The forty days of Lent find us on a journey from last year’s first session of the Synod on marriage and the family to the second session later this year which I will attend. In recent times and in places like Australia, there’s been intense, even excessive focus on certain hot-button issues like Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, living together before marriage and same-sex partnerships. These issues are important enough in a culture like ours, but they hardly exhaust the scope of the Synod’s concern. We need to see more, and to see more clearly.
We focus our vision first by treasuring what we have received from the Saviour and from two thousand years of pondering and living his gifts. Marriage – the fundamental and fruitful commitment that establishes the stable family unit – comes to birth when a man and a woman give themselves without reserve to each other. Each says to the other: “This is my body given for you”. At every celebration of the Eucharist we hear the words of Jesus: “This is my body given for you”. Married couples may not have seen it like this, but there’s an essentially Eucharistic dimension to their love-making and family-making.
Living this self-sacrificing love is also a way of reclaiming the original blessing that God always wanted the human family to enjoy. The loving intimacy of married life redeems the guilt-engendered shame we see in Adam and Eve who after the Fall cover their nakedness (Genesis 3:7) and hide from the Creator (3:8). The original easy intimacy they shared with the Creator allowed them to walk naked in the Garden given to them as the home of ecstasy where they could know and love the Creator and each other. Instead Adam and Eve hide from God and from each other. They enter the fallen world where fear, not love, holds sway.
The easy intimacy of a married couple which allows them to be without fear or shame in each other’s presence is a grace that undoes the original sin. By this grace, their minds, hearts and souls stand revealed to each other as gift. This is what God intended all married people to enjoy from the beginning.
Here’s where the Church starts as we seek to reach out to people whose lives, for one reason or another, fall short of this nuptial love in its fullness – among them people living together before marriage, people in de facto relationships or civil marriages after divorce, people in same-sex partnerships. Outside the Garden, Adam and Eve live on and are loved no less by God. There is blessing of a kind beyond Paradise. It’s the same with people whose lives fall short of the fullness of nuptial love. They have a life to lead, they are loved by God and have
a right to the Church’s care. This is very different from black-and white condemnation. The Church can never forget the words of Jesus: “Go now and sin no more” (John 8:11). We’re not in the business of throwing the first stone.
The Synod must be pastoral; and the pastoral challenge is to discern sin and grace in all kinds of relationships. That doesn’t mean we abandon long-held Church teaching, let alone the teaching of Christ himself. But it does mean that we deal with the complex reality of human relationships, trying to see what there might be of God in them. In that process of discernment, the criterion is again Eucharistic: “This is my body given for you”, not “This is your body taken for me”.
It’s said at times that the Church is obsessed with sexuality and should give it a rest. It’s true that some of the ways we’ve addressed sexuality and some of the language we’ve used should be given a rest. But the Church is deeply concerned with questions of sexuality because so too is the Bible. Scripture makes a fuss about sexuality because it knows that this is one of the points where the human being shares most deeply in the creativity of God. The God who is not only logos but also and more especially dia-logos wants to enter into partnership with the human being and calls us to share in his creative work – never more so than at the point of our sexuality which calls new life into being. That’s why the Bible is unusually sensitive to all that turns human sexuality destructive. It’s also why the Church takes seriously the task of discerning between creative and destructive sexuality in complex human relationships.
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”: St Paul writes this to the Church in Rome (3:23). But he goes on immediately: “They are now justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…made effective through faith” (vv. 24-25). The Church is not the community of the sinless, with the great throng of the sinful outside. Both within the Church and outside, human beings – all of them – are a mixture of sin and grace, life and death. What makes believers different is that they are flawed human beings who put their faith in Jesus Christ as the only one who can lead them finally and fully out of the clutches of the demonic into the embrace of the divine. It’s faith that allows God’s grace to enter and shape their lives.
That’s why Lent is not just a time to focus on sin and repentance but also a time to renew our faith in the one who alone can give us the discerning eye that truly knows what is sin and what is grace, what is life and what is death. It’s also a time to renew our faith in the family and to find ways of deepening the experience of family. Might one of the disciplines of Lent be a renewal of family prayer in a way that respects the rhythms of family life now? Another of those disciplines might be a renewed focus on the family meal, again respecting the rhythms and pressures of life at a time when it’s not always easy to gather the family around one table. I invite every family in the Archdiocese to think of how, through these days till Easter, you might pray together as a family and share a meal together as a family. These are simple things but they are moments of grace; and they would be a real contribution as the whole Church journeys along the road that leads from one session of the Synod to the next and along the road that leads from Ash Wednesday to Easter.
I leave you with the words of St Paul: “Kneeling before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name, I pray that according to the riches of his glory God may grant that you be made strong in your inmost being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Ephesians 3:14-16).
+ Mark Coleridge
Ash Wednesday 2015