15 July 2007

The Ceremonies of a Lutheran Wedding

I agree with Piepkorn’s most basic summary rubrics concerning the conduct of any liturgical service: be reverent, and be courteous. Those rules simply express faith toward God and love toward others. Faith and love depend upon God speaking His Word and giving His gifts. Ceremonies serve and support both the speaking and hearing, the giving and receiving, of those divine means of grace. True reverence before God proceeds from a heart of repentant faith, as does sincere courtesy in deference to the neighbor. The rites of the Church provide a salutary common language to the heart of faith, with which to proclaim and confess the Word of God, to speak with a united voice. The ceremonies of the Church embody and enact the humility of repentance and the reverence of faith in the presence of the Lord, in receiving His gifts with thanksgiving. As the Lord deals with His people by external means that engage not only the heart and mind but also the body, so do His Christians respond with words of the mouth and bodily actions of faith and love. Outward reverence toward God disciplines and trains the Christian to love his neighbor also, not only in the heart, but with gracious words and loving works.

The particular ceremonies of a Lutheran wedding will serve and support all of these general purposes, while specifically confessing the divine significance of holy matrimony. Along with the basic rules of reverence and courtesy, it should be reiterated that everything is finally about Jesus. The Church finds her heart and center, her body and life in Him, who is her heavenly Bridegroom. Everything she does (in faith and love) proceeds from Him, returns to Him, confesses Him, points to Him, and resounds to the glory of His Name. That is no less true, but all the more so, in the case of a wedding celebration. Wherever the Holy Scriptures speak of marriage, from the beginning of the first creation to the consummation of all things in the New Creation, the Lord is speaking to us of Christ and His Church. The Christian bride and groom will surely desire that their wedding, as also their entire marriage, will confess and proclaim this christological significance, and that Christ Jesus Himself will be all and all. Whatever would contradict that, compete with that, distract or detract from that, finally has no place.

That is not to say that the celebration of holy matrimony has nothing to do with the particular bride and groom who find themselves before the Lord, in the presence of His people, to be united according to His Word and in His Holy Name. How absurd it would be to ignore the particularities of those two people who are there and thereby called by God to become a living and embodied icon of Christ and His Bride, the Church! It should not be understood as an either-or, but as a case of Christ manifesting Himself to and for this couple, and in them unto His entire Church and the world around them. Let us not shy away from the specificity of marriage, nor from the specificity of this man and this woman. Not only the propers and the preaching, but also the ceremonies of a Lutheran wedding will reflect all this.

It is certainly appropriate for the clergy and the "wedding party" to process into the church, and, as always, for the Cross of Christ to lead that procession. It is for the Cross that the congregation stands. In fact, it is strikingly significant for that visual icon of Christ the Crucified to lead the way, in view of the fact that He is the Husband who gives Himself up for His Church, in order to present her to Himself as a glorious Bride. For weddings, I have followed the Cross myself (if not carried the Cross), and have had the groom follow immediately after me; then the groomsmen escorting the bridesmaids, and finally the father of the bride escorting her to the front of the church. It does seem good to me for the groom to follow the cross and the presiding minister, as he shall walk in the way of Christ in love and service unto his wife. It also seems good to me for the father of the bride to bring her and present her to the man who will be her husband, as the Father once brought Eve to Adam and gave her to him. Such details are free, and the rubrics may call for something slightly different, but that is what has worked well for me in all of the weddings that I have done.

For the beginning of the liturgy, whether it be the Entrance Rite of the Divine Service or the Psalmody of the prayer offices, I have had the men stand at their places in front of the first pew on my left, and the women stand at their places in front of the first pew on my right. Similarly, they are seated there in those front pews for the reading of the Holy Scriptures and the preaching of the Gospel. Following the sermon, typically during a hymn at that point, the wedding party stands and comes together in the center (at the step into the chancel, or the sanctuary proper; though such things may differ depending on the architectural layout of the church). Henceforth, the bride and groom remain together throughout the remainder of the service, finally following the Cross in procession out of the church.

In the rite of holy matrimony, following the Invocation and the opening address, the bride and groom pledge their solemn intention to have and to hold each other so long as they both shall live. Thereafter, the bride may be given in marriage, or the parents of the bride and of the groom may give their consent and blessing. Depending on the circumstances, either option may be fine, although I rather like the latter. At the most recent wedding I officiated, not only the parents but the entire congregation was then also asked for its promise to encourage, support and pray for the couple in their married life. Perhaps the role of the parents would be somewhat less significant in the case of an older bride and groom, but in most circumstances the consent and blessing of the parents confess a God-pleasing transition from the Fourth Commandment to the Sixth Commandment, if one may express a change in emphasis that way. (Of course it is true that both Commandments always pertain to everyone at every age, but surely the nature of their application changes with marriage.) I’ve already mentioned the significance of the father giving the bride to her husband. There is also the man’s leaving of father and mother to be joined to his wife. And the congregation is present, not only as a witness, but to lend the support of its faith and love, its confession and prayers, to the man and the woman.

