Well, Roz and Andy, you have finally arrived on the threshold of marriage. All the preparations are now behind you. In a few minutes time, with barely 50 words, you will enter into a covenant that could and hopefully will endure for over 50 years.
How can we give expression to the significance of this moment? For what you are shortly to embark on is surely one of the most unpredictable adventures some of us humans voluntarily undertake.
As we know, there are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns:
we know there are some things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns:
the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
I doubt whether Donald Rumsfeld is often quoted in the context of a wedding, but his tortuous prose is surprisingly poignant. For whilst there are ‘known unknowns’ that, looking ahead, you may well be able to anticipate with a degree of accuracy, you can be confident there are also ‘unknown unknowns’ awaiting you (as, indeed, you once were to one another) – a contingency amply accommodated within the marriage vows: ‘for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.’ Basically, whatever lies ahead.
Yet the uncertainty of the future and the unpredictability of the adventure should not conceal the ‘known knowns’ that have brought you to this place.
For we have watched your relationship grow and flourish, through difficult transitions and times of uncertainty. We have watched you delight in one another’s company, discovering a fuller sense of self in your togetherness. We have watched you make hard life choices and costly compromises. We have watched you draw strength from one another in times of challenge and personal loss. We have watched you increasingly living in one another’s light (which is very different from living in one another’s shadow).
Through all this we have discerned a growing confidence born of an inner conviction that love’s way, love’s vocation, has called you into covenant. And we both honour and celebrate your willingness to embrace that vocation knowingly, wholeheartedly and unconditionally.
You have chosen two guides, two readings, to accompany you. The first speaks of love’s practice. The second of love’s inheritance.
The apostle Paul’s exhortation ‘to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God’ may not sound much like the recipe for a long and fulfilling marriage. And that is because we tend to associate sacrifice with loss – loss of possession, loss of freedom, loss of life itself.
But through the prism of scripture a different paradigm emerges, namely sacrifice as self-offering through which paradoxically we do not lose ourselves, but rather participate in a more authentic experience of being human.
According to Paul, who learned it from Jesus, sacrifice as self-offering is love’s way. Now I appreciate that sounds rather grandiose, even pretentious – the kind of well-meaning unrealism that could readily tickle the ears of undiscerning couples incapable of contemplating anything other than undying devotion to one another.
But your communion, I suspect, is rather more honest and sanguine, readily relating to what follows as the apostle grounds his convictions in the earthy pragmatics of communal living where love is clothed in acts of compassion and care, in words of encouragement and affection, in the practice of hospitality and generosity, in the pursuit of truth and justice, in disciplines of restraint and forbearance, in humility, hopefulness and grace.
This is the canvas on which sacrificial love is played out, composed of numerous investments of self, each, like an artist’s brush stroke, animating something of beauty and enduring worth.
Of course, especially within the context of marriage, love is also passion and intimacy – the sheer delighting and finding pleasure through which we learn to be fully present for one another – sensitive, mindful, vulnerable, responsive.
And I exhort you to cultivate such openness and attention throughout your relationship. Not only in the bedroom, but in the kitchen and the bathroom, when at work or out with friends, when you’re feeling tired or irritable, when you have hurt one another or feel wronged, even when you feel attracted to someone else or someone else is attracted to you. These are the times when you need to learn to be present for one another and, through doing so, to fulfil love’s sacrifice.
Which brings us to your second companion: ‘Such a large and sweet fruit is a complete marriage that it needs a long summer to ripen in, and then a long winter to mellow and season it.’ What a compelling metaphor: marriage as organic produce – fermented, nutritious and tasty. Although, as with love as sacrifice, initially it can sound rather diminishing. After all, what is succulent fruit for if not consumption?
But there is a valuable insight here that I hope you will carry with into marriage, namely that the blessing of your togetherness will go sour unless you share its fruits with others.
In truth, authentic love possesses a pronounced ecstatic quality engendering within us a generous spirit. A spirit that will not only feed your own relationship, but flow from it into the lives of those around you.
So expect that as you discover more and more of what it means to be present for one another, you will also become increasingly aware of a need to be present for others – to nurture, if you will, the hospitable self as, for example, you learn to share your home with children or your time with friends and strangers, or your talents with communities where they can be put to good use or your money with those in need of kindness and support.
And through doing so, you will, I trust, come to enjoy the mystery of how marriage’s exclusivity of covenant can yield a inclusivity of hospitality or, put a different way, of how your being present for one another feeds a capacity for being present for others.
So there it is. Love as self-offering. Marriage as a source of abundant fruitfulness. The ‘practice’ and the ‘inheritance’, the ‘means’ to the ‘end.’
Roz and Andy, you have chosen your travelling companions well. With one at your side and the other guiding your way, whatever ‘unknown unknowns’ lie ahead, you will, I hope, possess all that is needed to be faithful to the vows you are about to make and, through doing so, to find blessing in your togetherness.