The trumpets sound, the music is played, the nervous groom takes his position at the altar and the image of the gorgeous bride appearing at the back of the church sets everyone’s heart aflutter. As she walks down the center aisle, she smiles at friends to the left and the right and joins her groom at the front of the church. They say a few vows, they exchange rings and the pastor announces them to the guests as the new Mr. and Mrs. Holding hands, they walk back down the aisle together, and everyone celebrates the new union with food, wine and dancing. It is a magical event, but, unbeknownst to many, the wedding ceremony is an event that speaks of death and sacrifice.
For those that choose a Christian wedding, the couple is doing more than signing a contract. They are establishing a covenant. In the Old Testament, a covenant was thought of as a “walk into death.” Dennis Rainey, well known Christian speaker and author, says, “I have had a growing concern that the Christian community has passively watched the ‘dumbing down’ of the marriage covenant. Marriage has become little more than an upgraded social contract between two people—not a holy covenant between a man and a woman and their God for a lifetime. In the Old Testament days a covenant was solemn and binding. When two people entered into a covenant with one another, a goat or lamb would be slain, and its carcass would be cut in half. With the two halves separated and lying on the ground, the two people who had formed the covenant would solemnize their promise by walking between the two halves saying, ‘May God do so to me (cut me in half) if I ever break this covenant with you and God!’”
Yikes! If you enter into a covenant, according to OT principles, you are saying, “Hey, God, if I ever break my covenant, You can just kill me right now.” Yep, I would say many of us entered marriage not realizing the significance of our wedding ceremony.
Let’s take a little deeper look at these ancient rituals. Mary Fairchild, a writer for the popular website www.GotQuestions.org, explains the covenant of biblical days in an easy to understand format.
“Easton's Bible Dictionary explains that the Hebrew word for covenant is berith,
which comes from the root meaning ‘to cut.’ A blood covenant was a formal, solemn,
and binding agreement—a vow or pledge—between two parties made by ‘cutting’ or
dividing of animals into two parts. In Genesis 15:9-10, the blood covenant began with the sacrifice of animals. After splitting them precisely in half, the animal halves were arranged opposite each other on the ground, leaving a pathway between them. The two parties making the covenant would walk from either end of the path, meeting in the middle. The meeting ground between the animal pieces was regarded as holy ground. There the two individuals would cut the palms of their right hands and then join these hands together as they mutually pledged a vow, promising all their rights, possessions, and benefits to the other. Next, the two would exchange their belt and outer coat, and in so doing, take some part of the other person's name.”-Mary Fairchild
We see this played out in 1 Samuel 18:3: “And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt.”
So, what is the difference between a contract and a covenant?
1. Contracts deal with services rendered and received and is usually between two parties. A covenant is between 3 parties and gives authority to God.
2. A contract is based on an “if, then” mentality. You sign a contract with the understanding you will get something in return. If you do not get the “something in return” you can break the contract. A covenant is initiated not to benefit us, but to benefit the other person in which we are entering the agreement.
3. A contract is legally binding, but a covenant is spiritually binding.
4. A contract is signed but a covenant is sealed. (In historical days the wax seal from a king’s ring was binding and could not be broken.)
I have a yearning desire to always know the “why” behind what I am asked to do. Wedding traditions are no different. Why does the groom enter the church first? Why do we exchange rings? And, seriously, I’m supposed to feed cake to my new husband?
Whether you are a Christian or not, I think you will find the wedding ceremony practices interesting. It will give you an understanding as to where these traditions came from, and what each one of them means. Now that we understand the basics of a covenant, let’s look at the wedding rituals and see how they mirror the blood covenant of biblical times.
Why is there a bride’s side and a groom’s side for the invited guests, and why is there a center aisle?
