We rejoice in your union: A Service of Christian Marriage

June 6th, 2023

This article is the ninth in a series we're calling "A Good and Joyful Thing: A series on liturgical spirituality." We hope this series takes you on an imaginative “travelogue” at various worship services in a local United Methodist church where the liturgy is treasured. We hope that these resources will accentuate how the Wesleyan “religion of the heart” can be fostered by liturgical experience in the richness of our liturgy, both for United Methodists and others who follow the deep flow of the church's worship history.

In this installment, “you” are an attendant at the wedding, perhaps a “bridesmaid” or “groomsman.” This is your first encounter with a liturgical marriage service in a church.

You can’t remember when you didn’t know Kate and Lyle. All through school, extracurriculars, sports, the senior trip, your lives have been intertwined from birth it seems. You had watched them grow in their relationship. They asked you to be in their wedding. You had been there for them, and now you will stand with them as they pledge their faithfulness to one another on their wedding day. 

The part of their lives you weren’t familiar with, however, was church. Every wedding you’ve been to seems to have been largely secularized, a service that never called for the assembled to say something, rather than show up as a passive audience of silent support. 

The weddings you’ve known have been cultural performances of pageantry and excess. In fact, you dreaded the rehearsal the night before, with all its fussiness and confusion over the simple matter of getting people to walk down an aisle and stand in place. Not to mention all the preoccupation with flowers and candles and piped in music (Raise Your Glass by P!nk), and all kinds of supporting roles (precious ring bearers and junior bridesmaids who make everyone “aww” at the miniature couple as they come down the aisle). You braced yourself, but were surprised to find something different about this one.      

Kate and Lyle kept some of these familiar rituals but they also scaled back on others, such as the flowers (just one nicely done arrangement near the altar). Congregational, instead of performative music. They convinced the photographer to take one big picture of the whole wedding party, not fifty of everyone in every conceivable combination. 

And so, instead of a seated congregation inspecting each attendant as they strolled the aisle, waiting to rise for the bride, everyone stood to sing a hymn. It was “Come Down, O Love Divine.” Acolytes began, with processional cross and a banner depicting Jesus at the Cana wedding feast (John 2:1-11). Then you and the other attendants, the pastor, and then the couple, each with family. 

The pastor speaks:

Friends, we are gathered together in the sight of God
to witness and bless the joining together of Kate and Lyle
in Christian marriage.
The covenant of marriage was established by God,
who created us male and female for each other.
With his presence and power
Jesus graced a wedding at Cana of Galilee,
and in his sacrificial love
gave us the example for the love of husband and wife.
Kate and Lyle come to give themselves to one another
in this holy covenant.

Romantic love is on everyone’s mind here. But sacrificial love? Let’s back up a moment. The address calls marriage a covenant God created, a gift of ourselves to one another. It is, as it were, baked into creation. And yet, not everyone is called to it. Personally, you’re still trying to figure out if you are. Whoever is called to the gift is called not simply to one possible natural way of organizing our lives, but is called, through Christ and his abiding presence, to pattern that natural  relationship after him as a sacrifice of one to another. This is the Catholic sense of posting a crucifix over the couple’s bed. All they do together is to be a mutual sacrifice, wrapped in a covenant, created by God. 

The Declaration of Intention that follows seems familiar enough. “Will you love him, comfort him, honor and keep him…” But then you, the assembly, are asked to weigh in, too. 

The marriage of Kate and Lyle unites their families
and creates a new one.
They ask for your blessing.

Family members of the bride and groom responded:

We rejoice in your union,
and pray God’s blessing upon you.

Will all of you, by God's grace,
do everything in your power
to uphold and care for these two persons in their marriage?

People: We will.

Suddenly you’re not a spectator. Not even just an attendant. You’re a responsible party. What could it mean to “do everything in your power” to care for Lyle and Kate in the years ahead? If they are pledging to care for each other in sickness and health, maybe you are pledging the same thing to both of them. 

