Volume 9, Issue 3: Thema
A Traditional Wedding
Tradition is not a dry and dusty and antiquated affair. Tradition is as vital and dramatic as treason, which is the same word. The silent passing of a scrap of history from father to son is as personal and passionate as the silent passing of a scrap of paper from traitor to spy.
Those who blindly follow traditions and those who blindly throw traditions overboard share at least ignorance in common. One keeps what he does not know, another throws away what he does not know. An area where many traditions have been lost or mindlessly kept has been that of the wedding. So in the sixties, we all began to do our own thing--write our own vows, invent our own little ceremonies, and generally march around in our own little circle. Since then we have settled down somewhat, but we still have the idea that the wedding belongs to the couple, and not to a culture. We have come to believe that each wedding should be shaped by the personality of the couple, and not that our culture should bestow recognition on a couple according to the custom of our people.
What has happened to weddings has also happened in many other aspects of our cultural life, with the result being an "every man to his tents, O Israel" approach. We have a horror of sameness, which is the same thing as being appalled by continuity and stability. In the midst of this chaos, some Christians have added their voices to the general babble, and have wanted to rethink everything; they have wanted set up their own customs for weddings from scratch.
In contrast, a far wiser course would be to defend what might be called the traditional wedding, and if the chaos of our times allows changes to be made, they should be made in the direction of older customs, and not in the direction of innovations. As always, when we consider what we are to do, we should look to the Scriptures for final authoritative guidance.
This defense of traditional weddings may be divided into three categories. The first revolves around a discovery that many elements of our traditional wedding practices have their roots in antiquity, and were observed in biblical weddings as well as in ours. The second category will be areas where we have a corresponding practice, but because we are uptight modern prigs, we do not practice these customs with the same enthusiasm. The third category are traditions which we have not adopted, or have lost, and which, if recovered, could greatly enrich our appreciation of weddings. But with this last category, such additions to the wedding ceremony should be made with extreme caution, and not as individual distinctives for individual weddings. They should be brought into our weddings in some broader cultural way, or not at all.
A marked feature of biblical weddings is the fact that both bride and groom were gloriously attired. This was true of a royal wedding, where the bride had a gold robe (Ps. 45:13-14), and it was true of ordinary weddings. The joy and glory of wedding ornaments is used as a wonderful picture of our justification (Is. 61:10). The place and importance of bridal ornamentation is clearly assumed in the Lord's rebuke of Israel. "Can a virgin forget her ornaments, or a bride her attire? Yet My people have forgotten Me days without number" (Jer. 2:32). A bridal veil may have been a part of this attire (Gen. 24:65). At the marriage supper of the Lamb, the bride is arrayed in wonderful linen (Rev. 19:8-9). In every description of weddings given to us in Scripture, the bride is adorned (Rev. 21:2). Tuxedos and uniforms, gowns, trains and veils, are very much in keeping with how Scripture describes a wedding.
We also have the practice of having bridesmaids and friends of the groom stand with the bride and groom at the wedding. This is also a biblical practice, although in at least one instance the number of groomsmen was fairly large. "They brought thirty companions to be with him" (Judg. 14:11). Still the groomsmen were very clearly part of a biblical wedding. Jesus refers to His disciples in the figure of groomsmen (Matt. 9:15). This includes the counterpart to our custom of having a best man (Judg. 14:20; 15:2). This best man was called "the friend of the bridegroom" (John 3:29); he may even have been the one who had various important responsibilities at the wedding--the master of the feast (John 2:8-9). If this is the case, we have a parallel in the various duties which we assign to the best man.
Common Practices in Disrepair
Feasting in association with weddings was common (Gen. 29:22; Judg. 14). Of some historical interest, these feasts were not two-hour affairs, and they probably were not limited to small bowls of mints. "And he kept the wedding feast fourteen days" (Tobit 8:19). We have toned this practice down to what we call a wedding reception. In contrast, the biblical practice was to have a feast. Many moderns attend wedding receptions out of a reluctant sense of duty, and not because the feasting will be glorious. This is clearly something we have to work on.
Weddings in biblical times were a cultural voice of gladness. A terrible judgment was promised to Judah when God said that this mirth, the voice of the bride and groom, would be removed from the land (Jer. 7:34). In the extracanonical book of 1 Maccabees, we find a wedding party described in the course of some fighting. But the wedding party itself was . . . well, a party. "Where they lifted up their eyes, and looked, and, behold, there was much ado and great carriage: and the bridegroom came forth, and his friends and brethren, to meet them with drums, and instruments of musick . . ." (1 Macc. 9:37-41; KJV). "And Jesus said to them, `Can the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast'" (Mark 2:19; Matt. 9:15). This wedding feasting included some good music. "Fire devoured their young men, and their maidens had no marriage song" (Psalm 78:63, RSV).
