There is, to me, a gut-wrenching moment during every wedding mass that kind of shocks me even though I’ve witnessed it many times. The man stands there in front of God, priest, and family and vows that he belongs to the woman until they are put into a grave. The woman then stands there in front of God, priest, and family and vows that she, too, will belong to him until they are put into the grave. They are making their every breath together a sacrament, each moment a temple. It always takes me aback, that men and women, knowing how much marriage demands, still consent to take that risk together. After a while, in these marriages that have endured for so long, they may not even know that they are doing it, so closely are their souls shaped to each other.
The expectation for marriage is that the spouses give everything they are in a mutual sacrifice of love. Often, the scriptures speak of our relationship with God as a marriage covenant. So, how much does God expect of us?
If we go back to the Old Covenant, God had expectations for the Israelites. He gave them the commandments, showed them how to build the temple, and even gave them cultural and dietary guidelines to set them apart from the other nations. One expectation was that, each year, the high priest would enter into the Holy of Holies to make a sacrifice for the sins of the people. The Holy of Holies was a perfect, cube-shaped room at the center of the Temple. It was the place where the glory of God spilled across the threshold of heaven, and to encounter that awful glory without being prepared was dangerous. It was only the high priest, and only once per year after he had meticulously prepared himself and made sacrifices for his own sins that he would enter. But the blood sacrifice he offered was not his own. It was from a lamb. The old covenant was not yet a sure path to salvation and the sacrifice had to be repeated each year because it did not quite meet expectations. It was a substitute for the real thing. The high priest did not give everything. He was not fully committed.
The problem was that the sacrifice needed to be perfect, a total gift of self without sin or blemish, and no human had been able to live such a life. What God was doing through the Old Covenant was slowly teaching us through symbols what it means to worship, to be holy, to be swaddled in the love of God. It also teaches us the cost of sin – blood must be shed and sacrifices made.
This is why the 2nd person of the Trinity took on human flesh, so that he could step in and, as our great high priest, become that lamb, a sacrifice which cost him everything. It made of him a bridegroom who vows My body is yours, My blood will spill out to the last drop for you.
You and me, well, we’re still imperfect, but we can now unite our imperfect sacrifices with his perfect sacrifice. And this we must do, because it’s what love demands. The gift may be small, it may be the equivalent of the poor widow’s coin, but our small gifts, when united to love, take on infinite value.
Throughout the years, Christians have taken this expectation seriously. Take, for instance, a woman named Julian in Norwich, England in the 14th century. She became an anchorite, meaning that she allowed herself to be walled up inside a little room in the Church and she never came out again. She had a small window through which she watched the mass and people brought her food, but essentially what she chose was a living entombment. She did it not because she was crazy, but because she loved Jesus very much and was so committed to him that she never wanted to leave his presence.
Following up on the marriage metaphor, the vows that the couple make are really brought to life by the arrival a baby, the living embodiment of how the two become one. I am amazed to watch a mother with her baby, how much of herself she gives. She feeds that little baby, loses sleep, and goes through so much physical sacrifice that it cannot help but seem the mother would do absolutely anything for that child.
These human relationships that are so inspiring draw their vitality directly from our relationship with God and help us see what he deserves and what we rightfully owe him. The answer cannot less than that we owe him everything, both because he deserves it and also because a heart that is truly in love desires to do so. There is no counting the cost. Every last coin is donated.
What we give may be large, it may be small – and hopefully it is clear that this is about much more than money – this is a matter of total commitment. And I know that sounds daunting, right, but when we compare it to a marriage, that helps me at least to understand what we’re talking about. It isn’t a cult, or a demand that you give Epiphany all your money, or wall yourself up in the cry room, it an invitation to respond with your whole heart to God’s covenant, stepping completely and unafraid into the Holy of Holies.
While she was in that room, Julian had a vision. Jesus told her, “If I could suffer more, I would suffer more.” Julian notes that, “He did not say: If it were necessary to suffer more, but: If I could suffer more.” In other words, Our Lord is totally committed, even beyond what is necessary.
The key to understanding the widow’s gift is in the story of the other widow, the one who gives her last flour to bake bread for the prophet Elijah. She gave it and then waited to starve and die. And here we have a symbol for the Eucharist, the Bread of Life to which we give everything and through which everything is given to us.
Have we given everything we have to Jesus, or are we holding anything back? Where are the sins we are hesitant to give up? Be brave and place your last coin at his service. Give the last of your wheat to him and find that, in return, he offers you the bread of eternal life.