Brides and Grooms - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Brides and Grooms

Brides and Grooms

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In my marriage preparation sessions here, I sometimes ask my wedding couples to identify one thing - it can be absolutely anything - that they really value and appreciate about the person they are going to marry. 

The answers I have received to this question over the years have been fascinating and varied. They have ranged from the entirely practical ('she knows how to re-wire a plug') to the utterly romantic ('he has such beautiful eyes'), with every shade of everything else in between.

But recently, one prospective bridegroom answered my question by saying this: 'She enables me to be a better version of myself.' What a wonderful, and insightful answer - an answer that surely takes us to the very heart of the essence of marriage. Because there is something in that insight that can help us to understand why, despite all the pressures on them these days, marriages can still stand the test of time - marriages in which both partners really can flourish. And I suspect that this is the case for two reasons:

Firstly, if we know that we are truly loved, and can feel totally secure within that love, then, at the deepest of levels, we can start to become more confident about who we are as individuals. We can learn to value ourselves, and so become more fully the people we were intended to be. And secondly, when we love someone, then it is natural for us to want the very best for them, and to find ways of showing that love: in what we do; in how we conduct ourselves; and in the ways in which we help and support and encourage that person. 

In other words, the best kind of relationship also draws out the very best in us. It can bring to light qualities that perhaps we didn't even know we possessed; because loving and being loved can make us less selfish; more patient; more compassionate; more forgiving. And I'm sure that is why the wedding service describes marriage as 'A gift of God in creation through which husband and wife may know the grace of God.' Because whenever we find ourselves growing in love, there is grace there, too, in abundance.

Of course, the unfortunate flipside to this insight is that marriage can also be a context in which we become worse versions of ourselves. That very same stability and security can lead us, in time, to take what we have for granted; and when that happens, one can find oneself with a very convenient emotional punchbag ready to hand; someone we know we can take it out on, precisely because we have come to assume that we can get away with it. I am sometimes quite startled by the harsh and unthinking ways in which I have sometimes seen one partner in a marriage speak to their other half.  At some level, they have ceased to be concerned about the impact of their words, or indeed their actions upon the person they married. And that is sad to see.

We can so easily hurt the one we love when we come to take their presence, their support, and their love, for granted. And when that happens, then we have lost sight of the fact that, at the heart of the relationship that we have, lies the most precious of gifts. 

Sometimes, of course, our frail and all-too-human capacity to love is simply not strong enough to withstand the weight that is placed upon it; whether that burden comes of disappointment, or tragedy, or loss of trust, or any other of a host of causes. Because we are limited and broken human beings; and however good our intentions may be, sometimes what is broken turns out to be beyond repair. 

And sometimes love remains strong, but our hearts are broken when the person we married is lost to us through death or divorce. That is why during our final anthem, three candles will be lit: one in thanksgiving for the gift of marriage; a second candle to remember those who live with the pain of bereavement after the loss of a marriage partner; and a third candle to commemorate those whose marriages, for whatever reason, have sadly not stood the test of time.

We are embracing these themes because they are important, and it is likely that all of us here today will have been affected by them, in some way or another. But we are here today above all to celebrate. 

As I am sure you are aware, this church has itself withstood the test of time; indeed, it has survived total destruction on at least two occasions: as a result of the Great Fire of London in 1666, and of the Blitz in December 1940. But regardless of what has happened to its fabric and its outer appearance, St Bride's has always lived on. And the reason for that is that this church is (and always has been) far, far, more than its building, just as a marriage is far, far more than a wedding dress and a starter home. And married love can live on beyond the death of one of its partners.

Earlier in this service we heard a poem by the C16th poet, Francis Quarles called 'Even like two little bank-dividing brooks'. I had never come across this poem until I was planning this service - and the reason why it caught my eye was because of the reference in it to the River Thames, which certainly gives it some local topicality. But when I took the time to read it in full, I realised what a remarkable piece of writing it is, on all kinds of levels.

I love the image of two little brooks flowing together into a single stream, as a metaphor for married love - but of course in the poem this is no ordinary stream but the great and mighty River Thames: in other words, in the process of becoming submerged in each other, the brooks also become part of something far greater than the sum of the two of them - just as human love flows into, and enriches, but is also caught up by, and propelled along by, the love of God.

I also love the fact that the lover recognises that the relationship with the beloved has a value that is far, far beyond price:

If all those glittering monarchs that command
The servile quarters of this earthly ball
Should tender in exchange their shares of land,
I would not change my fortunes for them all:

And I love the fact that, just as in the Christian interpretation of the Song of Songs, so here too the love of the Beloved on the earthly level, becomes woven seamlessly into the love of Christ on a spiritual level. Because within the very best, and most profound, and most passionate of human love, we can glimpse what is a fragment - and only a fragment, of the far more profound and far more passionate love that Christ has for us:

He is my altar, I his holy place;
I am his guest, and he my living food;
I'm his by penitence, he mine by grace;
I'm his by purchase, he is mine by blood;
He's my supporting elm, and I his vine:
Thus I my Best-Beloved's am; thus he is mine.

The reason why I chose our third reading by the Victorian writer Theodore Parker, is to remind those of you married here in the past that, however many years ago that may have been, there can still be more to unfold:

It takes years to marry completely two hearts, even of the most loving and well assorted. A happy wedlock is a long falling in love. 

But I would like to leave you with one further very short reading. It is by Jane Wells and it is entitled simply 'Marriage Advice'. She writes this:

Let your love be stronger than your hate or anger.
Learn the wisdom of compromise, for it is better to bend a little than to break.
Believe the best rather than the worst.
People have a way of living up or down to your opinion of them.
Remember that true friendship is the basis for any lasting relationship.
The person you choose to marry is deserving of the courtesies
and kindnesses you bestow on your friends.
Please hand this down to your children and your children's children.

 Amen.

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