Message: Marriage for most is the Promised Land. Not a paradise, but a place of great blessings. To stay in the Promised Land requires spiritual combat.
This is the second of four homilies on the Geography of Faith - a concept I borrowed from Bishop Liam Cary of Eastern Oregon. Before begin the series, I had two preliminary homilies: one on why we need divine revelation (the Bible) and one on why God created us. He created us with a purpose - to know and love him and be happy with him forever in heaven. Unfortunately we turned our backs on him and by a process that involved both human sin and divine providence, we wound up in Egypt: a place of slavery to false gods and to a sensuality that becomes a prison. Egypt also represents the futility of salvation by works.
We then saw how God calls us out of Egypt into the desert of decision: a place where we enter a relationship with God. That relationship involves three things: worship of the true God, learning the Commandments and a gaining an understanding of who God is. To help remember these three essentials, I used words that begin with "c": cult, code and creed. Cult is worship; code is the Ten Commandments and the basic creed is: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord alone."
Those things lead to true freedom, not the false freedom of dissipation, but the disciplined freedom that makes possible a beautiful love. That beautiful love is the Promised Land - our goal, our destiny.
This might surprise you at first, but Bishop Cary identifies the Promised Land with marriage.** Marriage is the most basic vocation - where a man and woman become one flesh and, by a life of fidelity, they form a family. There are other vocations - the priesthood, religious life and the consecrated lay state - but we can understand them in relation to the original vocation, the one God gave us in the Garden of Eden: marriage.
So, how is marriage the Promised Land? First, it is the place where most Christians spend their lives: just like in the Bible, God's people spent most of their existence in the land of promise. They spent about 400 years in Egypt, then 40 years in the desert and in about 1200 B.C. they crossed the Jordan River and began the Conquest. They were in the Promised Land for over a thousand years up to the time of Jesus. The Promised Land was their destination, just like marriage is the destination for most Christian - and all of us are called to the fidelity and fruitfulness that marriage represents.
In his now famous interview Pope Francis told about a boy who saw him as a father. "The vow of chastity," said Pope Francis, "must be a vow of fruitfulness."
All of us are called to a fatherhood or motherhood that is fruitful like marriage. Because the fruitfulness of marriage is normal and normative, marriage is the Promised Land. Marriage is also the Promised Land because it is a gift - a gift that requires vigilance, for sure, but a great gift. When the Hebrews were in the desert they envisioned the Promised Land as a place flowing with milk and honey. And it was a beautiful gift: olive trees ready to harvest and rolling hills with pasture for their sheep and cattle.
It was a pure gift from God, but it required constant vigilance. Entering the Promised Land involved them in warfare. When people start reading the Bible, they sometimes get scandalized by all the violence it contains. I can understand that to a degree, but you have to see it the way the early Christians did.*** They applied it to the battle going on in our hearts. The warfare in the Bible reminds us that we are in a life-and-death spiritual combat. We will see next week that it is possible to lose the spiritual war, to lose everything.
Any married couple knows that marriage is a battle - not necessarily with each other - but that the demons are attacking our marriages and families, especially our young families. The Bible with its Geography of Faith helps us understand spiritual warfare.
So the Promised Land is marriage because 1) it is the fruitful place where most Christians spend most of their lives and 2) it is a gift that requires vigilance - spiritual combat. This brings us to the third way that marriage is the Promised Land: to stay in the Promised Land, we have to keep returning to our first love. That's why God sent the prophets - to remind people about what God did for them. In Egypt they were oppressed and they lived in a miserable state. Since God has freed them from slavery, the Israelites had a duty to take special care for those on the margins - the mistreated and the lost. We have readings this Sunday from the great prophet, Amos. With strong words he reminds us of our obligations to the poor.
In the marriage ceremony one of the blessings says, "May you always bear witness to the love of God in the world so that the afflicted and the needy will find in you generous friends and welcome you into the joys of heaven."
About the best thing a young man can do is to marry a good Catholic girl (there's lots of them!), love his wife and form a family. I think of my own parents. They had six kids and by today's standards we would be considered poor - the five boys with one bedroom and my sister with no bedroom, just the couch out in the front room. My parents had plenty of problems and none of us children will go down in history, but on a whole we have helped lift up our society, made it a better place for people on the margins - including ourselves for sure!
There were times when one or other of my parents wanted to throw in the towel. And there are cases when separation is necessary to protect children or to safeguard a spouse. In my folks' case they stuck together - and I can say that in their final years they had a special closeness. When my dad died, all my mom could talk about is that she wanted to be with him again. What about us kids? I asked. But I understood what she meant. In her words I saw my parents' greatest gift to us kids - their love for each other.
When a married couple fights the good fight, when they return to their first love, they lift up the poor. During my years in Peru, I was with people who experienced terrible poverty. Besides direct assistance, I realized that the best thing I could do was to help strengthen marriage. That's when I founded the Mary Bloom Center. It's named after my mom because it promotes the values most important to her: marriage, family and children.
So marriage is the Promised Land: Not a paradise, but a place of great blessings. It's where most Christians spend most of their time and it's the paradigm - the model - for all other vocations because it represents fidelity and fruitfulness. Marriage, like the Promised Land, is a gift that requires constant vigilance - spiritual combat: returning to one's first love, remembering how God rescued us from misery. And therefore we should show special care for the poor, the outcast, the lost.
Next Sunday we hear more about care for the poor and we will see the stakes involved in the spiritual combat. The history of Israel, the Geography of Faith, warns us that we can lose all - eternally.
We live in a world of huge, complex problems. Like the prophet Amos we sometimes feel anger in the face of suffering - especially when the weak suffer at the hands of the strong. In the long run the greatest thing a person can do is to be faithful to his own vocation - for most that is marriage and children. And for those marriages not blessed by children, it means taking on spiritual fatherhood and motherhood. And regarding those who have experienced the pain of divorce, I will say more next week.
Today Jesus tells us that no man can serve two masters. We have to leave the idols of Egypt, be purified in the Desert and come into the Promised Land - a place of combat, not complacency. But Jesus assures us that "the person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones." Amen.
*I was also greatly helped by T3 - The Teen Timeline. What I present is more simplified than that well-done series of videos, but Geography of Faith does touch some of the main points. Most important, I hope to give young people (and older folks as well) a framework for making sense of the Bible and how it applies to our lives today.
**And of course God's relationship to his people is described as a marriage. See: Isaiah 54:5, 62:5; Jeremiah 2:2, Ezekiel 16:18-14 and Hosea 2:17-18
*** At the beginning of the third century Origen of Alexandria wrote that Bible study is like fresh walnuts. The bitter husk corresponds to the literal sense. It requires a lot of work (and even some bitterness) but it is worth the effort to get to the meat inside - the spiritual sense.
From Archives (25th Sunday, Year C):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Audio Files of Homilies
Resources for Geography of Faith
Geography of Faith Retreat by Bishop Liam Cary
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
Are these homilies a help to you? Please consider making a donation to St. Mary of the Valley Parish.
Parish Picture Album
MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru
(new, professional website)
KRA's & SMART Goals (updated September 2013)
My Top Ten Teaching Opportunities
Outline of Geography of Faith
Geography of Faith, Part One (audio file of homily given on September 15, 2013)