Sunday, March 20, 2011

Part III: Covenant, Vow and Blessing

Adam and Eve, by Marc Chagall
Today we look at marriage. We will focus almost entirely on traditional marriage between one man and one woman, and how that has developed in a Christian context. Before we can entertain other ideas of marriage, we need to start here.

The first mention of marriage in the Bible is Genesis 2:22-25: Adam and Eve become “one flesh” and Adam “clings to his wife.” Both are blissfully naked.

Something besides their clothes is missing: Covenant. There is no exchange of vows between them; they are made married by God with apparently no participation, no consent, no vows by Adam and Eve. For us, there is more to marriage than this.

To understand how the tradition of marriage has come down to us, we need to understand the concept of covenant.


At its most basic, marriage is a contract, or a “covenant.” The language of covenant laces throughout Jewish and Christian practices of marriage, so we are going to spend most of our time this morning on the concept of covenant. We need to get a fix on this concept before we can go much further because the vows of marriage represent a covenant, and we often speak of “the covenant of marriage.”

Covenant language is the glue holding together Christian history, theology and, of course, marriage. We are fond of talking about God’s “Covenant” with God’s people, starting with God’s Covenant with Abraham and extending to the Covenant with Moses written in the Ten Commandments.

In Christianity, we talk of the “New Covenant,” which is prominent in Paul’s theology and borrows heavily from the Old Testament prophets, particularly Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, the definition of a covenant is a “bond entered into voluntarily by two parties by which each pledges himself to do something for the other.” There are two kinds of covenants: (1) between unequals (God, humans; men, women), and (2) equals (property owners, like a groom and the father of a bride).
Hebrew for covenant

In Hebrew, the word for covenant is brit, and it means to “cut.” The way a contract was signed was to cut clay with a stylus, or sacrifice an animal by cutting it, from where we get the phrase “cut a deal.”

Watch how this practice of “cutting” plays in marriage rites. At first, a covenant was imposed as an obligation on the parties (as in the Ten Commandments). The idea imposing obligations will be reflected in marriage covenants. Only later in Hebrew history did covenant mean a mutual pact or agreement between parties. (Westminster Dictionary of Theology, p. 128).

The Oxford Dictionary notes something quite interesting: the Hebrew biblical model for the Covenant between God (Yahweh) and God’s people was modeled on the marriage covenant of the early Hebrews which pre-dated the Jewish religion. As Judaism developed, the concept evolved that God would take care of his people as the people remembered to follow God’s law. God made a covenant with Abraham to bring him prosperity and fertility (Genesis 17:1-17), summarized here:
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.”
The covenant with Abraham was almost like a marriage contract, and it was celebrated like a marriage feast (Genesis 15:1-11):
But [Abraham] said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” [The LORD] said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.” He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
The death of Christ on the Cross was seen by Paul and the early Christians as the culmination and expansion of that earlier covenant with the people of Abraham, and feast imagery was central again.

In New Testament Greek, diatheke, means covenant. The Christian Church saw the supreme celebration of the “new” covenant in the Lord’s Supper (Westminster dictionary, p. 128) – again, feast. Listen to Paul's description of the Last Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-25):
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
The Lord’s Supper could be heard in this passage as like a wedding feast, with Christ body "covenanted" to the church. We will see this kind of language in marriage rites.

The language of Christ as the bridegroom and the Church as the bride was an easy leap for the early church in how it understood the the “new covenant” and its incarnation in marriage between men and women. While that may have been helpful to them, that language has come down to us in ways that are obtuse. That may have something to do with why we have such an intense debate on expanding the idea of marriage to include same-sex couples – it is wrapped up in our deepest religious identity and imagery.

The rites of marriage as they have come to us are manifestations of covenants, and those covenants have shifted over time. The marriage covenants were not always equal covenants between bride and groom. Like marriage itself, the covenants, and the words and rituals that give them flesh, have changed as the culture changes around them. Marriage has always been subject to our culture. Anthropologists study marriage rites because those rites say a great deal about the values of a culture. The accusation that same-gender marriage is a capitulation to the culture may, indeed be true. But the accusation does not acknowledge that marriage rites always capitulate to the culture. The issue is about the cultural values underneath the marriage rites.

