Mark 10:2-16, 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Only a few Catholics are aware that you actually need only a minimum of five people for a wedding: a priest, the bride and the groom, and 2 valid witnesses. I’ve not officiated in a wedding of five though, because thankfully, weddings for us are a community celebration of family and friends. And that’s what a sacrament is too, isn’t it? A sacrament is a community celebration of God’s saving love—emphasis on saving. But I’ve attended a very solemn, very touching wedding that was “simple.” Meaning: a mass, a loving exchange of vows, and an exchange of rings, and that’s it. No arrhae, no cord, no veil, no unity candle, no bible, no ring bearers, no flower girls, no videographers, no rehearsals, no frantic wedding coordinator. Just a priest, the loving couple and all the friends and family close to their hearts. It still is, by far, the most meaningful matrimony I’ve witnessed – and I guess, the most economical, too! They’re still together after all these years, thank God. Since then, however, I’ve not attended or officiated awedding as simple. In fact, in the last 10 years, it seems like weddings have become more and more, well, “complicated.”
I get it, though. I get why we’ve added more stuff to weddings. First, we want our family and our closest friends to have a role in the sacrament—to put the veil and the cord on, to light the unity candle, to carry the bible, etcetera. But secondly and more importantly, the more symbols of unity we add to the wedding ceremony, I hope that it’s because we want to really emphasize (a) the solemnity of the marriage union, (b) the central role that God must play in that union, and (c) the united commitment of the community to help the married couple along in their married life. Because if it takes a village to raise a child, I’m sure you’ll agree that it also takes a village to make marriage work.
For many centuries in Israel, the wife was always the loser in a divorce. To begin with, women were forbidden from working for pay. So, staying married to the breadwinner was ultimately a matter of survival. When husbands divorced their wives—and only husbands, by the way, were allowed to end a marriage—the divorce flung many wives into limbo, plus a social stigma to go with that. Jewish husbands could dismiss their wives for the flimsiest of grounds: like “the spoiling of a dish either by burning or careless seasoning,” their law said, or if they “went out on the street with their hair loose,” or chatted with any man outside the house, or were “noisy.” What was a noisy woman? One who “spoke in her own house so loud that the neighbors heard her.” And the law and the rabbis taught that a man had the perfect right to divorce his wife “if he found a woman he liked better, or more beautiful.” The process was awfully simple. A man wrote down on a piece of paper that he was divorcing his wife and why. He gave it to her and sent her packing. Now, he was free to marry again. Hardly was any consideration or inquest made into the sins of the husbands. To many of them, women were married off to cook meals, clean the house, and make babies. Love? Well, love didn’t have much to do with marrying children off back in the day.
But Jesus saw through it all. With his soft spot for the losers of his society, especially the women, he would have none of it—none of this androcentric frivolity institutionalized in a husband’s right to divorce. He didn’t care that Mosaic law allowed divorce,and worse, by concession to the importunate hard-hearted. Jesus would have none of it. He knew deep in his heart that Yahweh always saved. Yahweh was relentlessly a saving God—again, emphasis on saving. The boy Jesus must’ve learned from Genesis that man and woman were created by God to save them from the loneliness of solitude. But divorce? Nothing was salvific about divorce, not especially for the already right-less women.
Today, people are much more complex. For that reason, relationships have also grown more complex than before. So, even if sometimes I get annoyed over the gratuitous symbols we add into wedding ceremonies, I still hope those symbols really remind us that the sacrament of marriage is not to be toyed with, because married life is not to be taken lightly, because being parents is not to be taken lightly, because “to have and to hold, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part” is not to be taken lightly.
Like Jesus, I have been asked: “Father, what do you think of divorce? Are you for it or against it?” I don’t give separation/divorce a second thought if a spouse, usually the husband, is physically/psychologically violent and abusive. But prescinding from that, if there’s anyone who has the least authority on marital life, that would be a priest like me who has never been married, who has never had children, who has never had to live permanently with another person and make the huge life adjustment accordingly…and for keeps! In fact, if I were to score the reasons why marriage should be permanent versus the reasons why marriage should be dissolved, the score is always a tie! I know with all my heart that separation &/or divorce happens for a reason, I do. But with equal conviction, I also believe that marriage happens for a reason. So, just as there should be good and compelling reasons to get married, there should be even better and more compelling reasons to part ways. Now I say “more compelling reasons to part ways” because of my last point and here it is:
Don’t you find it strange that in today’s Gospel, after Jesus teaches about divorce, all of a sudden, we read, “And people were bringing children to him that he might touch them.” It struck me like a bolt of lightning. If the victim of divorce back in the day was the woman, today—and I have seen this happen all too often—today, the most vulnerable casualties of a bad marriage and divorce are the children. So when the Gospel says, “Then Jesus embraced the children and blessed them, placing his hands on them,” there! There we have the center of gravity in a marriage: the children. Let the children be the most compelling reason to not take marriage lightly—to not take divorce lightly either—the children. Save the children.