people become one flesh, they are joined by God and no earthly power should separate them. When St Paul pondered this, he came to see that marriage lived out as such a total commitment would reflect the way that Jesus gave his life for the Church – such a marriage would be a sign that God’s Kingdom was present in the world today. For this reason, marriage itself is honoured with the name which the Bible gives to the most solemn of promises – it, too, is a Covenant.
What makes a marriage? It is made by the deliberate choice of a man and a woman who each declare that from that day forward, the most important priority in their life will be their partner’s wellbeing. This is very different from a purely practical decision to have a joint bank account for household expenses, or two parents making a pragmatic decision to share caring duties for their child. Marriage is an irrevocable decision that the most important human being in your life is no longer yourself, but your Significant Other. Such a commitment would be quite dangerous and completely irresponsible, unless it were made to a person making the same kind of commitment to you!
Two years ago, a British High Court Judge resigned so that he could speak up for marriage. Sir Paul Coleridge had served for some years in the High Court’s family division. Late in 2012 he wrote a newspaper article noting that marriage “brings clarity and removes ambiguity” from relationships. He was concerned that couples who merely live together are much more likely to suffer a relationship breakdown than those who have made a positive commitment to stay together. Although there are statistics which back this up, he was given an official warning that this was not an acceptable view for a judge to hold publicly. Rather than compromise his morals, he resigned and now runs the Marriage Foundation, which reminds British Society that there are positive good things about being married, and proposes sound reasons why politicians should not be afraid to say that marriage is a Good Thing.
Today, our bishops offer us a prayer card to take home reminding us of positive things we believe about marriage. Alongside this, it’s good to note that research shows that being married makes a positive difference. Indeed, the evidence is that one in three unmarried couples with an infant will have split up by the time the child is 7, but only one in eight married couples with an infant will break up in the same timeframe. Nevertheless, our core reason for supporting marriage is not based on statistics or our personal political views. The MAIN reason we believe in marriage is one of faith. Jesus wasn’t willing to compromise on the idea of a lifelong commitment being essential for sexual partners. We cannot follow him and do otherwise.
One final thought: Sir Paul’s Marriage Foundation has a logo – an arch made of stones. Sir Paul chose that because arches come in every shape and size and can be very beautiful when well designed and built. Arches usually join together two inherently unstable structures; the two pillars on either side. But when an arch joins the two sides, the whole becomes immeasurably stronger. In times of serious instability – an earthquake – there is no better place to stand than under a well constructed arch. I don’t know if Sir Paul had the rainbow in mind, but remember: God chose an arch as the sign of his covenant with us, too!