The Third Vow

Most wedding guests are unaware that they have an obligation beyond bearing gifts when they attend a wedding. What most don’t realize before they arrive, is that their participation at this age-old, sacred ceremony is not as observers, but as participants. 

Did you know that three vows are made during a wedding ceremony? The first and second are those the bride and groom make to each other.  After those vows, during most wedding ceremonies, the Minister then asks this question:  “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?”   They are expected to respond, with vigor: “We will! ”

Just as we expect the bride and groom to uphold their vows to each other, the third vow, made by the witnesses, bears equal weight. Even beyond that expectation, there is an unspoken understanding that we hold this same responsibility to all married people within our community.   

But how do we uphold a vow to keep our friends married?  How can we “uphold” people in their marriage? Do we have a responsibility when a marriage is stressed, as every marriage inevitably is?   How do we help each other stay married?

In order to answer this question, it helps to understand your community as a web: Imagine that your community is a web is made of clasped hands, where “clasped hands” can be any kind of connection between the people you know. Every time we get to know someone, the web grows another channel, and expands a little more. The stitches in the web are closer for some, more far apart for others, but are all still connected. 

When someone leaves your community, a hole opens up where there was once a connection. When the loss is sudden or painful, as with a death or a difficult divorce, the resulting hole is ragged and chaotic, and the entire web jiggles for some time, leaving your whole community feeling insecure and a little helpless. When holes appear in our web, we instinctively reach across the gap toward each other, and pull a little more tightly, a little more closely, until our community is stitched back together. It’s a lot of work, and repairing holes tends to take a toll on the whole community.

For one reason or another we all at some time loosen our grip on each other. Sometimes we lose connections as friends, and sometimes our married friends loosen their connections with each other.  It is during those times that the rest of us have to reach farther and hold on tighter. It is in these moments that we pull our friends’ weight and uphold our vows to each other.  If we allow the connections to go slack, the web blows wildly in the breeze, leaving us all feeling queasy and insecure. It is for our own benefit, as well as for the benefit of those we have vowed to support, that we do whatever we can to keep the connections in our web strong. Instinctively we know that one weakness in our web could mean another hole, and we need each other - so much we exist as a web.

Admittedly, there are those in our web who clasp no hands, and may even work to weaken the bonds we hold between each other. In those instances, the community may benefit from the release of one link. Even that causes a hole though, and we must reach across the gap then as well, and grasp each other closer in order to restore our web.

So, how do we do it? How do we help our friends stay married? How do we help others when sometimes it’s hard enough to keep ourselves married? Can single people support married people? How do we keep the connections in our web secure? How do we help each other uphold the first vow we make to our spouse, as well as the Third Vow we make to each other?

We start by recognizing that we have an obligation to each other. We have either literally taken a vow to help our friends stay married, or we have taken an implied vow to keep our own communities strong. Recognize that you, as a married person, are a powerful example to other married people. That example alone can help others uphold their own vows. Recognize that anything you do to weaken a marriage bond affects the entire community, and recognize that anything you do to support your friends makes our entire community stronger. 

Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?  We will. 

Giving Away The Bride

In the old days, the father of the groom and the father of the bride made a deal. If they came to an agreement, the young couple was allowed to marry.  In more recent years, it is the groom himself who speaks to the bride’s father. We call that discussion “Asking for the bride’s hand in marriage.”   Even that tradition has faded for many, though, and instead a bride and groom announce together they have agreed to marry.

Regardless of the father’s role in the decision, there is a tradition in our culture’s ceremony of “giving away the bride.”  This act involves walking the bride down the aisle to meet her groom, then leaving her there to take the groom’s arm instead of her father’s.

The symbolism is this simple act is so beautiful, and is so often lost.  We cannot underestimate, however, the role our fathers – and our father figures – have played in our lives. Many a modern bride has gotten hung up on the idea that someone is “giving them away.” Women are no longer considered property, and we tend to bristle at the idea that we would be handed from one man to another.

We must, though, recognize the man standing next to the bride, at the beginning of the aisle, for what he is: Protector, Champion, Main Man, Adorer, Super Hero, Comforter and Friend. He has been that for his daughter since the day of her birth. It is because he was all of those things that she is able to stand with him and participate in one of mankind’s oldest and most sacred ceremonies – the celebration of a marriage.

At the other end of the aisle is the man who will become for his daughter all the things that only her father has been: Protector, Champion, Main Man, Adorer, Super Hero, Comforter and Friend. The act of escorting his daughter to meet that man is an act of separation for the father, as much as it is one of cleaving for the daughter. The weight of that moment for the father must be recognized in this ceremony.

In the traditional American ceremony, there is a long period where the bride stands with her father while being addressed by the minister. The groom must wait patiently beside his groomsmen as the minister asks the bride if she comes of her own free will, and if the groom is of her own choosing. Then there is the question: “Who presents this woman to be married to this man?”  At most weddings today the father will proclaim, “Her mother and I do.” It is at that point that the father leaves his daughter and sits down.

This is the moment where tradition and meaning are most often lost. It is one thing to escort his daughter up the aisle; to give her his arm as she states her wishes; to announce to the world that he and his wife proudly support this pending union. It is another thing entirely to let go of her arm and become merely an observer.

This transition should be taken very slowly during the marriage ceremony. After the father announces, “Her mother and I do,” he should take her hand, and hold it out for the groom to take.  In that simple motion he is saying to those gathered that he trusts his daughter with this man, and by placing her hand in his, he is placing the responsibility for her care with him – for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health… in all of the unconditional ways the father has cared for his daughter until that time.

Once the groom has taken the father’s place beside the bride, he steps back and takes a seat on the front row. Even in the seating there is symbolism: He has become an observer, but he has not gone far.

Nearly every moment in the American wedding ceremony is a moment of intense symbolism. Understanding that symbolism makes this ceremony more meaningful for you and those watching and participating. This part – Giving Away The Bride – is a moment not to be lost.