Saturday, December 01, 2012

Wedding Mass of Zhonghan & Teresa
Walk This Way...

Readings: Ecclesiasticus 26:1-4, 13-16; Psalm 103:8, 1-2, 3-4, 8-10, 11-12; Colossians 3:12-17; Matthew 5:1-12

Teresa and Zhonghan, dear friends, I have this vague recollection in my mind, of a scene from what must have been a comedy. Someone is knocking on the door of a mansion. And the butler goes to answer it. Now, the butler is a hunchback. So he’s bent over double, and has to shuffle his feet as he walks. He opens the door and greets the guest. Then he leads the guest into the house saying, walk this way. Obediently, the guest starts to imitate the butler. He too bends over double and proceeds to shuffle his feet. Walk this way, he was told. And that’s exactly what he does.

It’s a funny scene, because the phrase walk this way has, of course, two different meanings. The meaning the butler probably intended is the more obvious one. He wanted the guest to follow him into the house. To walk in the same direction. But the guest misunderstood. He thought he was being asked to imitate the butler’s manner of walking. Walk this way. Two different meanings. Exploited to comic effect.

But perhaps we may wonder whether it really matters that the guest misunderstood. That he got the butler’s meaning wrong. After all, right or wrong, the guest ended up entering the house anyway, didn’t he? Well, yes he did. But, if only he had understood correctly, he wouldn’t have had to suffer such discomfort. To bear such a heavy burden. Imagine having to walk like a hunchback all through a large mansion. If only he had understood what was meant, the guest would have entered the house in a far more natural and dignified manner. Walk this way. It really does make a difference how the invitation is understood.

I bring this up because today, with great joy, we have come together to usher you, Zhonghan and Teresa, through the doorway of holy matrimony. And, as we do this, the scripture readings, which you have chosen for the occasion, seem to be telling us exactly what the butler told his guest. Walk this way. If you wish to enjoy a happy and godly marriage, walk this way. And yet, we do need to be careful how we interpret the scriptures. For it is possible to misunderstand. And, in misunderstanding, to burden ourselves far more than we have to.

Take the first reading, for example. At first glance, it seems that it’s mainly concerned with the good wife. Or, to use more gender inclusive language, with the good spouse. The reading appears to be nothing more than a list of directions, telling a spouse how s/he should act in a marriage. S/he should be beautiful and graceful. Like the sun rising over the mountains. S/he should be modest and chaste. S/he should even be perfect. And, perhaps most noteworthy of all, s/he should be silent. Now I’m not sure how you, Teresa or Zhonghan, feel about all this. But it does seem to me–man of little faith that I am–that if we were to understand the passage this way, we would make married life far more burdensome that it can be. For the passage doesn’t seem to tell us from where a spouse is to find the strength to meet all these apparent demands. How is a wife or a husband to do all these things? And for the whole duration of the marriage. For the rest of their lives together.

Is there then perhaps another meaning that we are missing? Can the reading be understood differently? I think it can. For although the passage offers a rather detailed description of the good spouse, s/he is not really its main focus. Notice what is said in the third sentence: A good wife is the best of portions, reserved for those who fear the Lord. In other words, a good spouse is not really something that one becomes through strenuous effort and sheer force of will. Rather is the good spouse, above all, a gift from God. The best of portions. A precious blessing. Bestowed upon those who fear the Lord. Upon those who strive to put God first in their lives. The focus of the reading, then, is less on what one’s spouse should do than it is on the relationship that one needs to cultivate with God. In all things, one needs to fear the Lord. Which is not to say, of course, that one shouldn’t try to be a good spouse. Of course, one should! But the first concern is not with the performance of one’s spouse, or even of oneself, but rather with one’s relationship with God.

We find a similar concern in the second reading too. Notice how, at first glance, the passage seems to be all about what a Christian should do. How a Christian should act. One needs to be clothed with sincere compassion, in kindness and humility, gentleness and patience. One needs to put on the garment of forgiveness and of love. All this is, of course, very important. We do need to be virtuous. But, on closer inspection, we find that this garment of virtue is not something that we manufacture for ourselves. For the reading goes on to say that we should let the message of Christ, in all its richness, find a home in us. And that we should do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus. It’s only in this way that we have access to all the virtues. In other words, in my life, I must first do whatever I can to keep letting God in. Only then will the virtues start flowing out in abundance.

Isn’t this also what you, Teresa and Zhonghan, are trying to remind us, through your choice of the gospel reading. Isn’t this what the beatitudes are all about? Contrary to what we may think at first, the gospel reading is not exactly a list of things to do. Much less a summary of key performance indicators. The focus here is not really on our performance. What does it really mean to be gentle and poor in spirit? To be mournful and merciful? To be pure and peaceful and persecuted? Rather than means of exerting our own strength, aren’t these, above all, ways of humbly acknowledging our weakness? Instead of anxious assertions of power and control, are the beatitudes not rather humble admissions of our own helplessness and need? And isn’t this precisely the secret of Christian marriage? And not just of Christian marriage, but of the whole Christian life? The virtues that we need to live this life we are unable to produce for ourselves. We must receive them from God. And we receive better, when we first learn to accept our weakness. And to find our strength in God. How happy are the poor in spirit: theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

This, then, my dear friends, is the way that our scripture readings are proposing to us today. This is the road that leads to the fullness of life–including the fullness of married life–in Christ Jesus our Lord. This is the path that we need to keep traversing together. Supporting one another in prayerful and joyful companionship in the days ahead. This is the doorway through which, together with Teresa and Zhonghan, the Lord is leading us in this joyful celebration.

My dear friends, Teresa and Zhonghan, how ready are we to do whatever it takes to walk this way today?

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