“I would much rather do a funeral.”
As summer nears and clergy are invited to preside at wedding after wedding, it is not uncommon to hear this complaint. I first encountered it while serving my pastoral internship. I also happened to be planning my own wedding at the time. As I listened to colleagues share horror stories about out-of-control brides and anxiety-filled mothers, I felt torn. I sympathized with their annoyance over getting sidelined as a leader of the ceremony, treated as just one of many vendors peddling wedding products and lower in rank than the photographer. Yet I was also critical: had these faith leaders ever stepped in to offer another, more liturgical, more Christian way of being wed? If not, did they have a right to grumble?
Although I was a cradle Lutheran, I did not receive direct education about Christian weddings until I went to seminary. Youth groups and college classes provided plenty of nurturing and encouragement regarding relationships and marriage, but my church offered me no help in thinking about what a wedding might look like in the eyes of the Body of Christ. Listening to my colleagues bemoan all the Bridezillas, I wondered if the church had “given away” its authority over weddings and left couples at the altar to do battle with market forces and familial expectations.
In reality, how we got here is a complicated tale. Marriage rituals have long been a mix of secular and sacred territory. As William H. Willimon describes in Worship as Pastoral Care (Abingdon 1980), “Gradually, the rite of marriage moved from the civil court to the front porch of the church to the church itself, where it became a distinct service of worship in the late Middle Ages.” He recognizes that while many clergy wish the rite of marriage had remained an entirely civic affair, the Body of Christ holds an important formative role in performing weddings. “Liturgy is education,” he argues, and a wedding marks the joining of two people as “an act of a loving God, as representative of God’s ultimate purpose in all creation, and as a joyous sign of God’s continuing love and creativity in our midst. It is a blessing of the process of union.”
When pastoral and liturgical formation is absent, the wedding industry gladly takes their place. I attended many weddings as a child. Although I did experience the sense of God’s love shown for and through the couple, only later did I learn that the unity candle is an invention of Hallmark. Every piece of the market-driven ritual—the unity candle, the worn-only-once bridal gown, the endless party favors—comes with a market-made myth as well: “Get this day right, and everything that follows will be just as beautiful and harmonious.” Rebecca Mead offers an excellent, investigative critique of the wedding industry in One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding (Penguin 2006). A vivid scene in the book features the author going undercover to a wedding planner’s banquet. She watches the guests, all wedding planners, demolish a piñata. The piñata is shaped like a bride, but with horns and a devilish tail. A demon bride. As they proceed to beat her with a stick so that she’ll give up her candy, they call out names of real clients they have served. This Bridezilla, herself a creation of the capitalist wedding industry, is punished in effigy. Mead’s book is full of such tales and lends urgency to our pastoral task of teaching another way.
Many have begun to recognize the lie in the market-made myth, and many creative options exist for resistance to it. A robust Do-It-Yourself culture, with its return to valuing thrifty and handmade goods, is doing battle with the more dominant practice of hiring wedding planners and a long line of wedding vendors. The DIY-ers reject expensive perfection in favor of community-made, local celebrations. While I heartily support that shift in emphasis, a change in style still does not provide the needed spiritual grounding for the marriage rite. Our tendency toward competition can rear its head, and suddenly it can become a who-has-the-best-vegetarian-potluck-reception kind of scene.
My own DIY impulses were challenged by familial values. My father’s voice on the phone was jubilant at the news of my engagement. “Congratulations!” He continued, “I have only two requests: that I get one dance, and that you let me give you away.” My mother advised that my idea of a potluck reception would be not only impossible to plan, but inhospitable to guests. In the end, I was sympathetic with their perspectives. This significant transition in our lives should be celebrated with a significant feast. Some close-knit communities kill the fatted calf to honor the importance of two lives being joined. Letting a community lavish a couple can be a sign of God’s generous love. Determining the equivalent of the fatted calf and being sure the thanksgiving goes to God is the tricky part.
In a presentation at the 2012 Institute for Liturgical Studies, Gordon Lathrop reflected on the act of blessing a married couple by examining blessed bread. He observed that in scripture, bread that is called holy or blessed is often bread that is given away. Holy bread is bread shared. The sharing of bread in worship points to the goodness and generosity of God, and it is given away joyously to all who are present. Prayers and blessings at weddings, Lathrop teaches, have their root in the prayers and blessings around the table of bread and wine. When a pastor blesses a couple and prays for them, she is giving them away as though they are extensions of the Eucharistic elements. The couple is given to the community as a sign of God’s love for the world, for the life of the world. The promises of God are spoken over the newly married people, tasted by the assembly through the Eucharist, and relished with a party.
If a wedding is in the form of worship rooted in the Eucharist, the reception can be an extension of the Eucharistic feast and a further celebration of God’s generosity. Grounded in the story of Christ who is given as food for all, we are able to turn away false stories about wealth and myths of perfection. We are called to resist the worship of wealth and to use what we have to rejoice in God. I’m not sure this easily translates into rules governing the details of Christian weddings. At the very least, the church’s teaching to share in the feast of God’s generosity is a corrective against the wedding industry’s to-do lists.
Being “given away” is not what happens to brides on the arms of their fathers, but what happens to everything blessed and sent by the Body of Christ: bread, wine, water, quilts, school kits, buildings, and people. Perhaps I should have told my father, “But Dad, you already gave me away when you bathed me in the font and brought me to the table of God.” Of course, daughters should be cautious about saying such things. But vocation and formation are the keys to offering the world another way to wed. A wedding, finally, belongs not to the couple or to their parents. A wedding is a celebration belonging to the community of faith.
As we deepen our teaching of a sacramental understanding of life, connecting the rites of baptism and Eucharist with holy matrimony, pastors may one day feel less contrast between doing weddings and doing funerals. In the end, both rites are about God holding us in promises too deep for us to fathom and carrying us into a future beyond our ability to imagine.
Liv Larson Andrews is pastor of Salem Lutheran Church in Spokane, Washington.