Homily on Marriage and Sex

I expect almost everyone here today has some experience in their own life, or in the life of loved ones, of divorce & remarriage or some other different kind of partnership. This, & the fact that those here today are a mixed group of people of all ages, makes being as explicit as I would like to be more than a little difficult. I have therefore prepared a more explicit and extensive paper on this subject appended to this Homily. But if anything I say upsets anyone today, please forgive me, & ask to talk to me, as it is so easy for people to feel judged or condemned, which is the last thing I want to do. Remember what I said last Sunday. To say that something falls below the ideal does not necessarily mean it is wicked or bad. We all live with things in our lives that are less than perfect, and do all we can to make the best of the situation we find ourselves in.

At the heart of the Church’s teaching on the most intimate side of human life is the teaching in the Bible. We heard a passage as our 2nd Reading (1 Cor 6:13-20) today, in which St Paul warns against what he calls “fornication”. But what is more important is why he does so. Sadly this is lost in English, since we use the word “body” to mean our physical body, whereas the word in Greek that Paul uses is “soma”, which means our whole being (physical/psychological/spiritual etc). So the point he is making is that what we do with our physical body affects our whole being. This is certainly the experience of many people who have come to me in tears at various times. From “I thought he loved me but he just wanted the physical side” to “I can’t get those things I did out of my head”.

In the world where Christianity began, there was much abuse of others both inside and outside marriage, including abuse of women by men. The high Christian view of marriage where the husband and wife are called to commit themselves to each other for life in a relationship of mutual respect & care was a challenge to them as to us.

We tend to think that St Paul encouraged the dominance of women by men because he uses the word “obey”. But if you read the whole passage about this. (Eph 5:21-33) you will see a picture of mutual care in which both husband and wife must be prepared to die for one another. The obedience Paul speaks of is like the obedience we owe to Christ, which is one of love not of abuse.

Note also that marriage is seen as a “calling”, not something we just drop into without thinking about it. I still remember the tears of one young woman whose husband had left her three days after they got married. I was shocked, until I asked how long they had known one another. “3 weeks!” she answered. I became less sympathetic!  Yes, the word “calling” is meant to make clear that marriage is just as important as being called to something more explicitly religious, like being a priest, or like Samuel in our 1st Reading (1 Sam 3:3-19) & the disciples in our Gospel (John 1:35-42).

The other thing we need to avoid is the idea that marriage requires people to love one another in the romantic sense. Those who have mutually agreed arranged marriages, as in some traditional societies; or those who arrange their marriage first over the Internet, as many more people are doing nowadays ; these people often end up with the most successful marriages, precisely because they are based on mutual respect and care, and not on some “feelings” of “being in love” that people THINK they need to have to stay married to one another.

All this shows is that the traditional teaching of Christianity is right. People should get to know one another first, and be sure of the full commitment of both sides, before they enter into a physical relationship. Last year Pope Francis, much to the surprise of some, conducted a number of marriages, including some where the couples had already been living together, and in one case already had children. It wasn’t a surprise to me, as he was only doing what priests have done down the ages : encouraging people to move towards the full commitment & calling of marriage, rather than condemning people for things of the past.

The most difficult thing for the Church is the situation of those whose second marriage is not yet recognised because of a previous marriage. More often than people realise, this can be sorted out eventually by the annulment process; but it still leaves some people saddened that the Church cannot fully recognise what has become so precious and special to them. There’s no easy answer to this. The Church must proclaim that marriage is a permanent lifelong commitment. To simply accept what has happened without looking into it would give the impression that divorce doesn’t matter. But we all know that divorce is a sad and messy business not least for the children. So simply saying divorce is OK is not possible. Of course there are cases where it has to happen, but we cannot say that it is right just because in some cases it is the best thing to do in the circumstances.

We’re all called to recognise that our physical body is a precious gift from God and that misusing it, or someone else’s body, is to be avoided. I always remind couples nowadays that they need to be aware how most of the intimate relationships presented on films and TV are not between married people. Thus the idea that the physical side of life is unrelated to marriage is pushed deep into our minds without us realising it. So I tell couples that if they are to approach marriage properly they have to fight against this casual attitude to such things, and make a determined and daily effort in their minds to commit themselves fully to the one with whom they have chosen to spend the rest of their lives.

