Becoming One Flesh

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“But from the beginning of creation, ‘Male and female he made them. Because of this a man will leave his father and mother, and he will be joined to his wife and the two will be one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh.’  What God has joined together, let no man separate.”

Mark 10:5-8

In verse 8 of chapter 10, Mark has Jesus say that it is God who joins a man and woman in marriage and that, therefore, “no man” is to separate them. In Deuteronomy 24:1-4, the basis of the Pharisees’ questioning of Jesus, only the husband was able to initiate divorce proceedings. Thus, Jesus is taking away the embedded sense of patriarchal privilege from the union of marriage. For his time, and perhaps for all time, Jesus has a very different view of the relationship between men and women

“And the two will be one flesh.” In Jesus’ view we are made male and female and, as such, we together make a whole. Today’s gospel, beyond a literal, moralistic, and anachronistic reading, calls us to confront a perennial human conflict: our relationship to the male and the female among us and within us. In the time of Jesus, and in many ways up to relatively modern times, in culture and so in law, women were seen as inferior to men. In the realm of religious traditions, this state of human consciousness somehow continues to be identified, often now unconsciously or unexpressed, with the “proper moral order of things.” At the other extreme, there are some feminist interpretations that perpetuate the sense of male or masculine superiority by proposing that equality means that everyone should be behave and be treated in accord with the social norms and rules of masculine privilege. For Jesus, complementarity seems to be the key. Male and female together are “one flesh.” In the eye of God human personhood is male and female.

It must be remembered that In Jesus’ time, and in many ways to the present time, this complementarity would require a profound transformation of human consciousness. We need each other to become who we are meant to be. Despite the revisionist history that proclaims that from the beginning of creation, marriage was the call to such a bond between husband and wife, the truth is that for most of history it was rather a binding legal contract, with definite duties and responsibilities for each. Many of those responsibilities placed the woman in subservience to the man (Eph. 5:22). Women were subservient because human consciousness has always been engaged to a significant degree in what the psychiatrist Karl Stern termed “The Flight From Woman.”

We hear many critiques of marriage and family in the current age. Yet, as someone who was raised in the 1950’s and 60’s, I find myself tremendously moved when the I see the nurturing presence and attitude of so many young fathers with their children. If in marriage the “two will be one flesh” then each person will be formed by the other ever more fully into the human person they have been created to be. This cannot happen in relationships of subservience or in rigidly defined roles. It can only happen as each comes not only to know and to reverence what is distinctive in the other but to allow him or herself to be evoked in those aspects which have been suppressed or have lain dormant. To perhaps, rather tritely, paraphrase Jesus in contemporary terms: “The two become more together than the sum of their parts.”

What is the meaning of all this in the life of the non-married and celibate person? She or he also must, if they are to become fully human, realize and express this complementarity. As each person in a marriage is formed by and in turn gives form to the other, so the truly celibate person must be formed by those around her or him as well as by her or his own latent capacities and potencies to become, in her or his own life, “one flesh.” Adrian van Kaam says that the human heart is both sensible and responsible. To be responsible for and to the world in action requires first that one’s heart be sensible, that it suffer and so receive form by the experiences of human life. Our completeness as a human person is dependent on our capacity to suffer the joyful and harsh reality of life to such a degree that we begin to be formed into the suffering love of God, in Christ.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34) These words of Jesus are words of a mother suffering the pain of her lost children. There is nothing Jesus can do about this, except pour out his life for them. It is not true that half of the human race is “sensible” and half is “responsible.” The human being that God has created is both. Yet, none of us is able, on our own, to be the one whom God created. It is in union, it is in communion, that we become that body and spirit that God has created us to be.

Every moment of life reminds us of how far away we always are from being the one we are called to be.  In marriage or in celibacy, we are always learning how to be together and how to complement each other. This is what leads Pope Francis to say it is not either the teaching of the ideal or compassionate response to our own struggles and failures that is the way; it is rather both. The full complementarity of male and female is not an idea, but it is, as Pope Francis says, “a demanding ideal.” We must always be converting our lives in that direction. Yet, we must also be supported along the way in repentance and by forgiveness. Each of us needs to have the ideal held out to us as the goal to be pursued, but each of us also needs “a field hospital” in which to be treated and healed when our weaknesses, sins and failures leave us wounded along the way.

We must be grateful that most people do value family relationships that are permanent and marked by mutual respect. They appreciate the Church’s efforts to offer guidance and counseling in areas related to growth in love, overcoming conflict and raising children. Many are touched by the power of grace experienced in sacramental Reconciliation and in the Eucharist, grace that helps them face the challenges of marriage and the family. In some countries, especially in various parts of Africa, secularism has not weakened certain traditional values, and marriages forge a strong bond between two wider families, with clearly defined structures for dealing with problems and conflicts. Nowadays we are grateful too for the witness of marriages that have not only proved lasting, but also fruitful and loving. All these factors can inspire a positive and welcoming pastoral approach capable of helping couples to grow in appreciation of the demands of the Gospel. Yet we have often been on the defensive, wasting pastoral energy on denouncing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of  finding true happiness. Many people feel that the Church’s message on marriage and the family does not clearly reflect the preaching and attitudes of Jesus, who set forth a demanding ideal yet never failed to show compassion and closeness to the frailty of individuals like the Samaritan woman or the woman caught in adultery.

Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, #38

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