Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Despite Scandal, God Wants Us to Be Joyful

One of my favorite Catholic authors is Dr. Peter Kreeft, a longtime professor of philosophy at Boston College. Recently, I saw a video where Professor Kreeft discussed Christian joy. He said he was pleased to learn that the Catholic Church will not canonize a saint unless all nine Fruits of the Spirit are present in his or her life. And this includes joy. So, in other words, a Gloomy Gus or a Grouchy Gretchen cannot be declared a saint.

As I’m sure you know, I discussed the nine Fruits of the Spirit about a month ago. What’s that? You don’t remember? You mean you’re not memorizing these brilliant essays? Oh, now I’ve lost all my joy.

Just kidding. I don’t expect you to memorize these essays. I don’t even memorize them. Half the time I’m not even paying attention while I’m writing them. What’s that? Oh, it’s that obvious? Hmm, thanks.

Anyway, to refresh your memory, the nine Fruits of the Spirit, as described by St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians, are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

I fully acknowledge that it might be kind of hard to feel very joyful right now. The Church is mired in this horrible season of shame, with more and more facts being uncovered about sexual predator clergy, Animal House behavior in seminaries, and powerful bishops who willfully ignored these problems.

It is, admittedly, somewhat difficult to declare these days, “I am a joyful Catholic!”

However, we cannot let the present Church scandal take away our joy. First, the men who committed those sinful acts are a very small percentage of the clergy. Most priests are dedicated, holy men who strive to love God and serve God’s people.

Second, and more importantly, we cannot lose sight of the real reason God founded the Church, which is to tell the world that He is real, that His Son Jesus is the Risen Lord, and that the good news of the Gospel can provide the two deepest longings of the human heart: true forgiveness of sins in this world and eternal life in Heaven once our time on earth is over. This news is so breathtakingly good, it should put a permanent smile on our face.

Dr. Kreeft makes this stunning claim: “The Incarnation is the biggest joke in history.”

Now, obviously, he does not mean this in the cynical, sarcastic way a militant atheist might say, “Religion is a joke!”

No, Kreeft is saying that the Incarnation—the divine Lord Jesus taking on human flesh—is the most absurd thing that ever happened in world history. Just think about it: the almighty, all-perfect, supernatural Creator of the Universe decided to lower Himself and become one of His dirty, smelly creatures.

The key to all humor is surprise. Think about the first time you heard a very funny joke compared to the tenth time you heard it. When there is no surprise, there is no humor.

The most surprising, startling, stunning thing that has ever happened in the last 15 billion years is the Incarnation: God becoming man. It’s like a farmer deciding to sleep in the pigpen. It’s like the corporate CEO deciding to scrub toilets with the cleaning staff. It is so amazingly unexpected, we can’t help but laugh out loud.

The Gospel message brings joy. The fact that God loves us so much that He sent His only begotten Son to rescue us from sin is the most wonderful news of all time. If it doesn’t put a smile on your face, then maybe you don’t quite understand the true Gospel message.

Despite the frustration, sadness, and anger produced by the Church’s season of shame, we cannot lose sight of the big picture. God is still God, and He is still in charge. Let’s not give in to the temptation to be a Gloomy Gus or a Grouchy Gretchen. God wants us to be filled with joy.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Movies vs. Books, Part 3

Occasionally people ask me where I get ideas for this weekly humor column. I always try to be honest, so I reply, “Drug flashbacks from the 1970s.” However, sometimes I get my ideas from a different but equally as mind-altering source: the readers.

A while back I wrote a column stating that a movie is never as good as the novel it’s based on. I also asked readers for their input on this subject. As you may remember, over 50-percent of last week’s column was comprised of the views and opinions sent in by readers. Creating a column by cutting and pasting other people’s words is by far my favorite way to write. (Kind of reminds me of doing a term paper in college, except the amount of other people’s words was more like 99-percent.)

Anyway, I am pleased to announce that yet another column, this one, will be devoted to the same movies vs. books topic, again with a sizable percentage of words that are not mine.

