I appreciate receiving my Sunday paper early enough to pull it out of that big green bag and scan it before heading off to weekly worship, but on June 30 the front page lead article in the Star Tribune disturbed and saddened not only my morning thoughts and prayers at church, but also the days that have followed. The headline read, “Saying ‘I won’t’ to religious vows”.
Then to add insult to injury, The Washington Post that was stuffed into that same green bag also had a front cover story and photos to match titled, “Wedding bells are ringing” with subtitle “As couples toss out tradition, the price tag on marital bliss has grown higher.”
As I tried to get over my feelings of being tossed out, I asked, “What happened to the holy estate of matrimony ordained by God”? How did the secular internet and commercialism co-opt the role of the church and the sacred work we do in pre-marital sessions? If the wedding is a worship service for ‘entering into the holy estate of matrimony ordained by God,’ then what are brides and grooms entering into when they have said “I won’t” to religious vows?
Certainly these story lines are coupled to results of polls by Gallup, Pew Research and others that are often in the news, documenting the secularization of our society and others. Already 50 years ago in seminary we were reading “The Secular City” by Harvey Cox, but still I have found that many couples who are inactive in their faith come to the church desiring God’s blessing in their wedding whether it is held in a warehouse or barn, on a beach or on the altar in the sanctuary’s chancel. In my ministry, I always loved doing premarital sessions, rehearsals and wedding services for the opportunity each provides so naturally for creating and building up positive relationships with God and church.
To be sure, secular and sacred, state and church each have roles in marriage. The wedding creates a new legal entity with license signed and recorded ready and available for that word “joint” to be applied to taxes and tenancy and ownership etc., etc. At the same time the wedding creates a new covenant with promises and vows between two persons and God in which God promises divine love and blessing to this holy estate called marriage. All of this happens in the exchange of gifts, the exchange of vows, the exchange of rings and the exchange of prayers and blessings.
I note the exchange of gifts before rather than after the other exchanges because of the favorite teaching I have enjoyed sharing in the wedding rehearsal. The father of the bride processes her down the aisle of the church not to “give her away”. Surely she is much too valuable for the give-away plan. Rather, he brings her down the aisle returning her to the altar and to the Lord, for she is the most valuable gift he has ever received from God. Then giving her hand to the Pastor, and then from Pastor to groom, taking her hand, he receives the bride as a gift from God and the wedding begins with this exchange of hands.
Helpful comments from Pastors were included in the Star Tribune article, especially from Pastor Tania Haber at Westwood Lutheran Church affirming that wherever the people are gathered, there is the church, and from Father Bill Murtaugh at Pax Christi Catholic Community encouraging priests and ministers to do better at explaining the good in the wedding and marriage practices of the church.
After 50 years, God has never abandoned us in our marriage, nor have we relinquished God’s sacred promises — the ones as old as the holy scriptures and as new every Sunday morning sunrise! Thanks be to God!