Shortly after the great festival of Easter 2011, on April 29, the Feast of Saint Catherine of Siena, Katherine Middleton married Prince William. The world watched, pulled together into truth and beauty.
It is interesting that fourteenth-century Catherine of Siena was such a political saint, advising popes and monarchs, bringing the pope home to Rome from the Avignon exile. A third order Anchorite, her cell was her bedroom at her home in Siena. She nursed the victims of plague and sent letters to pontiffs. Towards the end of her short life she received the stigmata in Pisa, hidden wounds that bled internally. She died in Rome, and you can see today her rooms in the convent attached to Santa Maria sopra Minerva, an exquisite Christian basilica built over an earlier shrine to Minerva. She was sacrificial. She saw clearly.
As I watched Katherine Middleton and her father step solemnly up the red-carpeted aisle of Westminster Abbey I wondered how much she considered the other Catherine. This Katherine, of the Middle-Town, a commoner, would also have a political role to play. She may one day be Queen of England. She began her part splendidly as she took part in this national and holy liturgy, as she walked toward the ancient altar with poise and graceful restraint.
Liturgy, ceremony, tradition, is an outward expression of the truth of what and who we are meant to be. It is the way we act out our belief in our better selves, our ideals, our hopes and dreams as a culture. In the dance of liturgy we show a graceful restraint, controlling our impulses, as we follow the tune, stepping together, creating otherworldly beauty. Today in our world we see marriages fail, families fall apart. We see broken promises. We see heartache, cynicism, despair. Sometimes our world seems on the verge of collapsing.
But in this abbey wedding we were renewed and given hope. In this ceremony a man and a woman made promises to love one another in sickness and in health, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance. The Church blessed their union. The country witnessed and were part of this dance in this moment of history. Because it was large – in pageantry, in beauty, in careful attention, in its worldwide audience – and because it was also intimate through the miracles of television, the wedding of Katherine and William renewed all of our vows. We said yes, we can be better too, our culture can be better, we can still hold claim to these ideals.
The Bishop of London preached a profound sermon. He began with the words of the other Catherine, of Siena: “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” Shakespeare echoed this two hundred years later, but Catherine also spoke of the holy, who God means for us to be. It is this identity that liturgy provides. It tells us, reminds us, who we are, calling us to set the world on fire by seeking God’s will for us, who we are meant to be.
The bishop also spoke of generosity and love, the generous love involved in the marriage promises. Our modern culture tells us not to be generous, to acquire and keep, steal and hide. It claims that the self comes first, others second, if at all. Generous love, as the bishop said, demands sacrifice of self, allowing what is best for the other to flower. He spoke of the great lie that has replaced belief in God, that we can find our happiness in another person. We make impossible demands and when we fail and do not forgive, we divorce. These are not popular words today, yet we were reminded, there under the abbey’s soaring wings of stone, that we are called to renew this ideal. And as we listened the words rang true.
The Christian knows we can only find our happiness in God. Thus God through the Church blesses marriage, sanctifying the union with the power of the Holy Spirit, encouraging true love, true sacrifice, true forgiveness. Through marriage and family these ideals renew our culture, generation by generation.
Katherine and William made their promises before the high altar of this historic eleventh-century abbey. Founded by Edward the Confessor, an English King sainted for his humility and charity, the abbey has long cradled the graves of the great through the centuries – poets, statesmen, kings and queens. I smiled as I saw the couple process to the south ambulatory where they signed their wedding papers over the tomb of Edward the Confessor. They seemed to understand the importance of these public moments.
The words of the service came from the 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The hymns were hymns sung for centuries in parish churches and grand cathedrals throughout England. This wedding wove the past into the present, and in doing so allowed all of us to feel part of something greater, to see our better selves, to see the good in Western civilization. We saw that what was true yesterday was true today and, with this ceremony that bound us together, would be true tomorrow.
We celebrate with William and Katherine, with England, with all Christian cultures, these ideals of love and sacrifice, of God’s sacramental care for his creation through marriage and family. We celebrate honor and truth and beauty and giving to one another. Through liturgy, through pageantry, through ceremony and tradition, through these public dances of faith and love, we reach for God.