Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Catherine of Siena Church
It's August 1, 2008 and I am sweating away my obedient life in Rome. Having just discovered that the language school I am enrolled in doesn't hold classes in August b/c of the traditional Roman summer Ferie, and having no A/C or internet access in my 16th century convent cell, I am precariously perched on a rented stool in a dodgy internet cafe on the Street of Snakes. Why “dodgy,” you ask? Well, it's on the Street of Snakes. And the whole time I am there a steady stream of early twenty-something Italian guys come and go holding what look like smallish bricks of heroin tightly wrapped in tissue paper. How do I know it's heroin? I don't. I'm a writer, a literature professor, and, most importantly, a southerner. . .so wild exaggeration and outright lying in the pursuit of a good story are sacred duties. It turns out that the internet cafe was a front for a pub crawl business and all those packages were actually bundles of coupons for handing out to tourists. Though I'm sure you are relieved to know that I wasn't in any danger of being kidnapped by Roman drug lords and forced into spending my life as a heroin mule for the gypsy syndicates, you have to be asking yourself at this point: what does any of this have to do with Jenny and Patrick getting married? Good question. You see, while I sat delicately planted on my rented stool in that internet cafe, watching the scuzzy Italian couriers rush in and out with their faux heroin bricks, and wiping Rome's oppressive August humidity from my brow, I received an email from Patrick. Like most emails from Patrick, it was long, a bit convoluted, and contained two questions. First, should I marry Jenny? And, second, should I become a kung-fu master? There it is: August 1, 2008. . .the beginning of something larger than Patrick's capacity to ask annoying questions: the first hint that Patrick is thinking about Jenny “in that way.” So, yes, Patrick, you should marry Jenny. And, no, Grasshopper, you should not become a kung-fu master.
When Patrick and Jenny asked me more than a year ago to preside at their wedding Mass, I was just a bit apprehensive. Knowing both of these U.D. alums quite well and remembering the first time I laid eyes on Jenny during Charity Week walking up the mall in D&D drag, I was afraid that these two were planning a Star Trek wedding or a Princess Bride wedding or some other uber-dorky ceremony that would require me to wear a period costume or some sort of ridiculous hat. I could just see me processing down the aisle dressed as a 37th Level Chaotic Good Drow Elf Cleric named Pleiades the Ample. Thanks be to God and all His Saints, they wanted a normal, Catholic wedding with a normal Catholic wedding homily. . .so, without further falsehood or exaggeration, here it is:
Paul, inspired, and no doubt telling the truth, assures us, “Love never fails.” Though we are certainly happy to hear this bit of wisdom and grateful to Paul for its timely delivery, we should not be accused of thick-headedness if we were to ask, “Never fails what? Or never fails whom?” OK. Love never fails us. Love never fails to heal, to reconcile, to forgive, to hope. Love never fails when all else does; when the last chance passes untaken; when there's no one left and no one coming. Love never fails to flourish: to tell the truth and all the truth, to ohhh at the beautiful, and to demand the good. Love has never failed. Will not fail. In fact, Love cannot fail; it is the most excellent way.
Love is fundamental, elemental, if you will; it is the primal and pervasive way. Without love, Paul writes, both human and angelic tongues are nothing more than clanging noises. Without love, all knowledge, all prophecy, all mystery are empty. Without love, a faith that moves mountains cannot move mountains and the self-sacrifice of body, mind, and spirit gain us nothing. Love gives a tongue its words. Gives knowledge, prophecy, and mystery their intelligibility. Love gives faith its power; gives sacrifice its reason for holiness. Primitively, primally, “[Love] bears all things, [Love] believes all things, [Love] hopes all things, and [Love] endures all things.” And to the degree that we participate in this Love, to the degree that we love, we bear, believe, hope, and endure all things as well. And we do so not b/c we are strong or determined or especially holy. We love b/c we are first loved. Loved by Love Himself from the vacuum-suck pop of creation from nothing of everything, we are loved. To love in return is our only reason for being here.
