HOMILY for 27th Sunday per annum (B)
The Christian life is about becoming like Christ. So, it’s about becoming divine, re-made in the image and likeness of Jesus Christ; it’s about becoming like God, who is Love. Think of clay that is fresh, soft and malleable. If we’re like that, then we can be kneaded, shaped and stretched. And the image of Christ is stamped on us so that when one looks at a Christian, one sees Christ, one sees God, one sees Love.
This is the fundamental Christian vocation, but what differs in each Christian state of life is what it is that shapes, moulds, and kneads us into the form of Love. For people like me who are celibate and live a religious life, it will be principally my brethren – those people whom God have given to me to live with. They stretch and challenge me, they knock my deluded sense of self-importance, test my patience, and school me in tolerance. But above all they teach to become less selfish, more humble, and ultimately, more loving. Helping them in this task, although you don’t know it, maybe, will be those people whom I am called to serve as a priest. In many little ways you all stretch me and help me grow in love, but this happens only if I’ve not hardened my heart!
Children are notably flexible, supple, resilient. They’re open to learning and they’re being stretched; constantly growing, and sometimes this involves growing pains. So, Jesus holds up the child to remind us to be like them; to be ready to grow, and ready to be stretched so that I can love, keeping my heart supple and soft so that God can expand it to make room for another. Because love, essentially, is not about me and making myself feel good. It’s about another; it’s about sacrifice, self-forgetfulness, generosity. It means, as Herbert McCabe says, “shifting the centre of gravity of your desires so that it coincides with that of another person”. And each of us, no matter what our state in life – single, consecrated celibate, or married – are called to love. For it’s only through loving that we become more like God.
For people who choose to marry, then, (and you know this better than me), it is together as a couple that husband and wife will each grow in holiness to become more and more Christ-like in sacrificial love. In the place of brethren and parishioners, one’s own spouse and children will do the stretching, challenging, and testing, if one’s heart is open like a child’s. But, note that the love between husband and wife is not, thereby, childish and demanding. Rather, the love between two mutual partners is friendship, which Aristotle considered the greatest love, and which St Thomas said approximated God’s love for us.
Any friendship falters when the equality necessary for this kind of mutual love becomes imbalanced. When a Dominican brother lords it over his confreres, charity is harmed. So, too, when marriages become a battleground for the gender wars, or become competitive in some way, such as for the affections of a child. Or, often, inequality arises when one perceives the other is not “pulling his weight”, or one feels indebted to another. Or, perhaps, one party withdraws from the conversation, shutting out the other. In each case, the heart is developing sclerosis and is hardened against the other. Then, like hard clay that must gradually be softened by water, so the wounded hardened heart can only be made supple again by the Holy Spirit of Love.
The Gospel alludes to these problems when it says that the Mosaic concession to divorce was because of hardness of heart. In fact, Moses’ ‘solution’ only institutionalized the problem, and indeed, re-enforced the inequality and lack of love because men could divorce their wives by simply writing them a writ of dismissal but it was rare that wives could divorce their husbands. This kind of embedded inequality is a far cry from what it was like “in the beginning”, as God intended it. Which is that man and woman are equals – partners in being formed by divine love – and Adam loved Eve like his own body. This does not mean that one’s wife is one’s possession, or a tool to be used for one’s pleasure and benefit. Because our bodies are not to be owned and used like that, and, most certainly, neither is our spouse. Rather, Adam’s language reveals that he cherished Eve as an equal, as part of him, and indeed, she completed him, giving him integrity of body and person. That, according to Christ, is how God intends marriage to be.
In the language of Liberation theology, then, divorce perpetuated a structure of sin. Because, although one ‘got rid’ of the problem – an unwanted, ‘irreconcilable’ wife or husband – one didn’t actually grow in love, nor necessarily even in maturity as a person. So, Jesus, as our Liberator, desires that we should experience true freedom, which is to be shaped by God’s grace and moulded into Love. He desires that we should develop as human persons, stretched and challenged by one another, whatever our state of life, so that we grow in love – true love, that is patient, generous, selfless, and considerate. And it’s this love each of us looks for when we enter into marriage – or at least that’s what we surmise when St Paul’s Corinthian hymn to love is read at so many weddings! But Christian marriage challenges us, not so much to look for such love from our spouse, but in the first place, to be softened by the Holy Spirit, and, so, to give that love. For that is our primary Christian vocation: to manifest the love of Jesus Christ to another, whether it is our wife, or our brethren, or our neighbours and enemies. For it is Love that will renew God’s creation.
But, as we know, that new creation inaugurated by Christ’s death and resurrection, is still not yet fully realized. Although we Christians are beneficiaries of grace and have received the Holy Spirit, we live in a world that still bears the marks of sin. Often, we are scarred by sin done to us, but we also falter and fail. So, each of us are all too familiar with the breakdown of relationships, and the failure to love. And yet, in the suffering, sin and failure that make up the bleak landscape of many of our lives, is that landscape not Calvary? If so, then Christ is definitely present there to forgive, heal and redeem us if we ask him. And in our suffering, we bear the image of the Crucified One.
But none of our stories end at Calvary; Christianity is pointless if there is no resurrection, no life after death, no forgiveness and mercy in response to failure and repentance. So, as a Church, we’re called to be in the image of the Risen Christ; challenged to support marriage in joy and in sorrow, to be places of healing, of Easter mercy, and new life. So that, when one looks at us, the Church, one sees Christ, one sees God, one sees Love.