Ten minutes to show time, and the pews are filled with guests. Soft, unobtrusive music flows from the organ pipes, muffling voices and the footfalls of last-minute arrivals. The groom and groomsmen, thankfully all present and accounted for, wait in the lounge for their cue. Parents smile and check for the tissues they’ve tucked into purses and pockets. Hidden away in a corner room off the narthex, one woman in white huddles with several others in some shade of satin that they’ll never wear again, whatever the bride may have promised. She adjusts her posture, realizes her stiffness, shifts again, breathes deeply, purposefully; her friends and sisters fuss with hems and hair and bouquets.
Meanwhile, I crouch at the front of the sanctuary, robe and stole puddling on the slate floor, a roll of masking tape around my wrist like a particularly hideous bracelet as I secure the aisle runner that everyone else forgot until now and no one else knows what to do with. In the back of my head the usual voice whispers, “This is not what I thought I was getting into when I went to seminary.” That thought is true of so much of ministry that it’s barely worth my eye-rolling response to myself. The bride’s mother taps my shoulder – do I happen to have a safety pin? I do, as a matter of fact. I have several of them, in a variety of sizes, in the same bag from which I produced the masking tape – which also came in handy when the unity candle set didn’t quite fit into the holders. The same bag also holds bobby pins, double-sided tape, a Tide pen, a small sewing kit, tissues, water, and assorted other helpful objects that I’ve accumulated. I was a bridesmaid four times, a personal attendant another four, and I’ve performed well over fifty weddings (I don’t count, but that’s a conservative estimate). You pick up things over time – skills and objects that smooth the chaos that goes on around weddings.
I never intended to become an expert on corsage pinning, rapid dress repair, or bridal party placement. Honestly, I never even meant to become proficient in the things that are more closely associated with being the officiant: vow selection, music options, readings from sacred and secular sources, symbolic ceremonies for those who find the unity candle overused, methods for including children, ways to recognize relatives who have passed on or can’t be present. I’ve never planned a wedding of my own. I never even liked weddings before I was ordained. Now I sometimes think that if the ministry thing doesn’t work out, I’ll get one of those Jennifer Lopez headsets and go into wedding planning.
Something happened to me the first time I sat down with a couple to help them plan their marriage ceremony, and the first time I read out the vows for them to repeat as they looked into each other’s eyes. It keeps happening, every time a new couple settles into the couch in my office to tell me what they envision for their wedding day, every time I stand with two people as they speak the words of their commitment to each other, whether I work with them for a year or they call me the day before to fill in for an officiant that cancelled. I’m pretty sure it’s not my inner romantic making an appearance.
Many of the people whose weddings I perform have not been in a church, have not even thought about church, for a very long time – or sometimes ever. God and faith sit somewhere on a spectrum of priorities for them, often not particularly high on the list. However, when they decide to get married, suddenly they want something sacred to be part of that commitment. Cynics might say that what they want is the beauty of an impressive building, or to satisfy parents more religious than themselves, but that’s not my experience, even with those who ask for minimal religious language in their ceremonies. What I hear time after time is a desire for something bigger than two people, something deeper than words exchanged, something more precious than a physical setting or a gathering of family and friends. What I hear is a longing for a little bit of the holy, an infusion of the divine into a ritual that could otherwise be consumed by the materialism and details of our wedding culture.
I officiate the number of weddings that I do because it is the one chance I have to offer that spark of God to people who might not think about wanting it at any other time. It is a rare opportunity to extend hospitality, to welcome people into this space that we think of as ours, and also into this liturgy that gives structure and words to the commitment people have been making to each other as long as there have been people. Being a minister allows me to be part of this landmark in people’s lives, to help them have a day (or at least an hour) that honors the love they have for each other, and their broader connection to humanity and to God.
Even I sometimes wonder what pinning broken straps on bridesmaids’ dresses and taping down aisle runners has to do with creating space for the sacred in people’s lives. I suspect most other clergy don’t usually do these things, and wonder if it would ever occur to couples to ask my male peers some of the things they ask me. I could easily leave my bag of pins and tape in my office and shrug off these things that are not really my job.
At my core, though, I believe that the sacred and the secular are not really separate, and that God is in the seemingly meaningless details, as much as in the obviously significant events of life. Granted, God might not care much about the spot on the white dress, but it seems to me that God might care about the woman in the white dress being able to think about the life step she is about to take instead of about the spot. The vows, the prayers, the Scripture and sermon are undoubtedly the more substantial parts of the wedding, and as ministers, we get to help couples mark the beginning of their life together through them. But I like to think there is also unexpected grace in the little things that smooth the path to and through that day. Perhaps a little of God comes through in the hospitality of safety pins and masking tape.
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