“Weddings (and More)”

            Yesterday a wedding took place here. Rev. Karol Farris officiated, for a friend of hers who is a member of New Providence Church, and her fiancé. And one of the lectionary passages for this past week is I Corinthians 13, which is often read at weddings, including yesterday. And this coming Thursday, of course, is Valentine’s Day, which also has something to do with love.

            So it seemed to me to be a perfect time to look at I Corinthians 13 today, including the subject of weddings.

            Couples hoping to be married in this church are usually surprised, I think, when they come to talk to me, by the number of choices they have when it comes to planning the wedding service. I have an order of worship and a set of prayers and statements that I think compose a very good statement of what the church believes about marriage – accurate, understandable, meaningful – and I show them that order. But it is not something that I insist must be used. If they don’t like that particular service, we can toss it aside and choose another. If they don’t like parts of that service, we can work together on changing the parts, or maybe even skip them altogether, depending on what they are; only certain elements must be included, like the vows and declaration of marriage. And even in the required parts, we can always change the wording; there are no “magic words” that absolutely must be said to make it a valid marriage.

            The couple can choose whether or not to include hymns; choose whether or not to include a question asking for the families’ or congregation’s support; choose among different prayers which are suggested, or even provide their own, within certain considerations.  And they can choose the Scripture passages they would like to have read. While Scripture reading must be a part of the service—that’s required—which Scripture reading is the choice of the couple.

            Now some couples come in with very definite ideas  about what Scripture they would like to use; they have already given it a lot of thought. Others have no idea; some, I think, would even prefer not to have any choices and just be told what to do. In those cases, we go over several options together, and settle on a choice together. And in over 80% of the wedding ceremonies I have conducted – whether the couple had come in with a definite Scripture  already in mind, or had no idea whatsoever – in over 80%, out of the whole Bible to pick from, they have chosen I Corinthians 13, the passage we have just heard, the hymn to love. We could probably call it . . . “the wedding passage.”

            When I first noticed this passage was one of the ones suggested by the lectionary for our consideration, I thought of using it to point out that, in fact, the subject of marriage is never directly referred to at all in I Corinthians 13. You won’t find the words “wedding” or “marriage” or “bride and groom” or “couple”; not even “husband” and “wife.” Nothing suggests that it was designed to be used for weddings; Paul did not intend it to be “the wedding passage.”

            Rather, it is about love in general. “Agape” love. The love for all humankind kind of love. But then I thought . . . why fight it? Weddings are nice occasions; most of us enjoy them. Why not indulge ourselves a  little today and use this opportunity, when the passage is presented to us, to talk a little about weddings and the church’s role in weddings? Besides, it will give you a little insight into how we plan and conduct weddings here, should you ever know someone interested in getting married. Why not talk about weddings? As long . . . as long as you promise to keep in the back of your mind somewhere the reminder that it is we who have chosen to use this as a wedding passage. That’s our idea – it’s not suggested by the lesson itself; it wasn’t Paul’s doing.

            So what is the religious significance of a wedding?  We know, first of all, that a wedding is a curious mix of a religious proceeding and legal proceeding. It’s the one area where a minister operates as the agent of the government in conducting the ceremony. It results in the one church document, with the sometimes-exception of baptism certificates, which is also a legal document (sorry, we don’t handle car titles, tax returns, and notarizing). It’s a church service that results in legal changes for the parties involved, like their income tax status. Complete separation of church and state hasn’t hit the topic of weddings yet. But today, in our “regular” Sunday service without legal consequences, we will concentrate on just the religious significance of weddings.

            For a long time . . . there was no religious component to weddings. James White, in his Introduction to Christian Worship, reminds us that the only New Testament wedding is the one at Cana when Jesus performed a miracle at the reception; there are no hints of the ceremony itself having been a religious event. And for many centuries, the Christian church had no part in wedding ceremonies. They took place in homes; they were arranged with the families, not with the priest; they featured old traditions which came from cultures believing in other gods, not the Christian God. Like the Roman culture, which contributed such pagan customs as wedding rings and a wedding cake, still part of our celebrations – “The church’s role for many centuries,’ White writes, “seems to have been limited to trying to influence Christians to marry other Christians.”

            When the church finally did become involved in weddings, it was pretty much accidental. As legal systems developed, written records of weddings began to be necessary, to settle questions of inheritances and whether children had been born to a married couple. In most towns, the only person who could read and write was the priest, so his presence became necessary at weddings simply to witness them and regard them legally.

            In the 12th century, weddings first began taking place  at the church door, probably for the priest’s convenience, as he recorded it, since that was where he was. Martin Luther was married at the church door in 1529. It wasn’t until the English Reformation, later in the 16th century, that weddings finally began taking place inside the church, conducted by the priest, with prayer and a blessing. There had been 1600 years’ worth of Christians marrying each other, without a church or clergyperson! And even in 1600 they were still more a contract than anything else, with little if any mention of love. Only relatively recently have we spoken in terms of a covenant instead of a contract, of mutual promises and commitments based on the bride and groom’s love for one another, not a strictly legal arrangement.

            Now that we churches are in the business of conducting weddings, we try to do it right, so our Book of Order contains some guidelines: The marriage service, for example, is under the direction of the minister, not the mother of the bride or groom, or the second bridesmaid from the right, who has been in eight weddings, so feels that she knows the only right way to do everything. Second, holding the service requires Session approval. It shall include Scripture, prayer, and vows. It may include a sermon, an exchange of rings; and communion, as long as all Christians present are invited to join in. The flowers, decorations, and other accessories, like photographers, should be “appropriate,” though I’m not sure who defines what “appropriate” means. And in preparation for the marriage service, the minister asked to lead the service shall provide for a discussion or series of discussions with the bride and groom-to-be, covering certain topics.