APPENDIX on SEX AND MARRIAGE

Too often people start to explain the Christian view about sex the wrong way round. We should always start by looking at what is the best expression of our sexuality, and only then go on to talk about other sexual practices that might be described as a less than full expression of what sex is for, rather than using that emotive word “sin”.

For Christians, the best expression of our sexuality is an activity where a man and a woman who are deeply committed to one another use their sexuality to strengthen and enhance that relationship, and in the process, and when the time is right, produce children that they can then bring up together in a good family life. Notice that this kind of sex is not principally a way of getting pleasure but of giving it. We may well get pleasure in the process but this is not what it is for. Recreational sex (as it is called) where one or both of the people simply wants to get physical pleasure for themselves (even in marriage) is therefore an imperfect expression of what sex is for.

Imperfect expressions of sex vary in their imperfection. We would all agree that using a child to get sexual pleasure is wrong, whereas when a wife allows her husband to have sex for pleasure, even when she doesn’t really want it herself , provided she is not being forced into it, then this sex is simply less perfect than it could be. The Church has a technical term for anything that is less than perfect. That term is the word “sin”. But the world thinks that “sin” means something evil, which is simply often not the case. Many many things that we do are less than perfect, but only some of them can really be described as evil.

We then have to look at a whole range of sexual activity that is less than perfect. Clearly the nearer sexual activity is to the perfect expression of it, as described above, then the less sinful it is. So sex outside marriage between two people who really love each other, and where neither is pretending love, is quite near to really good sex, but its problem is that full commitment isn’t there, and too often one or other of the people involved hasn’t really committed himself or herself as fully as they should. This is hard for young people who really think they love each other and then get let down, so to wait until marriage is the best way, but it is understandable when people fail here. But this less than perfect expression of sex can happen inside marriage too, and it is worth remembering that the Church would say that if it can be shown that one or other of the partners in marriage never intended full commitment then that marriage can be annulled.

Other kinds of sexual activity become more and more imperfect the further they move from its perfect expression. The Church would describe all such activity as “sinful” but note what I have already said about that word “sin”.  Failing to be perfect is part of being human. God wants us to move towards what is perfect, not spend our time agonising or feeling guilty about what is less than perfect. So for many things like this, we will go to Confession, as part of the process of asking God to help us move towards a more perfect expression of our humanity. To concentrate on our sexual failings, and ignore other failings, like anger, deceit, greed, unkindness is to have an unbalanced view of ourselves.

The Church argues that the best way to stop having too many children is to use the Natural method. That means using something like “Persona” that can be bought in most Chemist Shops, where the couple can identify the wife’s natural cycle of fertility, and then abstain from full sexual intercourse for the short period each month when she is fertile.  This method can also be used by couples having difficulty conceiving making sure they have sex at the optimum time. As for the Pill, most women would surely prefer not to have to put a drug into their body over a long period if there was some easy alternative. In the same way most couples will tell you that having sex with a condom is not as good as having sex without it. In both cases the Church is arguing that such means of contraception are a less than perfect way of having sex.

The best sex is when a couple do not have to worry about whether the woman might get pregnant or not. It is pleasure freely given to one another, and open to the possibility of a child if one should come along. This is the kind of sex the Church encourages, but the Church understands that this perfection is not always reached : that we all have to live with what we are as humans, and accept the need for God’s love and mercy in every aspect of our lives, not just the sexual one.

It is worth pointing out that of all the explicit sex portrayed on Film and TV, there is little is shown where the couple are married. We are therefore presented from quite an early age with the idea that this less than perfect sex is the normal way of having sex. This must affect our sex life when we begin to have sex with a permanent partner, and we need to be aware that this can lead us into the temptation to be unfaithful in certain circumstances. Being faithful to one’s partner is an attitude to be worked at, not something we should take for granted.

We have therefore to face the fact that we may well have all sorts of sexual feelings. Most men (I can only speak for men) tend to have feelings about having sex with people other than their partner, but would not want to be defined by these desires. In the same way those who have homosexual or bisexual feelings or desires are actually restricting their freedom if they decide to be defined by these desires. But Jesus warns us to be aware that we do have certain feelings – like anger or lust – and that we need to face the fact that this could lead to putting those feelings into action. That is why the Church encourages people to share these feelings in the Confessional, not least because it is a way of honestly facing up to them, rather than hiding them away until they come bursting out at one of our weaker moments.

