During marriage ceremonies, sacred texts echo over participants. Readings, poetry and Scripture set the tone for the couple being married. Their commitment, initially private, becomes increasingly public through their engagement, up to the point that a shared promise is made, paperwork signed, and two are one. Spanning many cultures, sacred texts swirl throughout the beloved community so that all may recall a larger understanding of love and promise distilled for centuries.
Take note, Gentle Reader. Intentionally, I named “participants.” For a wedding — the launchpad of a marriage — is about more than two. A marriage celebration is about the interconnectedness of immediate and extended families, as well as friends from each partner’s journey. For some, a wedding is about the party they can throw. But the sacred gathering and exchange of vows is about the whole assembly choosing to support the couple who come to make their vows.
One of the most familiar texts shared at weddings from the Christian tradition comes from a letter written by Paul to the Church at Corinth. The passage begins:
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (13:1-3, NRSV)
His purpose in writing was not for a couple about to marry but for a congregation that seemed to have lost its understanding of love. Maybe even for us. Paul elaborates:
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (13:4-8a, NRSV)
Love never ends. Love never … fails. But doesn’t it? Don’t we see plenty of evidence of marriages coming apart? Divorces increasing? Couples choosing not to wed but to live together for fear… of things changing or coming undone within the bounds of something formal?
But what about when love fails? Our central problem is that we link together the genuine noun-and-verb of LOVE with the self-fulfilling fantasy of falling in love. The rush of endorphins, the buzzing in our ears and elsewhere when we feel attraction and passion are not the fullness of love.
For love is so much more than a rush, than desire, than dreams. It is holding hands as the pair wait for a diagnosis. It is holding down the fort when the other has to work a long shift. It is making the other laugh when the day has been dark and difficult. It is finding the way forward when job loss comes.
Love is creative work together, play and fun, savoring each other’s strengths and possibilities. It is finding satisfaction in each other. It is a choice to continue to work together in mutual love to give rise to one’s best self and, as such, the couple’s deepest connection, because of or in spite of shortcomings and mistakes.
At our wedding, the pastor spoke a few words to us and to those who came to join us. He had us turn to look out over those who gathered, including my new husband’s small children. He said something along the lines of, “See these faces. Look around you. Remember that these are more than witnesses celebrating with you.”
Indeed. They knew us at our best and worst. They had diapered us as babies. They had gotten us back in line when we erred from the straight and narrow. They prayed for us. They taught us. They walked alongside us, playing, serving, working.
Our clergy friend then spoke to us. “These faces will be with you when you argue, when you are disappointed, when you feel angry, broken, wounded, and begin to count wrongs. They will also be with you when you have victories, fall deeper in love, grow and flourish.” These people make up the community who helps us to continue in our process of becoming married even to this day.
Love never ends … it remains because it is the binding together of more than just one self to another self … it is the binding together of communities, families, circles of friends. And it is the binding together with the Holy One who bears love for the Universe itself.