According to an August 15, 2013 “Field Notes” feature in The New York Times, “Before Saying ‘I Do,’ Define Just What You Mean,” many brides and grooms are resurrecting a 1960s and 70s tradition. They are again “choosing to say vows they have written themselves, whether marrying in a meadow or a cathedral.”
“Writing your own vows,” explains the Times, “then standing up and saying them in front of a crowd definitely heightens the emotions at a wedding ceremony.”
Call me a curmudgeon. Heightening the emotions at a wedding is pulling the tail of an already squealing pig, but the Times offers another rationale, self-expression.
“I wanted my vows to be a creative spin on who we are,” Ms. (Amanda) Kingloff said. By the time they wed, she and Mr. Cohen, now 42, had lived together two years. Her vows read more like a short story about how, once they started dating seriously, her furniture and various collections had merged with Mr. Cohen’s, a metaphor for how their lives had joined. She made just a few promises in her vows. “I didn’t need to say, ‘I vow to honor and cherish you’ because we already cherished each other,” she said. “It seemed obvious.”
The curmudgeon in me asks, “Obvious to whom?” The bride is sure that she and the groom honor and cherish each other, and the Times elucidates what this might mean: “Brides and grooms promise to honor and cherish things like each other’s sense of humor, movie preferences, shopping sprees, long work hours, a love of swimming in cold water or of driving old Volkswagens.”
I wonder. What does contemporary Western culture truly lack? Opportunities for self-expression? Or commitments that call us beyond ourselves? Self-expression is the cri de guerre of contemporary life. It’s used to justify all sorts of rudeness and self-centeredness.
Yet abusing the name of self-expression doesn’t lessen it as a true value. Indeed, self-expression should occur in every word that a person, or a couple, speaks. If you’re not expressing yourself, what are you doing? Dissembling? Self-expression should be a given, a constant, but vows are much more than our daily acts of self-expression. Vows aren’t about who you are; they’re about who you want to be. They’re a way to embrace something larger than self, to accept something deeper than one’s own agenda.
For a Christian, a marriage vow says that you intend to love and to serve God by loving and serving your partner and the world around you, which is why you don’t speak those vows to your partner alone. The two of you address them to the entire world. Vows are public acts. Through them, a couple stakes a claim in the future of the community.
Perhaps we’ve lost sight of the notion that marriage is about more than two people. The on-going debate about gay marriage has pivoted around an impoverished image of marriage as an act of personal self-completion. “I must be free to love whom I want; no one else has any right to ask anything of my love.” The first assertion stands, but not the second. God is the author of all freedom. Even squandered freedoms can claim that paternity. We can’t control whom we love, but we can, and must, control what we make of our love. Our loves should form and enhance human life—that’s something everyone has a stake in.
We humans share an instinct for life with all the living creatures of the world, but we alone have been given a second instinctual gift, equally as strong as the first: the desire to love and to be loved, to find and to know our place in a circle of love. Love is an outpouring of the self to the other. The friend, the spouse, the family, the community, the parish and the Church: these exist because we must go out of selves in order to find ourselves. They are gifts of God, and, in the economy of grace, they become gifts we give back to God. That’s the vision of the Church in The Letter to the Hebrews. It’s a City of God, a place where we find our own deepest identities in a web of relationships, the circling loves we cull in Christ.
[Y]ou have approached Mount Zion
and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,
and countless angels in festal gathering,
and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven,
and God the judge of all,
and the spirits of the just made perfect,
and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant,
and the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel (12:22-24).
Christ simply is self-expression. He is Ho Logos, the Word. He is God’s great word to us, and through Christ humanity bespeaks its faithfulness to God. Our words draw meaning from him. This is why every human act of self-expression finds sense and semblance in the eloquence of his blood. Before all the world, his vow was true and constant.
Sirach 3: 17-18, 20, 28-29 Hebrews 12: 18-19, 22-24a Luke 14: 1, 7-1