In one sense, it should be no surprise that we are in a struggle over whether to redefine these again because our culture is undergoing tremendous change in its understanding of the equality of the sexes and the purpose of marriage (which I talked about the first week). So let's look at marriage rites as they have come to us:

Rites of marriage

In ancient times, Jewish marriage ceremonies began with a ceremony of betrothal before the wedding; the father of the bride gave consent to the marriage. Marriage was an exchange of property between families, with the bride as the property. That concept of brides as property would have a very long life.

The wedding ceremony began with a procession with the groom going to the bride’s home; she was richly dressed, wearing a veil, not removed until she entered the bridal chamber many hours later.

Nineteenth century Jewish ketubah
The bride and groom signed a ketubah, or covenant. In recent times, recent times are elaborate and artistic certificates that are framed on the wall. They’ve become popular with some Christians, and there is a cottage industry producing them for both Jews and Christians.

Incidentally, as one of our class participants has pointed out, some states have adopted “covenant” marriage laws whereby brides and grooms agree to sign a more elaborate covenant (which theoretically makes it harder to get divorced). This is loosely based on the ancient Jewish practice of ketubah.

Back to the ancient Jewish practice: The bride and groom stood under a canopy at the bride’s home with at least 10 witnesses (the minimum number for a synagogue service). Following the ceremony, they went to the groom’s home for a feast, and the witnesses sang them love songs all during dinner. The feast was to last seven to 14 days.

There is no hint in the New Testament of what a Christian marriage looked like or should look like. It probably (at first) looked Jewish. But it probably wasn’t long before the dominant Greco-Roman culture was absorbed into Christian marriage rites.

A Roman marriage rite began with a betrothal ceremony at the bride’s home, the signing of contract, and groom placed a ring on the bride’s fourth finger of the left hand, probably as a sign that the bride was now claimed by a groom. Our wedding band custom comes from the Roman practice.

By the way, until recent times, only the man placed a ring on the bride’s finger. The 1928 prayer book has a blessing only for the ring placed on the bride’s finger. There is no blessing for a ring for the man because there wasn’t one. The contemporary practice of an exchange of rings became common in the 20th century and was codified by the 1979 prayer book.

Back to the ancient Roman ceremony: After solemn declarations, or vows, were exchanged before the God Juno, the bride and groom offered a meat sacrifice at the family altar. A banquet followed, and then an elaborate procession of virgins and unmarried men accompanied the newlyweds to their marriage bed; the groom carried the bride over the threshold and into their chamber.

Next, in an elaborate ceremony, the groom undressed the bride while both were sprinkled with water by their escorts, who also prepared their bed and watched the newlyweds. The rest is left to your imagination. In the morning, bride and groom were supposed to announce their success to their families.

You can see where Roman rituals came into the Christian rituals: rings, a merger of the betrothal ceremony with the marriage ceremony; the meat sacrifice replaced by the Eucharist. Early Christian writers described Christian weddings that sounded similar to the Roman customs, and in fact, one of the New Testament letters, the short and obscure Letter of Jude, may be an admonition to curtail the aforementioned Roman custom of onlookers at the marriage bed.

14th century English marriage rite
The Sarum Rite of the 11th century forms much of the structure of the marriage rites of the next 1,000 years of Christianity, and its echoes are still with us, as we shall see. The vows included that the bride would “obey” her husband including in the nuptial bed.

In the time of the Medieval Church, marriage rites were performed on Sunday within the regular Sunday worship. Bride and groom came to church, exchanged vows, blessed, and took their place at Communion with everyone else.

The banns of marriage – or announcement of the betrothal – were to be done on three successive Sundays before the marriage. The purpose of the banns was to make sure that neither bride nor groom was already married.

By the way, the custom of obtaining a “marriage license” from the state arose to replace the Banns of marriage. The license with the county clerk, theoretically, guarded against multiple marriages, protecting property rights of fathers, and enforcing the morality of the church.

A couple of weeks ago, the question was raised about why the church is still in the marriage business. We might reverse that question and ask why the state is in the marriage business by issuing licenses that were really meant to enforce the morality of the church.

Some have fairly asked why couples – same-sex or opposite sex – can’t just enter into their own contracts without the interference of the government. We allow contracts for all manner of transactions. Why not allow people to enter into their own contracts for marriage, without government interference, and allow their faith communities to bless them (or not bless them)?

