Second Sunday After Epiphany, Year C
Eight years ago this week, a friend of sang a gospel rendition of Amazing Grace that echoed across the nave of our church, my young nephew vomited in the chancel/choir stall during the church service, and Emily and I shared Holy Eucharist with friends and family who spanned our individual and common lives. It was our wedding and it was a joyous day to whose memories I still return to often.
Among the best of those memories are the many people who came together to make it happen. Emily and I have always had a greater abundance of community than we have of cash, and so when planning the wedding we made it a community event. Our photographer was a friend with a serious hobby; our reception was a feast of soups and breads made by colleagues and companions on our journey together. Our cake, one of the best I’ve ever had, was made by an amateur baker and displayed on a beautiful stand made by her husband.
All these things were gifts, given in celebration of the gift Emily and I had found in each other. It was a day in which love was made visible, both in this sacrament between two people, but also among all those who celebrated it with us.
Given that my anniversary is this week it was hard not to think of that day as I read our lessons for this Sunday.
It is partly on the basis of our Gospel reading from John that marriage is considered a sacrament. And it provides a powerful and profound picture of the launch of Jesus’s ministry as the extension of the celebration of a new community of love. Our scriptures today have a great deal to offer us in our understanding of marriage, but they also offer us great insight into the kingdom of God and what that kingdom means. We are reminded here that Christian marriage is not a private reality, but a sign of the inbreaking of God’s reign into all creation.
But before we go further we must ask why is marriage, this reality that our own scriptures say is not for everyone, a reality that we consider a sacrament? How does it relate to our common prayer for God’s kingdom to come?
We must first understand that marriage, in its sacramental form is not a sanctification of the family per se. It is not simply divine blessing of a particular arrangement of humans. Jesus in fact often warns that families, as institutions, can take on demonic forms, and it takes only a cursory knowledge of the families in our communities to recognize that this is true.
What makes marriage a sacrament is the reality of love at its center. As liturgical scholar Alexander Schmemann writes, “[Marriage] is the sacrament of divine love, as the all-embracing mystery of being itself, and it is for this reason that it concerns the whole Church, and—through the Church—the whole world.”
The picture offered in Isaiah of God’s marriage with Israel is helpful in this regard. We know that God loves the whole world, but it is through God’s loving and faithful relationship with Israel that this love becomes manifest and is then able to ripple out to the entire creation. Israel, through God’s faithfulness, becomes a light to the nations. In the same way, the fidelity represented in the sacrament of marriage, becomes a light that helps make visible the divine love in which every human love participates.
But for that light to shine we must move away from the cultural ideals of marriage as a program for happiness intended for two people. Marriage is meant instead to be a relationship of faithful love between two people for the sake of the wider world.
In its earliest days, the church did not celebrate marriages with a separate service. Marriages were blessed as a part of the weekly Eucharist and in that way the recognition that two people were entering into a bodily belonging together was celebrated in a context in which the whole church was participating in their common belonging in the body of Christ.
Just as the call to ordained ministry is a witness to our common call to be followers of Jesus; so marriage is a witness to our common call to live in loving fidelity in the community of God. This is an image that goes against so much of our contemporary understanding of marriage, a reality that was taken on by the poet Wendell Berry in his essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community.” There Berry writes:
“Lovers must not, like userers, live for themselves alone. They must finally turn from their gaze at one another back toward the community. If they had only themselves to consider, lovers would not need to marry, but they must think of others and of other things. They say their vows to the community as much as to one another, and the community gathers around them to hear and to wish them well, on their behalf and its own.”
An invitation to a wedding is an invitation, then, to be renewed in the loving bonds of community. I’ve often found that when leaving a well celebrated wedding that I feel more deeply connected not only to my own spouse but also to the wider community that witnessed the vows.
Our Gospel reading also shows us that the work of the kingdom comes through the cooperative invitation of those who seek to bring its light into the places that are ravaged by limit, poverty, and death. Mary here is the one who sees the shadow that she knows can be answered by her son’s light. She invites Jesus to transform a situation of poverty and therefore extends the celebration of love made manifest in a wedding that has run up against human limit.
There is much wisdom in the Roman Catholic insight that Mary shows the prayerful relationship we should all take toward Jesus. We are to witness the limits to God’s abundance that are caused through sin and call on Jesus to bring forth the feast of the kingdom into the places now plagued by poverty. This requires us, just as it did Mary, to call on the institutional forces of our time to do as Jesus says, bringing the water so that it might be made into wine.
That two passages related to marriage should be paired with Paul’s call to recognize spiritual gifts as “the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” bears witness to the wisdom of the lectionary. Paul is clear that while those in the church have different gifts, they are all activated by the same Spirit to serve the one body of Christ. This is helpful for our understanding of marriage since, as we’ve said, it is not gift given to everyone. I believe our understanding of marriage in the church would be served well if we understood marriage in a similar way to spiritual gifts—something given to certain people not for their own fulfillment, but for the common good through which we become truly alive.
When everyone is living fully into their gifts, and using those gifts for the common work of God’s kingdom, there is indeed much joy. And that joy, as with any good wedding, must be answered with celebration. In the gifts that Jesus gives to us we should recognize that when we accept them, we are entering a feast where the wine will never run out, and it will be far better than whatever we were drinking for our own happiness.