“…to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, ’til death do us part…”
It was Holy Week and I was cramming in an extra pastoral visit amid daily services and preparation for the big Easter weekend. While I usually called before making visits, one day I stopped unannounced at the home of church members who were struggling.
Bob was a successful, small town businessman. When his wife Evelyn was diagnosed with cancer the year before, however, Bob quit his job (early retirement actually) and stayed close to home to care for her. As Evelyn’s health declined Bob was called on more often to do the chores around the house like making meals, doing the laundry and cleaning the floors. It was quite a role reversal since Evelyn had kept house over the years and raised the kids while Bob was off travelling for business and building his career.
I knocked at the door around 9:30 am and Bob greeted me warmly, inviting me in to their home. “We’re just finishing breakfast,” he said, “come and join us in the kitchen.” Evelyn tried to stand up, but in her weakened condition I got to her before she could rise. I gave her a hug and helped her ease back on the chair with the special cushions. She was terribly weakened from her last treatment and it was sometimes hard to tell whether the look on her face was a smile or a scream.
“You’re here in time for our little ritual,” Bob said, “we used to do this once a month but now…now…” he said his voice trailing off, “now we do it every morning.” He pulled out a yellowed piece of paper with the date 1953 on it. Before my head could catch up with my heart, I listened as they spoke the following words:
“I choose you, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, ’til death do us part…”
Their wedding vows from so long ago, first spoken in a little Baptist Church outside of Ottawa, now echoed in their large kitchen, bouncing off grandchildren’s rainbow coloured drawings attached to the fridge with magnets from all their holiday destinations over the years.
I sat there and heard their wedding vows spoken with deep, deep reverence, one to the other. It was holy week and I was preparing for the Maundy Thursday service the next day. In that kitchen I felt the Holy Spirit nudge me, hearing another vow from long ago, “A new commandment I give you, that you might love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
John’s gospel (written in Greek) places the words Agape (not Eros or Storge, etc) on Jesus’ lips – a deep, abiding, self-giving love – a love that gives without counting the costs.
This Holy Week we will hear the “Maundy” or Commandment to love one another once again. It is a call to action for followers of Jesus to show deep love and compassion for others – not the carnal or cheap love that we see splashed across movie screens, tv channels or late night 1(900) commercials.
This is the deep and abiding love that Jesus shares with a servant’s heart, as he stoops down to wash the feet of his friends, taking the lowest paid household servant role and offering love and hospitality to others.
Looking back I witnessed that same kind of love in that kitchen many years ago. I sat and talked with Bob and Evelyn about the next round of treatments – their hopes and their fears. Before I left that day, we sat in a circle and reached out our hands, three and yet one, a heart-beating glimpse of the inner life of God- Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I prayed with them for a couple of minutes and then came the Amen. As I opened my eyes, I saw tears flowing down Evelyn’s cheek and Bob jumped up and grabbed the Kleenex box. He carefully and lovingly wiped the tears away and I thought to myself I’ve seen that before. I’ve seen that with a towel and a grace filled bending towards disciples’ feet. If you listen carefully you can still hear in the distance a voice still calling:
A new commandment I give you…that you might love one another…for better for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish…until death due us part…
Ross Lockhart is an Associate Professor at St. Andrew’s Hall, Vancouver.