What Were Weddings Like in Jesus’ Day?

The word family had a wider meaning in both Aramaic and Hebrew than it does in English today. The Hebrew ah and the Aramaic aha could be used to refer to those who were brothers, half-brothers, cousins, and even other near relations. Extended family networks were both insisted upon and essential for survival. To have these ties and be dependent upon them was every Jewish person’s duty.

Marriage – Of course, marriage is the heart of family. The very first order that God gave Adam and Eve was that a man should leave his father and mother cling to his wife, that the two of them should become one flesh, and that they should be fruitful and multiply. Ancient rabbis said that a man really wasn’t a man until he did so. However, especially by the time of Christ, there were some men and women who lived celibate lives so as to be particularly free to serve God, whether by studying the Torah, teaching, or engaging in some great work for God’s people. Paul seems to have been in this category. Jesus praised those who did so in Matthew 19 as did Paul in 1 Corinthians 7.

In the earliest years of Israel there was some tolerance for polygamy even though it was a departure from what God had set forth. Many overlooked it given the urgent need to grow the family of God, the chosen people. Men were often killed in war, leading to an abundance of women who needed husbands. Generally, only wealthier men could afford to have more than one wife. Although the Bible does not explicitly condemn polygamists, it does show that polygamy led to intractable troubles, sometimes between the women but more often between the sons over inheritance rights. By the time of Jesus, polygamy among the Jews had greatly decreased if not altogether vanished; there is simply no mention of it in the New Testament. Jesus summoned each man to love his wife and prohibited other Mosaic leniencies in marriage. He re-proposed God’s original plan of one man and one woman until death.

The call to marriage and engagement – Marriage took place at a very young age for the ancient Jews. Most rabbis proposed age 18 as most appropriate for men, though often a bit younger especially when war was less common. Young women married almost as soon as they were physically ready, generally around age 13 or 14.

In most cases, marriages were arranged by the parents. There were exceptions, however, and arranged marriages were seldom forced on young people who had absolutely no interest in each other. Nevertheless, the view in the ancient world, and even in many places today, was that marriage was more about survival than romantic feelings. Further, it was not merely the individuals who married; the families came together in mutual support. Beauty and romance, while considered pleasant things, were known to be passing; life and survival had to be based on sturdier foundations.

Once a future bride had been chosen for a young man, there followed a one-year period of betrothal. During this time the couple still lived apart while delicate, often-protracted negotiations occurred between the families, especially regarding the dowry. The groom or his family paid the dowry to the father of the bride in recognition of the loss incurred by the bride’s family as a result of her departure as a working member of the household. It was also understood that some money should be set aside for the woman in the event that her husband died prematurely.

Marriage ceremonies – After the period of betrothal was finished and all the agreements had been reached, the wedding could take place. Weddings typically extended over a period of five to seven days. Autumn was the best time for marriage because the harvest was in, the vintage over, minds were free, and hearts were at rest. It was a season when the evenings were cool, and it was comfortable to sit up late at night. Usually the entire village gathered for a wedding.

At the beginning of the wedding celebration, in the evening, the bridegroom, accompanied by his friends, went to fetch his betrothed from her father’s house. He would wear particularly splendid clothing and sometimes even a crown. A procession was formed under the direction of one of the bridegroom’s friends, who acted as the master of ceremonies and remained by his side throughout the rejoicing.

The beautifully dressed bride was carried in a litter and in procession. Along the way people sang traditional wedding songs largely drawn from the Song of Songs in the Bible: Who is this coming up from the wilderness like a column of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and incense made from all the spices of the merchant? (Song of Songs 3:6) When the procession reached the bridegroom’s house, his parents bestowed a traditional blessing, drawn from Scripture and other sources. After the prayers, the evening was passed in games and dancing, and the bridegroom took part in the festivities. The bride, however, withdrew with her bridesmaids and friends to another room.

The next day was the wedding feast and once again there was general rejoicing and a sort of holiday in the village. Toward the end of the day there was a meal at which the men and women were served separately. This was the time for the giving of presents. The bride, dressed in white, was surrounded by her bridesmaids, usually ten of them. She sat under a canopy while traditional songs and blessings were sung and recited. During this time, in the evening, the groom arrived. While the exact ritual words are not known, there seems to have been a dialogue between bride and groom. This is recorded in the Song of Songs. The bride says, Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—for your love is more delightful than wine. Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes; your name is like perfume poured out. No wonder the young women love you! Take me away with you—let us hurry! Let the king bring me into his chambers (Song 1:2-4). The groom responds, Arise, come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me. My dove in the clefts of the rock, in the hiding places on the mountainside, show me your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely (Song 2:13-14).

