“Among the many blessings that God has showered upon us in Christ is the blessing of marriage, a gift bestowed by the Creator from the creation of the human race. His hand has inscribed the vocation to marriage in the very nature of man and woman (see Gn 1:27-28, 2:21-24).”
That is how the bishops of the United States opened their 2009 pastoral letter, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan.” The bishops recognize that marriage is not just under attack from those who seek to remake marriage, but that marriage is often misunderstood and marred by Christians. “The social sanctions and legal barriers to ending one’s marriage have all but disappeared, and the negative effects of divorce on children, families, and the community have become more apparent in recent decades.”
Controversy over marriage and divorce is hardly new, as today’s Gospel demonstrates. Some four centuries before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Malachi had expressed God’s clear teaching: “For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel … ” (Mal 2:16). Yet divorce was not only allowed within first-century Judaism, it wasn’t uncommon. Why, then, did the Pharisees ask Jesus the question, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife”? It is quite likely, as Scripture professor Mary Healy has suggested, that Jesus had already addressed the topic directly, and the Pharisees saw an opportunity to trap him, exposing him as opposed to common practice.
In traditional rabbinic fashion, Jesus answered the question with his own question: “What did Moses command you?” It was an ingenious response, for Moses, in fact, had not commanded anything allowing divorce. Rather, he had simply commanded that a divorced woman cannot remarry her first husband if she had been married and divorced again (Dt 24:1-4). This assumed that divorce did take place, but it was, Jesus flatly stated, a concession to human weakness and “the hardness of your hearts.” What was necessary, he said with firm authority, was a return to the very beginning — “the beginning of creation” — and a restoration of the original meaning of marriage.
That meaning is rooted in creation itself. The first human creature was alone, and his solitary situation was not fitting for who he was and what he was meant to do. “It is not good for the man to be alone,” said God, “I will make a suitable partner for him”(Gn 2:18). This partner was created from the side of man; she was meant to stand beside man, and she was to complete man. “Man,” in other words, consists of both male and female; marriage is a co-creation between the cleaving man and woman, and the Triune God. The pro-creative nature of marriage acknowledges God’s act of creation, his overflowing love and his plan for humanity — a plan modeled in the Sacrament of Marriage.
Blessed Pope John Paul II, in his theology of the body series, wrote, “Marriage is a sacrament inasmuch as it is an integral part and, I would say, the central point of ‘the sacrament of creation.’ In this sense it is the primordial sacrament.” God invites man — male and female alike — to be a partaker in his divine nature (2 Pt 1:4) and enter into full communion with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The gift and blessing of marriage, the deepest and most profound of human communions, is a sign of that divine communion.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.