Bishop Anthony Homily - Celebrating the Journey, Sunday 14 September 2014
Homily of Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP - Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross + “Celebrating the Journey”, St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta, Sunday 14 September 2014
Welcome to this Mass of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Today we celebrate the journey of marriage by couples who’ve been together for 25 years or more.
Today is also National Child Protection Sunday. This year’s theme is “Protecting Children is Everybody’s Business – Play Your Part”.
These two themes are obviously connected: the surest way to protect our children is by giving them the safety and security of the marriage-based family. But our Church and our whole community must support marriage and family and remain ever-vigilant about the safety of young people, and for this we pray today.
The legend of Count Dracula and his vampires was introduced in the nineteenth century by Bram Stoker’s novel, popularised in the twentieth century by countless copy-cat books and shows, and was so famous by the twenty-first century that Dracula now has more movies to his credit than any other character in fiction! Whether their tourist office likes it or not, Count Dracula is all most Aussies know about Transylvania or indeed Romania.
Perhaps Transylvania should better be known for the Ehe-Gefängnis or “marriage prison”. Some of the long-married here may have been tempted at times to think marriage itself is a kind of imprisonment. But the Transylvanian idea is different: beside some ancient churches they have a small cell especially for couples considering divorce. Before going to court to untie the knot, they would first be locked together in the cell for several weeks with a single bed, chair, plate, knife, fork and cup. For a couple already at war, you’d think this would clinch the deal and that as soon as they were released they’d be off to court to formalise the divorce, if they hadn’t already used the knife to achieve the same end! Strangely, however, the opposite happened: confined for a few days with nothing else but each other, they would re-emerge into the world having fallen back in love (T Hodgkinson, “A Transylvanian Notebook”, Spectator, 21 September 2013).
Why? I wonder. Well, we know that the secret of marital longevity and indeed happiness for single people too is the genuine gift of self. With only one bed, chair and spoon to share, these married couples were forced by circumstances to confront their own selfishness and assume a more selfless posture, if only for survival’s sake. To preserve their sanity, they had to relearn how to share, first mundane things such as a cup, then their bodies, minds and hearts. Only then could they recall the shared emotions and dreams that had first brought them together. Re-glued together, they emerged from the marriage cell renewed in marriage. Perhaps CatholicCare might consider this strategy for couples coming to them for counselling!
The paradox that true happiness comes from self-sacrifice rather than self-regard, from concern for the other’s wellbeing rather than concern for self, is at the heart of the Feast we celebrate today. You might say it is the Church’s equivalent April Fools’ Day: on September Fools’ Day we celebrate that stumbling block preached by St Paul, the foolishness that says life comes through death, happiness through putting others first, redemption through the cross (1Cor 1:18, 22).
On Good Friday a minister brings in a cross for veneration and gradually uncovers it while singing “Ecce lignum Crucis! Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the salvation of the world: come let us adore.” There is a paradox at the heart of Christian faith hinted at in all our readings today: that an instrument of torture could unwittingly be the means of salvation; that a cruel death could be the way to life for all humanity; that the laurel of righteousness comes after the marathon of self-abnegation (cf. 2Tim 4:8). The murmuring People of Israel in our first reading would have preferred to return to slavery than endure hardship on their way to the Promised Land, yet rather than give up on them God gave them the instrument by which they would be freed from their sufferings (Num 21:4-9). In the beautiful Philippians hymn that we heard in our epistle, God the Son is praised for not flinching at giving Himself so completely that it cost His very life before He was exalted by the Father and the Church (Phil 2:6-11). And in our Gospel both stories are explained as the ultimate love story: that God so loved the world He gave His only Son (Jn 3:13-17). Our September Fools’ Day reveals that Jesus is the ultimate destroyer of snakes and vampires, of sin and selfishness, indeed of Death itself, not out of hatred but out of love for human beings. As St Catherine of Siena poetically concluded: God is so intoxicated, so insane, so madly in love with His human creatures that He loves them into life and Himself into death, for their sake.
The love of spouses in successful marriages imitates this self-donative love of Christ. The town of Siroki-Brijeg in Bosnia-Herzegovina has a population of 27,000 and not a single recorded divorce. Their secret to marital longevity is a little different from their Transylvanian neighbours. Instead of waiting for marriages to fail and then locking up the couples in a therapeutic asylum, they get in earlier with a kind of vaccination. On their wedding day the bride and groom bring an object to Church to be blessed with them. They place their right hands upon it and the priest binds their hands to it with his stole as they pronounce their vows. Having been declared man and wife the newlyweds kiss the object before kissing each other. They then hang it in a place of honour in their new home as a permanent reminder of their wedding vows.
The object is, of course, a crucifix. After blessing it the priest proclaims to the spouses: “You have found your Cross! It is a Cross to love and carry with you, a Cross never to be discarded but always to be cherished.” The thought is that married love, far from being the comfy, touchy-feely heart-shaped love of Valentines Day is the tougher, more demanding, more self-giving, cross-shaped love of Good Friday. Those of you who’ve been married a quarter-century, a half-century or more, know better than I do the joys and griefs of married life. But your story tells the story of Christ: that by the foolish grace of God Resurrection follows Crucifixion; the sacrifice of spouses can be truly fruitful, in children, in building a family together, in building yourselves and each other up as saints, in witnessing to others. And that speaks to all of us, not just the married couples we celebrate today or the newlyweds married less than 25 years. Even to consecrated celibates and to single people it speaks of commitment and sacrifice and ultimate happiness.So Transylvania and Bosnia-Herzegovina have some interesting takes on married love: I’m not sure how these customs would go down in Australia! Perhaps I should build a ‘marriage prison’ as part of the new works planned for the land beside the cathedral. Perhaps I should give our newlyweds a cross to kiss before their spouse. But to our old-timers here today, including one couple married 66 years, I say: thanks be to God and to you for your examples of generous loving! Thank-you for the cruciform beauty of your married love! Ad multos annos!
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