This is a very special weekend. Not only is it Memorial Day, a time when we honor and remember those who have gone before us, and particularly those who died in defense of our freedom. Yesterday, my wife and I celebrated our thirty-fourth wedding anniversary.
Invariably, the date brings back memories for us, most of them very fond memories. For us, the experience was truly life changing. It began three months earlier, when she received a job offer from Chrysler Defense. It was her dream job, utilizing all of her academic skills, and it paid more money than anyone in her immediate family had ever made before. It also paid substantially more than I made.
There was never any question that she would take the job, but there was one problem. She had to move to Michigan, a place that she had visited only once before when she was 4 years old, and a place that I’d never visited. Still, after nearly 2 years of searching for work in a job market that made our current market here look optimistic by comparison, we knew she’d have to move. We also knew that for me to get here, we had to be married, despite the advice of well meaning friends, and even some relatives, that perhaps we should live together for awhile before rushing into marriage. We weren’t at all well versed at the time on the subject of Marriage as a Sacrament, but we knew, nonetheless, that marriage was a critical part of a permanent loving relationship. That’s a point that can easily get lost in a society that views marriage as a disposable commodity that can involve multiple partners and partners of the same gender.
So, I’m sure some of you are wondering,
“How is the deacon going to tie this into the readings of the day?”
Well, here goes.
Today’s readings (Acts 8:5-8, 14-17; 1 Pt 3:15-18) appear almost in the reverse order that they should chronologically. In terms of time, the Gospel (Jn 14: 15-21) reading really occurs first. In that reading, Jesus is preparing the Apostles for their mission. He is letting them know that the road ahead will not be a familiar one, nor will it be easy. Like a couple of recent college graduates moving to a new and very different urban environment, The Apostles are entering a new occupation and are blazing an entirely new trail, only for them the stakes and the potential consequences are exponentially greater than they were for the newlyweds mentioned above. They involve the salvation of the entire world and for all time. Nonetheless, there are parallels.
The Apostles were charged with spreading the message to all, not just the Jews, and to do it without the physical presence of Jesus. In other words, they were to be Jesus to all. I’m going to depart from the script for a moment and ask you to recall your Catechism classes, probably from a long time ago.
Hopefully you will recall the old definition of a Sacrament. In my class, we were told that a “Sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.” For most of the sacraments, the outward signs are self evident. In Baptism, the sign is water. In Confirmation, it is the Chrism that the Bishop applies to the forehead. In the Sacrament of the Sick, it is the Holy Oils that are applied to the forehead and hands, but where we get confused, is in the sacraments of Holy Orders, and especially Marriage.
Many of us, and I was one of them for most of my life, assume that the outward sign for Holy Orders is the blessing prayed over the Ordinandi and they lie prostrate on the floor of the Cathedral. Profound as that moment is, and for me it is the subject of another entire Homily, one that you may hear on another day, it is not the outward sign of Holy Orders. The outward sign for Holy Orders is the recipient, the priest or deacon; Philip, Peter, and John demonstrate that when they minister to the Jews. They demonstrate it even more dramatically when they travel to Samaria to minister to non-Jews, those whom they would have called “unclean” before they received the Holy Spirit.
In the same way, the Marriage ceremony, elaborate or simple, is not the outward sign. In Matrimony, marriage, the outward sign is the couple. As married couples, we are Christ to our parents, our children, our neighbors, to all that we meet. That’s a scary thought. It’s an awesome responsibility, one that we take lightly at our own peril.
That’s why we need to spread the word that Marriage is not about Elvis impersonators in Vegas, or even reverent ceremonies in church. Holy Orders is not about white robes, elaborate vestments, or Roman Collars. It is the day to day life that the priest or deacon, husband and wife, live that is the outward sign, just as the Apostles were the symbol of Christ to their world and time. Since we are that outward sign of grace, we need to mirror the courage, reverence and service, rendered by the Apostles. No, it’s not likely that we will be asked, as they were, to become martyrs for the faith, but we probably will, at some point be challenged to stand by our moral principles, and yes, our faith, in the face of a society that feels that faith is extraneous, or else, a private matter. In so doing, we risk unpopularity. In some extreme cases, as happened to one of my brother deacons, we may even be asked to give up or at least fundamentally alter our livelihoods, but if we remain true to Jesus, the promise is unambiguous and unequivocal. He will remain with us, reveal Himself to us, and open to us, The Father’s love. That’s not just a promise for later, when we get to heaven. It’s a promise for now. We need only embrace the message Jesus gave us. It’s simple, but not necessarily easy. Even so, the benefits are immense, infinite and eternal really, and isn’t that an investment worth making? Be the best sacrament you can be, for you, for your families, and for the salvation of humankind. [6th Sunday of Easter- A]