Saturday, October 23, 2010
Most clergy, when talking amongst themselves, will admit that they prefer to officiate at funerals over baptisms and at baptisms over weddings. This surprises many people at first who would probably reverse the order entirely: weddings, baptisms, funerals.
But the reasons are pretty simple, I think, and they have to do with chaos and control on the one hand and theology on the other. While people have definite ideas about funerals, most funerals (at least the ones that I officiate at) are still held in church (rather than in the funeral home) and most people are grieving enough to let go and be ministered to rather than trying to orchestrate everything. Even more importantly, The Burial Office goes to the very heart of the Christian faith. When we speak of Christ's Resurrection - when we sing our Easter alleluias (even at the grave!) - we are declaring who we are as Christians and what it is we believe; namely that nothing in all creation (not even death) can separate us from the love of God.
In Holy Baptism "we are sealed and marked as Christ's own forever." This Sacrament knits us together as members of Christ's Body, the Church. This holy joy we celebrate with water and oil is, admittedly, sometimes tempered with flashing cameras of over-eager relatives who are often unaware that they are part of a worshiping community and not "paparazzi." Even more annoying are those more interested in magic than the sacramental life: when people tell me that they "better get the child done 'just in case'..." I assure them that I am not a fire insurance agent. Sometimes they just ignore me, but occasionally they pause and begin to reflect on the kind of God they are professing to believe in. Then we begin to have a far more serious conversation about outward and visible signs that convey an already present inward and spiritual grace. Then we can begin to have a far more serious conversation about how Baptism is an initiation rite into something, the beginning of a journey; not an insurance policy.
But weddings are notoriously harder to get a handle on, even theologically. Many of our most cherished traditions come from medieval feudal society; not religious practices. (Case in point: the father "giving away" the bride.) And too often people get sucked into over-focusing on "the day" rather than on what it means to begin to build a life together--on what will happen the next day and the day after that. The media and the wedding industry have also made it extremely difficult (if not impossible) to offer the Church's blessing on a couple as they begin their life together in worshipful ways. And far too often there are all kinds of other dramas playing out: divorced parents who will not speak to their ex-spouse's new spouse; in-laws with different religious traditions or political values; and even on occasion the simple fact that parents are not sure the partner their child has chosen is "good enough" for their baby.
If you aren't really into drama (and I'm not) then it becomes pretty easy to understand why clergy rank these three in the order they do.
Lately, though, my attitudes have been changing. I'm sure part of it is age and I am actually mellowing quite a bit as I get older, like cheese or wine. And I'm sure another big part of it is that more and more couples are resisting parental pressure to do a "church wedding" if it doesn't mean anything to them. So I do far fewer weddings these days than I did even a decade ago; but in most if not all cases I am asked to officiate because people do really mean to ask for God's blessing.
I also think there is a pastoral dimension in my change of heart: more and more of the weddings I do these days are not for strangers, but for people I've watched grow up. I feel connected to their lives.
I've never really been the kind of priest who feels weddings MUST be held in the church building. But lately I've been reflecting more and more on what a gift it is when they are not. The Church likes to talk these days quite a bit about being a witness in the world--and yet most clergy (including yours truly)are far more comfortable leading worship in a familiar building than outdoors. We forget St. Francis, preaching to the birds; or John Wesley, out in the fields. More and more I've come to appreciate that sometimes the right place to invoke God's blessing is in fact on a holy hill, or on a sandy beach, or out in a field where the cattle are lowing.
Yesterday I co-officiated at just such a wedding on a brisk and windy, yet still gorgeous autumn day in New England in Groton, MA (where the picture above was taken.) Moreover, it was an interfaith affair: my co-officiant was a rabbi. The bride was one of my confirmands fourteen years ago when I was a young associate rector in Westport, CT. Actually she was the youngest of three kids, all of whom I was able to lead through confirmation. The middle child--this bride's older sister--tragically died of cancer when she was sixteen. All those years ago, I stood with the family as she died and then officiated at her funeral.
Yesterday I had the extraordinary opportunity to reconnect with this family on a much happier day in their lives. I felt like it was a chance to close the loop. It was a beatiful and holy privilege, truly. On top of all of that, the commitment of both groom and bride to finding ways to honor both of their faith traditions rather than reducing them to the "least common denominator" was refreshing. Thank God for the internet and google documents and the ability to edit, re-edit, and re-edit some more! But in addition to words familiar and important to me as a Christian priest, there were also prayers in Hebrew and of course some breaking of glass.
I stayed on until dinner was served and it became clear to me that people got it: not just bride and groom, rabbi and priest, but those gathered there felt somehow connected to The Holy One, known by many different names. In a world where religion so often divides, we glimpsed something radically different: a liturgical experience in its rich diversity that nevertheless was able to unite. It was a thin place where heaven and earth touched and that was palpable.
Weddings can still be hard, and some are much harder than others. And most are much harder (and far more expensive) than they need to be. Even so, I find myself giving thanks today for the privilege of this work to which I have been called, holy work that brings me closer to the sacred mystery of human love, in which every now and again we glimpse Divine Love.