Mary, Joseph, and Marriage

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Our readings for this Sunday speak to the important and universal human institution of Marriage. The Pharisees—who were trying to get Jesus in trouble with King Herod—ask the simple question: “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?”—and they get much more than they had expected. They get an answer that they—and probably most of us— did not want to hear. They get a pretty firm “no.” While this is not absolute, and there may be good reasons to physically separate, basically Jesus states that legitimate marriages are the work of God, and therefore cannot be undone by human beings. And he goes on to add that those who get divorced and then remarry are breaking the seventh commandment, that is, committng adultery. That Jesus actually said these things, and that the early Church understood them as such, is confirmed by the fact that the same teaching can be found in all three Synoptic Gospels.

Our contemporary world rejects this teaching. Even though the religious prohibition of divorce and remarriage was followed in the West for almost 2000 years, today only Catholic Christians still hold to this truth. By the end of the last century this teaching had been replaced by the modern maxim: “if two people love each other they should be able to do whatever they want.”

So why are Catholics such stick-in-the-muds? Why don’t they join the 21st Century? Well, it is all Jesus’ fault. You see, the reason Jesus gives for the prohibition is hard to weasel around. By pointing back to Genesis, he reminds his listeners— and us—that: Marriage between a man and a woman, consummated in the one-flesh union, is the created image of the Holy Trinity.

The dogma of the Most Holy Trinity holds that God, although One, is in fact a community of persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the Lover and the Beloved bound together by Love. Indeed an overflowing creative Love that created and creates everything that exists (cf. Jn 1:1-5). Such a concept is too mysterious, and almost impossible to understand, so God wrote it into our very nature as male and female. As our first reading describes, the original, all alone, Adam was put to sleep and then separated into two parts. This Adam awakes then as an incomplete being, but recognizes his completeness in the other part, his “suitable partner,” Eve. Modelling the Holy Trinity, Adam and Eve, the first human male-female couple, are one; a lover, a beloved, and the creative love that joins them together. They experience what words cannot describe, they experience who God is and what God is like, in one another.

This is God’s doing, not ours. To deny the legitimacy of the marriage bond is to deny the image upon which it is based. It would deny the oneness of God, the love of God, and the essence of God. This is the true meaning and significance of the one-flesh union.

It should not then surprise us that, after the Fall, this one-flesh union we call “sex” is such a powerful force for both good and evil. It should not surprise us that sex is the one human experience that makes us feel transcendental. The one experience that can make us feel like we are truly giving our whole self to another. The one experience that makes us feel complete. This is what God created it to do.

It also should not surprise us that the institution of marriage is under horrible siege from the powers of darkness where Jesus’ teachings are ignored, and every counterfeit form of union is put forward as a legitimate expression of love. Such a powerful force, now distorted by sin, makes it very difficult to be faithful to Jesus’ teachings.

It is fair to say, however, that Jesus understands how difficult this is for us. Throughout the Gospels, he consistently treats those caught up in the sins of the flesh with great compassion and understanding. We never hear him condemn such persons, but he always reminds them: “Go and sin no more.” He would not command this if it were impossible to do.

Despite what its critics claim, the Church also understands this weakness. Her perennial recommendations and guidance are Confession and prayer. In particular, and considering our parish consecration to the Blessed Mother, and the papal proclamation of 2021 as the “Year of St. Joseph”, the Church has always recommended that we look to Mary and St. Joseph for assistance in overcoming these temptations and weaknesses.

Now many find such advice silly. How can a sinless Virgin and her husband of a chaste marriage possibly help us in such matters? Well, if you have an illness, do you seek out a doctor, or someone who is equally sick? If you have a problem, do you seek out an expert, or someone as equally ignorant as yourself? The fact that Mary and Joseph remained faithful to their state of life does not mean they weren’t human. It does not mean that they were never tempted. But they did understand, better than we do, the true goodness of God. Hence, they knew how to live the reality of true self-giving human love, undistorted by the false promises of lust. They understood God’s design for marriage. A design that asks us to first imagine the Holy Trinity in our lives, so that we might later live within the Holy Trinity itself. Mary and Joseph can help us get there.

—Reflection by Deacon Charles Corbalis