It may sound strange coming from a Jesuit, but one of my favorite stories had to do with. . . love. The real-life situation was the tempestuous 60s, when cities were scorched from Watts to Washington, when campuses turned into battlefields, when the cries of the poor clogged our ears, when murderous hatred cut down two Kennedys and a King. In those years, some practitioners of my art, theology, floated a tempting theory. To estimate what is ethical, to live the life Christ commanded, you can toss the thousand and one principles of the past, the do’s and the don’t’s of the moral manuals. All you need is. . . love. Why? Because love has a built-in compass that homes it in unerringly on the core of a conflict, the bone and marrow of a moral issue. Love and you’ve got it made.
In response to the compass theory, an Anglican clergyman graced with wisdom and wit told a touching story – the story of an elephant, a loving elephant. This particular elephant noticed an ostrich leaving her nest to get a drink of water. The elephant rumbled over to the nest and, out of pure love, sat on the ostrich eggs to keep them warm. “Love,” observed the clergyman, “love can be a fuddy-duddy, elephantine thing.”
On this awesome occasion, for this extraordinary expression of love we call marriage, Elizabeth and Edward have plucked three passages from Scripture that suggest an outlook on love far more profound, infinitely more exciting, than a warm ostrich egg. Let me titillate your thinking with a brief word on each.
We begin with the snippet from the Song of Songs. I wonder what your reaction was when you heard from a Catholic pulpit such sensuous poetry:
You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride,
you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes,
with one jewel of your necklace.
How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride!
how much better is your love than wine,
and the fragrance of your oils than any spice!
Your lips distill nectar, my bride;
honey and milk are under your tongue;
the scent of your garments is like the scent of Lebanon.
A garden locked is my sister, my bride,
a garden locked, a fountain sealed.
Embarrassed? Shocked? No reason to be. A book of the Bible sings ecstatically of something singularly human, so human that it goes back in time to the first man and woman shaped by God’s hands, so human that it will still be here when the risen Son returns in glory to take the last of humankind to himself. That something singularly human is the love that is ceaselessly born between man and maid. I admit, the Song of Songs is not particularly religious; at times it is extraordinarily erotic. But isn’t it quite like our surprising, unpredictable God to inspire a book that tells us in passionate phrases how grand and glorious a thing human love can be? And not because it is sublimated, swallowed up in love of God; the writer is not playing psychiatrist. On the sheerly human level, because man and woman are made such by a loving Lord, they are drawn each to the other; such is their nature, the way Heaven fashioned them to be. That is why, when God brought the first woman to the first man, he cried aloud in ecstasy: “This one at last [not the birds of the air or the beasts of the field, but this one] is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. . . . Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:23-24)
Read the Song of Songs right through, and discover that God is terribly proud of what he has shaped, proud of all of you who have ever fallen in love, proud of Edward and Elizabeth, delighted as only God can delight that they stand before him today in a oneness that links not only their hands but their hearts, not merely their minds but their nerves and sinews, not simply their spirits but their flesh as well. God likes, God loves, how human Elizabeth and Edward are, because he loves what he has made. He sees in them living images of the man and woman he conceived before time in his understanding and his love. He looks on their touchingly human love and, somewhat as he looked ages ago on everything he had made, he sees that it is “very good.” (Genesis 1:31)
At this point we move a giant step forward, from the Song of Solomon to an epistle of Paul. Paul, too, has a thing about love, is almost obsessed by it; without love your life and mine has no meaning whatsoever. Listen to him. If I can speak (or even preach) like an angel – the way, say, the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that God wanted her to mother his son – but there is no love in me, I’m a windbag, a New Year’s Eve noisemaker. If I own the world’s clearest crystal ball, can predict everything from the Super Bowl through the next snowstorm to the hour of our Lord’s second coming; if my faith is powerful enough to move the Rockies from New Mexico to New England; if my intellect can grasp God Three-in-One and the billions of stars in outer space – with all this, if I “have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2) Not even a little bit of something; I am. . . nothing. And suppose, like Francis of Assisi, I give every last item I own to Mother Teresa for her Indian outcasts, let a Christian-hating Khomeini burn me at the stake – if I “have not love, it profits me not one whit” (v. 3), not a tinker’s dam. In God’s eyes, no love, no Edward Bisese, no Elizabeth Kirwin, no Walter Burghardt. Just. . . nothing.
Strong language indeed, frightening. But that paragraph in Paul is only one side of the coin. The other side, Paul’s next paragraph, is the scene you and I are privileged to share this evening. With Paul’s help, Elizabeth and Edward spell out in limpid language what the Song of Songs painted in parti-colored pictures. They promise to be “patient and kind” (v. 4), even when nerves fray from socks in the bathroom to adverse approaches to American art. They will not be “jealous or boastful, arrogant or rude” (vv. 4-5), because they are so artistically sensitive to the image of God that is the other, aware that we all image an infinite God in infinitely different ways, knowing that difference need not divide, can blend into a superb symphony if only love conducts. They will refuse to “insist on [their] own way” (v. 5) – possible though the peril is, especially as the years stiffen not only our muscles but our minds – if only they do not forget that two-in-one demands indeed “I and thou” but forbids “mine and thine.”
