Sunday, October 04, 2015

From Death To Completion (Rerun)

Sisters and brothers, have you ever heard that popular saying about marriage? It goes like this: A man is not complete until he gets married. And then he is finished! I think many of us laugh when we hear it for the first time. I did. We find it funny, because the word finished has a double meaning. The first meaning is the obvious romantic one. The one that people typically use at the beginning of intimate relationships. It’s what Tom Cruise meant in the feel-good movie Jerry Maguire. In a memorable scene, after Jerry tells Dorothy that he loves her, he goes on to immortalise in movie history those marvellously mushy (some would say cheesy), yet amazingly effective words: You complete me, he says. You complete me. In other words, you finish me.

The other meaning of the word finish is the opposite of the first. If the first is used at the birth of relationships, then the second is heard when they die. It’s the meaning that Meryl Streep had in mind, in that scene from the old movie about divorce. Kramer vs Kramer. Streep’s character, Joanna, is in the process of divorcing Ted. Her workaholic husband. Ted tries desperately to persuade Joanna to go back with him into their apartment. But she responds by pleading with him in these words: Please don’t make me go in there… If you do, I swear, one day, next week, maybe next year, I don’t know, I’ll go right out the window... I will go right out the window. In other words, if I go back to our marriage, I’ll commit suicide. I’ll die. I’ll be finished.

Finished. One simple word. Two very different meanings. And it is the context that tells us which one is intended. Jerry Maguire or Kramer vs Kramer. Romance or divorce. Completion or death.

No one is complete until they get married. And then they are finished!

More than just a (hopefully) stylish way to begin a homily, this line also happens to highlight a connection that we find in our readings today, if we look hard enough. It is a connection between two questions. The question concerning the death of a marriage. And the question about how to become a complete human being. I say if we look hard enough because, at first glance, our readings don’t seem to say much to us, beyond telling us that divorce is wrong. What God has united, man must not divide. It is true that, in the gospel, Jesus criticises the Jewish law which allowed a man to divorce his wife for the most trivial of reasons. And Jesus does this because this same law could result in the oppression and exploitation of women. But Jesus also takes the discussion of marriage and divorce to a whole new level. From death to completion

Like the Kramers in the movie, and many others undergoing a painful divorce, the Pharisees in the gospel are concerned about the law. Is it against the law for a man to divorce his wife? They want to know how a marriage can be ended. Legally finished. In many circumstances this is, of course, a legitimate concern. For instance, although we Catholics frown on divorce, Canon Law does admit certain narrow exceptions. There may also be certain situations where a civil divorce might actually be a prudent course of action. Even for a Catholic. Such as when s/he may be trapped in an abusive marriage. Provided, of course, that s/he does not remarry. Especially in cases like these, it is important to know what the law says. How to finish a marriage. How to bring it to an end.

But if we remain only at the level of the law. If we consider only one meaning of the word finish. Then we would have too narrow a view of what our scripture readings are saying to us today. For Jesus’ concern is not just with the ending of marriages. But also, and more importantly, with the beginning of creation. Jesus wants us to consider what the book of Genesis says. Not only about how marriages may or may not die. But also, beyond that, about how a person becomes a complete human being.

For Jesus, marriage is much more than a simple contractual alliance. More than just a joint bank account. Or a shared double bed. Marriage is a profound union, in which two people become one body. They are no longer two but one. A new creation. Sharing a common origin. And, as in the movie Jerry Maguire, this union is also somehow a process of completion. To see this, we need to pay close attention to the first reading.

Notice how, at the beginning of the reading, even though the man has already been created, he is still somehow incomplete. God says: It is not good for the man to be alone. And notice too, how the completion of the man is brought about. The process is not quite what Tom Cruise might have had in mind. It is not a filling of some inner emptiness in the man by some external creature. The attempt to do this with other animals fails. They are found to be unsuitable. They do not have enough in common with the man. He can only exert mastery over them. But no real partnership can be formed. No true intimacy is experienced. The man remains lonely. It is only when he falls into a deep sleep, and gives away something of himself, that success is achieved. Quite paradoxically, completion comes only with self-donation. And, with completion, comes true communion. He gives up a rib. And they become one body.

It is at this point that we finally arrive at the heart of what our readings are saying to us today. As you know, the early Fathers of the Church delighted in drawing parallels between the creation of the first couple, and the crucifixion of Christ. Just as the first man fell into a deep sleep. And the first woman was formed from his rib. So too did Christ fall asleep on the Cross. And the Church was born from the blood and water flowing from his side. And just as the first man was completed and came to share a common origin with the first woman, only by giving something of himself. So too was Christ made perfect, through suffering. Only by laying down his life for our sake. So that the one who sanctifies (Christ himself), and the ones who are sanctified (you and me) are of the same stock. Share a common origin.

It becomes clear then, sisters and brothers, that our readings have something very important to say to us today. Regardless of whether or not we have ever been married or divorced. Whether we are women or men. Young or old. For, as baptised Christians, we are all members of the Church of Christ. The same Church that was created when the Lord gave his life for us on the Cross. The same Church that Christ is destined to claim as his bride. To take to himself in marriage. When he comes again at the end of time. And, as members of this Church, the Bride of Christ, we are all called to become like him. To imitate him in giving of ourselves to others. For it is only in doing this that we become fully what we were meant to be. Completion comes through loving self-donation. The kind of self-giving out of which happy marriages are made.

No one is complete until they get married. And then they are finished...

Sisters and brothers, both as individual Christians, and as Church, what must we do to allow the Lord to do for us what Dorothy did for Jerry Maguire? To draw us further towards completion today?

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