Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Most Important Sacrament

Readings for Sunday, February 15/ 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46
Psalm 32:1-1, 5, 11
1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1
Mark 1:40-45

One day in seminary our sacramental theology professor simply asked us the question, “Which sacrament is most important?” and off we went each debating the importance of the sacraments and essentially playing a highly theological game of paper-rock-scissors, as each point was able to be trumped by another. In the end the point of the exercise was to recognize that each sacrament of the Church really is ‘the most important sacrament’ in regards to some specific situation or theological truth.

A couple of weeks ago I preached about the priesthood and the weight that it can sometimes carry for those who exercise such a ministry. In practical terms, this often comes out as the community looking to the priest as having the more difficult vocation and ‘taking one for the team’ by not getting married and serving the Church. While this latter view is clearly a poor understanding of the priesthood, it seems to me in many respects that the former assertion is also false. Why so? Because while I may be obliged to a higher level of holiness because of my ordination, at the end of the day I return to a rectory wherein I can leave my stuff where I feel like it, I can wash the dishes or just leave them in the sink, I can squeeze the toothpaste tube wherever I want, etc. In short, priestly life is intense when in the community but in the rectory I am left to myself and able to maintain a life according to my preferences and not be concerned about others’ conflicting with mine. A married person does not have that luxury but necessary interacts with another person – and in a family, multiple people – who challenge some of those preferences and provides the raw material of growing in holiness, namely the opportunity to serve others rather than self.

When I asked several ladies at my previous parish assignment the secret to a good marriage they quickly responded ‘separate sinks, separate closets, and a lot of love’. This gets to that reality that marriage necessarily involves some challenges to the personal space and preferences, but even more, it confirmed what every single one of us knows about relationships: that love must necessarily be present for it to work.

In the scriptures we just heard proclaimed we hear about the life of lepers. To be a leper was bad enough just from the illness itself, but this was intensified by the isolation that accompanied the illness. In the Jewish context, to be a leper made one unclean. To be unclean wasn’t that one was a sinner, so much as they were unable to enter into worship at the Temple. To be unclean was also a restriction in interacting with others because if an ‘unclean person’ touched a ‘clean person’ then they were both unclean. For this reason, and for health reasons with the leprosy, the lepers were made to keep their bodies visible for others to see the illness and stay free from them. Additionally, they had to shout ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ as they walked around so that others might stay clear of them.  And if that weren’t bad enough, they were made to dwell outside the camp away from the community. Imagine the intense isolation that one felt in such  a situation; separated from family, friends, the larger community, and even your God! The human person simply cannot take such isolation. It’s written in our hearts to love and give love to others. Remember the movie Castaway with Tom Hanks. What happens when he finds himself stranded alone on an island? He finds a volleyball, makes a face on it and give it a name all in an attempt to have an ‘other’ with which to interact. That’s why the leper in the gospel responds the way that he does. Some might be shocked that he disobeyed the command of Jesus not to tell anyone but, honestly, I would be shocked if he hadn’t gone to tell everyone. Imagine the joy of being able to go tell everyone what God had done when before he hadn’t even been able to interact with others.

Again, the need to be in relationship with others is written in our hearts and the God Who put it there knows that need and created the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony as a way to fulfill it for those called to the vocation. I say vocation because it is indeed a calling from God. Often when we hear ‘vocations’ we think only of priesthood and religious life, but the Church has always held marriage as a sacred vocation and the basic cell of the Church and the world. It is only by holy marriages that the faith is passed from generation to generation, as the family is the place in which faith is first learned, later deepened, and later personalized in the vocations of the youth. This all happens to the extent that the family resembles the Blessed Trinity. You thought the burden was heavy for me simply to try to live up to being Christ Jesus in the midst of a community, but the family is called to image in a similar way the Trinity itself – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – in your complete gift of self and outpouring of love for the other. The family, founded on a holy marriage, is a place in which the world should look and find the face of the Triune God. Married people: do you feel the weight of that?

All of that is the reason the Church calls people to marriage not on the beach, the mountains or the nice plantation home, but at the altar of God. It is recognizing that God joins the couple together and it is God alone who can sustain them. Just as the man in the Gospel was able to enter once more into relationship with the community by the healing of Jesus, so too Jesus works in a miraculous way to unite two souls together in Holy Matrimony and sustains them in His love and grace so as to be that image of love for the world despite the trials, temptations, and sufferings that come with the natural course of life. This weekend we honor those who are celebrating special anniversaries this year in recognition of their fidelity to each other and the Lord, to set them as models for younger couples to look to for encouragement and wisdom, and to honor the God who has held them in His embrace since their wedding day. May the Lord continue to watch over them and all married couples, strengthening their love for each other, blessing them in their families, and training them in holiness so as to spend eternity together beholding the face of our God.