Following the pledges of intent by the couple and the blessing and consent of their parents, the bridal veil should appropriately be lifted by the groom. Most traditional brides do have veils of a sort, but, if she is going to have a veil, then it ought to veil her face until her father has given her and her betrothed has solemnly pledged to receive her in holy matrimony. If that sounds old-fashioned and patriarchal, so much the better. The husband is the head of his wife, as Christ is the head of His Church; and this headship, let it clearly be stated, is one of care and protection, of self-sacrificing love and service. Where the solemn promise of such commitment and provision has been made, there and then may the father let go his daughter, and the man look upon his bride with the eyes of love. The veil is a sign, and the unveiling of the bride is a ceremony, indicative of godly modesty, of purity and chastity, which are frankly in too short supply and taken too lightly (if not regarded as passé).

There is also the matter of the wedding dress itself, and of the bridesmaid’s dresses. Surely we live in the freedom of the Gospel, but there is a need for proper decorum also in this respect. Fashions and styles are constantly changing, and the prevailing sensibilities of the day will help to determine what may be appropriate. Not everything considered fashionable or stylish is in good taste, however. On the one hand, the bride should be adorned as beautifully, elegantly, radiantly, and, one might even say, extravagantly as possible. She stands before the congregation as an icon of Christ’s holy Bride, the Church, and visually confesses the radiant beauty of His righteousness upon her. This is exactly akin to the white garments of Holy Baptism. Obviously, good stewardship ought to be exercised, and the point is certainly not one of ostentatiousness or presumptuous pride. Simplicity can also be quite beautiful, "less is more" and all of that. Faith in Christ, the fear of the Lord, a gentle and quiet spirit, these are the Christian woman’s inner beauty, which is true and lasting beyond all outward adornment. Yet, the bride stands not only for herself. She signifies the hidden reality of the Church as Christ Jesus truly beholds her in grace and love and mercy and forgiveness, without spot or wrinkle or blemish.

The Church is such a beautiful Bride because she is clothed and covered by the righteousness of Christ; that she would not be found unclothed, naked and ashamed, but dressed and adorned with Him. The man and his wife shall both be naked and unashamed in the marriage bed, but not in the public assembly of the church! There, Adam and Eve are covered by the sacrifice of Christ Jesus, our Savior, whose nakedness upon the Cross has borne our shame and atoned for all our sins. Everything, again, is to confess Him, and point to Him, and proclaim His Gospel. Accordingly, when it comes to the bride and her bridesmaids, perhaps a simple consideration will suffice, in view of some fashion trends (and the advice that some new brides are evidently given by dress merchants): Buxom beauties in danger of bobbing out of their dresses do not help people think about Jesus!

The exchanging of rings is truly meet, right and salutary, and should be reverently acknowledged as having a profound significance. Even our largely cavalier society, for all its apparent disdain of holy marriage, nevertheless recognizes the meaning and importance of a wedding band. I like the older language that the LSB rite offers as an option for this ceremony, in which the rings are identified with the bodies, worldly goods and life of the bride and groom, who give themselves entirely to each other. No pre-nuptial agreements or divisions of property here!

I’m not a big fan of the popular "unity candle." I admit that my wife and I had one at our wedding, and I have allowed the use of such a candle at many of the weddings I’ve done in the past. But I don’t encourage it, and I’ve become less and less enamored with it over time. It’s not sinful, nor even wrong per se, but it always seems to me a bigger distraction than helpful contribution. If the wedding rite occurs in the Divine Service, then I certainly would not advise the use of a "unity candle."

I honestly don’t know what my colleagues may think or have to say about the traditional kiss, but I tend to be in favor of it. Of course, it could be overdone in a way that is sensational and inappropriate. But the Church is bidden to "kiss the Son," and in Christ righteousness and peace have kissed each other. For the man to kiss his wedded wife is, I warrant, a whole lot closer to the ancient Christian kiss of peace than the handshake of friendliness with which many congregations have been inflicted. Among the Eastern Orthodox, the kissing of icons is a reverent expression of faithful piety and love for Christ. It seems good to me that the bride and groom, as icons of Christ and His Church, should publicly embrace one another in the tenderness of peace and love and unity, as our heavenly Bridegroom so embraces us by grace through faith in His Gospel. The kiss confesses, more pointedly than any other aspect of the wedding, the union of man and wife, not only in heart and mind, but also in body. In my practice, it has come with the presentation of the bride and groom, following the Benediction. Then, as previously mentioned, they follow the Cross in procession out of the church (within their new vocation).


Fr. Lovett said...

Great post. I just discovered your blod (via Cyberstones), and I must say, there's too much to read! I appreciate it.
Anyway, about the kiss. I don't know if I'm in favor of it - I'm not not in favor of it - but it is kept in the ceremonies I officiate.
After the final benediction I say, "It is my honor to present to you [the congregation] to Mr. & Mrs. so-and-so." And then I say to the groom, "You may kiss your bride." I include the words "present to you" because when everyone gathered the two were not yet one, but now, when they meet again, the two are one flesh. For what it's worth. Thanks for your posts.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Brother Lovett, thanks for your kind words and helpful comments on the wedding kiss. Sorry to be slow in responding.

What you have described as your practice, with respect to the wedding kiss, is very similar to what I have done.