When I was a kid, I hated to go to the doctor’s office. My doctor was a tall man who always wore a white coat and seemed to have an affinity for hypodermic needles. The only redeeming value I could find in Doctor Schafer was that he kept Highlights Magazines in his waiting room. And the best thing about the Highlights Magazines was the Hidden Pictures page.
There was a big picture, and everyone could see what that was. But there were also smaller pictures hidden inside, waiting to be discovered. The big picture might be of a farmer’s market but, hidden in the umbrella, was a slice of pizza, and there was a porpoise in the clouds, and an envelope on the boy’s shorts’ pocket.
In a wedding, there is the big picture – “the joining of this man and this woman in holy matrimony” – which everyone sees. There is the bridal party, the beautiful bride, the nervous bridegroom, and all the flowers. But there are smaller pictures hidden here and there throughout the ceremony.
The wedding ceremony is haunted by something so old it could be a ghost – and some people have presumed it is dead and gone. It is the principle of covenant. It materializes at one place in the wedding ceremony, disappears, and then shows up in another. We might not realize it, but almost everything that happens in a wedding is built around the idea of covenant.
Ancient covenants included a sacrifice, which served two purposes: it provided the feast which celebrated the covenant and brought the parties together (the wedding reception does that today); and it provided a warning to the covenant partners. It was a way of saying, “If I don’t keep my covenant vows, may what happened to this sacrificial animal happen to me.” That is why there is solemnity as well as joy in the wedding ceremony.
Where are the covenant pictures hiding in a wedding ceremony? First, in the guests. The officiant welcomes the guest with words like this: “We have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining of this man and this woman in holy matrimony.” You, the guests, are one of those hidden pictures. Guests are witnesses to a covenant.
At the heart of every wedding ceremony are the covenant vows that will be kept no matter the cost: “to have and to hold from this day forward, 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 back doors for escape; just promises.
By making such promises, the couple extends their reach into an unpredictable future and make one thing certain: they will be there even when being there costs more than they want to pay. A promise, as Lewis Smedes says, “creates an island of certainty in a sea of uncertainty.”
In ancient covenant there was always a sign – a token that revealed to the world that two parties were in covenant together. In the marriage covenant, the rings are such a token. They let every other guy and gal the couple meets know that they are already in covenant with another.
Even the taking of hands is a hidden picture of covenant. The person making the vow takes the other person’s right hand in theirs. Taking right hands – the handshake – is a carryover of covenant.
Most people understand that it takes the power of love to hold a marriage together, But few grasp the power of marriage to hold love together. There will be times when a couple keeps their promises not because they feel affection for each other – that’s not what they’ll be feeling– but because they entered the covenant of marriage before God and witnesses.
But when we do that and keep doing it – when we love because it is our responsibility – we get to cherish as our reward. We can love even when we don’t cherish but we cannot cherish if we do not love. Experience teaches us that what we choose to love for years we get to cherish forever.