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Twenty-Seventh Sunday of the Year

Restart from the Beginning

Think of the church weddings you have been to. Everything seems designed to make the occasion a celebration beyond the ordinary. Not only do the bride and groom wear special clothes but everyone dresses up. There are flower arrangements, a colourful carpet perhaps, the organ is played and there can be singing and even trained musicians. Generally there follows a reception or party, and there could well be dancing at the end.

The whole wedding invites joy and emotions beyond the ordinary. Some people, however, will find sceptical thoughts crossing their minds. Isn't it all too optimistic these days? How long is the marriage going to last? Better to be realistic and celebrate less fully.

Celibate clergy may also feel a little hesitant when having to preach about marriage. The story goes that after listening to a priest preach enthusiastically for about half an hour on the joys of marriage, a man in the congregation turned to his wife and children and muttered 'I wish I knew as little about marriage as he does'! But, chiefly, the preacher about marriage is to proclaim God's truth as received by the Church.

Today's gospel wants us to value and benefit from that special union in love between a man and a woman that is marriage, a union fundamental enough to be made into a sacrament in Christ. Marriage is at the same time a basic human institution and an extraordinary relationship, and it contributes to the well-being of the whole of society. Also, because sacraments build up the Church, they concern all believers, which makes the sacrament of marriage very significant not just for the couple marrying.

Jesus's answer to the Pharisees recalls what God has done and intended at the very start of things: 'But from the beginning of creation…'. What an extraordinary and marvellous outcome! The two become one flesh. Our origins are shaped by the sure and guiding hand of God, and his providential plan can be trusted even in the time of weakness and sin.

There are those who think that Jesus's teaching about marriage has become out of date nowadays. It does not fit the facts or the experience of so many. Such people forget that Jesus's teaching not only differed from Jewish law and practice as mentioned in the gospel, but also from Roman law and culture.

Divorce in ancient Rome was very easy, to the point that a famous inscription in praise of a wife who had died after more than forty years of marriage says that such marriages, ending in death and not in divorce, were rare. What Jesus taught about divorce and remarriage was counter-cultural at the start. It did not fit in easily at the time he said it.

We should not get used to sin and moral weakness, seeing them as our deepest and most natural condition. It is goodness and love that are at the heart of creation, and marriages are built on them. On hearing today's gospel our minds may well start to focus on the issue of divorce and remarriage, but Jesus wants us to discover or rediscover how it was in the beginning, at creation, and to live and love accordingly.

So we are not to put asunder what God has joined. Starting from texts in the New Testament itself, the Church has developed a nuanced understanding of what God has joined and what it might mean to divide. But discussion of annulments and dissolutions of marriage cannot be the starting point. The central and sustaining image is that the two spouses become one indivisible flesh. As Jesus says, we must go back to the beginning, to creation, and, to help fill our minds and imaginations before we hear the gospel, today's first reading is in fact from Genesis.

You should be able to tell Christians by their realism and by their founded belief that God is greater than any weakness or sin. It is fashionable to say that we are all sinners. True enough, but this is only part of the truth. We are also repentant sinners, and we seek the grace of deeper conversion during the whole of our lives.

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