Sheila M. contacted me and pointed out that you really cannot compare movies and books because they are completely different mediums. She also mentioned that although she reads a lot of books, she really loves movies. She has a good friend who loves novels, and they’ve been debating this topic for a long time. If I had only known that, I would’ve let them provide the words for many of my previous columns. Based on other email notes I’ve received over the years, that’s something I probably should’ve done.

Sheila also explained that a good movie provides a satisfying story in approximately two hours, while a novel can take days or weeks to complete. Movies free up time for Sheila to clean her house. (Don’t tell Sheila that I’m sharing this with you, but she added this: “I have often excused my messy housework by stating I was reading a good book I couldn't put down.”)

Another person who contacted me is Dave L. I know Dave personally. He’s a terrific writer and the author of many books. (I suppose Dave won’t mind if I mention his last name is Lopardo, as long as I don’t reveal his preferred method for avoiding housework.)

Dave wrote, “I firmly believe that when you make a movie into a book, there always seems to be one character missing, and that person is THE AUTHOR. The movie ends up being the producer and director’s INTERPRETATION of the book.”

This is a good point, and it’s the precise reason I would never let a Hollywood studio make a film version of my novel. (Unless, of course, they offered me money. Anything over a hundred bucks would probably do the trick.) If a Hollywood producer happens to be reading this newspaper, my suspense novel is called Purge the Evil, and Matt Damon and Sofia Vergara would be perfect in the starring roles.

Speaking of books, I recently self-published another collection of my weekly humor columns, titled A Matter of Laugh or Death (Parenthetical Comments from the Back Row). It contains 100 of my favorite essays from the past decade. Years ago, I really thought I could get a big publishing house to print and market my books. But now that I know how the publishing business works—apparently they prefer quality material, sheesh!—here is a more realistic plan: if you’d like a copy of my book, send a note to MerryCatholic@gmail.com with your name and address. I’ll mail you a copy, and if you like it, send me a check for 15 bucks. If you don’t like it, mail the book back.

And if you want to turn it into a movie, be aware that I drive a hard bargain.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Don’t Lose Heart, My Dear

Please, my dear, don’t cry. I know it was a shock when the doctor said you have cancer. There are few words in the English language more frightening than that one. But don’t forget, the doctor also said there is a 100-percent chance for a full recovery. The disease you have is serious, but with intense treatment, the cancer can be completely eradicated and you will return to health.

It is a relief, you must admit, to know finally why you’ve been feeling so poorly for so long. There were the nagging pains and feeling of weakness. There were those long bouts of apathy and confusion. There were so many days when you went through the motions because you just didn’t feel like your normal self. We both suspected something was wrong, but we just couldn’t put our finger on it. Maybe, as we thought before the recent test results were revealed, it was simply the things one experiences at a particular stage of life. Maybe when one reaches a certain age, aches and pains and problems are common and normal.

However, now we know the cause of all those uncomfortable symptoms: cancer. Yes, I know it’s hard even to say the word. But say it we must. Cancer. There are malignant growths chewing away at your vital organs. It is a fact. It’s a depressing fact, to be sure, but a fact we must confront with all of our strength and will.

My dear, I know the future is frightening. The treatments you must endure in the short term will be painful and exhausting. There’s no sugar-coating that reality. Those cancer cells were doing their dirty deeds in secret, and it never even dawned on us that the disease was so widespread. But now it’s all out in the open. The diagnostic tests are conclusive beyond a doubt. The enemy has been exposed at last, and now all the powers of medicine are focused on removing each and every nasty cell. It’s even more comforting to know that the Great Physician has agreed to take on your case. He has the amazing ability, like no one else, to remove all filth and purify you completely.

So, do not despair, my dear. The coming months and years will be painful as you go through the surgeries and treatments. You will probably lose a great deal of weight and become a shell of your former self. You surely will be weaker for quite a while. Many people will see you and shake their heads, certain that your case is terminal with no chance of recovery.

