Preaching at Weddings
Themes to remind couples of the importance of their decision
“You are making a 100% commitment to something about which you are 51% sure.”
— Albert Camus
Many readers have presided at many more weddings than the author. I think of harassed priests and deacons who preside at several over a weekend. Unlike them, I’ve usually had time to work on a homily. So, at least theoretically, that means I have thought about topics or themes I offer below. My presiding has been of alumni of a university. What follows is limited to some themes that I believe touch essentials of the marriage relationship. Otherwise, the only constant I am presuming is that the homily will be delivered before a preoccupied and spaced-out couple!
As a Gospel reading for a wedding I often suggest Matthew 6:25-34 (see also Luke 12:22-34): “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat [or drink], or about your body, what you will wear.”
The couple and parents, in many cases, have spent hours (months?) on what the principals will eat, drink and wear. Weddings, at least in the United States, often reflect abundance and so many choices. This particular Gospel implicitly rebukes many of our concerns while also pointing to the unknowable future of any couple committing themselves to each other.
Trust for the Future
Albert Camus put it well — and starkly — in the quote that started this article. Matthew gave it a very positive spin: “Do not worry.” Since those lines from Matthew may seem so counter to our customs in regard to a wedding, I will consider this theme first. It will become clear very shortly that these themes often cannot be sharply distinguished from each other. But, as most homilists learn, a homily needs a focus — ideally, also content and brevity. Even if the eyes of the couple seem focused on the preacher, they usually are glazed. Anything beyond seven or 10 minutes will seem like ages to them.
Using this Gospel tells the listeners that, by their vows, Jane and Joe are opting for a future that is unknowable despite the amount of attention and safeguards given to preparing them for it. A commitment like this carries risks that will test the depth of the couple’s promises. “In good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.” Already another theme is breaking in.
Since the future is so unknown and the promises so generous, Jane and Joe need to be aware that the religious setting is an appropriate reminder of their dependence on God’s grace for this momentous endeavor.
This particular Gospel selection, coupled with their generosity, has the potential to give the couple reason not to be consumed by worry. The Lord knows they need food, clothing and shelter. The Gospel injunctions are not meant to free the couple from all financial planners and insurance agents, but to free them from paralyzing worry and preoccupation.
There should be some carryover of the carefree happiness and joy that usually permeate a wedding celebration. This theme of trust for an unsearchable future calls for a diminution of worry and fear. It also touches on the matter of the priorities of the couple — that is, life, love and persons before things, possessions and ambition. So any division of this article into discrete sections on, for instance, the uncertain future, priorities and dependence on grace is difficult to sustain. They all are intertwined.
“Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? … Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” (Mt 6:25, 32-33).
This may be seen as a separate theme but, of course, it and the previous one can easily be joined and still be one focus. Despite all our concern about security for our futures, we can’t let that overwhelm the basic priorities of life and people. It may seem obvious in the context of a wedding, but in our world of so many choices and the daily appearance of new electronic gadgets, emphasizing people certainly is not an idle concern.
Possibly more than the couple realizes at the time of their wedding is the value of the support of family and friends. They will know what to do; they will Google when a baby coughs in an odd way. Food, clothing and a roof overhead, while necessary, cannot match the voice of experience and a helping hand.
Some lesser authority than Jesus has said, “Keep your priorities straight.” No one ever said on his or her deathbed, “Gee, if I’d only spent more time at the office or on my iPhone or listening to tunes.”
Commitment names what may be the most problematic and difficult aspect of marriage in our time. The glories of the uncommitted life are touted in advertising all around us and held before us as the human ideal.
|‘Great Act of Faith and Love’|
“The Sacrament of Marriage is a great
act of faith and love: It witnesses the
courage to believe in the beauty of God’s
creative act and to live that love that
pushes one to always go beyond, beyond
oneself and also beyond the family
— Pope Francis, general audience,
May 6, 2015
“Yeah, it would be nice to hang out with you,” and unspoken is something like, “until someone better comes along.” The young especially fear commitment as something that ties one down when something better or more attractive easily could come along. Someone has said that bookstores have shelves of books on relationships that are longer than most relationships. Nevertheless, no matter how feared, it’s clear that at least attempting the commitment we celebrate at a wedding is common to the lives of many people, married or unmarried. In fact, there is no genuinely happy human life without it. It is the promise to do this and not that, to be here and not there, to give oneself to this person or this cause rather than to someone or something else. Who or what we choose is bound to be imperfect. A continually uprooted plant never produces fruit; similarly nothing significant results if, at some time, we do not put down roots, decide on this life instead of that life. Human life is too short for continual hesitation. Without commitment, life passes us by.
Father Ronald Rolheiser, OMI, comments that the greatest gift we can give another person is the promise of faithfulness: the simple promise to stay around, not to leave when things get tough, not to walk away because we are disappointed or hurt, to stay through thick and thin. Without commitment, life is a prolonged adolescence. Commitment in the religious community to which I belong is expressed in a vow of stability that pledges me to live and work with this group of men despite their faults and my faults. Marriage vows and the vows of religious are meant to firm up our intentions by a well-considered act of the will.