One word of warning. This kind of love, the love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (v. 7), is not a love Elizabeth and Edward manufacture in their own private lab: for ingredients, their buoyant personalities, high IQs, keen sensitivity, even delightful if weird senses of humor. The love Paul praises, the love he sings so lyrically, leaps light-years beyond those wondrous traits, is the love Paul proclaimed to the Christians of Rome: “Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5) What offers precious promise for Paul’s kind of love, for a love that will never end, is God’s love. Not somewhere in outer space, but deep inside of you. The God who brought you together against all the odds, this same God lives within you. And, wonder of wonders, this loving Father’s only Son, who bloodied a cross to link you like this in love, will soon nestle in your palms, cradle on your tongues, home in your hearts. Such is the love that pervades you today; such is the love I pray for you through the years that beckon ahead.
So far, a song that strummed your thrillingly human love, and a letter that linked human love to divine love. One text remains: a twin command of Jesus that puts the finishing touches on your love. You see, the tenderly human love of husband for wife and wife for husband that Scripture carries back to Eden, and the love that a God within you lavishes on you so generously, these, strangely enough, are not enough. Not enough for Christian existence. Jesus made that clear beyond controversy. The “great commandment”? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” The second commandment “like” the first? “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-39)
What Jesus enjoins on Christians in general, this he enjoins on those who wed in Christ. Do you want your love to abide to grow, to bear fruit? Then your love must go up and your love must go out. It must go up. From your experience you realize that your love for each other calls for a response, a reaction to the gift, the wonder, the miracle that is the other. Not an offhand “Love ya”; not casual love-making. Rather a rich relationship where all you do, all you say, all you are is in some way directed to the other. Believe me, it is not otherwise with God. His presence within you, as real as the Real Presence in a consecrated loaf, demands a response. Not a mumbled Hail Mary, not a sleepy Sunday obligation. Rather an endless “What return shall I make to the Lord for all he has given me?” What return? Simply, your heart, your soul, your mind – all of it, without reservation, in good times and bad, in sickness and health, in poverty and wealth. And from this day forward, your love must go up together, as one, your clasped hands enfolded in the loving hands that were pinned to Calvary’s wood. . . for you.
And your love must go out. . . together. As you exit these sacred doors, you re-enter a little world of massive contradiction, an acre of God’s Earth flowing with milk and honey, where hundreds go to bed hungry each night, hundreds huddle on D. C. grates to stay warm, thousands look in vain for work with dignity, uncounted children will never learn to read, black and white live an uneasy armistice, crack and coke deaden our hopeless, and death never takes a holiday. Though Christ’s command rings clear, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” I dare not tell you precisely how; that rests between you and the Lord to whom you must listen. . . together. This much at least I can promise you: Bring a smile to the lips, light a ray of hope in the eyes, of a crucified sister or brother, and your love for each other will take wing, will amaze even you.
Good friends all: a final word, uncommonly personal. Fifty years ago our good God graced me with one of his surprising, unexpected gifts. A very young Jesuit, not yet ordained, I was teaching at Regis High School in New York City. A colleague on the faculty, not long out of Holy Cross, walked the corridors and stalked the classrooms on two canes; for he had contracted polio, once and for all. After ten years at Regis, he taught for 15 at Loyola College in Baltimore, the last few years from a wheelchair. During those teaching years he picked up a doctorate in history and a doctorate in law. But even more importantly, he taught, masterfully, a whole generation of young men and women not only how to study but how to live. He kept up with all 25 years of them, followed their lives with affection and love. In turn, they heaped hills of correspondence upon him from the four quarters of the Earth: every wedding, every baby, every service induction, you name it. His dear widow is blessed with them all.
It is 25 years wince Harry Kirwin left us. He left thousands of us richer for his presence among us, for his love in our lives. For (1) his love wedded the tenderness and passion of the lover in the Song of Songs; (2) that very human love was patient and kind, not jealous or boastful, not arrogant or rude, did not insist on its own way, was not irritable or restful, rejoiced only in the right, bore all things, believed all things, hoped all things, endured all things; and (3) that same love went up to God and out to others – wife and children of course, but out as well to God’s every child, 4.0 or slow, hale or frail, joy-filled or in dark despair.
I dare to speak so intimately because Harry Kirwin has risen again for me in Liza; I mean that sincerely. Seeing this remarkable rebirth, touching swiftly the other half of Harry’s life in Margaret, and sensing the profound love Eddie has for Liza, I predict that confidence a lifelong song of love that will please a wise Solomon, a practical Paul, and a Jesus gloriously alive in the two we so dearly cherish.