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The Angels' Apprentice Looks at the Episcopal Liturgy for 10/7/18



A look at Scripture in the Episcopal liturgy for 10/7/18, with Dr. Matt Miller, BA, MA, PhD


Apprentice Angels and the Power of the Marital Bond

On Oct. 7, 2018, the texts assigned in the Episcopal liturgy (Proper 22) concern the honor and sanctity of marriage. In Genesis 2:18-24, we read the story of the creation of woman to be a companion with man. God shapes the woman from the man, so they are one flesh: a new family.

The Gospel text, Mark 10:2-9, describes Jesus reacting to a question about divorce by appealing to that text in Genesis. What God has joined, let no man put asunder. He avoids the question of divorce, in a way, by simply coming out squarely in favor of love. Once love’s promise has been made, it should not be broken.

The text for the Second Lesson, Hebrews 2.9-18, says that Jesus is entirely human, and because of this he can help us with our temptations. The connection with the other two readings is clear. Expecting people to stay married no matter what can be asking an awful lot, because there is a fuzzy ground where one partner may feel the other has violated the contract, and wonders why they must keep a promise that is already broken. Jesus is not speaking to us from a lofty seat – he is as human as we are, and he feels as we feel. Yet still he says – the man and the woman were meant to be one flesh, and if this does not happen the center did not hold.

Why does Jesus think the marital bond is so important? If we think of this as part of an Apprentice Angel Program, we can see why. Two married people have made a public promise to take care of each other. The traditional language of the wedding ceremony all points in that direction. According to the Book of Common Prayer,

The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God's will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord. Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.

It is a union in heart, body and mind, so they are to take care of each other’s heart, body and mind as if it were their own. It is focused on mutual help and comfort, and contains the promise of creating and raising children, which requires constant cooperation between father and mother.  Each spouse promises to love, comfort, honor and keep the other, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to that other as long as both shall live.

There could be no clearer promise of mutual support. In the wedding ceremony, each spouse agrees to be a Guardian Angel for the other.

We can conclude that in a marriage, spouses who decide they don’t have to bother being a Guardian Angel for their partner are no longer really married, in their hearts – the contract has been broken. And that is why the Book of Common Prayer says that the marital bond should not be entered into lightly or unadvisedly; and why Jesus said it should not be broken more easily than it would be to separate two who are one flesh. It is a contract that lies at the very heart of Christianity – the contract to “Guardian Angel” one another for life.

Jesus does not rail against divorce, but you can sense His unhappiness about it, in the simple words of the Gospel. Divorce is walking away from a Guardian Angel task that has been entrusted to the married couple, because they volunteered for it. The question Jesus leaves for us to solve, is what to do when one or both marital partners have already walked away from their Guardian Angel task for the other – basically by identifying the other’s needs and making sure they don’t have to meet them. In that case, does divorce become no more than the legal acknowledgement of an existing condition?

It is abandonment of the Guardian Angel post, assigned by God, that Jesus seems to deplore. That can happen long before divorce.

So the disputation continues, and will continue for a long time no doubt. But we can hold on this shining truth: the marriage ceremony requires two people to agree to be each other’s Guardian Angel, for the rest of their lives. It is compared, in the wedding ceremony, to the marriage of the soul with the Holy Church, again in a relationship of mutual sympathy and support. True Christians will be Guardian Angels for their spouses, and Guardian Angels for their church. And spouse and Church will be their Guardian Angel in return.


Apprentice Angels and Lovers Who are “One Flesh”

Can we find this complex lesson about marriage and divorce, taught by Jesus so long ago, in more recent story-telling? Let’s take a look at four examples of love-is-forever stories – Romeo and Juliet, She, the story of Mira Bai, and The Snow Queen. All agree with Jesus – what God has made into one flesh, let no-one put asunder.

Romeo and Juliet is a familiar example. The Montagues and the Capulets are in the middle of a death feud. Romeo Montague falls in love with Juliet Capulet. Their lives are forfeit if their secret is discovered. Juliet tries to escape her family’s suspicions by using a drug to feign death for forty-eight hours. Her body is laid in the crypt. But Romeo does not get the message she sends him. Thinking she is really dead, he poisons himself in the crypt where her body lies. She awakens, finds him dead, and stabs herself. When love is for all time, if it cannot be fulfilled time itself must stop. What God has made one flesh, let no man put asunder.  

She is a Victorian Gothic melodrama by H. Rider Haggard, regarded as a great success in his day. Five short silent film adaptations were produced between 1908 and 1919. Haggard himself wrote the intertitles for the first feature-length adaptation, the 1925 silent movie with Betty Blythe. Various versions with sound came out, for example in 1965, 1984 and 2014.

