My holiday began with a trip to Turangi to attend a wedding. The venue was the old maternity hospital that had been handed back to the local iwi, who in turn have converted it into a wonderful centre of manaakitanga [hospitality]. A friend from long ago [Rob] – a beautiful, generous man – was getting married, again, at age 64. He and his wife-to-be [Annie] invited a whole host of friends and family from around the country. There on the lawn at Turangi, under the awning of their tent, they were duly married. The feasting – including all the trout you could eat [all caught by the groom!] – continued for hours into the evening, along with the bonfire. Many people had brought their own tents and stayed the night. The celebrations concluded with worship and breakfast together the next day.
On reflection it had all the ingredients of a great wedding: not only the love and commitment of the couple but their desire to share their joy with their friends; the fellowship and feasting that such occasions can provide; and the sense of grace – the abundance of the God of beauty, life, and happiness – permeating the proceedings.
As you may know there was a wedding here last Saturday that has widely been reported on. A homeless man, called Miller, was sitting outside on the grass afterwards and the bridal couple offered him some of their wedding cake. It was a small gesture of hospitality and sharing of their abundance. Miller understood that gesture as an act of non-judgemental acceptance. As he said in Friday’s Herald: “Don’t judge people, because every [person] has a story.” This gesture resonated with the sentiments of many readers. It also epitomized the best of St Luke’s.
There is an understanding about marriage and relationships that the love between the couple is solely for their mutual benefit. Indeed modern marriage services, including religious services, although occasionally referencing children, largely support this idea. What is lost in this love-between-the-couple understanding is the sense of building up of the common good – the building up of a decent society - that a strong faithful relationship can contribute to. Bronia and Fabrizio, the wedding couple from last weekend, displayed such a sense.
Frederick Buechner puts it like this: “We hope, with the bride and groom at Cana and with every bride and groom, that the love they bear one another and the joy they take in one another, may help them grow in love for this whole troubled world…, and that the children we pray for them may open them to the knowledge that all men [and women] are their children even as we are their children and as they also are ours.”
The purpose of marriage, like the purpose of church, is the propagation of mutual love in the world.
While I was away in Taranaki I had a lengthy conversation with a local man about marriage. He’d been raised in a faith tradition that required adherence to set doctrines and practices before being allowed to be married in the church. His church had wanted to know that he was committed in a general way to their version of God before his wedding service could proceed. A number of churches still today have a similar sort of entrance requirement.
have a view that is very different from such churches. To my mind it is the mutual love, commitment, and fidelity – writ large in the ‘til death do us part’ clause – that is the sacred or holy part of the service. Faithful love that is unconditional, abundant, and open-ended is what reflects the nature of the Christian understanding of God.
If a couple want to come into a church and make such a commitment, then who are we to erect further entrance requirements? Mind you if a couple just wanted to make a five year commitment/contract, or if one or both parties weren’t genuine in their desire to commit into a monogamous mutual loving relationship, I would not want to be involved, or the church I serve to be involved. It is not conditional love that is being celebrated in a Christian marriage, but the aspiration of unconditional love.
My conversation in Taranaki had been sparked by an article in the Taranaki Daily News about the average cost of a wedding - $30,000. That cost is part of the reason why the number of couples getting married is declining. The expectations of the big white wedding make it financially prohibitive for many. Every minister I know has the authority, like I do, to waive/reduce any fees/gratuity associated with a service of worship like a wedding. Then you just need a sizable lawn or park to have a great big barbeque. Simple really. Apart from those expectations...
Maybe if wedding planning started with the desire to share the couple’s abundant joy with their friends, provide the time and space for fellowship amongst the guests, and be conscious of the gift of grace the costs would be different. Maybe; maybe not?
The wedding of Cana, a Johannine creation, is a carefully constructed theological piece about Jesus bringing abundant life. This ‘life’ is portrayed as a great wedding feast – evoking the image of the great salvation party in Isaiah 25. The important point is that the wedding is a symbol of abundant life, goodness, health and healthy relationships. It is not trying to make a comment about modern or ancient weddings, over-consumption, obesity, or drunkenness.