            I usually start with the question . . . “Why are you here?” By which I mean: why not go to a justice of the peace? Why not get married in the park? Why subject yourselves to this series of conversations with me? The idea is to get at the religious significance of the event: how does the couple feel about church, and what do they think a church is. I know one minister who starts out by asking, “So why don’t you just live together?”, which might seem an odd thing for a minister to say. But the point is the same: why do you want to have this religious ceremony; what does it mean to YOU?

            Second, we try to do a little work around the subject of compatibility – do the man and woman have the same tastes, goals, plans, values? To this end I ask them to discuss a series of questions between themselves at home; they don’t need to tell me the answers as long as they discover they’re thinking along the same lines. Questions like: Have you talked about children? Which of you plan full-time careers, and how does the other one feel about it? What expectations do you have about who’s “supposed” to do the housework, the yardwork, the cooking? Where do you want to live? How much time will be spent with your respective families? It’s better that any differences of opinion come out now than during the honeymoon.

            The third area we discuss is the physical details of the ceremony: who’s going to stand where? Would you like to light a candle together? Who will hold the rings? Do you realize that you’re going to be nervous? One minister told me of a bride who was nervous enough that her fingers sweated and swelled; and a groom who was more nervous—so much that he didn’t even know what he was doing. When the time came to put on her ring, and it didn’t slide as he expected, he just, in a daze, sort of kept pushing until the bride, through gritted teeth, pleaded to the minister, “Make . . . him. . . stop.” Yes, you will be nervous.

            And as I mentioned at the outset, we talk about the order of service itself. We make the choices about which parts of the service to use, and which prayers, and which Scripture.

            Which brings us back around to I Corinthians 13. Why do we almost always pick this passage when it comes to weddings? Our first readings today, by the way, from Mark 10 and Song of Songs, are the “runner-up” choices, but they are a distant second and third to I Corinthians 13. What is it about that chapter?

            It starts by emphasizing the value of love; if I have all sorts of other attributes – prophetic powers, knowledge, speaking ability – but have not love, I am nothing. Love is more important than all that other stuff; it is only love that gives those traits any value.

            Chapter 13 ends with the testimony to the permanence of love: “Love never ends.” “It will never cease to operate,” write commentators Orr and Walther. “It will never become obsolete or invalid. This is because it is the purpose and nature of God. And it is the only relationship by which human beings can exist together.” End of quote. Love is what will continue to operate even in our eternal life; when we come “face to face” with God, what we will see is love.

            Those are beautiful, and encouraging, thoughts. But the main reason we pick “the wedding passage” for our weddings, I think, is because of the middle section, the one listing the qualities we associate with love. “Love is patient; Love is kind; Love is not envious or boastful or rude.” When we hear the words describing love, whether for the first time or the hundredth, I think we recognize them as describing the type of love we seek to give and receive – the kind that does not insist on its own way, the kind that is trusting and hopeful, the kind that rejoices in truth. As a couple pledges their love to one another, that’s the kind of love they’re talking about, not an infatuation or a need to control or an anything-to-keep-from-being-alone.

            When we hear those words in the congregation and remember or look forward to finding love of our own, that’s the kind of love we mean. I think we know it’s the kind of love that comes from God – patient, truthful, faithful. And it’s the kind of love we ask God to help us show; we pray to God to help us love that way.

            And maybe that’s why weddings are in churches. Maybe that’s the main element in the religious significance of weddings: our knowledge that the love we seek to give and receive is the kind of love that comes from God, and that it’s only through God that we can love, always, in that way. When God helps us love, love is patient and kind and truthful and hopeful. And never ends.

            I told you before that I ask couples “Why are you here?” Why do you want to be married in a church? One couple in particular had a wonderful answer: they were here, they said, because they wanted to make their promises to one another before God, and with God involved; and to communicate a deeper, more spiritual sense of commitment than one would find in a strictly legal, strictly functional office. In short, they wanted to pledge that God-given kind of love. And then the couple went on: they also wanted the presence of their families and friends, so they all would know that the couple wanted to share that kind of love with them too, not just one another. The service was to remind everyone present of God’s love for them, and their love for one another.

            Which brings us back to that reminder you promised to keep in the back of your minds, that this passage wasn’t intended to be just about weddings. The word “love” in this passage is the word “agape,” and “agape” is not reserved for the love between a woman and man, for romantic love. The Greeks had an entirely different word for that kind of love, a word which Paul chose not to use. No, agape is the “love for all humankind” kind of love; the love that Jesus showed to all people in his ministry and his death; the word for love in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that God gave the only Son”; the word for love in I John 4:11, “Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.”

            I Corinthians 13 describes a fine love to share with a spouse, and is a perfectly  appropriate passage for a wedding. But that’s only the beginning, only the center of what should be an ever-widening circle. It also describes the love God has for us, and the love we are to try to show to all the people around us.

            Let us pray:

            God, we thank you for the description of love Paul provided for us in his letter, and we thank you for loving us in the way it describes, and for helping us to love each other in that way too. Help all who are married to love each other with kindness, patience, and without end; help us seek to love all people in that way. Amen.