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Wedding Wisdom

A seasoned pastor answers common questions couples ask.

Some couples take months, even years, to plan their marriage ceremony. Others organize this special event in a much shorter period of time. But regardless of the amount of time they put into planning, every couple wants their ceremony to be meaningful and memorable.

This is more likely to happen when a couple feels free to ask questions and search for answers to some of the concerns they encounter as they begin to make plans. Over the years I have tried to answer such questions—to provide the kind of guidance that can help a bride and groom feel relaxed about their wedding ceremony and enjoy it to the fullest.

The questions that follow are some of those that I have heard most often.

Do we need a rehearsal?

Yes. No matter how simple or elaborate the ceremony, each couple should practice walking through the service at least once. Because the marriage ceremony is intended to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, if s important that it not be marred by unnecessary blunders and poor planning.

How much time should be allowed for the rehearsal, and when should it be held?

That depends somewhat on the size of the wedding. If the wedding is a small family affair with only a few guests, the rehearsal may take place shortly before the ceremony. On the other hand, if many guests are expected and a number of attendants involved, if s important to schedule a longer rehearsal (usually about an hour)—preferably the day before the wedding.

How should the wedding party process into the sanctuary?

There are a number of possibilities, some of which may be dictated by the layout of the sanctuary.

Men First. One tradition has the groom and his attendants entering the sanctuary before the bride and her attendants come down the aisle. In this arrangement, the minister, the groom, and the groom's attendants come to the front of the sanctuary from a side room or front entrance.

After the men are stationed at their assigned locations, the bridesmaids begin their walk into the sanctuary and take their assigned places. The last person to enter the sanctuary is the bride, who may come down the aisle alone, on the arm of her father, accompanied by both parents, or accompanied by another person special to her.

Men and Women Together. Less traditional but growing in popularity is the practice of having all attendants come down the center aisle in pairs. The minister and the groom lead the procession. The last to enter is the bride, accompanied by one or both of her parents. Sometimes the bride and groom come down the center aisle together. When that happens, both sets of parents are seated before the procession begins.

Bride and Groom Meeting. Another possibility is to have the minister enter the sanctuary alone and go directly to an assigned location. Then the bride and groom, upon a cue given by the organist or someone else, enter the sanctuary from different locations. After meeting each other, they walk together to the place where the minister is standing. This kind of procession often does not involve attendants; when they are part of such a ceremony, they usually enter the sanctuary after the minister but before the bride and groom.

What is the significance of the bride coming down the aisle on the arm of her father?

This symbolic act reflects the concept that women are owned by the primary men in their lives—that a woman is under the primary care and keeping of her father until she is given over to the care and keeping of another man. The transfer of such care and ownership happens when the father walks his daughter down the aisle and announces that he will "give" his daughter to the man she is about to marry.

Although this concept is not as universally accepted as it was a few years ago, many brides are reluctant to give up the tradition of walking down the aisle on the arms of their fathers. However, when the question about giving the bride away is asked, the father is often instructed to include his wife in the answer by saying, "Her mother and I do."

When planning the wedding, the bride and groom should carefully consider this part of the ceremony. A Christian wedding ceremony should be truthful on all levels—in what is symbolized as well as in what is said. If the bride does not consider herself to be under the care and keeping of either her father or the man she is about to marry, she should reconsider performing a symbolic act that announces that concept.

There is, however, good reason, to involve both sets of parents in the marriage ceremony of their children. A significant change is taking place in two family units when a new family is formed through marriage, and both sets of parents have invested heavily in the welfare of their children. Therefore, in many weddings today, both sets of parents publicly express their approval of the marriage about to take place, promising their blessing and full support to the new union. (See "Tailored to Fit", p. 25, for some examples of words used for the parting from parents.)

Is it permissible for a couple to write their own marriage service?

Yes. But it is important to know that very few persons have the skills necessary to write this kind of document. A wedding service should reflect the depth of meaning and significance which the Christian community has always given to marriage. The formularies that have survived the test of time and the long scrutiny of the believing community do this well and are seldom improved upon by those who wish to write their own marriage service.

May the couple write their own marriage vows?

This, too, is permissible, but seldom advisable. The vows traditionally used in the Christian wedding have been carefully scrutinized over time and capture in a few words the essence of what should be included in a Christian marriage vow. When couples write their own vows, they have a tendency to be sentimental and to neglect what is essential.

