A Celebration of Marriage as Covenant
My daughter’s wedding is today. At last, the day has arrived! As you might expect, at my house we have been thinking of nothing but wedding wedding wedding for at least the past two weeks, and before that wedding business occupied a goodly share of our thoughts and energies for the past year.
As everyone warns—and they’re absolutely right, I can attest—it’s easy to focus far more on place cards and bridesmaids’ gifts than on the momentous reason for the big party. By the time we find ourselves today at the front of a church with flowers in our hands or pinned to our fronts, we will definitely need a quiet moment in which to reflect on the occasion’s solemn purpose. Which is probably one good reason that denominational resources for wedding services typically begin with a section called “The Institution of Marriage” or “The Meaning of Marriage.”
These little reflections outline the purposes of marriage with reference to standard biblical passages. Marriage provides mutual comfort, provides a place for sexual expression, creates a context for the raising of children, gives structure to the social order, and mirrors Christ’s love for the church. Both the CRC and PC-USA versions, for example, include those elements. There are slight differences between those two, as my husband, Ron, observes: “The PC-USA version gets a little scoldy at the end, and the CRC version feels a little more proof-texty.”
Recently, Ron (who is a pastor and seminary professor) was asked by our friend, Mark, to preside at his wedding. Mark and his new bride, Jodi, found each other by God’s grace after both had suffered sorrow and loss. They are not the dewy young couple that marriage service formularies seem to have in mind, but mature adults with adult and teenage children. Thus it didn’t feel right just to use a standard wedding service; the instructive tone of the formularies felt a little condescending, honestly, and didn’t quite capture the full, miraculous joy of Mark and Jodi’s story.
So Mark went to work and wrote up a meditation on covenant. He based it on notes he had taken during a sermon by Pastor Jack Roeda at Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids. Ron then took Mark’s reflections and edited a bit to create the “institution” words he used at Mark and Jodi’s service. Reflecting on covenant in this way offers a little different approach to the biblical shape of marriage, grounding our understanding of marriage directly in the nature of God and God’s way of relating to us.
We found this approach inspiring, and so the service for our daughter today will incorporate elements of standard forms as well as this original reflection on covenant.
Credit for the following reflection goes to Jack for his sermon, Mark for his developing of ideas from the sermon, and Ron for the final wording. I share it with you in honor of my daughter and new son-in-law, and in honor of all the Christians beginning a married life together this summer.
Covenants are the fundamental way that God has chosen to relate to human beings. Throughout scripture, we see God making and renewing covenants: with Noah, with Abraham and Sarah, with the children of Israel, with the exiled people, and then finally, in a startling new form, extending the covenant to us in the person of Jesus. At the center of this new covenant, signified by our baptisms, is a divine declaration: I will be your God, and you will be my people.
Made in the image of God, we also make covenants with one another. Marriage is one such covenant – an agreement between two people of love and shared life, an agreement not based on performance, but based on promises. By making those promises, married couples receive many gifts from God:
- A covenant marriage offers the gift of hope. The relationship ties two people together in a way that pledges mutual support and therefore the hope that the relationship will bring blessings as the couple continues on their life journey.
- A covenant offers the gift of identity. The couple becomes wife and husband, and this new identity becomes part of who they are and how they are known by others.
- A covenant offers the gift of belonging. In marriage, a couple declares to God and to the world that they belong to each other. They say “I am yours and you are mine.” It becomes part of the answer to the question “why do I love you?”– because “I belong to you.” In belonging to one other, they extend that belonging and its blessings to their children, their friends, and to those they will meet while on their journey.
- And finally, a covenant offers the gift of vocation. At their baptisms, they were called to follow Jesus. Out of that calling, they have discerned that they are better able to love God and serve the world together rather than alone.