More weddings are being led, or officiated, these days by a friend of the bride or groom who when asked said, "Sure, why not?" That friend ordered some sort of minister license on line for the occasion. Or maybe it's someone who has set up a small sideline business doing weddings? I'm sure this works out well sometimes, but lately I've been hearing stories of it not working out so great.
There was the young man, cast as presider, who spent most of his part of the service talking neither about marriage nor the couple, but about himself. He pondered how ridiculous it was that he, of all people, was presiding at a wedding. Of that, he apparently convinced most everyone. Then there was the gal who seemed to be auditioning for a spot as a stand-up comedian. Generally, the lament I'm hearing is that the wedding service gets trivialized. To be sure, there's a great party but not much else. It can seem at such a wedding as if, "there’s no there there," as Gertrude Stein famously remarked of Oakland.
I thought of these bewildered laments from recent wedding guests as I read Sunday’s "Modern Love" essay in The New York Times. The author and her husband found themselves facing some tough challenges as death and illness drew close to them.
The writer, Jenny Browne, recalled the vows she and her husband had written for their wedding service: "We drove out to the Hill Country for the weekend and wrote vows that included funny bits about who would make the coffee, and feed the cat, and not lose their keys, but we didn't actually say for better or for worse, or discuss what we'd do when better became worse. Had I allowed myself to believe that we'd be exempt from the hard parts?”
While humor is great and has its place, I suspect that we yuck it up overly much because we're nervous — and rightly so. Something important is going on here. Something momentous. If we can't quite admit that and lack the rituals to guide us through it, we're tempted to laugh it up or laugh it off. We pretend it's no big deal. But marriage is a big deal.
Why exactly is it a big deal? What’s the big deal?
When I presided at a lovely wedding recently, I pondered the meaning of the word, "vow," and of the odd and ancient act of "making a vow." A vow, I noted, is "an earnest promise or pledge that binds one to perform a specified act or behave in a certain manner." A wedding service, is in essence, a time of making, or if you will, taking vows. It is all about making promises. We wrap it up in lace, music and flowers. But bottom line, it's making a promise. It's promising ourselves.
And what is it that is promised? On this recent occasion I drew attention to the words that I as the minister would shortly address to the bride and the groom. Those words were, "D., will you love A. faithfully as long as you both shall live?" I asked the couple, and the congregation, to note what the service and vows did say and what they did not say.
What they did not say was, "Do you love one another?" I would not ask, "D., do you love A.?" and "A., do you love D.?"
"No," I said, "We assume that. We assume that you love one another. What we're asking, what you are vowing, is something harder, bolder and better. We're asking, 'Will you love D.?' "Will you love A.?' Here love is defined not only as a feeling. It is a choice and a commitment. 'I will love you faithfully as long as we both shall live.' To make that promise, to make that vow, is serious business.
"This," I continued, "is an extraordinary promise, an amazing vow, one that will ask of you courage, commitment and character. Moreover, none of us can fulfill such a vow and promise without a great deal of help. All of us here today, surrounding you now and witnessing your vows, also promise by our presence and our words to help you make good on this promise, this vow. We call, as well, upon God and the divine grace to enable you to fulfill your promises.
"And because we shall, at times, fail, marriage also comes with this label attached: 'Forgiveness required, forgiveness required in frequent and generous doses.'
"But the heart of it is your promise, your vow, your pledge to one another and to yourself. 'I will love you faithfully so long as we both shall live.' Awesome! Moreover, the capacity to give our word, to make promises and to fulfill them in lives of faithfulness and love, is a good part of the meaning and dignity of being a human being."
That’s what, or some of what, I said at one recent wedding. There was laughter and joy aplenty, but there was also something serious because marriage isn't a laughing matter. The old vows, "for better or worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and health," knew this. In dignifying the occasion, they reminded us of our own dignity as people capable of committing ourselves to something that isn't easy but is important.