This week’s Gospel reading begins with a question posed by the Pharisees: “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” This is supposed to be a test for Jesus. There were differing schools of thought on the matter, some much more strict than others. This seems to be an attempt to see which side Jesus supports and whether he agrees with the law of Moses. Our Lord goes over everybody’s head and points to God’s plan for marriage: “From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
Made in the image of the triune God, Adam is also made to love, to be in relationship. But true love requires two things: a lover and a beloved, someone who is willing to make a gift of himself to another, and someone who can receive that gift and reciprocate it. Adam needed a suitable partner, so God fashioned the woman Eve, made in His image and likeness. Here we have man and woman, lover and beloved.
The union of man and woman in marriage is so deep and intimate that the two become one flesh. This is not simply a union based on loving thoughts and feelings. In consummating a marriage, a husband and wife make a complete, total, unconditional gift of themselves to each other. This is a total gift of the person, body and soul. This deep, personal, intimate union is called a covenant. More than a contract, which might expire when all conditions are fulfilled or involve an exchange of goods and services, a covenant is an exchange of persons and a lasting pact.
In marriage, the union of husband and wife is meant to be a living image of God’s love for His people. This is pretty obvious even in the Old Testament. For example, the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea all use marital imagery when speaking of Israel’s covenantal relationship with the Lord. The union of husband and wife is also meant to be a living image of Christ’s love for his bride: the Church. For this reason, we call marriage a sacrament, an outward sign that points to a deeper spiritual reality. Marriage is meant, with the grace and help of God, to be a permanent, committed, faithful exclusive union until death. This is the model of marriage that Our Lord points to, and our own use of reason bears this out.
No one would point to divorce as a good thing, even where it seems unavoidable. It hurts spouses and children alike. Deep down, we realize that a relationship as intimate as that of husband and wife, that the good of a family, demands fidelity. Young couples that I prepare for marriage at least seem to have the understanding that a vow is something sacred and that any violation of it is truly a grave betrayal of trust. Still, I encourage these couples to sit down and have a good long talk about the meaning of fidelity and commitment before they say, “I do.” Future spouses should have expectations of each other when it comes to fidelity, but even more so, they should have expectations of themselves. A husband or wife should be asking themselves what they can do to make sure they remain faithful to their future spouse. Is work or hanging out with my friends going to be more of priority than being with my spouse and children? Is pornography a problem for me? Am I ready to make that commitment to one person for life? These kinds of questions demand complete and total honesty.
I recently came across an article on the Internet citing a recent “60 Minutes”-Vanity Fair poll that surveyed more than 1,000 people. The results indicated that only 2 percent of respondents felt extramarital affairs were a serious sin. As I tell couples preparing for marriage, we can never anticipate everything that comes along in marriage, but it is absolutely important to know something about the nature of the vocation to which one is called. In marriage, a man leaves his father and mother to be joined to his wife, and the two become one. This not one man’s idea of marriage, this is God’s plan for marriage.