(See "Tailored to Fit," p. 25, for examples of different styles of wedding vows.)

Should the marriage vows be memorized?

Some couples, usually those who feel confident about their memorization skills, choose to memorize their vows. There is something very nice about saying vows to one another without prompting from the minister. However, this choice can add to the anxiety that the couple may already experience on this special day in their lives.

For that reason many couples prefer to repeat the vows phrase by phrase after the minister or to have the minister ask the vows as questions.

Should rings be exchanged at a wedding ceremony?

No ecclesiastical or civil law requires an exchange of rings. However, because of its rich symbolic significance, the exchange of rings is almost always part of the wedding ceremony.

The ring is a continuous circle that symbolizes the unending nature of the love and commitment that bind two persons together in marriage. The act of giving rings, therefore, serves as a visible sign and reminder of the marriage vows. And the wedding ring is worn throughout marriage as a symbol that informs the public that this person is committed to a husband or wife and is therefore not eligible for establishing an intimate relationship with another.

Should a kneeling bench be used at the ceremony?

A kneeling bench is not a requirement for a Christian wedding, but it does have rich significance. When the couple kneels during a prayer, the benediction, or at some other point in the ceremony, they display humility and reliance upon God or the spiritual and physical strength needed to maintain a happy, Christ-centered marriage.

What is the significance of the "unity candle?"

The answer to this question depends to a large extent on one's liturgical background. In some religious traditions the lighted candle is a symbol of Christ, the light of the world, and may seem inappropriate as a symbol of the union between husband and wife.

Christians from other traditions, however, often find the lighting of a unity candle a beautiful symbol of two individuals uniting as one in marriage. Sometimes the two outside candles are not extinguished after lighting the center candle, to represent the continuing individuality of the marriage partners.

Is the wedding ceremony a private family affair or an act of public worship?

Regardless of whether the ceremony takes place in a public worship service or within the context of a gathering of invited family members and friends, a Christian wedding is an act of worship. The bride and groom come before the Lord to make their marriage vows, and the service includes prayers and other acts of worship.

However, there is a technical dimension to this question. The Church Order of Christian Reformed churches states that "Marriages may be solemnized either in a worship service or in private gatherings of relatives and friends."

Worship Service. When it refers to a "worship service," this church order is primarily referring to a Sunday service. However, the elders are free to set a worship service that includes a wedding ceremony on any day of the week. Although such an official worship service must be supervised by the elders, the minister should work carefully with the bride and groom, as well as the elders, in preparing the liturgy.

Reformed churches do not recognize marriage as a sacrament. However, an official worship service that includes a wedding ceremony may also include a celebration of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. In such a service, the Supper should follow the marriage vows, serving as a symbol of the first meal the couple shares in the marriage and of their unity with the body of believers.

When the Supper is celebrated as part of a wedding service, the bread and the cup should be distributed not just to the bride and groom but to the entire body of believers.

Private Gathering. When a wedding is an act of worship that occurs "in the private gathering of relatives and friends," care should be taken to insure that all the acts of the ceremony are in keeping with a Christian act of worship.

(See "Whose Wedding Is It?," p.ll, for some additional comments on the church's relationship to the wedding service.)

Should Scripture be read at the ceremony?

By all means! As a couple begins the lifelong pilgrimage of marriage, a Word from the Lord is not only appropriate but of utmost significance.

The Scripture reading may take place either immediately before or after the marriage vows are spoken. The placement has symbolic significance. When Scripture is read before the vows, the couple listens to what God has to say about their marriage relationship. When they pledge their troth to each other, they do so within the context of the Word they just heard.

When the Scripture is read after the vows are made, the first word heard by the newly married couple is the Word from the Lord which will serve as a light upon their path.

The Scripture may be read by the minister, by family members, or by friends of the couple.

Should the minister give a sermon at the wedding?

Yes, a sermon should be included in the wedding ceremony regardless of whether the wedding is an official act of worship or a family affair. A wedding is an ideal setting for the pastor to speak publicly about the meaning and expectations of a Christian marriage.

The message should be brief and to the point, especially if the bridal party remains standing throughout the ceremony. At some weddings the bridal party sit down on chairs provided for them or occupies nearby pews during the message.

