Bishop Anthony Fisher's Homily for Marriage Sunday
Published in Catholic Outlook, September 2012
‘The Jews’, as John calls the authorities, complain that Jesus is making all sorts of claims for Himself, including contrasting their ‘fathers’ or ancestors with His ‘Father’ – God (Jn 6:41-51). This, they think, is patently absurd since everyone knows he’s Joseph and Mary’s boy. It is interesting on this Marriage Sunday that people thought that to know His parents and clan was to know Jesus. Their instinct, though limited, was a good one. Had they really known His parents (God the Father and the Blessed Virgin) and His extended family (the Church He was forming before their eyes) they would indeed have understood Him better. Instead they ‘murmured’, as they had centuries before in the desert. Whether He was Bread from Heaven or not, they were rehearsing the same old grudge.
Some of you may know the trilogy (so far) of films called The Grudge, made by Sony Pictures. They are your typical haunted-house, monster-in-the-wardrobe, freaky-child-behind-you-in-the-mirror type movies, but with a Japanese twist. The unresolved wrong of a family massacre releases a powerful rage into the universe that becomes The Grudge. When a Toyko-based American nurse is exposed to it, it seeks to enrage her before claiming her life and moving on to another victim.
St Paul didn’t have this grudge in mind when he warned the Ephesians not to grieve the Holy Spirit by “holding grudges against each other, losing your temper, raising your voice … or otherwise being spiteful” (Eph 4:30-5:2). But if he didn’t know about Japanese films, Paul certainly knew about the power of grudges to destroy relationships, families and whole communities.
To hold a grudge is to persist in resenting someone, especially after some insult or injury, and to refuse to forgive, instead nursing the grievance and with it envy or hatred. Grudges grow like a cancer within us and between us and, left unchecked, can deeply damage our relationships and ourselves. Nowhere is that more obvious than in marriage. Veterans of marriage know well how marriage requires constantly forgiving, compromising, letting go. Making vows at the altar to unite for good, and through thick and thin, is about far more than sentimentality. Indeed Paul’s thought – and he could almost have been teaching a marriage prep course when he said it – is that instead of holding grudges and speaking spitefully, we must try to be kind, forgiving and self-sacrificing.
Marriage is a particular kind of friendship, one solemnly promised by a man and a woman, exclusive, permanent and open to family. What other friendships can learn from marriage, at its best, and vice versa, is the way the spouses make each other’s good part of their own and the two help each other grow in virtue, as the best version of themselves they can be. Paul suggests God the Father as our model in this, in the way He loves and forgives endlessly, like a doting Father; and Christ the Lord also as a model, in the way He sacrifices Himself for His beloved.
Grudges are not the only forces that can undermine marriages. You’ve heard me before on the many pressures on marriages and families today and the need for all of us to support them better. But the institution itself is now under great stress also. In the face of that stress, eight years ago this week the Federal Parliament restated the classical definition of marriage; now several state Premiers and some Federal MPs want to overturn that definition.
Of course, the tinkering with marriage has been going on for some time. Marriage is, we know, the proper home for sex: yet many today treat sex as a recreational activity rather than a conjugal one. Marriage is, we know, the nursery of family: yet many now make their sexual activity sterile, having marriages and sex without babies. Marriage is, we know, a lifelong union, yet our laws now allow divorce on demand, no-reasons-given, after only one year. Marriage is, we know, a solemn even sacred state, yet many today debase it with try-before-you-buy cohabitation or by marrying without sacred rites. Now the social engineers have set their sights on removing the ‘man and woman’ part of marriage as well. All that will be left is marriage as an emotional union: it’s enough, as they say, that people love each other.
But if marriage is just about feelings and promises it obviously can’t be limited to a man and a woman. Two men or two women might love each other, or more than two, as in the polygamous unions. How about a brother and sister or two sisters or a mother and son who want to marry? How about people who want to marry for, say, 10 years, with an option for renewal?
It is because marriage has always had those other elements – the complementarity of man and wife, permanence, exclusivity, openness to family, and so on – that people have taken so seriously the challenge of sticking together and persevering in love without grudges, loving in the way of God the Father and the Son. It is also why governments ever got involved in recognising and regulating marriage.
This is not, as those trying to bully us into silence suggest, about homophobia: many of us know and care about people with same-sex attractions and we wish the best for them. Nor is this about unjust discrimination. What justice requires is that we must treat people alike unless there is a relevant difference. So if an institution is designed to support people of opposite sex to be faithful to each other and to the children of their union it is not discrimination to reserve it to people of opposite sex.
What is unjust, gravely unjust, is to ignore the importance for children of having, as far as possible, a mum and a dad, committed to them and to each other for the long haul. What is also unjust is retrospectively to redefine marriage: for that tells those already married that they got married on a false premise; that they were wrong to think they were entering a lifelong and exclusive partnership of a man and woman open to raising children; that we have changed the meaning of their vows to being merely about loving each other, for as long as it lasts. That would be unjust to the many people already married and those who might like to be in the future.
Some people would say that after all the sex abuse stuff the credibility of Church leaders to speak about sex and relationships is shot. Whether or not that’s fair, it means it is more than ever up to lay people like yourselves to make the arguments to our community and our political leaders, and especially up to married people to give the testimony of their own lives in this matter. On this Marriage Sunday we pray for genuine friendship and love in every person’s life, married or unmarried; we pray to be free from grudges and misapprehensions that might undermine our relationships; and we pray for the witness of authentic marriages in our confused world.
Bishop Anthony’s homilies are archived on iTunes. You can read the Bishop’s letter to Federal Members of Parliament on the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2012 and the Marriage Amendment Bill 2012 in his Messages in the “Bishop of Parramatta” section of the Diocese of Parramatta’s website: http://www.parra.catholic.org.au/bishop-of-parramatta/most-rev-anthony-fisher-op/the-bishop-s-messages.aspx Bishop Anthony Fisher is on Facebook.
« Return to news list