This is the homily that did not work—at least, not as planned. And, yes, you might well ask if any of them do.
Through the selection of readings for this Sunday, the church proposes that we ponder marriage. We Catholics say a lot of wonderful things about married love: God raises the deepest of human loves to the reality of a sacrament; spouses, quite literally, become expressive instruments of God’s love and presence to each other; and, like every vocation in the church, marriage is a path of self-surrender, a way we pour ourselves out in love of others. We preach all these things at weddings and rightly so.
But what do we say to those whose marriages did not work? That is where a Sunday homily slides into shoals. Do we say that something went wrong in God’s great gift to you? But how does that happen? Isn’t the point of being God that things do not go wrong?
Like all the graces of God, the gift of marriage can also be frustrated by human sin.
Nothing can go wrong for God—unless by God’s own choice and in God’s own love God decides to create a creature who can choose to love or choose not to love. Something quite profound happens in the creation of humanity. God makes us a part of all that is, yet endows only ourselves with the ability to reject all of it and to reject God as well. So to admit that things go wrong in marriages is not to deny the blessing that marriage is. It is simply to note that, like all the graces of God, the gift of marriage can also be frustrated by human sin.
Have we drawn all too neatly a boundary between those who have accepted the blessing of marriage and those who have rejected it? Absolutely. Any line we humans draw is going to be too neat. We cannot look into the hearts of those who have experienced divorce. We certainly cannot assign blame to the partners the way civil courts divide their assets.
Small mistakes, made early in a relationship or in life itself, have a way of growing into heartbreak. Sin first appears as something trivial, something that we choose. Yet the longer we live with it, sin becomes something mighty, something that controls us. Sin fetters us and then ferries us to places we would never wish to visit.
Yet God is merciful. God never withdraws grace. We can grow into better human beings on the other side of a divorce. Remember that astute observation of St. Paul: “Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more” (Rm 5:20). In failed marriages, as in life, sin recognized, confessed and forgiven can lead to a deeper, stronger life.
The greater the love, the greater the ability to wound the other. We often hurt those whom we love the most.
And only a fool thinks that those who are, as we say, “happily married” do not struggle with sin and selfishness, are not sometimes truly cruel to each other. Remember, the greater the love, the greater the ability to wound the other. We often hurt those whom we love the most.
I have been a priest for 34 years. Some might suggest that I know very little about marriage. I have also never had a terminal illness. Yet I have spent most of my life as a priest-counselor talking to those who are dying and those who are struggling with a failing or failed marriage.
Some of my fidelity to my vows as a priest I can claim, but I know that had circumstances been different, had temptations been just a little stronger or fear a little more powerful, I might not be a priest today.
And, of course, simply remaining a priest says nothing about how fruitful one’s priesthood is, any more than staying married tells us that a marriage is life-giving. Sin and grace do battle in all vocations, those we salute and those we lament.
Marriage, as a profound, fundamental human reality, is truly an arena where sin and grace do endless battle.
This homily also fails to offer a prescription for progress. With sin scattered so liberally in the married and the divorced, what are we supposed to learn, except that marriage might be a risk too great to take?
Yet then we come back, not to a teaching but to the person who is the core of our faith, Christ Jesus. He tells us that we must risk death itself if we really want to live. He says that what is impossible for us is not impossible for God. He promises that if we rise above self, God will reach down to aid us.
Then the closing question, for each of us, is whether we are dying to self so as to live in Christ. And here is the peculiar thing: Some would characterize Catholicism as always insisting that it has all the right answers, that it never needs to search for them. But on this point, Catholics part ways with some Christians. We do not think that you should be sure about your salvation, sure that you are surrendering to God. Yes, the Scriptures sing of God’s fidelity. They insist that we can place all of our trust in him. God will not fail us. Yet from start to finish, the Scriptures attest to the possibility that we can fail ourselves, that those who are most sure of their righteousness might be terribly mistaken.
This homily just doesn’t work. We still do not know where we as individuals went wrong or if, even now, we have truly chosen for the good. All we have done is to show that marriage, as a profound, fundamental human reality, is truly an arena where sin and grace do endless battle.
So I will do what great preachers do, and the pathetic as well. I will quote Scripture and sit down. “Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more” (Rm 5:20).