Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Wedding Homily

Readings: Ruth 1:1-11, 14-18; Romans 12:3-18; John 15:9-17

A wise friend of mine once said
that marriage is not about standing face-to-face
gazing into each other’s eyes,
but rather is about standing side-by-side,
facing the world together.
This idea runs somewhat counter
to popular, romantic notions of marriage
that focus exclusively on the love of the spouses for each other.
Don’t get me wrong; this love is important;
C___ and G___ would not be here today
if they did not love each other.
But marriage does not simply link two people together.
Rather it places the couple
within a much wider network of relationships
that can be extremely complicated.
When you marry, you are marrying not just your spouse,
but also his or her family, friends, colleagues,
sports teams, favorite musicians, and even ethnicity.
Indeed, one of the challenges of marriage
is learning to negotiate that complexity.
But it is also part of the richness:
when I got married, I acquired not only a wife,
and eventually children,
but what was to my mind
an extraordinarily large Irish Catholic family,
a set of expectations about how and where
holidays should be celebrated,
and a professional football team I was expected to root for.

This has always been the nature of marriage,
as we can see in our first reading,
which tells the first part of the story of Ruth
from the Old Testament.
She is a foreigner, a Gentile,
who marries into a Jewish family
and as a part of all this
becomes a worshiper of the God of Israel.
When her husband, her original link to that family, dies,
she is offered by her mother in law, Naomi,
the chance to cut her ties to them
and go her own way,
back to her own people
and her own gods.
In what to our ears
sounds like something one might speak to a spouse,
Ruth tells Naomi, “Wherever you go I will go;
wherever you lodge I will lodge.
Your people shall be my people
and your God, my God.
Where you die I will die,
and there be buried.”
For Ruth, her marriage had placed her
within a web of relationships, traditions and beliefs
that permanently altered who she was as a person.

Marriage calls us not simply to be faithful to our spouse,
but into a wider faithfulness,
a faithfulness to family, friends, sports teams,
and even to God.
This is why in the Catholic tradition
we call marriage a sacrament:
it is a sign that points beyond itself
to an ultimate reality –
the reality of God’s love.
It points to the reality that,
as St. Paul said in our second reading,
“we, though many, are one body in Christ
and individually parts of one another.”
But in order to be a true sign,
it is not enough for C___ and G___
to love one another,
or even to love
each other’s family and friends and sports teams,
but they must love in a particular way.
What St. Paul writes to the Romans
is a pretty good description
of the love that married couples
ought to have for each other:
“Let love be sincere. . . .
love one another with mutual affection;
anticipate one another in showing honor. . . .
Rejoice in hope,
endure in affliction,
persevere in prayer. . . .
Rejoice with those who rejoice,
weep with those who weep. . . .
If possible, on your part, live at peace with all.”
In John’s Gospel, Jesus puts it even more succinctly:
“love one another as I have loved you.
No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

C___ and G___,
that is what you are doing here today:
laying down your lives for each other,
entrusting your lives to each other,
saying, “wherever you go, I will go.”
Your lives now belong to each other,
and in belonging to each other
you belong to the whole world.
In loving each other sincerely and faithfully,
you will be a sign to the world
that true happiness is found
not in power
or in prestige
or in possessions,
but in the kind of love
that will lay itself down for another,
in the love that seeks
to live in peace with all.

What you do here today is, I know,
important to you.
It is important to your families.
it is important to your friend.
But even more than that,
it is important to the world:
a world that desperately needs a sign
that love can overcome hate,
that generosity is more powerful than greed,
that peace can prevail over violence.
You can be that sign.
In what you do together here today,
in what you do tomorrow,
in what you do for the rest of your lives,
you become,
in what will often be small
and undramatic ways,
a sign from God,
a sign of hope.

As Jesus said to his disciples, I say now to you:
“Go and bear fruit that will remain.”
May God bless you.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Somehow, somewhere people came up with the idea
that the chief motivation behind the belief of Christians
was a sense of comfort in this life
and the promise of even more comfort in the next.
In this view, Christianity is for those who cannot face
the harsh realities of this world
and so hope for a better life in another world.
Christians are smug and complacent in their faith,
sure that they know all the answers
and have a firm footing in life.

I can speak only for myself,
but this is not my experience of being a Christian.
For me, the Christian faith seems at times
to make my life
much more complicated,
much more of an effort,
and, in a way, much more uncertain.
Faith places an infinite demand upon me
because it is assent to the truth of the infinite God,
a God whom we can never comprehend or control.
As the twentieth-century theologian Karl Rahner once said,
Christians are those
before whom the abyss of existence opens up –
those who know that they have not thought enough,
have not loved enough,
have not suffered enough.
So do not let anyone tell you otherwise:
to step out in faith
is to step into that abyss of existence.

Think of Peter in today’s Gospel:
Jesus had made the whole walking-on-the-water thing
look pretty easy
and this seemed like a good opportunity
to demonstrate that he,
alone among the apostles,
really had faith;
so Peter succumbed to his impetuous nature
and stepped out of the boat.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
And for a while, it continued to seem like a good idea;
as Peter began to walk across the water toward Jesus.
But then he began to focus more on the wind and the waves
and the watery abyss beneath his feet
and he began to doubt
and he began to sink.
And suddenly the idea of stepping out of the boat
and into the abyss
began to seem like not so much of a good idea.

When I read this passage earlier this week
I thought, “yes, that’s exactly what it’s like.”

When I think about my life as a Christian,
I sometimes feel as if I have foolishly, impulsively,
climbed out of the boat,
inspired by God-knows-what impulse,
and I realize
that the waves are much higher than I thought
and the wind is much stronger than I thought
and the water is much deeper than I thought.
And I realize that I cannot think deeply enough
to grasp the mystery of God.
I realize that I cannot love passionately enough
to be worthy of the love that has been shown to me.
I realize that I cannot suffer willingly enough
to take upon myself the pain of others,
the pain of our world.
I stand suspended
over the infinite depth of divine mystery
and, as my fear takes control,
I begin to sink
and the only prayer I can utter
is to cry out, like Peter, “Lord, save me.”

And then there is Jesus
who grasps our hand and says,
“Take courage, it is I;
do not be afraid.”
As with Elijah in our first reading,
God comes to us not in a strong and heavy wind
or an earthquake
or a fire
but in a tiny whispering sound
that says “do not be afraid.”
God comes to us in the person of Jesus.
In Jesus Christ,
God has reached out to us with a human hand,
amidst the wind and the waves,
to catch us and hold us up over the abyss.
It is not our thinking
or our loving
or our suffering that can save us,
but only Jesus,
“who is over all, God blessed forever.”
If we trust in him,
if we cry out to him, “Lord, save me,”
we can trust that the storm will not overcome us,
the abyss will not swallow us up.

The Christian faith is hard,
not because it is complicated
but precisely because it is so simple.
All that it asks of us is that we see the world as it truly is,
to embrace the abyss that is the mystery of God,
and to trust the tiny whispering sound that says,
“Take courage, it is I;
do not be afraid.”