The Heart of Wedding: What is a Marriage?
I recently performed a wedding at a hospice in New York City. The bride and groom had two children and had lived together for seven years. His liver was failing, and no one was sure if he would live out the day. A special license was issued by a judge, and the wedding took place 15 minutes after it was valid. Family and friends gathered around as I read the required monitum, “Before you are legally joined together in my presence and in the presence of these, your family and friends, I am bound to remind you publicly of the solemn, the serious, and the binding nature of the relationship into which you are now about to enter. It is made in the deepest sense to the exclusion of all others, and it is entered into with the desire, the hope, and the firm intention that it will last for life.”
No one could hold back the tears, but after the vows, the groom’s mother said the traditional Jewish wish, “Mazel Tov.” Good luck! Congratulations!
I have thought about this wedding a great deal. What is marriage? The groom had hours to live. By marrying, he gave his wife certain legal recourse for social services. Is that why they married? If so, why did the bride wear a special dress? The groom wore a tuxedo shirt. The families had bottles of sparkling grape juice to pop open after the ceremony. One of the rewards of being a civil celebrant is that you get to see the truth of humanity, which is not self serving, but reaches out to connect. This couple was not making a business decision to marry. They were reaching out for eternity.
Ultimately, the decision to be a couple and to marry is a personal decision that cannot be defined by government or religious authorities, but comes from the need to recognize the special connection between two people when they choose to attach their individual identities to make a third identity: i.e. We are a couple. In doing so, they are not primarily saying we will pay taxes together or even have children together. Rather, they are saying we will have a life that incorporates your identity with mine.
I do not subscribe to the liturgy of any religion when I acknowledge my belief that there is an energy which we call faith and soul. Marriage is an act of faith. We identify ourselves as a couple because we feel that our soul will be transformed and enlarged by being together with another person, rather than being alone. We have no proof for our belief; we have no guarantee. We act upon faith, a belief that is not grounded in rational consideration, but is based upon the energy we feel when we are intimate with the other person: That faith activates us to be together and expands our sense of being, our soul.
When my hospice couple married, even though their physical connection was temporal, their souls were changed. When we wished them mazel tov, we weren’t wishing them future money and comfort. We were acknowledging the good fortune that had given their souls the opportunity to be together even for a brief moment. The physical world is ever changing and impermanent, but that moment of union was a blessing beyond the measure of time.