(Let me begin by saying: I’ve participated in many beautiful and full Christian weddings that have been rich in depth and meaning. The following is in no way a commentary on weddings that I preside over, but rather a general reflection over the state of Christian weddings today)
I had the pleasure of co-presiding at a Hindu wedding this last week.
She’s Hindu. He’s Christian.
Love, it seems, doesn’t know religious affiliation…though many religions think they have exclusive knowledge of what love is.
The Christian ceremony of marriage is beautiful and rich in meaning, in flow, in design.
But in function, well, more often than not these days a couple wants a short service (at which they’ll wear thousands of dollars worth of material to show off for 20 minutes and in pictures they’ll rarely look at again) with a hefty price-tag. “Make it simple,” is the common line.
A ceremony can be simple and still take a while…
And think about it. Think about what the abbreviated service says. Families process in separately. The Father of the bride exchanges her for a handshake with the groom. There are readings, a short reflection, vows, the giving of rings, candle lighting (or some other symbol of unity), and then a kiss and applause.
It says that love is simple. Lord knows that’s not true.
Of course a marriage ceremony is, in Western culture, largely utilitarian. None of the above is necessary except for the presence of an official who witnesses two people make vows to one another.
But that utilitarianism, which is largely a product of law and right order, has so greatly influenced a religious understanding of marriage, which is in itself a huge symbol of Divine love for humanity, that we have religious weddings occurring with little depth of meaning past “I wonder how much she spent on that dress.”
What are we saying about love here? That love is individual. That it should be acted upon quickly. That its extravagance is seen primarily in material expenditures. And, assuming there is a reception, that it should be seen almost exclusively as party.
If that is what we’re trying to say about love, then there is certainly no problem with a short ceremony and long party. In that case, a couple really should go to the courthouse to get married.
But that is not what the Christian faith says about love, and not what the Christian marriage ceremony says about love at its fullest.
I didn’t really have reason to reflect on it, though, until I participated in a Hindu wedding.
For this Christian-Hindu ceremony, we intertwined the different necessary expressions of the two traditions into one. This was no easy feat. The Hindu wedding ceremony is long and involved, spanning many days. It is rich in meaning and symbol. It involves the whole family on both sides of the proverbial aisle. It involves prayers, offerings, and multiple processions.
For the wedding ceremony itself, the floor surrounding the couple was covered with baskets of fruit, symbolizing the bounty of the Earth, a habitation we all share. The altar had statues, but also grain and coins, symbols of a world economy that the couple would now enter into and participate in as one.
The parents of the bride welcomed the groom into the family. The father entrusted his bride to the groom by noting that she is “as precious as gold,” and that he was now entrusted with the care of their daughter who is precious to them.
They walked together around the altar, step-by-step, plotting the journey of life they were now to take together. They were tied together by a knot in their ceremonial scarves. The whole ceremony was done in tandem. They exchanged necklaces, exposing their necks to one another, a vulnerable thing to do.
It was all deeply moving, and in light of many secular-Christian ceremonies, full of such rich meaning that you saw love for what it is: celebratory but serious, a family affair, a journey together through the various economies the world puts on us, primal and earthy, yet transcendent and heavenly.
The extravagance was in the clothes; yes. But also in the time spent on the ceremony. Also in the number of family who participated. Also in the rich use of language and chant.
The Christian ceremony, when done fully, has all of these elements…or should.
And if the elements are absent, I don’t really blame a couple. The church hasn’t done a very good job at critiquing culture when it comes to weddings other than railing against cost (which it rightly should). But have we spoken against form and function in the prevailing culture? Have we spoken for order and symbol, primarily how marriage is a symbol of God’s love for humanity?
A good challenge for those of us in the church is to find ways to include the whole family in the service outside of the obligatory ushering role for a brother and the two mothers lighting tapers for a unity candle (which, by the way, is not an ancient part of the ceremony). We have bridesmaids and groomsmen stand at the front flanking a couple in honorary (and stationary) positions when we could include them as intricate parts of the ceremony, driving home the point that, as persons in this wedding party they are entrusted with helping this couple in their marriage and keeping their vows.
The Eucharist could regain an important place in the ceremony as the couple’s first act is to host a party for everyone, celebrating the great feast that God shares with humanity. Communion is not common practice, though, at most weddings.
Generous use of prayers and music (and especially music everyone sings), a couple’s procession around the altar, an offering of treasure and flowers given away to charity (as love is charitable), families standing together at the front or doing a remembrance of baptism at the font with the whole family: these are all options for the Christian wedding and speak more fully to Love as a gift to the community, to the family, and to the world that we all inhabit. Marriage is a calling like the priesthood. It is not for every individual, but it is for the benefit of the whole community.
Have a number of readings. Use ancient vows full of meaning, but perhaps include statements of love from the couple to one another, or letters written from the attendants offering their hopes and wishes for the love they see in the couple. Have clear, distinct rings. The ring is a symbol in and of itself: an unending circle of love. Today, though, we don’t look at the circle, just the rock that sits atop it.
Forgo the aisle runner, buy lilies and offer them to God or to the guests as a sacrifice of beauty, for love is a sacrifice of beauty that each person gives to the other.
I don’t know.
All I know is that we’ve created a culture of utility when it comes to Christian marriage ceremonies.
We shouldn’t speak shallowly of love. Love is rich. An extravagant dance and dinner is necessary; love is a party. But love is also a solemn vow, a serious symbol for a world bereft of symbols that speak deeply. The Christian church can do better, and we should be imaginative in doing so. We can learn from other cultures.
It can be more. Love as a symbol of Divine love deserves more for those who profess faith in God.
I loved my wedding. We had communal singing, Eucharist, and even an offering taken up for charity. But if I could go back in time, I’d use my family more, my attendants more, and I’d, as we like to say in liturgical circles, make the symbols big. Really big.
I’m often a reluctant Christian because we’ve made the symbols small.
But we’ve sure enough made the price-tag big…