Moving into our Anglican tradition, in the English Reformation, the 1549 Book of Common Prayer had the marriage ceremonies performed on the porch of the church on Sunday immediately after Morning Prayer and before the Eucharist. The newly married couple were required to receive Communion then and there.

The “exhortation” in the 1549 prayer book enfolds marriage into the “mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church.” It mentions that marriage is not “to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts…” The purposes of marriage are (1) procreation of children, (2) remedy against sin and (3) help and comfort of husband and wife.

The marriage ceremony began to grow apart from regular Sunday worship; by 1662, receiving Communion for the married couple was optional, and that was a concession to the Puritans who objected to having marriage ceremonies on Sundays because they were too celebratory. The newly married couple was exhorted to attend Communion at their first opportunity.

The 1662 book contained a vow “with thy body, I thee worship,” an echo of the view of the Eucharist as Christ’s body covenanting with the Church like a marriage (Commentary on the American Prayer Book, Marion J. Hatchett, p. 430)

The 1789 American prayer book took out the language about "with thy body," but also eliminated all references to the Godly purposes of marriage, deleting the exhortation, and eliminating a procession from the porch to the Communion Table. The marriage ceremony was now entirely detached from Sunday worship and Sacrament. Marriage had become a civil contract (property transaction) blessed by the church.

The 1892 prayer book restored references to marriage as “instituted by God.” The seeds of reconnecting marriage ceremonies with worship had begun.

The 1928 prayer book restored an exhortation similar to the 1549 book, with its language about marriage signifying “the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church.”

But the 1928 version left out the purposes of marriage – nothing about children, preventing sin, or mutual support is mentioned in the 1928 book. The implication was that central purpose of marriage was to reflect Christ’s marriage with the church.

And that brings us to the 1979 prayer book. The ceremony was now titled “The Ceremony and Blessing of a Marriage.”

It restored a fuller exhortation on the purpose of marriage – and here was a major difference from every prayer book that had gone before, and entirely new in the history of marriage rites. It declared that marriage is “intended by God for their mutual joy.”

Joy – that came first as the purpose of marriage. That is a revolutionary change, and ask yourself where that leads.

Next came “help and comfort” and finally, “when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children.

Note that children took third place in marriage, and only when it is God’s will. Unlike in earlier marriage rites, procreation was not the central purpose of marriage. This is a huge shift and with major implications for us now.

The earlier language about marriage as a remedy for sin was also gone (the echo of Paul considering marriage only for the weak). The title is “Celebration and Blessing” and the language reflects it. The 1979 prayer book is a repudiation of Puritanism on many levels, and the marriage rite is one of them.

New in the book: Asking the witnesses to take a vow to “uphold these two persons in their marriage.” The people of the church were now taking vows, not just the bride and groom. This ceremony was now firmly placed as a worship service of the people.

The idea of the bride as property is exorcised from the book, for example, in the presentation: In the medieval church, the groom asked “Who gives me this wife?” The Reformation changed it to “Who giveth this woman to be married to this man?” It is a remnant of the idea that brides are property. The 1979 book makes the question optional.

The vows

First, read the vows from the 1892 Book of Common Prayer:
I, [Man]. take thee N. [bride's name] to my wedded wife, 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, till death us do part, according to God's holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.

I, N.[bride's name] take thee M. [Man] to my wedded husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and obey, till death us do part, according to God's holy ordinance; and thereto I give thee my troth.
In the 1892 prayer book, the man would “plight” or pledge his “troth,” or fidelity to his bride. The woman, however, was required to “give” hers. It was a subtle language difference about property. She pledged to obey, he took no such pledge. Another subtle difference denoting the unequal status: the groom was "M" for "Man" while the bride was "N" for "Name."

The vows in the 1928 book eliminated the vow to “obey” – the vows were almost equal other than the “plight” and “give” troth language, the difference of which was probably lost on most brides and grooms of the time:
I N. take thee N. to my wedded Wife, to have to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.

I N. take thee N. to my wedded Husband, 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, till death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I give thee my troth.

The 1928 book included a blessing of the ring to be worn by the bride (but not the husband). The ceremony was called “The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony.”

