"And the Two Shall Become One Flesh."
The Seventh Friday of Ordinary Time.
Lessons from the primary feria, according to the ordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• Sirach 6: 5-17.
• Psalm 119: 12, 16, 18, 27, 34-35.
• Mark 10: 1-12.
The Second Class Feast of Saint Matthias, Apostle.*
Lessons from the proper, according to the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• Acts 1: 15-26.
• [Gradual] Psalm 138: 17-18.
• [Tract] Psalm 20: 3-4.
• Matthew 11: 25-30.
Cheesefare Friday; and, the Feast of Our Venerable Father Erasmus of the Kiev Caves.**
Lesson for the Sixth Hour with Holy Communion, according to the Ruthenian recension of the Byzantine Rite:***
• Zechariah 8: 7-17.
8:14 AM 2/24/2017 — You may have noticed that our first lesson these last few days has been taken from the Book of Sirach, from that portion of the Bible known commonly as the “wisdom literature.” The Revised Edition of the New American Bible calls it “The Wisdom of Ben Sira” or “The Wisdom of the Son of Sira,” which is, in fact, the earliest title of this book of the Bible taken from the Hebrew name of its author. The Latin Vulgate called it the Liber Ecclesiasticus, meaning “the book of the Church,” because of the extensive use of this book by the early Church in giving moral instruction to catechumens, which is why it's called that even in older English translations today. It was written in Hebrew in the early years of the second century BC, and was translated into Greek by the author's grandson, which is how it came to be known as the Book of Sirach, since Sirach is nothing more than the author's name in Greek. It was never included in the Jewish Scriptures after the first century, which is why it is not included today in any Protestant Bibles, but the Catholic Church has always recognized it as the inspired word of God.
But what I really want to reflect on with you today is the Gospel lesson, in which our Lord gives us His unequivocal teaching on divorce.
This may seem rather conceited, but had I been involved in putting together the lectionary of the Roman Missal, I wouldn’t have separated today’s Gospel lesson from tomorrow’s, in which our Lord blesses little children. They follow one after another in Mark’s Gospel, and there is, in fact, a Sunday—coming up in Lent, I believe—in which they are read together as one, when the Sunday crowd may hear some of these thoughts repeated; but, I think it’s a mistake to ever separate them since, taken as a whole, they provide the Scriptural basis for everything the Church has ever taught about marriage and family, particularly in the very lucid and important teachings of the late Pope Saint John Paul II. But, for better or worse, they are separated here in the Seventh Week of Ordinary Time, so I’ll talk about them separately as best I can, both today and tomorrow.
In asking our Lord the question about divorce, Saint Mark tells us the Pharisees were “testing” our Blessed Lord. I’m not sure I know what that means, nor am I sure that Saint Mark was clear in his head about it. We typically view the Pharisees pretty harshly as antagonists to our Lord; but, you may recall me sharing with you the history of this new party of rabbis, whose advent is mentioned in the Books of Maccabees, only some sixty years or so before the birth of our Lord. They were radical in many respects, contrasting with the much more ancient traditionalist wing of the rabbinical class known as the Sadducees. Just to review, the Pharisees are remembered, primarily, for two innovations to the Jewish faith: a belief in a resurrection from the dead, and the invention of the Synagogue and the Synagogue Service, which provided the Jewish people with a way to worship on the Sabbath without having to travel to the Temple in Jerusalem; both of these were considered heresies by the Sadducees. And, inasmuch as our Lord preaches a resurrection from the dead from the get-go, and the fact that He and His disciples worship regularly in the Synagogue,—where our Lord often preached—it’s clear that our Lord has taken sides and is clearly conducting his public ministry within the context of the Pharisaical tradition.
That’s why I take issue with Saint Mark’s editorial comment that the Pharisees were testing our Lord. He’s not, after all, Saint Luke, who is a psychiatrist by trade, and whose observations about who was thinking what is backed up by a rather obvious expertise. I don’t see any reason to suppose that the Pharisees’ question to our Lord is anything but genuine: there was a long-standing tradition, based on the Law of Moses, by which divorce was allowed in specific circumstances, and I think they really just wanted to know what our Lord thought about it.
In answering their question, our Lord takes them back to the Book of Genesis and the second account there of the creation. Remember that there are two accounts of the creation of the world in Genesis: one stretches the whole process out over seven days; in the other, God creates the world all at one moment, and He puts man into it, but then realizes that man needs some sort of companion; and, all the animals are created for this purpose, but they turn out not to be suitable; so, God puts the man to sleep, and, out of his rib, he brings forth a woman, and the human author of Genesis specifically says that this is the reason for marriage: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body” (2: 24 NABRE), and this is the verse quoted by our Lord in the Gospel lesson. So, the joining of a man and a woman in marriage represents man returning to his original created state, with man and woman ceasing to be two separate individuals, but becoming one individual as they were originally created by God. And this becomes the basis of our Lord's rather draconian teaching on divorce, namely, that there is no such thing: that what Moses allowed in Deuteronomy 24 (vs. 1-10) was done because of the hardness of man's heart, and not because God wanted it.
And this itself raises an interesting point. Man is created with a free will, and no sooner is he deposited comfortably in the Garden of Eden, he sins, thus beginning a downward spiral into a pattern of rebellion against the God Who made him. And this becomes a constant theme throughout the rest of the Bible: God sending prophet after prophet, offering man the chance to walk right back into paradise if only he will set aside his own will and follow the will of his Creator; but, man just can't bring himself to do it, with God finally becoming a Man Himself in the person of Jesus, Who sheds His own Blood on the cross to pay the debt of His creation's sins.