To talk further on this:-

 Contact Father Martin Flatman , Priest at St Peter’s, Abbey Street, Eynsham OX29 4HR frmartinflatman@gmail.com

 

Listening to God with our whole being

Frances writes on Sunday’s Readings :- What does it mean to be a listening person, someone alert to the call of God and able to distinguish his voice amidst all the other sounds and voices or attractions and messages thrown at us by the world?

What is interesting is that Samuel (1 Sam 3:3-10.19) had been living with Eli in the temple at Shilo for years before he heard God calling to him. His mother Hannah had weaned him and then left him there in thanksgiving for the gift of her longed for son. We might have expected that this child who grew up in the temple would almost automatically have been attuned to God’s call, but clearly this was not the case. As our text indicates; it was only when both he and Eli were repeatedly accosted by the Lord that the penny dropped. Both the prophet and his servant Samuel had to come to a slow realisation that the Lord had some special task prepared for Samuel, and it was the Lord’s persistence that finally brought them to the state where they could actually listen to him. Perhaps Eli and Samuel were simply too busy with the daily round of ritual sacrifices, and their relations with ‘important’ visitors, to truly listen to God. When they finally did they would both embark on journeys to God which would be very taxing; Eli would see the loss of his own sons and heirs, and Samuel would rise to be a great prophet and a reluctant king-maker, one who would change the course of his nation’s governance and its approach to God.

When we come to our Gospel (John 1:35-42) what struck me was the way in which different men heard the voice of God speaking to them. First of all we have John the Baptist.He was already a significant figure in the world of ordinary Jews and challenged the power of the Jerusalem hierarchy. But, when he could have courted personal power, he was clearly sufficiently in touch with the divine to recognise the greater power of Jesus and twice hails him as ‘the lamb of God’. Now this was a deeply meaningful term for Jews looking for redemption of their own sins and those of the nation. Hundreds of years earlier, the early ceremonies on the Day of Atonement called for two lambs, one to be slaughtered for God and the other to be led out into the wilderness bearing the people’s sins. The Passover lamb also was the ever present reminder of their divinely given redemption from slavery in Egypt; it was literally the ‘making’ of the nation.

There must have been that in Jesus which John discerned from his long relationship with the Father that enabled him to understand that in some way Jesus would act as the new and definitive and ultimate redeemer and sin bearer for his people. Then there is the reaction of his disciples, who abandon John in favour of Jesus. Perhaps they had listened to John enough to realise that he was simply the forerunner of the redeemer. At any rate, such was their enthusiasm for Jesus that they followed him to his home and stayed with him and I imagine talked and listened to his ideas so that they could become his followers. Then we have the surprise that it is Andrew, a disciple of whom we know comparatively little, who announces to his brother Simon Peter that they have “Found the Messiah”. Now we might have expected Peter to have done the research and taken the action on his own behalf, but this is not the case. Simon listens to his brother and is persuaded by him to embark on this life-changing enterprise. Clearly then it can be the speech and actions of others, even those whom we do not think particularly significant who can be the all important announcers of the truth to us, and if we are alert and listening we shall be able to follow their lead.

Yet our reading from Paul (1 Corinthians 6:13b-15. 17-20) speaks powerfully of the myriad of different voices which assail our ears and tug at our attention span. Just as this is a great problem for us today, so it was for the Christians of Corinth. We have to remember just how small the Christian group in Corinth was in Paul’s day, probably numbering between 25-50 in the prosperous and densely packed international trading city. Corinth was a Roman foundation, the earlier Greek city having been destroyed in the 3rd century BC and refounded by Caesar. It was stuffed full of pagan gods jostling for elbow room and its competing attractions, from the theatres, the Games, with animal fights and gladiators and hunts, meant there were hugely competing interests vying for attention. Add to this the abundance of brothels and the chances of making a quick buck, and you can immediately appreciate that this was a city which was never at peace, indeed, hardly even slept; so that listening to the right voice and acting upon that information was no easy deal. Paul was deeply concerned about the integrity of Christian believers, and so he speaks of their bodiliness, here, soma, not the sarx of their flesh. He wants to get over to them that their entire being, flesh, soul, person, is wrapped up now in Jesus Christ. One cannot simply be a Christian in name only; one has to be one in one’s entirety; the integral wholeness of the individual is involved. As a way of entering into this teaching, he addresses the issue of sexual immorality – something which was of course not an issue to many pagans to whom the resort to prostitutes, of either gender, or the abuse of slaves was simply taken for granted.

