The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.*
In Shakespeare’s famous play The Merchant of Venice the character of Portia, a woman disguised as a young male lawyer, makes a famous speech about mercy in a court room. I memorized the speech because of an excellent English teacher in high school and the first four lines have stayed with me since that time. I love Portia’s speech.
And today I think of these words and how they relate to marriage. Because today my husband and I had a marriage blessing ceremony in the Orthodox church. It was the final part to our recent baptism and chrismation.
This was our second marriage – the first being almost 30 years ago in Chicago, Illinois. That first marriage took place on a bright, perfect Chicago summer day, surrounded by friends and family with 20 attendants and daisies in my hair. The ceremony was outside near a gazebo, the ‘stage’ flanked on either side by large ferns that we had borrowed from our friends’ living rooms. There were around 200 people in attendance, representing around 20 countries. We had warring countries sitting beside each other smiling — such was the day. I wore a tea length wedding dress with puff sleeves and he wore a Pakistani shalwar, kurta. Afterward we ate little sandwiches and ate carrot cake in the shape of a globe.
We married with little knowledge of what our life would hold, the valleys and despair that would sometimes come our way, the ‘we’ll never make it” phrases that would be uttered more times than we wished. We married with little understanding of the mercy we would need to give each other.
And because of this today, as we walked toward the front of the church candles in hand with our priest invoking the trinity, I felt twice blessed. Because above all in this journey of marriage we have experienced the deepest mercy possible to humans. We have experienced the mercy of God that we can still stand, heads held high, certain of nothing but his love and grace to us. We have experienced the mercy of each other, so clear are we in knowing how much we have erred, how often we have sinned against each other. We have experienced the mercy of our children, gracious in their love and forgiveness of us. We have experienced the mercy of our families, standing by our sides through the awful and the wonderful. We have experienced the mercy of our friends who have walked this road with us.
We are twice blessed.
The service took us through four parts. The first was betrothal. We had taken off our rings ahead of time and during this time our priest had us exchange them. The second part was called “the crowning.” During this part of the service crowns were placed on our heads as a symbol of sacrifice and martyrdom, a recognition that marriage calls us to give up our rights, instead caring for the other more than ourselves. The third part had us share a common cup of sweet wine, reminding us of Jesus’ first miracle in Cana of Galilee where he turned water into the most amazing wine ever tasted at a wedding, as well as a reminder that we will share all of life together, the joys and the sorrows. The final part of the ceremony was called “the dance of Isaiah” and the priest led us and our attendants around the table three times, holding the Bible in his hands. He ended with the benediction and prayer. We heard a lot of scripture about being blessed with children, points at which we couldn’t help but laugh.
We then ate wedding cake, a gift of love from someone in our parish, and drank champagne from plastic champagne glasses. The whole ceremony, cake and all, was the greatest sort of gift.
We are indeed twice blessed.
Because the words penned by Shakespeare and spoken by Portia are so true. The quality of mercy in our marriage is not strained, it has been, and will continue to be like gentle rain; it is indeed twice blessed, blessing the one who gives and the one who receives. And today we remember this and we rest in mercy.
* (Portia’s monologue in “The Merchant of Venice”)