Words on the Word
Wedding of Amanda and Carlos
The first Scriptural image you have chosen to set before us today is that of Wisdom, the mother of beautiful love. To most of us, I suspect, Wisdom occupies a marginal position in our lives of faith. We moderns think of Wisdom as a descriptive term, apt to qualify a statement, an attitude, even a way of life. But does it make sense to speak of Wisdom as a person, as somebody, not just something? Does the word not carry a cold gust of abstraction? The early Christians did not think so. They loved to savour the Old Testament books that speak of Wisdom. They had a hunch, a visceral conviction, that the various things said about Wisdom somehow pertained to the divinity they had recognised in Christ, as if the combined light of myriad glimmering stars were pooled to form the glowing, warming impact of the sun. The first attempts made to speak about Christ as true God and true man drew on Wisdom texts. Soon, the Church’s liturgy honoured Christ explicitly as ‘Wisdom of the Father’. Churches were dedicated under that title. It is no exaggeration to say that the mystery of Wisdom informed ecclesiastical art and architecture, especially in the East, for the entire first millennium.
It was in this context, of constructing spaces for Christian practice, that a challenge presented itself. How can we represent Christ as Wisdom? How do we render a verbal image visually and experientially? The architects of Justinian’s basilica in Constantinople, Haghia Sophia, made the interior itself an icon. They created a building quite unlike anything anyone had ever seen before, a building designed to enable and orchestrate an explosion of light. Anyone who enters it is stunned by the subtle interaction of rays shining through countless windows, creating an ever-changing luminosity that gently embraces us. In a splendid conceit we are taught something essential about Wisdom, about Christ. The building tells us that he illumines every aspect of our lives in ways that are constantly new. The sun, of course, is always one and the same, but its light touches us unpredictably in soft, harmonious permutations. Even the shadows contribute to the brilliant impact of the whole.
There could be no second Haghia Sophia. In any case people craved for more concrete representation. So it happened over the course of centuries that a new form developed to express the divine Wisdom manifest in Christ. This time, the procedure was descriptive. The classical Byzantine scheme typically features the ascended, glorified Christ in the dome. Mary’s motherhood dominates the apse above the altar, where the incarnation is sacramentally re-enacted. Along the upper walls of the church is a cycle depicting the Saviour’s life, while the lower panels, reassuringly close, feature the apostles and saints, our fellow travellers. It is the totality of this wealth of icons that describes Wisdom. And this is the point I am anxious to make. Our ordered, ordering minds would love to fasten on a single image, the resurrection, say, or the crucifixion, or the enthroned Pantokrator and say: ‘This is our faith.’ Wisdom tells us we cannot. ‘I am’, she says (for the divine transcends categories of male and female), ‘the mother of fair love and fear and knowledge and holy hope’. She cannot be limited to one or the other. To live with Wisdom is to live within a vast range of experience and insight. It is to make of our lives a space akin to the Haghia Sophia, where even the shadows celebrate light, where, by subtle transformation, darkness actually becomes luminous.
A similar paradox confronts us when we see Christ ascending the Mount to teach. The Beatitudes are not a list of disagreeable experiences to be put up with now, with gritted teeth, in the hope of future reward. No, the blessing they proclaim is for the present. The poor in spirit possess the kingdom. Peacemakers are children of God. Those persecuted for the sake of righteousness have a great reward. To live by the Beatitudes is to live within a field of vital tension. It is to intuit that sorrow and joy, pain and consolation, solitude and communion all carry a blessing. Certainly, the Lord is not calling bitter sweet or sweet bitter. The Beatitude he speaks of is not a kind of buttery sauce poured over the ingredients of our lives to make them all taste the same. Far from trivialising the profound realities of the human condition, the Gospel shows them unfailing reverence. The Beatitudes urge us, simply, to maintain a breadth of vision, a wise vision. They invite us to move as attentively within our own lives as we would in a Byzantine church, seeing death and resurrection, humiliation and glory, suffering and joy all at the same time, while reaching out to the angels and saints that hold our hand when the going is rough. To live like this we must train our vision. We must develop the often slumbering faculty of hope. We must also, to borrow a phrase from St Benedict, let our hearts be enlarged. Then we shall reap the fruit of Wisdom and find that coexisting opposites do not necessarily result in contradiction. We shall find that our lives are carried by an essential coherence. To see this coherence, to construct our future on it, is to be wise. It is to be blessed. Only in this way can we heed St Paul’s injunction and ‘rejoice in the Lord always’. On less all-embracing terms our joy would be feigned, forced, even a little crass.
Dear Amanda, dear Carlos: it has been my privilege to count you both among my closest friends for almost twenty years, even as I was gifted with the friendship of Emile. I have followed the unfolding of your respective lives in two brilliant mosaics of very different character, though they share certain key features. In either case, the immense integrity that marks you both has ensured a rigorously defined, pure outline. Creative originality has flown from a commitment to truth and learning; while a rare capacity for love and loyalty has lent warmth, bright colour, even playfulness to patterns that might otherwise have been forbiddingly austere. Sometimes, the impact of a shock from without has caused defining themes to be interrupted. The overall design has seemed to be lost. At such times, a casual observer might have thought that there was no way of carrying on, that the living work of art would henceforth be a frozen monument. But no: beauty has continued to be born. And over the past year and a half the master Architect has accomplished something extraordinary. Of your two distinct, distinctive mosaics, he has formed a single picture. With amazement, we see that your patterns complement each other, each bringing out aspects of the other we had not noticed before. At the heart of this new mosaic, giving it focus and definition, stand Elisabeth and Martin, like two luminous pieces of pure gold. Only Wisdom could have created this masterpiece, in which everything that has been remains, yet is mysteriously made new.
Amanda and Carlos, today you seek the Church’s blessing on the sacrament of marriage you will administer to one another. Your two lives will from now on be one life. In it beautiful love will flourish, loveliness will bud. Your vocation in marriage is to let Wisdom, Christ, embrace everything you are and everything you will be. Dear Amanda and Carlos, dear Elisabeth and Martin, rejoice in the Lord always! Let your gentleness be known to everyone! That way you will continue to form the living icon of Wisdom we see before us today, constantly revealing new facets of its splendour. Your united lives will be a living flame on a lampstand. And that flame will give light and spread hope further afield than you can possibly imagine.