With gratitude to Christopher West, and his talk, “Marriage and the Eucharist.”
The question is asked, “Is there anything more beautiful in life than a boy and a girl clasping clean hands and pure hearts in the path of marriage? Can there be any thing more beautiful than young love?” And the answer is given. “Yes, there is a more beautiful thing. It is the spectacle of an old man and an old woman finishing their journey together on that path. Their hands are gnarled, but still clasped; their faces are seamed but still radiant; their hearts are physically bowed and tired, but still strong with love and devotion for one another. Yes, there is a more beautiful thing than young love: Old love.”
The crowds flocked to Jesus to be given healing and saving truth. The Pharisees made sure that they were there, too, to challenge Jesus’s credibility in the eyes of the people. John the Baptist had been imprisoned for criticizing Herod for his invalid marriage to his wife, and the Pharisees set up Jesus with a trap: either conflict with the Law of Moses or conflict with John the Baptist. “The Pharisees approached Jesus and asked, ‘Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?’ They were testing him.” So Jesus, knowing the point he was going to make, played them into the position of the losing side: “He said to them in reply, ‘what did Moses command you?’ They replied, ‘Moses permitted a husband to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her.’”
“For when Moses brought the children of Israel out of Egypt, they were indeed Hebrews in race, but Egyptians in manners. And it was caused by the Gentile manners that the husband hated the wife; and if he was not permitted to put her away, he was ready either to kill her or ill-treat her. Moses therefore suffered the bill of divorcement, not because it was a good practice in itself, but was the prevention of a worse evil.” (Pseudo-Chrysostom)
“Moses, however, was against a man’s dismissing his wife, for he interposed this delay, that a person whose mind was bent on separation, might be deterred by the writing of the bill, and desist; particularly, since, as is related, among the Hebrews, no one was allowed to write Hebrew characters but the scribes. The law therefore wished to send him, whom it ordered to give a bill of divorcement, before he dismissed his wife, to them, who ought to be wise interpreters of the law, and just opponents of quarrel. For a bill could only be written for him by men, who by their good advice might overrule him, since his circumstances and necessity had put him into their hands, and so by treating between him and his wife they might persuade them to love and concord. But if a hatred so great had arisen that it could not be extinguished and corrected, then indeed a bill was to be written, that he might not lightly put away her who was the object of his hate, in such a way as to prevent his being recalled to the love, which he owed her by marriage, through the persuasion of the wise. For this reason it is added, For the hardness of your heart, he wrote this precept; for great was the hardness of heart which could not be melted or bent to the taking back and recalling the love of marriage, even by the interposition of a bill in a way which gave room for the just and wise to dissuade them.” (St. Augustine)
So Jesus then plays his hand, which was to trump Moses’ concession to the hardheartedness of the Israelites with God’s revealed plan from the beginning: “Jesus told them, ‘Because of the hardness of your hearts 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.‘”
Jesus is quoting from Genesis Chapter 2, which was our first reading. God formed Adam from the earth, and blew the breath of life into him. Adam, in his original solitude as the first human, recognized his existence, and his human dignity, and his relationship with God, all as gratuitous gift. However, he also recognized that, sharing in the image of God, his desire for love—to fully give himself and receive the other in return—could not be had with God, because God is infinitely more than Adam. And he also recognized that he could not completely give himself to any of the animals and receive all of themselves to him, because they were less than him. So when he awoke from his sleep and beheld Eve, he finally recognized another person like himself, with whom he could enjoy a true union of love—one whose nature and dignity and even physical form matched and complemented his own, and to whom he could give all of himself as a gift, and she could reciprocate and give all of herself as gift in return. Adam and Eve enjoyed the primordial nuptial relationship of pure selfless love, seeing each other as gift, naked and unashamed, because their hearts and eyes were pure. “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” They saw each other not as someone to possess, but as God’s gift of someone to give themselves to and receive the other in pure love.
