Did you know that when you ask someone to bless your marriage, you're referring back to the ancient pagan rite of hallowing something by marking it with blood?
Words have histories, and the words that go along with rituals – like wedding ceremonies – have millennia of symbolism behind them. But those of us with a progressive or non-traditionalist streak sometimes wrestle with those ancient meanings as we seek to queer our rituals and find words that reflect the humanity-uplifting equal partnerships we want to build.
I have a particular perspective on these questions: I am a lover of the many ways people understand and talk about the holy, across religious and secular traditions, and I have officiated many nonreligious, Pagan, and pagan-flavored ceremonies.
I am also a Christian minister, and a queer woman, so my history with the way these words have been used and abused by powers and potentates is different than that of, say, folks who were enslaved and not permitted to legally marry, or those martyred for their religious beliefs. I welcome criticism and questions from folks with those differing contexts of oppression, as well as from the curious.
With that caveat, let's begin with some wedding words that spark a lot of questions…
This word dates back to the folks of Northern Europe 2500 years ago. It reflects the way someone or something would be symbolically marked as special by being physically marked by blood – like we do today with, say, a graduation cap or wedding rings. The word got conflated with the word “bliss” in the Middle Ages and came to mean “to pronounce or make happy or fortunate,” which is basically how I use it today. It didn't develop a Christian connotation until the end of the 14th century, as Bible translators sought a way to interpret concepts of praise, joy, and gratitude from Hebrew. In wedding ceremonies, I use it to mean “this is good” and “I am full of hope and joy for you.”
This word *feels* Judeo-Christian to folks because we so rarely see it in secular settings. It has roots in the earliest language we know about, and literally means “coming together,” from the same root as “coven,” a group of women sharing power, and “convene.” It has come to mean a promise that is not rules or a contract with enforcement mechanisms, but a mutual agreement for how a pair or group of people would like to behave toward one another. It is about shared respect and aspiration.
This one is tricky because even among linguists who Do This Sort of Thing, it's really hard to determine what exactly it meant before Christianity. But it definitely meant something; it has cognates in Old Norse, Old Saxon, Middle Dutch, etc. It is related to both “health” and “whole,” as in uninjured. So its ancient meaning is probably something like “that which must be preserved whole and intact, not transgressed or violated.”
These are words with unavoidable religious connotations today, making people shudder with memories of catechism or that mean fundamentalist aunt. And our language also sometimes uses “sacred” pejoratively, to suggest that an idea is foolishly rigid or dogmatic (see Sacred Cow for a particularly racist example referring to Hindu belief). But I like sacred and sacrament in weddings because they also have the sense of making something holy (as in healthy and whole, see the paragraph just before this one) and dedicated. “Sacrament” is also historically connected to the idea of mystery, in the sense of something that is too big and magical to be understood but only to be experienced and marveled at – kind of like love.
Some words/phrases I won't defend
- I object to “You may kiss the bride”
My sister argued that it was her choice to use “you may kiss the bride” in her wedding, and as a good feminist, I want to honor her choice. But I object to the objectification, the implication that the woman involved need not consent to the kissing because she has been rightfully acquired (yuck). My exception here is queer couples, because telling two brides they can kiss the bride tickles my sense of punnery.
- I'm not going to ask your dad to “give the bride away”
In the same vein, womenfolk, I'm not going to ask your dad to “give the bride away” to your groom. You have not been purchased, you are not property to be given, and your father does not get to decide, even symbolically, whether or when or whom you marry. I do want you to have the company of people you love down the aisle, and I do want your parents to have a role in the ceremony if they and you want it. My alternative is to ask, “Who has raised these two in love?” or “Who offers their blessing on this union?” Your parents, and anyone else you want to designate, get to give a rousing “We do!”, and no one feels like a trunk full of marital goods have been paid in exchange for a grown ass human woman.
So, dear reader, blessings upon you. May your wedding be holy and the covenant of your marriage be sacred.