Saturday, December 30, 2017

Vows and Vocations

At three o'clock — or sometimes shortly thereafter, now that live broadcasts can be rewound — we allow the television to interrupt our merry-making on Christmas Day.  The Christmas pudding having been doused in brandy and set fire to and sung over and most assiduously devoured, we are usually just in time for one of the more unfrenetic and comforting broadcasts left on the main channels: the Queen's Christmas message.  I find it invigoratingly traditional in spirit, and there is a rare feeling of national togetherness as the Queen invites us to look back on the year.  Gloriously heedless of the BBC's dull secularist ethos, H.M. always makes unforceful but unambiguous (and therefore courageous) mention of her Christian faith. This year's message was the fiftieth the Queen has made by television, so it is a well-established tradition in its own right.

But even fifty years of Christmas broadcasts struggle to shine against the seven decades of the Queen's marriage to the Duke of Edinburgh.  There beside the Queen as she delivered her message, next to the portraits of her great-grandchildren George and Charlotte, are two photographs of Elizabeth and Prince Philip.  One was taken on their wedding day in 1947, and the other in November this year to mark their Platinum Anniversary.  Seventy years separate the pictures, but one reciprocal vow is common to both.

This is marriage, the real thing, and this particular marriage is special because it belongs to us in much the same way as the Queen herself belongs to us.  It is one of the last lit beacons in bleak Britain, whose marital statistics show that a third of all marriages are sooner or later put asunder, and that more and more couples move in under the same roof without entering into marriage at all.  More than three million families have been begun without the security of wedlock.  It is some decades since the State showed any understanding of its proper responsibility in this field, which is to create all the right conditions for stable family life, especially for the sake of its oldest and youngest citizens, without meddling in it.  What has happened instead is that marriage has been undermined so that, from a simply practical point of view, people can hardly be blamed for choosing to set up home in co-habitation.  The social and financial benefits that marriage once brought do not now make economic sense, and to many people the law appears to set a trap, being still just tenacious enough to protract and sour any parting, yet not firm enough to banish the very idea from people's minds, encouraging building rather than dismantling.  By Britain's national anticulture, by spectres of the imagination and by the reality of people's own experiences, many have come to fear the unsunderable vows.  Yet couples who are ready to found a household should surely wish for just such a bond.  Marriage helps couples, before they ever enter into it, by serving as a test or proof: if they do not feel they trust each other enough to marry, then they cannot know whether they trust each other to start and sustain a family.  On the other hand, if their mutual trust does indeed go far enough that children seem a real possibility, then why delay in giving form to the natural truth?  Marriage is for life because children join their parents for life.  The great vow is there to protect first husband and wife, and then their children, against human weakness and the evils of the world outside.

But we have also forgotten not only the practicality and common sense of marriage, but its transcendent, spiritual dimension.  This is another casualty of the dictatorship of relativism — Benedict XVI's phrase — the tyranny of indifference that surrounds us, unctuously bidding us do as we please but offering no railings of guidance, and certainly no healing, if our desires lead us into wrongdoing and suffering.  The idea of marriage as a calling to high friendship, as a sacrificial mission that elevates the dignity of man and woman, has vanished, and along with it a sense of motherhood and fatherhood as vocations, to be honoured far above mere career or material prosperity or political engagement.  So people no longer know what to hope for, nor what to build, are therefore afraid of commitment, and so settle for too little from themselves and others.

Yet the Church insists not only on its spiritual dimension but on recognising it as a sacrament, that is, an encounter with the explicit presence of God.  Marriage is, indeed, a minor miracle.  I don't mean this in a facetious way.  It is one of the great paradoxes of life, this unexpected, triumphant treaty of accord by which men and women, in their rival camps with their baffling, amusing, mysterious, undefinable differences, can find not merely reconciliation, nor even simply fleeting pleasure, but actually their highest earthly adventure by pairing up with a member of the other team (the rival team!), and sealing with them an all-transfiguring, world-creating pact, each a match for the other, and each the other's match.

The impossible union is not only a wonder, but a plausible reality.  A bride will cost a man his life, but, mirabile dictu, it can come to pass that even such a wayward creature as a man will vow to pay, and keep his vow.  The hard-won reward is generous: he finds himself the beneficiary of a vow of equal magnitude, and he finds himself in a unique position to give the gift of self.  Moreover, the happiness and security this brings him overflows into any children the marriage produces, children who encounter no pit of dread in asking two of the most important questions in growing up: 'Who am I?' and 'Whom can I trust?', though many young people do encounter such a chasm.  And the Queen, who in her life has had to make some fearsome vows before God, to her bridegroom and to her realm, is one of our greatest living examples in this regard.  Her own family has not been untouched by the turmoil of marriage in late twentieth-century Britain, but she and her husband have kept their faith and their vows, and quietly encouraged the rest of us to do the same.

In marriage is found, and from marriage comes, the 'home' of which the Queen spoke in her Christmas message.  I think it would be a good challenge for the Church and all people of good will to make this a year of promoting marriage, simply the idea, in our tired culture.  The Coalition for Marriage is already doing an excellent job in keeping an eye on the state of things, informing public opinion and encouraging the Government to do the right thing.  But marriage ought to be an urgent topic of conversation.  It needs to be allowed to set alight the imaginations of young people (I write as one) who are hungry for a mission, and the message needs to be proclaimed that marriage is a good thing from alpha to omega and at every scale: national, local and in the innermostnesses of the soul.  It ought to be given a place near the heart of the New Evangelisation; to solve the marriage crisis would be to ease many of the other social, moral and spiritual problems that afflict us.  Along with the other sacraments of mission (Holy Orders and Confirmation), it is the antidote to the dictatorship of relativism's shrugs of indifference, and the soundest, least wasteful vessel into which to pour, with generosity and joy, the fruit of one's sacrifices.

Meanwhile... Merry Christmas!  Keep feasting!

(Malcolm Archer's setting of the Linden Tree Carol)

Monday, December 25, 2017

Merry Christmas!

Just a brief note to wish all or any readers a very happy Christmas indeed!  This evening our Youth Choir sang the music for the Vigil Mass and led our parish in south London into the feast.  Now our waiting is at an end; make you merry as our ancestors did!  Pour brandy over the Christmas pudding and set it alight, put the radio on for the Nine Lessons and Carols, and don't forget the Queen at three!   May the feast glow with the same world-surprising wonder that first brought the rough-hewn shepherds of old to their knees.  We have as much cause to kneel, and to wonder, as they did.

Here's an ancient hymn — this isn't our choir! — from the choristers of Ely Cathedral.