Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 1 May

1 May 2011 at 10:00 am

The Venerable Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence

The last few days here at Westminster Abbey have been quite remarkable with a packed Abbey for all our Easter services, thousands of people visiting us before the wedding of Prince William & Catherine Middleton, then yesterday thousands more coming in to view the flowers and to walk the wedding route. 

Hopefully many of you will have been able to join in the celebrations on Friday, perhaps watching the ceremony on the television, lining the route of the royal couple or joining in a street party.

After all the excitement of these last few days, I’m sure you won’t be surprised that today I am going to speak about marriage.

Marriage is one of the seven sacraments of the Church, the other six being Baptism, the Eucharist, Confirmation, Confession, Ordination and Anointing the sick.  And during this month of May in my Matins sermons at I am going to look at five of these seven. 

Among the sacraments, the two with which we are most likely to be familiar, are Baptism and the Eucharist as these are the two which feature in the gospels.  

Jesus himself was baptised in the River Jordon at the outset of his ministry and commanded his disciples after his resurrection to go and baptise people everywhere. 

Then the night before his crucifixion as he shared the Last Supper with his disciples he instituted the Eucharist. Breaking bread and sharing the cup of wine he said: “This is my body which is given for you and this is my blood which is shed for you; do this in remembrance of me.”  

But what exactly is a sacrament?

Some of us might remember from Sunday School days or our confirmation classes this definition: 

“A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace”. This definition is based on the teaching of St Augustine back in the 4th century and in many ways it’s difficult to improve on it.  

Sacraments provide us with special ceremonies using a variety of symbols which help communicate to us God’s action, often at key moments in our lives. 

So for example in Baptism the outward symbol which is used is water, which in everyday life is vital for cleansing and for drinking; keeping us alive. Its inward meaning in Baptism though is the washing away of our sins and the pouring out of God’s Holy Spirit upon us, filling us with new life. 

The fundamental feature of all the sacraments is that they symbolise God’s grace ~ his unconditional love for us which is freely given; it does not need to be earned. 

So let’s turn now to the sacrament of Marriage in particular; looking at why the Church regards marriage as important and asking, what are the gifts God pours out through this sacrament and what is our response to these gifts? 

We are often made aware by the media that the number of people getting married in the UK and indeed across the whole of Europe is in decline. And it is the case that marriage rates in the UK in 2009 had reached their lowest since rates were first calculated in 1862.

We are also often reminded that divorce rates have been steadily increasing, with between one in three and one in two marriages breaking down in recent years. 

However, the news about marriage is not all negative. It can certainly be argued that marriage remains a very important institution in our society with well over a quarter of a million weddings taking place in the year 2009. Recent statistics also demonstrate that people who are married are more likely to stay together than those who cohabit. 

And in the last couple of years divorce rates have also fallen, with many of those who do divorce choosing to re-marry a new spouse.

But why does the church regard marriage as so important?

To answer this we need to go back to the story of story of Adam and Eve recorded in Genesis Chapter 2 which concludes with these words, “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” 

It is this understanding of the permanence of a relationship between a man and a woman which leads to more specific laws in the Old Testament calling for absolute faithfulness; one of the Ten Commandments being, “Thou shalt not commit adultery”.  

Jesus himself then refers to this when he challenges the Pharisees’ teaching about men being able to dismiss their wives. He calls upon them to be faithful, making it clear that marriage is for life. In Mark Ch 10 he quotes the verses from Genesis about marriage and concludes “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

This permanence called for in marriage is not in any way meant to be restrictive or oppressive, it is rather, bound up with love.  Love is at the heart of God’s nature; and made in his image, we are created to live in relationships of love. Love is God’s greatest gift to us and it is a gift to be treasured.

There are of course many ways of expressing love and all kinds of relationships have love at their centre, but marriage in particular expresses some of its vital characteristics.

A truly loving marriage reflects the self giving nature of God’s love; the couple no longer live to fulfil their own desires but instead seek the best for their partner.

In a truly loving marriage, the couple become mutually dependent, reflecting the mutual dependence at the heart of the Trinity.

A truly loving marriage will also overflow in creativity, just as God’s love brought into being the whole created order.

And in a truly loving marriage that love will be unconditional ~ the couple will go on loving each other when things are not necessarily all rosy in the garden. In the same way that God goes on loving us with our many imperfections. 

All these characteristics of love are expressed in the promises that the couple make to each other in the marriage ceremony.  

In all the sacraments, we are called upon to make a response to God’s love, and in marriage this is done through the promises the couple make to each other.

In these they pledge their love by promising to be together through good and bad times; by promising to share their worldly goods, but most far reaching of all, by giving themselves to each other, saying the words: “All that I am I give to you”.

When people make these promises they are taking an incredible risk, not knowing what the future will hold. But making ourselves vulnerable, taking risks is what true love is all about.

So today let us thank god for his total and self giving love for all of us, shown particularly in the life, death & resurrection of Jesus and also constantly poured out on us through the sacraments. And let us give particular thanks for the gift of marriage; praying for the newly married royal couple but also for all married people, whatever their circumstances.

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