I’ll often scratch that off the list of negotiables, telling them that 1 Corinthians 13 should be reserved for a later time…
when their love for each other is genuine instead of just lustful.
Then I like to dispatch the future Mr and Mrs to scripture, suggesting they go and find a less cliched passage for their nuptials. One more suited for where they’re at in their relationship.
They usually return, having waded through the dysfunction of the Old Testament marriages, the X-rated content of the Song of Songs and the misogyny of Paul (‘…wives submit to your husbands…’), all the more determined to have ‘love is patient…’ for their special day.
But I still don’t let them.
And not only because wedding ceremonies fool us into forgetting that the love Paul names in 1 Corinthians 13 isn’t the love of man and woman but the love of Christ:
“Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind, Jesus is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Jesus does not insist on his own way.
Jesus bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. “
And not only because the love of Christ so described by Paul finds its embodiment not in marriage but in membership to the Body of Christ.
I don’t let them because in the euphoric context of a wedding it’s too easy to suppose that 1 Corinthians 13 describes a sentiment that already presently exists between bride and groom.
But it doesn’t.
Paul isn’t describing what is today.
Paul is demanding what you will do tomorrow. Ad infinitum.
However patient and kind bride and groom are towards each other the day they marry, they’re still a far cry from the genuine, Christ-like love Paul exhaustively catalogs for the Corinthians.
That’s because genuine, Christ-like love is not the recognition of a feeling, sentiment or emotion that exists between two people.
Genuine, Christ-like love is the recognition between two people of their obligation to always love the other.
Come what may.
And ‘obligation’ is about the last word in the minds of brides and grooms on their wedding day.
Indeed if ‘love’ is the spontaneous, overpowering emotion that catches two people up into each other lives, then ‘obligation’ sounds like love’s antonym.
It’s not though.
The obligation of genuine love makes 50 Shades of Grey seem as dull as Popular Mechanics.
But usually a marriage needs a little mileage before that becomes clear.
Whereas I hate being but one cog in the billion dollar wedding industry, no more or less important than the caterer and videographer, I’m actually grateful to be able to preside when couples wish to renew their wedding vows.
I love officiating renewal ceremonies because it’s only after a marriage has a lot of mileage on it that the enormity of a couples’ vows comes into focus.
Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. Whoever said that?
For example, their vows contain no ‘if-then’ clauses:
If you love me this way, then I’ll love you in return that way.
If you do this for me, then I’ll do this for you.
But if you do that to me, then I will cease doing this to you.
They’re not conditional.
They offer the future- eternity- to the other.
And hope and pray the present leads them there.
When couples make their vows, they’re promising to figure out a way to love the other no matter where life takes them, what the world hands them or who one or the other turn out to be.
Often it’s only when couples revisit these promises decades later that both the absurdity and the holiness of such an obligation becomes obvious.
And often it’s because they’re revisiting these promises after their life together has turned out differently than they had imagined it on their wedding day.
Their marriage hasn’t been as happy or as easy as they had once expected. One or other of the couple is no longer the person they once were or, just as challenging, they’ve remained the same person.
They’ve had their ups and downs. They’ve lost possessions, arguments, jobs and maybe children.
Feelings have fleeted and then returned as of old or in a different form or maybe not at all. They’ve inflicted wounds and licked others.
They’ve forgiven and forgotten some things and just chosen to forget others.
On these only occasions, do I encourage a reading from 1 Corinthians 13.
I do so because in such a context it’s crystal clear that Paul isn’t waxing poetic about the feelings between two people; he’s describing a summons to our future behavior towards the other.
He’s naming our obligation to love.
In the name of Christ.
Who loves us the selfsame way.
Genuine love for your spouse is the recognition that you’re obligated always to love them.
And if that sounds unromantic to you, then perhaps you’re not married.
Or haven’t been married long enough.
Because as someone who’s stood in front of couples revisiting their vows after 40, 50, and 60 years together- years that were not always happy, easy or seemingly worth it- I can tell you there’s something deeply moving about two people who know the other’s every flaw and foible promising to figure a way to move forward and work it out.
More so than that moment when I say ‘You may now kiss the bride’ there’s something applause-worthy about two people who truly know each other promising each other the future- but still possessing nothing more than the hope that the future will be a happy one.
Genuine love is realizing you’ve promised the other such a future and thus you’re obligated to do everything you can to get there.
It may contradict the arc of every romantic comedy, but people do not marry out of genuine love for each other.
That’s because only marriage makes genuine love between two people possible.
Such a genuine love is powerful, I suspect, because it’s exactly how God loves us.
God in Christ obligates himself always to love us. God vows the future- eternity- without knowing if we will ultimately reciprocate God’s love, return God’s fidelity with fidelity of our own.
And if that’s how God loves us in Christ, then the vow we make to our spouse is the holiest thing we ever do.