But when that happens, please know that the cleansing process will already be well underway. The final outcome is already pre-ordained. When the treatments take effect and the cancer is removed, your strength will return and a new sense of vitality and holiness will fill you, such that you have not experienced is ages.

Don’t fret, my dear, and never lose hope. The Great Physician is on the case, and He assured us that the power of this cancer is nothing compared to His healing power. I believed He phrased it something like this, “The gates of Hell shall not prevail!” What a delightfully poetic way to put it.

You are precious, my dear, and you will be healed. The nastiness of this cancer has caused a great deal of pain, but it soon will be gone. Once again you will be strong and vibrant and a force for good in the world. After all, my dear, you are the Catholic Church, the bride of Christ. He has promised that He will never leave you nor forsake you, even during this season of scandal.

Friday, October 19, 2018

The Readers Reply: Movies vs. Books

A couple of weeks ago I wrote that a movie is never as good as the novel it’s based on. I cited two examples: “Jaws” and “The Godfather,” two very good movies, but in my view the books were even better. Also, I asked readers to contact me with their opinion on this subject, especially if they thought a particular movie was better than the book.

Apparently, we have a lot of literati movie fans in western Connecticut, because my email inbox was so jam-packed, it looked like AARP was doing one of their periodic membership drives — which they do about every 90 minutes.

Susan L. opined that “Gone With the Wind” was better than the book. (I was, of course, compelled to reply to her note with this comment: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”)

Joe S. was surprised that “Die Hard” was on a Variety magazine list of movies that were better than the novel. “‘Die Hard’ was a book?!?!” he exclaimed. Good point. The movie was somewhat entertaining, but it seems like it either was based on a comic book, or they didn’t actually have a written script and just told Bruce Willis to shoot guns for a few days and then they’d try to piece together something in the editing room.

Here is a summary of many replies I received, listing the name of the respondent and the movies he or she thought were better than the original book: Barb N., “Life of Pi.” Michelle L., “Slaughterhouse 5.” Jenn B., “Contact.” Doug H., “The Long Hot Summer,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Dr. Zhivago,” and “The Great Escape.” (By the way, Doug is a friend of mine and the fact he has read that many novels struck me as, um, kind of surprising.)

I also received notes from: Doug O., “Where Eagles Dare,” “Guns of Navarone,” and “Ice Station Zebra.” Maureen M., “The Perfect Storm.” William F., “To Have and Have Not.” (Ooh, Lauren Bacall sizzled in her screen debut.) Rex L., “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Shawshank Redemption.” Larry W, “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” (Larry pointed out that he’s referring to the TV version, not the horrible Jim Carrey movie, because the music in the TV special “had a good beat and you could dance to it.” Because of Larry’s clever “American Bandstand” reference, I bet he gets as much junk mail from AARP as I do.)

A few additional observations about this exercise. My original column appeared in the newspaper when the Red Sox vs. Yankees playoff series was taking place. Many of the notes I received offered brief references to movies and books, but long paragraphs about baseball. One note particularly stood out. Mike M., a passionate Yankees fan, gave this heartfelt wish to me, a passionate Red Sox fan: “Every time you travel I hope you get the middle seat.” Thanks, Mike. The last time I was on a business trip, I was in the middle seat between two overweight and sweaty guys. (Which meant on that delightful flight to Chicago our row had three overweight and sweaty guys.)

Another observation: a few people took umbrage with the fact I stated that Jaws and The Godfather were terrific novels. Hey, I never said I was a high-brow literature snob. I like what I like, and for me those two books were enjoyable page-turners.

Finally, because of all the emails I received, I now have at least 25 movies I need to see and 50 books I need to read. I suppose I can do that at my office. If my boss complains, I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

What Makes a Mass Invalid?

Here’s a question for you: if a priest just goes through the motions, and says Mass quickly and inattentively, does it count as a real Mass?

