Saturday afternoon, just as sunlight began to slant through the stained glass, I listened to a joyful bride pledging her solemn, ancient vows: for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, to love and to cherish until death parts. And, answering her pledge, the pronouncement—man and wife.
Sunday evening, in a small church with stuffed pews and loud hymnsinging, I listened to a young minister pledging himself as pastor to the church’s congregation, and listened also to the answering pronouncement—“in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”—confirming this charge.
The words of the vows are still swirling in my mind. As teachers, readers, and writers, we talk often of the “power of the word.” We tell stories of how such-and-such a book shaped us, or how a chance comment turned our minds and lives upside down. But do we really fully grasp, ever, the throbbing creative power of the syllables so easily uttered?
We are moderns, all unwitting pupils of Rousseau’s Social Contract, and by default we assume that vows are vehicles to initiate new legal relationships. This man and this woman speak, and bind themselves into the legal relationship of husband and wife. This minister and church speak, and bind themselves into the legal relationship of pastor and congregation. All such relationships, of course, carry vast implications for authority, economy, and responsibility.
But, in the rush of demystification, we’ve become oblivious. These vows do not merely initiate new relationships: they create new beings. The pastor and congregation are joined as a body; the man and woman become one flesh.
The apostle Paul himself whispered that this mystery is profound—but we have forgotten it. We sit through weddings and ordinations and all manner of ceremonies, oblivious that what we witness in the moment of a sacred, solemn vow is nothing less than a spark of the original fire of speech from which God forged the world.