By Paul Koch –
Most of my colleagues agree that one of the least favorite things to do as a pastor is a wedding ceremony. Many times (usually over a few beers at a conference) I have heard the refrain, “I would happily do a funeral rather than a wedding, any day.” The reasons are sound; at a wedding you’re dealing with a whole lot of unknown factors and outside influences. You have bridesmaids and groomsmen who are usually unassociated with your fellowship. Photographers have no idea about the meaning of sacred space. Not to mention, the sometimes erratic mother of the bride will be there. You find that childhood wish-dreams and romantic ideals have as much bearing on things as church tradition and practice.
When you compare these headaches to a typical funeral service, the difference is clear. Usually the only outside factor a pastor has to worry about is if a family member insists on doing a eulogy; even there you can offer suggestions and guidance. The service remains focused upon Christ and the promise of life even in the face of death. At a funeral the mourners are usually quite satisfied when the church just does what it is supposed to do, without trying to be different or clever in the process.
So most pastors gladly say, “I would happily do a funeral rather than a wedding, any day.”
However, I must admit that I enjoy weddings. It’s not that I enjoy all the external factors that seek to make the ceremony unique and special. It’s not that I haven’t been pissed off at my fair share of pushy photographers. But I do love weddings. I consider myself privileged that couples, young and old, continue to ask me if I would preside at their wedding. I have done weddings in the sanctuary of the church, under an old oak tree at a park, at historic sites, and even standing on a huge rock in the woods near Tahoe.
I love a wedding because it highlights the most basic of mankind’s needs. In fact, a wedding reveals that God has created us to find this need met in our spouse. Now, this need isn’t completely satisfied within marriage, but marriage is a fundamental reminder of and contributor to the satisfying of this need. No, I’m not talking about sex. (It doesn’t always have to be about sex.) I’m talking about a need for the external word.
My favorite part of every wedding is the fateful moment when the declarations of intent are asked publically to the groom and bride. No longer are they left to wonder within themselves if their love is reciprocated. “Will you have this woman to be your wedded wife, to live together in the holy estate of matrimony as God ordained it? Will you nourish and cherish her as Christ loved His body, the Church, giving Himself up for her? Will you love, honor, and keep her in sickness and in health and, forsaking all others, remain united to her alone, so long as you both shall live? Then say: I will.”
At the very heart of the ceremony there is a shift from the couple’s own joy and happiness and feelings. It points them to be completely dependent upon a word outside of themselves. When the vows are made it is the same thing. Again, the bride and groom hang upon the words that are spoken. No matter where you are or what external distractions have just occurred, this is the point when everyone is quietly leaning in to hear. It is a spoken word that makes the bond good. It is our version of Adam declaring, “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.”
Our love, even our romantic love, is a gift that needs the external word. We are creatures made by the Word. As Gustaf Wingren reminds us, “Man was created in the beginning by the creative Word, and destined to live by that which comes from the mouth of God.“(The Living Word, 13). In a wedding, even those who have not been given faith to trust the Word of God also find that they long for a word that is outside of themselves. They look for a word that they cannot control: a word that cannot be coerced, but only freely given.
A wedding is not just a celebration of love, passion, and romance. It is a celebration of the external Word. In a marriage ceremony we are reminded of a Word outside of ourselves. We recall a Word that washes us in Baptism, feeds us in the Lord’s Supper, and echoes in our ears when we are absolved. The two become one flesh not just in their marriage bed but in their speaking and receiving of the Word to each other.