Growth in Love
Another fruitful theme is the acknowledgment that the wedding rite itself is only the beginning. The couple’s promises must include a willingness to work at a commitment, and that task changes over the years. A loving relationship is never finished. It needs time.
Mark Twain wrote 25 years after his wedding: “Love seems the swiftest, but it is the slowest of all growths. No man or woman really knows what perfect love is until they have been married a quarter of a century.”
The wedding might be the culmination of courtship and dating, but as parents who have been married for decades know, this day is but the beginning of more complex days and years to come, of joy and sorrow, pain and delight, comfort and trouble. If these are seen as challenges and necessary steps toward growth and richness in the relationship and not as obstacles to growth, then the promise of commitment can bring satisfaction, joy and encouragement. This theme again shows a strong connection to the theme of commitment: The two easily can be conflated.
Choice Makes Him/Her the Only One
A long-standing cliché is that there is only one person in the world for you. Its appeal might be in the way it seems to heighten and dramatize a relationship. It sounds romantic, but, if we think about it, doesn’t “only one person in the world for you” mean that some force or power has made that choice for you? Where is the freedom and decision if that’s true? Isn’t it better to emphasize that Raul has chosen and decided to marry Maria, and that Maria has done the same? That really honors the other party’s freedom. The “only one person in the world for you” fallacy also is shown to have no firm footing when you think of the widow or widower of a happy marriage who subsequently remarries — and happily — after the death of the other party. Not falling for this fallacy makes one’s choice of this person for a spouse all the more meaningful. We realize that in different circumstances or situations one could meet and marry another person. But commitment means that Raul and Maria decide to give life and energy to a relationship by loving this person.
Religious Setting Is Appropriate
The future, with all it holds of pleasure and pain, terror and tenderness, is really out of sight and utterly unknowable. By holding the ceremony in a religious setting, the parties acknowledge that they are not alone in this, they do not rely solely on themselves but on God and God’s love, and the help and support of family and friends.
This is a liberating truth from Jesus: We do not have to strain every muscle every minute to control our universe, to manage a marriage. A wedding in the context of the Eucharist especially underlines and reinforces a commitment to love, despite the sacrifices it may entail.
Sharing in the Eucharist reiterates that the Eucharist makes us one with Christ and with all the members of his body. It also commits us to sharing in the self-giving death of Jesus.
I mentioned this article to a relative, married, now in his 60s. Possibly with the advantage of looking backward, he commented, “Christ must be the center for the couple, the one in whom they trust.”
He is of an evangelical persuasion, so this wasn’t too surprising. But what about a Catholic couple? Do the young (ordinarily) Catholics who marry in the Church have this personal relationship and commitment to Christ? Has our emphasis on the power of the sacraments to join us to Christ left us feeling excused from developing a more personal relationship to Christ?
Married Couples Have Other Friends, Too
No one of us can be everything for another person. Inevitably, given enough time, we wound or fail one another. The commitment we make tells us then that all of us fail, and each needs forgiveness. Our personalities are too rich, our individual depths too deep for any one person to be everything for another. We remain to some degree a mystery to one another — and even to ourselves.
“My parents had the good sense not to look for so much from each other that they couldn’t stick with each other,” wrote Margaret Carlson in Time. The marriage commitment includes the understanding that, at some time, you will need forgiveness. Marrying this person does not have to mean shedding our friends. These other friends can share one party’s joy in Taylor Swift or their passion for lacrosse, etc., while the partner sticks to Mozart and football.
Happiness Is a Result
Another assumption of our day is to speak of the whole purpose of marriage as happiness. But isn’t the desire for intimacy and union in love with another person more basic? When couples say, “For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,” they are undercutting the idea that the only goal of marriage is happiness. “The pursuit of happiness” is a phrase from our Declaration of Independence and, it seems to me, misleading. To think of happiness as something to pursue easily is reduced to chasing entertainment, thrills.
Isn’t happiness rather the byproduct of love, of day-in, day-out faithfulness, good work well-done, patience, showing up in good times and in bad, for richer, for poorer — in other words, the likely result of faithfulness to a commitment?
An Unmarried Man as Presider
This is not a theme but possibly an explanatory note that clearly overlaps some themes. If the congregation attending the wedding is in great part unfamiliar with celibate or unmarried clergy, it may be worthwhile to speak to that unless the presider is a married deacon. Promises express a commitment, and that, too, explains how you can have an unmarried clergyman preside at a wedding. Some must ask: What does he know about it? Well, every satisfying human life, married or unmarried, involves commitment, giving oneself, if not to a particular person, then to this project or this way of life, to this place, to this cause. The diocesan priest has made vows of obedience to the bishop and chastity, and those in religious life vows traditionally referred to as chastity, obedience and poverty.
All the above can be presented as something positive at a celebration so decisive in the lives of two people.
FATHER DON TALAFOUS, OSB, is alumni chaplain at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota.