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Sermon for A New Life

A sermon preached at the wedding of Christopher and Laura Wells on December 28, 2022. 

By Will Brown

What a joy it is to be here today celebrating Christopher and Laura and the new life they are inaugurating together.

I use the phrase “new life,” in the singular, advisedly — because it is what the Lord himself said about this sacrament in one of his few explicit teachings concerning marriage, which we just heard in the tenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel: that the two shall become one flesh, one life together in place of the former two. My father likes to say that marriage is not so much a partnership as a merger. Where there were formerly two — two lives, two households, two life orientations, two sets of values and priorities, two modes of being within the world — there is now one.

In his 1943 book The Figure of Beatrice, Charles Williams comments on Dante’s peculiar use of neologisms, using the prefix “in” affixed to a noun or a pronoun: incielare, to “in-heaven” or indiare, to “in-God.” And in Paradiso (Canto IX), the poet addresses himself to the heavenly spirit of Folco di Marsiglia:

I would not wait for thee to make demand,
Could I in-thee as thou in-meëst me.

Williams notes how the ensuing speech from Folco comes at the end of the poet’s ascent through the third heaven, the sphere of Venus. The speech comes, says Williams,

… at the very point of the earth’s coned shadow on “the fair planet that hearteneth to love.” It is the very definition of all heaven, but especially of the heavens that are to follow; it is their mode of life. Something of this is known, on occasion, in the life of lovers. … There is some kind of experience which can only be expressed by saying: “Love you? I am you.”

As Jesus says, “from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”

Perhaps unlike many of his erstwhile disciples in our time, the Lord was not just making things up as he went along. He said as much. He was of course quoting Genesis 2, which we also just heard. This teaching about the meaning of marriage is, as he says, “from the beginning of creation.”

It is often a good idea to contextualize. This word of the Lord was uttered in response to the Pharisaical question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus replies with what Kierkegaard called “indirection communication.” He asks a question of his own: “What did Moses command you?” And the Pharisees say that “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away.” And the trap is sprung. As he often does, the Lord draws his audience to the perennial matter at hand: a matter of the heart. Moses gave this commandment by way of concession, on account of “your hardness of heart.” It is a concession in hac lacrimarum valle.

But this shows the eschatological aspect of Christian marriage. It is for a people who have received from the Lord a “heart of flesh,” as Ezekiel foretold — a heart that is susceptible to breaking and wounding. And the liturgical commemoration of this day [Holy Innocents] is a reminder of this, as we hear the echo down the centuries of “Rachel weeping [in Rama] for her children” (Matt. 2:18). Is there a form of telluric love that can exceed that of a mother, a heart more capable of being broken? And so the mariological dimension of marriage also comes into focus, as we think of our Lady, chosen daughter of Sion, spouse of the Holy Ghost, standing at the cross, the sword prophesied by Simeon piercing her heart.

So Christian marriage presupposes supple hearts, hearts that look on the beloved with a love in the mold of God’s patience with Israel. And here we are reminded that the word patience is in the etymological penumbra of “passion,” as in “the passion of the Christ.” The “patient” one is the one susceptible of being wounded. Or, to come back for a moment to Kierkegaard, the one who loves is the injured one, “the most injured of all.” Thus we approach the crux of the matter.

“From the beginning of creation God made them male and female.” It is perhaps not fashionable to notice that it is on account of sexual differentiation that a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, that what were formerly two shall become one.

Already in the third century, Origen of Alexandria saw in this an icon of the hypostatic union. Origen said:

For of this union of the Word with human nature more than to anything else can the passage of Scripture be applied, they shall both be one flesh, and they are no longer two but one flesh. For the Word of God is to be thought of as being more “in one flesh” with his soul than a man with his wife.

We return, perhaps inevitably, to the theme of patience and passion. The union of the two differentiated natures must be consummated, and it seems I cannot preach a wedding sermon without noticing what our Lord says from the cross: “It is finished,” but in the Vulgate: Consummatum est. It is consummated.

Already we have what we might call the “notes” of marriage: it is between a man and a woman. And we can see that this is not adiaphora, as many have insisted, but it is close to the heart of the Christian creed. It touches the incarnation of the Word. But sexual difference is not only “from the beginning of creation,” but it is that datum on account of which, according to the Lord, marriage was instituted by God. And it was instituted by God to be an icon of his purpose all along: to be united to his creation in the one flesh of Jesus Christ; and for this union to be consummated on the nuptial bed of the cross.

It is thus that conjugal love is really proven on the negative side of the disjunctions we will shortly hear: “for worse … for poorer … in sickness … till death.” Yet (thanks be to God) there is much more to it. It is also, for example, potentially fruitful. And we become the fruit of the hypostatic union when we emerge from the womb of the baptismal font, born of the water and the blood flowing from the Lord’s pierced side. This is what makes us his possession. And hence marriage, in the language of the old rite, is also a remedy against sin and fornication — which in Scripture is the primary metaphor for idolatry.

And here we come to some good news (finally): because we are his possession, we can never be alone again. Lovers are famously content with one another’s company. As St. John of the Cross put it:

Within my flowering breast
Which only for himself entire I save
He sank into his rest
And all my gifts I gave
Lulled by the airs with which the cedars wave.

And not only can we never again be alone because we belong to him, but also because in him we belong to one another. So the ecclesial dimension of marriage comes into focus. A 17th- century Christian Platonist, Ralph Cudworth, said that “the union of man and woman is not a mere metaphor or symbol, but is a divinely appointed copy or image of Christ’s unity with the Church. Husband and wife are the type of which Christ and the Church are the archetype” (in V.A. Demant) — which, of course, is just what St. Paul says in Ephesians 5. So marriage is a wellspring of koinonia.

Christopher and Laura, you have a vocation: to live out the vows you are about to make. Perhaps that’s obvious. But I want you to remember that in living them out, you will be living right inside the engine room of the Christian faith, because doing so — especially when the going gets tough, as it almost certainly will at some point or another, in one way or another — doing so will be a proclamation, and not just a proclamation, but what philosophers call a “performative utterance,” of what God has done in the person of Jesus for the salvation of the world. That is just to say that by loving one another you will not just be proclaiming the world’s salvation, but participating in it, enacting it, living right at the heart of it. You will be devoting the energy of your life together to bringing it about. This is what constitutes marriage as a sacrament.

Or maybe better to say, and to return to my original point: your life together will thus be truly “heavenly,” “the very definition of all heaven,” an ascent through the sphere of Venus:

[the] kind of experience which can only be expressed by saying [as God, as it were, said by the incarnation of the Word]: “Love you? I am you.”

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