Making visible the love.
I celebrated a wonderful wedding Saturday in Connecticut. Unlike many weddings these days, it was in a church. For Catholics, that was a given in years past, but not so much anymore. In the past few years there have been very few weddings celebrated here at this central Manhattan church. Many instead are ‘destination weddings’ in a beautiful natural setting with a beach or mountain background, often officiated by friend who has obtained marrying powers on an internet site.
Yesterday’s wedding was in a beautiful church. The bride was picture-perfect and calm, the groom was a nervous wreck. But when it came time for their vows--the two looking at one another intensely as I prompted each one---both of them could barely get the words out because they were crying for joy.
After the rings were exchanged, everyone sat down and we listened to the awesome song, What a Beautiful Name. Here are the lyrics:
You were the Word at the beginning, one with God the Lord Most High; Your hidden glory in creation, Now revealed in You our Christ
What a beautiful name it is; What a beautiful name it is, The Name of Jesus Christ my KIng; What a beautiful name it is , nothing compares to this; What a beautiful name it is, the Name of Jesus
Brittany and Erik really wanted all of us to hear and sing that song because they deeply believed that Jesus was at the center of their love. It is one of the main points I always emphasize when I’m speaking to engaged couples about their marriage to come. Without Jesus between them throughout their marriage, the odds favor its eventual death; with Jesus, I can pretty much guarantee that they will never divorce.
You could really feel the Holy Spirit in that church the other day. It was whispering into all our hearts, binding us together as brothers and sisters in ways that doesn’t always happen in Catholic churches. Jesus, the Holy Spirit, God the Father…oh man, it was awesome, I mean really awesome!
That feeling carried over into the reception, which was at a restored barn on a farm out in the countryside. You could feel the love between us all, and there was such joy. I couldn’t hold back. I was out on that dance floor almost all night, revealing all my cool and wild dance steps that I usually reserve for the privacy of my room in the rectory. (Oh yes, priests love to dance too!)
At one point I took a breather and got a bottle of water and one of the guests approached me. “Father, you are definitely a candidate for Dances with the Stars,” she said. I of course protested with a little fake humility, but of course I loved the compliment.
And as we watched everyone having fun on the dance floor, she began talking about her 24 year old son, whom she clearly loves a great deal. She pointed him out. I was impressed and slightly jealous of his slick choreography. He seemed so happy out on the floor. “He’s really a terrific kid,” she said, “he’s so good to his brothers and sister.” I could see the muscles in her face tighten ever so slightly, the eyes unconsciously revealing her disappointment and regret. “But,” she said, “he doesn’t believe in God anymore.” She went on to say that none of her children attend Mass, except I guess for the big days of Easter and Christmas and of course weddings and funerals.
It was clear that she was sad, and I tried to be consoling.
Of course you raise your kids to be free, while passing on to them the truth you know about the world, about life, and about God. And of course children are not clones of their parents, and they need to assume their own beliefs, perhaps testing them out in ways that are contrary to the people who raised them.
And it’s not just Catholic families who face such a generational divergence in matters of faith. Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist parents are also being confronted with daughters and sons who protest the religious institutions in which they were catechized. Many of them are straying from the tribal beliefs of their ancestors, influenced by the ideas and practices of a wider world.
But it can be very distressing to their parents, who are sometimes heartbroken. They feel that when their children abandon or renounce their ancestral faith, they are rejecting the loving parents who offered it to them in the first place.
It’s kind of the theme of the first reading today from Isaiah, about the owner of a well-cultivated vineyard who is distressed when it produces a terrible harvest of grapes. Isaiah is making the point that the Jews of his day were rejecting the love of the God who created them and the world with which he blessed them. And in the Gospel, Jesus ramps up the story, predicting that his generation would take it even further by rejecting the Creator and even the Son with the beautiful name, the name of Jesus, our king.
I looked out at the dance floor. It was a wonderfully happy scene, and it looked like every guest was out there. They had formed a circle, and encouraged by the spirit in the air, someone would jump into the center and show off their dancing ‘stuff’ to the celebratory whistles and shouts and smiles of the participants. The woman’s son felt the call, and when he was at the center of attention, he was astoundingly good. Someone next to me said “Whooeee, he is the bomb, cramazing!” I looked over to his mother, who was beaming with pride.
The words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins came to mind:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil...And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things… Because the Holy Ghost over the bend world broods, With warm breast and ah! bright wings.
The Holy Ghost/Spirit was bending over our world at the barn, revealing the grandeur of God in the twisting, turning, bouncing bodies of these brothers and sisters and I thought-- this surely is what heaven must be like!
Why is it that the vineyard we have been given, the vineyard that meant so much to our parents is being abandoned? Why are our churches growing increasingly empty, devoid especially of the young?
Perhaps it is because we have been poor stewards of that which was passed on to us. Isaiah’s reading and Jesus’ parable in this Gospel are as relevant to us as it was in the time when he walked the earth. If young people and others find no life in the church, perhaps it is because we have not really been hard at work growing the Gospel of love in the world.
It is hard work. It is not simply about pious practices and fulfilling doctrinal and dogmatic obligations. The Gospel of love that Jesus preached and lived was not comfortable. It rocked the boat, it challenged the world.
Jesus did not remain in the temple praying all day. He was out on the road. He was seeking out the lost, the forgotten, the angry, the hopeless, the suffering, the dying, the rejected ones, the sinners. He was working the vineyard, pressing the flesh with his brothers and sisters, opening his heart to every one and any one who came within his presence. He didn’t go home to the comfort and security of family, to the temple and its sheltering customs, its taming rules. “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
I suspect that the pews are empty all around us because we have not been working the vineyards with Jesus our king. I suspect that we priests are too insulated, too concerned about finances, too comfortable in our lifestyles and our clerical ‘club’. I suspect that as parishioners we are too focused on the smaller things in our lives, concerned about our piety rather than our charity, and fail to hear the radical call to love those around us, especially those to whom we have troubling relating and those we so easily judge and condemn. I suspect that a living, loving Jesus was not visible in us or in the church to those who once sat among us as children and to others who were searching for him in a wildly changing world.
I suspect that we have been poor stewards, and that we have in our own ways rejected the cornerstone, the son of the owner of the vineyard. If Jesus were to come back in the flesh today, what would he say of the church that bears his name?
It is possible, my brothers and sisters, for a different kind of a church. It is possible for the Risen Christ to be visible right here , as clear as he was Saturday at the wedding where we sang of the beautiful name of Jesus. I deeply believe that Jesus still has the power to attract young and old, brothers and sisters of every gender, race, culture and sexuality. It can be so, it can be so. But we will have to do more, much more, we will have to give much more of ourselves to make visible the love that we all desire so deeply.
What would that take of all of us, do you think? What would it take of you?