Yesterday, I went to a lovely wedding of a young lady to whom I’m related by a blood relative’s marriage to one of her blood relatives–and who, on her own merits as a fine person, I like very much. Blessedly, it was a modest affair, at least by the standards of television. (I really dislike the whole idea of the Broadway-spectacular wedding.) A service in the somewhat rural Presbyterian church where both young people attend, followed by a buffet lunch in a historic inn, group pictures which included all living descendents of various sets of (great) grandparents. Happy people, happy to join their families and friendships together by entering into this marriage. Babies crawling on the floor of both the church and the reception venue, octogenarians being helped from place to place by younger and fitter relatives. People meeting each other for the first time; people reuniting with loved ones they had not seen for years. A chance for the bride and groom to personally greet every single guest and spend a few moments in real conversation. Table flowers arranged in the teacups owned by the bride’s grandmother. What (in my mind) a wedding is supposed to be. Picture perfect weather, too.
I don’t think I’ve ever been to a wedding in a Presbyterian church before, and so I’m not sure what is typical. But having earned a living for a few years by observing worship (and being these days more an observer of Christianity than an observant Christian), I went into researcher mode. There was much I recognized as exactly the same as the Episcopal service of marriage, as well as some things I would have expected in a modern service, such as vows written by the couple. I was a little surprised that the officiating minister asked the congregation to join him in the prayer to bless the rings–and that a wooden box containing the rings was passed through the congregation so that each person present could touch them as a part of that blessing.
Something I had never seen in a wedding service also occurred. The couple, as their “first act as husband and wife”, chose to include a simple ceremony of washing one another’s feet. John 13:1-13 was read. An explanation of the passage and action was given, as a sign that love for one another would be expressed more simple acts of daily assistance and care, than grand romantic (expensive) gestures.
Later, at the reception, I had a brief chance to talk with the groom, whom I had never met prior to yesterday’s celebrations. I wished him all the best as he and my young relative worked toward all the aspirations expressed in their service of Christian marriage.
And he got it. He got that a marriage service is only in smallest part an expression of the love that exists between the couple who exchange vows and rings. That is necessary, but it isn’t the most important part. The important part is that the couple understand that the service is an expression of hope–the service is about what the couple (and all marriages) aspire to achieve by joining their lives together.
I’ve only preached one wedding in my life, and I don’t expect to preach another. In that one sermon, I raised a question: why don’t we give, and happily receive, pencil-leads as an engagement gift as opposed to diamnonds? After all, it’s the same stuff–carbon atoms. Same substance, different form.
And the graphite of pencil-lead is a more fitting representation of early-stage love and commitment than a diamond. It is easily breakable, wears down, has no permanence (we “pencil in”–or at least used to, when we kept them on paper–appointments in our calendars that might or might not be real commitments). It serves the purpose of the “now”, but its nature is not to endure.
Those same atoms, with heat, pressure, and time–just the stuff of natural processes, really–can also form diamonds. A diamond, even one that is less than perfect, has a permanence and even a beauty that graphite doesn’t have.
So the symbol of the intention to form a permanent union is a diamond–and as perfect a diamnod as one can acquire–rather than pencil lead. It’s an aspiration, not a reality. The diamond becomes stronger, clearer, purer over time, through constant exposure to heat and pressure.
A committed relationship also becomes stronger through regular exposure to heat and pressure over time. Or at least that’s the aspiration that I see in the symbolism of the diamond ring as a gift that marks the intention to marry. It isn’t about the “now”, but it’s about hope.