I hear confessions every day here at the Shrine, and I'm not betraying any confidences, nor breaking the seal of confession, by telling you that a day doesn't go by without hearing some tale of woe rising out of that wailing and gnashing of teeth called married life. If anything, it always makes me eternally grateful that the Church only ordains single men to the Holy Priesthood. But what I find fascinating is that, when a marriage goes sour and becomes a source of pain rather than joy, which one hopes is temporary, it's usually because the purposes of creation have been confounded, and the two people involved have each become obsessed with their own needs. And what I mean by that is illustrated by the Gospel lesson for today being linked to tomorrow’s, in which our Lord blesses children. Taken as a whole, the real message here is that a marriage, when it does sour, usually does so because the two people who have entered into it have completely misunderstood its purpose: marriage is for the family and the family is for marriage. People aren't supposed to marry simply because they've fallen in love and want to be together, they're supposed to marry in order to cooperate with God in the process of creation; or, to put it more romantically, their love should be so complete and so intense that it can't be contained in a relationship of only two, but must overflow into the creation of new life. I hesitate to say it because childless marriages are a reality, and can be very fruitful in many ways; but, in a theological sense only, a marriage without children is an oxymoron. Pope Saint John Paul II addressed that whole issue by pointing out that couples who are not able to have children also participate in the act of creation by means by other forms of generosity, sometimes through adoption, but also through giving of themselves in service to the Church, and often assisting others who may be unequal to the task in helping them with their children.
Let us pray today that those who have taken the leap of faith into married life—or those who may be in the process of preparing for it—may find, through grace, the joy that God intended for them from the beginning of their creation.
* In the ordinary form, the Feast of the Apostle Matthias is observed on May 14th. A Tract is added to the lessons of the feast because it occurs during the Septuagesima Season. A homily for the feast of the Apostle Matthias in the ordinary form can be found here.
** Almost all liturgical traditions observe a pre-Lenten season, with the sole exception of the ordinary form of the Roman Rite.
The extraordinary form of the Roman Rite observes a pre-Lenten period lasting for three weeks, known as the Septuagesima Season, consisting of Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima. In English speaking countries, this season is sometimes called “Shrovetide,” because it ends on the day before Ash Wednesday, which is often called “Shove Tuesday.” The Alleluia and its verse are already replaced with the Tract, and the priest already wears the purple of Lent.
The Churches of the Byzantine Rite observe a pre-Lenten season known as the Triodion, lasting for four weeks; it is sometimes preceded by a Sunday “before the Triodion,” as determined by the date of Easter. The first few Sundays of this season are thematic, taken from the Gospel of the day, from which each Sunday gets it’s name. The Sunday before the Triodion is known as the Sunday of Zacchaeus, the First Sunday that of the Publican and Pharisee, and the Second that of the Prodigal Son. The last two Sundays are named after the specific food items which may be eaten during the weekdays prior to them, as the fasting discipline of Lent is gradually imposed: the Sunday of Meatfare and the Sunday of Cheesefare. The day following Cheesefare Sunday is the First Day of the Great Fast, there being no tradition of an "Ash Wednesday." Dark vestments are worn during both the Triodion and the Great Fast except on Sundays, on which bright vestments are worn throughout. The Alleluia is never suppressed.
A pre-Lenten season is also preserved in some of the more traditional branches of the Anglican and Lutheran communions, making the ordinary form of the Roman Rite the only major liturgical Tradition to have completely eliminated it; ironic since the liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Council were said to have been done for largely ecumenical reasons.
Erasmus of the Kiev Caves is reputed to have given of his fortune to become a monk and thus adorn the monestery of the Kiev Caves, c. 1160. Note that in most other eastern traditions, this day is observed as the First & Second Findings of the Head of John the Baptist. In some traditions, the Feast of St. Polycarp, observed yesterday in both the ordinary form of the Roman Rite and in the Ruthenian recension, may also be observed today.
*** In the Byzantine Tradition, both Orthodox and Catholic, the Eucharist is celebrated only on Saturdays and Sundays during many days in the Triodion and throughout the Great Fast which follows.
In some traditions, the faithful are expected to fast from the Blessed Eucharist during this time, abstaining from Holy Communion except on those days on which the Liturgy is celebrated. In other traditions, including the Ruthenian recension, Holy Communion may be distributed to the faithful daily provided that the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated. On the Wednesday and Friday evenings of the Great Fast proper, the Divine Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts is celebrated, consisting of Solemn Vespers coupled with a Communion Service in which the Eucharist confected on the previous Sunday may be received by the faithful. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, another service—usually the Sixth Hour of the Divine Office or a simpler service called "Typica"—may be celebrated at which Holy Communion may also be offered to the faithful.
Notice that the readings for these services do not include a Gospel lesson; a Gospel would only be sung on significant Holy Days or during the Presanctified Liturgies of Holy and Great Week. Also of note is the fact that the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II on October 18, 1990, allows the priest to accept an offering for the celebration of the Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts, even though the Eucharist is not confected at this service, but defers to the particular law of the individual Church. The Code of the Ruthenian Metropolia of the USA allows a stipend to be accepted provided the donor knows it is for the Presanctified and not for Divine Liturgy.