Now that the couple was together, all the other men and women also came together. It would seem that synagogue or other religious leaders imparted blessings to the couple, who were together under the canopy. The words of these blessings and rituals are not definitively known and seem to have varied. After these came the evening feast.

Later that first evening the couple would vanish to consummate the marriage. They did not go on a “honeymoon” but rather remained for the rest of the celebration, which often went on for several more days, sharing in the songs, dancing, and general merriment.

Below is a recording of Palestrina’s composition of Surge, Propera Amica Mea (Arise My Love). There is a wonderful musical onomatopoeia in the opening word, “surge,” as the notes run up the scale. Enjoy!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What Were Weddings Like in Jesus’ Day?

Wedding music and other difficulties….

Most priests, if they are lucky and smart, have a trained music director or organist to whom they can refer the Bride (sometimes with the groom) to finalize music for weddings. Then he can refer them and avoid a ton of trouble. Yet, occasionally he has to duck for cover when the flak from the battle between bride and organist gets thick.

Don’t get me wrong, everything generally goes fine and most brides and grooms are just fine. But every now and then, there’s a bride (and sometimes a groom) who are the irresistible force that meet the immoveable object (i.e. the organist).

Sometimes it is also the organist. At times in my 23 + years I have actually wondered why certain organist were so adamant about not playing certain songs, e.g. the Wedding Marches by Wagner (from Lohengrin) and Mendelssohn’s Wedding March (from Mid Summer Night’s Dream). They seemed classical, what’s do bad about them? “But doesn’t the bride know that one of them is the wedding march of a prostitute?!” protests the organist. “No,” say I, “And neither does anyone else.” So sometimes its the organist.

But more often it is the couple wishing and desiring their favorite song(s). Perhaps it was the song playing in the bar when they first met. Or the theme song from the first movie they saw together. You get the idea, charming, but secular and egocentric. The unchurched or lukewarm couples have the biggest struggle understanding that some songs just aren’t good for church, or for processions, which should be stately and measured.

The dialogue with the organist usually goes something like this:

Bride: I want “Baby it’s You” sung as I come down the aisle.
Organist: That’s not a very good idea.
Bride: Why not?!
Organist: It’s secular, it’s not right for Church
Bride: But it’s my favorite song and its my wedding.
Organist: It would be better to save it for the reception, maybe the first dance.
Bride: We already HAVE a song for the first dance. I want “Baby it’s You.”
Organist: (shaking head) nahw…….Here listen to this song, It’s called Jesu Joy of man’s desiring, it’s so pretty.
Bride: (ignoring the playing of the organist) But it’s MY wedding!
Organist: I don’t think so…..we just can’t do it.
Bride: Don’t you understand?! It’s my wedding and I’ve always dreamed of walking down the aisle to this song.
Organist: But the song just hit the charts last year.
Bride: It’s my wedding.
Organist: No, “Baby it’s You”  just won’t work.
Bride: (motioning to groom) John, we’re leaving, I will take this up with the priest…..

I only mention the bride her because she does most of the talking in 99% of the cases. Weddings are by and large days crafted by women. Most men would have it done quietly and quickly.

Now again, most couples aren’t this insistent, but there are some. Thankfully I am blessed with a great Music Director and my brides of recent years have been very understanding of Church norms. But I’ll say I’ve been involved in some pretty big “set-to’s” in the past.

The fact is too many weddings are seen as “this is my wedding.” Actually it is not. The liturgy belongs to the whole Church and some limits must be involved. Efforts are usually made to accommodate legitimate requests of couples and families, but in the end, the Church is not just a movie set on which to conduct, “my special day.” Neither is the Church simply a backdrop for photos, or a hall that is rented. It is God’s house, it is the temple of the Lord, it is the sacred liturgy. Marriages are not a ceremony, they are a Sacrament, and, as in every Sacrament, the focus is to be more on the Lord and what he is doing, than things like dresses, flowers, and camera angles.

It is understandable that, at the human level, there are traditions and wishes to be respected, but the concerns above must balance the idiosyncrasies that too often set up. The Church has rules, ultimately, to avoid fights, not cause them. When there are limits and norms, that are understood and agreed upon, the whole matter goes more smoothly. And most of these norms are founded in long human experience. For any one couple this may be their “big day” and something they do only once (we pray). All the more reason to look to and respect norms and traditions gained from years, even decades and centuries of experience. And all things should be done decently and in order. (1 Cor 14:40)

Just a few thoughts on a Friday evening where, no doubt, more than a few wedding rehearsals have take place in Catholic parishes. And please take all this in the spirit of levity that it is offered.