It was Paul’s unique teaching on the  value of the common man and the total integrity of the human body which helped to make the Christian message so unique and so compelling, albeit frequently so difficult for them to achieve. The significance lies not in a narrow and shrivelled moralism full of ‘don’ts’, but instead in Paul’s insistence that the Christian is wholly one with God. God’s will for all of us is that we share his life, his being and as he says in Romans, that we are heirs of God with and in Christ. In our relations with others therefore, we must act as a corporate body, a single being, totally committed to God’s valuation of his creation, for we are the ‘body of Christ’. He goes on to spell this out “Your body…is the temple of the Holy Spirit…..you are not your own property; you have been bought and paid for.” Like the slave, the Christian is totally in the power of God, his master and owner, and must always be on the alert, listening out for his summons.

 

Married love – a choice not a feeling

I was at an Ecumenical meeting some years ago where we were discussing the nature of Christian love. Various people were going on about how wonderful love is and I am afraid I had to but in and tell them they were talking nonsense. “Love”, I said “Is not a nice feeling. It is an act of will.”  They seemed astonished by my outburst. Clearly they thought I was some grim hard-bitten Catholic priest with no joy or happiness in my life at all, and determined to make everyone else’s life a misery as well! Anyone who knows me will know that this is definitely NOT what I am like. So what on earth was I getting at?

Well, I could have gone very Biblical on them and pointed out that when Jesus said “Love your enemies”, he suggest imply that this would be easy or fun, nor was his supreme act of love – dying on the cross a pleasant experience! But, of course, they might well have said “That’s different.” so instead I told them of two classic examples of love from normal life that are not enjoyable at all, and what are they? Probably something most of you have actually experienced – changing a baby’s nappy and caring for a sick child in the middle of the night.

That, of course, is the kind of love that Christians expect married couples to show to one another, a love that is sacrificial. Indeed you may have already been reminded in a previous talk of that passage from St Paul where he tells married couples that the husband must be like Christ is for us, and the wife must be like we are for Christ, and that means bluntly that the husband must love his wife to the point of being prepared to die for her, and vice versa.

When I was asked to give this talk Catherine asked me to speak about how the grace from the Sacrament of Marriage supports us in difficult times. We have to be careful here don’t we, for grace is not like a magic potion that we can simply take to put things right. Grace is something we have to actively respond to and I think there are two ways that this happens. The first is what we think about marriage – our Intention when we marry. Those who think Marriage is just a nice ceremony to mark the day are in trouble aren’t they. Did you hear about the young lady who thought Marriage Preparation meant deciding the colour of the bridesmaid’s dresses? No, what we are hoping for as a Church is that every couple will have a real perception of what the Sacrament is and how it actually changes them. This is more significant than you might think because how we humans think about ourselves changes the way we act. If I think I am rubbish then I will act as if I am rubbish etc. That is why the Christian emphasis that each of us is precious in the sight of God is so important.

The second is how we put into action our perception of what marriage is – what we actually DO to love our partner. Of course these two things interact. If a married couple put into action their love for one another then it will gradually affect their perception of what married love is. Put simply that means a bit of very old teaching, that if a couple get through a difficult time together – not least the first baby – then their marriage grows stronger.

What I want to do now however is share with you how the Marriage Preparation Team try to help couples preparing for Marriage to have a deeper understanding of what they are doing and try to give them some practical suggestions of how to put into action the love they have for one another

It is actually quite hard for couples preparing for marriage to realise that their married love must be an act of will and not just a nice feeling. They are, almost certainly, “deeply in love” and that wonderful feeling can easily swamp the more sober assessment of what kind of love they must offer their partner in the future. Indeed, you could argue that couples who have “arranged” marriages – not forced marriages which are quite wrong – but “arranged” , where the man and woman are happy getting married in this way – are more likely to see the need for sacrificial love in their relationship.