In the 1979 prayer book, the vows were fully equalized. There are really two sets of vows in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The first:

The Celebrant says to the woman
N., will you have this man to be your husband; to live
together in the covenant of marriage?  Will you love him,
comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health;
and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him as long as you
both shall live?
The Woman answers 
I will. 
The Celebrant says to the man
N., will you have this woman to be your wife; to live
together in the covenant of marriage?  Will you love her,
comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health;
and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you
both shall live?
The Man answers 
I will.
Notice that the plighting of their troth (pledge of fidelity) is in that first set of vows, read to them by the priest, or minister. The second set is the vows recited by bride and groom themselves:

The Man, facing the woman and taking her right hand in his, says

In the Name of God, I, N., take you, N., to be my wife, 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 we are parted by death.  This is my solemn vow.
Then they loose their hands, and the Woman, still facing the man, takes
his right hand in hers, and says
In the Name of God, I, N., take you, N., to be my husband,
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 we are parted by death.  This is my
solemn vow.

The vows are equal for both spouses. Vestige language implying of property rights over the bride are completely eliminated. Certainly this equality of vows represented the gender equality culture of the 1970s that was controversial then but which is hardly questioned now (at least in our church).

But this equality in the vows leaves us with questions we are now confronting: If these are equal vows, who else is included in making such vows? If the primary purpose of marriage is the mutual joy of the two spouses, why should that be restricted only to opposite-sex couples?

Wedding ceremony of Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa
 and Beatrix of Burgundy in 1156
The Blessing

We come full circle to last week’s topic: Blessings. Last week we talked about the definition of “blessing,” and how in Hebrew theology there are two kinds of vows: brk, to give thanks, and the other, ‘asr, to make happy. Blessings have a connotation of relationship, between humans and God; humans and things; humans and each other. Sometimes it is God who is blessing, sometimes the priest invoking the blessing of God, sometimes the people blessing. We find all of it in the marriage rites directly or indirectly.

One of the connotations of blessing in Hebrew is that blessing confers prosperity and fertility – the happiness concept – and that may explain the custom of “blessing” marriages.

The culmination of the Christian marriage rite is the priestly blessing, invoking God’s blessing on the couple and their marriage, or in the older language, the “solemnization.” It is why the rite is called “The Blessing of…” and not the “Exchange of Vows of…”

The Sarum rites of the 11th century had blessings on the marriage, and the 1549 BCP borrowed from it. I rather like this blessing from 1549: “God the Father bless you. God the Son keep you. God the Holy Ghost lighten your understanding.”

The 1979 gave two choices for blessings, both evoking pre-modern and pre-Puritan traditions:

The first (longer) sets marriage within the theology of incarnation and the cross, using imagery from the marriage rite itself, and with a whiff of the Eastern Orthodox rites. The reference to the heavenly banquet is meant as a lead into the Eucharist if that is to follow in the marriage ceremony:
Most gracious God, we give you thanks for your tender love in sending Jesus Christ to come among us, to be born of a human mother, and to make the way of the cross to be the way of life. We thank you, also, for consecrating the union of man and woman in his Name. By the power of your Holy Spirit, pour out the abundance of your blessing upon this man and this woman. Defend them from every enemy. Lead them into all peace. Let their love for each other be a seal upon their hearts, a mantle about their shoulders, and a crown upon their foreheads. Bless them in their work and in their companionship; in their sleeping and in their waking; in their joys and in their sorrows; in their life and in their death. Finally, in your mercy, bring them to that table where your saints feast for ever in your heavenly home; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The second blessing is an updated version of the 1549 blessing, which itself was updated from the 11th century Sarum rite. This second blessing in the 1979 book also recovered to the word “covenant,” substituting for “state of matrimony” which had a connotation of natural law. This is subtle, but a number of arguments in favor of traditional marriage rest on “natural law.” The 1979 prayer book removed from the marriage blessing that vestige reference to natural law.
O God, you have so consecrated the covenant of marriage that in it is represented the spiritual unity between Christ and his Church: Send therefore your blessing upon these your servants, that they may so love, honor, and cherish each other in faithfulness and patience, in wisdom and true godliness, that their home may be a haven of blessing and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
What will come next in marriage? Where does the 1979 prayer book seem to lead? Next week we will look at the arguments for and against same-sex marriage.

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