Thousands of years before this story begins, a woman was in love with an Egyptian priest. In a moment of passion during a quarrel she killed him. But she had used magic to become immortal, and now must live forever without her beloved! So she waited through the centuries for him to be reincarnated once more. During the Victorian era She decides that a young English gentleman must be her beloved Kallikrates. She has the power to make all men fall in love with her, and she zaps him good, so he lets her kill his faithful native wife, and agrees to enter immortality with her, like a man in a trance of adoration. Then something goes wrong at the last minute, and She is lost to him – but, is it forever? You can read Haggard’s The Return of She for an answer of sorts, although I think it is better to just read She and stop there.

At any rate, the driving wheel of the plot is simply her burning, unquenchable pursuit of her soul-mate through death and the slow centuries. Once She was in love with Kallikrates, it was for all time! Her combination of courage and pathos in the face of that merciless truth, what God has joined as one flesh, let no man put asunder, made her the heroine of English story-telling in the late 19th and early 20th century.

A sister to this tightly wound, somewhat hysterical melodrama is the equally desperate tale of Mira Bai. But this is a true story. Born an Indian princess shortly before 1500, she fell in love with Krishna and believed herself married to him. Her parents married her off anyway, to the prince of a neighboring principality, a bond to seal friendship between the two royal families.

But her in-laws were not Krishna worshippers, and they forbade her to worship her statue of Krishna within the palace walls. So she took that statue to the local village temple, and danced and sang before it there – a shocking violation of caste taboos that infuriated her in-laws. They gave her a glass of poison, and she drank it off, laughing. Krishna would decide when she was to die. She walked away from the throne, and gave herself to dancing and singing her love songs to Krishna on the streets of India, and running a soup kitchen outside the temple to Krishna.

Mira Bai became so popular that her royal in-laws begged her to return to them, seeing great political advantages in their alliance. She asked to be given one night in the temple to think it over. Soldiers waited outside the door so she could not slip away. But in the morning, the temple was empty. Her long black hair lay in a tress over the altar. No-one ever saw her again. Today people still sing her love songs to Krishna, all over India.

All three stories stress-test the idea that “What God has joined, let no man put asunder,” by placing impossible obstacles in the lovers’ way. The result is oblivion – Romeo and Juliet perish in the crypt, the immortal She is burned to nothing by trying to get a repeat dose of the fire of immortality, and Mira Bai makes herself dead to the world rather than abandon Krishna.

The same pattern appears in the folk tale The Snow Queen, but here it concerns two little children that love one another dearly. They live in houses side by side, and often meet on a flat patch of roof between their two windows. There roses grow in window-boxes, and the children love the roses as dearly as they love each other.

But Hans gets a fragment of a broken witch’s mirror in his eye, and another splinter of it in his heart. Suddenly the roses look ugly to him, and Gerda is just a dumb girl. He’d rather play with the boys! His heart freezes, and the Snow Queen takes him away to her palace of ice.

But Gerda goes through one adventure after another trying to find the Snow Queen’s palace. When she finally succeeds, she goes to Hans, who is very cold and distant with her. Her tears melt the splinter in his heart, and she sings the song they used to share,

The rose in the valley is blooming so sweet

The Child Jesus is there, the children to greet

Hans bursts into tears, and the splinter is washed out of his eye. He awakens from his trance, horrified by the cold ice castle, and flees with Gerda. They return home to the old grandmother who used to read them stories, and everything is just the same as it was before … except that they are children no longer. They are adults in love!

But they have the hearts of children, for they sit once more in the little child’s chairs they used to occupy for Grandmother to tell them a story. And Grandmother reads to them from the Bible: Unless you become as little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven.

Our instinctive attraction to the sweet-smelling, beautiful rose is like the love we feel for Jesus. This child-like love wants only to serve and protect, without requiring payment. It is called Agape (ah-gáh-pay) and Jesus advises us to turn this love we feel for God to our neighbors, and also to our enemies (Matt, 5:43-46, 22:37-40). For the Kingdom of Heaven lies within them as much as it does within ourselves. We all have the same Divine spark.

Here is the core of these stories: Jesus guides us all to be as Guardian Angels for one another, just as Gerda was for Hans. Hans lost his child’s heart, but Gerda helped him find it again. Their love for the roses was the love of Jesus, and it was their love for each other – agape! – the love of Guardian Angels for the one they have promised to help. And we rise to this height of human splendor when we fall in love, for then God has joined the two in one, and this no-one should put asunder. So the Readings of Proper 22 for October 6, 2018 open a window on the deepest soul of Christianity, for those who can read the code.

We find the lesson of Proper 22 in romantic drama, in Victorian novels, in spiritual biographies and in folklore … we find it in story-telling, for the roots of Jesus’ teachings permeate the world, and flower in every curious nook and cranny.


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