Who decides what music should be included in the ceremony?

If the wedding is not a public worship service, the musical selections will be made by the couple in consultation with the musicians involved in the ceremony and the minister. All musical selections should enhance the Christian character of the service. (See the special insert for lists of appropriate music for Christian weddings and p. 23 for two church policy statements.)

When the wedding takes place within an official worship service, the minister and organist/pianist have primary responsibility for selecting the music. However, the couple should be consulted and their wishes honored as much as possible.

Group singing, which is a natural part of public worship, should also be part of family weddings. By joining in songs of praise and prayer, the guests not only fill a role expected of those who gather for worship, but are also given the opportunity to join the couple in expressions of praise and thanksgiving to God.

May a minister officiate at a marriage for persons who have been divorced?

That depends on the minister's personal convictions and on the rules of the church and/or denomination with which the minister is affiliated.

Many Protestant churches that have a low tolerance for divorce and high standards for marriage do, nevertheless, allow their ministers to officiate at marriages for persons who have been divorced. In such instances, the minister should be satisfied that the couple is prepared to make the lifelong commitment required by Christian marriage vows and that bride or groom or both feel remorse for the breakdown of the prior marriage(s).

What is an appropriate honorarium for the minister and musicians?

Some ministers, organists, and soloists have a set fee. The couple should ask if there is a set fee when making arrangements for their wedding. If there is no established fee, the couple should not make the mistake of pouring money into an elaborate wedding and reception but giving only a token gift to those who take leading roles in the marriage ceremony. Many consider $50 to $100 an acceptable honorarium for each minister, organist, and soloist who is required to attend the rehearsal as well as the wedding.

What relationship does the reception have to the wedding ceremony?

The reception which follows the wedding ceremony is the informal celebration that relatives and friends attend with the newly married couple. Some receptions include a carefully organized program prepared for the guests to enjoy. Others, with less structure, anticipate that the guests will mingle freely and enjoy a time of fellowship.

A principle of great importance to keep in mind in planning the reception is that it should complement the wedding ceremony. A Christ-centered wedding followed by a reception that does not reflect the Lordship of Christ presents a glaring contradiction to the guests. When the wedding and the reception complement each other, guests will recognize that the bride and groom are genuine in their stated intent to have a marriage rooted in Christ.

Do Christian marriages have a better chance of surviving than non-Christian marriages?

Of course they do. When both husband and wife belong to Christ through a mutual faith, they have all the ingredients needed to make a marriage rewarding and stable.

At the heart of a Christian marriage is a special Christlike kind of love. The biblical word for this love is agape, the kind of love described by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13.

Many marriages fail because the love the partners have for each other is not able to carry them through the rough times. Agapic love is built especially for tough assignments. It has a wonderful warmth and is exceptionally tender. But it is much more than that. It is the kind of love that continues to function even when one or both of the marriage partners do things that violate their trust in each other. Forgiveness plays a major role in agapic love. And this love keeps on doing loving acts even when the emotions are bent out of shape.

Commitment lies at the core of agapic love. It is the glue that holds marriage partners together when the way is rough. That is why Paul says that this is a love that lasts forever and can withstand almost anything.

The marriage vows in a Christian marriage clearly have agapic love in mind when the bride and groom promise to be faithful to each other in all circumstances of life.

Sometimes Christian couples come to the awful realization that their marriage is broken beyond repair. But those who marry in the Lord and who maintain a vital faith in Christ have every reason to count on having a stable and rewarding marriage.

Do Christian marriages have a better chance of surviving than non-Christian marriages?

Of course they do. When both husband and wife belong to Christ through a mutual faith, they have all the ingredients needed to make a marriage rewarding and stable.

At the heart of a Christian marriage is a special Christlike kind of love. The biblical word for this love is agape, the kind of love described by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13.

Many marriages fail because the love the partners have for each other is not able to carry them through the rough times. Agapic love is built especially for tough assignments. It has a wonderful warmth and is exceptionally tender. But it is much more than that. It is the kind of love that continues to function even when one or both of the marriage partners do things that violate their trust in each other. Forgiveness plays a major role in agapic love. And this love keeps on doing loving acts even when the emotions are bent out of shape.

