catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 8 :: 2010.04.16 — 2010.04.29


The wedding planner

I have been told by some women that they have been thinking about their weddings since they were little girls. I have been thinking about mine since college. In one of those iconic moments which in hindsight seem more dynamic than they actually likely were, my brother and I had just attended a wedding of some InterVarsity staff friends, and driving home down Illinois 48, in the glow of a farmland sunset, we discussed why we liked the wedding so much.

I do not remember what we liked about the aesthetic elements of the wedding, but I do remember that we were especially excited that the guests got to sing some great hymns as a congregation, that there were meaningful blessings and prayers, and that the couple had actually sat down for the homily, as if they were simply part of the congregation. Plus, the fellowship afterwards had all the warmth that close college friendships engender. I knew then that if were ever to wed that I would like to have hymns and a homily and friends.

I can assure you that this has not been the sum total of my wedding planning career, but it is a testament either to emotional health or apathy that I do not remember many details from over the years, save a few. The overall trajectory of that career, however, has to been to loosen the stranglehold of tradition in favor of thoughtful freedom, not because I now think that tradition is bad, but because even our most cherished traditions and symbols and protocols, while not arbitrary, are not Scriptural mandates but rather cultural artifacts. Even something as symbolic as the white wedding dress, which I thought must surely be some allusion to the purity of the bride of Christ, has much more recent provenance, as brides began wearing white en masse only in the mid-19th Century, perhaps because Queen Victoria chose to do so at her wedding.  And the associations with chastity and purity were only attached to it afterwards, in the Victorian Era.

I have not researched how various other symbols in wedding ceremonies — rings, unity candles, etc. — came about, but even when we do not know their origins or their initial meanings, we humans have a tremendous ability to backfill meaning into empty spaces. Indeed, “the meaning-making animal” might well be one good tagline to describe human beings. And often it seems that the list of things which people feel “must” be included in a wedding ceremony can really be seen as a product  either of some well established meaning-making circles, such as cultures and ethnicities, or some rather more private ones, such as families. Most nobly, I think people want certain elements in other people’s wedding because they have found them to be meaningful for themselves. Less nobly, it may be that they cannot abide omissions or additions because they refuse to see that things could be another way, and still be OK.

One thing is for certain, though, that weddings are a spectator sport, complete with talk show-like chatter and armchair quarterbacking. It is this that makes some sensitive couples, and brides in particular, shudder to think of planning their weddings, of being the center of a whispering circle and having their choices examined and critiqued, to the extent that they become sick with anxiety and wish that they did not have to go through the wedding day at all. And, curiously, people not only have strong opinions about elements of the ceremony itself, but even with how things should proceed at the rehearsal and the reception — whether or not a couple had a cake, for instance, or the bride threw her bouquet.

We might charitably chalk up some of this banter about likes and dislikes as unreflective participation in an event. But some of the more personal conversations, between family members before the wedding and even between the bride and groom themselves, may take on an intensity that is uncharitable and wounding and difficult to bear. I imagine that planning for wedding is a little like naming a baby (neither of which I have done, but which I have witnessed) in that one is required to express aloud wishes that one has been nurturing for a long while, opening those wishes up to rejection. “You always wanted to do what at your wedding?!” I can only imagine the compromises that need to be made. Though compromise is really an insufficient word here. What I think is really important for the couple as they sort through their own wishes is reflective thoughtfulness, nested in charity, with a backbone of kindly expressed resolution when they have made their decisions together, perhaps against the wishes of someone close to them.

Digging a little deeper, and coming rather closer to the territory of meddling, perhaps marrying folk themselves also need to reflect more actively upon the traditions that influence them, which are part of their larger cultures and which in some cases may cut against the values of Christianity. And, yes, I am principally talking about money here. Such considerations are truly part of a larger, more fundamental conversation about how we use our resources as Christians.  But particularly with a wedding, we have to think about how we balance the good ends of fostering beauty and feasting and community with the call not to be given over to extravagance and greed.

I do not have any specific recommendations here because, though it feels like a cop-out answer, working these things out will truly look different for different people.  But what we should not do is simply go bigger or finer or “blingier” just to impress our neighbors or stay in step with our culture. One can tease out for oneself what implications this might have for things like rings and rocks (which are problematic for far more serious reasons) and registries and dresses and tuxes and flowers and photos and musicians and DJs and menus and venues.  But perhaps it is enough to realize that one can simply get off the escalator of expectations at any point and everything will be okay; really, it will. And with this freedom, if we think creatively, there any number of ways we can have beautiful weddings, which need not be hidebound by costly conventions, especially if we enlist the help of our communities.

Finally, what may buttress the ideas I have expressed above the most strongly is that while the Scriptures tell us a great deal about marriage, there is precious little in them about weddings. We do know that our good Lord Jesus thought enough of the celebration of a wedding to bless it with some fine wine, and that he may have done so because he was looking forward to a fantastic wedding at the end of time. And other than some narrative passages about betrothals, some laws of what not to do when betrothed, and some rather steamy love poetry, there is not much else touching close to the topic of weddings.  In fact, we are not even told that a wedding ought to be in a church, and we are told precious little about nascent “church” services themselves, which at that time were very likely still held in homes. 

Paradoxically, perhaps God cares most that a human agent of the law of the land makes the marriage official and about all that this implies afterwards for two people who have bound themselves to each other. That may sound weird, even shocking, but I don’t believe it’s inherently sinful for a couple, even a Christian couple, to simply head down to the local Justice of the Peace, get hitched, set up house and get on with their life’s work, which is exactly what Jim and Elizabeth Elliot did on the mission field.

Stripped to such bare bones, I hope it becomes apparent that we have good grounds to relax about how we marry, about how others marry. Of course, many of the things we add to the process of simply getting hitched are welcome, life-giving, beauty-creating additions.  And of course, as Christians we want to marry before God, amongst his people, to express our loving, and not merely legal, alignment under his good rule for our lives as an expression of thanks for who he is.

And, so, coming around full circle, if I do get married one day, I do want to get married in a church with hymns and readings and blessings and a sermon. I want to be there because that is where his people are, where my people are; because these are the ways in which we talk to and about God and how he talks to us. And after? After whatever other symbolic touches my bride and I might choose to add to these essentials and we walk down that aisle together, I want to feast with family and friends, because that is what we do every week in communion, in big parties throughout the year in my home, in small dinners around a table at house church, and, yes, even in a smoky pub of a Thursday evening. And, in my mind’s eye, Jesus will be in the corner, smiling and pouring the wine.

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