A friend mentioned to me that he recently attended a daily Mass at his parish, and there was a substitute priest who zipped through the whole Mass in a fast monotone, with no homily and seemingly no interest or reverence for what he was doing.

When Mass ended, the priest quickly walked out without saying anything or making eye contact with anyone. The entire Mass was over in slightly more than ten minutes.

So, my friend wondered whether that Mass actually counted, because it seemed like the priest was completely disinterested.

Thankfully, the Mass and Eucharist are so important that God set things up so it’s almost impossible for a Mass to be invalid. According to the website Catholic Answers, the validity of Mass depends on four things: minister, intent, matter, and form.

 Minister — If a priest has been ordained and has not had his faculties suspended by the bishop, then he is able to say Mass, regardless of how bored or tired or distracted he might be at the moment.

Intent — As long as the priest intends to celebrate Mass and consecrate the Eucharist, it is valid. For his intent to be invalid, the priest would have to approach Mass thinking something like this: “What I am doing is NOT the Eucharist. I don’t believe any of this stuff, and I'm only play-acting for those gullible people in the pews!” It’s very unlikely any priest would approach the altar with those thoughts.

Matter — The bread must be unleavened wheat bread and the wine must be real wine with a dash of water, so unless the priest is using something obviously wrong, such as Pop-Tarts and Pepsi, then the consecration is valid.

Form — The correct Eucharistic prayers must be verbalized. The Catholic Answers website explains that if improper or unauthorized words are used, the Mass may be considered illicit and/or sinful, but not necessarily invalid. As long as the words used for consecration express the fact that “This is my body” and “This is my blood,” then the consecration will be valid.

So, it’s good to know that it’s almost impossible for a Mass to be invalid. If you attend a Mass where the priest seems to be bored and disinterested, or even angry and frustrated, a supernatural miracle still occurs and Jesus still truly becomes present in the Eucharist.

However, a more important question might be this: why is the priest so bored or angry that he’s doing the Mass in a fast monotone, seemingly desperate to get it over with and get out?

When was the last time you thanked a priest for being a priest? I hope you realize what a major sacrifice it is for a man to take a vow of celibacy and devote the rest of his life to being overworked and underpaid. If a priest is occasionally told that the parishioners appreciate his sacrifice, that might put him in a better mood.

When was the last time you took your priest out to dinner, or invited him over for a homecooked meal? Besides being overworked and underpaid, many priests nowadays suffer bouts of painful loneliness. It’s not like the old days, when each parish had two or three priests, so they always had companionship. These days, with the acute priest shortage, our parish priests go home every evening to an empty rectory, where there’s no one with whom they can share their struggles and worries. A little “off the clock,” non-job-related conversation might be very welcomed.

If you ever attend a Mass where the priest just goes through the motions, do three things: first, be thankful the Mass is valid and Jesus is truly present. Second, say a prayer for that priest, asking God to help him with whatever is bothering him. Finally, if you can catch him at the end of Mass, thank him for being a priest, and ask him if you can buy him a cup of coffee. Even if he says no, I bet it will make him feel better.

*    *    *

By the way, coming up this weekend is the annual Connecticut Catholic Men’s Conference, one of the most exciting and uplifting events of the whole year. This day-long celebration of faith is on Saturday, October 20th, at St. Paul’s High School in Bristol, CT. Go to CTCatholicMen.org to order your tickets. It’s a great day with great speakers, great food, and great fellowship. I hope to see you there!

Friday, October 12, 2018

This Soldier is Roamin’ Away from Battle

About a month ago, I wrote about my tender feet and expressed surprise that the Roman Empire conquered most of the known world 2,000 years ago using soldiers who wore only skimpy sandals. I observed that I never could’ve been an effective Roman soldier, unless some military contractor quickly invented and then supplied me with a pair of regulation Army boots.

If I had to go into battle wearing what they wore — flip-flops with a thin strap around the ankle — I would’ve limped over to the aid station within five minutes of the first shot being fired. Oh wait, that was 2,000 years ago. I mean, within five minutes of the first arrow being launched.