The two sides of the aisle represent the two halves of the animal sacrifice. Remember in the description when a covenant ceremony took place, an animal was cut in half. Both sides were placed facing each other, but they were far enough apart to create a center aisle where both people entering into the covenant could walk. In the wedding, the center aisle now becomes the pathway where the two entering the covenant will meet. Some couples will place a white runner down the aisle. This signifies that the pathway, the covenant walk, is holy ground. The sacrificed animal is also a way of saying, “What once was has now been sacrificed and is no longer.” Walking between the displayed animal was called a walk of death. This same “walk of death” occurs on our wedding day. We enter as a single person, as part of one family unit, but we are giving that up, sacrificing our old way of life, to become part of a new family that consists solely of our spouse, and no others.
Why does the groom enter first?
In the bible Christ represents the groom and the church represents the bride. Although we love to think of marriage as being about the love two people have for each other (which it partly is), Christian marriage was created to be a representation of the church and Christ uniting (read Ephesians 5:23-32). Christ pursued His bride (the church) and sealed the blood covenant (His crucifixion) with His bride. This is the biblical reason the groom enters the church first. He is pursuing his bride.
Why are there groomsmen and bridesmaids?
In a covenant, the two parties that were entering a covenant would bring their family and/or friends as witnesses to what was about to take place. The wedding party consists of the friends and family the bride and groom bring to be witnesses to their covenant.
Why does the father escort and “give away” the bride?
In Jewish biblical days, the father would present his daughter to her betrothed. Often the engaged couple had never even met! Escorting his daughter down the aisle is a way of saying, “I approve of your choice, and you have my blessing.” The minister will usually ask, “Who gives this woman?” The father traditionally responds, “Her mother and I.” When you give something away, you no longer have responsibility for that item. It is the same when the daughter is given away. The bride’s parents no longer have responsibility for their child. She is free to join with her husband as they pursue their own future.
Why does the bride wear a white wedding dress?
The white can stand for purity, but from a biblical standpoint, it has a greater meaning and comes from the last chapter in the bible. Revelation 19:7-8: Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb (this is Jesus) has come, and his bride (the church) has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (emphasis mine) The white wedding dress did not become popular until Queen Victoria wore one in 1840, but we do see the word bright in the New Testament. The bride “makes herself ready” and is adorned in “bright” garments. This is why white is the traditional color chosen by most brides.
On a side note, this is also why the wedding day, leading up to the ceremony, is so special. “…his bride has made herself ready.” It is not uncommon for a bride and her wedding party to spend the day together getting ready. The day of a wedding is all about celebration as the bride prepares to meet her groom.
Why does a bride wear a veil, and why does the groom lift the veil?
Remember that a biblical marriage is a representation of the relationship between God and the church. In the Jewish temple in Jerusalem during Christ’s day, there was a veil that separated the holiest place inside the temple from the people. Only the priests were allowed to go behind the veil and speak directly to God. Christ’s sacrifice destroyed the need for a mediator between God and His people and they now had direct access through Christ. The veil in the temple always represented a barrier to God, but on the cross, Christ cried out, “It is finished,” and at that moment the veil in the temple was torn apart. He had completed the blood covenant sacrifice thus allowing direct access between the people and God.
In my opinion, one of the most powerful verses in the bible is Matthew 27:51: “At that moment (the moment Jesus died)the curtain of the temple (the veil) was torn in two from top to bottom.” (emphasis mine). The veil was removed. It was destroyed. There no longer was a barrier between Christ and the church (the groom and the bride). It is for this reason that some brides choose to wear a veil covering their face. The symbolism mimics Old Testament weddings, but for the New Testament Christian, the meaning is much greater. If a veil is worn, it is the groom that removes the veil from his bride’s face. Just as Christ removed the veil from the temple, allowing direct access between the two.
Side note: Often people miss the significance of the temple veil being torn. Notice the scripture is very specific. It does not just say the veil was torn. It says the veil was torn…top to bottom (not bottom to top). If you know anything about the Jewish temple and how the veils were made, then you understand the significance of this statement. Historical scholars believe the veil was 30’ tall and was thick enough that no one could see through it into the holy place. It would have been virtually impossible for any man to tear this veil from bottom to top. It would have been impossible for man to tear the veil…from top to bottom. Thus signifying an act only God could have done.
