The Rev. Amy E. Richter is rector and the Rev. Joseph S. Pagano is associate rector at St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md., and contributors to The Washington Post’s local faith leader network . “A Man, A Woman, A Word of Love,” a collection of their sermons has just been released by Wipf and Stock Publishing.
As Episcopal priests who are married to each other, we have taken a lot of vows: baptismal vows were made on our behalf when we were infants, and then reaffirmed by us as young adults; we made vows at our ordinations to the priesthood. In between, we made marriage vows to each other, in the presence of God and a gathered congregation.
At our wedding, our friend read from 1 John: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” We stood in front of Amy’s father, a Lutheran minister, who officiated, and were flanked by our combined four brothers, two on each side, wearing suits and trying to stay cool on a humid August afternoon in Wisconsin. Our parents were there, along with more family members and friends.
Amy’s grandfather, also a Lutheran minister, preached. He talked about knowing Amy since she was born, the smile she had on her face as an infant that still shows on her face today. Grandpa then turned to Joe, looked him in the eye, and, quoting Jeremiah, said, “And God knew you before you were knit together in your mother’s womb.” This scared Joe just a little. The look on Grandpa’s face conveyed the message that it would be unbecoming for someone known by God since before his birth to cause any hurt to someone known by Grandpa since her birth.
But Grandpa was also placing the two of us, and our intentions for love and faithfulness as a married couple, into the larger context of God’s love and faithfulness. He was naming the fact that our small story — two young people who met at divinity school and fell in love and discerned a call into marriage — exists within God’s great story of creation, redemption and sanctification. No wonder it frightened us a bit.
We spoke words to each other meant to encompass all aspects of life: “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death.” The vows begin with the grace we mentioned above: our stories are placed within God’s story. We said to each other, “In the name of God, I Joseph take you Amy ... ”; “In the name of God, I Amy take you Joseph ... ” Gifts were acknowledged, given and received, beginning with the gift of presuming to speak in the name of God without being irreverent, blasphemous or just plain foolish.
But the gift is love, so speaking in the name of God, who is love, is fitting, even if daring. Speaking our names, Joseph, Amy, in the name of God, acknowledges that we are all bound together. We have no love, know no love, comprehend no love, name no love, outside of God’s love.
In accordance with the “Book of Common Prayer,” we made our promises, gave and received rings as signs of those promises and did what anyone having made such huge and comprehensive promises ought to do: We immediately knelt to pray.
The prayers focus not just on the newly married couple. They start with prayers for “the world you have made, and for which your Son gave his life,” and they include prayers that “the bonds of our common humanity, by which all your children are united one to another and the living to the dead, may be so transformed by your grace that your will may be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Once again, we find ourselves plunked down into God’s great story of love.
In between prayers for the entire world and everyone who has ever inhabited it, comes this petition, one of our favorites when we officiate at weddings: “Make their life together a sign of Christ's love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair.”
In other words, may this couple not be just two people held together by divine love. May they actually become living icons of hope. May the couple standing before us and before God — where we can see them, even if we can’t gaze upon God directly — show us that Christ’s love is so real, so powerful and so effective that estrangement, guilt and despair don’t stand a chance against unity, forgiveness and joy.
“See!” we say, looking at the couple in their wedding garments standing before the altar, “right there in front of us — a sign! God is powerful, relentless, triumphant love.”