The Oxford Marriage Preparation Days therefore spend quite a lot of time on the practical side of the marriage relationship. We start by getting couples to look at their family background – who (Mum or Dad) did the cooking, who did the gardening, who managed the money, who planned the holidays. Then we get them on their own to write down who they want to do these things in their marriage. When the couples share their responses privately with one another, they can sometimes be quite surprised  – although less so nowadays as so many of these couple are already living together.

When my wife and I started helping on these Preparation Days we were startled to discover for the first time in 36 years of marriage – it’s coming up for 46 now – why we found planning holidays so difficult. What we didn’t know, but found out when we filled in these questionnaires, was that my wife’s father planned their holidays, and my mother planned ours. We were therefore unconsciously expecting the other to take the lead, and had done so for all those years. It is so much easier now we know this.

We also talk to the couples about how to handle what are sometimes called the “pinches” in marriage, meaning by that those little things about one’s partner that one doesn’t notice when one is deeply “in love” but become more and more irritating as one lives together for a long time. We show them a picture of a couple deeply in love holding two bags – one they are showing to each other holds all the things about you that make you look good. It is the view of yourself you like to present to the world. The other bag is hidden behind one’s back. This holds all the things about you that the world doesn’t see but are revealed once you are living with someone.

We also do some work identifying what these little things might be. Often they can be those classic things that distinguish men from women – a women’s way of shopping on one side – a man’s obsession with sport on the other. This can lead to much laughter as people share but it also helps people realise that all couples face these and other such frictions in their lives. I sometimes tell the story of a young man called Adam who was living with his girl friend and things were going wrong. I suggested that he wasn’t understanding that women are different from men and suggested he read the Book “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”. One of the things this book taught me was that when my wife raises a problem she is not asking me to provide a solution. Men tend to think – face a problem – provide a solution. Women tend to think – face a problem – talk about it. What a man therefore has to do when a woman raises a problem is not to panic and think she wants an answer when what she wants is for you to listen, to show that you care. Cutting her short with a solution not the way to go. So what did Adam do? He read the book and was very impressed with it, but the next time he and his girl friend had a conflict, instead of listening to her, he told me what he did. “Read this book” he said “And then you’ll understand”. She left him!

Of course it isn’t just the classic man/woman differences that people have to deal with in marriage, and these things come up too. He may be the one who like things tidy and she likes to strew things around. It isn’t always the man who drops his socks on the floor, although I believe that is more often the case.

WE then look at how to deal with such things so as to stop them becoming major issues! Maybe you have some ideas? Some need raising – but at the right time and in the right way. NOT I hate what you are doing…more I am sorry but I find what you are doing difficult to cope with.  Some things just need living with don’t they? I always tell couples not to think they can change their partner. It is fatal way to begin a marriage. If he or she is untidy, there is a limit to how much they can change. There are even some things almost impossible to change. For example there is little point in hating your partner for snoring – a big problem for many couples. What we have to learn is how to adopt strategies to cope and to realise that all the strategies we adopt are part of our love for our partner. So the wife may decide it is impossible to take him shopping, better to go alone or with a friend, and he may have to realise that asking her to watch the football with him may just not work! Once again these are decisions to be made, each one is an act of will, something we have to work at, not a nice feeling that will somehow carry us through as if by magic. Indeed if couples rely on that feeling –  “I am so in love with him that I can put up with anything.” – they are actually storing up troubles for themselves later when that “feeling” begins to wear off.

These two presentations, with the work the couple are asked to do together, come at the beginning of the day and are led by ordinary married lay people sharing their own experiences and difficulties, and how they have managed them. Only then does the Priest give a Talk on the Nature of Catholic Marriage. I always start my Talk by asking them if they can name the 5 elements that make up a real Catholic Marriage. I get them to spend a couple of minutes chatting with their partner before coming up with their answers, so let’s do the same now. Think about it for a few moments, have a little chat with your spouse or your neighbour and let’s see what you come up with. 5 things that make a marriage a real marriage. 5 things that the Catholic Church would say would make a marriage invalid if they were not present.

FOR UNION

This is all about being one with one another. It includes things like love and trust and sharing. Notice that it is union, which preserves each person’s identity – what one might call our personal space – not unity which implies a complete merging. It includes sex of course, but that means the whole physical relationship. It is expressed in those famous words from the service “For better, for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.”