Following the prayer, everyone sits for the readings. Here’s another big difference from the typical wedding. A fellow attendant moves to the lectern to proclaim two readings, interspersed with a psalm. One of the readings was from Song of Solomon, portions from chapters two and eight. Isn’t that the racy book in the Bible? you think.  Really, it is the most marriage-themed book of the Bible. All that business about the couple who can’t get enough of each other, chasing one another. It’s a rollicking celebration of love that says, Let the lovers pursue. This, too is God’s creation. Israel and the Church with blushing faces long since allegorized the book, saying that it was really about God and Israel, or maybe Christ and the Church. They weren’t exactly wrong, either. Sometimes it’s called “The Song of Songs,” meaning its sublimity comes from its literal theme: love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. If that is what God’s love is like, then, we’re here to pray that this couple’s love might remind us of it. 

After a silent moment to digest what has been heard, the pastor gestures for the congregation to rise. She reads the gospel, this time from Mark 10:42-45, Jesus’ words about true greatness. Again, a surprising reading for a wedding. Jesus says nothing here about weddings or good times. Just servanthood. It hearkens back to the introductory words the pastor said about Christ’s sacrificial love, and moves us forward to being seated again, this time for a homily, another unexpected feature of this unusual wedding. You catch yourself thinking again about past weddings you’ve attended, many of which would be over by now, everyone heading to the much-anticipated reception. This skilled preacher’s words yank back your attention. She says much in the seven-minute sermon. Enough to chew on later. Enough for any couple to savor for a lifetime of loving service to one another if it can make it past the lovely blur wedding days can sometimes become in their minds. 

An Intercessory Prayer provides a transition from the Word to the next portion of the liturgy, the vows and the ring exchange. This is the marriage itself. The words are direct, piercing. The pastor says little during this portion of the liturgy because the marriage isn’t so much being given to the couple as they are giving it to one another. They are the ministers of the covenant. In fact, at this point, you notice that the bride and groom trade places with the pastor, standing facing one another on the steps in front of the altar while the pastor stands slightly below them, facing them along with the rest of the assembly. 

Kate, in the name of God,
I take you to be my wife from this time onward,
to join with you and to share all that is to come,
to give and to receive,
to speak and to listen,
to inspire and to respond,
and in all our life together
to be loyal to you with my whole being,
as long as we both shall live.

Giving, receiving, inspiring, responding, are a series of juxtaposed activities that are really not that far removed from a monastic’s vows: to act, but also to contemplate, to speak, but also to be silent, to work, but also to pray. Life is a patchwork of these tensions, whether married, single, or celibate. The pastor in her brief words spoke volumes about this as the stuff of fidelity and service to one another. Life together in marriage is not one-sidedly one or the other. One person in the union does not do all the speaking, and the other the listening. It is a mutual submission, as Christ gave himself and we give ourselves to one another in him. 

The rings are blessed and exchanged. The blessing is the pastor’s only role here. But there is no candle lighting ceremony. Why, you asked the couple at the rehearsal dinner last night, had they chosen not to do this time-honored custom? “It’s been done to death,” they said. “We all know the script. Not that other couples might find it important to do. Instead, we will be the lights for one another. We will stand together, after the vows and rings, hand in hand, facing one another. There’s no need to do something else, busy lighting candles and moving here and there and adjusting the bride’s train. No fussiness! That is enough in that moment.” 

The pastor says, again, familiar words. But she does not pronounce but announce that Lyle and Kate are husband and wife. Again, they have married each other. We, simply, hear the summary of what has happened. Just as we might say “the gospel of the Lord” following its reading, this is good news of a sort, too. The couple kneel. The prayer of blessing follows. 

Isn’t it time for “you may kiss…”? The way it goes in the movies? And then off to the reception? Answers: No; Not at all; Well, yes, but not the one you expect. 

