By Enid & Austin Bhebe
For the past three years my wife and I have been a part of the Family Enrichment Ministry (FACE) at CITAM Karen. Together with a team of other dedicated Christians who have turned into lovely ministry partners and friends, we have been involved in teaching pre-marital classes. Our specific topic as a couple has usually been “Communication and Conflict in Marriage”. We have learnt a lot ourselves by teaching this module. Something however, happened during the last session which sent me thing. My wife Enid was asked to step in for a colleague who could not make it for the session due to unavoidable commitment. It was refreshing to see and hear Enid take the class through marriage traditions and customs. What my wife taught made me think through Christian marriages and traditions again. In her lesson, Enid explained the significance of several wedding ceremony traditions associated with the Old Testament blood covenant. While we have been married for many years, this knowledge has since deepened our appreciation for each wedding tradition, intensified the experience of worship in our wedding ceremony, and has given us a clearer understanding of our physical and spiritual union. In this article we share some of those traditions and customs.
Christian Wedding Traditions and Practices
Marriage today 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. The Bible reveals the covenant bond to be the highest personal relationship possible. In ancient times, covenants were solemn; binding agreements supremely honoured above all others. Making a covenant represented an unqualified, total commitment of one person to another–unconditionally, totally, eternally. In the Old Testament days, 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 saying, “May God do so to me [cut me in half] if I ever break this covenant with you and God!” You get the feeling that a covenant in those days had just a little more substance than today.
Christian marriage is a covenant relationship, not a contract. When you consider the modern Christian weddings and the program outline for the wedding there are similarities between the symbols of God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15 within many of the activities on any common Christian wedding today.
God intends for marriage to be a lifelong covenant relationship between a man and a woman. When a couple shares their wedding vows, they are vowing to God, each other, their families, and their community to remain steadfast in unconditional love, reconciliation, and sexual purity, while purposefully growing in their covenant marriage relationship. It is God desires to bring wholeness to families through covenant marriage relationships.
Common Non Old Testament traditions:
There are however a mixture of human traditions especially from western culture that have been incorporated into today’s Christian wedding ceremonies. Not everything resembles the covenant but a bulk of it does. There are some western traditions that are not biblical although we see them today. Most of these “traditions” really have no meaning today and are adhered to simply because “it’s always been done that way”. Each culture has also adopted traditions from other modern and ancient cultures.
Most parts of the modern Christian wedding service have their roots in the traditional Jewish wedding service. Since most couples do not know how many of these traditions came into being we include this brief overview of some of the traditions associated with weddings in other parts of the world especially the western world.
Therefore, before turning to the Covenant symbols as we see them in Genesis 15, here is a quick summary of the origins of some of the wedding practices we see today.
- The word “wed” is derived from the ancient Greek word for “pledge.”
- The word “bride” comes from old English, being a name for ‘cook‘, which explains a lot! While “groom” originated from ‘male child’. It would be logical to think that “bridegroom” meant ‘male cook’ but it doesn’t. Instead, bridegroom is a Germanic word meaning exactly what it appears to mean – simply, the man who is marrying the bride.
- The term “tie the knot” also goes back to Roman times. The bride would wear a girdle tied with many knots, which the groom had the duty of untying.
- Western European tradition of a Best Man began in olden days when it was sometimes necessary for a man to kidnap his bride from a neighbouring village. Among the Germanic Goths of northern Europe in 200 A.D., a man usually married a woman from within his own community. However, when there were fewer women, the prospective bridegroom would capture his bride from a neighbouring village. The bridegroom was accompanied by his strongest friend (or best friend), who helped him capture his bride. He needed his strongest friend (his Best Man) to help with the kidnapping and to stand by him at the wedding ceremony to fight off any relatives that might try to take her back.
- The Toast. The term originates from the sixteenth century. At that time a small piece of bread would be placed in a goblet of wine. The goblet would be passed from guest to guest until it reached the person being honoured who would drain the goblet and eat the morsel of bread in the bottom. This tradition is practiced at weddings today – usually in the form of one or more champagne “toasts”. The best man has the honour of giving the first toast. Usually the bride and groom remain seated for the toasts while all the guests are usually standing to honour them. The couple may then make a few remarks thanking their families, wedding party members, and guests. They may also “toast” each other or share a “toast” together. Often special glass or silver goblets are used by the bride and groom.
- The kiss dates back to the earliest days of civilization in the Middle East. A kiss was used as the formal seal to agreements, contracts, etc. In Ancient Rome a kiss was still being used as the legal bold to seal contracts. Hence the obvious use of the custom at the end of the wedding ceremony to “seal” the marriage vows.
- The veil tradition goes back to the marriage of Jacob to Leah (the older sister) when he thought he was marrying Rachel (the younger sister) whom he loved. Many times it is to confirm that the groom is marrying the right bride
- It was the knights of yore who gave us the Western European tradition of the groom wearing a buttonhole flower. It was customary for a knight to wear a flower or a colourful handkerchief belonging to their lady fair, when they entered a tournament. The tradition later evolved into the groom wearing a flower from his bride’s wedding bouquet.
- Wedding Gifts -Guest bringing presents dates back hundreds of years when originally fruits were offered to encourage fertility.
- Carrying the Bride Across the Threshold – Symbolizing the bride giving up her virginity, it is also now considered good luck for the groom to carry his new wife across the threshold.
- Decorating the Carriage / Car – Tying shoes or ribbons to the back of the honeymoon getaway car has become a tradition normally considered the work of a prankster (someone who plays practical jokes on others). Today, the tradition lives on, but usually ribbons and other decorative materials are used.
