A Homily Given by a Priest Celebrating a Holy Union
Provided by Dignity/Washington D.C.
“In Celebration of Ordinary Life”
This is an occasion of great joy. We gather to witness the exchange of vows between Michael and Dennis, vows by which they will solemnly commit themselves to love, comfort, honor and remain faithful to one another for the rest of their lives. This is an occasion that is joyful, first of all for Dennis and Mike, as well as for their families and friends. It is also a joyful occasion for the church, meaning especially Dignity, a faith community in the Catholic tradition of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and families and friends.
Probably just about all of us have seen a man and woman joined together in a union that the church blesses and considers holy. But few of us, I imagine, have had the occasion to witness the exchange of vows between persons of the same gender and the blessing of their union. That happens to be true of me, as well. While I have attended and officiated at dozens of heterosexual marriage ceremonies, this is the first time that I have either been present for or officiated at a ceremony for a same-sex couple.
Nevertheless, what we gather to celebrate today is neither extraordinary nor without precedent. There is nothing extraordinary, really, about two persons choosing to get married. Most of us grow up with the expectation that someday we will get married, that someday we will share life with a partner, who will be there for us in all of life's joys, challenges, difficulties and sorrows -- a partner with whom we will create a home, a comfortable and safe haven where we can relax and be ourselves and welcome close friends. Nearly everybody seems to get married. The desire to marry is an expression of the desire to be a whole person, which, as we normally think of it, includes finding someone to love and by whom to be loved and simply taking one's place as part of a couple, a family, alongside other couples and families.
In many respects, Dennis and Mike fit into this pattern. In my seventeen years of priestly ministry, I have, as I said before, officiated at many weddings and worked with heterosexual couples in preparation for their marriage. What I found in working with Dennis and Mike is how very much the same it is as working with any other couple. These are two individuals who are attracted to each other, who have fallen in love and want to be together for the rest of their lives. They experience the same fundamental challenges and hopes as heterosexual couples. And they seek support and guidance from friends, family and the church.
This year has been one of major developments for Mike and Dennis -- buying a house and preparing for this ceremony -- and they have experienced pretty much the usual range of hassles that surround such activities. But their love and commitment are evident and I would expect that this time next year will be a quieter time of taking it all in and simply savoring their love and life together.
So, in a certain sense, all of this is quite ordinary. As it should be. Would that society and the institutional church would simply let it be! But all of us gathered here recognize that there is also sometiiing quite extraordinary about that which we celebrate here today. There is a reason that most of us have never before been to a ceremony celebrating the loving union of two persons of the same gender, even though some ten percent of the population is gay and lesbian. It is because gays and lesbians have long been an oppressed people. As they grew up, their desires for marriage were generally dashed by the recognition that they dare not even let people know who they are.
Just two weeks ago, only a couple of blocks from here at the Capitol, the United States Congress voted 235 to 173 to approve a motion that effectively killed the D.C. Domestic Partnership Law that had been passed by the City Council earlier this year. Although domestic partnership laws have been
adopted in many jurisdictions around the country to secure the rights of people who happen to live together, for whatever reason, the opposition of bigots has focused on the notion that such a law constitutes a step in the direction of gay marriage. And so, even Congressional representatives who
consider domestic partnership to be a just and fair measure are afraid to vote in a manner which might be construed by some demagogue at home as showing support for "gay marriage."
Moreover, we gather for this ceremony not in a Roman Catholic Church building, that is, one belonging to the faith community of Mike and Dennis, but in St. Mark's, an Episcopal church. This is because the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington does not permit Dignity to meet on Catholic property, let alone celebrate a holy union service there. We are grateful to the Episcopal church for the welcome extended by St. Mark's today and St. Margaret's, where some 400 to 500 of us meet for Sunday worship every week.
Some of you may have noticed that my full name and that of our concelebrant, Fr. R., do not appear in the program. That little detail also points to the extraordinariness of this occasion. We take a risk by being here. Any of the priests who associate themselves with Dignity/Washington take a risk simply be being there. Why do we do this? Speaking for myself I can say that I fear far more the consequences, both for myself and for our society, of remaining silent in the face of oppression than I do the risks associated with speaking the truth. This gospel text, which is taken from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel, states it well: we are the "light of the world." We are called to let our light "shine before all." The time has come to stand firm against the fear, ignorance and oppression that keep gay persons silent, fearful and hidden from view and to announce to church and world that yes, here too, is love and life and goodness. Here, too, are gifts and talents and resources for our communities. Here, too, is the Spirit. Here are your sons and daughters, your brothers and sisters. Let their light shine forth brilliantly for all to see.