The reception is already built into the service. It’s the Great Thanksgiving. Cana is happening here. You’ve never been to a wedding with communion. Won’t this take up too much time? you wonder. I’m Presbyterian...sort of….Am I welcome to partake? Answers: Why is time so important all the sudden? A worshipful wedding is an invitation to be in the moment, a kairos, not a kronos of ceremonial duties on a frenetically joyous, sometimes nerve wracking, day. And, yes, dear Presbyterian friend, come. This will be a moment on which to stress the table’s openness, without creating divisions on a day of loving unity. 

This wedding takes another astonishing turn when it comes time for communion: The couple distribute the sacrament to the gathered. Their first act as a married couple is to serve the Lord’s Supper to their friends! You feel awkward, holding your hands out to the bride and groom to receive the risen Lord in bread and cup. Married couple as servers. Christ-bearers. As the earlier Intercessory Prayer put it:

Enable them to grow in love and peace
with you and with one another all their days,
that they may reach out
in concern and service to the world.

Reaching out, together, they offer Christ. It is one thing to talk about being in covenant relationship. A eucharistic wedding illustrates concretely just what that might look like. They will reach out their hands, all their days, to one another, and to neighbors, friends like you, family, maybe children and grandchildren. They will keep on offering Christ, together because their union, as the blessing said, represents Christ and the church, the church and Christ. This eucharistic wedding moment grounds the couple in a radically Christocentric identity they will have to one another and to the world. 

The table is put back in order, and a prayer of thanksgiving after communion is spoken. Then comes the Dismissal with Blessing:

Pastor to couple: 

God the Eternal keep you in love with each other,
so that the peace of Christ may abide in your home.
Go to serve God and your neighbor in all that you do.

Pastor to people:

Bear witness to the love of God in this world,
so that those to whom love is a stranger
will find in you generous friends.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,
and the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit
be with you all. Amen.

It sounds like a parting wish, keep you in love with each other, yet it is no parting wish, but a promise, the one the two just made to one another. At bare minimum, a married couple should be faithful to one another. They have promised as much. This blessing, however, is asking for more, that they stay in love with one another. Only God the Eternal can make that possible! This staying in love, you later reflect, is a promise to stay on a long journey together as love matures from those starry-eyed halcyon days along to a companionship whose ardor grows to be expressed in steadfastness, regardless of whether those high-spirited emotions in which young love often specializes continue or not. 

And you, too, dear attendant, friend of the king and queen of love today, are sent forth to be a lover. Maybe not in quite the same way as this couple goes forth, but you, who have not only witnessed your friends tying the knot, have been sounded through and through with the Word, and nourished at the table. You, too, were offered Christ at this wedding, and given a vision of a life grounded in loving relationship. That’s a whole lot more than you expected out of this or any wedding. That you have been here for this event sends you out to echo the glad tidings of God’s love affair with the world. You really weren’t expecting to attend a wedding that would challenge you to think and act in new ways to the world around you, but that’s just what this wedding has done. Go now and find ways to be a generous friend. Offer Christ. 

Instead of “you may kiss the bride,” the pastor and assembly say:

The peace of the Lord be with you always.

And also with you.

Ah, finally, there it is. You wondered if or when the kiss was coming. It’s set, though, in the context of the Lord’s kiss of peace to us all, and the eucharistic exchange of peace binding the fellowship together. Kissing was the early Christian’s gesture of greeting to one another (Romans 16:16 among others). We bump fists or shake hands or flash the two-fingered peace sign nowadays. Whatever the appropriate gesture may be, the special eros of married love finds its place in the wider agape of the church’s love. Eros learns from agape to serve and not be selfish. Agape learns from eros the passion of Christ’s commitment to his beloved, and so find ways to appropriately “be a generous friend,” as the benediction put it, in philia, friendship, a third form of love. 

We rejoice in your union, Kate and Lyle.  

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