A husband and wife had been married for 60 years and had no secrets except for one: The woman kept in her closet a shoe box that she forbade her husband from ever opening. But when she was on her deathbed—and with her blessing—he opened the box and, in it, found a crocheted doll and $95,000 in cash. “My mother told me that the secret to a happy marriage was never to argue,” she explained. “Instead, I should keep quiet and crochet a doll.” Her husband was touched; only one doll was in the box—that meant she’d been angry with him only once in 60 years. “But what about all this money?” he asked. “Oh,” she said, “that’s the money I made from selling the dolls.”
One of the privileges of being a priest is the opportunity of preparing couples for their wedding day but there is something particularly precious in helping them discover the presence of God’s love in their lives.
In the scriptures, marriage is often used as an example of the covenant relationship that God has with his people. The Torah, the prophets, St Paul, and Jesus himself, use the image of the marriage covenant and the wedding banquet when teaching about community and relationships.
In our reading from Revelation today, we heard, “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” The new creation is described as a wedding banquet of the Lamb. Later in the Book of Revelation we read of the invitation to that wedding banquet:
“Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready…And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” (Revelation 19:7-9a)
Later in this Eucharist, we will be invited to receive Holy Communion with words first used by John the Baptist: “Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him that taketh away the sins of the world.” But, in the ancient liturgy, the invitation does not stop there. The priest continues, “Blessed are those who are called to his supper.” (That’s the Church of England version, the Roman Catholic version is even more explicit – “Blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb.” Those words are important because the invitation is not simply referring to Holy Communion now but to the wedding banquet at the end of time, when Christ will make all things new. The Eucharist is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet and our frequent reception of Holy Communion helps prepare us for that day. Yes, and especially so when we are dying, for then Holy Communion is given the ancient name ‘Viaticum’ or ‘food for the journey.’
The rite of Christian Marriage describes a mystery in which two become one flesh. In Baptism, we are all incorporated into the Body of Christ and the Eucharist is the sign of that body and a pledge of future glory. Marriage Preparation is important, but so is our preparation for Baptism and Holy Communion. If we are invited to a wedding, do we not think about what to wear and what gift to take? So, our preparation for mass should, likewise, be appropriate. Fr Mead, my predecessor, once said this: “The marriage-garment required by God in holy Scripture is not a tuxedo, but a right spirit; that is, a garment of humility, charity, and forgiveness – truly and earnestly repenting of our sins, having love and charity towards our neighbor, and intending to live a new life following God’s commandments.” (Fr Mead – Sermon October 9, 2005)
“the marriage-garment…is a right spirit.”
And that takes us directly to our Gospel reading today which, significantly, happens at the end of a banquet – the Last Supper. Judas has left (he most certainly is not of a right spirit) and the response of Jesus is remarkable. At the beginning of his last discourse with his friends, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment which was to be the hallmark of the Christian Community – his body – the Church: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
The love that the followers of Jesus will have for one another cannot be selfish or self-centered. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” This love will flow out from the Christian community and make a difference to others just as we often experience on a wedding day. But the way of love, as demonstrated by the example of Jesus, is costly and requires less of self, and attentiveness to the needs of the other.
Last week, at the age of 90, Jean Vanier died. The son of a Canadian diplomat, he had a flourishing naval career during World War Two, but in 1950 he resigned his commission saying that he wanted “to follow Jesus”. He studied theology and philosophy and became a theology professor. During the Christmas holidays of 1964, he visited a friend who was working as a chaplain for men with learning difficulties just outside Paris. Disturbed by conditions in which 80 men did nothing but walk around in circles, he bought a small house nearby and invited two men from the institution to join him. He called his house, L’Arche – the Ark. There are now 147 L’Arche centres in 35 countries and a further 1,800 Faith and Light support groups across 80 nations, where people, regardless of disabilities, live as equals. Jean Vanier put into practice the new commandment of love and yet knew how costly that kind of love is. He said these words in one of his most famous books on community – a book I want to recommend that we study as a Church as we embark on our strategic plan later this year:
“A community is only truly a body when the majority of its members is making the transition from ‘the community for myself’ to ‘myself for the community,’ when each person’s heart is opening to all the others, without any exception. This is the movement from egoism to love, from death to resurrection…a community isn’t just a place where people live under the same roof; that is a lodging house or a hotel. Nor is a community a work-team. Even less is it a nest of vipers! It is a place where everyone – or, let’s be realistic, the majority! – is emerging from the shadows of egocentricity (self-focused) to the light of a real love…It takes time for a heart to make this passage from egoism to love…It takes time and much purification, and constant deaths which bring resurrections. To love, we must die continually to our own ideas, our own susceptibilities and our own comfort. The path of love is woven of sacrifice.” (Community and Growth pp. 43-44)
Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” How can such glory be found in our broken world today, my friends? Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”