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What's the Purpose of a Wedding?

by Willard F. Harley, Jr.

With weddings so expensive these days, there are many who are choosing to skip the event and put the money into a down payment on a townhouse, or pay down school debt. It sure makes sense when you consider how financially tethered young couples find themselves, even before handing out an average of over $25,000 for a wedding. So are weddings that important? Are they really worth the money?

About ten years ago, this topic came up on a Public Radio broadcast that I was invited to join. Since it was a burning issue then, when our economy was in fairly good shape, you can imagine the scope of the issue today with so many facing serious financial burdens. But my perspective on the topic has not changed with the additional financial struggles we all face. I believe that weddings are important even now when so many engaged couples are broke.

A wedding has three purposes, each with its own price tag. But only one of the purposes is so valuable that it should not be ignored.

One purpose of a wedding is to celebrate the marriage. In some cultures, that celebration can go on for a week or more with the couple's parents (or the couple) supporting the lavish living of friends and relatives as they party on. In our culture, the celebration usually lasts only one evening, but it can still be very expensive.

Another purpose that isn't often stated, but usually exists, is the showcasing of the bride. It's her day. She grabs the center of attention, and the more that's spent, the more valuable she will appear to be to the guests -- and presumably, to the groom.

But it's the third purpose of a wedding that is the most valuable of the three. It's to provide a ceremony of spoken promises. Before God and witnesses, a bride and groom recite their vows to each other.

So if you are thinking of saving money by skipping the marriage, I'd like you to consider a worthy option: Have only a wedding ceremony.

A Valuable Wedding Ceremony

A wedding ceremony's prime function is to provide the bride and groom an opportunity to make promises to each other. Those promises form the basis of their marriage and give the officiating clergy the right to pronounce them man and wife. So care should be taken to be certain that the promises, if kept, will make their marriage fulfilling and secure. And the entire ceremony should emphasize and clarify those promises to the friends and family that attend.

Traditional wedding promises go something like this:

Will you take this (woman, man) to be your (wife, husband), to live together in the covenant of marriage? Will you love (her, him), comfort (her, him), honor and keep (her, him) in joy and in sorrow, in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others be faithful to (her, him) so long as you both shall live.

These and similar vows emphasize three core elements of marriage that have proven to be very valuable over the centuries. First, a marriage is a permanent relationship (as long as you both shall live). Second, it is sexually exclusive (forsaking all others be faithful). And third, it is a relationship of extraordinary care (love, comfort, honor, and keep in joy and in sorrow, in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health).

I encourage a bride and groom to write these promises in their own words, and expand upon them. Their marriage will be permanent -- they are in this relationship for life. They will guard their marriage from outside threats, making sure that they will never have a romantic relationship with anyone else. And they will care for each other far more than they will care for anyone else -- they will be first in each other's lives.

Extraordinary care means that they will do what they can to make each other happy by meeting each other's most important emotional needs, especially the needs of affection, intimate conversation, sexual fulfillment, and recreational companionship. And they will take the necessary time to be sure that those needs are met, regardless of how busy they become.

Extraordinary care also means that they will avoid making each other unhappy. They won't be demanding, disrespectful, angry, or dishonest. They will consider each other's feelings and interests before making decisions. If one objects to what the other wants to do, that person simply won't do it until a mutually enthusiastic agreement is reached. They will protect each other from their selfish instincts.

The entire marriage ceremony should reflect on those vows. The music and the minister's sermon should focus attention on what the bride and groom will be promising each other. By the time the vows are spoken by the couple, no guest should have any doubt regarding the meaning of their promises to each other. And the ceremony should be a guide for guests who may have forgotten their own promises. Many who attend weddings find themselves recommitting themselves to each other when the purpose of the ceremony is made clear.

Should You Have a Wedding?

The primary objection to having a wedding these days is the cost. But the cost of a wedding ceremony, the most important part, is negligible. Anyone can afford one. It's the other parts that put a wedding outside of the financial reach of so many.

So consider having a wedding without the celebration and showcasing of the bride. I know that for some, that advice may seem out of touch with what people expect, especially the bride. But when you consider the alternatives (no marriage or no ceremony until every expectation can be afforded), a ceremony by itself begins to sound reasonable.

One advantage to a wedding ceremony only, or a ceremony with a very limited celebration (cake and punch in the church's reception area), is that you can invite as many guests as you want. The cost is almost the same whether 50 or 500 attend. And the more who witness your marriage, the more support you will have in the years ahead. These are the people who heard your vows and will hold you accountable to fulfill them. Ultimately, that's the real purpose of a wedding.

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