Marriage of the Virgin, Giordano
Marriage has always been controversial and the battleground of revolutions. We are fast approaching the last few months of Jesus’ ministry. As Jesus comes into Herod’s territory, the Pharisees question him on divorce. Then, as now, it remains political as it is theological. It was precisely on this question of marriage and divorce which John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and forerunner had lost his head. John had rebuked Herod for taking his brother’s wife. And now that Jesus was in Herod’s territory, the Pharisees might have been hoping for a Baptist-style despatch of Jesus too at the hands of Herod. There was also a long-standing theological argument about marriage and divorce in first century Palestine. Divorce was quite common in the surrounding Greco-Roman culture. Moses had given permission for divorce. The question simply revolved around proper grounds for it. One Rabbinic school – the Hillel – said that you could divorce your wife for any reason, even if you found someone more beautiful than she is. Another, the Shammai believed it could be for very grave reasons only: they were the minority view, of course. Jesus’ reply then, was radical.
For that Jesus goes even before Moses to reach God’s original plan for creation. When man and woman came together in love, in sexual union, they became one-flesh; this was as much a spiritual as a physical union. And the very real evidence for that was the children they produced, who were very physically the one-flesh of the parents. Mark, in his gospel, rubs it into your face, bringing an episode more or less disconnected from the narrative to emphasise that – children were coming to Jesus: see, children! And if you could see it with these children’s eyes, you would understand, because for them, they very really contained in themselves that one-flesh of the father and mother. And divorce, the tearing apart of that was a tearing apart of themselves, whether they were conscious of this or not.
There are of course, times when in spite of the best efforts of one or both the partners, they end up in divorce. It is sometimes the least harmful option among some very difficult ones. This is not to fault anyone. But at the same time it doesn’t take away from the ideal, the purpose and the beauty of marriage as God intended.
And the basic premise behind this ideal of marriage is that love is sacrificial and love is fruitful. There are different kinds of love which the Bible, as a lot of societies like the Greeks recognised. Philia, the love between family members,storge, the love among friends, agape, unconditional love, and the romantic love between a man and woman, eros. But all of them embody these essential aspects – sacrifice and fruitfulness. All love is fruitful, but not in the same way. Love which does not go out, to the other, is not really love. I love someone but I’m only interested in them as long as they serve my needs – that’s not love, that is to use someone else. At best, it is a kind of business relationship. You don’t want to be friends with someone like that. That is what it means to be sacrificial – I care about the other person for their own sake. And when that is there, it also bears fruit. When you come together with your friends, you know there is something new. It is not simply the sum of the parts – in that communion, there is something new that happens, which doesn’t exist with just two individuals. And only eros, has the capacity to be fruitful, to produce this new thing, in a completely physical way, bringing forth children, naturally. Society has naturally recognised its importance, so it has always protected the institution of marriage – that is, until now.
We live with the phenomenon of gay-marriage and all kinds of other unions. It can’t be pointed out enough that the opposition of the Church towards gay marriage has nothing whatsoever to do with gay people, and everything to do with the meaning of marriage – of a union which is total, faithful and naturally fruitful. When this meaning is disrupted, primarily through contraception, the ideas of love, it’s natural fruitfulness in children in a sacrificial giving of oneself are all separated, sundered without any intrinsic connection between them. They are simply held together by one thing: the power of one’s choice. The end of that logic is that I can love someone, have sex with someone else and have children with another or of another. To assert that there is an intrinsic connection between all these three, would at best be an interesting idea, rather than the truth of the way things are. Once sundered, everything can be reduced to my desires, my choice, taking away the essential sacrificial aspect of love. This again, is not not to judge the union of any individuals, gay or otherwise. Or for that matter, marriages which have not yielded children, which can be a great suffering to many. Everyone, gay, straight or single are called to lives of sacrificial love. It is only to understand the meaning of marriage and its natural possibilities.
All of this is important, because finally, it is in loving that man and woman most imitate God, for God is love. His love is always creative, always fruitful. It is what created and continues to create the heavens and the earth. His Love always goes out of himself in bringing forth new life. In creating new life, man acts most like God, who alone can give life. The strength to live this calling, we receive in the Eucharist.