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Tom McMahon celebrates three score and twenty today and congratulations from all of us. And the man is never daunted in his exploration of this great adventure we are all engaged in. Today, in his series on the meaning of Sacrament in our Age of Technology his focus turns to marriage. The fundos aren't gunna like this one. At some stage though we're going to have to tie the old man down and ask him: "now Tom, we know you want to rip the rug out from just about every sacrament there is but we presume you still believe in signs and ritual? What is sacramental in the present age? Don't we require some structure? You're not actually wanting to get rid of Sacrament, are you — you're wanting to get back to where the signs mean something intelligible to people today? If we drop some sacraments are there new ones that ought be considered?"
Flashing yellow lights … caution … MARRIAGE?
A preface-word to the wise: when we use the word marriage hereafter we are into multiple appreciations of the word itself; your definition and mine may disagree, as well as 10,000 others. In the global village there is massive diversity in understanding human sexuality and the union of human beings. We will hunt for that period of time when marriage achieved a revered status.
Yellow lights of caution flash as this Polar Express approaches the train yard marked MARRIAGE; this engineer puts on the brakes and slows down as we approach what seems like troubled territory. Perhaps we might call it a mental war zone. The station is festively decorated with balloons and bunting and there are empty champagne bottles strewn about yet there is little sign of vigorous life. A once-married female janitor is sweeping up rice and wilted flowers; there is something eerie about what the concept of worldwide marriage is. I join the Beetles, or Simon and Garfunkle, in asking "what's it all about Alfie?"
Publicly exploring extraordinarily private territory…
Perhaps before we wax wisely we can examine various experiences of what myself and others so easily call the state of marriage; we are publicly exploring extraordinarily private territory. I need keep a close eye on my own deficiencies, as with Fritz Perls I believe everything is projection.. We might keep in mind my life long motto "THERE ARE NO EXPERTS". I have a sense that each marriage union is unique. I'll let the reader guess if I am happily married.
I personally have witnessed over three hundred weddings; am I not qualified as an expert in the field? …… HARDLY! …… priests may mistakenly think of themselves as performing a marriage whereas the couple agrees publicly to a social contract using one form of ritual or another; the couple makes the sign (sacrament) outward to themselves. The rabbi, minister, priest, or whatever is merely the witness that the State and Church trusts to see to it that the contract has been properly done. As Catholic priest I witnessed a wedding wherein I said absolutely nothing. A male or female person who may stand front and center as chief witness is part of the window dressing; she/he could sit in the audience and sign the license as long as the contract words are heard or if sign language were used the tell-tale signs of agreement are seen. The socially acceptable ceremonies wherein a woman has something to say can be traced only as far back as the late 1700's; 85% of women in the 700-year-medieval period never saw a legal ceremony, the contract (consortium from early Roman days) being between the father of a woman and a male who wanted her body to produce offspring. There are letters of protest in American Revolutionary times pointing out that when women have a say in marriage the economy is in jeopardy; this is a throw back to the Middle Ages when women were seen as a commodity.
Marriage is an action-verb!
I personally favor that the community of persons, if they want to assure their tribe of fine genes and integrity, be the witnesses of their own who seek to marry; this of course is ideal and there are problems such as lack of mature community (tribe or clan) and respect for the freedom and individuality of each person. I see the Amish do it (with difficulty) and Tevia in Fiddler on the Roof works out the issue with his daughter (with great pain). The ceremonies we have today are no guarantee that the couple will work together in what we call the state of Marriage. Marriage is an action verb!
America is a polygamous country; people have many marriages with successive partners using the divorce route. The Roman Catholic institution, which first entered the marriage world of ordinary people during the Industrial Revolution, has bent its rules as they now approve of divorce, celibate priests and nuns finding loop holes in canon law that can nullify even a long standing bond. Allow me a story and get out your check book if you want to chuck your present spouse…
40 years ago I visited a family, having dinner with them. Dad was always pushing for Bingo to make church money and wasn't much interested in Vatican Two …… until he heard of some lax church laws. A few years into our new venture THE COMMUNITY OF CHRIST OUR LORD AND BROTHER (right out of LUMEN GENTIUM, Vatican Two's Church in the Modern World), as I stood greeting Sunday mass goers on the stairs of the old 1890's church, he introduced me to "his new wife" with both of his teen age sons on the steps below him. He explained how the church had nullified the marriage he had contracted 20 years previously (in a church ceremony … priest as witness and two baptized catholics … the bond that never could be broken). I really didn't catch the grounds for annulment as I focused on the two sons, wondering about their ideas of legitimacy. (I was also fixated on how I could shove him down the stairs without harming others.) Years later an institutional church canon lawyer explained to me that it was the spiritual sacramental bond that never existed, thus allowing him his second marriage in the Roman Church; of course the unmarried expert told me the first civil bond was legitimate, legitimizing the boys and broken by an act of civil society …… uh! …… pardon me as I re-read what I just wrote and try to wrap my head around this malarkey. (My wife, a cradle catholic, once said to me "don't try your mumbo jumbo on me, fella!")
