Too often people get married with a demolition permit in their back pockets, and for some reason it doesn’t dawn on them that their children will be in the home when it comes crashing down. It was never meant to be that way.
Christians and other people of faith believe that marriage was God’s idea, and that he intended it to last. Because that’s true, marriage has always been envisioned as a covenant – the strongest of agreements into which two parties could enter.
Covenant haunts the wedding ceremony the way King Hamlet’s ghost haunts Elsinore Castle – though of course some people don’t believe in it any more than they believe in ghosts. Yet the spirit of covenant materializes at one spot in the wedding ceremony, disappears, and then shows up in another. If you know what you’re looking for, you’ll see covenant repeatedly at any traditional wedding.
What is covenant? It is an ancient practice in which two parties – they could be individuals, groups or nations – enter into a do-or-die agreement with each other.
Where is covenant? It’s everywhere in the wedding ceremony. It appears first in the guests, who are present “to witness and bless the joining of this man and this woman in holy matrimony.” To “witness” is covenantal language. Guests serve as covenant witnesses.
When the officiant says, “Now that this man and this woman have given themselves to each other by solemn vows, with the joining of hands, and the giving and receiving of rings…” he or she is using covenant language to describe the components of covenant.
The joining of hands is a covenant act. When couples take their vows, it is customary for them to take right hands. Taking right hands – the handshake – comes out of covenant ceremony. People used to say, “We shook hands on it; that’s enough for me.” They understood the power of covenant.
In ancient covenant there was always a sign – a token that revealed to the world that two parties were in covenant together. In the wedding ceremony, and in the marriage that follows, the covenant token is a ring. It lets everyone know that this man and woman are already in covenant with someone else.
The vows are at the heart of every covenant: solemn promises made before witnesses that will be kept no matter what the cost. Marriage partners promise “to have and to hold each other from this day forward, no matter what: for better for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until [they] are parted by death.” There are no disclaimers here, no legalese backdoor escape clauses; just “’til death do us part” promises. That’s covenant.
When the ceremony is over, people go to the reception and eat. That too is a carry-over from covenant. Covenants were ratified with a meal. So when God entered into covenant with the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, the biblical author writes, “Moses and … the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel …” – and then the most unexpected thing: “and they ate and drank.” They did what? They ate and drank? Yes. They were ratifying covenant.
People can see (and Hollywood often reminds us) that it takes the power of love to hold a marriage together, but they often fail to see that the power of marriage can hold love together. Previous generations understood this. There are times when a person keeps the marriage vows not because he or she wants to, still less because he or she feels affection for a spouse – that may not be the feeling at all – but because he or she has entered covenant before God and witnesses.
If they will keep their promises then, in spite of their feelings, and continue to keep them, affection will probably return. But keeping promises in spite of hard feelings is difficult, and to do it they’ll need a covenant in their hearts, not a demolition permit in their back pockets.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 2/14/2015