This is how we need to understand the so-called miracle of changing water into wine. The miracle is not about helping the host out – you know like running short of bubbly before the toast and whipping down to the local supplier to get a few more cases. The story deliberately includes a ludicrous amount of wine – 500 litres – or 667 bottles of champagne! This is theological hyperbole, not historical reality. The hyperbole points to the abundance of life in God. It is not a comment about alcohol, alcoholism, or alcohol sponsorship.
The role of Jesus’ mother in the story is again about theology not history, about abundant life not wedding protocol. She only appears twice in the 4th gospel[i]– firstly here at the wedding, and secondly standing at the cross[ii]. These appearances connect Jesus’ first sign [John creates seven ‘signs’ or miracles for Jesus] with Jesus’ last breath. Theologically we are to make a link between Jesus giving his life[iii] and the gift of abundant life [symbolised by the wine] possible through the grace of God. It’s all about life, and more life, and 667 bottles of bubbly life. It’s not about Jesus the barman making sure the party rocks on.
In the Isaiah reading today[iv] use is made of the metaphor of marriage to describe the relationship between Israel and Israel’s God. This metaphor crops up in a number of passages in the Hebrew Scriptures. At its best it is reminding Israel that their God’s loyalty to them is not based on a passing whim, or on their morality, or on their actions, but is based on a deep covenantal commitment. God will stick with Israel even when it is not in God’s best interests.
What also isn’t talked about very often in modern wedding services is that marriage involves loss. Prioritizing one’s love and commitment involves a freely chosen narrowing of choices. One’s freedom is curtailed. There is a cost. That’s what faithfulness involves. And you won’t discover the abundant life possible in a long-term faithful marriage unless you consistently narrow your choices. This involves loss. Commitment involves loss.
Of course this isn’t talked about very often because in the past it was a message preached only to women. It was expected that women give up many things to make a marriage successful. Yet regardless of this history, both parties in the relationship need to know that commitment involves loss as well as gain, cost as well as benefit.
The metaphor in Isaiah was of course that of a patriarchal marriage where the man [in the metaphor God] has considerably more power and privilege than the woman [in the metaphor Israel]. And it is the template of patriarchal marriage that has bequeathed the heresy of male control and female submission in a Christian marriage.
In the 2nd century CE Christian theologians borrowed this patriarchal marriage metaphor and applied it to the relationship between Christ and the church. ‘Christ’ being the spirit/god-like essence of Jesus that lived on after his death; and ‘the church’ being the grandchildren and great grandchildren of Jesus’ followers who were now [after 70 CE] defining themselves as being separate from Judaism. In the pseudo-Pauline letter to the Ephesians[v] we find this metaphor in the infamous verse: “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church.[vi]”
I would contend that this is heretical on two counts. Firstly it is contrary to the authentic writings of Paul in Galatians where he spelled out the political and social ramifications of being one in Christ[vii] - that is in the community of Jesus’ followers racial, class, and gendered power differentials do not apply [including of course in marriage!]. And secondly it is heretical in creating a hierarchy between Christ and the body of believers. Christ isn’t ‘the head’ distinct from believers, but Christ is the whole body – a collective noun for all believers. We are the body of Christ – including the head!
The error the writer of Ephesians made was trying to apply a metaphorical way of talking about the relationship between God and a community to the relationship of marriage between a husband and a wife – and in the process nurturing the re-emergence of patriarchal marriages in the Christian community [that then took us nearly two millennia to thwart!!].
Earlier I mentioned that financial cost was a factor in the decline of marriage in our society. Well patriarchal theology is a significant factor in why most couples today don’t want to be married in a church. Many think we still believe in that ‘husband-is-the-head-of-the-wife’ crap!
Personally I’m a strong believer in marriage. But I also know marriages can go horribly wrong, and sometimes they need to come to an end. Marriage is a locus of pain for many. Yet the ideal of a marriage that can nurture costly love, trust, security, personal growth, and the strength to care for others, is an ideal worth holding on to and promoting. I think also marriages at their best can encourage a grace and generosity that contributes to the building up of the common good in society – as was symbolically evident in the gesture of Bronia and Fabrizio last week.
[i] There is no birth narrative in John.
[ii] John 19.
[iii] Remember in John Jesus’ death is almost like a suicide, rather than an execution.
[iv] Isaiah 62:1-5
[v] Pseudo-Pauline means it wasn’t written by Paul
[vi] Ephesians 5:22-33
[vii] Galatians 3:28.