Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken. (Eccl. 4:9-12)
The Church’s understanding about marriage is changing. It is growing and deepening and, in many ways, is being baptized and sanctified in new ways. But what may be surprising about the church’s willingness to adjust and change in its view of marriage, is that this in nothing new. Since the beginning of time, people of faith have understood marriage (and the ending of some marriages) in ways that have been fluid and changing, both influenced by culture and guided by God.
Listening to the Gospel we just heard, one could think that the sermon today was going to be about divorce. The Pharisees are perhaps genuine in their question of Jesus, or maybe they are trying to trick him. But he does take their question seriously. Jesus is asked about divorce, but he responds by talking about marriage. He’s more interested in the relationship as it might be, as it can be, and God intends for it to be at its very best. The provision for divorce, Jesus suggests, is there because of human fallibility. Jesus suggests that the law allowing for divorce is not there to encourage divorce, but as a necessity when there’s no other alternative. God gave the law to Moses out of compassion, because God knew that humans can sometimes do harm to one another, and there needed to be provision for dealing with broken relations. Sometimes a marriage needs to end, and so the law of Moses was provided for those situations.
Jesus answers by interpreting the religious law of his day. But if we look closely, we’ll see that Mark, the writer of this Gospel, has already adapted Jesus’s words to the Greco-Roman culture of Mark’s day. In Jesus’s day, there was no provision for a woman to divorce her husband, a provision that came later. But by Mark’s time, this was a reality, and so Mark’s community of faith had already begun to grapple with those places in which scripture, tradition, and reason don’t exactly line up. So already, we see a progression, a change, an interpretation of where God might be in the marriage relationship and where God might be when a marriage ends.
If we zoom through time to the Sixteenth Century, we can see there was a particular difference of opinion about marriage. Some people will flippantly say that the Church of England came about as a result of a divorce. It was created, they say, when King Henry VIII’s wanted to break his marriage with Catherine of Aragon. The Pope refused, so the King refused the primacy of the Pope, made himself head of the church in England and got the divorce he wanted. But there were larger issues.
At stake was the interpretation of scripture, the understanding of marriage and divorce in English law, and an undercurrent of theology and exploration made possible by the printing press and intellectual developments in the mid-sixteenth century. Very simply put: things were changing. And things have always been changing ever since.
Our own Bishop Mariann Budde remembers when she was a little girl and her parents got divorced. [She mentions this in her interview on the Diane Rehm Show, December 21, 2011.]This was not an easily accepted thing in Episcopal circles. In fact, it was only in 1973 that the Episcopal Church, meeting in general convention, passed a canon that allowed for remarriage after divorce.
We have been talking a lot about marriage this morning, about committed relationships between two people, and even though the Church has sometimes privileged married persons over those who are not married, our Epistle reading from Hebrews reminds us that God’s image is not best reflected in marriage, but “[Christ] is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” Christ is the model and the goal for love, friendship, and all relations, and in Christ are both male and female.
The union of male and female in Christ is something the saints have aimed for. And it is precisely this blending of male and female in a graceful and loving way that shows up in people like St. Francis of Assisi. Describing Francis, Leonardo Boff writes
The feminine and the masculine are ontological determinations of every human being, in such a way that each individual carries something of both within him or herself….The male must integrate the anima that gives him strength, that is, the dimension of gentleness, of care, of attraction, of intuition, of all that is linked to the mystery of life and generation. The female must integrate the animus that is found within her existence, that is, the objectivity of the world, rationality, ordering, and direction—everything that is linked to history….[And so, in Francis of Assisi] without machismo or feminism, without fragility or rigidity, there blossoms in him, harmoniously, a gentle strength and a strong gentleness that are the brilliance and the archetypal enchantment of his personality” (Francis of Assisi: a Model for Human Liberation, p. 26)
God’s intention for humanity is that we be as whole as possible in this life, which prepares us for the next life in which we receive the fullness of God. If what moves you most into wholeness and completion is being with another person, then link up with someone and let that relationship grow in God. If you’re moved most toward wholeness by being single, then let God sanctify your singleness and free you to grow more deeply into God.
Whether single, married, in relationship, or out; may God fill us with love so that, with Francis and all creation we might sing,
Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, shall they be crowned. (Canticle of the Creatures)