As the eleventh cousin on both sides of my family, I grew up going to older cousins’ weddings at least annually. I grew to love attending weddings; I have always found them very meaningful. Of course, there is much to dislike about weddings (the fetishizing, stress and anxiety, silly expectations, high expense, the Wedding-Industrial Complex), but I’ve never felt that the abuse of a tradition or institution negated what it’s really all about.
I have collected the programs from several dozen weddings over the years. Saving them helps me remember the occasions. I’ll admit that making an awesome wedding program was a priority for me at my own wedding, the one thing I was eager to go overboard on. As much as our wedding video and photos, and other wedding-particular gifts, the program is a life-giving point of remembrance for me.
Last weekend, my wife and I attended a friend’s wedding and celebrated our third anniversary, so I’ve been thinking about weddings. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the significance of the form and conventions of wedding ceremonies, what makes them so meaningful.
The wedding last weekend was aesthetically beautiful, set at a resort on the shore of a scenic lake high in the Oregon Cascades. However, there was no wedding program! The ceremony was perhaps the least programmed of any I’ve been to. There was a short time for storytelling, then vows, rings, kiss, and recessional. The officiant—a former housemate of the bride—began by mentioning how important stories were to the couple (the bride is indeed one of the best storytellers I know) and that by attending, we were contributing to their story. She then invited the handful of friends who’d volunteered beforehand to share an anecdote about the couple. The gist of these was that these two are really, especially in love—“we could tell this one was different”—and they are a lot of fun.
But despite the emphasis on stories, I missed any sense that their story was part of a larger story, whether religious, communal, or historical.
One of the lasting impressions from my own wedding was that our story was part of a larger story—God’s story—and that that story had a promise of love and faithfulness that my wife and I were concretely yet mysteriously resonating to each other. Our ceremony was about an hour and was highly structured and participatory—like a worship service, including singing, Scriptural and literary readings, prayers, blessings, handfasting, and Eucharist. The vows we wrote mixed the traditional vows, Hosea 2, and a few other promises we thought were essential to make. One of our readings, from Wendell Berry’s essay “Poetry and Marriage,” emphasized how marriage, like poetry, is as much about form as about content. We tried to fit into the traditional forms of weddings (and marriage) in meaningful, though definitely unconventional, ways.
But the words and songs we chose weren’t what made the ceremony meaningful. The act of a man and a woman making a commitment, starting a sexual relationship, and joining households for life is meaningful precisely because it is such a common good experience, all the way back to Genesis 1 and 2. Ceremonies recognizing this don’t need to be special or unique to be meaningful. Marriage is meaningful. Weddings are meaningful by drawing on that fact.
One particular way that our wedding was meaningful to us, though, was in how many people participated and contributed. (This is certainly not unique. In fact, it’s common.) Part of this wide participation came with operating on an intentionally limited budget. Instead of paying for products, we made things ourselves or did without or asked friends and family to help. An aunt grew, cut, and dried all the flowers for tables, bouquets, and boutonnieres, which were assembled by my sister. Another relative grew live flowers for decorations. Desserts were brought potluck. A church member provided punch. Another made the meal’s salad. Some friends ground wheat that my mother picked and used it to make our communion bread. My wife’s sister made the bridesmaid dresses. I could go on.
What felt like asking for favors at the time also felt like relinquishing control—kind of like we do all the time in marriage. But it now seems like that relinquishing was what allowed others to step in and give life to us and the celebration. It made us vulnerable to whatever else the others decided to bring—and to be blessed by that bringing.
There are so many unknowns in marriage, so many things we choose without making a choice. And that’s part of what makes life and marriage interesting. But there are also the Story and the Promise, which we do know, and they are what give them meaning.
Originally from a vegetable farm in rural northwest Indiana, Rob now lives with his wife Hope in Eugene, Oregon, as he pursues a PhD in English at the University of Oregon. He teaches undergraduate writing courses and studies religion, secularization, and environment in nineteenth-century American literature. He graduated from Calvin in 2007 with a major in history of religion but returned the next year to complete the English major. “Glory be to God for dappled things—”