Sunday, February 13, 2011

Homily 6th Sun O.T. Year A: World Marriage Day

    My Canon Law professor at the seminary, Msgr. Fulton, had a way of teaching Church law that made us actually enjoy learning it; he made it a joy to know the law and to help others to know it too. We even nicknamed our textbook "The Big Green Monster" because it is a huge, unwieldy book containing the Code of Canon Law and the commentary on each canon. It's almost 2000 pages long and is paperbound so it never keeps its shape and is impossible to carry around. In his great sense of humor he would joke that our Canon Law text, The Big Green Monster, "is everything Jesus meant to say!" The point he made to us, without explicitly saying it, is that the law of the Church, which is a reflection of the law of the Lord, should be taught and learned and followed with joy and from the heart. The law is not intended to be something that embitters us. The law is not meant to be followed with white-knuckled anxiety or with demands that are impossible to meet. Laws, when they are just, do not bind up… they set free.

    Now, it is certainly true that we all bristle under the law every now and then – whether it's that speeding ticket for going 5 miles over the speed limit or that sudden realization that it's a Friday in Lent right before you bite into a steak. This is nothing though compared to what the Israelites felt in Biblical times under the weight of law put onto them by the scribes and Pharisees. The 10 commandments, as awesome as they are, were ultimately national laws for public observance. "Thou shall not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain" meant that henceforth it was illegal for them to do so. "That shall not kill" made murder illegal. Breaking one of the 10 commandments brought grave punishments. And on top of these were the hundreds of other laws that governed almost every aspect of their way of life. But, these laws were good because they helped to separate the Israelites from the pagan worship and influences of the peoples that surrounded them. They helped to set the standard for exhibiting a right relationship with God. These laws helped set their nation apart, to define and protect them, as God's chosen people. The point of the old law was that God was preparing them for a New Covenant in Jesus Christ that would inscribe the law of God on their hearts. God was preparing them for a kingdom not of rigid boundaries but of the whole world, a kingdom to which all people will be invited.

    But, the scribes and Pharisees missed the point of the law. Rather than accept Jesus who fulfilled, completed, perfected, and transformed the law into the means of their salvation, they based their salvation in strictly observing "the smallest letter" and "the smallest part of a letter" of the law, every "jot and tittle" as they used to say (Mt 5:18). Thank God we don't have the same burdens placed on us. Thank God Jesus really did fulfill and transform the law from something heavy and external to something light and heartfelt. "My yoke is easy," Jesus said, "my burden light" (Mt 11:30). No more do we have laws that are impossible to follow. Under the Kingship of our Lord, we are given a new moral law that brings right along with it the aid to carrying it out.

    So for example, none of us needs the law "You shall not kill" because we have been given the grace and blessing of a good upbringing, well-ordered hearts and minds, patience, mercy, and forgiveness. We can say we are free of the demands of that law. But Jesus wants us to go deeper. What about the anger in our hearts that kills our relationship with our parents, or our siblings, or our coworkers? What about the lack of patience with ourselves that we cannot let go of? What about the revenge that we secretly desire every time we are offended? These thoughts and desires that spring from the heart cause us to suffer a hundred tiny deaths throughout our lives if we do not let the law of the Lord, the law of love, set us free from them.

It is this kind of deeper meaning that Jesus wants us to see in each of the 10 commandments as we strive to follow them. They are still true for us, as true as they were for the Israelites. But now God is asking us to love him with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, not just with our external observances. Jesus said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever" (Jn 14:15). We are given grace and the Holy Spirit that help us to go so far as to even love the law. Through what else but the spirit of God was the psalmist able to pray, "Open my eyes, that I may consider the wonders of your law. Instruct me, O Lord, in the way of your statutes, that I may exactly observe them. Give me discernment, that I may observe your law and keep it with all my heart" (Ps 119). We have to believe that this is possible for us too

But, "You shall not kill" is an easy one. What about "You shall not commit adultery"? "Whoever looks at a woman with lust," Jesus says in our Gospel today, "has already committed adultery with her in his heart." And "whoever divorces his wife," he continues, "causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery" (Mt 5:27, 32). Still, most of you here today who are married do not need that law either – when most of you exchanged your consent on your wedding day you intended fully to be exclusively faithful to each other, even until death, and to be open to children. You should be very proud of the covenant you have kept in your marriage. In fact, because today is World Marriage Day, the Archbishop is celebrating a special Mass at 3pm specifically to honor and affirm your commitment. Everyone is invited to celebrate marriage today with him and to pray that a bill in the Maryland senate that is challenging the definition of marriage will be defeated.

For most the bonds of marriage have never been at risk. But, perhaps for some, this hasn't been so easy. Perhaps through a build-up of a bunch of big or small bad choices along the way, what was a good and valid marriage has become broken and torn asunder. Perhaps there are some that have chosen divorce or some that have followed that with remarriage outside of the Church and have endangered their ability to receive the sacraments or hold certain positions. Perhaps there are some that have had divorce inflicted on them, through no fault of their own. It is in these situations that the law is truly hard, that the yoke is not easy, and the burden is not light. But, even in situations like these, as unbelievable as it may seem, God is offering the help needed to do the right thing or to receive healing. That could take the form of advice from a wise priest or deacon who can help you sort through the many layers of the problem. Or it could take the form of advice from the Archdiocese's tribunal in helping you understand exactly where you stand with regard to the law. These are the helps that should be pursued first.

Statistically speaking, most of us here today know someone in our family or friends who is divorced or divorced and remarried. The rate of divorce in the general population, about 50%, is now the same rate among Catholics – we have caught up with the rest of society. But it is important that we remember, either for ourselves or for those in particular who we know, that these do not mean that we are excommunicated from the Church. Even if you cannot receive Communion, for example, because the manifest grave sin persists, this does not mean that you are unwanted from the community or that the Church no longer wants you to be part of its life. The obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days doesn't necessarily always include the reception of Holy Communion. There are others who may not receive for any number of reasons - it could be from breaking the hour fast, gulping down a Starbucks coffee as you walk through the door, or it could be because of a serious sin like committing adultery.

The point is we can still benefit greatly from the real presence of Christ in the person of the priest, in the Word of God proclaimed, and in the gathered congregation. And fellowship with fellow Catholics in the myriad of spiritual, pastoral, and intellectual programs of the parish can be the help we need toward advancing to a more perfect obedience of the Lord's commands, to a more perfect love of Him. This is something, frankly, that we should all work toward together, reaching out and helping each other along the way. Even the most difficult laws of the Church can be followed with ease if we take the risk of giving our hearts to each other and ultimately to God and allowing Him to place in us His Sacred Heart, a heart that beats with love, mercy, forgiveness, purity, and strength. Today, let us all take courage. "If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live; he has set before you fire and water; to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand" (Sir 15:15-16).

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