Christ in His teaching assumed that special wedding garments were not limited to the couple. All who came to a wedding had special clothing. "How did you get in here without a wedding garment?" (Matt. 22:1-14). One area where we could improve in this regard would be by getting rid of our very common practice of making bridesmaids' dresses as frumpy as possible, in what might be an attempt to make the bride look better. In a biblical ceremony, all are dressed appropriately--bride and groom, members of the wedding party, and guests.
Our weddings frequently have a toast to the bride and groom at the reception. This could perhaps be improved if we self-consciously named the toast what it really is--a blessing. "And they blessed Rebekah and said to her: `Our sister, may you become the mother of thousands of ten thousands; and may your descendants possess the gates of those who hate them'" (Gen. 24:60). We also see the beautiful blessing given to Boaz and Ruth. "The Lord make the woman who is coming to your house like Rachel and Leah, the two who built the house of Israel . . ." (Ruth 4:11). This blessing could be incorporated into the wedding ceremony, or at the feast afterward. The blessing would come from the families of both the bride and groom.
A wedding is an occasion where a covenant is made, and marriage is defined in Scripture in terms of that covenant. An immoral woman in Proverbs is condemned because she has forgotten the "the covenant of her God" (Prov. 2:17). The Lord rebukes the men of Israel because they dealt treacherously with their wives "by covenant" (Mal. 2:14). In our weddings, the vows are central to the ceremony, but the language of covenant--language of blessings and curses--should be much stronger. No guest should be able to depart without understanding the covenantal union which has been formed, with Christ as the Lord of that covenant, and with the guest as witness to the covenant.
A Few Suggestions
We have various symbolic gestures in our wedding ceremonies--our older custom of exchanging rings, and newer innovations like the unity candle. A custom which we do not practice, but which would be good to recover if we could, would be some symbol of the practice of covering. In the following passages, the phrases "under your wing," and "spread My wing," refer to the practice of speading a garment over the bride. "And he said, `Who are you?' So she answered, `I am Ruth, your maidservant. Take your maidservant under your wing, for you are a close relative'" (Ruth 3:9). When God spoke of taking Israel as a bride he used this same picture of covering as a sign of covenantal protection and security. "When I passed by you again and looked upon you, indeed your time was the time of love; so I spread My wing over you and covered your nakedness. Yes, I swore an oath to you and entered into a covenant with you, and you became Mine, says the Lord God" (Eze. 16:8). For a hypothetical example, this might be done with a quiet eloquence if the groom had some sort of special wedding cloak which he could use to cover his bride after the exchange of vows.
The Jews had another custom with their weddings which we are unlikely to revive any time soon (and I am not advocating it), but the principle concerning it should be recovered. In biblical times, the newly wedded couple did not head off to a motel room in another state; they were escorted to the bridegroom's chamber which was established right there on the grounds. "Which is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber . . . (Ps. 19:5; Joel 2:16; Gen. 29:23; Tobit 7:16-8:1). No one wants a return to consumation on the wedding premises, but there is a principle which needs to be recovered--an abandonment of Victorian prudishness. A marriage covenant is a public covenant fence built around a private sexual relationship. In a biblical wedding, Christians should crowd into church to witness the vows which mark the beginning of a life of faithful lovemaking. Those who struggle with even saying this, would have had real trouble at covenant weddings in the Old Testament where the groom escorted his bride into his chamber at the wedding to general applause and cheering by the guests. We need to grow up a little.
Lastly, conspicuous by its absence, we do not see in biblical weddings a sacerdotal proclamation by some minister which makes a man and woman "husband and wife." The sooner we lose this foolishness the better. The church has an important role to play in witnessing the vows (see Presbyterion, p. 13), and a minister may with propriety declare the vows to have been made, but the minister is no priest and marriage-maker. The couple do not stand before him to be transubstantiated.
All the governments established by God have a role to play in witnessing this covenant. Because marriage involves property, the civil authority should have a witness at all weddings, and each wedding should be registered with the magistrate--but not licensed by the magistrate. In the same way, the church must witness each wedding, and may administer the vows at the wedding, but the church "creates" nothing at a wedding.
Only Christ is the Lord of weddings.