This was brought home to me some years ago when I went round to prepare Wayne and Tracy (not their real names) for their marriage. I had known them a bit since they were young and rather wild teenagers, who happily had sex with all sorts of people. In the end Tracy had become pregnant, but not by Wayne. The father wasn’t interested in supporting her, and gradually her friend Wayne became the one she turned to. He moved in, supported her through the birth of her baby, and got on with being a good father for the little one. When I visited them and got on to the subject of sex, they stopped me. “We don’t call it sex.” they said, “That is what we used to do. We call it making love.” I have used that story a lot since to remind people that in the modern world where sex is endlessly portrayed as something people who are NOT married do, learning to see sex as part of a deep and lasting relationship requires quite a mind shift – a constant battle against the way sex is normally presented. Try to think of a film or a TV drama where sex is shown between a married couple and you will see what I mean!

The most important part of a good sexual relationship is surely to see it as an activity where you express your love for your partner, and not principally something to give you sexual pleasure. This self-giving should be part of the whole marriage too. Those who get married because they think it will make them happier are in great danger. True Marriage must be an act of giving yourself to your partner and to any children that you have together, and unless people realise that then as soon as it stops being pleasurable for them they are likely to give up.

At the Marriage Preparation Days one of the married couples bravely shares with those being prepared what their sex life means to them. They point out that having children and facing their demands usually means a sudden reduction in your sex life and then just when they are older and settled

FOR FAMILY

This is first of all being open to the possibility of children. So the service asks couples “To accept children lovingly from God.”  This does NOT mean expecting them as a right. With twelve couples present, we always point out that on average at least one couple will have trouble having children. Children are not play things to make one look good or feel good and people who treat them like that, as an extension of themselves are NOT being good parents.

The right approach to any children a couple may have is summed up in the requirement in the service “to bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church.”  There is a lot more that could be said here but it would take us on to a different topic.

Family however also implies in Catholic teaching, the recognition that when we marry someone it is not just an individual affair, not just two individuals marrying one another. Whether people like it or not when they marry they are marrying into each other’s families. This can require a lot of hard work by the couple, can’t it? I only have to say the word “in-laws” and I can sense the groans, but whether one likes it or not, one’s partners parents are almost always something each of us has to learn to live with. Here again we are called to an act of will, to love them even if we do not like them. I would also add a note of caution that some of you may be familiar with. Your spouse may be as infuriated, if not more infuriated than you, by one or both of his or her parents.  Maybe their opinions – maybe something they do. However if you criticise your spouse’s parents that may move them into defence mode, because however much they infuriate him or her, they are still their Mum and Dad, and there are many many memories that you cannot know about, where he or she as a child was loved and supported that are deep in our subconscious and can kick in if they are attacked by others. It sounds illogical, and it is, but it happens.

FOR EVER

You are asked “Are you ready to love and honour each other as man and wife for the rest of your lives.”                                                                        This is a big question and I always bring it home by reminding couples that nowadays both of them may live well into their 80’s which means that “or ever” may well mean at least 60 years! We forget that, until the 1950’s,  at least one partner in a marriage probably died in their 60’s and some even earlier. To be blunt, this solution to marriage difficulties is no longer an option. It is therefore not unusual nowadays for a marriage that seems to have gone OK for many years to collapse upon retirement or soon after. The other time of strain is when the children leave home. Both are times when couples need to talk, to assess how they are now going to live together, to discuss maybe what they are going to do together and what they are going to do apart. In other words how are they going to manage a new phase in their life. I sometimes suggest that every married couple ought to give themselves, or ask someone to give them and annual MOT Test.

As I may have said already “Don’t expect to change your partner, but expect your partner to change, and some of those changes you may not like!”

THE PRESENCE OF GOD

Yes marriage is a sacrament and for us Catholics that makes it a very precious thing indeed. But, as I said earlier Sacraments are not magic, the need to be believed in and acted upon. It is worth remembering what the outward form of the sacrament of marriage is. In Holy Communion it is the bread and wine. There God is present. But what is the outward form in Marriage? …………………………………………………………………….

The answer is that the couple themselves are the outward form. They are the way God is present in the world in a wonderful focussed way. Marriage is not a blessing given from outside, it is a presence within the actual self-giving of the couple to one another throughout their lives. It doesn’t happen once at the Marriage Service as a kind of magic incantation, but is always present in the couple and it is up to them to make it work. In a similar way, a priest cannot rely on the Sacrament of ordination to magic him into a good and holy man, he has to live it and make it happen every day of his life. It is the same for every married couple.

