HOMILY FOR MASS FOR FRIDAY AFTER ASH WEDNESDAY YEAR B - Renaissance of Marriage Conference, St. Benedict's, Broadway

Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP,
20 Feb 2018

Renaissance of Marriage Conference, St. Benedict's, Broadway, 16 February 2018

When you hear words like 'Lent', 'fasting' and 'abstinence', what immediately comes to mind? In my childhood it meant giving up what you liked best, like chocolate, for a few weeks, with exceptions made for birthdays, St Patrick's Day, other solemnities and, in laxer families, Sundays. If you ordered a meat pie from the school tuckshop on Friday you got an egg sandwich instead and a lecture from Sister. Meanwhile portentous things happened at church, such as ashes on foreheads, priests in bruise-coloured vestments, people 'doing the stations' and the dramatic covering up of all the statues and creeping to the cross. It seemed an heroic time of year, if tainted with the feel of gothic-horror. My views have matured somewhat over the years but I suspect those experiences were very formative!

I now know, of course, that we inherited from the Jews a much longer tradition of fasting, one we share also with other faiths. Fasting was traditionally said to help school the passions, reduce lust, resist the devil, and make reparation for wrongs. More recently we fasting for causes such as peace and justice, or as a way of identifying with the needy, or as a statement against consumerism, or as a way of purging unwanted toxins from the blood or unwanted fat from the midriff.

Yet our readings today are ambivalent about fasting. Our first reading complains that it can easily become no more than a self-satisfying external act, without internal reform, and that those who fast can neglect to share the bread saved by fasting with those who need it (Isa 58:1-9; Ps 50(51)6). Our Gospel suggests fasting is inappropriate for Jesus' disciples, at least while they take part in His wedding feast (Mt 9:14-15). So while Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Stoics fast, shouldn't we who share in the wedding reception of the Lamb abstain from abstaining?

Well, one reason we might fast is that while God's kingdom has come, it is also yet to be fulfilled. We live in in-between times, and are still waiting for the Bridegroom's return. And we fast in the meantime...

Jesus' use of a marital analogy adds another layer to this piety. As Pope Francis points out in Amoris Laetitia (72) marriage for Jesus was about much more than the tit-for-tat of a contract. Matrimony is "a gift given for the sanctification and salvation of the spouses, since their mutual belonging is a real representation, through the sacramental sign, of the same relationship between Christ and the Church. The married couple are therefore a permanent reminder for the Church of what took place on the cross; they are for one another and for their children witnesses of the salvation in which they share through the sacrament." (cf. CCC 1643) So there's a lot more going on in marriage than buying a camel, a lot more than slogans like 'marriage equality' could capture. Here we encounter a divine mathematics by which 1+1 first = 2; but then, by vows and consummation, = 1; and then, by child-bearing = 3, 4 and more. Marriage is no ordinary arithmetic, no ordinary contract, no play thing for the state or the lobby groups! At the heart of its divine mathematics is a different conception of love, what I have called the cross-shaped Easter kind of loving rather than the heart-shaped Valentine's Day kind of loving.

Now the ancient Jews regarded marriage as a purely natural event, not a religious affair. There was no marriage rite, as such, and weddings were contracted at home, not in the synagogue, and without benefit of the rabbi's preaching or the priest's prayers and sacrifices. After a year's betrothal (without cohabitation or sex, a wise discipline modernity would find incomprehensible), there was a week-long feast, benedictions of the groom, the making of a contract, and the wife moved in. The Jews resisted sacralising marriage and family any more than that for a very good reason: it was something the pagans did. The pagans boasted a panoply of male and female gods, marrying and intermarrying, having children, affairs, fights, divorces and remarriages. Their religions were like cosmic soap operas. And human beings participated in the cosmic soap operas, they got their bit parts, by indulging in temple prostitution, fertility cults and the like. The Jews would have none of that.

But Jesus, like the prophets before Him, recalled Israel to its ideals for marriage as a permanent, exclusive love between man and wife, and that was something sacred. He called us all to transcend that hardness of heart which is ordinary human experience and to give ourselves completely to God and to His vocation for us. Through the Gospels we see Jesus regularly at weddings or telling stories of wedding receptions as examples of God's presence. Thus when the early Christians asked "how are we to think of our relationship to Christ?" they answered "as close as a marriage should be". And when they asked "how are we to think of our relationship to our spouse?" they answered "think of the Christ's love for his people, even unto death." Sacralising marriage in this way had the effect of sacralising what happens within marriage as well. Just as fasting can help to form and reform us in our relationship with God, so responsible sexuality - fasting from marital acts at certain times - was found to help form and reform spouses in their relationship also.

This is why 50 years ago in Humane Vitae Blessed Paul VI wrote that self-denial and continence were 'essential to marriage' and could be 'a shining witness to the chastity of husband and wife and, far from being a hindrance to their love of one another, transforms it by giving it a more truly human character.' (21) When teaching young people I've sometimes met gaping incomprehension at the thought that even spouses might sometimes not have sex. So I usually put to them that even spouses, if they get the urge while at church or in the shopping centre, should wait till they get home! Even spouses must exercise self-restraint, often out of respect for the needs of the other, or for the sake of the common good of the family. The Christian sacramental notion of marriage, far from eschewing or demeaning the intimacy and personal fulfilment proper to spouses, purifies and raises that intimacy to communion and that fulfilment to blessedness. Whatever physical and psychological consolations come along the way, marriage for Christians is intended as a path to holiness, and emotional and spiritual growth rarely comes without some experiences of pruning along the way.

So the mystery of marriage might be described as the mystery of crucified joy: the gift of a natural union so comprehensive that it unites persons in a self-giving love that expands their hearts and gives them more to love, in themselves, each other, their children, in their extended family, community, Church and God. Good marriages have the crucifix at their centre not because of grin-and-bear-it Stoicism but because this represents the source of redemption, fruitfulness and ultimate happiness. It was quite fortuitous, then, that in this Humanae Vitae year St Valentine's Day fell on Ash Wednesday, that the feast day of romantic love was eclipsed by the fast day of Christ's consummation of his marital love for us on the cross!

God bless your Conference.

Renaissance of Marriage Conference, St. Benedict's, Broadway, 16 February 2018

It's a pleasure once again to join you for this Renaissance of Marriage conference, in this case following a year of struggle for the very soul of marriage and 'debate' over its meaning, and at the beginning of Lent in the Golden Jubilee Year of Humanae Vitae and the Silver Jubilee Year of Veritatis Splendor. A particular welcome to the organisers of the Conference and all the participants, as well as our regulars here at St Benedict's Parish and the University of Notre Dame Australia.