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"Stern as Death is Love": A Wedding Homily
On July 7th, I stood as a deacon on behalf of the Church and received the marriage vows of my sister Rebecca and her new husband Joe. It was a tremendous blessing to be able to welcome Joe into the family at the altar and do everything I could to make the liturgy as beautiful as possible for Rebecca. As a Dominican, of course, I did not pass up the opportunity to preach the wedding as well. Below are the readings they chose (which should be read first) and the homily that followed. If you need a teaser, I claim that obedience is necessary in marriage, that love is not about our feelings, and that, as an institution, marriage is more concerned with the couple’s relationship to the community than with their relationship to each other.
- Song of Songs (2:8-10, 14, 16; 8:6-7) Option 7
- Letter of St. Paul to the Romans (12:1-2, 9-13) Option 2 (Short form)
- Gospel of John (15:9-12) Option 8
Stern as death is love, relentless as the nether world is devotion; its flames are a blazing fire. Deep waters cannot quench love, nor floods sweep it away. Scripture gives us this beautiful image of love as everlasting, as having a power over all those forces which have plagued humanity from the beginning, even death. Today, however, we might be tempted to think that Scripture is being a little overly optimistic if not proposing a downright fantasy. Today and throughout history we see human (so called) “love” being used to take advantage of others, for selfish gain; love that is fleeting and the failure of divorce; “love” that divides and cuts people off from their family and community.
But what Joe and Rebecca are being called to witness to here today is not a merely human love, but divine love, a love that loves one another as God has loved us. St. John tells us “this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us.” Our love is not some evolutionary development of brute desires or pleasure seeking or herd mentality. It is rather derived from the divine love that pervades all of creation, a divine love we are therefore called to imitate. Today, Rebecca and Joe, you must you take on a special responsibility, a special vocation, to be an image of that divine love before the whole world. You must not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed . . . , that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.
The first aspect of that love you are called to imitate is obedience. Divine love is obediential love. Now I know you did your best to avoid that theme in choosing the readings; and that’s no surprise in our culture. Our culture sees obedience almost as a pathological condition, a sign of weakness, an excuse for tyranny. And yet obedience means first of all a listening, a harkening to the other implying a readiness to serve the other. We imagine or assume it is something always divorced from love and yet in reality it is something absolutely necessary for love. Love without this listening, without service, without sacrifice, cannot endure. Even the readings you chose reflect this. My lover belongs to me and I to him. That real sense of a mutual ownership between the lover and the beloved. I urge you, my brother and my sister, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,to anticipate one another in showing honor. And of course Christ’s assertion that if we are to remain in his love we must keep his commandments just has he keeps the Father’s commandments.
Our Lord Jesus Christ is indeed the perfect image of that obediential divine love in that he heard our cry, he harkened to our needs, and he laid down his life for us on the cross. Christ made a complete gift of himself to his Church, and you are called to imitate that by making a complete gift of yourselves to each other, to love one another as he has loved you. Far from losing ourselves in this service, it is paradoxically only in giving ourselves to another and receiving the other in return that we truly find ourselves.
This gift of yourselves to each other would not truly be complete if it was not for the rest of your lives. And so there is a second way that your love is to image divine love. Christ’s love for his bride the Church is eternal and so your marriage as the image of that love is indissoluble; a bond of love that cannot be broken. Now there will certainly be times when you are not altogether happy with something the other has done – there will be times when the feelings grow cold – there may even be times when you feel like you don’t even like your spouse. But love, the love you are called to and that you vow today, is not something based in feelings. Love is a choice; it is a choosing of what is truly good for the other. It is in that constant choosing of the other’s good that marriage really can image the eternal divine love through whatever storms and difficulties you may face together in life. And of course the true good, the final good, of every person, is not something that can be found here below, but is eternal life in heaven. And so if I can put on my older brother hat for a moment – Joseph, I trust that not only will you do whatever is in your power to take care of my sister in this life, but that you will also do whatever is in your power to make sure that she will get to heaven. Stay close to the Sacraments, persevere in prayer, make it a central part of your life together, hate what is evil, hold on to what is good; strive every day to help each other get to heaven and your love will be an image of that eternal divine love.
The third way in which you must imitate divine love is in its fruitfulness. It is out of the superabundance of God’s love that all of creation came to be. It is out of the sacrificial love of Christ on the cross that the Church is born and that we are born again through baptism into eternal life. In fact, despite some contemporary sentiments, marriage as an institution is really more concerned with the fruitfulness of your life together – with your relationship as a couple to the community – than it is concerned with your relationship to each other. The primary hope of fruitfulness in your marriage will be in the growth of your family. The family is the beginning and foundation of all of society. And so it is expected that you will welcome children into your home, that you will as St. Paul said, exercise hospitality to the next generation, and that you will teach them this divine love you are called to today through your own example and through bringing them to Christ and his Church. More broadly, it is expected that your marriage will contribute to the needs of the holy ones; that it will be a source of service to the Church and to your friends and family; that you will stand not just as two individuals facing each other, but that you will stand side by side together that the abundance of your love may bear fruit in all the world around you.
Now you might think that this sounds like a lofty and rather absurd set of unreachable ideals. And, indeed, you would be right. Neither one of you is ready to perfectly give yourself to the other, neither one of you knows if you will always choose the other’s good, and you do not yet know how as a couple you will be called to be fruitful. But this is precisely why God gives your marriage the grace of a sacrament. Today you vow before us and before God to strive for these things, to learn and grow together in the imitation of divine love: but let me also remind you of what is being promised to you. First, this whole assembly of family and friends promises to stand by you and support you in this great endeavor but more importantly God swears by his very self that he will give you the grace you need to accomplish what he has called you to. He is calling you to do something that is naturally impossible, to be that image of divine love in our world today, but nothing is impossible for God – his grace perfects and elevates our nature to realize what is impossible for us alone.
I have told you this so that my joy might be in you and your joy might be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as God loves us all. Be imitators of that obedient, eternal, and fruitful love. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed . . . , that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.
Joseph and Rebecca, this whole assembly longs to see the work of divine love in your lives and so if you are ready…