Marriage entered into “unadvisedly or lightly” (as the Book of Common Prayer has it), can do more harm than good. Nevertheless, people regularly enter marriage on these dangerous grounds. Perhaps if they understood what they were promising to do, they might exercise more discretion. So what is it that they promise?
In the traditional ceremony, people promise “to have and to hold” each other. This is not to have in the same way a man has a possession – a car or a boat; it is not even having in the way a collector has a priceless antique. It is having the way a person has an eye or a hand. “To hold” implies intention. You may have something you didn’t intend to have – a cold, or a bad check; but you hold what is precious to you. Those who marry vow to have each other as they “have” no one else; to hold one another so closely that there is no room for anyone to come between.
“For better, for worse.” Without exception, couples experience both. But if by the grace of God they have each other, and by the intention of love they hold each other, they can make it through anything. Sadly, almost fifty percent of Americans believe that in the worse times they can have better times if they will stop having and stop holding. But this is a delusion. In the end, it is not what the times are like, but what the people are like, that makes a marriage better instead of worse.
“For richer, for poorer.” Many marriage partners foolishly arrange their entire lives – their children’s nurture, their schedules, and their involvement in a community of faith – around the accumulation of money. But this leads to tragic consequences for where one’s treasure is, there one’s heart will be also (Matthew 6:21). Only those couples who treasure each other more than money will routinely make decisions that enhance and strengthen their relationship, regardless of whether they are richer or poorer.
In “sickness and in health.” When I served as spiritual care coordinator for a group that cared for the terminally ill, I heard about a woman who abandoned her husband when he could no longer take care of himself. On the day he collapsed, she called 911, packed a few things and left home.
It is likely that she had once made this vow to her husband, but had not understood at the time what it entailed. But then, who does? And that is the point. These vows mean that we will not allow circumstances to dictate the success of our marriage. And the truth is, circumstances never dictate the success of a marriage. Rather, the kind of character we are developing is what determines the kind of marriage we will have, no matter what our circumstances. This couple’s marriage did not fail because he contracted a terminal illness; it failed because they were not the kind of people who can have and hold in sickness and in health.
The next line of the vows is: “to love and to cherish.” To love is a choice; to cherish, a delight. While we cannot choose to cherish, we can choose to love, and experience teaches us that what we choose to love over a long period of time we will certainly come to cherish. To love is the responsibility; to cherish is the reward.
“Until we are parted by death.” So many couples part before death. It is too easy in our culture to find alternatives to marriage that don’t require the hard work of love, that promise better and not worse, richer and not poorer, health and not sickness. Romance, entertainment, and sexual gratification were at one time found in one’s marriage partner, but today can be found in other sources, usually on easier terms.
Easier, but less rewarding. For marriage is not so much about finding Mr. or Ms. Right as it is about becoming Mr. or Ms. Right. In this lies the promise, as well as the reward, of marriage.