Lest we confuse love with Love, let's make a few important distinctions. Paul is not writing about the warm feeling of affection one gets for someone one finds attractive; or the fierce attachment one might feel toward a parent or sibling. Yes, that's love but it's not the Love that Paul is writing about. Paul is writing about the Spirit of Love that spoke the Word over the Void and created from nothing everything that is. The same Spirit of Love who freed the slaves in Egypt, led them through the desert, brought them to the Promised Land, and established them as a holy people, a nation of priests, a kingdom of prophets. This is the same Spirit of Love who issued the Law, inspired the Prophets, and promised His people a Messiah. The same Spirit of Love who introduced His son at the River Jordan; transfigured him on Mt Tabor; raised him from the dead on Easter morning; descended like a mighty wind upon the disciples; and lives with us still as a consoler, counselor, and advocate. This Love is the Love that binds us to one another, that holds us fast in our hope, and shows us the way to forgiveness and mercy. This is the Love that never fails, that cannot fail. Hormones, neuro-transmitters, passions, emotions are all well and good when we need to be motivated and the complex cocktail of brain chemistry that produces the state we call “love” is quite useful for motivating action, but it is also quite dangerous if not properly controlled. One of the most common mistakes we make as humans is to confuse the brain state we call “love” with Love Himself. I am confident that Patrick and Jenny—with their U.D. educations and sensible upbringings—will not make the mistake of believing that the Love Who Never Fails is the brain state we call “love.” That sort of love crashes and burns more frequently and more brightly than not. No amount of prayer or sacrifice or fasting will fortify a marriage against the tides of adversity if that marriage is rooted in the sort of love that can washed out of the brain with a timely release of dopamine-serotonin antagonists. The Love that matters, the Love that makes a Christian marriage a marriage is Love Himself, Christ Jesus and the love that he is for his bride, the Church.
I know that you two know what Christian marriage is: I did your marriage prep! But I would be remiss in my duties as a priest if I didn't at least touch on the sacramental nature of our little adventure in love this afternoon. By exchanging matrimonial vows in the Church before God's people and His minister, you two are vowing to live your lives as a sacrament—a visible sign—of Christ's love for his Church. Not only do you vow to live as a sign, you are vowing to BE the love that Christ has for his Church. Sacraments not only point at God's grace, they make His grace present and efficacious. So, when we look at you two, bonded together by vows in the Church, we see not only a sign of divine love, we see Divine Love Himself and we see how much He loves His Church in how much you love one another. Thus, when Paul writes that love is patient and kind, not jealous or pompous, not inflated or rude; that love does not seek its own interests; that it is not quick-tempered nor does it brood over injury; that love does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth, he is describing not only how you two should behave with one another, he's also describing how God loves His people.
In his priestly prayer to the Father, Jesus asks that we all might be made one so that our perfection in him would be assured. Each of us has one last imperfection—one remaining crack, one broken bit—that, when it is finally healed, will mark us out as one, done, complete. For most of us, that last imperfection is hidden under layers of flashier imperfections, louder cracks, squeakier bits that get more attention in prayer and sacrifice early on. One sign that we are ready and willing to begin naming and healing all of our imperfections is the readiness and the willingness to enter into a marriage covenant and have all our bruises and bumps and scars and creases and crevices exposed to the sacrificial love of another human soul. This is the vocation you were called to and the vocation you have agreed to pursue. Therefore, if you will bring one another to perfection in Christ, you will love one another with ferocious generosity, vigorous patience, and zealous humility. Nothing matters more—and I mean NOTHING—than your vow to be a sacramental sign of Christ's love for his Church. When money, kids, jobs, etc. start to ease cracks in your lives, remember: we are a sign of Christ's love for his Church. When jealousy, anger, impatience rise up, remember: we are a sign of Christ's love for his Church. When you are tempted to go your separate ways, remember: we are a sign of Christ's love for his Church. And b/c you are here to become a sign of Christ's love for his Church, his Church is here today to say AMEN to your vows, to witness the creation of this sacrament, and to make our own promises to support you in your ministry to us.
One last note to you both. The book of Sirach says that “a worthy wife brings joy to her husband.” She also brings a beer and a sandwich so that a smile is ever on his face. Sirach also says that a good wife is a great gift to the man who fears the Lord. If the man is smart, he will also fear his wife. . .for those sandwiches do not make themselves!
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