The Church’s first scripture for today’s Mass is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Genesis. The Book of Genesis is the first book of the Bible and it begins with a lyrical, poetic description of the origins of creation- how the world began and where everything came from. This description is not scientific (science as we know it did not exist when the Book of Genesis was written). Instead, the stories of the origins of creation in the Book of Genesis are theological- which means the stories intend to tell important truths about God.
These truths about God are presented in the form of great stories.
The story we heard from the Book of Genesis today is about the creation of men and women and the important theological truth that is presented in this particular scripture is that God created man and woman for one another, as creatures they complement and complete one another and the relationship between men and women originates in the divine will and is directed by a divine purpose. The attraction of a man for a woman and a woman for a man cannot simply be reduced to a biological explanation, for a deeper reality is at work- and that reality is God.
God creates man for woman and woman for man so that both might participate in his creative power to bring new life into the world. As I mentioned, the Book of Genesis wants us to understand that the life- giving power that men and women possess is not just a biological fact, but it is a divine mission. The great story of God’s creation continues to happen every time a man and a woman are united together in love and through their participation in God’s creative power they bring a child into the world. It is in this act of participation in God’s creative power, an act of participation that gives rise to children, that the relationship of man to woman and woman to man fulfills its divine purpose.
This story is a prelude to the rest of the Book of Genesis which will for the most part be about families and the interactions of men and women, husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters.
The Book of Genesis will place at the pinnacle of the God’s purposes for creation, not a man or woman in isolation, achieving through their purpose through individual acts of self-expression. Instead, at the pinnacle of God’s creation is the family, which then becomes the means through which the whole of human project emerges in all its dynamism and vitality and without which, the whole of the human project collapses.
Thus, in terms of the Biblical vision, the first and non-negotiable necessity for human flourishing is the family.
The Church’s second scripture for Mass today is an excerpt from the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews.
The Book of Genesis is theology in the form of stories and the Letter to the Hebrews is theology in the form of an essay.
The Letter to the Hebrews is an essay about Christ the Lord, who he is and what his mission is about. In this regard, the Letter to the Hebrews testifies that the Lord Jesus is God and God has done something absolutely extraordinary in Christ- he has accepted a human nature and lived a real, human life. This real, human life (that God in Christ accepted as his own) included all the raw facts that are part of human experience- including most importantly suffering and death.
Thus the great revelation of God in Christ is not simply a prophecy or a commandment. Christ is not just a prophet or teacher. Who is Christ? Jesus Christ is God. What has God done in Jesus Christ (what is his mission)? God in Christ has accepted a human nature and lived a real human life. Of course this revelation has profound and far reaching implications for how we understand God and how we understand ourselves, but we can never make sense of any of that unless we first understand and come to accept who Jesus Christ is- and if our answer is prophet or teacher, we are missing what his revelation is all about- and what Christ’s revelation is all about is that he is God.
But why did God do what he did in Christ? Why did he accept for himself a human nature and live a real, human life? The Letter to the Hebrews gives us an answer- so that God could share communion with us and do so in such a way that he could meet us face to face and in that encounter we could recognize him as our brother- that is, a member of the family of humanity that we all belong to. As one of the great prayers of the Church proclaims “God sees and loves in us what he sees and loves in Christ”.
In the very act of becoming human, God reveals something about the dignity of every human person, indeed something of great importance about the humanity itself- that we all matter. No one is without significance. No one is here by accident. No life is devoid of purpose or meaning. In his acceptance of a human nature, God is indicating to us that he is happy that we exist and that he delights in our existence. So too should we. The Christian, the one who recognizes and believes that Christ is God, should also be the one who recognizes and believes that, because of God in Christ that no one is without significance. No one is here or placed in our lives by accident. No one’s life is devoid of purpose or meaning.
Thus, the Church’s reverence for human life at all stages of human existence, from conception to natural death, is not simply based on a theory or a law, but on the revelation of God in Christ- the one, true God who accepts for himself a human nature and lives a real human life.
The great humanism of the Church’s Faith is grounded in the revelation of Jesus Christ. A revelation that reverences human life, indeed all creation in radical ways, not just because the Lord Jesus told us to, but because of who the Lord Jesus reveals himself to be.
And our Gospel for today…
Last week I spoke about how our preference for a Jesus who is “meek and mild” distorts the raw facts of Christ’s actual revelation, making us deaf to his harder teachings or inclined to explain those teachings away. Our approach to the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church becomes a project of cut and paste, accepting what we like and excising what we don’t life.
In this respect the Gospel becomes merely a means of self-affirmation in which a Christ, not the real Christ, but a pretend Christ created out of our own preferences, tells us what we want to hear and affirms us as we are. Rather than we having to change for Christ, he changes for us, and the Church then is expected to oblige our project of self-affirmation by delivering to us the kinds of teachings that we prefer, rather than those that Christ actually offered or the teachings that we actually need.
If this is the kind of spirituality that we have constructed, today’s Gospel will likely provoke dismay. The Christ presented in today’s Gospel is uncompromising, and uncompromising in regards to an issue that many, if not most, believe can be compromised- marriage.
Christ testifies that the covenant that binds a man and woman in marriage is indissoluble and that the unbreakable bond of marriage has been knit into the fabric of creation itself. Exceptions in regards to the divine purpose for marriage are justified, Christ explains, only because of the hardness of our hearts- that is, our own refusal to accept marriage for what God has created it to be. God wills marriage to be something and many people prefer marriage to be something else. Our resistance to God’s will for marriage distorts and undermines God’s purpose for marriage.
Then, to further reinforce his uncompromising testimony about marriage, he employs a grand gesture- gathering around him children (those who historically suffer the most when God’s purposes for marriage are qualified by the hardness of our hearts), and insisting that only those whose receptivity to his testimony is like that of a child- open and accepting- will understand why his testimony about marriage is so radical and necessary.
Those among Christ’s disciples who might have hoped that his teachings about marriage might be at least be equivalent to those of Moses, who accepted exceptions to the divine purpose, were likely very disappointed. As it was then, so it is now!
Christ’s testimony in regards to marriage stands alongside his testimony about his identity as God, his warnings about wealth, pleasure, power and honors, his insistence that we love our neighbor, especially when our neighbor happens to be our enemy, his stipulation that God’s forgiveness of us is correlated to our willingness to forgive others, his invitation to accept suffering and sacrifice as necessary and inescapable realities of being his disciple, his bold statement that he gives us his flesh and his blood to drink.
Everything that the Lord Jesus has to say about these things is difficult, hard and uncompromising.
Everything that the Lord Jesus reveals and expects of us is always an unyielding test of our sincerity as his disciples.
Christ left no executive authority behind in his Church who would have the power to qualify or dispense with his difficult, hard, and uncompromising expectations. The expectations measure the lives of disciples in every age of the Church life and they remain, even if in the face of our failures before them, we receive his forgiveness.
Before Christ’s difficult, hard, uncompromising expectations we are always left in the position of his first disciples, many of whom who heard his testimony and left him, finding it all just too hard to take.
Will we also take leave and go away?
Or will we stay, making an act of faith that as extreme as the Lord’s demands might be, even more extreme than his demands, is his mercy…