(This column was published in The Daily on June 12, 2011 under the title “Tied Up in Knots.” Since The Daily is no longer extant, I am posting it here)
Wedding season is a challenging one for pastors. On the one hand, we don’t mind the extra income weddings provide for our congregations and ourselves. On the other, we don’t like weddings. “We don’t usually admit it to anyone besides other pastors,” writes my fellow pastor Steven Stolarczyk, “but many clergy would rather do a hundred funerals than one wedding.”
There’s a reason for this discontent. It’s demeaning to be asked, after years of post-graduate preparation for the pastorate, if you could officiate as Elvis. It’s dispiriting to be asked if the cross can be removed from the sanctuary for the ceremony by a couple who explain, “Well, we’re not especially religious.”
Even when the minister is not merely patched in to fulfill a legal or sacramental requirement, and the venue is not a mere backdrop, wedding ceremonies provide grist for irritation across all denominational, ideological and theological lines. The expenses often associated with weddings can’t help but feel extravagant in a world with so much need. Anxieties about status, appearance and money clump like barnacles on every aspect of the process. Couples want ever-more-narcissistic ceremonies while expressing uncertain commitments to each other and to the institution of marriage. I tell the couples I counsel that ending the vows with “as long as our love shall last” is functionally equivalent to saying “We will get divorced.”
You might not guess it from the sturm und drang that surrounds marriage today, but the institution has always belonged more to the wider society than to the church. “In its first centuries,” the pastor and historian Frank Senn writes, “the church had no authority to solemnize marriages or to regulate the institution of marriage.” While blood was spilled during the Reformation over doctrines of baptism and communion, marriage — other than for priests and nuns — remained a matter of only minor dispute. In some places, the involvement of clergy was not even legally required.
The wedding has always been governed by local custom. Jesus may have turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana, but my Danish-American forbears held themselves to coffee and punch in the church basement. My parents were married by a justice of the peace, while I was married in a high liturgical “traditional” service. And the beauty and mystery of it is that our ceremony was really no more traditional than theirs, and my wife and I are certainly no more married than they are.
Put in theological terms, this is because marriage belongs to the order of nature rather than to the order of grace. It is directed toward God’s ongoing creation of the world rather than God’s redemption of the world through special saving actions. Marriage in Genesis comes before the eating of the fruit and the expulsion from the garden. Unlike the keeping of the Sabbath for Jews and the practice of baptism for Christians, which are understood to be signs of God’s particular favor, marriage is found everywhere, in an astonishing diversity of forms.
Maybe that’s why I don’t entirely share my colleagues’ frustration with the modern wedding. Granted, I’ve never been asked to dress up as Elvis, but I’ve loved every wedding I’ve been invited to officiate, from an intimate gathering in a house in Bethel, Alaska, to a secular ceremony in a Minnesota meadow, to a short-notice shotgun affair and a full-dress liturgical celebration in Chicago. Now that any friend of the couple can be “ordained” online, I especially enjoy the opportunity to speak some words of blessing, instruction and encouragement at these moments. Annoyed pastors shouldn’t take it for granted that our particular expertise will be wanted or needed; we should feel blessed, rather, that a couple might ask for our blessing.
The strange and awesome truth is that any wedding, however secular, self-involved or doomed to eventual dissolution, is an act of hopefulness. It is the world’s way of recreating itself, and thus a sign of God’s willingness to sustain the world, even on its own stubborn terms. The wedding at Cana was probably more extravagant and fraught with potential shame compared to daily life in its time than a destination blowout is in ours. Jesus didn’t just save a party by turning water into wine; he saved the host from grave humiliation. Whatever is wrong with weddings, ancient or modern, is wrong with the rest of life, too.
It may even be that the unruliness of the marriage celebration is exactly why it has provided such powerful images of salvation in the New Testament: a feast to which all are invited, a moment of joy and generosity amidst trials, the union and consummation of all life. Its excess may just be the kind of moment in which worldly life provides a glimpse of grace.