This year the Academy Award for a Best 2020 Picture was awarded to ‘Nomadland’. Such selection for 2020 was somewhat ironic. We all spent the entire year in isolation, seclusion and loneliness – realities that strongly resemble the life of Nomadland’s main character. Fern was a widow in her 60s who lived in a van, did not hold a steady job, had no career and resisted every suggestion and invitation from others to settle down and integrate into the community. Some critics praised and justified Fern’s character, others called it the ‘Indictment of America’ and ‘the wreckage of American promise.’
To me Nomadland and the character of Fern are a symbol and a reminder about the individualistic culture we live in. Individualism by placing such a powerful emphasis on the importance of an individuals’ freedoms and self-expression sometimes inadvertently undermines the true impact and crucial importance of family, friendship, community in our lives and is especially dangerous when it comes to marriage.
In today’s Gospel reading a group of Pharisees approach Jesus and ask him to clarify his stand on divorce. But instead of focusing on the negative and trying to debate and debunk their misguided understanding of divorce, Jesus does something entirely unexpected and talks about the sacred divine origin and the bond of marriage instead. He reminds them that marriage is a divine miracle and an institution established and blessed by God himself in the garden of Eden. Jesus concludes his response with the following sentence, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matt. 19:6). We can see very clearly that the Biblical perspective of marriage is not individualistic but rather entirely focused on the sacred unity of the two individuals.
The Greek word translated by most English Bibles as “joined” means so much more than simply uniting and bringing two individuals together. Literally translated, the original Greek word means to yoke two individuals together. The brilliant translation of the Armenian Bible, thanks to Mesrop Mashtots, captured this delicate nuance and translated it as ‘zoukel,’ which means to share a burden and weight with someone. When a couple comes to be married in the church, we don’t simply join them but yoke them together. There is a profound depth, grace, and beauty here, a perspective on marriage that is as old as marriage itself and yet as relevant now as it was then.
When a farmer has to train a young ox, they always yoke it with their most experienced, patient, and older ox. The older ox knows exactly what needs to be done, knows how to work together with other animals, and how to teach and help them. The training is a slow and challenging process. The young ox will try to free itself from the yoke, move too much under it, pull out, twist and turn in every direction. And every time it does so it also inadvertently gets hurt by the weight and pressure of the yoke. The experienced and old ox will tirelessly work on keeping the young and inexperienced one on the correct path, preventing it from moving too much and too far and getting hurt. Slowly but gradually, the young oxen will learn to trust the guidance of the old ox and follow his lead, sharing the burden and the weight of the yoke.
The imagery of the oxen and yoke contains overpowering advice about the Christian perspective of marriage. Yes, sometimes, the weight of the marital yoke appears too heavy and hard to carry. Sometimes, the direction of our lives, our interests, and even our feelings change. Therefore, it is crucial to remember that through the sacrament of matrimony, we are yoked to our spouses not to simply explore and follow our individual passions and plans, but also to carry each others’ burdens and share the weight of our struggles. Some cultures distinguish and recognize different types of love. The Christian definition and understanding of love is singular and simple – always and in all things love, true love is sacrificial. God loved the world and us sacrificially and selflessly to the point of giving his own Son for the world. That is the type of love we are invited to embrace and incorporate into our lives and marriages.