Someone spoke of my attitude toward marriage recently, questioning why I did not accept the Bible's word on marriage. In the recent California State proposition 8 the proponents against sanctioning gay unions spoke of marriage as a 5000-year-old God-created institution, reserved only for a male and a female. I glanced over my scriptural knowledge (admittedly poor) and a few marriage images came forth … Adam and Eve (and where's the ceremony), David and his harem of 700 and of course David and Bathseeba with Urias in the grave by King Dave's instructions and there is Mary and Joseph (with 15th century lily in hand, symbolizing chastity) … in fairness I have to admit there is the union of Booz and Ruth, yet if I dare to say so the word and meaning of marriage as we understand it in the 21 century is never mentioned in the entire Old Testament. (I'm going to bed tonight after pursuing all 72 books using THE JEROME BIBLICAL COMMENTARY, edited by Reverend Ray Brown S.S.)
GOOD MORNING VIETNAM! …… I am happy to report from my overnight exploration of the JBC that marriage as we know it today is not mentioned in the Old Testament.; yes, there are prohibitions against stealing a man's wife and his ass and other property and there is the Song of Songs where Yahweh is wedded to the Jewish nation. Samsom has many wives as does Solomon and you have the father of the Hebrew people Abraham with wife number one and wife number two …..and maybe more? One finds no Maria (Sound of Music) marrying the Admiral in rich elaborate ceremony yet of course there is mention of queens and kings being political partners as long as she bears the male next in line for the throne. Sorry, you fundamentalists, God seems to have been ignorant of our understanding of marriage when he wrote the Old Testament.
Wait a minute, McMahon! There is Jesus at the wedding feast of Cana. Again sorry to disappoint but scripture scholars say that the story is a dream-vision of the two divided kingdoms of Israel, so bitterly separated and brought to union by the new messiah Jesus — a sort of miracle like turning water into wine.
Speaking of Jews we might do well to keep in mind that Joseph the carpenter from Nazareth would have failed Jewish law if he did not provide for Jesus a wife by his 10th year. Failure to have children was seen as a curse from God; having children, seen as cooperating with the Creator, was obligatory for the sustaining of the race. Don't dismiss Magdalene too easily as did the monks of the 3rd century in getting women out of way and certainly out of the life of the historical Jesus.
As I look back over those 300 weddings I witnessed I realize many were forerunners of the great sexual revolution and many lasted a short time; they were kids, playing house and unaware what hard work lay ahead in making a union successful. Free choice in marriage was new to the human race and not all choices were mature and based in sound reality. Somewhere around the 1970's I became acutely aware of the high American divorce rate, three of these weddings lasting only one day/one night; can you imagine the helplessness I felt for these kids (some were children in later age) as they came to me to have me undo what we had gloriously ceremonially carried out ("we really didn't want to get married but our parents had sunk so much money in the preparation that we could not call it off ….etc. etc…" ). Some of them I know today and their plight haunts me.
It was during this period of time that I began to contemplate getting married myself; Elaine my friend and now wife had been in the wings for fifteen years and she loved me and did I have the courage to commit myself to a person?????? But first off to school and years of talking with professional therapists … and then a degree in psychology and a State of California license as a therapist … and then came two sons and family life with me wearing a wedding band. I had arrived, the professional who still asks at times "what's it all about Alfie?" I hold today that marriage would be a true test of any person who wants to be a servant-priest of Jesus. Celibacy is a cop out.
Our kids are grown with children of their own and we are very successful grandparents … how can anyone fail grandparentship with such lovable tots? At times I think Elaine and I are just getting the idea of what it means to be married, to be partners in all of life.
That's all for this week, folks. Lets chug into the marriage station again next week. We have failed to address what the Church has to do with marriage.
Tom the 12-year seminarian, the lone wolf priest for 26 years, the licensed professional, married father of two, and still asking along with Tevia in Fiddler on the Roof, does she love me? She washes my clothes, cooks my food …. Do I love her? What's marriage all about? 15/11/2008 (my last day in my '70's)
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What are your thoughts on this commentary?