Friday, November 27, 2015

Destination Weddings

I am doomed, I think, never to become a trend-setter, because culturally I never seem to discover the latest trend until it has been around for a while and starts to become Yesterday’s News.  Thus I have lately discovered the popularity of Destination Weddings.  
Googling “Destination Weddings” brings up 12,100,000 results in .20 seconds, the first one of which informs me that I should choose them for my Destination Wedding, because they are “the largest planner of Destination Weddings in America”, have “planned thousands of exceptional luxury weddings”, “offer Free (that’s with a capital “F”) concierge”, and “promise no hidden fees”.  (I was tempted to Google “concierge” next because in my experience concierge has little to do with tying the matrimonial knot, and I wondered what the not so hidden fees could possibly cover.)          
The popularity of Destination Weddings is a symptom of a more profound cultural dysfunction.  The problem is not just that this is a rich person’s game, and one that effectively excludes as guests those not able to bear the cost of jetting away to the Destination and staying at a fancy hotel.  The problem is that the wedding day is conceived as part of a fantasy, a dream come true where everything is perfect—the bride’s dress (which often costs more than my first car), the bridesmaids’ dresses, the palm trees, the sunset beach, the romantic vows.  Destination Weddings thus cater to the modern preoccupation with self.  It is part of a larger industry which uses the wedding day as an instrument to enact a fantasy.  It is an expensive instrument, and one which often focuses upon the feminine fantasies of the bride.  That is why the newsstands offer magazines for Brides, not for the Grooms, and stores helping the couple with their special day are called Bridal Shops.  Most grooms (be honest, guys) do not care what they wear at the ceremony, so long as they finally get the girl and a chance to live happily ever after.  And one hears horror stories about “Bride-zilla”, not (say) “Groom Kong”.  The industry knows where the money is and who nurtures the fantasies.
The popularity of Destination Weddings and the cultural obsession with The Perfect Day is all the more odd given that many couples getting married at their Destination have already been living together as man and wife for some time before actually tying the matrimonial knot.  It makes the proverbial “You may now kiss the bride” at best a bit anti-climactic to say the least, since he has been kissing the bride long before obtaining this liturgical permission.  In Canada living together as man and wife for a certain length of time brings with it the same legal ramifications as if the couple had been married, so that the difference between “marriage” and what used to be called “common law marriage” is fairly minimal.  Even if the couple doesn’t make it legal they can’t split up without lawyers insisting upon a fair division of their assets.  One may ask therefore:  why bother?   The answer often seems to be:  to enact the fantasy—to climb into the white dress, to stand on the beach under the swaying palm trees and the setting sun, and to say the lines which reproduce the happy ending of every rom-com movie they have ever watched.   Increasingly in our culture, that is point of marriage. What else could it be?
In a word, a covenant.  The purpose and point of the wedding used to be not the enactment of a fantasy, but the making of a covenant.  The covenant could either be made simply and modestly, or elaborately and with great fuss.  But regardless of whether it was done simply or elaborately, and regardless of the cost of the dress, the cost of the venue, the cost of the reception, and the number of guests, the point of it all was covenantal, focussing on the fact that two people were agreeing to live together as a unit forever.  The marriage covenant consisted of the exchange of promises, and it marked the beginning of the time when two lives were being merged into one.   At the wedding the man and woman promised to stay together until separated by death, and then began to live together and share all things jointly—their wealth, their poverty, their joys, their sufferings.  And of course their bodies.  It marked a change from solitariness to union, from independence of each other to permanent mutual support.  It was this element of change and transition that was considered cause for celebration.  That was why one made a fuss (even if it was just a simple fuss).  The dress, the guests, the reception, the flowers—all drew their sole significance from the fact that a change had now taken place in the lives of two persons.  It is nonsense at best and hypocrisy at worst to retain the dress, the guests, the reception, and the flowers if there is no actual change in the lives of the persons being married.  There is, of course, some change of legal status afterward, but as we have seen, even this is minimal.  In many places, this change does not even involve a change of name for the bride.  One wonders if such a minimal change is worth the expense of a Destination Wedding.  In this latter case, covenant has been nudged out of the picture by fantasy.
And for Christians there is an even more profound option, for the covenant is not simply the universal one common to all couples throughout the ages, but involves union with Christ as well.  For Christians, marriage is not primarily about the mutual love between man and woman, but about Christ and about how His love can transfigure our own.  We come to the sacrament of Marriage as we come to the sacrament of Baptism, and for the same basic reason, that of transformation.   That is why Christian weddings are solemnized not under a palm tree on a sunset beach, but before the altar in a candle-lit church.  Mutual love, celebrated in romantic comedies, is a wonderful thing, but even it springs from a heart that needs healing.  That is why about half of all North American marriages end in divorce (a factoid not often mentioned in romantic comedies).  This healing comes from Christ, and He is the only One who can heal and transform our hearts.  Husband and wife are to love each other with Christ’s love, making their service of one another a part of their mutual service to Him.  Marriage is hard work (hence those divorce stats) and it stands a better chance of succeeding if both partners keep Jesus Christ central to their marriage.  It is just here that the cultural institution of the Destination Wedding fails, for it proclaims that marriage is all about the couple, and that marriage is best sustained and nurtured on a diet of emotional romanticism.  It is a lie.  Marriage, for Christians at least, is all about Jesus, and it is best sustained and nurtured by a diet of prayer, self-sacrifice, and Eucharist.   It is just these crucial elements in marriage that I could not find in all those Googled ads promoting a Destination Wedding.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Apocalyptic Spirituality

