Readings for a Wedding

Whereas in the past readings at a church wedding were almost exclusively taken from the Bible, today it is common for a couple to combine Scripture with readings from all sorts of other sources.  For instance, at a wedding I conducted a year ago, along with Psalm 23 and  1 Corinthians 13 we had Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 together with some reflections on the nature of love from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Berniėres.  I find it significant that the Church of England’s Common Worship simply states that at a wedding there should be “at least one reading from the Bible”.

This trend was reflected in last Monday’s wedding of my youngest son Benjamin and his bride Kathryn, who chose one Scripture reading and then two poems by T.S. Eliot and C.P. Cavafy.

The first reading consisted of some words of the Apostle Paul to the Colossians (3.12-17) which although addressed in the first place to a church, are clearly relevant to a couple setting out on life together

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

The second reading was the final section of T.S. Eliot’s poem Little Gidding, which itself is the final poem of the Four Quartets.  Religious in nature, Little Gidding takes its title from a 17th century Anglican monastic community.  I found it interesting that the poem ends with words taken from Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’.

What we call the beginning is often the end
And make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

The final reading was Ithaka, a poem written by the modern Greek poet CP Cavafy, inspired by the journey of Odysseus to his home island, as depicted in the Odyssey. The theme is that enjoyment of the journey of life, and the increasing maturity of the soul as that journey continues, are all the traveller can ask for.

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

I found Benjamin and Kathryn’s selection of readings quite moving – and liked the way in which the poems they had chosen reflected the Christian metaphor of life as a journey. As a preacher, I found it interesting that both their poems were very demanding and full of literary allusions– by contrast Paul’s words to the Colossians were more immediately understandable and down-to-earth.

Benjamin and Kathryn add:

In choosing our readings we had to weigh up our wish to have passages that are personally meaningful to us (we didn’t want to excise a passage from a work that wasn’t close to our hearts) but which at the same time were not entirely opaque to the congregation. We concede that the former won out with regard to the Eliot — it’s not an easy read and to fully understand it, it helps to know the work as a whole, a fantastic meditation on time and love. The Four Quartets is a favourite work of ours, individually (Benjamin learnt chunks of it by heart at school, for instance) and together (we went to a candle-lit reading of it at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse some years ago). Outside of Eliot’s intended meaning, this passage has various resonances and meanings for us (like music, poetry allows the attribution and accumulation of new layers of significance). If this was a little bit of an indulgence, we hope it was offset by the fact that Eliot’s poetry is, at least in our view, sublimely beautiful — literally sublime, in the sense that while its meaning may not be easily graspable at first reading its language is nonetheless affecting. This at least was our hope, and we were delighted to have it read in the RSC tones of our friend Andrew.

The second secular reading is a lot more straightforward, and we think so even if one doesn’t know its classical background with Odysseus’ journey home to Ithaca. Although Cavafy has in mind the “journey of life” we think it’s naturally a very appropriate reading for the “journey of marriage”. Again, also, it has some personal relevance for us. For one, the author lived, like us, in Egypt — although Greek, he was born in Alexandria and spent most of his life there. So aside from loving the poem as a whole and the point being made, perhaps there will indeed really be “many a summer morning when, with what pleasure, what joy” we “come into harbours seen for the first time”. And we like to think in our way that we are indeed “visiting many Egyptian cities to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars”. We were delighted that Benjamin’s nephew Felix, who is a big fan of classical mythology, did so well in reading the poem for us.

Looking online we see that, aside from the well-known Bible wedding readings, something of a ‘wedding service readings canon’ has developed. Many of these readings are beautiful but the danger is that they simply become go-to choices. The readings we chose will certainly, at least for us, remain highly memorable and ones that we will revisit over future years.

One comment

  1. Hallo Paul. Three thoughts:

    1. Readings such as these are entirely suitable for weddings – although I personally would have found the Eliot “heavy going” for such an occasion. They are far preferable to the sentimental “pap” one sometimes encounters. (I would make the same comments about funerals; my bete-noire at the latter – apart from the “I have only gone into the next room” metaphor – is home-made poems where inspiration died half-way into the second stanza of six and which are read badly!)

    2. I frequently use similar poems and reflections within the context of worship – and that included two short ones at our Carol Service. I often find that they can shed a light on, or reveal a different side to, the service’s theme. Perhaps I should add that they are read by themselves, not quoted in the sermon.

    3. If I could, I would ban 1 Corinthians 13 at weddings – it’s not about marriage but (as you knew well) the correct use of spiritual gifts in churches!

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