Tomorrow I will witness the marriage of two staff members of Catholic Christian Outreach. Jeremy Rude, a friend for many years, is marrying fellow missionary Kelly Boyko near Edmonton. They chose to prepare themselves—and their friends—by a prayer vigil that included moving testimonies about marriage from CCO co-founder Angele Regnier and its president, Jeff Lockert.
As part of the vigil, we celebrated Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours, during which I preached the following homily at the couple’s request.
Those of you who are not Catholic may find this prayer vigil a bit puzzling. But don’t feel bad—the Catholics are more puzzled than you, since when they hear about a vigil, they think ‘funerals,’ not weddings.
So when I told a witty priest about this evening’s vigil, he asked if the body would be present!
The answer, of course, is yes. Marriage very much involves the body as well as the spirit, so much so that Jeremy and Kelly will walk into the church as two tomorrow, and leave as one flesh. But that’s something we will talk about at the wedding.
Tonight, let’s talk about this unusual vigil. Actually, it wouldn’t seem unusual to the first Christians. Nighttime prayer services were so common in the early Church that we read about them in documents from the first part of the second century.
We’re not sure how vigils caught on—obviously the greatest of them, the Easter Vigil, was connected to the fact of Christ’s rising before morning. But there was also a popular belief that the Second Coming would happen at midnight. (We’re not planning to wait around for that tonight.)
Whatever the reason for their popularity, vigils have gone by the wayside except at Easter. And even the good example of Kelly and Jeremy isn’t likely to bring them back anytime soon.
But that’s too bad, really. Because a vigil expresses three powerful truths about tomorrow’s celebration.
The first is that a wedding—like any sacrament—needs to be surrounded by prayer.
Sure, people who aren’t prayerful get properly married; even a groom who spends half the liturgy worrying about whether his best man forgot the rings can receive the sacrament. But prayer opens the door of the overflowing storehouse of spiritual goods.
Prayer helps the couple receive maximum spiritual benefit from the sacrament of matrimony, and prayer helps their family and friends share more fully in these blessings as well.
St. Charles Borromeo once preached about a priest who complains that a thousand thoughts distract him from God as soon as he comes into church to pray. The great reformer and bishop replies by asking “But what was he doing in the sacristy before he came out for Mass? How did he prepare?"
No-one will ask our happy couple that question. Their hearts and minds will be set on God tomorrow—as shown by their decision to pray with us tonight.
Our thoughts too will rise more easily to God tomorrow, because tonight we have fixed them on the supernatural aspect of this joyful union.
The second great thing about a vigil is that it’s expectant—it’s a time of watching and eager waiting. In former times, all the great liturgical feasts were preceded by a vigil of prayer, even ordinary Sundays. Medieval squires spent the night in prayer before being knighted. A vigil signified the importance of the day to follow… something big was about to happen!
Well, tomorrow is going to be a tremendous day! It’s going to be life-changing, maybe even world-changing. It deserves to be anticipated with eagerness and excitement. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to looking forward to seeing Kelly appear at the door of the church, radiant and lovely. We should be even more eager to see the great work that God will do in her life and in Jeremy’s tomorrow.
Kelly and Jeremy, you are expecting great things from God; that’s just what He wants you to expect, and He will not disappoint your hopes.
Finally, our time of vigil helps us focus on Christ. In his book Life Together, the 20th century martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote “At night Christ was born, a light in darkness; noonday turned to night when Christ suffered and died on the Cross. But in the dawn of Easter morning Christ rose in victory from the grave.”
Bonhoeffer challenges modern Christians to rediscover the spiritual rhythm of night and day. Even though we no longer have any fear or awe of night, we can rediscover the great joy that the early Christians felt every morning at the return of the light. We can learn again something of the praise and adoration we owe to God at the break of each day—for He has preserved our life through the dark night and wakened us to a new day, driving away darkness and sin.
We often say that every Sunday is a “little Easter.” Well, the same can be said of every night and every morning if we begin and end the day in the spirit of this evening’s vigil, watching and waiting. Christ is the Bridegroom who will arrive without warning at the door of the house, who will awaken the bridal party from sleep. But Christ is also the Risen One whom we welcome each morning as we arise from the darkness of night.
We will celebrate many wonders tomorrow, including human love, the love of family and friends, and the sheer joy of this union; but the still-deeper truths we have glimpsed tonight will lead us to the very heart of the matter: As a sacrament of Christ’s love, Kelly and Jeremy’s wedding shares fully in the mystery of his death and rising, calling them from death to life, from darkness to light.