Cambridge, MA. I posted recently a reflection on why many of us Catholics still go to Mass on Sunday, and why it is good that we do go, despite demoralization and legitimate anger in the Church. I suggested that this participation is good and transformative and worthwhile in itself. It has little to do with admiration for the hierarchical Church as a bureaucracy that has failed to live up to its calling. Rather, it has much to do with what happens in church: hearing and being challenged by the Word of God, led deeper into reflection on that Word, thereby inspired to think anew and differently about moral and religious matters — even and quite often in ways dramatically out of synch with the attitudes of society as a whole. At Mass we have the opportunity to deepen what we hear and think through prayer and petition, praise and worship, culminating in sharing at the altar in the Eucharistic Body and Blood of Christ. As in that earlier reflection, I concede once again that these are intra-church reasons, perhaps unlikely to persuade those who cannot or do not want to think in a Catholic way; but I have found that unless we begin with Word and Sacrament, we are unlikely to end up there.
I suppose that every Mass could be an example of what I mean, but here is a second example, Sunday, October 7, 2018. Here the Gospel (Mark 10) invited and pulled us into a consideration of marriage and divorce:
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Mark 10.2-9)
As I preached on this Gospel (again, being fortunate to have this opportunity, when most Catholics do not), I was still swept along by a wonderful wedding that took place the day before, where I was honored to witness the marriage of two recent graduates of Harvard Divinity School. Knowing of Sunday’s readings even on Saturday, my mind was filled with Mark — along with vivid scenes of a typical and happy wedding: the couple; their proud parents; their grandparents, married perhaps 60 years or more; cousins and siblings and friends of all ages, younger and older, married or just together, mostly straight but not all: that is to say, a Catholic marriage in today’s America and today’s Catholic Church. How to read Mark 10, when mindful of the realities of life today? Ignore the Gospel, to fit the American scene? Be blind to the signs of the times, to honor the Gospel?
At issue too were the very ancient words of Genesis that are quoted by Jesus,
For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2.7-8a)
The scholars who arrive on the scene in Mark are portrayed as trying to trip up Jesus — does he support the rules on divorce that Moses allowed to the Jewish people? Is he a traditionalist? A liberal?
But as Jesus reads the situation, context matters. Moses was hemming in divorce, narrowing down the ways in which a man might have simply expelled his wife from his house, perhaps to find another, younger woman: what God has joined together, a man cannot simply undo by his casual whims. There are rules that protect not just marriage, but the woman and man involved. Patriarchal rule was not without its limits, even then. To make this point, Jesus hearkens back to the Genesis account of creation, and contests the very notion that a man can undo at his own choosing a marriage that is natural, and good, and ultimately a work of God. The man has no right to do merely what he wants, even in a very traditional setting.
But of course, for us there is the question that has arisen a thousand times and in a thousand ways: what about divorce today? Granted that casual and trivialized marriages are still not right, and casual and trivialized divorces are not right: what about the sad but real occasions when marriages break down, and one or both members of a couple feel they can no longer live together? Or when a marriage devolves into tragical mental and verbal and physical abuse? We have to face the question, not simply when studying ethics and canon law, but also right in church, in the community: did Jesus mean to exclude divorce under every circumstance — or, was he leaving to God, who brought the couple together, to provide for a way out of a harmful marriage, not by human stratagems and whims, but by divine mercy and providence? What God has joined together — let God show us when it can come to an end for the wellbeing of God's children.
Please remember that I am not an ethicist, nor a canon lawyer, nor a New Testament expert, and so cannot speak with authority on these matters. But as a priest, I had to preach on this text anyway, and in a way that would be helpful, albeit challenging, to the people who still come to Mass: neither casual in dismissing the value of lifelong marriage, in bad times as well as good times, nor hard-hearted in turning Jesus’ reply to the learned scholars into a hard and exceptionless rule for 2018, such as would keep people away from Christ. It would be so very sad were we, in our 21st century hardness of heart, to use the words of Jesus to take hope away from his people. So what then?
Oddly, the clue for a way forward came in the next verses, where Mark seems to change the subject:
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mark 10.13-16)
As the Lectionary allows, I was tempted to leave out this passage (including the several more verses that follow), but stubbornly staying with what we were given for this particular Sunday Mass, I read them too, and I am glad I did. For I had finally came to realize the irony of the juxtaposition. If we bar people from coming to Jesus, back to Jesus, even when a marriage has broken down, we run the risk of being just like the disciples: clueless as ever, keeping people from Jesus, putting up barriers, ignoring the elemental desire — of the young and old —to come to him. Jesus is rightly angry: Have you no sense? How can you keep them away from me? Let them come, in their simplicity, just as they are: just as you are, come.
Children of all ages, I think: those of us — all of us, if we are wise – if we realize that we are poor, and imperfect, and in need of God’s help, whether our marriages – or priestly vows – have lasted 40 or 50 years, or broken down or broken apart in times of great suffering. We hear such words —and might read them comfortably at home —but in church, we have the opportunity to deepen what we hear: moving from the readings to the Prayer of the Faithful, and then to the encounter with Christ in the Eucharistic meal, called yet again to come as we are, poor and unready, to Christ, who accepts us, touching us, blessing us. This is transformative wisdom, not opinion; it is thought out, heard, enacted, applied — and in similar ways, Sunday after Sunday.
Catholics who understand this can, I suggest, manage very well to be critical — even very loudly critical — of the Church in its sins and failings, and yet still totally committed to the deep life of the Church manifest in the Mass and Sacraments. We come, because we need to, because together in church we re-learn the basics of our Faith, and once again hear the words of Jesus: “Let them come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” We come, because our sisters and brothers in the wider world need to hear from us of this kingdom, and to see us still living it out.
When the Church and our country seem to be falling apart, why ever would we not want to come to Mass on Sunday?