The Festivity of Grace

On the Occasion of a Wedding

by Karl Clifton-Soderstrom

This homily was delivered on June 4, 1999 for the wedding of Andrew Clausen and Juliana Reese. It took place at Starved Rock State Park on the Illinois River.

On November 2nd and 3rd, 1961, a young and experienced jazz musician, John Coltrane, brought his sextet to New York City to play at the Village Vanguard. The resulting live performances on those two nights, are considered by many to be among the greatest jazz creations of all time. In those brief two evenings, the gift of a new creation was offered. Coltrane was not simply replaying old favorites, he was weaving a new musical fabric in the particular moment of his performance. For those in the audience, the creation was overflowing with the grace of musical beauty and creativity. The performance took place in the present; the gift was offered to those who heard it first-hand in the midst of its generation. As suddenly as it began, it ended. The present was lost.

The present, the here and now, this wedding day. You are here today to live through this present. As Annie Dillard asks, "How does one catch the present, for it is fleet, fleeing, and gone?" How do we reflect upon it, take it in, absorb it, and comprehend it while it occurs? The jazz musician’s music exists in the present. To listen to the replayed recording is to miss something of the spontaneity of the music’s creation, which for jazz, is the essence of the musical experience. So, what is the difference between the experience of the present moment of grace and the retrieval of a past moment through memory or record? When you have already experienced the music bursting forth in the newness of its infancy, why listen to a recording, why replay and retrieve the lost present through a static reenactment? When the present of this wedding day is lost, how will it be retrieved?

The gift of grace arrives in the present. How does one receive it? How is one nurtured by it, embraced by it, and sanctified by it? The gift of grace, like the improvisation of a jazz solo, always comes as a surprise. To expect it, to demand it, to control it, is to miss the essence of the gift. Grace is given; it is not taken. One finds oneself immersed in the infinite love of God before one is able to respond with acceptance or denial. As Christ says in the Gospel of John, "You did not choose me, I chose you." When experiencing the grace of our Lord, through whatever activity it is mediated, we are overwhelmed by the surprise of generosity. We never earn it, for it is not a payment due to us. To us, it is experienced as the spontaneity of a new creation in our lives.

Trillium is a woodland flower that, like many woodland flowers, blooms only briefly in the spring. It rarely reaches more than a foot high, and its green speckled leaves and deep red flower hide it well on the forest floor. For those who know how to look, the experience of Trillium’s bloom is an event of grace. It surprises one with the beauty and brevity of its flower. One may wait all winter for it to come and know exactly where and when to look for it, yet, seeing its bloom is always a surprising gift of simplicity and beauty.

This wedding day, though expected for months, planned, and thought out, still encounters us as a joyous surprise. A spontaneous moment of new creation in the present of its enactment, it is a festival of grace.

A festival is a celebration of the gift of grace. A festival does not blend into the regular activities of our everyday lives; it stands out as a holy day set apart. It comes to us as a gift celebrating a gift. The festival is to be experienced, appreciated, and embodied in the present of its celebration. One does not celebrate in order to achieve something else. In a true festival, the gift of the festival itself is utterly sufficient.

But, what allows for a festival to occur—what makes this wedding day truly festive? As Frederick Nietzsche wrote, "The trick is not to arrange a festival, but to find people who can enjoy it." Of course, Nietzsche never had to plan a wedding; so, before I get myself in too much trouble with all those who did make the innumerable arrangements for this wondrous event, I simply want to speak to a truth. This festival of grace occurs because of all who have gathered for its celebration. It is all those present who have been graced by the life of Julie, especially you, Andrew, and all those graced by the life of Andrew, especially you, Julie, who are capable of both enjoying the gift of this day, and hence, in the presence of God, making this day truly festive.

Both of you know well the forests of Starved Rock State Park. You have hiked or skied its many paths numerous times in the different seasons of the year. Though you know it well, it will forever offer more than can be taken up in any one visit. You may know which way every path turns in its serpentine route, but you’ll never exhaust the infinite depth of what each path may reveal any particular time you return to it. To be continually surprised at the generosity of the forest’s fullness, is to recognize its presence as a gift.

This festival of grace is for both of you an overflowing that goes beyond the present moment itself. The gift of grace is always a surplus. To receive the gift is to be humbled by its infinite fullness. To experience God’s grace is to experience the infinite in the finite, the eternal in the temporal, and the future of a lifetime in the moment of this day. The radical nature of grace is that it arrives in the here-and-now and yet consists of the infinite and eternal love of God. It’s a scandal of particularly.

The "scandal of particularity" is a term theologians often use when describing the Christ event. The Christ event is an eternal, infinite, and omnipresent expression of forgiveness, redemption, and salvation. Yet, it occurred at a particular historical moment, in a particular location. The scandal is that through this temp-orally and spatially bounded event, eternal salvation and infinite love are performed. A baptism is also such a scandal. It happens once, often when we are not conscious of its significance (as if we ever truly are); and, yet, to live as a Christian is to continually live out one’s baptism. Every moment in our lives when we die to our old self and are resurrected into the newness of life with Christ is meaningful because of that particular day we were baptized. The day of baptism offers a grace that can never be exhausted no matter how many times we retrieve it. This wedding festival, though it is performed in the fleeting moment of the present, offers a similar inexhaustible gift.

Every moment of celebration in your relationship, every experience of the joy of the gift of each other, every time you are surprised at the depth of love you both share, is a retrieval of this day, this festival. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not speaking of an overly romanticized notion, where during difficult times you return to "how you felt when you were first married." To retrieve your baptism is not to feel how your felt when you were baptized. To return to the forest is not to reenact the sense of awe you experienced the first time you walked through it. It is to appreciate the incomprehensible surplus the forest had to offer the first time, but was only to be revealed in the future. To become familiar with a forest is only to realize the increasing depth of its mystery. My prayer for both of you is that, as you become more familiar with each other through the revelations life brings, the surprise of inexhaustible depth will be continually appreciated. The future is necessary and desired because the present offers so much. One retrieves one’s wedding day because the particular festival bursts with an excess of grace. You can forever retrieve this festival, not out of a nostalgic hope for past innocence, but as maturing adults, always finding nourishment in the excessive gift that God and all of us have celebrated on this day.

Karl Clifton-Soderstrom is a graduate student in Philosophy at Loyola University in Chicago.

See all articles by Karl Clifton-Soderstrom