In 2008, I surprised my wife by marrying her…again.
I have known Stephanie since 1993. We began dating when I was 14 and were married five years later. Any decent gambler knows you don’t bet on that kind of marriage lasting, but somehow we beat the odds to become a more or less happy statistical anomaly.
Our “first” wedding was a grand affair – a multimedia extravaganza! It was attended by over 500 guests and at least eight candelabras! As people were seated, the maid of honor sang Third Day to the guitar stylings of my best man, a slideshow chronicled our relationship in pictures, and another close friend performed a solo, all leading up to that magical moment when we said our vows. As I recall, a single teardrop trickled down my cheek when I placed the ring on Stephanie’s finger.
A lot has changed in our relationship since then. We graduated, then moved. I became a minister, then stopped being a minister. We moved again so I could get my doctorate, and we brought three healthy Americans into existence.
But the biggest change was our conversion to the Orthodox Church. It brought with it a new way of worship, of looking at life, and thinking about our relationships, especially our relationship with each other. You might say our marriage converted with us. It was different now, and on our ten year anniversary I wanted to acknowledge that difference by by marrying my wife all over again.
So with the help of some ladies who can plan a wedding and keep a secret, I managed to reserve the church, secure the priest, send invitations, organize a reception, and get my wife to the church dressed and ready for the occasion without having any idea what she was about to walk into.
(To be honest, the women I recruited to my scheme pretty much did everything. But I still got most of the points!)
Our “second wedding” was simpler than the first. After the initial surprise wore off, Stephanie walked down the aisle to the “Unwedded Bride,” a hymn about Mary. We stood in front of the priest while two “crowns” were held over our head. Sometimes the crowns were placed on our own heads, switched, and switched back again. I honestly cannot remember all the details. What I remember most is the prayer. There are no vows in the Orthodox wedding ritual. For about thirty or forty minutes the priest just asked God to unite us together in love (he left out the prayers asking for many children, thank God!).
When I think about that day, the difference in intent and mood always strikes me. I do not want to be polemical or draw sharp contrasts between “Western” and “Eastern” or “Protestant” and “Orthodox” attitudes about marriage. I can only speak from <em>my own</em> experience. One ceremony just felt more reverent, and therefore meaningful, than the other.
We were putting on a show back in 1998. Our guests were fans, and we wanted to make sure they didn’t get bored! Our intentions were honorable. We really just wanted people to have a good sense of the depths of our love for each other. We wanted them to be as excited about our wedding day as we were!
Ten years later, there were no guitars, no microphones, and not a candelabra in sight. I am not sure you can say we “celebrated” anything. We did not even face each other but stood before the iconostasis, looking into the faces of Christ and his Mother. This “second” wedding was an act of worship!
Orthodoxy teaches that marriage is a sacrament. So my life with Stephanie is a means to my salvation. The self-denial a monk learns through the ascetic life, I am supposed to learn in married life.
I am not saying I am a good student or that Steph and I don’t have challenges. My point is just that, on that day, I started to learn that my marriage was not going to “work” because of what I brought to it. Instead, I needed to learn to see Stephanie as a gift from God and our love as a work of grace.
The absence of vows reminds me more of this fact than anything else. The Holy Spirit is clearest in our silence, and that day I seemed to hear, “This marriage is not a contract or even a covenant. You will not be “happy” because you two keep promises to each other. Only the God who is love can keep you in love. This marriage will be nothing less than a miracle! So stand aside, you stupid man, and start praying!”