Matthew 5:1-12 and Revelation 7:2-4, 9-17

The Wedding Picture

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Matthew 5:1-12 and Revelation 7:2-4, 9-17

The Wedding Picture

By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker

Let’s consider a picture appropriate to this day, the feast of all the saints.  In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

One feature of weddings here are the photographs.  After the service is complete, and the man and woman are now husband and wife, and the congregation has filed out of the church, there comes a time when pictures are taken.

The photographer may be a professional or a family friend.  In any case, there are shots of the bride and groom, and of them in combination with members of their wedding party and their families.  Mostly these pictures are arranged there on the steps that separate the nave from the chancel of the church.  The photographer directs those to be photographed to stand in their various combinations.  The people smile, the camera clicks.

The arrangement I like best is when all the relatives on both sides gather round the bride and groom.  Little boys and girls full of fun, sisters and brothers and cousins young and energetic, aunts and uncles and mothers and fathers pleased and proud, elderly grandmothers and grandfathers feeling the weight of their years yet with a quiet inner joy due to this special event.  All of them, representing several generations, gather in their ranks beside the bride and groom, all of them smile, the camera clicks, and this group, this one moment in time, is preserved in glorious color through the miracle we call photography.

Even long after the event, wedding photos get their share of attention.  A big group shot like that is taken, and someday the couple’s great-grandchildren may gaze at the picture, looking back in time to see their oldest remembered relatives as they were on their wedding day.

There is something wonderful about wedding photos: appearing in them, watching them taken, looking at them long afterward.

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This day, which we call All Saints’, is a time to look at a photo from a wedding.  It is a wedding that has not yet come about, but is sure to happen.  So sure is it to happen that we can well imagine that big picture of bride and groom surrounded by the group that counts them near and dear.

We can imagine that picture, and though it is a vast photograph, demanding a lens of the widest angle, still it is a familiar picture, one populated by some familiar faces, people well known to us, people we’ve heard about, as well as others whose names we do not know.

Who’s at the center of this wedding photo?  Who are the bride and the groom?  The groom is Christ.  The bride is the Church.  Those who gather beside them for this photo are saints from every age and every land.  The photo has not yet been taken, because the ranks are not quite complete, but it’s easy to imagine this picture: the vast throng, with Christ and his Bride at the center.

Beside Christ stands his best man, John the Baptist, dressed up in a camel hair suit.  Among the groomsmen are James and John, apostles nicknamed the Sons of Thunder, primed for a lively night at the reception.  Mary’s standing by too: not the young girl from all those baby pictures of Jesus, but a stately matron in a suitable mother-of-the-groom dress.  We see as well her smiling aged parents, Joachim and Anne.  Nearby is Mary Magdalene, ready to dance the night away.

This is not a wedding where clothing is coordinated.  The saints are a rainbow assembly, dressed in every fashion and no fashion at all.  Louis of France, who wears a crown for Christ, stands beside Benedict Joseph Labre, who wears rags for Christ.  Two teenage girls stand with arms round each other.  One is Agnes, martyr at Rome seventeen centuries ago; the other, Cassie Bernall, martyr at Littleton in twentieth century America.  Just beyond them see a Mexican farm worker, a Russian grandmother, a New Zealand merchant, a Presbyterian from Korea, a Baptist from Harlem, a Lutheran from Helsinki: all of them looking like their true selves, and all of them bearing some resemblance to Jesus.

Gaze again, and you will recognize faces from your own past.  That neighbor from your childhood.  Some friend from long ago.  A co-worker from your first job.  The uncle who always had time for you.  A parish member whose funeral you attended.  It’s a vast throng gathered to celebrate this marriage, yet here and there you recognize a face that delights you, even surprises you.  You surmise that the invitation list was a long one, and you hear it was written in the Bridegroom’s blood.

O when the saints go marchin’ in,
O when the saints go marchin’ in,
O I want to be in that number,
when the saints go marchin’ in.

O when the saints all gather round,
O when the saints all gather round,
O I want to be in that picture,
when the saints all gather round.

In this world of ours we see many pictures full of pretty people who aren’t quite real.  We call these pictures advertisements, and they are everywhere.  We learn to distrust these pictures, because nobody we know gets as excited about the softness of their toilet tissue or the taste of their burger or the poison in their cigarette as do the pretty people in these unreal pictures.

The photo taken at a wedding of bride and groom and others beside them is a real picture populated by real people.  Their faces bear witness to their histories and their hopes.  They are not necessarily pretty by the false standards of glossy advertising, but in their own way they are beautiful, authentic, alive.  The splendor of the occasion is mirrored in their faces.

So too, the wide angle lens photo taken at the wedding of Christ and the Church is a real picture populated by real people.  The faces of the saints bear witness to their histories and their hopes now become visible.  Not pretty by the standards of glossy advertising, they are beautiful, authentic, alive, radiant with glory, fit for the wedding where they have come as friends of both bride and groom.

Perhaps this is the secret of the saints.  They are not the pretty unreal people of advertisements.  They are the beautiful real people gathered beside bride and groom in the wedding photo of Christ and the Church.  Grace shows its full colors in the glory that is theirs.

But grace is at work in them long before.  And that grace works in us as well, we who hold in our hands the invitation to that same wedding.

Jesus announces this work of grace during his Sermon on the Mount.  In the Beatitudes, he recognizes those who are beautiful and real already, promising that their reality, their beauty, will be visible in that wedding photo yet to come.

He speaks to generations of disciples, including those of us now gathered in this place.  Here, in paraphrase, is what he says:

You’re blessed when you live humbly,
for then you belong to God’s new order.

You’re blessed when you experience loss,
for you will receive strength.

You’re blessed when you are content,
grateful for what can never be taken away.

You’re blessed when you ache for God’s justice;
you will receive what you seek.

You’re blessed when you are generous;
generosity will be shown to you.

You’re blessed when your motives are pure;
you will meet God face to face.

You’re blessed when you labor for peace;
in this you resemble your Maker.

You’re blessed in suffering for what is right;
for yes, then you belong to God’s new order.

You’re blessed when people harass and malign you.
Keep up your courage, for the advantage is already yours.
This is how people of conscience have been treated from the first.

[Based in part on Matthew 5:3-12 in Clarence Jordan, The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John (Association Press, 1970).]

In these strange ways, every one of them, we are made beautiful and real for the wedding, ready to take our place in the picture.  Grace shows its full colors in this glory we enjoy as friends of the Bridegroom and the Bride.

Bernard of Clairvaux expresses well the significance of this day when he declares, “What does our commendation mean to them?  The saints have no need of honor from us; neither does our devotion add the slightest thing to what is theirs.  Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them.  But I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by a tremendous yearning.”  [Quoted in J. Robert Wright, ed., Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church (Church Publishing Inc., 1991), p. 496.]

Or to put the matter only a little differently:

O when the saints go marchin’ in,
O when the saints go marchin’ in,
O I want to be in that number,
when the saints go marchin’ in.

O when the saints all gather round,
O when the saints all gather round,
O I want to be in that picture,
when the saints all gather round.

Copyright for this sermon 2009, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).