AST WEEKEND, I had the honor of witnessing the marriage of two dear friends from South Philadelphia. It was a wonderful occasion, refreshing for the nobility of the celebration and the faith of the bride & groom.
South Philadelphia is a special place. Originally settled by Italian immigrants, the influence of that heritage still dominates the area. South Philly is home to super-authentic Italian restaurants, America’s oldest outdoor market, and the infamous Mummers Parade. It is the sacred soil upon which the Eagles, Phillies, and Flyers all play. Its many parishes are named after such beloved Italians saints as Monica, Nicholas of Tolentine, and Rita of Cascia.
South Philadelphians love traditions almost as much as they love cannoli. Many of their greatest traditions surround weddings, and one of them is particularly beautiful: the serenade.
N A DISPLAY that has remained a unique feature of South Philly culture, the groom is expected to “surprise” his bride at some point before the wedding (often the day before) by singing to her from the street. Originally, this was a simple affair, perhaps accompanied by a lone accordionist. Serenades have grown in modern times, however, to be a sometimes major (and costly) affair. Nowadays, they often feature Mummer string bands or DJ’s, and they are usually accompanied by food and dancing. Lights are strung up, the street is closed down, and all the neighbors join in the festivities.
Regardless of the ways in which the tradition has morphed and developed, the central feature of the serenade remains the same. Above all else, it is a time for the groom to sing to his bride, literally to “serenade” her. There is something remarkably beautiful about this. As Saint Augustine observes:
“Only the lover sings.” (Sermon 336)
It would be one thing for a groom to do this privately; that would be a good and worthy thing to do. But there is something different and equally good about this public serenade. True love, after all, is not governed by what others may think. Love “is not pompous, it is not inflated, it does not seek its own interests” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). In much the same way, we express our love for God not only privately, but also corporately, through public worship.
One who has experienced true love knows that there is a natural impulse that impels the lover to sing. We see it throughout the Song of Songs and in the prophet Isaiah: “Now let me sing of my friend, my beloved’s song about his vineyard” (Isaiah 5:1). This impulse translates also into the sacred liturgy. If we believe that the liturgy is fundamentally a movement of love and an expression of our love for God, Who, Himself, is Love, then our liturgy should be sung!
The union of husband & wife is meant to be a sign of the manner in which God loves the world. The tradition of the South Philly serenade is much the same.