MARRIAGE AS A MEANS OF GRACE
"There was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding..."
During the last few weeks there have been five weddings, but no funerals, at Volmoed. It seems that marriage is still in fashion. And, appropriately, the lectionary reading for last Sunday was about the wedding feast in Cana. On reading the story again, I was struck by the fact that John does not tell us who got married! Imagine a report in the Hermanus Times telling us about a wedding last Saturday on Volmoed, but forgetting to say whose wedding it was. All the report said was: "Alyson and Mike Guy were there." I think the bride and bridegroom, as well as their families would be a little peeved if not downright angry that they did not get a mention. And then, to add further insult to injury, the report went on and said that the wine had run out! How embarrassing, though, come to think of it, seeing the family name was not mentioned in the newspaper report, they were protected from that scandal. But those were the salient facts. Mary, Jesus and his disciples were there and the wine ran out. That is, except for the additional and most startling piece of information. Mary gets involved and tells Jesus there is no wine; Jesus appears to get angry with her, but he goes ahead and turns the water in a the jars into good vintage wine. Now that was worth reporting. Not even Barry or Bernhard together would have been able to do that!
When Isobel and I got married 56 years ago last Friday, if we may boast a little, we also ran out of wine at the reception. In fact, there was none to begin with as we were married in a Methodist Church and no alcohol was allowed in the church hall where the reception was held. So we were served tea, much to the displeasure of some of the guests. And in those days tea meant Ceylon tea, none of the fancy teas available today. Even Jesus would have had difficulty in turning that tea into wine! But that did not matter to Isobel and me. We were married and duly set off in our Fiat 600 to travel the country and begin to work out what the vows we had made actually meant: "for better, for worse..." It did not take us too long to find out as our roller-coaster of a marriage began to go up and down! "for richer for poorer," yes in those days we were "the poorer;" "in sickness and in health," yes, we have had our fair share of sickness and sadness. And while our marriage has been much better than worse, it has not been perfect, and we know that there will come a time when "death will us part."
Marriage is a blend of romance and learning to tough it out. It can be full of roses, but never without some thorns. That's just how it is. But we celebrate marriage like Mary, Jesus and his disciples did with that anonymous family in Cana because it is so fundamental to our lives and to the well-being of society. In these days when many people simply live together, and when divorce is common, it is important that we reaffirm that marriage is, for Christians, a sacrament. Not all our church traditions call it a sacrament, but that does not alter the fact that marriage is a God-given "means of grace." That is, through marriage God promises to turn the water necessary for daily life into the wine of romance and joy! We bring to the marriage our fallible selves with all our personality peculiarities, which would apply to gay marriages as much as any other. Somehow by the grace of God there is a fusion in which we become one without losing our personalities. In fact, our personalities are meant to be enriched not diminished as we are led into the mystery of our growing unity. At least that is the theology of marriage even if it does not always work out that way in practice. But it does help to put the romance back into marriage if we understand it as a sacrament or means of grace, for that lifts it beyond a legal agreement and places it within the embrace of God's grace.
Which leads me to the thought -- why is it that dancing is such a universal feature of wedding celebrations? And why is it that traditionally the bride and bridegroom lead the dance at the reception? Is it not symbolic of taking the first step together into the future and then being joined by everyone else in the dance as supporting cast. And could it be that at Cana, Jesus, Mary and all the disciples joined in that dance? Yes, I think so. After all, as the song has it, he is the Lord of the dance, and we are meant to dance with him wherever we may be!.
But dancing can be a challenge, as it was for me. There is much to learn and that takes commitment. That is why we make vows about remaining united even when we are poor, sick, or things get bad. Marriage can be rough, we can stand on each other's toes, and there are many marriages that stumble and the dance comes to an end with bruises on our bodies and souls. Then we may have to the truth and accept closure. But let's not think about those times of failure right now. Let us rather focus on our own marriages or those of our families and friends, or those living together to discover if they want to dance, for whom we care and pray, those with whom we dance along in the divine dance. Yes, it is God's grace that makes marriage a sacrament and embraces us in the dance of life together, but with that gift of grace comes an awesome task. We have to dance till the sun goes down, keeping each other on our toes and picking each other up when we fall.
So marriage as a sacrament is not just what happens on the day of the wedding when we take our first steps in the dance, marriage is meant to be a means of grace throughout our lives as we work at being in relationship, bring up children, welcome friend and stranger, and find our way. And the primary way in which we receive that sacramental grace that turns the water of the everyday into the wine of celebration and joy is through learning to forgive and accepting forgiveness. If there is one place where we should not let the sun set on our anger, it is in the marriage bed! For it is then that we renew our vows and find the grace we need.
None of this is passing a judgment on those whose marriage might fail; on those who might live together and decide not to get married, or on those who opt to remain single. I am simply reaffirming what Christian marriage is meant to be from the moment we make those vows and take the first dancing steps, and for the rest of our lives -- a means of grace in which the water of daily life becomes the wine of eternal life, and in which even every-day Ceylon Tea can sparkle and refresh.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 12 January 2017