It would be easy here to go into expounding on the Church’s rejection of divorce, which is rooted in the words of scripture—in this gospel, and in Luke, and Paul—and then soften that with the Church’s teaching on annulments, which is based on the exception found in the parallel sections in Matthew. The Church’s rejection of divorce is well-known, even if not well-followed. Instead of talking about what the Church is against, I want to explore what the Church is for—what is often called the Theology of the Body, based on the 5-year series of 129 homilies by Pope Saint John Paul II. The Theology of the Body is sometimes called the Church’s answer to the sexual revolution—the Church’s affirmation of the human person’s call to (and need for) profound love and affirmation and self-gift in the depths of his or her being.
Note: there is debate as to whether John Paul II was teaching the Theology of the Body magisterially—whether he was giving a reflection on Church teaching in his expertise as a theologian, or imparting this teaching as the office of pope. You will often see it presented as the teaching of John Paul II, but will stop short of calling it the teaching of the Church. Because it was presented in the usual place where all the faithful gather to hear the pope—the Wednesday audiences and Sunday angelus at St. Peter’s Plaza—and the audience that the pope had intended to receive these homilies was gatherings of the faithful from all over the world—it is reasonable to hold that Pope John Paul II intended to impart the Theology of the Body as a magisterial teaching of the Church.
Human beings have a physical and spiritual nature. God and angels are not by their nature corporeal (having a physical body). Animals and plants are not by their nature rational and transcendent. We are the link between the physical world and the spiritual world. Our human nature is, in the general sense, sacramental—visible, physical signs of invisible spiritual realities. The human body makes visible the invisible mystery of who we are as persons, but because we are made in the image of God, our bodies also make visible something of the invisible mystery of God. What is the invisible mystery of God? God… is… LOVE. We often think that God is love because he loves us. That’s part of it. But God is love in the very relationship of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. God is the living eternal exchange of love. We image God as individuals, through our rational soul, our understanding, our free will. But the union of man and woman in the intimacy of the marital embrace itself is the image of the eternal exchange of the Holy Trinity. The sexual union itself, properly understood, is an icon of the inner life of God.
The most widely used image the bible uses to help us make sense of God’s love for us, the favorite analogy of the great mystics of the Church? Not father and son, or shepherd and sheep, but as husband and wife—the bridegroom and bride. It begins with the creation of man and woman and their nuptial call to become one flesh. Throughout the Old Testament, God speaks of his love for his people as the love of a husband for his bride. In the New Testament, the love of the eternal bridegroom is literally embodied when the Word became flesh. Christ comes as the eternal bridegroom to give up his body for his bride, so that we might become one flesh with him. St. Paul, in Ephesians Ch. 5, quotes from our first reading, “For this reason a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one flesh.” And then he adds, “This is a profound mystery, and it refers to Christ and the Church.” Christ left his heavenly Father, he left his earthly mother, to give his body for his bride, so that we, his bride, might become one flesh him. Where do we become one flesh with Christ? In the Eucharist. “Take this and eat of it, this is my body.” Pope John Paul II says that “Christ in instituting the Eucharist, in some way wished to demonstrate to us the meaning of masculinity and femininity.” A guy’s masculine body—which is not merely a biological, incidental thing—it concerns the innermost being of his person—doesn’t make sense by itself. A woman’s feminine body doesn’t make sense by itself. But seen in the light of each other, we see a call to Holy Communion. What is the Eucharist? It is the Holy Communion of the Bride with Christ the bridegroom. It is the sacrament of the bridegroom and the bride.
“The Liturgy of the Eucharist has three important parts: the Offertory, the Consecration, and the Communion. In the order of human love, these correspond to the Engagement, the Wedding, and the Consummation of the marriage.” (adapted from Ven. Fulton Sheen)
Every time we worthily receive the Eucharist, we are given an invitation to unite ourselves to Christ. The minister of communion says, “the body/blood of Christ”, and we make our free consent, “amen.” We are consummating the nuptial union of the Bride and the Bridegroom! The consummation of that union by Christ was on the cross, when he said, “Consummatum est,” “It is consummated/accomplished/finished,” and fulfilled his words, “This is my body given up for you.” We receive and accept Christ’s offer of consummation in receiving communion in the Mass—when we unite ourselves to His body; when we consummate our participation (as bodily members of the Bride) and unite ourselves to the temporal, earthly celebration of the eternal, heavenly Wedding Feast of the Lamb and the Bride!
