Covenant, Ascesis, and the Wedding Industrial Complex: Confessions of a #COVIDBride
I’ve attended a dozen weddings over the past decade. I’ve been a bridesmaid five times (and a grooms-maid once), so if there is a trend in modern weddings, I’ve probably seen it. Before I started planning my own wedding, I was frequently judgmental of the large, ostentatious weddings with six-figure price tags. When Joshua and I got engaged last October, we knew we wanted what I called an “overtly religious high-church wedding.” I was more concerned with crafting a beautiful and prayerbook-compliant liturgy than I was with hosting a fancy reception.
But as we began planning, I realized I had underestimated the pressure of the so-called Wedding Industrial Complex. At every turn there was another expense that I hadn’t considered, another person to hire, and another person who needed to be invited. Before I knew it, we had a DJ (even though Joshua and I both hate dancing), a plated dinner, a wedding coordinator, and a country club reception. Like so much of American culture, the catalogue ideal of a wedding began to dominate and my overtly religious high-church ceremony was pushed to the background.
COVID-19 threw everything out the window. When it became clear that we would not be able to have the wedding we planned this August, I canceled the caterer, florist, DJ, and wedding coordinator. All of a sudden all we had left was a small, church wedding and lunch for our parents, priest, and witnesses. It felt a little like preparing for a hurricane, only to realize that all you really need to do is bring the laundry in off the line. I mourned the loss of my big wedding in spite of myself. After helping so many girlfriends plan and execute their “big day,” I felt cheated. I didn’t know that I wanted a bridal shower, first dance, or bouquet toss until they were denied me.
Seeking solidarity with other brides, I took a trip down the #COVIDBride rabbit hole on Instagram. This turned up a lot of posts from other brides who had also canceled their large weddings in favor of small ceremonies. Their posts contained slogans reminding the internet that “COVID can’t stop love” and that what “really matters” in a wedding is that you get to “spend the rest of your life with the person you love.” These sentiments are not wrong, but they did remind me that the Christian theology of marriage is deeper, richer, and more powerful than can fit on an Instagram post.
Christian marriage is not primarily about romantic love but about Christian discipline. In days gone by it was expected that every sexually mature adult would make a vow disciplining his or her sexuality: a vow of chastity as a monk or nun, or a vow to “forsake all others” and be faithful only to a spouse. Thus, marriage is an ascetic act. It is a disciplining of desire for greater growth into the full stature of Christ.
My favorite traditional representation of the ascesis inherent in marriage is the crowns that the bride and groom wear when they are married in the Eastern Orthodox church. These are not the crowns of a princess bride, but the crowns of the martyrs. A married man gives up his exclusive right to his body and shares it with his wife, in the same way that we may all one day be called to give up our bodies in witness to Christ. In my own tradition, the discipline of marriage is celebrated in the nuptial Eucharist. The words “This is my body, given for you…” takes on a different color when celebrated as part of a wedding ceremony.
Eschatological tones also resonate throughout the marriage mass. In the Eucharist we enact the ritual mystery of Christ’s consummation of all things in the last days: “Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And anytime we are looking ahead to paradise, we are also looking behind to the paradise we left. Scripture tells us that marriage is the first blessing from God: it was in the world before sin. It is the covenant that precedes all other covenants. Before God chose Abraham as the father of his chosen people, gave Israel the Law on Mount Sinai, or promised David that his son would reign forever, he called Adam and Eve into covenant with one another. In this way, marriage is a reminder of what we had, and a hope of where we are going.
This, of course, does not mean that it is all roses and Hallmark cards. Ascesis is not meant to be easy. All spiritual disciplines require sacrifice and even pain at times. But the gain comes from the sacrifice. By giving up food and money we gain clarity of thought, recognition of our contingency, and trust in God’s provision. Man and wife do not only discipline their bodies to one another, but also their individual ambitions, desires, hopes, and fears. By giving up their individual whims, they gain a helper in trouble, a comforter in adversity, and a companion in joy.
COVID-19 was a purging flame to my own wedding. When I had the option to live out my “dream wedding” I found myself enslaved to societal expectations about how to do a wedding the right way. When COVID-19 restrictions were placed on my wedding planning, Joshua and I found that we were suddenly more free. We could invite only those who were dearest to us, without hurting feelings. We could serve the food we wanted at lunch without worrying about who was going to complain or not be impressed. I could choose the exact flowers I want and arrange them myself, because I suddenly had time to learn how to do it. I was reminded for the 1,000th time that Christian freedom is not the freedom to make arbitrary choices, but the freedom to seek God without distraction.
The uncertainty of the situation has taught me not to count on my own plans, or to take myself too seriously. I won’t have the wedding I planned, and I couldn’t be more excited about it. Like any good ascetic act, everything non-essential has been stripped away. Joshua and I are left with only the things that really matter: thanksgiving to God for calling us into the covenant of marriage — the first blessing He gave his creatures — and prayer that He will sustain this covenant with His grace, until we are parted by death.