Commitment lies at the core of agapic love. It is the glue that holds marriage partners together when the way is rough. That is why Paul says that this is a love that lasts forever and can withstand almost anything.

The marriage vows in a Christian marriage clearly have agapic love in mind when the bride and groom promise to be faithful to each other in all circumstances of life.

Sometimes Christian couples come to the awful realization that their marriage is broken beyond repair. But those who marry in the Lord and who maintain a vital faith in Christ have every reason to count on having a stable and rewarding marriage.

Excerpt
Wedding Customs

The wedding reception is nearly over, and the bride and groom prepare to leave. Female guests laughingly scramble to catch the bouquet which the bride tosses in their direction on her way out the door. As the bride and groom hurry toward their car, smiling guests shower them with rice. The new couple leaves, honking their horn noisily and dragging a trail of tin cans behind them.

The flowers, the rice, the tin cans and horns—most of us have taken part in these wedding customs. Like the ring, the bridesmaids, the groomsmen, the flowers, the cake, and the candles, they're part of our wedding tradition. But how and when did these customs begin?

Many brides and grooms would be surprised to discover that the flower throwing started as an old superstition about marriage and pregnancy, that the rice is actually an old symbol for fertility, and that the noisemaking began as a way to ward off evil spirits.

What about some of our other wedding customs? The boxes on the following pages describe the origins of some of them.

The Wedding Ring

The custom of exchanging wedding rings may have originated in one of several different ways:

Ancient peoples used rings to seal important agreements (for example, Pharaoh gave Joseph his signet ring when he appointed him as ruler). Since a marriage is one of the most important agreements people make, a ring would have seemed an appropriate symbol for the bride and groom.

In early civilizations circular metal chains and fetters were locked on captive women to indicate their servitude to their master. The small metal wedding rings designed for hands, then, may have been symbols of subjection and loss of freedom, a variation on the old ball-and-chain theme.

The Hope Chest

The idea of a hope chest grew out of the dowry tradition. The parents of the bride at one time paid a dowry to the groom—sort of an indirect way of repaying him for the sum of money he paid them for the bride. Even after the tradition of purchasing the bride had died out, the custom of the bridal dowry continued.

The Bridal Veil

The bridal veil originated as a symbol of a bride's submission to her husband. In some parts of the world it was, and is, used as a means of hiding the bride from her husband until their wedding day: when the groom lifts the bride's veil, he looks on her face for the first time!

The Bridegroom

The best man and the groomsmen, like the bridesmaids, are carryovers from the marriage-by-capture days. In those early days the bridegroom gathered a group of his friends to help him with the capture of the bride and the escape to the honeymoon, the days or weeks he would have to remain in hiding with his bride until her family gave up the search.

The name bridegroom originated among various groups of people who traditionally had the newly married man wait on the table of his bride on their wedding day. The word groom reflected his menial position.

The Wedding Cake

The wedding cake custom probably goes back to the Roman tradition of confarreatio, a patrician marriage ceremony in which cake was broken over the bride's head as a symbol of fruitfulness. Each of the guests also took a piece of the cake to ensure fruitfulness and plenty for themselves.

The Ring Finger

Why do people wear their wedding rings on the fourth finger of the left hand? Since earliest times the right hand has stood for power and authority, the left hand for subjection. The tradition of wearing the ring on the left hand may be further evidence for the theory that in many cultures the wedding ring and all associated with it were symbols of "slavery."

The fourth finger once had special significance. People believed that a certain vein or nerve in this finger ran directly to the heart.

In Elizabethan England women often wore their wedding ring on their thumb!

Cutting the Bride's Hair

A custom which fortunately has not survived over the years is the practice of cutting the bride's hair. The idea behind this tradition was probably to make the newly married woman unattractive to other men.

Among the early Anglo-Saxons a man took his bride "for fairer or fouler, for better or worse, for richer or poorer." She, in turn, promised to be "buxom and bonny" for her husband.

Throwing Rice

The tradition of throwing rice goes back to ancient times when guests threw rice at the bride and groom as a way of ensuring a fertile and fruitful union.

In recent years bird seed has often been tossed instead of rice, since people feared that birds might die from injesting too much rice. However, most environmentalists now maintain that rice is safe for the birds and animals who eat it.