Dominica XVI per Annum B
22 July 2018
One of the most basic, foundational implications of being a person of religious faith is that we believe there are truths of this world and the next that, while true and certain, are beyond our full ability to explain, to understand, and to appreciate. Our limited ability to explain and to understand does not make these truths any less true. I am speaking here of the realm of mystery, things that are true but are higher than the limited human mind can comprehend. What this means for us as people of religious faith is that our ordinary, daily lives, our lives in the natural world, meet and touch the extraordinary and the supernatural, the spiritual world, already present here and whose fullness we will experience in the life after death. In other words, there is value, meaning, and truth here and now that is transcendent, that exists also in realms above and beyond us. Our ordinary, daily life is pregnant with meaning that is true and real, even though it is more than the eyes of the body can see, measure, and evaluate. One of the greatest tricks of the devil is to keep us so busy that we live more like machines and, by keeping silence and reflection at a distance, we soon forget that our life is marked by mystery and the things of God.
Maybe some examples of mystery will help us appreciate that ordinary life is pregnant with extraordinary meaning. At almost every wedding I am privileged to witness, standing as I am nearest the groom, I see mystery in what I will call the breathless reaction of the groom when he first sees his bride on the wedding day. Some physically and visibly gasp. Others sort of lower their heads for a moment with a brief turn of the head as if struggling with emotion. Others tear up. These couples have seen marriage before; they have even been to weddings. They have seen each other countless times before. They have spent months talking about and thinking about marriage. On a mere natural, ordinary level nothing should surprise them. Yet it does! It takes their breath away! That is mystery. Another example: Most of us can talk about the reproductive process and the gestation of new life leading to birth. We can do this rather dryly and without emotion. But I’m willing to bet that if you have been present at or near a newborn’s birth that you might have shed some tears. This is mystery. Perhaps another way to communicate the idea of mystery is to say that life is full of beauty. Deep beauty, not just surface appearances, might be a synonym for mystery.
The beauty and mystery of human life needs our reflection because this week the Church marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most prophetic papal encyclicals, issued by Blessed Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, meaning Of Human Life. Perhaps you already know that this encyclical communicates the long-held teaching of the Church that to properly live conjugal love in a good moral fashion “each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life” (HV 11). For the sake of absolute clarity, this means that any “action which, either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse is specifically intended to prevent procreation” is intrinsically wrong and immoral (HV 14). This is a teaching that we are each obliged to hold. Furthermore, when this teaching is not being observed individual persons and married couples need the grace of confession and the sincere efforts at learning and following a scientific method of natural family planning. Blessed Pope Paul VI was prophetic in predicting the societal fall-out that would occur if the beauty and mystery of sexual love were to be separated from the beauty and mystery of human life by various means of artificial contraception. As he predicted, this separation has led to increased and earlier onset of promiscuity among even the young, increased infidelity, instability in marriage, immoral and evil social engineering in the hands of government authority, increased divorce, abortion, in vitro fertilization, and a generalized category of lower moral standards, which today we can see displayed in homosexual activity, homosexual marriage, and transgenderism. None of what I am saying should be taken as shaming or judgment upon you. Rather, I would point to the confusion generated by the sexual revolution and social upheaval going on in the past decades. Furthermore, I would also borrow God’s words in the first reading: “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture.” New Testament shepherds – bishops and priests – have been silent in confusion, fear, or in their own sinfulness over these same decades. No wonder this teaching is so misunderstood by folks in the pews.
What I hope to leave you with today is the “why” of this teaching. And that takes us right back to my beginning: that our ordinary, daily living in this natural world is pregnant with beauty and mystery that touches upon the extraordinary, the spiritual, and the eternal transcendent realm of God. The Church’s teaching on human life rests directly on the mystery of the spiritual reality of God’s covenant love and the fulfillment of that covenant in the total, self-giving sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Do you married couples reflect on the mystery that there is something more than merely biological or ordinary in the act of your marriage embrace? The devil wants to keep you so busy and occupied, living more like machines, so that the mystery of your vocation in Holy Matrimony escapes you and you begin to think less of the spiritual and extraordinary, and to live as the pagans do. The spirit of the world wants you to think that there can’t be much supernatural and eternal meaning to your married love. But think with me of the history of salvation. Consider the significant moment of the covenant God made with Abraham. The sign of that covenant was circumcision that made of the Hebrews a people of God. Why THAT mark of the covenant? Why there? Why did Abraham and those who entered the covenant with God have to bear a mark on their generative organ? It’s because the ordinary, natural, temporal good of sexual love and its generation of new life in the covenant of marriage is designed by God to be a sign of the extraordinary, supernatural, and eternal regeneration of new life in the covenant God would fulfill in Jesus and which we enter by baptism! Pure sexual love in marriage has that depth of beauty and meaning! The covenantal mark that exposes the very organ of the generation of natural life tells us something of the full spiritual meaning, the dignity, the mystery of human love and human life so essentially part of the married vocation. Your natural life is made pregnant with this meaning by God. This is the truth that the Church can do no less than to uphold and to teach. This is part of the “why” of the moral teaching of this aspect of married life lived in purity. This is what the world and the worldly miss.
What God the Father fulfills in the new covenant of Jesus is accomplished by a total self-gift of the God-man on the Cross. We hear of this in the second reading: “In Christ Jesus you who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ.” That total gift of self, by the shedding of his blood, broke down the separation, the “wall of enmity,” between us and God and made possible new spiritual life in the Church and ultimately in the fullness of Heaven. That total gift of self is what spouses in Holy Matrimony are called to model and to signify by pure marital love free from the various contraceptive measures the world promotes. Seeing the sad prophetic developments predicted by Blessed Pope Paul VI, we can echo the Gospel where Jesus’ “heart was moved with pity… for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Marking the 50th anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae we thank God for this shepherding from the highest authority of the Church. We need to take responsibility to learn how to live in conformity with this teaching. Rejecting the spirit of the world, we find ourselves led to the flowing waters and the fresh green pastures of truth where we see our ordinary lives in their full spiritual and extraordinary meaning! In Jesus Christ and in His Church we find fulfilled the Father’s words through the Prophet Jeremiah: “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock … and bring them back to their meadow; there they shall increase and multiply. I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble; and none shall be missing, says the Lord.”