There are three Hebrew words which the first century church used often in their worship, and we have retained only two of them.  These Hebrew/ Aramaic words were so important that they were carried bodily and untranslated into the worship of the non-Hebrew Gentile churches, where they functioned not as Hebrew words but as international Christian ones.  All Christians today use two of them every time they worship.  They are:  “amen” and “alleluia”.  Strictly speaking, the first means “so be it” (coming as a congregational response to a prayer uttered by the celebrant), and the second means “praise Yah” (“Yah” being short for “Yahweh”, the Name of the God of Israel).  The first still functions as the congregational response to a prayer uttered by the celebrant (or to the last clause of the prayer, if the prayer is said silently).  The second now functions as an acclamation, a cry of praise and adoration to God.  But the third Hebrew word, habitually used in the first century church, we do not use at all.  It is the word “maranatha”, Aramaic for “our Lord, come”.  St. Paul, writing in Greek to the Corinthians, uses it at the conclusion of his letter (1 Corinthians 16:22), evidently assuming that they would recognize the word and know what he was talking about.  They might have been Gentiles, but they still knew such good Hebrew words as “amen”, “alleluia”—and “maranatha”.
            This reveals that the first century church, both Jewish and Gentile, lived in the light of the Second Coming, and that they lived as a people waiting for their Lord to return and for the world to end.  This expectation was not (as is sometimes said by some) a matter of calendar, as if the apostles taught that Jesus’ Second Coming was about to occur in a couple of decades or so.  St. Paul explicitly said that the Second Coming could not occur while the Roman Empire was still intact (see 2 Thessalonians), and the Roman Empire was looking pretty intact throughout the first century.  Rather, the imminence of the Lord’s Return was not a matter of human calendar, but of divine agenda.   
God had a number of things on His salvific agenda, His “to do” list:  the call of Abraham and the patriarchs, then the creation of His people Israel, then their liberation from Egypt, then their conquest of the Promised Land, then (after the Babylonian Captivity) their restoration to that Land.  Then the birth of the Messiah, and then His death, resurrection, and ascension, and then the outpouring of the Spirit and the Gentile mission.  And then, as the very last item on the list, the Second Coming and the consummation of all things.  Everything had been accomplished but that last item, and that could come more or less any time.  That was why St. Paul wrote that the ends of the ages had come upon them (1 Corinthians 10:11), and that the Lord was at hand (Philippians 4:4).  That was why St. James said that the Judge was even then standing at the very doors (James 5:9), and why St. John said that it was the last hour (1 John 2:18).  They were not mistaken about timing, like children on a long journey constantly asking, “Are we there yet?”  Rather, they were ready for it, whenever it came.
            What does it mean to live in readiness for the Second Coming?  It does not mean that we live in a state of high anticipation, waking up each day excited and expectant (and going to bed each night correspondingly disappointed that today was not the day).  Rather it means that we sit lightly on the things of the world, with a spirituality and an approach to life appropriate to people who are ready to leave this age behind at any moment.      
Our Lord counselled such an apocalyptic spirituality when He warned His disciples that Jerusalem would be destroyed within a generation.  Most Jews in His day believed that God would never allow the Holy City to be destroyed, and they were determined to wait out any siege of the city and hunker down for the long haul.  That, Christ said, would be a fatal mistake.  They must sit lightly on the world they knew, for the Romans were about to sweep it all away into the dustbin of history.  He then told a parable about the spirituality they would need, about how a man must be ready to flee at a moment’s notice, with all the urgency of Lot fleeing Sodom.  “Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house; and let him who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak” (Matthew 24:17-18, Luke 17:31).  No time to stop and load up the world’s goods, no time to “just grab a few things”.  One must sit so lightly on this world that one can leave it all behind at a moment’s notice.  That was necessary counsel for those awaiting for Jerusalem to end in the first century, and it is necessary counsel for all Christians now.
            St. Paul, of course, said the same thing:  “The time has been shortened; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who weep, as though they did not weep, and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice, and those who buy as though they did not possess, and those who use of the world, as though they did not make full use of it.  For the form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:29-31).  The upshot?  Sit lightly on this world, and don’t give it your heart.  Keep your heart in the Kingdom, where it belongs.  Everything down here is passing away, and if you get entangled in the affairs of the world, you will pass away with it as well.
            Such a spirituality and approach to life is especially needed today, when terrible events on the international stage might make one conclude that the world is spinning out of control.  In fact the world is not out of the control, but Jesus still reigns over it from the right hand of God, and the world will end when and how He wills.  The final word does not belong to Al-Qaeda, or to Russia, or the United States, or to any of the children of men.  The final word belongs to God alone.  World events are important, but not ultimate, and we must not allow them to consume our attention, nor to let the fear which they can inspire fill our hearts.  We sit lightly on the form of this world, looking not so much at the events of the world as through them, focussing upon the coming Kingdom.  The rulers and generals, the terrorists and the politicians, all think that they know how history should unfold, and they are doing everything in the power to fulfill their plans to make that happen.  We know how it will really unfold—with the last trumpet, and the voice of the archangel, and the resurrection of the dead, and the final triumph of Jesus, and the new Jerusalem descending out of heaven from God like a bride adorned for her husband.  We know what others don’t.  We know the word “maranatha”. 

