Friday, April 29, 2011

Spectacle vs. Sacrament

I caught much of Prince William and Kate Middleton's actual wedding ceremony today. It was a beautiful ceremony, in both its visual beauty and its spiritual beauty. It struck me that the Anglican ceremony has a variety of elements quite similar to a Catholic wedding. The ceremony emphasizes that marriage is intended to be for life. We heard that marriage is intended to be an opportunity for bringing forth children. Furthermore, the ceremony reminds the bride and groom that the purpose of marriage is oriented towards their mutual salvation. Finally, we are told that human marriage reflects the union of Christ and His Church. All of these are critical aspects of what a marriage is.

Unfortunately, these values were utterly lost in the media coverage. All of the emphasis of the coverage was on spectacle. So much spilled ink and blather about "the dress." One would scarcely be aware that there was a religious ceremony involved. This is why the motto for Engaged Encounter is so powerful: "A wedding is for a day. A marriage is for a lifetime. The Nicene Creed calls us to be mindful "of all that is seen and unseen." These are things that William and Kate may very well understand. These are not things, however, that those covering their wedding understand. And unfortunately, they are not things that many couples understand upon entering marriage these days. Those involved in marriage preparation ministry have their work cut out for them.

The Bishop of London gave a beautiful sermon at the wedding. If only the media coverage had picked up on some of his themes. He began by quoting St. Catherine of Siena, whose feast day is today. Then the Bishop said something that no one in the media seemed to find noteworthy, perhaps because it was to them a "dog bites man" story: "As the reality of God has faded from so many lives in the West...." Yes, the sacrament was lost, and only the spectacle seen, like smoke seen from a distance too far to observe the fire itself.

Here is the full text of the Bishop of London's sermon:

"Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire."

So said St Catherine of Siena whose festival day this is. Marriage is intended to be a way in which man and woman help each other to become what God meant each one to be, their deepest and truest selves.

Many people are fearful for the future of today’s world but the message of the celebrations in this country and far beyond its shores is the right one – this is a joyful day! It is good that people in every continent are able to share in these celebrations because this is, as every wedding day should be, a day of hope.

In a sense every wedding is a royal wedding with the bride and groom as king and queen of creation, making a new life together so that life can flow through them into the future.

William and Catherine, you have chosen to be married in the sight of a generous God who so loved the world that he gave himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

In the Spirit of this generous God, husband and wife are to give themselves to each other.

The spiritual life grows as love finds its centre beyond ourselves. Faithful and committed relationships offer a door into the mystery of spiritual life in which we discover this: the more we give of self, the richer we become in soul; the more we go beyond ourselves in love, the more we become our true selves and our spiritual beauty is more fully revealed. In marriage we are seeking to bring one another into fuller life.

It is of course very hard to wean ourselves away from self-centredness. People can dream of such a thing but that hope should not be fulfilled without a solemn decision that, whatever the difficulties, we are committed to the way of generous love.

You have both made your decision today – “I will” – and by making this new relationship, you have aligned yourselves with what we believe is the way in which life is spiritually evolving, and which will lead to a creative future for the human race.

We stand looking forward to a century which is full of promise and full of peril. Human beings are confronting the question of how to use wisely the power that has been given to us through the discoveries of the last century. We shall not be converted to the promise of the future by more knowledge, but rather by an increase of loving wisdom and reverence, for life, for the earth and for one another.
Marriage should transform, as husband and wife make one another their work of art. It is possible to transform so long as we do not harbour ambitions to reform our partner. There must be no coercion if the Spirit is to flow; each must give the other space and freedom. Chaucer, the London poet, sums it up in a pithy phrase:

"Whan maistrie [mastery] comth, the God of Love anon,
Beteth his wynges, and farewell, he is gon."

As the reality of God has faded from so many lives in the West, there has been a corresponding inflation of expectations that personal relations alone will supply meaning and happiness in life. This is to load our partner with too great a burden. We are all incomplete: we all need the love which is secure, rather than oppressive. We need mutual forgiveness in order to thrive.

As we move towards our partner in love, following the example of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit is quickened within us and can increasingly fill our lives with light. This leads on to a family life which offers the best conditions in which the next generation can receive and exchange those gifts which can overcome fear and division and incubate the coming world of the Spirit, whose fruits are love and joy and peace.

I pray that all of us present and the many millions watching this ceremony and sharing in your joy today will do everything in their power to support and uphold you in your new life. I pray that God will bless you in the way of life you have chosen. That way which is expressed in the prayer that you have composed together in preparation for this day:

God our Father, we thank you for our families; for the love that we share and for the joy of our marriage.
In the busyness of each day keep our eyes fixed on what is real and important in life and help us to be generous with our time and love and energy.
Strengthened by our union help us to serve and comfort those who suffer.
We ask this in the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Amen.

I have to admit, I'm a sucker for a guy who quotes Chaucer in the original Middle English.

The beauty of Catholicism (and in this regard, Anglicanism, too), is that we do not need to choose between spectacle and sacrament. God made us bodily creatures, not incorporeal angels. He made us take in the natural world through the senses, and He makes the supernatural world present to us through the senses as well. That is why sacraments have form and matter, so that we could take in the unseen by way of the seen. That is why we cannot choose one without the other. Spectacle without sacrament is a shell without a nut; sacrament without spectacle is ascending a mountain so high that one suffocates at the summit from lack of oxygen.

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