This Saturday, during our Saturdays @ 5 worship, we will celebrate the covenant of marriage between Walt and Gail Frederickson. When Walt and I first began to discuss his forthcoming wedding, I suggested that it is entirely appropriate, liturgically and theologically, to exchange wedding vows during a worship service. Let me share both some personal and biblical perspectives on weddings and worship.
Chris and I were married almost 30 years ago during a Sunday morning worship service at First Presbyterian Church in Iowa City, IA. It is a fairly large church, known for its majestic transcendent sanctuary, with an ascending roofline leading to a large cross at the front. The choir loft was in the balcony in the back, as was the pipe organ, and the church followed a traditional High-Church form of worship. At the beginning of the service, a child led a procession carrying a small cross for the communion table, someone followed with a flame for the tall candles, then the liturgists and robed pastors came in, per usual, to the choir’s anthem. On that Sunday, following the pastors, Chris and I entered in a bridal gown and tuxedo with by our parents and family members. The service transpired as usual up to the Offering. Then the pastor called Chris and me forward, with our parents, and we exchanged vows, then rings, then my dad sang “How Great Thou Art,” a prayer was given, we were pronounced duly married, and kissed to great applause. After the benediction, we recessed out and hosted an enhanced fellowship time. It was exactly how we dreamed it would be.
Weddings come in all shapes and sizes, reflecting different cultural and economic varieties. Curiously, a Christian wedding has some ancient practices embedded in it that many of us do not even recognize. In ancient times, whenever someone was going to sell a piece of land to another person – before written contracts and county records – the transaction would involve the presence of witnesses, who would witness the spoken promises and an exchange of symbols to mark the occasion. One of those symbolic exchanges was to give someone’s right sandal to the other, in the presence of witnesses, who then could be called to testify if ever there were a dispute about boundaries, ownership, etc., that the deal was done without compulsion and in good faith. There is a reference in the Scriptures to punishing fraud by taking away the perpetrator’s sandal, which many of us find funny or weird, until we realize that the punishment is essentially taking away their business license! Modern weddings keep these traditions, with the symbolic actions, like an exchange of rings, lighting a unity candle, or pouring sand in the presence of witnesses. Even marriage licenses require the signatures of witnesses to verify that it is all done properly and freely.
One difference between a civil contract and a religious covenant is that a covenant is expressly empowered by God. That is why Christian weddings are considered services of worship and involve the reading of the Scriptures, some kind of reflection on the marriage from the Christian tradition, and prayers. Other things that we often associate with weddings – destinations, wedding parties, gowns and tuxedos, flowers and candles – are all beautiful ways of honoring the covenant that is being made, but not necessary parts of the covenant-making itself. The essential parts of covenant-making are exactly the kinds of things one would find in a worship service normatively. Hence, it is both liturgically and theologically appropriate to make a covenant of marriage within a customary worship service on Saturday evening or Sunday morning. I’m of the opinion – and this may just be me and my own personal weirdness – that we ought to include many different significant milestones during the course of our worship services.
Mark of St. Mark