I can just see it now: after assisting soldiers who had limbs chopped off, arrows lodged into their necks, and various other battle injuries, the Roman doctor gets to me and says, “Where are you wounded?” and I reply, “Well, you see, I have kind of a hot spot on the ball of my foot, and I can just tell it’s gonna turn into a blister if I keep walking on it. So, I think I’ll hang out here for the rest of the day and soak my foot in water, OK?”

Yeah, I’m sure that would’ve gone over really well with the commanding officer, as soon as Dr. Hawkeyeicus Piercius turned me over to the MPs.

Anyway, after that essay appeared in the paper, a reader sent me an email and agreed that I never would’ve made it as a Roman soldier. However, he said it would not have been because of my sore feet. Instead, he pointed out that long before my feet started to hurt, my fair Irish skin would’ve been burnt to a crisp by the harsh Mediterranean sun.

That’s a good point. There probably were very few Roman soldiers who got sunburned from sitting next to a 60-watt light bulb. Oh wait, this was 2,000 years ago. I mean, from sitting next to a 60-watt oil lamp. (Yes, I’m exaggerating. I’ve never gotten sunburned from a 60-watt light bulb. But I did turn ruby red after sitting by a pool in Florida for no more than 20 minutes. I spent the remainder of the vacation hiding indoors applying Noxema to my shoulders with a kitchen spatula while everyone else had fun.)

If the military back then did not even have halfway decent footwear for the soldiers, I’m pretty sure they were not handing out bottles of SPF-50 sunblock to the troops.

There are actually many reasons why I never would’ve made it as a Roman soldier. I suppose the most obvious reason is the fact I was born in 1957 while the Roman Empire collapsed in the year 476. But assuming I happened to live back then, I still would’ve washed out of Roman boot camp. Oh wait, that was 2,000 years ago. I mean, Roman sandal camp.

First, I’m a wimp. I get squeamish at the sight of blood, especially my own. Next, I get very cranky if I happen to be in a place with poor wifi service, and I understand Roman soldiers rarely got online with their iPads. That would’ve driven me nuts.

Also, I am lactose intolerant. If the Roman soldier diet 2,000 years ago was anything like Italian restaurants today — that is, loaded with formaggio — I would’ve spent most of my military enlistment in the men’s room. Oh wait, that was 2,000 years ago. I mean, in the woods.

I am very glad I was never a Roman soldier. And I’m sure the Romans are glad, too, since if I was fighting for them, the Empire would’ve collapsed a hundred years sooner.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Honor the Lord’s Day

The Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses our Sunday obligation. In addition to the requirement of attending Mass, it says this: “On Sundays…the faithful are to refrain from engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God…and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body” (CCC 2185).

The Catechism goes on to say that if certain people are required to work on Sunday—for example, medical professionals, law enforcement personnel, retail or food service workers—then it’s OK to go to work, as long as these folks set aside some time to worship God.

But for the rest of us who do not have to go to our regular jobs on Sundays, what’s all this talk about “appropriate relaxation of mind and body”? Do we even pretend to do that anymore? Sunday has become the day of sports and traveling and yardwork and shopping and a zillion other activities that are anything but restful or relaxing for our minds and bodies. And we wonder why we’re so exhausted all the time?

If you’ve been around as long as I have, you probably remember when Sundays were indeed a day of rest. If you went downtown, nothing was open. I can remember getting ready to go to church on Sunday morning and my father exclaiming, “Oh no, I forget to put gas in the car yesterday! I hope there’s enough in the tank to last until tomorrow morning.”

That’s right, even the gas stations were closed on Sundays. And back then, there were no self-serve pumps with built-in credit card readers. You had to pay up front, usually in cash, and then the attendant pumped the gas for you. (He also often cleaned your windshield and checked the oil, things I forget to do nowadays for years at a time.)