Later in this service, following the Lord's Prayer, Fr. R. will bless Dennis and Mike, using the words of a twelfth-century text. That text is a translation of one of hundreds that John Boswell, a medieval historian at Yale University, has uncovered during several years of research. Professor Boswell has discovered something that many would find quite extraordinary, and that is that there is an official Catholic text for gay marriage ceremonies and that gay marriages were celebrated in churches in Europe, including Rome, over a period of some 1500 years. Boswell plans to publish a book with these texts, and I have no doubt that when he does so it will cause quite a stir. He is, however, quite certain about what he has discovered, because the format of the service and the language, even the word "gamos," the Greek word for marriage, is the same.
Heterosexual marriage was, following Roman practice, at first primarily a civil and family event which emphasized marriage as a contract between families -- the father "giving" his daughter to a man who "takes possession" of her as his wife. And these are precisely the terms that were employed to talk about marriage, and this is reflected in the traditional wedding ceremony in which the groom waits at the altar for his bride who is walked up the aisle by her father. These arrangements existed principally to safeguard property and to maintain family lines for its transfer. Marriages were frequently arranged by parents or state authorities. Marriage for love was rare. Eventually, beginning in the 11th and 12th centuries, heterosexual marriage was celebrated as a church ceremony -- first on the steps and then finally inside of church buildings, and only at this time did it come to be regarded as a sacrament of the church.
Gay marriages, on the other hand, were celebrated in Christian churches as early as the 4th century. In fact, two saints, Sergius and Bacchus, who suffered martyrdom for their faith, are called, in official texts, "erostai," meaning lovers. They were a couple and were recognized as a couple. Bacchus died before Sergius and appeared to Sergius, who was suffering torments, urging him to remain strong and faittiftil to the end because he, Bacchus, was the reward awaiting him in the next life. These Roman martyrs were cited as an ideal in the rite of gay marriage. The emphasis of that rite, in contrast to the rite of heterosexual marriage, which focused on procreation, rather than love ("be fruitful and multiply"), was on the ideal of interpersonal love as a means of spiritual growth that looks forward to the next life in the Heavenly Jerusalem, where all will be based on love.
This historical background serves, I think, to point the way toward reclaiming a vital part of our Christian tradition. The celebration of the holy union between two persons of the same gender, while unfanuiliar to the experience of most of us, is, as it turns out, nothing new. It has a place in the life of the church. It has, moreover, a gift to offer us in the witness that it provides to the ideal of interpersonal love as a spiritual good in itself
Joyful as this occasion is, when we gather to celebrate the love of these two men for each other, I cannot forget the oppression and fear that have afflicted gays and lesbians for many centuries. While the church has been much more tolerant toward gay persons than has been recognized, there has also
been persecution, especially beginning in the 13th century. Since that time, our people have often been arrested, maimed and executed. For much of the past century, we were regarded as mentally ill, with the American Psychiatric Association and American Psychological Association dropping this diagnostic label in the 1970s, when it became clear that it reflected a societal prejudice and was without scientific merit. And while much progress has been made in changing laws and securing rights, we are still subject to arrest and discrimination in many parts of this country. And we should not overlook the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt honoring some 27,000 persons who have died from AIDS, most of them gay men, which has been placed this weekend on the grounds of the Washington Monument. This dreadful disease, which struck the gay male population in this country first and now spreads to others, testifies, in part to the terrible plight of a people for whom marriage has not seemed a viable option.
There are many who would say, "I am a tolerant person. I have nothing against gays and lesbians, as long as they keep quiet and don't flaunt their sexual orientation or demand special rights." Well, my friends, silence is our worst enemy. It is precisely this silence that has prevented gay people from enjoying the ordinariness of finding a life partner and settling down as a couple with the support and recognition of families, friends, coworkers, church and society.
But we are living in a historical moment, a time when gay people will be silent no more; a time when many, like Mike and Dennis, are choosing to let their love shine forth as a light for all to see. This is not flaunting anything or demanding rights that are not available to others, it is simply a coming forward to take one's rightful place in society. And as more and more follow their example, as inevitably they will, this will come to seem less and less extraordinary. Twenty-five, fifty, one hundred years from now, as friends and family gather for holy union ceremonies, it will no longer be the first one most will have attended.
Dennis and Mike: God give you strength to remain faithful to each other and to the love that you find in your hearts today. You are a sign for all of us, a sign of the primacy and power of love, a sign of courage and a sign of hope. You are a "city set on a hill" -- and not just Capitol Hill! And. while the gloom of ignorance and bigotry continues to encircle us, the sweet light of your love, lived out in ordinary circumstances, day by day, is a sure sign that darkness will not prevail. God give you courage and grace and many years together.