It’s Not Just About Mason Jars? (Marriage as Sacrament)

**Title plays on the wedding blog craze today, wherein handmade weddings with rustic chic/vintage themes topple over one another in a Babel-like tower of human creativity. Mason jars are, to put it mildly, often used in decor. I’m sorry if this title makes no sense to you, but I am steeped in this nutso world right now…and yes, there will be mason jars at our wedding.

I’ve been fascinated by sacraments and sacramental theology since my trip to Orvieto, Italy, last summer. Born and raised Pentecostal, I don’t think I’d even heard the word “sacrament” until my twenties, and even then, it had disturbingly Catholic connotations. But since I’ve come to Fuller, the idea of sacraments has become utterly captivating. St. Augustine said that sacraments are visible signs of invisible grace, and I dig that. I love the idea of the world being charged with God’s presence, of his Spirit shading us from the boughs of a magnolia tree or reminding us of our smallness by a sunset’s consuming fire.

There are seven recognized sacraments in the Catholic tradition, and though I can’t rattle them off by heart, I do know a few: the Lord’s Supper, baptism, marriage. I get communion as a sacrament; God using the most basic of our needs—hunger and thirst—to remind us of the risk he took for us, and to provide a doorway into a mysterious union with this very Son of God.

And baptism—I remember the day I was baptized at 17 years old in a church member’s hot tub, the strong hands of my pastor lifting me out of the water, dead for a moment and into the February sunshine and new life. Water is almost sacramental by nature, as are the other elements: earth, wind, fire. Recently on a day trip to the mountains my fiancé and I paddled a canoe around the lake, then dragged it on shore so we could take a dip in the cold clear green water. I can’t explain what happened, but something wound tight and anxious in my heart was wiggled loose by that mountain water. I came out new.

But the sacrament of marriage—this has always mystified me. How is it lumped in with baptism and the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper? Does something mysterious, even mystical, happen when a person makes vows to another, to have and to hold and to cherish?

I’m getting married in a matter of weeks, so these things have been on my mind. I’ve been pondering the seriousness of what I’m doing, but the frantic nature of wedding planning blurs and muffles my thoughts like snow flurries. In the midst of finding a venue, selecting a caterer, and shopping for a dress, I think about the fact that I am preparing for a ceremony, a rite of passage, a ritual, even. That alone makes it feel like a serious event. But then, when I think about what the ceremony is marking—the commitment to share everything I have, everything I am with another broken but beautiful human being, for life—I am utterly sobered. “People do this every single day!” I cried recently to my friend Megan. “Do they know how big a deal it is?” As the years go by, people are seeing the institute of marriage as less permanent, more fluid. Last winter I read somewhere that for my generation, the only decision seen as irreversible is having children.

But for me, marriage is a commitment for life, and I have not found myself as giddy with joy over the wedding as the button-nosed pixies seem to be in romantic comedies. I even wonder about my emotional state at the ceremony itself. I take my vows in life incredibly seriously, and this is one of the most significant vows I will ever make.

Will our guests worry if I look too serious?

Many Christians say, “Choosing your spouse is the most important, life-altering decision you will ever make—next to choosing to follow Christ.” I disagree. When I chose to follow Christ, I could reverse my decision any time I wanted to. I still can. I can walk away from this life and commitment right now, and although I will suffer consequences, they are not as tangible as those of a divorce. However, I do see that my relationship with Christ has been an endless string of little yes-es, of choosing again and again to listen, obey, do the hard thing, open my heart, forgive, let go, love when it hurts. I’m guessing marriage will be like that, too.

There are plenty of chances for those choices now, as well, in the ups and downs of engagement. It’s a crazy season when a ring on your finger suddenly raises the stakes—oh, this is for life—and you’re making endless decisions every day, dealing with the pressure of well-meaning friends, relatives, and wedding blogs.  The increasing intimacy of beginning to merge your life with another is scary, indeed, and can feel very much like a sanctifying, consuming fire. It can also feel like an emotional roller coaster, as you are faced again and again with the other’s brokenness—but so much worse, your own brokenness, in a way you’ve never had to face it before. And yet as you slog on, you find yourself wading deeper into this desperate love sickness you didn’t even know was possible in real life. The Sufi mystic Rumi puts it so well in one of his love poems:

We are the mirror as well as the face in it.

We are tasting the taste this minute

of eternity. We are pain

and what cures pain, both. We are

the sweet cold water and the jar that pours.

I want to hold you close like a lute, so we can cry out with loving.

You would rather throw stones at a mirror?

I am your mirror, and here are the stones.

It’s hard to know sometimes if I’m throwing stones at Robert, or at myself. The one thing I can know is that by seeing myself reflected so clearly in the mirror of my beloved—in the way my words and my deeds heal him or hurt him—my precious illusion of myself has been shattered.

What is this but sacrament?

How can I not be sober about the ceremony for which I am preparing, when I will stand before my community and commit to this thrilling and excruciating process, this life of endless little choices for love, for another rather than myself?

And when I think back to my baptism, that other sacramental milestone, I approached it with the utmost seriousness as well. I remember sitting in a room with the others getting baptized, listening to our pastor talk about what it means, the public commitment we were making. A few moments later, with grave purpose I took three steps down into the warm water and crossed my arms over my chest. “I baptize you, Joy, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” and I was submerged in silence and darkness. Then it was like I was being suctioned out of the water, which rushed off of me in drops and sheets, and I was laughing—crying and laughing—I was dunked in grace made visible and knew that everything had changed.


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