You will often see and nice some of these traditions but it is hard to trace them to the old covenant process.
The Christian Wedding and the Genesis 15 Convent Symbols
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. As we look further into the details of a covenant, we’ll consider the significance of various wedding traditions.
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 of 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.
Now Let us observe some of the covenant symbols in Christian wedding traditions:
Seating of the Family on Opposite Sides of the Church
Family and friends of the bride and groom are seated on opposite sides of the church to symbolize the cutting of the blood covenant. These witnesses—the family, friends, and invited guests—are all participants in the wedding covenant, and many of them have made sacrifices to help prepare the couple for marriage and to support them in their holy union.
Centre Aisle and White Runner
The centre aisle represents the meeting ground, or the pathway between the animal pieces where the blood covenant is established. The white runner symbolizes holy ground where two lives are joined as one by God. (Exodus 3:5, Matthew 19:6)
Seating of the Parents
In Bible times, the parents of the bride and groom were ultimately responsible for discerning God’s will concerning the choice of a spouse for their children. The wedding tradition of seating the parents in a place of prominence is meant to recognize their responsibility for the couple’s union.
Groom Enters First
Ephesians 5:23-32 reveals that earthly marriages are a picture of the church’s union with Christ. God initiated the relationship through Christ, who called and came for his bride, the church. Christ is the Groom, who established the blood covenant first initiated by God. For this reason, the groom enters the church auditorium first. It is also a sign that he is the head of the home and sets the pace for the home.
Father Escorts and Gives Away the Bride
In Jewish tradition, it was the father’s duty to present his daughter in marriage as a pure virgin bride. As parents, the father and his wife also took responsibility for endorsing their daughter’s choice in a husband. By escorting her down the aisle, a father says, “I have done my very best to present you, my daughter, as a pure bride. I approve of this man as your choice for a husband, and now I bring you to him.” When the ministers asks, “Who gives this woman?” the father responds, “Her mother and I.” This giving away of the bride, demonstrates the parent’s blessing on the union and the transfer of care and responsibility to the husband.
White Wedding Dress
The white wedding dress has a two-fold significance. It is a symbol of the wife’s purity in heart and life, and in reverence to God. It’s also a picture of the righteousness of Christ described in Revelation 19:7-8. Christ clothes his bride, the church, in his own righteousness as a garment of “fine linen, bright and clean.”
Joining Right Hands
As was the case in the blood covenant, the two individuals would join together the bleeding palms of their right hands. As their blood mixed, they would exchange a vow, forever promising all of their rights and resources to the other. In a wedding, as the bride and groom face one another to say their vows, they join right hands and publicly commit everything they are, and everything they possess, in a covenant relationship. They leave their families, forsake all others, and become one with their spouse.
Exchanging of the Rings
While the wedding ring is an outward symbol of the couple’s inward bond, illustrating with an unending circle the eternal quality of love, it signifies so much more in light of the blood covenant. A ring was used as a seal of authority. When pressed into hot wax, the impression of the ring left an official seal on legal documents. Therefore, when the couple wears a wedding ring, they demonstrate their submission to God’s authority over their marriage. The couple recognizes that God brought them together and that he is intricately involved in every part of their covenant relationship.
A ring also represents resources. When the couple exchanges wedding rings, it symbolizes the giving of all their resources—their wealth, possessions, talents, and emotions—to the other in marriage. Remember, in the blood covenant, the two parties exchanged belts, which form a circle when worn. Thus, the exchanging of the rings is another sign of their covenant relationship. Similarly, God chose a rainbow, which forms a circle, as a sign of his covenant with Noah. (Genesis 9:12-16)
Not only does the bridal veil show the modesty and purity of the bride and her reverence for God, it reminds us of the Temple veil which was torn in two when Christ died on the cross. The removing of the veil took away the separation between God and man, giving believers access into the very presence of God. Since Christian marriage is a picture of the union between Christ and the church, we see another reflection of this relationship in the removal of the bridal veil. Through marriage, the couple now has full access to one another. (1 Corinthians 7:4)
Pronouncement of Husband and Wife
The pronouncement officially declares that the bride and groom are now husband and wife. This moment establishes the exact beginning of their covenant. The two are now one in the eyes of God.
Presentation of the Couple
When the minister introduces the couple to the wedding guests, he is drawing attention to their new identity and the name change brought about through the marriage. Similarly, in the blood covenant, the two parties would exchange some part of their names. In Genesis 15, God gave Abram a new name, Abraham, by adding letters from his own name, Yahweh. So the new couple assumes a new status – Mr and Mrs.
A ceremonial meal was often a part of the blood covenant. At a wedding reception, guests are invited to share with the couple in the blessings of the covenant. The reception also illustrates the wedding supper of the Lamb described in Revelation 19.
Cutting and Feeding of the Cake
The cutting of the cake is another picture of the cutting of the covenant. When the bride and groom take pieces of the cake and feed it to each other, once again, they are showing how they have given their all to one another, and will care for the other as one flesh. At a Christian wedding, the cutting and feeding of the cake can be done joyfully, but should also be done lovingly and reverently, in a way that honours the covenant relationship.
Throwing of Rice
The rice throwing tradition at weddings originated with the throwing of seed. It was meant to remind couples of one of the primary purposes in marriage—to create a family that will serve and honour the Lord. Therefore, guests symbolically throw rice as a gesture of blessing for the spiritual and physical fruitfulness of the marriage.
A wedding ceremony is therefore, a holy act of worship. We need to realize the solemnness of the oath or the expressions of reverence that are represented by Christian wedding customs and traditions. By learning the biblical significance of today’s wedding customs, your special day is certain to be more meaningful.