We look to Christmas as the celebration of the marriage between heaven and earth. The Word takes flesh as God becomes one of us.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Marriage has been much on the Church’s mind in recent times. The first of the two sessions of the Synod of Bishops on marriage has recently been held in Rome and the second will follow next year.
In another sense, marriage is much on the Church’s mind every time we enter the Advent season. We look to Christmas as the celebration of the marriage between heaven and earth. The Word takes flesh as God becomes one of us. Speaking of man and woman, the book of Genesis says that “the two became one flesh” (2:24); and so it is when Jesus is born in Bethlehem. Divinity and humanity become one flesh. That’s what the Incarnation means.
The Incarnation was an event that took place at a certain point in history: Jesus was conceived and born in a particular time and place. But the Incarnation is more than an event that took place once. It’s the way God is and the way God works always and everywhere. The real God is found always and only in the flesh, and that’s what Christmas celebrates.
This has many implications. St Paul’s encounter with the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus brought him face to face with God-in-flesh (Acts 9:1-9). He heard Jesus saying “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” – not “Why are you persecuting the followers of the Nazarene?” but “Why are you persecuting me?” Out of that experience, St Paul came to speak of the Church, extraordinarily, as the Body of Christ. The Church is a human institution; it is flesh. But it’s very much more because the Holy Spirit has been breathed into the flesh of the Church to make it the Body of Christ. That’s what we recognise when we exchange the sign of peace before Communion: before I receive the Body of Christ in the Eucharist, I acknowledge that you and I are part of the Body of Christ, the Church. That’s what makes the sign of peace more than an ordinary greeting and why it’s placed where it is in the rite.
So too the sacraments of the Church are more than just human rituals. They are moments, gifts of God, in which the power of Christ touches the flesh of human lives. In the greatest of the sacraments, the Eucharist, it’s Christ himself who speaks in the Liturgy of the Word; it’s Christ who offers himself in the Liturgy of the Eucharist as the altar of his sacrifice becomes the table of his feast. This is why the Mass is much more than a community get-together, however important the bond of fellowship may be. It’s the celebration of the marriage of heaven and earth: the two become one flesh. All our gestures of reverence – genuflecting, bowing and purifying the vessels after Communion among them – are intended to recognise this, and that’s why they matter. At a time when belief in the Real Presence can be uncertain, we may need to be especially attentive to such gestures of reverence in order to remind ourselves of the great truth which they recognise and proclaim.
But there’s more to the mystery of the Incarnation. In Matthew 25, Jesus says that in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned and, by extension, anyone wounded or in need, he himself is to be found: “as you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (v. 40). Our worship of God in the liturgy is an encounter with the extraordinary (Jesus) at the heart of the ordinary; and our service of God in the least is no less an encounter with the extraordinary (Jesus) at the heart of the ordinary. The worship of God and the service of the least are inseparable, as Pope Francis insists in “The Joy of the Gospel”. It can’t be one or the other; it has to be both.
Among those who are wounded are the many who have suffered a failed marriage. Words can’t easily capture the pain that comes with the collapse of dreams. There’s a pain that lingers, a kind of bereavement; yet beyond the grief there can be new life when another is found to love and cherish. However, a civil marriage means that these people can’t receive Communion, and this too can bring pain. Pope Francis has spoken of the Church as a field hospital tending the wounded and of Communion as nourishment for the famished rather than a reward for the perfect. Yet the Church can at times seem punitive and unrealistic in what it asks of people who are divorced and remarried. The number of those who long for Communion yet hold back may not be great. But they are there in the Church; they remain part of the Body of Christ. Therefore, we’re in search of a way beyond the seemingly punitive and unrealistic. That’s one of the tasks of the new evangelisation.
The coverage of the Synod has offered a melodramatised account of the supposed clash between Church leaders on controversial questions like Communion for the divorced and remarried. But the Synod process will certainly be more comprehensive and complex than this, looking at the many issues concerning marriage in the different cultures of the world. Church leaders may see things from different angles, but all seek the same thing – a Church lovingly faithful to her Spouse, Jesus Christ, and to those who want to follow him, especially the poor and the wounded. The leaders may differ on what this means in practice, but on the basic point there’s no disagreement.
In broader terms, married people who are still with their spouse – for many years or few – are looking to the Synod for encouragement and inspiration, often in cultures like ours which aren’t always supportive of marriage and the family. They’re wanting to hear a word from the God who is love; they need to hear the voice of Christ, the Gospel of the family. These people – and there are many of them – have a right to hear that promises made on their wedding day can be honoured through a lifetime. We may live longer than we did, but faithfulness to promises once made is no less possible now than it was in the past. Nor is it any less important. Married people have a right to hear that their faithfulness through the years is a priceless gift not only to them and their family but to society as a whole.
Some have complained that there aren’t enough of the right people at the sessions of the Synod. But within the Body of Christ there are many different ways of taking part. One of them was by responding to the questionnaire at the start of the Synod process. Another is serious engagement with the questions and tasks that will emerge from the Synod’s first session as we journey towards the second session in October next year. There will be much to be done between the two sessions; and that can’t be left to a few people in Rome. All of us must play our part in the Synod process. The word “synod” means “on the way together”. So from session to session we are called, all of us, to journey together. As the Bishops of the Synod said in their final Message recently: “We ask you to walk with us towards the next (session of the) Synod”.
That means a commitment to prayer, which may not put us physically in the Synod hall but which makes us spiritually present and ensures that the hall isn’t hermetically sealed. All who are part of the Body of Christ should pray for the work of the Synod this year and next – that reasonable hopes will be fulfilled and that the Synod will look at marriage through the lens of the Incarnation, balancing fidelity to the teaching of Christ and his Church with a compassionate and realistic response to men and women in need. Through the Synod process now begun and especially in these Advent days, let the Spirit and the Bride say, “Come, Lord Jesus!” and let everyone who hears say, “Come!” (cf Revelation 22:17).
Archbishop of Brisbane
First Sunday of Advent 2014