Friday, November 6, 2015

That Was Then; This Is Now

I was born and raised in the greater Toronto area (known to the natives there as “the GTA”), and came to faith in the early 70’s.  For the students of ancient history among us, that was the time of the so-called “Jesus Movement”, when tens of thousands of young people came to Christ, many of them former hippies and drug-addicts.  It was a brief blip on the cultural radar, and was over in less than a decade.  But while it lasted, if often made the front pages, including the cover of “Time Magazine”.  The young new converts, usually called “Jesus People” or (by the unenthused) “Jesus Freaks” were often seen openly proclaiming their faith in the public square, perhaps playing the guitar and then preaching to a crowd at the beach; holding music festivals where they sang songs about Jesus; and generally being exuberant about their faith.  It was an oddity then, for Christians were not generally known to be exuberant, play guitars, or have long hair.  But after the initial shock, most people found them somewhat refreshing, if perhaps a little unnerving, since these long-haired Jesus People were urging their contemporaries to give up drugs and take up prayer.  Toronto, being a major Canadian city, had its share of Jesus People, who strove to make the Gospel as widely-known as they could.
            That was then.  Fast forward to now.  In that same Toronto, we find a group of people wanting to publicly sing about their faith.  They are too young to remember the Jesus People, but any aging Jesus Freak would instantly recognize them as cut from the same spiritual cloth.  The group is called “Voices of the Nations” (pictured above), and since 2006 they have been using city property at the central Yonge-Dundas Square for their annual “multi-denominational” event, celebrating Christianity through live music and dance.  Jesus People indeed.  But like I said, this is now (or to borrow a phrase from our new Prime Minister, “it’s 2015”), and public celebration of Christianity is not allowed if it could possibly give anyone the idea that they should embrace Christian ideology.  Note please that Christian ideology alone is singled out for such treatment, for Toronto, ever keen to celebrate “diversity”, has no problem with parades and celebrations held by Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or the LGBQT community—all of which (and especially the latter community) hold such celebrations in public precisely to promote their ideologies.  Christians alone come under the cultural ban, and when the Voices of the Nations co-ordinator applied to the city for the usual permit to hold their annual festival they were told that the permit would not be issued, but they must find another venue for their gathering.  The reason given?  Proselytizing is not allowed.  Said the city official:  “If you’re praising Jesus, [saying] ‘praise the Lord’, and that type of thing, that’s proselytizing.” It was admitted that the performers were not calling on the audience to embrace the Christian faith, but simply singing their songs, and one wonders how Christians could sing songs or hymns about Christ and omit any reference to Jesus.  No matter; such public exuberance on the part of Christians is now disallowed.  After all, it’s 2015.
            What does this mean?  It means that our culture continues along its escalating trajectory of militant anti-Christian sentiment.  I would define it as “secularism”, except that public displays by other religions such as Islam are allowed and even encouraged.  Back in the old days, western rhetoric denounced Russia as “the evil empire”.  That was then; this is now, and we are on the fast track to becoming the new evil empire.  Nonetheless, life in such an unwelcoming environment, though difficult, will be good for us, for persecution has always had a purifying effect upon the Church.  It helps us remember that “here we have no continuing city” (even the GTA), and that we live as “exiles and sojourners” in this age (Hebrews 13:14, 1 Peter 2:11).  And if ever we need pointers on how to live in such an unwelcoming environment, perhaps the older citizens of the former evil empire can help us, for some of the older Russians remember what it was like.
            The Jesus People and their public celebration of God’s love are long gone, and the city which once welcomed them has turned cold.  Yet even now, if one listens hard, one can still hear some of their songs lingering on the wind.   Those songs proclaimed, “Maranatha!  Jesus is coming!”  The Jesus People expected a final show-down between Christ and Antichrist in their time.  Perhaps they were not far wrong.