By Zac Koons
Some time ago, you may have said and heard these (or similar) words: “In the Name of God, I take you, 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.”
We said them — these words that remake reality — but who among us really took time to meditate on them? To mark, learn, and inwardly digest them? How many of you, like me, with frenzied hearts inside frozen bodies, obediently repeated the magical incantations of the priest, but have never once revisited them? It comes down to this: Do these words genuinely describe the contours of a good marriage? Or is their enduring presence merely evidence of our preference for the romantic rhythms of Tudor prose?
This is a defense of the vows: these words have enduring theological power. They are not merely romantic. They provide a thick and specifically Christian account of marriage — one before which every marriage falls short, but nonetheless the vows provide us a vocabulary with which to articulate how our marriages, even in their failures, preach the gospel to the world. So this is a re-examination of what those words mean. I want to focus on just the verbs: take, have, hold, love, and cherish.
The taking is the choosing. It covers all the ground between eHarmony andmatrimony, from the first spark of romantic intent through to the priest’s pronouncement that you are now husband and wife. To take says this: Whether by divine providence or accidents of circumstance or some strange synergy of the two, of all the people I’ve met thus far, I like you the best. I take you.
The having covers the time from when you dance back down the aisle as newlyweds up until the day you or your spouse dies. To have names the covenant of marriage. In the language of the not-often-enough chosen wedding reading from the Song of Solomon: “For love is strong as death.” To have says this:
After today, there’s one other thing in my life that I can count on other than that one day I will die: It’s that until that day comes for one of us, I will be married to you.
To have means that given all the unpredictability of the human experience — in careers, in children or no children or not the children you wanted, in the specter or reality of illness or some other unplanned adversity — amid all the uncertainties in this life, those no longer include who my companion will be. Whatever comes, the one thing I now take for granted is that we will face them together. I have you.
To hold names something optional between now and the day that you are parted by death. It names all the actions through which you continue to pursue one another, even though your commitment to the other is no longer in question. In other words, to have is followed by to hold, acknowledging the possibility that just because one is married does not necessarily imply that one is in a good marriage. For the having to be enjoyable, one has to spend some time holding.
It’s a little like this: just because you have a first pressing of The Beatles’ White Album doesn’t mean that you’ve pulled it out and listened to it recently. And even if you have, were you really paying attention? Were you engaged in active listening? Or did you just ask The Beatles how their day was and then not really listen to the answer?
Holding is about intimacy. But it’s also about washing the dishes and watering the plants. It’s making eye contact while saying thank you — and stopping by the store on the way home without being asked to do so. Holding is all the habits that keep the having healthy. One way to think about the difference between having and holding is to consider the difference between baptism and Eucharist. Baptism is to have. It’s the once for all commitment. And Eucharist is the holding. It’s the way the relationship is maintained and flourishes.
To love names something you grow into in the course of your marriage. It’s not that you didn’t love one another leading up to your wedding day. Of course you did. But it’s also the case that the love you felt for one another on that day, however deep, however exuberant, however mature, will hopefully seem small compared to what love will mean in your marriage one day in the distant future looking back on your wedding day ten and 20 and 50 years in the future.
Most of us naturally think that love is the necessary precondition for marriage. But in reality the opposite is the case. It is only in the context of a lifelong commitment of having and regular practices of holding that one comes to recognize, looking back, what true love really is. Love in your marriage is moments of looking back at seasons of difficulty and stress, at fading feelings and gut-punching disappointments, and realizing you’ve come out the other side not only with a deeper bond between the two of you than you had before, but also realizing that you’ve become a person you never could’ve become without going through those specific things with this specific person — and feeling grateful for those changes.
Love is the adventure of discovering again and again what you meant when you said your wedding vows. Which is to say, there is no way you could have fully comprehended or anticipated the implications of what saying those words would have on your life. You cannot have known what these promises would require of you in the future. That’s what makes marriage so radical. At my wedding, our preacher said to us that there comes a moment in every marriage when you realize the person you married is not the person you always pictured. And at that moment you have to decide whether to tear up the picture or tear up the person. Love is tearing up the picture.
Everything is building up to the word cherish. It’s the most important word in the wedding service. Cherishing is similar to holding, but it’s less focused on actions. Think, for example, of things that you hold with two hands, things that are precious: like a diamond ring; like a treasured family heirloom; like a newborn baby; like the eucharistic bread. Holding precious things in two hands is what it means to cherish.
Things that we cherish don’t often have a lot of utility. An heirloom or a baby or a diamond aren’t practically very useful. But they are things that we just sit around and stare at nonetheless because we take delight in their sheer existence. To cherish, in marriage, is to say, “You are precious to me. I enjoy you, not because of what you do, or how you’re helpful, but just because of who you are. I take delight in you.” Cherishing names the manner in which you are withyour husband or wife. It names what is enclosed in a glance across the living room while you’re both reading a book. It’s the exchange of smiles when you wake up next to one another for the 5,000th time. It’s everything that communicates to your spouse: “You are an occasion of my joy.”
The combination of these five words describes a good marriage.
They also describe the gospel.
To take, have and hold, love and cherish describes the relationship between God and humanity.
God took us. He chose us in creation.
And God has us. God made a covenant with his people, which said that no matter what, no matter how bad things become, You will be mine. God’s commitment to us is something we can count on.
God holds us. The Bible is a long story of the ways in which God continued to pursue a people to whom he was already irreversibly committed. And that’s a drama that God, by the Holy Spirit, continues to participate in today.
And God loves us. We see this most clearly in the life of Jesus. Jesus shows us once for all the logic behind all of God’s sometimes confusing acts in history: It’s love. It’s sacrificial, life-giving love.
And finally, God cherishes us. Which is to say, God does not love, hold, have, and take us because we are useful or helpful to him. God does not need us. But God wants us because he enjoys us just for us. God has shaped the entire history of the world around this choice. God cherishes us. And in the end, in paradise, there will be nothing left but cherishing, nothing but enjoying companionship with God and one another forever.
The power of marriage is that the commitment you made on your wedding day looks a lot like the commitment that God makes to everybody. This, you might be thinking, is rather an intimidating model to imitate. But God doesn’t expect you to do it perfectly. It is, in fact, precisely the not doing it perfectly that provides a marriage with opportunity to most powerfully witness to the love of God. Because when we struggle to uphold these vows, God does not struggle to keep his vows to us.