The archbishop of Dublin, Ireland, responsible for the next Year of the Family in 2018, raised a few eyebrows and a few columnists’ pens when he stated, “Let me say something about which I feel strongly: do not allow ourselves to be become entangled in trying to produce definitions of the family. Family is such a transcultural value that it cannot be defined simply.” The archbishop was, of course, faced with a double challenge: upholding the traditional understanding of family and at the time being sensitive to Ireland’s change in its constitution to accept same-sex unions as legal marriages. The archbishop later said that his words reflected Pope Francis’ tactic of making a broad, inclusive, welcoming statement and then refining it in a later discussion. The archbishop noted how Pope Francis was adamant against the enactment of same-sex marriage in Argentina but was cautious in his judgment of individuals. The archbishop later reflected, “My position is that there is something irreplaceable in the fundamental complementarity between a man and a woman and that complementarity is not irrelevant to our understanding of the transmission and the nurturing of human life.”
Indeed there is something irreplaceable in the complementary relationship between a man and a woman. As Christmas draws near and as this Sunday’s Gospel passage unfolds, the Church celebrates the ancient Scriptural belief in the male/female, husband/wife foundation of married life. The heavenly angel announced to St. Joseph, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Mary will bear the son but Joseph will name the boy. Obediently Joseph “did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.” God the Father ensured that his own Son would not just descend upon the world in a blaze of glory nor suddenly appear in the streets of Jerusalem as an adult preacher. The Creator knew, as he knew at Eden, that complementary family life was integral to a full human nature.
The book of Genesis reads, “Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness… God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Mankind is clearly most Godlike when interacting as male and female. A man alone or a woman alone is not the full reflection of God. The full image of God demands male/female interaction. It was to a complementary couple that God gave the command: “Increase, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” Scriptural complementarity and Scriptural fruitfulness are essential to authentic family life.
The second chapter of Genesis conveys the same truth in a more personal rendering, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suited to him. So the LORD God formed out of the ground all the wild animals…but none proved to be a helper suited to the man. So the LORD God cast a deep sleep on the man…took out one of his ribs and closed up its place. The LORD God then built the rib that he had taken from the man into a woman. When he brought her to the man, the man said: “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; This one shall be called ‘woman,’ for out of man this one has been taken. That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.” Jesus for his part repeated these words from Genesis exactly when questioned on the nature of marriage. Recall that all other beings, Adam included, were created from the dust of the earth; only Eve was exclusively created from human flesh emphasizing the uniqueness of her relationship with Adam and the specialness of every complementary marital relationship.
Christmas has many warm, caring links to married life. Joseph was tenderly concerned for Mary, unwilling to expose her to Law when she was found with child. Mary and Joseph journeyed as a couple to Bethlehem, his ancestral home, to enroll in the Roman census. The couple introduced their child to Jewish religious life at the Temple. The husband and wife fled to Egypt to ensure their child’s safety. They returned home and raised their son in “wisdom, age and grace before God and man.” Indeed Christmas celebrated family life then and it should celebrate family life now.