The topic of “divorce” in today’s Gospel is one of the most complex and difficult topics to manage, let alone preach about in a short homily. Jesus in today’s Gospel asserts very clearly that marriage cannot be dissolved. He says, “from the beginning of creation God made them male and female. They are no longer two, but one. So then, what God has united, man must not divide.” It is because of this that couples come to Church and get married publicly and in front of witnesses, promise to love each other for better or for worse, in poverty or in riches, in health and in sickness, in good times and in bad, all the days of their lives, until death do us part.”
When couples enter into marriage they desire to attain the personal happiness and the ideal state of fulfillment in their lives. However, while there are many happy and fulfilling marriages, we also cannot deny that divorce rates in Singapore and all round the world continue to show a constant increase at alarming rates. What is happening to marriages? How can we possibly speak of marriages with genuine hopes? How can we understand marriages as a vocation and a calling from God to live and bring up a family in today’s world?
My brothers and sisters in Christ, you and I know that when we speak of marriage and divorce, we have to tread carefully because it is one of the most sensitive and complex topics in life. When there are strains in married relationships as in any committed relationships, we cannot speak of simplistic and straightforward solutions. While we believe that Jesus wants married couples to keep their married commitment for life, we cannot pretend that just because we believe in Christ, we will no longer have any problems and pains in our marriage.
A few days ago, I presided at a private Mass of a couple who celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary. It was a very beautiful private celebration of just immediate family and a few close friends in the La Storta room of our Church. There was no pomp and publicity in the celebration. However, to me, the simplicity and the solemnity of the spiritual celebration was very symbolic of the fifty years of the married couple’s commitment to each other and to God. They told me, “Father, while we went through a lot of struggles and sacrifices together, we did not feel that our fifty years of married life was long at all. God was always at the centre of our marriage. He was always the source of our strength and our real hope in times of our trials and tribulations. We just want to renew our marriage vows and thank God for all the blessings that He has given us all these years of our lives.
It was truly such a great joy to see how this beautiful couple, in their old age was able to continue to love each other and to experience the peace of God’s blessings together with their children. To me, this golden wedding anniversary celebration captured very profoundly the meaning and essence of what a married vocation is about.
In contrast, when we speak to a divorce person about their marriage, we hear of the deep pain without peace; we hear of the fears of coming home to an empty house and the agony of the loneliness of daily living; and very often we hear of the misery of their own children suffering divorces in their own marriages. All these pain are not meant to be such by God when He created man and woman.
In God’s mind, as we hear in the book of Genesis in today’s first reading, God said, “It is not good that man should be alone. I will make him a helpmate that man will call ‘bone from my bones and flesh of my flesh!’ And that is why a man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to his wife, and they become one body.” It is from the time of creation that God intended that man and woman live no longer as separate-divorced persons, but as one single united couple in marriage, and together with their children they bless God as a family who knows how to put Him at the centre of their lives.
Perhaps, one of the most difficult challenges in marriage is the unrealistic expectation of our spouses. The sooner married couples realise that there is no such thing as a perfect person and thus, no such thing as a perfect husband or wife, the more realistic their marriage would be. Your spouse may love youvery much, but we must remember that even as they love you, they too have weaknesses and imperfections, and they will inevitably cause you pain and hurt you every now and then. We often live in contradictory ways; we ourselves have weaknesses, yet we have the tendency to impose our unrealistic expectations on others.
If we want any relationships to grow, we also have to be learn to look at the good qualities of our spouse and then learn to appreciate and affirm them as often as we can. It is when we have such positive attitudes that we will nurture the marriage instead of stressing and tearing the relationship through our negative and fault finding remarks and ways.
When a marriage breaks down through infidelity, financial, spousal violence, or what is often called “irreconcilable differences” it is rarely caused solely by one of the spouse. In all probability, even as one spouse may be more culpable and unfaithful to the married commitment, very often both spouses have contributed to the breakup. The voices of the secular world are too loud and too constant; driving us to become individualistic in our approach to resolving relationships and conflicts and making us pessimistic in our outlook on others. So, when there are problems in relationships, these secular world values push us to assert and fight for our rights. And when this happens constantly, the marriage undergoes stain and eventually suffers a breakdown.
What has happened to the Gospel values of forgiveness, compassion, humility and sacrificial love for the sake and good of the other person whom we have pledged to love for live at the time of the married commitment? Unless, we are constantly reminded and unless we renew our commitment to love God and live in His ways, and unless we strive to be more Christ-like in our daily attitudes, our hopes of living a life-time commitment will always remind fragile and vulnerable and uncertain.
But, if God is the centre of our married commitment, then we will be able to draw strength and experience real hopes in our life-time commitments to each other in marriage.
I know of a case of how a spouse Jane (not her real name) fought so hard to keep her marriage even though her husband was constantly unfaithful to her. She was able to find strength in God and forgive as often as Christ said, “seventy seven times seven times”; all the time. She believed in her strong conviction that one day, her husband will change. All she did was to pray fervently and trust that God would give her the strength to persevere in her vocation and the grace of her unfaithful husband to experience a conversion of heart. After many years, happily God answered Jane’s prayers and her husband changed his unfaithful ways.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, let me sum up and conclude by saying that, if our married vocation is to remain intact, we must first learn to put God at the centre of the married commitment. It is only when God takes first place in the married commitment that we will become more willing to be challenged to face each conflict and painful situation with the humility and willingness to forgive the other person in Christ-like ways.
We all need to develop a greater self-awareness of how we ourselves are loving or failing to love God and His people, including our spouse, God would want us to. Without such greater self-awareness we will often fall into the tendency of blaming and accusing others for strains in relationships that we ourselves have contributed, but not willing to admit. When this happens, God’s forgiving Spirit cannot work through us. Instead, of sowing discord through blame, we are challenged by Christ to seek unity through love, instead of giving up because of our pains in marriages, we are challenged by Christ to persevere with a forgiving love, and instead of cutting off our spouse through asserting our rights, we are challenged by Christ to reach out to the hurting spouse with the peace that Christ offers us in the Good News of salvation.
With God’s graces, Jane and the married couple who recently celebrated their golden wedding anniversary were able to live their married vocation amidst the trials and tribulations they encountered. And if you were to ask them how they were able to do it, they will tell you, we have no secret formula except to live in the ways of Christ. And this would be: do not fear challenges; face the truth of our own imperfections and weaknesses, learn to forgive and be humble like Christ and finally, trust that God will never want us to break up in our marriages as God created marriages to last for all eternity, for “what God has united, let no man divide.”
Fr Philip Heng, S.J.