The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
Since this wedding, which takes on American soil, was made possible by an encounter on the Blue Water Bridge, it seems only fair to begin with a Canadian story. This story was told by Herbert O’Driscoll when he served as dean of the cathedral in Vancouver. Here is what he tells us.
I had come out of the apartment and had walked across the open area of grass that lies at the end of Davie and Denman Streets and verges on English Bay. It was one of those long evenings of summer that linger in the mind. All around me were people of every age and description. There was a kind of hush in the area, even the car engines seemed muted as the line wound its way home along Beach Avenue, where the yellow bulbs of the popcorn vendors twinkled through the late summer light.
There were family groups, single men and women, couples, all moving around with a kind of weekend relaxation that seemed to savor and extend this hour before nightfall and the beginning of another week.
Among the people, I saw them moving together. They were very old and somewhat bowed, and they moved slowly but in perfect unison arm in arm. It was a rhythm that seemed to come from countless walks together. The long golden road of the sunset flashed them into momentary invisibility as they crossed between it and where I stood. They came to a curb stop at the end of the block. For them it was high. In their fragility, which they had long ceased to disguise, it was a formidable obstacle, even a moment of potential danger.
As I watched, he very slowly stepped into the roadway. When he was safely down, he helped her make the same step carefully and gingerly. Together they set out on the long journey to the other side of the busy street. For them, as for the young couple leaning on the parked car behind me, the sun blazed and the water of the bay moved with all its calm beauty. For them, in their evening, this evening was a taste of beauty. I remembered a phrase of the Bible: “Many waters cannot drown love.” [Herbert O’Driscoll, One Man’s Journal (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1982), p. 15.]
Look ahead several decades, and Dennis and Carol could be that couple slowly, gently crossing the busy street together. It could happen in Vancouver, or Port Huron, or more likely some place where winter is mild. What O’Driscoll saw in that elderly couple was not the mere fact of their chronological age, but the truth of their love and unity. The old couple had, no doubt, seen much in their life together, yet their love had grown and matured since the day of their wedding.
We hope the same for Carol and Dennis: that their love will grow and mature from this day forward. That is their hope as well. None of us can offer a blueprint for this to happen. As with any marriage, what we are dealing with here is a mystery. But we can recognize signs of this mystery, even as Herbert O’Driscoll saw a marriage alive and active when he watched an old couple make their way carefully across the street.
I’d like to suggest four words that are signs of the mystery of marriage. These words do not appear in the marriage vows, but come earlier in this service, in what is called the Declaration of Consent. [The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1979), p. 424.] Dennis and Carol have already spoken these words about one another. Here are the four words, signs of the mystery of marriage: love, comfort, honor, keep. Each of these two people has promised to do these things in regard to the other.
But what do these words mean? What is their reality? How can that reality keep a marriage, not simply alive, but growing, changing, maturing, and flourishing?
The first word is love. Often we confuse love with the feelings that sometimes surround love. But love is not how you feel, it’s how you act. Sometimes people want to freeze the initial feelings in their relationship and call it love. That’s impossible. Marriage is not about preserving the past. It’s about enjoying the future. Love is manifest in how we choose to act throughout each new day. It’s deciding to behave in a way that’s in the best interest of your partner. The journey of love moves us from feeling to action.
The word comfort stirs up images of pillows and easy chairs. It suggests domestic coziness. But the word “comfort” comes from a pair of Latin words that mean “to be strong together,” “to fortify each other.”
When two people commit to comfort each other, it amounts to a recognition that each of them needs the other’s strength, and each will supply strength to the other.
Living up to this promise can take a bit of adjustment. Some of us see ourselves simply as independent, unable to be conquered. Others of us see ourselves simply as dependent and easily overcome. The truth is more complex than that. Marriage is a relationship where strength is given and strength received, where two, each one of them less than perfect, find new strength together. It is a journey from concern about individual control to realization of shared strength.
Love and comfort. Next comes honor. In our time and place, this is not a common word. Yet a business honors a particular credit card. In the courtroom, the judge is called “Your Honor.” In such instances, the word “honor” points to respect, value, and importance.
The word applies to marriage. We honor our spouse, respect and value that person. We don’t allow the ordinary business of living to make us treat our spouse as ordinary. We don’t take that person for granted. Instead, we see that person for what he or she is: special.
Honoring our spouse cannot be limited to birthdays and anniversaries, to times when we hang out decorations and sound the trumpet. This honoring is an everyday process. Honoring is the journey from sudden attraction to the continual discovery of the other person’s infinite worth.
The last of the four words is keep. This means not getting rid of your partner, but it means much more. It is not only an obligation, but an opportunity.
To keep means to protect and preserve something of exceptional value. So husband and wife serve as keepers one of the other. The keeper’s role has several facets: physical and financial, certainly, but even more so, an emotional and spiritual keeping. You provide a place, secure and protected, where your spouse can grow and flourish.
The place you provide is not only a shelter from the outside world, but a castle built against your own dishonorable tendencies to cut down and belittle the one you say you love. You protect your beloved from others, and even from yourself. Your spouse does the same, and so the home you share can be for you both a haven of blessing and of peace. You will journey from a sense pf security to a deep experience of celebration.
So then, Carol and Dennis, do what you have said you will do: love, comfort, honor, and keep one another, when it’s a delight and when it’s a challenge, both in season and out of season.
Then one day at dusk, perhaps, when you have grown old together, you will walk slowly arm in arm, gently making your way across a busy street. Someone will see you, and recognize that for you the evening is a taste of beauty, and your life’s evening is a taste of beauty. Perhaps that observer will recall a phrase of the Bible, “Many waters cannot drown love,” and perhaps you will remember it too.
• Copyright for this sermon 2008, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications).