I now jump forward to 1978. Two women in my parish that were very well known to me (let me affectionately call them Martha and Mary) approached me and invited me to join with a dozen others at their home in order to witness their “vows of permanent friendship.”[i] They asked me not to publicize this event since, for them, this was very private, “We don’t want to share our love with those in our faith community who might find this unsettling.”
My mind thought of a Jesus tradition
My mind thought of the Gospel story where Jesus was invited to heal the servant of a Roman officer in the occupying army. Undoubtedly, Jesus did not agree with the brutality associated with Roman occupation; yet, since Jewish elders commended him saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he built us our synagogue” (Luke 7:5), he went. He went not to approve the Roman occupation but to respond to an authentic human need. He may have received flack for it later; yet, Jesus was accustomed to disapproval and didn’t act to get the applause of others.
Another Jesus tradition came to mind
My mind also thought of the Gospel story where a menstruating woman came up behind Jesus and touched the tassels of his cloak. According to the Jewish tradition, menstruation was no light matter. Leviticus makes it clear that any woman in this condition has no business touching anyone or she would instantly make them “unclean.” As for men, any man deliberately having sexual relations with a menstruating woman was to be sentenced to death (Lev. 18:19; 20:18). Yet, Jesus appears to have regarded menstruation much differently.
Maybe his own parents, Mary and Joseph, already had a private opinion whereby they judged that the needs of others allowed them to override the rule of menstrual impurity. Mary, for instance, may have visited a sick friend during her period “because she needed her” and was quite confident “that God would understand.” In any case, Jesus does not upbraid the woman and use this occasion to enforce the importance of God’s commandments regarding menstrual impurity. The unexpected happens. Instead of contaminating Jesus with her “impurity,” healing power flows from him to her. He congratulates her saying, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace” (Luke 8:48 and par.). Jesus names her as “Daughter of Israel” and applauds “her faith” that made her well.
This was not just an ordinary menstrual flow, to be sure. She had been afflicted with an unregulated menses for the last twelve years. In effect, she was a shut-in and unable to touch her husband or her children or her parents for that whole period. When she spots Jesus, she can’t afford to speak or to be recognized by anyone who might know her. She shouldn’t be out. If discovered, she might be stoned. Her journey out of her home is nothing short of an act of desperation. She risks concealing herself in her garments, and she persuades herself that touching the fringes of his garment will go unnoticed. This is “the faith” that impels her act of courage.
Martha and Mary exchange vows as permanent partners
So, prompted by these thoughts, I accepted the invitation of Martha and Mary. When I arrived at their home, the couple greeted me warmly. I enjoyed meeting others who were invited. Most were already known to me. Their ceremony was simple. They emphasized that what they were promising to each other was not “marriage”[ii] but a “permanent partnership.” They also mentioned that they were living in dangerous times wherein they could be easily punished for what they were now doing; yet, it seemed to them that, after twelve years, there should at least be a few whom they trusted who could witness “before God who they were and who they intended to be for each other.” Accordingly, they joined hands and faced each other and promised an exclusive friendship and fidelity in sickness and in health for the rest of their lives. They then exchanged rings as “a visible sign” of their permanent partnership.
During the rite, I imagined the fear and foreboding which Christians of the early centuries might have felt when they gathered together to witness marriages between free persons and slaves–a situation punishable by death according to Roman Law. The early Christians felt that, within the community, the distinction between “Jew and Gentile, freeborn and slave” (Col. 3:11, Gal. 3:28) had been abolished by Christ. Therefore, in their determination to serve God rather than men (Acts 3), they decided to witness and honor marriages of love which, in the eyes of Roman law, were acts of infamy.
[i] They thought of themselves as exchanging “vows of permanent friendship” because, in this period, “marriage” was not yet seen as a possibility for same-sex couples. These “vows” had no legal status. If I were to speak for them, what they needed was a sense that, in an antagonistic society, at least a few people knew who they were and what their intentions were for each other.
[ii]The language of “marriage” was embraced because it would be advantageous to give same-sex unions an equal status before the law with heterosexual unions. If this were not done, then every aspect of “same-sex unions” would have to be debated and voted on piece by piece—income tax law, visitation rights in hospitals, adoption rights, inheritance rights, etc. This would have taken years. To prevent this, all the rights of heterosexual couples had to be transferred whole and entire.