12 Oct 2008
“[Jesus] was obedient to them and His mother kept all these things in her heart.” (Lk 2:51) (+)
Fr. Randy Calvo
The church has long recognized the importance of the family. That’s one of the reasons why marriage is a sacrament in our church, and you know, it really didn’t have to be. As a sacrament the church conveys the grace of God to a couple who have pledged themselves to each other, but marriage is not a sacrament we can trace back to the life of Jesus. When you go to a wedding, the Gospel reading is often the story of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana. This has nothing to do with marriage per se, but at least it took place at one; and since there’s nothing else to tie Jesus and Matrimony together, this is the Gospel account we’re left with by default. There are other Gospel stories that imply marriage, but they are in the context of Jesus’ discussion of divorce – and who wants to hear about that on a couples’ wedding day. But even so, the church raises marriage to the highest dignity she can offer, the dignity of sacrament, because the church recognizes the spiritual and moral importance of marriage.
The Christian family begins with marriage, but once again, there is not a lot offered in the New Testament about this institution. This is why we’re left reading passages that combine the duties of the family with those of masters and slaves. Marriage is defined by our church not as a vehicle for having children. Rather, it is defined by the consecrated love of two people for each other. The Christian family, therefore, is characterized by love regardless of whether there are two people in the family sharing that love or whether that love leads to a Christian family of eight or ten. With this as the premise of the Christian family, it is easy to see why our church in 1921, at the Fourth General Synod, abolished the law requiring priests to remain celibate. It is recorded that Bp. Hodur, our first bishop, spoke against mandatory clerical celibacy since our very first Synod in 1904. The people of our church, however, were not yet ready to listen. Then in 1914, the Third Synod of church adopted today’s feast of the Christian Family. That Synod recognized the sanctity and the sacred vocation of family-life. Once that step was taken, the next Synod could finally abolish mandatory clerical celibacy. Once we had affirmed that the Christian family is about love, we no longer could see marriage as a detriment to or a distraction from the role of the priest.
I’m surprised that it took that long. If we go back to the life of Jesus, His being unmarried would have been highly unusual. Everyone got married in ancient Israel. But throughout the Gospels, Jesus’ status as a single man goes unmentioned. His mission and ministry was not defined by Himself or by others based on this detail of His life, even though it very well could have been. In other words, there were more significant facts about Jesus as prophet, teacher, healer, Messiah, than about His choice not to marry. We can look at Peter who was married. Again, his marital status did not define his mission and ministry. Also, commentators have noted how little weight Paul placed on his own marital status. We don’t even know if he was married or not. Whether the example be single, married or unknown, the message that comes through the biblical word is that marital status does not define a person’s commitment to Christ or a person’s ability to serve Christ.
Instead, Paul tells the Christians of Corinth that some have been given the grace of celibacy and some have been give the grace of family life; both are different and both are sacred (1 Cor. 7:7). Let them live accordingly, he says. That is what our church has done since 1921. The abolishment of mandatory clerical celibacy leaves the choice of marriage and the Christian family up to each individual priest. And I thank God for that decision. I love being a priest, but I don’t think I could be one if the grace of Ordination required a separation from the grace of Matrimony and the Christian family. For me, the two blend and help each other. I know that my Christian family-life helps my priesthood, but I’m not always sure my priesthood helps the family life. Wednesday was my 20th wedding anniversary … Fr. Joe and floor seats for the Celtics given to him by parishioners … Danny Ainge’s autograph. But in all seriousness, priests are called to their vocation; priests’ wives, however, marry into their role; and priest’s children just have to do the best they can – they don’t get a choice. I remember Walter Lasinski telling me a long time ago, it doesn’t matter how good a priest is, a priest’s family can make or break his ministry.
For good and for bad, the home, the family, the Christian family is going to mold the people involved, especially the children. When on occasion a person does something so terrible that it makes the news, we often hear about how bad their childhood was. But more often by far, is the other side of the coin. As a pastor, I’ve been to a lot of funerals. On those occasions when the family wants to say something about the deceased, the memories that last and make a loving impression are most often the kindnesses, idiosyncrasies, and foibles of every day family life. The memories that translate into lessons come from the daily routines of living together. The church honours this fact. The church sees in the Christian family the first and maybe the most important teacher of her members. And this isn’t only about children; this is about life-long lessons that begin in childhood and most often remain with us forever.
For these reasons we today celebrate the gift and the grace of the Christian family. It is truly a sacred vocation ruled by love, care and service. May all our families be filled with the love of God and of each other, because if we learn this one lesson of love all the rest of the faith will fall into place behind it. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
In the name …