In the summer just past, I presided at a few weddings. At a typical wedding ceremony here at the parish, there are about 200 people present with a wide range of faith commitment among them – some with no faith (just responders to the couple’s invitation), some with strong faith and most somewhere in between. It can therefore be a challenge to prepare a good homily that speaks to everyone. That said, the importance of doing so is crucially important for weddings are great opportunities for evangelization where the liturgy facilitates a renewed encounter between God and the people he loves. Especially for those who rarely go to church, if ever, these moments can be times when God’s grace finally breaks through and begins to speak to the heart.
The wedding homilies I delivered this summer were based on God’s Word and inspired by the words of St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) who had some of the most beautiful insights into the nature of love in the history of the Church. In one of his best known texts, St Bernard insists that love is not just mimicry or a cold command but that love has a source who is God: ‘Love is a great thing so long as it continually returns to its fountain head, flows back to its source, always drawing from there the water which constantly replenishes it’ (On the Song of Songs, 83, 4-6). After Bernard, St Bonaventure (1221-1274) taught something similar when he referred to God as the ‘eternal generating source’ (Journey into the Mind of God, 8, 11) - drawing our attention to the generative effect of God’s love as the source of all love. All love flows from its source and gives life but then returns to that source where it is renewed..
In the spiritual tradition of the Church, great emphasis was placed, particularly in the West, on the imitation of virtue and the imitation of Christ. Best known exemplars of this would be St Francis of Assisi’s imitation of Christ’s poverty and the later spiritual classic ‘The Imitation of Christ’ by Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471). This emphasis on imitation was further confirmed by St Thomas Aquinas’ imitation of the virtues and their inculcation by habitual practise.
This spirituality of imitation is certainly rooted in Scripture. In John’s account of the Last Supper, Jesus exhorted his disciples to imitation of his humble service: ‘I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done for you’ (Jn. 13:15). Also at the Last Supper he gave us the great commandment to ‘love one another, as I have loved you’ (John 13:34). St Paul adds his weight behind the command to imitate - not just Christ but himself whose virtues he embodies: ‘Copy me my brothers as I copy Christ himself’ (1 Cor. 11:1; cf. 2 Thess. 3:7-9).
That said, according to Scripture, imitation is not the only route to holiness and conformity to Christ. Through faith and baptism, we are mystically united with the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit and so are connected to God as the source of love, goodness, truth, beauty and life. For the one baptised or ‘plunged’ into the mystery of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, there is a connection to the divine made possible by the mutual indwelling of God within the believer and the believer in God: ‘Remain in me as I remain in you…he who abides in me and I in him bears much fruit’ (Jn. 15: 4, 5). In his first letter, St John connects this mystical union of God with believers with the demands of the moral life and the imitation of Christ: ‘This is proof that we are in God. Whoever claims to remain in him must act as he acted’ (1 Jn. 1:5-6). And so our great call to love is rooted both in imitation of Christ’s love and participation in that same love. Here is where the best of the Western emphasis on imitation combines with the best of the Eastern Tradition which emphasizes our participation in the divine life. Like so many other facets of the spiritual life, it is a case not of either/or but both/and.
So then, in the context of a wedding celebration, how does all of this translate? I believe a good place to begin is with the couple themselves and the love between them which is the reason why all their families and guests have been invited. The couple’s love has grown and become so strong that they have come before God and his people to seal that love in the sacrament of marriage. The couple has not decided to fall in love but love has found them and absorbed them into its power. Through the Holy Spirit, the couple have become attuned or connected to the source of their love who is God. And only by staying close to that source of love and connected to that source will their love remain strong, faithful and pure. This is all the more important when the wine of newness and novelty runs out and things can go dry as routine sets in. When Jesus intervened at the wedding at Cana, the new wine of life flowed again. When human love wavers or cools, only the source of God’s love in Christ can make the wine flow again and renew the love at the heart of the couples’ relationship. Through private prayer, prayer as a family and prayer with the community, the couple can return time and time again to love’s source to draw out new life that keeps them united and confirms them in holiness.
When we think about it, this is true not just for the vocation of marriage but for all Christian discipleship. As a priest, I have endured times of dryness and fatigue. I suspect most of us have had the same experience. But at those moments, I have learned the importance of returning, time and time again to the source of love and renewal who is God. If ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8) then it is vital that we return daily and often to the source of love who is God to be recharged with the same love of God Himself.
This image of connection to the source of love can speak powerfully to our digital culture today. When the battery in our smart phones run out, we go looking for a source of power to recharge them. When we travel, one of the first items we pack is the cable that connects our phones to a source of power. We want to stay connected. So if our smart phones depend on an external source of power to function, how come we think we can function without God’s love to sustain us or that our relationships are self-sufficient without need of the Spirit’s power to make them new?
Only by staying connected to the source of love who is God can we hope to love like him. Only by participating in that love can imitate that love that St Thomas Aquinas defined as ‘willing the good of the other’ (STh I-II, 26, 4). God is love and because he is, only in Him can love be renewed in us. In a world that seeks love so badly but often in the wrong places, the message that love has source needs to be proclaimed with new hope as we direct others to that source of love who is God. To us and to all, God speaks: ‘Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost’ (Is. 55:1). Come back to the source. Come and recharge. Your battery is running low.