Anyway, Sundays may have been a little boring back in those days, but our culture was still respectful of Christian traditions, so Sunday was understood to be a “day of rest.” Most of society willingly went along with it. Now, Sunday is just the second day of the weekend, and if you ask the average person in our culture this question, “Did you know Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest?” I suspect his or her reply would be something like, “Umm, I don’t know what you’re talking about. But I gotta go. We’re late for little Jimmy’s soccer practice!”

In the beginning, God took six days to create the heavens and the earth, and then He rested on the seventh day. God set the example for us. After working hard for six days, we should take a day off. You may think this story from Genesis is merely symbolic, and it probably is, but God made sure mankind preserved this story because it tells important truths about Him and about us. First, it tells us that God truly loves us and cares about us, so much so that He wants us to be refreshed and well-rested. And it tells us that we are not machines. We cannot go full speed day after day after day without eventually breaking down. We need a day off.

Modern medicine has confirmed that one day of rest every seven days is an ideal system. It’s a terrific method for keeping us refreshed and strong. It prevents us from getting worn out and depressed.

Our culture no longer respects Christian traditions, so closed stores and empty streets on Sunday are not coming back anytime soon. We need to create the “Sunday rest” on our own. There are two things we need to do: first, read Scripture and the Catechism to assure ourselves that the Sunday rest is indeed a divinely-ordained blessing. Second, we need to develop the habit of saying no. We need to say no to invitations to shop or travel or go to a ballgame. We should stay home and rest. We can read the Sunday newspaper, take a nap, talk with our loved ones, and simply enjoy the rest God wants us to have and our body desperately need.

Honoring the Lord’s Day is one of the Ten Commandments. If we really do it, we’ll be amazed at how much energy and optimism we have, which enables us to deal successfully with the rest of the week.

By the way, coming up soon is the annual Connecticut Catholic Men’s Conference, one of the most exciting and uplifting events of the whole year. This day-long celebration of faith is on Saturday, October 20th, at St. Paul’s High School in Bristol, CT. Go to CTCatholicMen.org to order your tickets. It’s a great day with great speakers, great food, and great fellowship. I hope to see you there!

Friday, October 5, 2018

Is the Movie Better Than the Novel?

Sometimes I find myself lost in thought, pondering the many deep and philosophical questions facing humankind. Recently, this is what I spent a few hours contemplating: Has there ever been a movie that was better than the original novel?

After much rumination, I concluded the answer is “no,” there has never been a movie that was better than the original novel. And I’m not alone with that opinion. Novelist John le CarrĂ© famously quipped, “Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes.”

(In the 17-plus years of writing this weekly humor column, I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve had to type the phrase “bouillon cubes,” which would make a great name for a rock band.)

Admittedly, my personal sample size is rather small. I estimate I’ve seen about 30 movies over the years where I’ve also read the novels on which they were based. Even very good movies — such as “Jaws” and “The Godfather”— can’t hold a candle to the original novels.

For example, Steven Spielberg did a terrific job creating the film adaptation of Peter Benchley’s best-selling shark terror story. He inserted some clever Hollywood-style moments of surprise and humor. And the big bang ending was emotionally cathartic for the audience, but completely ridiculous. However, the film never captured the powerful social class undercurrents of the novel. Instead of a short, bearded smart-aleck (Richard Dreyfuss), the oceanographer character, Matt Hooper, was in the novel a tall handsome upper-class preppie. Hooper’s presence in town triggers suppressed resentments in Chief Brody’s wife, who many years earlier gave up her social privilege to marry a middle-class cop. (I won’t give away how Hooper and Mrs. Brody dealt with this tension.)

 Anyway, good movie, better book.

Same thing with “The Godfather.” Francis Ford Coppola’s award-winner classic is a great movie, in large measure because it stayed so faithful to Mario Puzo’s novel. It even added some of my all-time favorite movie lines: “Leave the gun; take the cannolis,” and, “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.”

Like all movies, there was simply no time to explore the back stories of interesting characters, such as Johnny Fontaine, Jack Woltz, Lucy Mancini, Al Neri, Moe Green, and the aforementioned Brasi. Again, it was a wonderful movie, but the novel was better.

