It is easy to read today’s gospel passage and its parallel in St. Matthew as primarily about divorce and remarriage, it is certainly relevant to this and given the context of its time, liberating, yet it may obscure its beautiful view of marriage.
Now, the obvious visual. I am a celibate priest who has never been married.
Indeed, a person who knows me very well said to me more than once, “Lucky the woman who missed you.”
You are supposed to laugh at that.
However, in my more honest moments, I do agree with her, yet I have had the most emotionally satisfying life, so I do not believe that marriage is a prerequisite for happiness.
There are many ways for people to have very meaningful and satisfying relationships other than a sacramental marriage.
Yet this is the privileged one because it reflects God’s love for us most perfectly.
Now, we must immediately say that however profound this or any other human relationship may be, it can only reflect the love of God. It cannot replace it. A great danger for married couples is to expect their spouses to complete them. Only God can do that. And it is an unfair burden to put on another human being.
Yet it is still true that all of us, whether married or not, even the unmarriageable are nourished by strong marriages.
There are, of course, civil and anthropological reasons marriage in some form or another is a universal reality, crossing time and cultures.
It is needed to bind fathers to families and in some cultures to care for women.
Although the women in my life keep telling me this was meant to keep women down and in their place also sexually, the sexuality is extremely powerful and needs to be taken seriously, that two shall become one. Flesh is not aspirational, but descriptive. Sex forms a bond which is painful to break. A relationship that has become sexual is extremely hard to end, even when it has become toxic and perhaps even dangerous.
However, Christian reasoning for privileging marriage goes well beyond this as marriage offers unique insights into God’s love for us.
Let us look at three elements. Marriage is a covenant. Despite the popularity of prenuptial agreements, marriage is not a contract about goods and services, investments and property, but a sharing of life and love.
There are as many disappointments and misunderstandings in any marriage as achievements and joys, but love continues.
The God who has revealed to us in the Old Testament offered a covenant as well for Abraham on he shares his life with his people.
We constantly fall short of this to the point that in the book of Josiah, we are seen as an unfaithful wife, but one who is never abandoned.
There are always tensions in a marriage.
We can feel it with our friends and certainly knew it when we were children, yet we have seen bonds repaired, restored and reenergized.
This is how people grow together. So to our covenant, relationship with God will grow over a lifetime, indeed for all eternity, and we can understand only if we acknowledge our weaknesses and experience the forgiveness of God.
Marriage is physical. We are beings of flesh and bone.
We cannot be understood as merely a ghost in the machine.
As philosophers tell us, we do not have a body, we are our bodies. Anything which is truly human must have some flesh on it.
This includes, of course, more than sex, but also the common realities of living together.
Marriage is not only sharing a bed, but a table, a checkbook and a lot of small talk.
The day to day realities are so mundane that we can forget how a lifetime of them forges a truly common life.
In Marilynne Robinson’s most recent novel, Jack, one lover turns to the other and says. “Isn’t it strange that I could hardly wait to see you? And you were longing to see me. And here we are talking about boiled eggs. It’s strange that there is nothing more I want from life, if I could imagine an eternity of sitting here with you talking nonsense. There’d be nothing more I would want from death.”
Marriage is creative. The church teaches that there are two purposes of marriage.
The first is the mutual growth of the couple in love. The second is the birth and formation of children.
This is the clearest sign of the creativity of marriage, indeed, most of the society refers to giving birth as reproduction.
The Church, however, says procreation. It is the closest that any of us will come to being God-like.
Yet we must see beyond this, some couples will not have children, and yet they will express this need in many ways within their families and communities.
Also, when the children leave home, a lifetime of marriage has taught the parents many skills that can be shared with the entire community.
The creativity of marriage is often most fully shared in middle or old age.
There is perhaps another dimension here, marriage is public, although the couple marries themselves,
there are two official witnesses and a priest or deacon to record them.
They are telling all that. They are committing themselves to each other and modeling their relationship after God’s love for us.
Every marriage has something to tell us about God’s covenant with us,
a new one about his eternal freshness, one that has grown over many years, his eternal faithfulness.
They all illuminate our world. This is always needed and so all of us benefit from good and strong marriages.
So let me end with a flourish I often use in wedding homilies: to all in this church who are married, I hope that your marriages will be happy and give you joy, but I pray that they will be splendid and give delight.