"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Turning water into wine

Today's Gospel is about what Jesus did at the wedding at Cana; the first reading is about God's relation as bridegroom to his bride, Israel. It's a good occasion to discuss, in the context of marriage, a topic about which there no longer even seems to be a common vocabulary in Christianity: how the natural and the supernatural are related to each other.

At the Offertory, as he pours a bit of water into the chalice containing wine, the priest prays: "By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity." In a way, that sums the mysterium fidei that the faithful are invited to proclaim after the consecration of the sacred elements. God became human without ceasing to be divine, so that we could become divine without ceasing to be human. The sacraments are the ordinary means by which that is done in the life of the Church. As an efficacious sign of Christ's relationship with his Church, his people who fill out his Body, marriage is one of those sacraments. Jesus' miraculous transformation of water into wine at Cana is in turn a sign of that, among other things. But what, exactly, is it supposed to look like in the concrete?

In Ephesians 5, St. Paul gives us something of an answer. He says: "Husbands, love your wives as Christ loves the Church" and "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord." It amazes me how long it has taken humanity, including Christians, to come to grips with that. Most people have never really wanted to do either, because both are deucedly difficult things to will to do even if one is so "in love" that one wants to do them. Having been married twice with the best of apparent intentions, and twice-divorced, I know I kidded myself about the extent of my own willingness to do so. Indeed, until the 19th century, the idea that love is the basis of marriage was considered optional at best, and in many circles that is once again the case. As the preacher of the papal household, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, puts it:

This affirmation -- that matrimony is based on love -- seems to us to be discounted today. But that marriage should be based on love is something that has only been recognized for little over a century, and it is still not recognized everywhere.

For centuries and millenniums, marriage was a transaction between families, a way of providing for the conservation of a patrimony or a social obligation. The parents and the families were the protagonists, not the spouses, who often did not know each other until the day of the wedding.

Why does Cantalamessa says that love as the basis of matrimony is "discounted today"? Don't people get married because they love each other and want to share their lives? On occasion they do; and it's often believed that they do, especially by the couples themselves. But those occasions are the minority and always have been. For well-understood historical reasons, it took a long time in the West even for people develop the idea that a couple needed to be "in love" with each other in order to have reason enough to marry. But that is not always the case and, even when it is the case, it often does not remain the case. Save for a fortunate minority, spouses do not stay "in love" with each other throughout their marriages, and the challenge of real love often begins at precisely the point where one ceases to be in love. The sort of real love that is supposed to characterize marriage is willed, whether or not desired, and is willed all the more efficaciously precisely when it is not desired. Today's divorce rate indicates that it often is not willed at all and that many people don't even see its necessity. I don't think that such a lack makes contemporary marriage terribly different from the past, when marriage was more of a transaction than a complete, mutual gift of self in agape love, and was held together more by economic necessity and social sanction than by love in the relevant sense. The difference nowadays is that those factors have been steadily weakening. Most people who want to dump their spouses no longer face economic or social disaster for doing it; so, at least half of them go ahead and do it at some point. And many of those who do not go ahead with it still regret their choice of spouse, even though they remain prudent enough not to say so out loud.

I don't say these things to be cynical. I say them so as to point up, by contrast, what is actually involved in the sacrament of marriage in particular and indeed sacraments in general: the miraculous grace of the Lord. When a marriage is truly sacramental, what holds it together and makes it what it is meant to be is the grace of the Lord, which people cannot make happen but can only dispose themselves, by their prayer, attitudes, and actions, to receive. Only then does God turn the weak water of human nature into the wine of divine love, manifest in our actions and persons. And of course that is true of the Christian life in general. It is often said that marriage is not a 50-50 but a 100-100 proposition. So is the life of the intentional disciple: God does it all and we do it all—the latter precisely because of the former. That's synergy, folks.
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