Here’s a fun video from Tim Hawkins on inappropriate wedding songs:

And Out You Go: Why Does Going to Church Make So Many Faint?

In my over 21 years as a priest and even longer in serving in some capacity at the Holy Liturgy I have seen more than a few people faint. Some just slump over, others go over with a real bang. Weddings are a big source of fainting spells but just about any long Mass can produce its share of a “lights out” experience. Last year I was serving as First Assistant Deacon for a Pontifical Solemn High Mass in the Basilica and prior to the Mass we predicted at least some one would pass out. It’s usually one of the torch bearers since they have to kneel on the marble for so long. Sure enough right at communion time, one of them went over, torch and all. It wouldn’t be a valid solemn  High Pontifical Mass if at least one didn’t pass out!

OK, so what’s going one here? Are people overwhelmed by the presence of God and then just “rest in the Spirit?”  Well, that’s a fine thought and I perhaps I should just stop the article here out piety. However, beyond the this holy thought there are probably other explanations.

  1. It could be the heat in some churches which causes dehydration. Dehydration then causes there to be a lower volume of blood which causes the pressure to drop and makes it harder to get the blood to the brain and out you go.
  2. Anemia – Some  women have borderline anemia especially at certain times of their cycle and this reduces the number of red blood and thus reduces the ability of the blood to deliver oxygen to the brain and, especially after standing a while or getting a little dehydrated,  out you go.
  3. Stress – In order to maintain proper blood pressure there must be a proper balance between two chemicals: adrenaline and acetylcholine. Adrenaline stimulates the body, including making the heart beat faster and blood vessels narrower, thereby increasing blood pressure. Acetylcholine does the opposite. Fainting can happen when something stimulates the vagus nerve and causes too much acetylcholine to be produced at the wrong time. Pain can do this, so can “situational stressors” such as something like  seeing blood or just prolonged stress that often happens at funerals or weddings. Such things cause too much acetylcholine to slow the heart, dilate the blood vessels, pressure drops more than it should, blood can’t reach the brain and out you go.
  4. Standing  for a length of time can also cause the blood to collect a bit in the lower legs. The movement of the blood back from the limbs is assisted by the movement of those limbs. I was always taught never to lock my knees when I was standing since this slowed blood flow and made blood accumulate in the legs. More blood in the legs means less blood that can go to the brain and out you go. It is important when standing to slightly bend the knees a bit and to allow for some movement of the legs by shifting your weight. This improves circulation and keeps the pressure at a proper level to get blood up to the brain. The same is true with kneeling.
  5. In some cases low blood sugar can cause one to faint. The brain requires blood flow to provide oxygen and glucose (sugar) to its cells to sustain life. Hence excessively low blood sugar can cause one to feel drowsy, weak and in some cases to  faint, especially if some of the other factors are present. Hence if one has been fasting (rare today!) before communion and also has a tendency to be hypoglycemic it is possible one can faint.

There are surely other causes, (some of them very serious but more rare) but let this suffice. It would seem that Masses and Church services are over-represented in the fainting department due to any combination of the above, especially: stress, dehydration, and standing or kneeling for long periods.

It is surely a weird experience to faint. I have done it a number of times related to an asthmatic cough I often get. When an extreme coughing episode ensues the rhythm of the heart is disturbed, blood pressure drops and out you go. It is a very strange experience to just see everything fade to black, the lights just go out and sometimes I can even feel myself falling but can do little about it. I just hope I fall gracefully 🙂  I usually come to a moment or so later but it is strange to say the least. Our brains go only go without blood (oxygen) for a few seconds before unconsciousness envelopes and out you go.

We are wonderfully, fearfully made to be sure. And yet we are earthen vessels, fragile and in need of delicate balance. We are contingent beings, depending on God for every beat of our heart, and His sustaining of every function of every cell of our body. Maybe fainting in Church isn’t so bad since it helps keep us humble and that is always a good “posture” before God. Maybe before the immensity of God it is good to be reminded of our fragility and dependence upon Him for all things, even the most hidden processes of our body.

Enjoy this video of Church faintings and consider well that “To be absent from the body is to be present to God.” (2 Cor 5:8)