The Revd Brutus Green
I could not tell you how many weddings I’ve been to in the last couple of years. I’m glad to say that none of them have run out of wine, but I was ready had such a situation arisen. There is, however, a charming contradiction to weddings. On the one hand you have a fantasy spun out like a fairy tale at cautionary expense; on the other you have human animals at their most basic, in both appetites and insecurities.
I was particularly struck by this at the last wedding I attended on New Year’s Eve. In a charming Wiltshire village it was in all respects a beautiful, traditional wedding. However, some time around one o’clock in the morning the bride ran round the remaining guests with headphones. Out of respect to the neighbours, the party suddenly switched to being a silent disco. That is to say suddenly there was no music except that streamed to each individual in their personal headsets. At the time I was trying every cab driver in the country for a lift home, so I had the odd experience of watching thirty or forty people stomping up and down on the hard wooden floor in various states of befuddlement, denuded of any musical accompaniment. I have never seen such evidence of humans as animals, in primitive rituals of bacchanalian joy and strutting mating dances.
Is it the romance? The confrontation with what is lacking? The memory of past failures? The fear of having missed out? Sheer Wedding Crashers opportunism? Weddings, which ostensible show the higher aspects of humanity - dignified church services, beautiful music, champagne, fine food and smart clothes, - can end in the basest and least dignified of human positions. Most memorably for me one wedding ended over a whiskey with the groom’s brother, who was also the wedding photographer, suggesting to me a rather more provocative shoot in his hotel room. I politely made my excuses and made a rather swift exit.
In a way this symbolizes the general discomfort that people sometimes have with religion generally. The archaic pronouncement and grand words of liturgy and hymns led by smartly dressed be-collared priests, may sound hollow and ring false against the reality of human experience. Getting to know priests swiftly disabuses you of their mystique. Scepticism is easy. Scepticism is temptation. Not because scepticism is more intellectually advanced, but because it airbrushes over our disappointments with easy cynicism. In the complications of life scepticism is a failure to try. It is a failure of hope.
Let us suppose for a moment we are that sceptic. We should find ourselves at the wedding feast in a hungry mood, like the Tiger who Came to Tea. We might enjoy the beauty, we might feast and drink and seek our carnal pleasures. The wedding itself, however, is a lie - a means to an end, even for the bride and groom. The limits of all pleasure and meaning in the world would be in the carnal moment; its success dependent on the degree of pain or pleasure. It’s meaning and endurance as light and flippant as the breeze.
But then, let us consider things from the standpoint of eternity. Here it’s still the moment counts, but every moment eternally: everything is seen by God, is eternally known, has value, has meaning, is judged and in some sense permanently recorded. In one sense, the wedding itself is clearly the most vital thing. From the standpoint of eternity the material and carnal are all transitory but a declaration of love through thick and thin actually aspires to eternity itself. But wait! Because actually in the mind of God all those misdemeanors, the memories we’d rather forget or keep hidden, every moment is kept eternally. Can there be any more terrifying thought? If we are forced to a reckoning with every moment of our past, if they are held forever, we are being called to properly confront ourselves and every action and thought is significant. On the one hand, life is light, ephemeral, ultimately inconsequential. On the other, life is terribly heavy, every moment laden with consequence and judgement.
Ultimately, these are the only two philosophically viable positions. Either nothing matters, or everything matters. There is no in-between. Some humans have attempted to live like this. Nietzsche consistently expressed the former. His Ubermensch, or superman, was free from false ideas of God and truth, to create his own amoral values. Nietzsche, however, died young and in poverty, riddled with syphilis, while his word ‘Ubermensch’ got adopted by the Nazis. Not a great recommendation.
On the other hand, the intensity of every moment has been taken up by various mystics. While a ‘lifetime burning in every moment’ might be the vocation of the very few, it is for most of us, between work, families and the fragility of our personality only perhaps occasionally glimpsed and caught hold of.
Which is why most of us find ourselves in this wedding-situation, torn between the utter seriousness of the occasion and the bacchanalian carnival we’re actually here for. Is it about beauty, truth, fidelity, love and God, or cake, booze and sex? Somehow humanity has contrived to interweave the two sets like the parable of the wheat and tares, the city of man and the city of God. When we come to the final hymn just consider the contortions, the simultaneous interweaving and separating of the carnal and spiritual. It is precisely Incarnational.
Human kind cannot bear very much reality. Torn between the unbearable lightness of being, the depressive possibility of meaninglessness, and the sheer weight of life in the shadow of eternity, most of us play for the middle ground of trying to be responsible and making the most of the opportunities we’re given.
The New Testament for all its occasional sharp edges is generally pretty helpful here. Jesus’ central commandment has the virtue of being both flexible and directive - love your neighbour. In today’s epistle this is translated through a whole host of situations, all of which could be translated: be kind.
He that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; be kind.
He that ruleth, with diligence; be kind.
He that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness. Be kind.
Let love be without dissimulation. Be kind.
Abhor that which is evil, cleave to that which is good, Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; be kind.
In honour preferring one another... distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality. Bless them which persecute you... Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep. Be of the same mind one towards another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be kind.
Nietsche’s Ubermensch has no reason to be kind. He classified all Christianity as the resentment of the weak. Most of us lack the attention to be consistently and thoroughly kind. But if we are minded at all to consider eternity it is perhaps where we might start.
But our flexible directive to love one another is only the second part of the Great Commandment. The first, obviously, is to love God. This probably sounds false though - like we ought to do something we have no idea how to; which feeling to direct where. The point is though that we ought to love God because God loves us. Which is to say that the weight of life we may perceive, the intuition that actually things matter, that life is meaningful, that every moment is eternally considered, is surprisingly underwritten by grace.
So, although every moment is held in relation to eternity, for all the failures and the lack, the shortcomings and the fragility, the suffering that is caused and borne; every moment, as it is offered to God, is forgiven. To experience this, this release from judgement - whether we think of it as our own self-judgement, the judgement of others, or of God, is to experience the love of God, received and given.
The lightening of the burden of the eternal consequences of each moment though is not such as to make each moment less important. Love can be given and received in a moment; so can misery. When Jesus attends the wedding at Cana the wine has given out. The wedding is a failure, the bride and groom are humiliated; the guests are probably about to tear the place up. This is where Christ meets us - in the brokenness of a world that is striving to the higher aspects of humanity but is plagued by being human, all too human; the world between our ephemeral ennui and ambivalence and the weight of eternity. In the midst of our poverty, however we experience it, of our weakness and failure, the story promises that at the heavenly banquet, the most frequent metaphor for eternity, we will receive the plenitude that we have not attained through these dull January days. We ‘who are only undefeated/ because we have gone on trying’, will discover behind the glimpses of eternity seen here on earth, the full reality of divine love: a love that is kind and a love that forgives.