I had the good fortune yesterday morning to be part of a ritual that has taken place annually for over a thousand years – a thousand and nine to be exact. It was the commemoration of the burial in Durham of Cuthbert of LIndesfarne, the seventh-century saint who founded the spiritual community of that name on an Island in the North Sea. When the Vikings attacked the North of England in the tenth century, the monks removed Cuthbert’s body, which had been buried on the Holy Island, to the mainland. In 1104, it came to its final resting place in Northumbria, on the site where Durham Cathedralnow stands
My own reason for travelling north was only serendipitously related to Saint Cuthbert and the monks of the Holy Island. It happened that some cousins of my husband’s, who have become my adopted family since I came to England as a student many years ago, were having a christening in the cathedral. In the best tradition of English christenings, this one was thrown in with whatever happened to be going on in the host church on the chosen Sunday. And so it was that I found myself standing beside the flower-strewn shrine of Saint Cuthbert in the company of a disarmingly happy baby in a splendidly Victorian christening gown.
To be honest, I suspect only two or three in the group gathered around the baby had more than a passing interest in Cuthbert or thousand-year career as protector of Durham. What united us was the memory of a more recent event which also took place in the Cathedral – the wedding, almost exactly two years ago, of the baby’s parents. It was a stroke of good fortune to be together again to mark the next stage of this new family’s journey, and it was both strange and delightful to re-enact the same bits of ritual together, re-activating such an intimate and particular memory within the grandeur of an ancient sanctuary.
As it happened, I had the chance to preach my first and only wedding sermon at the wedding itself, and yesterday the bride confessed that she was wondering if I still had it written down somewhere, because she can’t remember a word of it! Having been a bride myself, I was not at all surprised, and I found her honesty entirely endearing.
I promised that I would post the text here as an anniversary present, whether or not it lives up to my idea of what I should have said, looking back. If it hasn’t aged well, I may wish I had chosen something more traditional, and sent a tablecloth instead!
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If there is anything that may properly be called happiness here below, I am persuaded it is the union of two persons who love each other with perfect liberty, who are united by a shared understanding, and satisfied with each other’s merits.
Heloise wrote these words to her husband Abelard nine hundred years ago, just as Durham Cathedral was being built. Even if theirs was perhaps not a marriage to imitate, the words of Heloise capture something about marriage that is worth remembering on this glorious day. And it is worth remembering, here in this place where so many have celebrated their joys and mourned their losses over so many centuries, that for as long as this building has stood, the community of faith has celebrated the shared understanding of two human beings as one of the things that points to the deeper reality that from ancient times has been called the kingdom of heaven.
One of the most important things about marriage is that it makes you think. If you are lucky, as I know Jo and Will are, your wife or your husband is someone whom you can talk to about anything and everything, the conversation-partner whose ideas inspire you and who sees what you are trying to get at even when you are not quite making sense.
But when you find yourself in the extraordinary position of marrying the one person in the world you think you could be happy with, it makes you think in a more fundamental way. How did I get here? How did it happen that he asked me, that she said yes, that the same lightning struck us both and made us think that it is possible to forsake all others for as long as we both shall live? You are awe-struck by the fact of the one person you most love wanting to do that for you, and at the same time you wrestle with a suspicion that there must have been a terrible misunderstanding, that you aren’t really the person your beloved sees in you, that it will all go horribly wrong. And yet one day—today—you find yourself declaring publicly, before God and most of the people you care about, that you think you might be up to the task of reinventing yourself as the co-founder of something that is more than just the two of you. One very important person has believed in you, and you have vowed love, comfort, honour, protection, and faith, for the rest of your lives. What on earth did you think you were doing?
One of the shocking things about making a vow like this with so many loved ones as witnesses, is the evidence you get of how highly your friends and family think of you. By coming here to witness your marriage, we have affirmed that we esteem each of you as someone who has the ability to light up another person’s world for as long as you both shall live. And even more than that, we have, every one of us, ourselves taken a vow today. We have vowed to support you and uphold you in your marriage. We have pledged that whatever happens, just as you are in it together, so also we are in it with you, when you need us.
And in turn, by inviting us to witness your marriage you have knit the mysterious thread of sympathy that runs between you into a wider fabric. Your relationship is no longer a private matter: we all have a piece of it. You have given us permission to use your love as one of the building-blocks that each of us uses to make sense of the world. This is both a blessing and a challenge. By being true to your own vows and to each other, you will offer us—and yourselves—a glimpse of something greater than any of us.
Here I want to turn to another voice from the past, the Venerable Bede, who died in the eighth century and lies buried here in the cathedral. Bede tells the story of the coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England, and when the missionaries arrive at the court of King Edwin of Northumbria, one of the King’s advisors gives a memorable argument why the king should accept the new faith.
The present life of man…seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room where you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad. The sparrow flies in at one door, and immediately out at another … So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant.
The story of the sparrow is a story about communities of faith, and about how communities try to find meaning in the short space of this life. And in the same way, a marriage is a community of two, who have promised to act as witnesses to each other’s story, to help each other to find the meaning in whatever life brings. There will be laughter and tears, and through it all, for better or worse, there will be love.
In closing, I want to call up one last voice from the past, the Apostle Paul, who already at the very beginning of the Christian tradition made it clear that love is a window into the beyond, into the part of life which human understanding never fully comprehend. Here he is, in the first letter to the Corinthians:
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away …Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
You will find that even in a long and happy marriage you will never quite know each other. Part of love is remembering that. You won’t always understand each other, and when you don’t, the trick is to take it as an invitation. There will always be something to discover, a surprise behind the corner.
Jo and Will, neither of you could have done better in choosing a witness and interpreter to help you make sense of the brief passage that is this life. Love and comfort each other, honour and protect each other, and most of all be true to each other. Finally, enjoy one another: you have already made a wonderful story together, and we are all looking forward to the chapters to come.
(A sermon for the marriage of Jo Sadgrove and Will Jackson, Durham, 3 September 2011)