Whenever I preach at any wedding, I start with an appeal which I also make here. Whatever exhortation I share with you here is an imperfect offering from a priest who wishes all married people and their families God’s abundant blessings in these complex and trying times. I particularly dedicate this homily to families who have experienced or are experiencing divorce and separation. May you find strength and healing from your hurts, pains, and wounded memories. May God’s grace reweave and restore the broken cord of your broken lives, Amen.
There are no experts when it comes to the affairs of the heart, those who have been married for more than 50 years will tell you the same things. Human beings are complex and sometimes complicated creatures. Let us then enter in this reflection into this gift of God for the life of the world with prayerful hearts and a humble spirit in order to see what God reveals to us in the Gospel and in the teachings of the Church.
Marriage is a mysterious bond made by God (Mal 2: 14-16; Mk 10:9)—what God has joined together. Jesus in the new dispensation has elevated the marital union to the level of an indissoluble bond/sacrament that points beyond the two partners to God’s “ultimate purpose in creating humanity” in God’s image and likeness. Marriage is a sign of the restoration of creation in Christ through the unfailing and faithful love of a husband and wife that mirrors the self-giving of Christ on the Cross (Mk 8: 31).
Indeed, one of the first things I did as a pastor in the two parishes where I was privileged to serve in Peterborough diocese, Canada was to set up a marriage and family life ministry. This group was usually made up of five or more couples—chosen from those who were married within the last five years to those who have celebrated 50 years of marriage—and two remarried couples and one or two separated and divorced single Catholics. This group helped me to put together my homilies and pastoral plan for supporting married couples and families. They also led the marriage preparation programs and assisted me in the preliminary pre-nuptial interview with would-be couples. I found out that such groups in a parish helped me as a pastor to sustain an engaging, custom-made, and relevant pastoral care and support to couples before, during, and after their wedding.
Every parish needs to have a marriage and family life ministry led by lay members of Christ’s faithful whose expertise is not simply the result of research in libraries poring over magisterial, canonical and legal documents. Rather, parishes need people who have lived through the challenges and thrill of marriage to enrich the ministry of priests and pastoral workers. We must develop a pastoral ministry to accompany families particularly new couples that goes beyond celebrating marriages, the annulment process, conflict resolution, or canonical precepts on denial of holy communion.
Indeed, the training of priests and religious on marriage and family life, pastoral counseling, and family therapy can be complemented through the lived faith of couples who have experienced the pain and suffering of separation and divorce, the agony of separation by death especially tragic and sudden deaths, as well as families who have gone through an abortion, teenage pregnancy, sexual abuse etc as well as those who have raised children as single parents, step-parents, etc with all the surprises, failings and successes involved.
The most important message that I give to couples at their wedding is that the best homily which can ever be preached at a wedding is the testimony of the man and woman who stand before God and the church to affirm an undying love for each other for life. The best homily on marriage for me is the beautiful life of my parents, VinRose Ilo. They showed me the texture and essence of marriage in their lives. It was such a privilege for me in the summer of 2013 to have watched them up close for six weeks in their old age when they lived with me. The memories of the depth of their love and the sacrificial quality and happiness that came to these two hearts that breathed as one because of true love that never fails will be a blessing to me forever.
To get married in the church is to step into the mystery of divine love. The symbol of marriage is not simply the exchange of rings—which is only an external sign. The real symbol of marriage are the two hearts and wills of a man and woman who consent to each other and commit themselves to share a common life and raise children tied in the covenant of life and love till death. This is one of the greatest miracles which is happening in our churches. It is a sacred dance that continues to amaze many people, and confound those who are cynical about love and the intrinsic goodness of humanity. It also gives joy and hope to the world and the Church. The fact that people are getting married, creating domestic churches in their homes, and giving birth to new lives is perhaps one of the greatest signs that God wishes this world to continue.
At every marriage, heaven unites with earth; the new covenant of love ratified through the self-giving sacrifice on the Cross by the Lord is reenacted. To marry, and to love and to hold is to lose one’s self-possession and to die to self in order to rise again a new person. At every marriage ceremony with the beautiful symbols of the marriage liturgy and the various cultural traditions which have come to surround marriage, there is something glorious and deeply touching about the renewal of creation and the springs of new birth which plays out before our eyes. Sometimes we fail to pause and ponder this mystery. Sometimes we do not recognize the work that God is doing in bringing two people together in marriage and in making the entire church and the bigger community pause and celebrate this sacred gift.
What strikes me deeply as I meditated before God on the readings this week is the word, ‘divorce.’ When things are moving well in one’s marriage and when both partners hold on like my parents did for 53 years before my father’s journey into the ancestral heavenly life, it is like a marriage made in heaven. But today I am thinking of many people whose marriages ended in divorce; people who are going through divorce and separation right now; people who have faced infidelity in their marriage, violence, deception, disrespect, dishonor, and all kinds of temptations that make their marriage a painful one. Some people hang on in the marriage because of their children or because they have no other options and are stuck; some others leave with regrets, and others leave with some joy and relief even though with lingering scars.
If you are going through pain today as a result of your marriage, please know that Jesus is going through that pain with you. If you are broken because of divorce, please know that God can heal you, take your pain to the Lord. Wherever you are in your journey and experience of marriage, please be strengthened by the promise of the responsorial psalm today that God will bless you as you walk in the Lord’s ways.
The Lord tells us in the Gospel that divorce is the result of the ‘hardness of heart’ (sklerokardia-sclerosis of the heart). Indeed, we live in a sinful world; we human beings are weak and imperfect. We often fail to yield to God because we are stiff-necked people (Deut 10:16; 2 Kings 17:14; Isa 63: 17; Mark 3: 5; 6: 52). We often fail to yield to one another (Romans 12: 9-12; Eph 5: 21-33) out of selfishness, pride, and willful blindness to see things through the lens of other people, and stubborn clinging to our ways and wiles. What Jesus is inviting us to do as married people is to take up the Cross and follow the Lord (Mark 8:34). What Jesus brought to marriage is compelling teaching on the sacrificial nature of marriage that mirrors his own sacrifice on the Cross for us. Jesus also brought the aspect of equality of both man and woman in marriage. This mutual belonging and ‘ownership’ of one another in marriage is against the patriarchal notion of marriage in the Mosaic law. Jesus also brought the message of vocation to the teaching on marriage; marriage is a calling; not everyone is called to the vocation of marriage. But ultimately Jesus also is teaching us that for those who are married, being faithful to the end is not easy and will require the Lord’s grace. But for all married persons, no matter where you are in your life, there is always healing in the Lord for broken hearts; strength for despairing hearts; and grace for the empty souls searching for love, friendship, hope, and a true home where their hearts can find an anchor.
© Stan Chu Ilo