So, imagine my surprise when I found an online article, published by Variety magazine, titled, “Ten Movies That Are Better Than the Book.” Right at the top of the list were these films: “Jaws” and “The Godfather.” Wait a minute! I know “Variety” is a Hollywood industry publication, but did those guys even read the novels?

By the way, the other movies on the list were: “Psycho,” “Planet of the Apes,” “The Spy Who Loved Me,” “Die Hard,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Jackie Brown,” “The Notebook,” and “Fifty Shades of Gray.”

“The Spy Who Loved Me” is the only one where I’ve seen the film and read the novel. It shouldn’t even be on a list like this, because other than having a central character named James Bond and the same title, the movie’s plot is 100-percent different than the novel’s story. (And both were mediocre at best. Ian Fleming acknowledged it was one of his worst Bond books.)

I’m curious what you think about this subject. Do you agree that the movie is never as good as the novel it’s based on? Or do you think there are movies that are better than the novel? Feel free to contact me at MerryCatholic@gmail.com and let me know. If you make a good argument for your point of view — or at least write something funny — I’ll include it in a future column.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

What God Has Joined Let No Man Separate

Occasionally, people will use an interesting debate tactic. They’ll say, “Jesus never talked about [blank], so how can anyone claim to know what he really thought about it?”

Most of the time this technique is not sincere, and it’s meant to muddle the discussion about an uncomfortable topic. Well, in this week’s gospel reading, Jesus made a clear statement about an uncomfortable topic, and there is no need to speculate about what He really thought about it.

Jesus said this about marriage: “What God has joined together, no human being must separate.” Then He added, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.”

This is a very uncomfortable subject nowadays because every single person in America now either is divorced or has a very close friend or relative who is divorced. Even people who are blessed to be happily married for many years find this topic uncomfortable. (In my case I am very, VERY blessed. My darling wife of over 36 years is patient and loving and patient and kind and patient. Did I mention that she’s patient? She has to be; she’s married to me.)

Divorce is one of the most difficult topics in our society. On the one hand, Jesus’ words are quite clear: divorce is wrong. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll agree that the high rate of divorce in our culture is not a good thing. The breakdown of the family has produced millions of kids who are now being raised by single parents, or by a series of step-parents, or by mom’s boyfriend-of-the-month. Not good.

On the other hand, we all know of situations where the relationship between spouses has simply collapsed. If they don’t get away from each other soon, someone is likely to end up in the Emergency Room.

So, if you think I’m going to offer a quick solution to this problem, then you must think I’m a lot smarter than I am. I don’t have a solution. All I know is that divorce is sad. It’s like a death in the family. Quoting this week’s first reading from Genesis, Jesus said, “A man shall…be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

When two people are married, a new single organism is created, the “one flesh” Jesus spoke about. A divorce is the death of that “one flesh.” Like all deaths, it is terribly sad.

Although I don’t have any solutions, I’d like to make an observation. In the gospel reading, when the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” He answered their question with a question, “What did Moses command you?”

They replied, “Moses permitted a husband to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her.”

And that is true. Moses, the great law-giver of the Old Testament, allowed a man to dismiss his wife (Deuteronomy, chapter 24).

But then Jesus offered His amazing statement, explaining why Moses did it. “Because of the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this commandment.”

Wow. Moses actually gave a specific law to the people of Israel, not because it was God’s will for them, but because they were so stubborn and selfish.

I wonder how many of our laws today—whether criminal laws, civil laws, or church laws—exist not because of what is right and just, but exist because of our stubbornness and selfishness?

If people spent a little less time looking inward and saying, “My will be done,” and instead looked heavenward and said, “Thy will be done,” maybe our culture would be just a little less stubborn and selfish. And maybe our marriages and families just might stay intact at a higher rate than we now see. I suspect if that happened, it would put quite a smile on Jesus’ face.