Once upon a time, in a land far away, the fairy tales ended with a wedding. Why a wedding? Marriage was something definitive, conclusive, like death, except that it was happy. Marriage was permanent, and so it was hard to imagine anything better than being bound for your whole life to a wonderful and loving person. There was also the fear that the right person might marry someone else and be gone forever, so marriage and everything surrounding it could be very dramatic. A certain type of intimacy was reserved for marriage, and marriage meant settling down and raising a family, so the wedding was a doorway into a bright and challenging way of life. Once you entered that doorway, there was no going back.
The “modern marriage” has cast off these romantic shackles. Marriage, like gender, seemed to be an invention of society which were were free to change, and should change, to match the real world. First, we made divorce much easier so no one had to be trapped in a loveless marriage. Then we lowered the barriers to intimacy and encouraged couples to “try things out” before marriage, even living together. Finally we separated marriage and starting a family. Couples can feel free to have children together while dating and, unless you are the crown prince of England, getting married is no longer equal to committing to producing a child.
We have accepted this “modern marriage” in practice, but people’s hearts are still firmly set on the older romantic ideas. Nowhere is this clearer than in the rituals that surround marriage, which come from the old till-death-do-us-part world. Here is the truth we are trying very hard not to face: you have to choose one or the other. You cannot have the beauty of one and the freedom of the other. If the marriage ceremony really matched our “modern” ideas, a lot of things would need to change. Here are five things that don’t belong in a modern wedding:
5. Bachelor parties (and bachelorette parties)
The idea that marriage was a self-sacrifice, and demanded that the man submit his life to the needs of his wife, gave rise to the celebration of the last night of being your own man (or woman as the case may be). But the party no longer means anything, because marriage is not seen as an act of self-sacrifice but as an act of self-fulfillment, in other words, it really won’t force you to live differently after the wedding.
4. The father walking his daughter down the aisle
Marriage, in traditional cultures, was seen as involving everyone from both families. Christian culture changed that a little bit by emphasizing the freedom of the bride and groom, but left intact the idea that the little girl was precious to her father, and it was important for family harmony that he bless this new union. However, the freedom of the father to tell his daughter what he thinks about her choice has been silenced in the name of her freedom. Of course the bride wants her father to be there, but the modern bride does not accept the idea that her father could withhold his blessing: she expects that he will give his approval to whatever she has chosen. Since the father cannot refuse to agree, his agreement does not mean very much.
3. The white dress
The dress was a symbol of virginal purity, something society diligently demanded of women (and less diligently of men). REAL progress would have been applying the standard for women to men as well, but we went the opposite direction. We did not take seriously the fact that you cannot have your cake and eat it too: you cannot enjoy the wild life and bring a pure heart to married life, it has to be one or the other. The more you give yourself away, the less you have to give on your wedding day. Women and men are bringing less of themselves and more baggage into marriage, because they have been borrowing from their future happiness to spend on the present.
2. The priest and the church
Similar to number 4, the idea of needing to ask God’s blessing through the priest is a foreign concept. If we think about God at all, we fully expect that He will smile happily on whatever we have chosen. At the same time, going to the church means little because the “modern” couple is really not able to open up their life to the view of God and to the myriads of saints who inhabit the Church. They are aware, on a subconscious level, that their personal choices clash with what God has said and with how the saints lived. If we want the Church to be more than just a pretty backdrop, but to truly be a doorway into Heaven, we need to live in a way that allows us to open that door without fear of offending those who will look out at us.
1. The vows
The vows are what make the marriage different from signing a contract – contracts can be broken, vows cannot. Vows are unbreakable because they are made before God, who is eternal. The promises of a modern marriage are little more than “I take you to be my spouse, for as long as we are happy together, and when the happiness is gone so am I.” This is not love but selfishness. Of course, it would kill the magic of the moment to express that out loud, which is precisely the point of this post. If the ceremony really expressed what marriage has become in our modern understanding, we would be very disappointed by it, because it would look like signing a mortgage.
There is a good reason we don’t reinvent the ceremony: we all deeply desire the romance and adventure of speaking a word of love that cannot be taken back, that has real and permanent consequences. There was a dark side to fairy tales, the tales Disney has ignored, in which someone had spoken the wrong word and ruined the possibility of happiness for the rest of their life. We were afraid to live with that possibility, and so we invented the modern world, where every word can be taken back. In this world, “I love you” does not mean forever. The problem our modern world needs to face is that when “I love you” does not mean forever, it does not mean “I love you.” We tried to create a world without sadness, and instead we have invented a world without love.
(Thanks to Jennifer Fulwiler for the inspiration).