Saturday, January 16, 2016

What does marriage mean?

Given at Hamilton, Dublin, and Comanche Texas on 20 January 2013 

If you had conducted a survey of American clergy 100 years ago and asked if they were in favor of gay marriage, I’m sure you would have gotten a nearly 100% affirmative response. (What pastor wouldn’t be in favor of happy marriages in his flock?)

But if you had surveyed American clergy 40 years ago, you would have gotten just about an exactly opposite response. Not too many clergy would have been in favor of “gay marriage” in 1972. The difference, of course, is that words mean things and that meaning can change over time. And it’s not just the words themselves, but even the meaning of the things those words describe.

Four years ago, the new president was a candidate who had gone on record saying he believed marriage should be between 1 man and 1 woman, and the pastor giving the benediction at the inauguration was Rick Warren, a California pastor vocal in his opposition to same-sex marriage.

Tomorrow, the same man will be inaugurated for a new term as president, but he has changed his position on same-sex marriage to now support it. And the pastor he had chosen to give the inaugural benediction, Louie Giglio, backed out of the event because a sermon he preached about 15 years ago titled “A Christian Response to Homosexuality” surfaced in the media, creating a public outcry.

The Presidential Inaugural Committee issued a statement in response, saying, “We were not aware of Pastor Giglio’s past comments at the time of his selection and they don’t reflect our desire to celebrate the strength and diversity of our country at this Inaugural. As we now work to select someone to deliver the benediction, we will ensure their beliefs reflect this administration’s vision of inclusion and acceptance for all Americans.” It is a vivid portrait of how things can change in just a short time. (By the way, an Episcopal priest will give the benediction instead.)

When California’s Proposition 8 (marriage is defined as one man and one woman in the state constitution) was struck down by the US District Court in 2010, I commented on my blog: “I’d like to remind everyone that the Church has always supported the right of gays and lesbians to marry. And as long as there are no impediments, we also support the rights of Christian gays and lesbians to have their marriages solemnized in the church.” 

People were taken aback. One person commented, “Is this April 1st?” And that’s the point. It was to illustrate how far the meaning of marriage had already been altered in the public mind by the political discourse. People no longer thought of marriage as being only one man and one woman.

In today’s gospel (John 2:1-11), we find a message of transforming grace in the epiphany that came through the slight alteration of water into wine. St John tells us this was the first of his “signs”—selected miracles which manifested Jesus’ divine nature—and it happened at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.

I’m inclined to believe it happened for a reason. The question is, Why? When the wine runs low, Mary says to her son, “They have no wine.” She knows he can work miracles. And he knows that she knows. Jesus understood what she was getting at and basically responds, “Why are you asking me for a miracle now?”

As a good Queen Mother, she tells the King’s subjects, “Just do whatever he tells you.” The working of his first sign has always been considered a special endorsement of the dignity of marriage in the Christian tradition, showing the sacramental character of marriage by utilizing the creative and transforming power of God at that special moment.

St. Paul explained that Christ is betrothed to his Bride, which is the Church. This is the heavenly reality which gives meaning to the earthly symbol, marriage. Earthly marriage is true marriage to the extent it signifies the heavenly reality. The scriptures tells us that the bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation in Eden—that Adam and Eve were the first newlyweds.

What about the word “marriage”—where does it come from? If you consult your etymological dictionary, you will find that it is descended from the Latin matrimonium, which has come down in this form via Old French. And what does “matrimonium” mean?

I teach a class on Moral Theology for our diocesan school of Theology. A few months ago, I was reviewing some material to revise the syllabus. And I came across a statement in a theology text I had forgotten. It pointed out that contraceptive sex does not consummate marriage. Why? Because we are talking about matrimony.

Perhaps some of you will recognize there the root Latin word mater (“Mother”). The marriage contract is ratified by turning a woman into a mother. “Holy Matrimony” literally means the “sacred condition of motherhood.” We have forgotten this, and we need to remember again.

Would two men ever go to the courthouse and ask that their bond of “sacred motherhood” be recognized by the state? Once upon a time it would have been unthinkable, because that’s how we once thought about marriage.

We need a new epiphany of that life-giving union of marriage—not just for our secular culture, but also for Christian people who may have forgotten or never fully understood what the meaning of marriage really is.

May God reveal to us again the meaning of that beautiful institution which signifies the mystical union between Christ and his bride, the Church.