YOUR FREE CHOICE

This sums it all up. Both the man and woman must choose freely to do this thing. If either of them is forced, or feels forced by circumstances, to get married then the Church can declare that it is not a Catholic marriage.  If either is lying about something, it is not a Catholic marriage. Both are asked “Are you ready freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage” Both have to say “I am” and mean it. Both are asked “Will you take N here present as your wife (or husband) and both say “I will” and must mean it.

Talk give at Abingdon Catholic Church n Wednesday 29th January 2014

 

 

True freedom

I was not a happy person when I was a teenager. The school I went to made no attempt to encourage boys to be anything more than thugs and it took me a long time to discover a few, a very few people, hidden away like me, who disliked this oppressive regime as much as I did. In one sense I was lucky. Because I was so different, I had to learn to stand against the accepted way of doing things; and one of the main things that helped me then was my discovery of a man who I could look up to, who also stood up against the rest of the world. His name was and is Jesus Christ.

The rest of the world sees leadership and kingship in terms of power and influence just as we see in our 1st reading (2 Samuel 5:1-3). King David and his son King Solomon were very successful leaders, indeed King David could be described as a thug as well as a King; but they were both lucky in the political situation they faced at the time. And because they were successful in worldly terms, people afterwards looked back on them with nostalgia as they longed for a promised new King – a Messiah – who would give them back the power they had lost and get rid of all their oppressors.

Many of the followers of Jesus thought this is what he would be like. They discovered that his parents were of the line of David, and that he had been born in Royal David’s City, Bethlehem. But Jesus from the first, with the help of Our Lady, challenged this view of what the Messiah would be like. Instead, as I have been describing in the last few weeks, Jesus chose a kingship which who would bring his people a different kind of freedom, by suffering and dying for them on the cross.

Actually, his stand against the ways of the world had already started, before he called his disciples and appeared in public, because he clearly chose not to get married. This was very unusual indeed for a young Jewish man, but as Jesus says in one passage “there are those who have chosen to be eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 19:12)  Young people today don’t have the pressure on them to get married, but they do have the pressure to get into a relationship. “Go on” says the boy friend “Everyone else does”, and thus what might seem like freedom is just a way of persuading someone to conform, rather than a really free choice.

Again and again in the Bible we see Jesus challenging the world’s way of thinking about things. The thief hanging on the cross in today’s Gospel (Luke 23:35-43) only asks for Jesus to “Remember him” when he comes into his kingdom. But Jesus breaks through this conventional way of thinking, and says, “Today” (not at the end of the world or when the kingdom comes) but “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” In St John’s Gospel, just before he was crucified, we hear Jesus explicitly contradicting the worldly view of power expressed by the Roman governor. He says “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36) This does not mean, of course, that God’s kingdom does not affect this world, for it certainly does, but it is not a kingdom of power in the way the world thinks about such things.

Pressure from others, exertion of power and persuasion to make people conform, especially young people, is the way of the world. Sometimes the Church has been guilty of behaving like this, as if Christianity was an ideology to be imposed on people. Happily most people in England would laugh at the Church if we tried to do that here nowadays. Young people are more likely to be attracted by those who make fun of religion, because that’s the trendy thing to do. But it can be, as I have shown in the case of relationships, just another way of getting people to conform, just because that’s the fashion at the moment. To be a Christian, as one young man said to me, is to buck the trend, to be prepared to ignore the so-called freedom that mocks religion and the church. Such mockery is anyway almost always totally ignorant about what the church really teaches and believes.

Of course one can join the mockers. They are there in the Gospel as Jesus hung on the cross. “They jeered at him.. He saved others,, let him save himself… if he is the Christ of God..”  It’s always easier to mock than to actually face the challenges Jesus brings to our life. It’s always easier to sit on the fence than to actually say “I believe in God. I am a Christian. I am a Catholic.”  God is powerful, of course, but it is a different kind of power which, in the long run when they die, will bring everyone, even those who mock most, face to face with themselves and the ultimate questions of life. Jesus calls us to choose him now, and to gain real freedom rather than a so-called freedom that is just another form of oppression.