By Reverend Roger, Carr-Jones Marriage and Family Life Coordinator, Diocese of Westminster
I like watching fireworks, whether in the domestic setting, or as part of an organised event. The myriad of colours, patterns and sounds add to the sense of joy. Each New Year I like to climb with my wife to a nearby hill where we can watch all the fireworks, both civil and domestic, changing the shape and colour of the night skies. It is this image of a firework display, with sound and colour, that returned to me when we celebrated the annual Mass of Thanksgiving for Matrimony this year. In shape and form it was very different, as only a small number of couples were able to attend in person, whilst the majority joined us in solidarity via the live-stream. It was a moment when the term the ‘domestic church’ was most apt, as cathedral and home became united across the airwaves.
This celebration is like a large, well-organised firework display. It is a burst of colour and sound that reverberates not simply within the confines of the cathedral, but embraces the piazza and the world beyond. The impact of this day on the wider community should not be underestimated. As Jack Dominian wrote in ‘Marriage, Faith and Love', ‘After baptism and the eucharist, marriage is the most important sacrament in the Church, because it is within marriage that 90 to 95 percent of the community finds its salvation.' (1981, p.256)
In 2020, whilst we were not able to mark this day together, the quiet witness of married love was still being lived out in homes across our diocese. This reminds me of those silent fireworks that you can buy, where our focus is on the colour and form. In the trials and tribulations of the pandemic, the sounds of married life might have seemed more muted, yet the colours still blazed. How has living our married vocation reshaped and realigned to meet the needs of the time?
This year was also different. With no large gatherings or organised displays, the celebration was more nuanced and deeply personal. Whether we came to the cathedral or joined from home, we offered a series of smaller and more intimate firework displays of mutual love. This was reflected by the small moments of sharing from couples, whether by email or on the day, rejoicing in being able to renew their vows, in the presence of the Cardinal and before God.
This year, our focus was on each of the individual displays of love and affection within the domestic setting of the home. It was a moment of affirmation and celebration of each couple’s witness to marriage in their own personal and unique way. As a result, the gloomy skies of the pandemic year were for a moment lifted and transformed by a beautiful display of colour, light and hope. Thank you for this.
Anniversaries are complex as they are moments for reflection, rejoicing, taking stock and then moving forward. Each year has its particular shape and form, a bit like the fireworks that you get in the box. Like married love we might prefer the box of fireworks to hold all our favourites. This is not reality. We know, instead, that as our love matures and we grow together through our shared experience of the journey, we realise that, once combined, each year helps creates the unique display that is our living out of this vocation. There are times of sparkle and colour, noise and sounds.
In Amoris Laetitia (AL), the Joy of Love, Pope Francis reminds us that, 'marriage is an inevitable mixture of enjoyment and struggles, tensions and repose, pain and relief, satisfactions and longings, annoyances and pleasures, but always on the path of friendship, which inspires married couples to care for one another: “they help and serve each other”.' (AL 126) As our couples celebrated their anniversaries, the overwhelming firework of choice was that of joy, which of course is the expansion of hearts that symbolises the depth of married love.
Anniversaries are dynamic rather than static, which is something that we very quickly learn either from the experience of our own marriage, or when sharing with other married couples. In marriage we are always on a journey of mutual self-discovery, always ready to discover new graces and unexpected delights. In that sense it is not unlike the Christian life in that everything that follows began with a moment of initial encounter from which we wanted to learn more about the other person. In that moment of noticing, our lives were transformed, the future changed in an instant and the journey of mutual self-discovery began.