I grew up with an old pastor’s tale about death—there’s something sticky between death and commitment. The elderly die when they’re done with life, when their commitments are ensured somehow. Supposedly, when a pastor gets to a new parish, he or she can expect a lot of funerals, and some have even told me that their members told them that they were just hanging until a pastor they knew could bury them. And there are many stories of elders who lose spouses, and then, within a few months, die as well. Of course, there are other stories—the wife that blooms after her husband dies and lives another thirty years, the elder who doesn’t understand why she isn’t dead despite her prayers, the cantankerous old goat that simply refuses to listen to anything and everything, including the call of death, and the couple that stays together just because they’re too emotionally sick to depart from one another. Like I said, old pastor’s tales. They might be worse than old wives’ tales, probably for the dearth of old wives in their ranks. Nevertheless, there is something that connects weddings and death: it’s the vow that says, “until death parts us.”
Jesus seems to have a thing about weddings. He seems to like them quite a bit. He certainly turns up at them, and at many other kinds of parties where there is a lot of food and wine. I sometimes think he’s like the reach guest—a guy you invite because you think it might be cool if he turns up, and then he does, and when you run out of wine, suddenly you’re really glad he was there. Or, he’s the guy you invite over thinking it’d be cool to tell people that he came to your house, but after the party’s over you hope that nobody ever hears about that party and what Jesus said in it, ever.
But even though Jesus has a thing about weddings, Jesus, like the groom’s weird brother, is also the type of guy who likes to bring up death at a wedding. In John’s Gospel, when Jesus performs his first sign at the Wedding of Cana, he says, “My hour has not yet come.” He’s talking about the hour of his death, when he will be revealed as the Messiah, the suffering servant of God. And the point of John’s story is show how a wedding prefigures the crucifixion and resurrection, and the union of God and God’s people, a union like a wedding, but a wedding in which death is swallowed up forever. And here, in yet another episode of Disturbing Stories with Saint Matthew, people die over this wedding, and the poor guy who is impressed by the roving soldiers and doesn’t get his robe is tossed out. What kind of wedding is this? I guess it’s the kind of wedding you might get with a guy that brings up death at a wedding.
But I have to confess, I like the religious way of getting married. I like that our liturgy mentions the struggle of marriage. I like that we ask the assembly to honor the vows the couple make, and the honest assessment of two human beings that so foolish that they pledge their lives to one another. And I like, especially, the foolishness of marriage, the puppy-eyed looks of love, the whooping and the cheering, and the impossible promises two people make to each other, promises, that despite their best intentions, will be broken in various small and large ways for the rest of their lives. I like that our weddings, Christian weddings, make sure that we know about failure and forgiveness, and that the whole assembly promises to support two people as they fail and forgive together. The shroud and the sheet are there, but so is grace, and the understanding that whatever comes cannot be predicted, but it can be faced—together.
Marriage is one of the great metaphors of God’s love for God’s people—from the Song of Songs, to the prophets, to Jesus’ own parables of wedding feasts and bridegrooms. God’s story with us is a love story, and like every good love story, there are obstacles standing between God and God’s lover. But the greatest obstacle of all is death, and so it is death that God wishes to overcome out of love for us. If you think of a Shakespeare comedy that ends in a wedding, this is a way to think of God’s perseverance and overcoming of our distance. It is good to think, as the parables and the Pauline letters often do, of God’s encounter with us in Jesus Christ as a marriage, in which two become one flesh, in which they share one another’s burdens, in which for joy and consolation two come together.
In our wedding liturgy, at the exchange of rings, the rubrics suggest saying, “I give you this ring as a symbol of my vow. With all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you.” This is precisely the way to think of Jesus’ presence in our lives. In Jesus, all that God is, and all that God has, God pledges to us. Undying goodness, eternal life, light beyond all darkness, steadfast love, mercy unfailing, righteousness that rips off the shroud of death. With all that God is and all that God has, God honors us.
The wedding metaphor works this way: by his incarnation, Jesus made an exchange and a compact. He exchanged eternity for flesh blood, immortality for death. And to us, he gave eternity and immortality. He exchanged pure holiness for sin. We give up sin and receive holiness. Last week we heard Paul say he wanted to share in Christ’s sufferings—but that is precisely what we receive. We receive a new life in Christ in baptism, and we receive food for that life in the Eucharist.
The wedding feast metaphor is really best used for communion. Luther, early in his career, wrote, “To receive this sacrament in bread in wine is nothing else to receive a sure sign of … fellowship and incorporation with Christ and all his saints… (which consists) in this, that all (their) spiritual possessions are shared with and become the common property of (the one) who shares the sacrament.” Two bodies become one: the body of Christ, which is the people of the church gathered throughout the Earth, and your body. Our lives are joined together, as one of the earliest hymns of our faith says it: “As this broken bread was scattered over the mountains,
and was gathered together to become one, so let Your Body of Faithful be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Your kingdom; for the glory and power are Yours forever.”
So God honors us by giving us all that God has and all that God is, and God’s gift transforms us. But watch out—as we know, a marriage is something you work at every day. And if you are invited to the wedding, make sure you look at the dress code. I once wore a suit to a wedding in Oregon, and it was embarrassing. The father of the bride asked me what I was doing. The point of the sacrament is to receive comfort for our afflictions: hope for our despair, forgiveness for our sins, fellowship for our loneliness, God for our faithlessness. But it also a time for us to lay our burdens down, to join our sufferings to the sufferings of the rest of the world, and join our sufferings with Christ’s people.
“When you partake in the sacrament, therefore…you must in turn share the misfortunes of the fellowship. You must feel with sorrow all the dishonor done to Christ is his holy Word, all the misery of Christendom, all the unjust suffering of the innocent, with which the world is everywhere filled to overflowing. You must fight, work, and pray and—if you can’t do more—have heartfelt sympathy.”
In every wedding, when the couple makes their vows, they do so in faith. They have no control over things that will happen in the future. But they pledge anyway, ridiculous things. And a marriage works when two people trust in each other, have faith in one another. This is how God works with us—we cannot see God except in God’s works, we cannot touch God except in what God has created, and we cannot hear God except in God’s Word. But still we can receive and believe. God has gathered us together, not just we who are sitting in this room, but the us around the world, around every table of Christ. Our mutual faith we cannot see, but we can trust in it.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack