This past weekend, I attended an ‘inter-faith’ wedding, staged in a beautiful, rural, upstate New York location–on a farm. It was an emotional and moving experience. I didn’t just attend the wedding; I also ‘officiated’; that is, I ‘performed’ the wedding ceremony. I read out a brief opening address, and with a co-officiant, shepherded the couple–two good friends of ours, who had granted us this privilege–through the various steps: beautiful, moving songs–including a favorite lullaby–sung by the bride’s mother and childhood friend, a secular version of the Jewish blessings of the wine and the seven blessings, and the exchange of vows and rings and the declaration–‘by the powers vested in me by the state of New York’–as husband and wife. (My authority to solemnize my friends’ wedding is drawn from my, ahem, ordainment as a minister in the Universal Life Church.¹) And then, finally, the smashing of the glass, the loud, ringing ‘Mazel Tov!’
(I was a little nervous, a little afflicted by stage fright as the wedding began; my worst fears were confirmed as I began by mispronouncing the groom’s name, and then stumbled over my attempt to recover, blurting out, in a painfully tongue-tied moment, that that mispronouncement would only be ‘the first of my errors.’ Fortunately, my refusal to be fazed by a wildly fluttering chuppah stood me in good stead, and the ceremony moved on smoothly from that point thereafter. Many guests at the wedding offered their kind reassurances afterwards that I hadn’t screwed up things too badly.)
From there on, it was kisses and hugs and cocktails and dinner and toasts and dancing and Hava Nagila. (I would have danced and frolicked a bit longer, a bit more uninhibitedly, if I had not been afflicted by a slightly sprained ankle.)
Marriage is a notion with a contested history and meaning. It is the subject of political disputes and legal wrangles; it is a term still up for bitter and emotional definition and contestation. Who may get married? To whom? And how? And so on. Those debates are fascinating–most of us will have engaged in them at some time or other. (I’ve done so on this blog.) On Saturday, I sidestepped the debates, but I still remained engaged by the concept.
As I watched my good friends get married, a familiar thought occurred to me: a wedding, which signals the beginning of a marriage and a married life for two persons, is most fundamentally a public, participatory act, a celebration of a loving relationship in the company of those important to them. This thought most animated my opening remarks; certainly the sharing of the relationship, the calling together of friends and family to celebrate with each other was what my friends sought to place front and center in their ceremony and the doings afterward. They succeeded.
If only those who seek to legislate on this matter could be similarly inclined.
1. Apparently, the authority of Universal Life Church ministers to solemnize marriages in New York State is a matter of some legal dispute, a rather dismaying fact that has only now come to my attention.