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A couple of months before our recent wedding, my wife and I sat down with the Book of Common Prayer and turned to page 423. We read the header and the italicized rubrics, and then our eyes fell on those famous words: Dearly Beloved. “We’re really doing it?” she asked. “We’re really planning our wedding ceremony?”
“We really are,” I confirmed. We each held one side of the book as we leafed through the service, discussing music and readings and the people we might ask to participate. When we reached the end of the printed liturgy, she looked at me, confusion written on her face. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
I stifled a chuckle, remembering that each of the brides I had counseled before their weddings had asked me the same question. From the days when brides, my wife included, draped white pillowcases from their hair and walked down imaginary aisles lined with dolls and stuffed animals, they had each dreamed of saying those two small words. When they discovered that “I do” doesn’t appear in the beautiful Episcopal liturgy, I had ten-minute mutinies on my hands. “What do you mean I don’t get to say ‘I do?’ I’m out of here. We’ll get married at the VFW hall and my cousin will get a temporary license to officiate and he’ll let me say, ‘I do.’ Come on, dear, we’re leaving.”
After of few minutes, though, they calmed down enough to listen to reason. Now, I don’t relish the thought of destroying the dreams of brides everywhere, so I try to be as sensitive as possible. But when my own bride-to-be wondered aloud about the lack of those two little words, I didn’t really know what to say. My standard pastoral line wouldn’t work on her because I’m not her priest. So instead, I patted her on the back and resisted the urge to say, “There, there.”
A few weeks later, we had our first premarital counseling session, and the priest suggested that we memorize our vows rather than have the officiant feed them to us line by line. We decided to take on the challenge. Each day from then on, we practiced the vows. We spoke them aloud, prompting each other when we hesitated and gently correcting each other when we mixed up the phrases. Over the course of a few weeks, we learned the words by heart.
In the name of God, I, Adam, take you, Leah, to be my wife, 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. This is my solemn vow.
These deep, rich words sunk into us as we learned them. They are now the bedrock of our marriage, and (I hope my wife agrees with me!) they are so much better than “I do.” These words make me wonder: how often in our lives do we vow something? We might give assurances that we’ll get the paperwork done or promise to pick someone up after school, but we don’t “vow” to do these things.
Vows don’t happen too often. Witnesses swear to tell the whole truth in court; government officials, new citizens, and military folks pledge to uphold the Constitution or obey officers. These are as close to “vows” as people make outside of the covenant of marriage. But the “solemn vow” of marriage is unique in society, and that makes it all the more special.
A vow is neither time nor place specific. It covers more than the limited scenario during which one might make a promise. Indeed, a vow is not promise, but the framework on which promises are hung. This is made explicit by the pairs of opposites that the couple speaks during the vows – better and worse, richer and poorer, sickness and health. The vow is the acknowledgment that life will never quite be the same as it was before that moment, no matter how long a couple might have been living together before marriage. When I vowed to take Leah to be my wife, I entered into a new type of existence, one in which I now (at long last) own the fact that I am not the most important person in my own life. I vowed to cherish her and to love her – come what may. I can think of no greater duty and no greater joy than to explore with her this new existence that our vow has opened to us.
This new existence begins with the vow – not two measly words – but a few sentences that change lives. And the vow begins with a few more words that are more important the all the rest: “In the name of God…” The vow would mean nothing if God were not part of it. Just as the vow is the framework for all promises, God is the framework for the vow. The new existence into which we entered a few weeks ago at our wedding happens with God’s name at the top of the page. It couldn’t be otherwise.
I know that it has only been a few weeks, and we aren’t planning on having children for a while; but I wonder if our future daughter will put a pillowcase on her head and walk down an imaginary aisle? She probably will. But hopefully, we will teach her not to look forward to saying, “I do.” Rather, we will teach her to dream about the deep, rich words: “This is my solemn vow.”