Sexual union itself is meant to express the very love of God. How does God love? God’s love has 4 markers: It’s on the Cross, and it’s in the Eucharist.
- It is FREE. Jesus says, “no one takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own accord.” We know for love to be love it has to be free. One who is bound by sexual addiction, one whose consent is forced by circumstances, these are not free. If love is to be love and image God, it must be freely given.
- It must be TOTAL, unconditional. Jesus gives us everything that he is. He says to his disciples, “all that the father has given to me I have given to you.” Love requires trust, transparency, honesty, and selfless generosity.
- It must be FAITHFUL. “I am with you to the end of the age.” “I will never leave you. I will never forsake you.” “The Lord says to his people, I have espoused myself to you forever.” The true freedom to be trustingly vulnerable—naked without shame—requires confidence in the unbreakable promise of the unconditional love of the other. Then the flower of deepest personal love has the security to blossom.
- FRUITFUL. Christ said, “I came into the world that my bride might have life, and have it abundantly.” Not every conjugal act, nor even every marriage, will necessarily be blessed with procreation, but the nuptial embrace itself as a total exchange between spouses is oriented toward the procreation of new life.
The nuptial union is not the only way to live the call to free, total, faithful, fruitful love. Priests and consecrated religious live this out in a more sublime but less visible way. Human marriage points as an icon to the heavenly reality of marriage—the wedding feast of the Lamb and His Bride—which itself is an outward expression of the inner exchange of love in the Trinity. Priests and consecrated religious don’t witness to us that marriage isn’t necessary—they witness to us that by forsaking the good of marriage in this life, by their ordination or consecration, they are living in this life the ultimate spiritual union of the saints in heaven. The heavenly communion of saints, a communion bound by the nuptial love of the Lamb (Christ) and his Bride (the communion of saints) is more perfectly united than even the most heroic human married couple on earth. Priests and religious strive to live that perfect spiritual communion out in this life, by the commitment and grace of their ordination or consecration.
And if you know priests or consecrated religious, you can see those marks of divine love! They freely chose to respond to their vocation, and their vocation allows them to be radically free to follow the spirit unencumbered by duties to an earthly family. They live a total commitment to divine love, a life of profound prayer and service and availability to God. They remain steadfast in their promises and vows, bearing the cross of sexual abstinence and not having a human spouse, but glorying in their rich spiritual union with God, which has its own graces. And they are spiritually fruitful, pouring themselves out in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, inspiring holiness and generosity, and inspiring in others a desire for the joy of their life, to those also called to priesthood and religious life.
Note: There is much more that can be said about the theology of the body, and about the nature of marriage and sexuality. With every homily, I get tormented with the question, “Of course you can’t say everything, but how could you fail to talk about _______.” In this broad topic, there is much that could culpably be put in that blank. But this is a homily in the Mass, it’s already too long, and some things are less appropriate to the Mass and more appropriate to a classroom setting, where the faithful may grow more intensely of their knowledge in a particular area of God’s Truth.
The wedding vows are the commitment to love your spouse as God loves. This spousal love, this participation in divine love by the spouses, is meant to be expressed most concretely when the two become one flesh in celebrating their spousal covenant. If someone engages in sexual activity not in the spousal covenant (not in the sacrament of marriage)—or with artificial barriers to the full nature of the spousal exchange—then the act is to use the language of the body to speak a lie. The unitive faculty of the human body is designed to say to another, “I renew my love and my vow to give myself as gift to you, freely, totally, faithfully, fruitfully.” This is what the Church’s teaching of sexual morality is all about: speaking the divine truth through the language of the body: participating in the mystery of God’s love. Not only in the individual person, but in the union of husband and wife. The meaning of the human body is theological—it speaks of God, it makes visible the invisible mystery of God.