Why do the bride and groom join right hands when they exchange vows?
In a blood covenant the two participants would cut their right palm and grasp each other’s hand, thus co-mingling their blood. While their hands were grasped, they would state the vows they were agreeing to, which usually involved promising all of their rights, their money and resources, protection from harm and the promise to put the other person first, in all things. The bride and groom follow a similar path in the vows they take during their ceremony. They agree to take care of each other, support each other in good times and bad and to now put each other first, above all others. It is when these words are spoken that the couple is agreeing to leave and cleave.
Why do a bride and groom exchange rings?
When God entered into a covenant with Noah, the symbol He gave of this solemn oath was a rainbow. “I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” Genesis 9:13. The covenant God made was that He would never flood the entire earth again, and the rainbow was the symbol, the reminder, of that promise. From earth, we see the rainbow as an arc, but from space, you can see the entire rainbow, which is a circle. There are several reasons a couple uses rings to show their outward commitment.
1. As just mentioned, a ring was the covenant symbol God gave Noah.
2. A ring also holds significance in the sealing of a promise. In historical times, rings were used to form a seal by placing an impression of the ring into hot wax. A seal was a binding agreement and meant that whatever was sealed had come from the person in authority that possessed the ring. A ring demonstrates God’s authority and that, through our covenant with Him, He has sealed our marriage.
3. In the biblical blood covenant, we see that the two people exchanged belts. The belt was, arguably, the most important piece of clothing worn in ancient history. It is where a person’s weapon was kept, and it anchored everything else in place. To give someone your belt meant you were giving them your greatest resource. The belt formed a circle, which is another reason a ring is chosen to be an outward representation of the covenant.
4. Lastly, and what I consider the most significant reason we wear rings, is what occurred in the Old Testament covenant. After the palm of the hand was cut, their blood was co-mingled, and the two parties spoke their vows. They then rubbed dirt and rocks into their wound causing a scar to form which served as an outward reminder that they had entered into a covenant with another person. Wearing a wedding ring is our outward reminder of the covenant we have entered into.
Why does the officiant pronounce them husband and wife and then present the couple?
The pronouncement officially declares that the bride and groom are now husband
and wife. In the blood covenant, the two parties exchanged names, which signified they were taking on the identity of the other person. In marriage, the two are no longer individuals, but they become one under the covenant of God. When God made a covenant with Abram, He changed his name to Abraham. He also changed the name of Abraham’s wife. “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.” (Genesis 17) The officiant announcing the new couple is highlighting the fact that the two are now one. As a husband and wife, our identities become intermingled. We are now a constant reflection of each other.
Why is there a reception?
It was common to have a ceremonial meal with family and friends upon conclusion of a blood covenant. As a New Testament Christian, a reception and meal also point to the wedding supper we see in Revelation 19.
Why do the bride and groom feed each other cake?
During a blood covenant meal, the two people that had entered into a covenant would break a piece of bread and feed it to the other person. This was done to signify that they would always take care of each other. The feeding of the cake between bride and groom signifies the same. Side note: We’ve all seen funny videos of the bride and groom playfully feeding each other their cake. This is a joyous occasion and we should all be in a celebratory mood, but I think it’s important to remember that this tradition is also representative of the covenant that was just sealed, and the purpose of feeding each other cake is to state that the bride and groom will always be there to care for the other. Have fun with this tradition, but I would not get too carried away in our silliness.
A non-Christian couple may incorporate many of the ceremonial traditions we have talked about, but for a Christian couple, the act of performing a covenant marriage takes on an entirely different meaning. When we truly understand the sacredness behind almost every part of the marriage ceremony, it elevates our understanding that marriage is a covenant relationship between three parties. It should be treated with a reverence and seriousness knowing that we have stepped into the presence of God when we invited Him to become part of our marriage.
Together with you,