By Ben Christenson
For the wisdom of the world is foolishness in God’s sight.
—1 Corinthians 3:19
I got married last year at 22. In retrospect, I see that my approach to our pre-COVID wedding was something along the lines of, “My wedding is a chance to see all my friends and family, and they can celebrate how in love I am.” To make it a good show, I would need a big entrance, a well-choreographed first dance, and a series of heartfelt toasts. My guestlist was 300+, my wedding party 26, and my plan to nail every big moment was set.
Then COVID struck. My wedding moved from a fancy barn to my living room, and my guestlist was reduced to parents and siblings. I had wanted to be the star of a Broadway production on my wedding day, but that dream evaporated as I contemplated a room of just family. As Jesus said, “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house.”
I know a thing or two about shows and weddings because my wife and I are devotees of the reality show 90 Day Fiancé. In the show, an American falls in love with someone from a foreign culture and country. The drama intensifies when the couple is united in America on a K-1 Visa that gives the couple 90 days to decide whether they will marry or the non-American partner will return home. Inevitably, some skeptical relative questions the wisdom of the relationship, to which the winning response is often a variation of, “I feel it in my heart.” With every invocation of the heart, I find myself nodding my head, “Yep, case closed.”
My wife and I are transfixed by these couples as they hurtle toward a marriage in the name of “true love,” even when we suspect that many of these relationships will end in disaster. We don’t really care because we enjoy witnessing what appears to be perfect, unshakeable love. We don’t want to know what comes after the wedding because that knowledge could wreck the fantasy.
This obsession with the moment of the wedding as the peak manifestation of love’s feelings is a cultural phenomenon. Weddings are a massive industry with 73 billion dollars in U.S. revenue and an average cost of $30,000. We watch weddings for entertainment: from Say Yes to the Dress to Say I Do. Yesterday’s luxuries — wedding planners, second shooters, and wedding DJs — are today’s necessities.
To keep one part of the big day simple, my wife and I decided we’d use the marriage ceremony from the Book of Common Prayer. I was surprised to discover that Hollywood has borrowed much of its language. In movies, the officiant often asks, “Do you take this man to be your husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live?” This language originates in the traditional Christian wedding vows reflected in the Book of Common Prayer.
But there is a major departure in Hollywood from the prayer book. In the prayer book, the officiant doesn’t begin with “Do you take this man” but “Will you have this man?” The response is not “I do” but “I will.” Hollywood positions the wedding day as the climax of love’s journey and joy in the present tense. By contrast, the prayer book presents the wedding day as the start of a new life together, a commitment for the future.
As we planned the wedding, I prided myself on using traditional Christian vows. However, when our priest noted this semantic distinction, I began to realize that my understanding of marriage, down to the very words I’d say, was shaped more by American norms than Christian ones. Americans tend to understand happiness as a set of feelings, which is why the rejoinder in 90 Day Fiancé, “I feel it in my heart,” appears to be unimpeachable. Accordingly, it is tempting to approach marriage essentially as a contract negotiation for greater happiness. “I have happiness and love; now I’ll add stability and peace of mind through marriage.” We’re comfortable evaluating decisions in these terms of mutual benefit and self-interest. “I do” is contractual language. It says, “I love you lots, and this is working right now [but perhaps we’ll see where things go from here].”
But, if marriage is a contract, it is a foolish one. I’m looking at a 70-year partnership with a woman I’ve known for just a few years who will undoubtedly become an entirely different person over the course of that time, and there’s no exit door?! There’s a reason that plenty of my peers are deciding that marriage is a contract signed by fools. One college friend was particularly candid on this point: “The only reason to get married is the tax breaks.”
By way of contrast, “I will” is covenantal. It’s an indissoluble promise that looks to a shared future. It’s mundane — “intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity” — and mystical — “it signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church.” It’s losing your life for another’s sake and in that finding it. COVID removed the distractions of a big reception, and suddenly, the ceremony and its vows were the main event.
However, with space to focus on my coming marriage rather than the afterparty, I became intimidated by the commitment I was undertaking. Like many during this past year, I got trapped in my head. I slipped back into approaching the wedding day as a display and validation of my passion. The world had changed overnight. How could I count on my feelings to never change? Then, my priest spoke a word that freed me: “Marriage isn’t a vow of preparedness; it’s a vow of faithfulness.”
C.S. Lewis observed that the job of a moral teacher is to bring us back, “time after time, to the old simple principles which we are all so anxious not to see.” The language of the prayer book and the biblical wisdom it preserves did just that. It’s hard to relinquish control and instead to trust in God for the future. But, in a chaotic year of shifting feelings, staking my life and marriage on the unchanging God and trusting in him suddenly looked quite sensible.
Since our wedding day, I have often been grateful that our marriage was built on the vows of faithfulness. COVID doesn’t make for a flashy newlywed life. We don’t run around to plays and bars and friend’s houses. We’re just home all the time. With that constant proximity comes some growing pains. Being newlyweds in COVID is like training at high altitudes. We’ve packed years’ worth of conflict and resolution into mere months. We’re better for it. Now, as life begins to return to normal, my challenge will be to remember this first year of marriage when our lives were simpler than I would’ve ever planned but richer than I could’ve ever hoped.
Ben Christenson is an aspirant in the Diocese of Virginia and a recent graduate of William & Mary where he attended Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, VA.