Today’s Homily is by Fr. Tony Bidgood, C.Ss.R., Associate Pastor of St. Mary’s Church, Saskatoon, SK
Every theology student learns that sacraments are outward signs of an inner reality, that reality being the saving work of Christ in our lives. The elements of the sacraments: bread and wine, water, oil, established and spoken words, laying on of hands are all ways that – through our senses – we experience Christ at work in our lives. These elements not only symbolize the deeper and inner reality but are also the means of conveying them. As we prepare to celebrate the 90th and 75th anniversaries of the parish and of the CSsR’s here at St. Mary’s, one of the ways we will do that is to reflect upon how we have celebrated the sacraments over these 90 years. Starting next week and over the coming weeks you will see displays in church and together we will reflect upon how we have experienced God through the sacraments.
It is one of the sacred beliefs of our faith that the sacraments are for life. But today in the Gospel, Jesus talks about one particular reality that conflicts with that belief: divorce. Divorce touches the lives of many people, probably of many of you here. The feelings around it are numerous and they run deep. Hearing Jesus’ words may provoke feelings of sadness or even shame. His words may leave one feeling judged. He may leave some feeling a sense of superiority if their marriage is successful; there is a whole range of feelings. And it is to those feelings and those who experienced or are experiencing divorce that God speaks in these readings today. And what God says, we all need to hear.
If we are to understand what Jesus is saying, we need to first know his context. In his day, the law said this: only a man could divorce his wife, she could not divorce him. The husband would issue her a legal divorce paper and this would make her free to marry again. The law was not clear on the grounds for divorce; the reasons ranged from her committing adultery, to merely her displeasing her husband. You can imagine the situation then! Women had no rights, they could be divorced for any reason, and since they had no status and were considered the property of their husband, a divorced woman had no reputation to stand on and no means at her disposal. If the man committed adultery or was displeasing, the wife had no means to get out.
Jesus addresses this issue and what he says, for the time, was revolutionary. He sets out the ideal of marriage as a way to challenge the abuses in attitude and practice that were happening, and he says that this is how God intended it to be. But he also says that any man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and vice versa. Now remember, adultery was against the law and it was a punishable by death. He makes men accountable, something the law of day did not do. He is advocating for women.
Of course today, our laws are much more equal in comparison. The same social stigmas no longer apply as they did in Jesus’ day. But, from what I can gather … in some ways, it is no easier. You see the sacrament of marriage is based on the ideal, and I suspect that most if not all who get married hold that ideal high in their minds and hearts. But as we all know, even in the best to circumstances we fall short of the ideal. The truth is some marriages do end, love does get hurt, and betrayed, even die.
And so in the face of that reality, this Gospel could very well be hard to hear. If I was divorced and I heard today’s Gospel, knowing myself as I do … I know what I would be thinking … what does Jesus think of me?
I think he would say to me … and you if you are thinking the same … he would use the words of The Letter to the Hebrews (our second reading today), “he is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” Brothers and sisters … that is what you and I are to Jesus. If Jesus’ life was to join us in humanity and redeem us, then he looks upon those who stand at the margins, especially the one who is separated and divorced … he looks upon such people not as charity cases, or a failure … but as a brother or a sister. We are part of Christ’s family and we belong here, not at the doors of the church, but inside. Not at the doors to our families, but inside.
It seems to me, that if Jesus looks upon us as a brother or a sister … with love, compassion and forgiveness, then we, as his disciples, can do no less for one another. That is true individually, and as a Church. We as a church must take seriously the ideal of the sacrament of marriage, for Jesus has laid it out for us. It is not something to be entered into lightly, nor is it something to leave lightly. But …and this is most important …. we must also take seriously his example of forgiveness … of mercy … of compassion. No matter what happens in our lives…what choices we make… what dream are broken… what failures come our way, we never ever lose the title of brother or sister to Christ, and to one another. Let that, guide our actions.