Tomorrow, in the calendar of the church, being the first Sunday of November, we are celebrating All Saints – actually, All Saints actually is the first of November, but we celebrate it at St Michael’s on the closest Sunday. So that makes it a “big” festival of the church, and the day on which, traditionally, preachers reflect that saints aren’t just the ones who lived lives of improbable holiness and came to sticky ends, in fact in the New Testament, St Paul calls all the people of God ‘saints’, so it’s really more of a job description for all Christians rather than a sort of spiritual OBE for super-Christians.
But because it’s All Saints’ tomorrow, and because Aaron and Rebecca have chosen two readings from St Paul’s letters that particularly talk about the ideal qualities of living together as Christians, I couldn’t help but reflect that the qualities the two of you are going to need to nurture in your marriage are pretty much the same qualifications you need to be a saint. I’m not trying to suggest that Aaron and Rebecca, in particular, are the sort of people you’d need to be saintly to live with – in any case, in the spirit of St Paul, because he loves making lists of virtues, I’ve come up with my own list of virtues for married life, a wisdom that for my own part I’m still working on –
First, there’s happiness. You might think no, happiness is what happens to you when you marry the right person, but I think it’s more complex than that. Happiness isn’t a by-product of good fortune, it’s a virtue that requires years of patient practice. Happiness is where you find it, not always where you look for it. Cultivate happiness by doing worthwhile things together, by setting your sights on goals that matter, by practising courtesy and restraint and generosity toward one another and toward others. And remember that your partner can’t make you happy – happiness is elusive unless you make a conscious decision to choose it and to practice it, but it’s one of the greatest gifts you can give to one another.
And then, there’s love. Rebecca and Aaron, I think it’s fairly obvious that you’re in love. But from what I can see, your love for one another is something you haven’t given lightly, and I have been privileged to get a glimpse of how you’ve grown together in trust and in friendship, how you’ve learned to respect and honour each other. You know, our culture teaches us to look at love and relationships through rose-coloured glasses – that everything’s going to be OK if you’re in love, the future’s going to just look after itself. I’m not so sure about that.
The German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote this to a young couple who were planning to get married —'It is not love that sustains your marriage, but marriage that sustains your love'. I believe that to be profoundly true, because marriage is what the church calls a covenant. You sometimes hear people talking about a marriage contract, as though it was a sort of legal transaction, but I reckon that’s a long way wide of the mark. In a contract, you make a promise and maybe you exchange something of value. But in a covenant, you don’t exchange anything. You give yourself. That’s the difference. A covenant says, "I am yours and you are mine." Marriage is a covenant, and it’s grounded in a bigger covenant – the covenant between God and God’s people. There is something both powerful and enduring in a covenant made before God and before one another. That’s why the church says you don’t enter marriage lightly or without preparation. Entering a covenant relationship means saying to one another, ‘for the rest of my life, you are going to be remembered in me’.
Then, I think, there’s acceptance, the grace of not putting conditions on one another. To practice this virtue we need to remind ourselves that God loves us before we’re even remotely loveable. This way of loving another person not because they’ve done something or changed in some way that we wanted them to, but just because we do love them – that sort of unconditional love that we learn from the way God loves us – becomes in the end the one safe place in the beloved’s life that actually transforms them profoundly because they’re accepted just as they are. This is a major virtue for married saints.
The next one is wisdom. In the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, Wisdom is personified as God’s right hand girl in the act of Creation, subtle and fluid and un-pin-down-able but indispensable to rulers and lovers alike. Not to be confused with intelligence or knowledge, true wisdom is a virtue acquired through years of discernment and patient observation. Here’s a head start – the two of you are different! Males and females think differently, our bodies and minds, our feelings and logics are different. Devote yourselves to the wisdom of learning the ways of one another, expect your beloved to surprise and delight you, rejoice in the ways she or he confounds your expectations – be a patient scientist of the mystery and the secret strength of one another, and be ready to relearn from one another much that you thought you already knew.
And last on my list is the humble but foundational virtue of kindness, the grace of never taking one another for granted, of being careful with the raw and tender places in one another’s lives. Rebecca and Aaron, I’ve seen you practicing this, over the years I’ve known you, and I have learned a great deal from you. Remember that the flaws and the ancient hurts your partner carries are holy wounds, places of growth and healing where God’s Holy Spirit is most clearly visible. Tread carefully in one another’s pasts, protect and nurture one another, encourage one another to grow in confidence and grace.