(Our nation just endured a tumultuous, painful, troublesome week on Capitol Hill, one that involved, as the President often said, great struggle and no doubt suffering for all the families involved and others, too. The scars will surely remain for some time, but the Republic will survive and so will the families, by the grace of God and the commitment and hard work of lasting commitment.
Not entirely by accident, I came across a former homily for this Sunday of the year, but it seemed even more appropriate today, so permit me to share it again.)
Today’s readings focus on marriage and also on the integrity of the family, since in Mark’s gospel Jesus turns from
his discussion about marriage to the special place of children. There’s no particular connection, except perhaps the fierceness with Jesus insists on respecting the right of the children to come to him and touch him. It has a lot to do with trust. And in these troubled times, trust is very much what’s at stake.
In regard to marriage, Jesus first cites the passage from Genesis heard in the first reading. He uses it to challenge the practice of the day by which a man could divorce his wife for any number of reasons, some of them paltry but always to the great disadvantage of the wife. Jesus appeals to the tradition that the unbreakable bond of marriage rests on the profound union of husband and wife celebrated in the Genesis story. And in defending the sanctity of marriage, Jesus is particularly defending the rights and dignity of women.
We often miss the point of that old story by reading later notions back into it. In fact, what the creation story tells us is that because the woman was taken from the side of the man, bone of bone and flesh of flesh, it means that she is to stand beside him, sharing dominion and destiny — in short, to be his equal, his partner and helpmate. Unlike all the other creatures, the man is not placed over her, but beside her. And that, quite simply, is all that St. Paul later meant when he said that the man was the “head” or the source of the woman, since in fact every other man who ever walked the earth was born of woman [Eph. 5:23].
Unlike the names Adam gives the animals, when he later calls the woman “Eve,” he proclaims her much more than his own flesh and blood. The play on words is significant, even in Hebrew. Especially in Hebrew, in which the common word for “man” is ‘iysh. The word we translate as “woman” is simply the feminine form of ‘iysh, ‘ishshah. “Adam” is not a proper name either, but like ‘iysh, adamah simply means “a human being, a person.” Literally it means” a lump of red mud.” You probably don’t need to know that. But when the man calls the woman taken from his side “Eve,” that is more than a proper name for in Hebrew havvah means “life-giver.” This woman, he proclaims, is the mother of all the living.
But even in Eden, things didn’t work out as God wanted — the gift of human freedom gave rise to human arrogance, disobedience, and sin. The story is clear on that score and also about the trouble that would result in the struggle by men and women to realize the profound unity of love that first and most deeply unites them. It describes, simply, the mystery and occasionally the muddle of marriage, sometimes known as “the war between the sexes.” And not without cause, I can assure you, having worked as a marriage counselor for over 25 years.
It is not easy to create a successful marriage or a healthy family life. It requires patience, tolerance, respect, kindness, restraint, and fidelity. It often requires healing. And if the door to a successful marriage is effective communication, the key that unlocks it is generosity and the hinges on which it moves are love and trust. Communication is necessary, but not enough. One reason is that it is a given that even the best marriages, the finest families, will also experience some suffering. Being able to survive, even to grow and become stronger not because of suffering, but through it, is an essential part of what every family must face. Perhaps that is why our second reading today speaks of suffering the way it does. Not even the Holy Family escaped suffering and Jesus did not turn from it. God permits it not because suffering is a good thing, but because facing it tests us, proves us, and ultimately helps us grow. Running from it, hiding from it, giving up before it, weakens us and pulls us down.
A marriage planted on shallow ground will not survive suffering, especially severe suffering. A strong marriage and a strong family will — but that requires courage, resolve, and persistence. Here the second reading should be both a guide and a comfort. When marriage partners promise to be faithful and true in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, until death — they are embracing the likelihood of suffering. If they don’t understand that, they ought to think again. But they have God’s assurance that they can survive suffering and grow through it — fulfilling their hope and promise. That is what it means to be one body.
For whatever reason Mark appended a passage to Jesus’ remarks on the holiness and depth of marriage that has to do with children. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all report the same incident in different places. [See Matt 19: 13-15, Mark 9: 36 -37, Luke 18: 15-17.] Perhaps the debate with Pharisees was interrupted at that point by a swarm of little kids wanting to get near him. It isn’t difficult to imagine Jesus as a kid-magnet. And as we have seen in readings from past weeks, Jesus sometimes explained the reign of God by pointing to children. Here he does so, but with a difference. Now, the children insert themselves into the scene, insistent on touching Jesus. And he is touched. When the disciples try to shush them and shoo them away, Jesus stops and defends the children. And Jesus’ advice about accepting the kingdom like a little child is not just a romantic aside. Children in Jesus’ day were without legal rights of any kind. They had no standing and, like women, were considered to be their father’s property.
To accept the Kingdom of God like a little child means to enter it humbly, without arrogance or presumption, without legal claims, conditions, or demands, gratefully. To accept the kingdom is to accept life. Just as truly, to accept life is to accept the kingdom, a kingdom in which the rights of children, women, and men are equally respected, especially the right of everyone to a full and fulfilling life. Let us pray for that, and just as importantly, work for it.