Prelude to a Kiss – Chester Cathedral Garden, Chester, England

When Helen, said to be the most beautiful woman in Greek antiquity fled with her lover to Troy, she did not receive the reception that she expected. Although her lover was Paris, the son of the King, he and his courtiers were reluctant to admit her. One look at her face rightly confirmed that her husband, the King of Sparta would indeed launch a thousand ships to retrieve her. She was therefore understandably interrogated about her motives for deserting him. The king was on the point of rejecting her when she cried out in her defence, “Do we not all know that the gods have made us to love and to be loved, and so achieve our destiny? I can only achieve that destiny here in Troy and with your son, Paris, whom I love with all my heart.”

One thousand years later Jesus came to tell us that our God has also created us to love and to be loved, as part of the preparation for the infinite loving that is our ultimate destiny. Learning to love here on earth, prepares us for the ultimate love for which we all yearn in heaven. That is why marriage is a sacrament and that is why, first and foremost and before all else, Jesus went to Cana in Galilee, not just to give his blessing to human marriage, but to show how human loving can be transformed when, as it is being learnt, it is suffused with and surcharged by the divine.

This was for St John, who tells the story in his own unique way, the meaning of the miracle of the changing of the water into wine. He does not call it a miracle, but a sign because what the miracle signifies is more important than the miracle itself. This sign has long since been interpreted as symbolising how, just as Jesus can change water into wine, he can change the old order into the new; the Old Covenant into the New Covenant. However, the context in which he performs this action gives it a more specific meaning. Now, and in future, thanks to the incarnation, human love will be suffused through and through with the divine.

Water can indeed quench our thirst, but when water is permeated through and through with the fruit of the vine and allowed to ferment, it is filled with properties and powers that far surpass water alone. This is what happens when human love is permeated by divine love. At Cana in Galilee Christ’s first miracle demonstrated this, as a sign, by transforming water into wine. The sign announces loud and clear, at least to people who knew the meaning of signs and symbols in a way that was lost to later generations, that in future marital love would be transformed by being suffused by divine love. That is why this sacrament is so special. It is the only sacrament of the seven in which the husband and wife, and not the priest or the bishop are the normal ministers. In other words, it is they who transmit the love of God to one another through each other’s love for one another, through the selfless sacrifices that they make for each other  every day and every moment of every day for the rest of their lives. This love is then literally handed on to their children, even before it is received directly and independently from God.

I first experienced God’s love through my parents’ love as an infant, even before I was baptised. In my case my baptism confirmed what had already happened, was happening and would continue to happen through my parents’ love for each other that overflowed onto me. Long before my mother taught me how to pray, how to turn to receive God’s love independently, and long afterwards for that matter, her love continued to sustain me. I well remember when I was ill as a very small child, how my mother swept me up into her arms and placed me in my parent’s bed between her and my father where I felt safe, secure and loved. When I was later handicapped with an ongoing incapacity, her love was lavished on me, eventually giving me the security to live my life independently and even to seek out the contemplative life. Without her love for me that would not have been possible, nor would it have been possible for me to journey on through the dark nights of spiritual purification where the fire of the Holy Spirit would begin to purify me. I would never have persevered, nor ever have come to experience, albeit in brief glimpses, the love that surpasses the understanding. That is why St Bonaventure said that contemplation is first learnt at the mother’s breast. For myself I know this to be true. However, the sacramental marriage sanctified at Cana depended on another previous mystical marriage for the first Christians that was solemnised at baptism during the rites of Christian initiation.  All are called to this mystical marriage, whether married or not.

All the great spiritual writers from the beginning used the analogy of human love to show how this mystical marriage with Christ takes us up and into the love of God. That is why they repeatedly used the most beautiful love poem in the Old Testament, the Song of Songs, or the Song of Solomon, to describe and detail the mystical journey through Christ into God.  It was originally sung as part of every Jewish marriage ceremony. It would have been sung by Jesus himself with all the other guests at Cana as they escorted the bride from her old home to the new home that she would henceforth share with her husband. It should not therefore be surprising that for centuries to come, this mystical marriage with Christ was the high point of the spiritual life for religious and lay people alike. Later however, although many spiritual writers rightly used the mystical marriage to denote the high point of the mystic way, they wrongly believed that it is only for a chosen few, usually only for those dedicated to God in religious life. This is not the case, and never was in the profound mystical spirituality taught to the first Christians by the Fathers of the Church. They received this teaching from Jesus himself, long before religious life as we know it ever existed. It is for all.

The first Christians were told of the spiritual marriage to which they were all called before they were married in the usual way. They were taught that the preparation and the spiritual purification that they had to undergo for this marriage would help them develop a habit of selflessness and empathy for others, long before they met their future husband or wife. Without the daily and ongoing self-sacrificing learnt in deepening their mystical marriage with Christ, marriage to another human being would never last, or never develop beyond the purely superficial when first passions fizzled out. There are therefore two marriages for a Christian, the sacrament of marriage and the  mystical marriage to which we have all been called at baptism. When the new Christians emerged from the baptismal pool as one with Christ, they were led in procession into the Christian community where their spiritual marriage was consummated for the first time in Holy Communion. This Marriage however, was not the end of, but the beginning of love, a love that would be demonstrated time and time again every day and in every moment of every day, for the rest of their lives through all that they  said and did.

The five times a day that they prayed, as Jesus did with his disciples, was not a daily drudgery but a daily delight. It enabled the married mystics to touch and be touched repeatedly by the One to whom they had committed themselves in a spiritual marriage that begins in this life, but which is only completed in the next. Every Sunday this spiritual marriage was consummated in Holy Communion, reinforcing their love and surcharging it with the power to continue expressing their love for God. When both marriages, the human and the divine are lived to the full, they simultaneously enhance each other. The loving selfless sacrifices made in both these marriages enables a  person  to join Christ at every  moment of their day, offering themselves with him and through him in the new worship in spirit and truth, that Jesus promised to the Samaritan woman (John 4:23).

That is why, when the early Christians came to offer themselves to God in an act of communal worship at the end of the great Eucharistic prayer, St Justin said that the sound of the great Amen was proclaimed with such power and gusto that it all but took the roof off. Why? Because that Amen represented all that they had done, all that they had given, and all the sacrifices that they had been making to God, in both their spiritual and their human marriages that complement each other.

First Published on Catholic Stand

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