I am doomed, I think, never to become a trend-setter, because culturally I never seem to discover the latest trend until it has been around for a while and starts to become Yesterday’s News. Thus I have lately discovered the popularity of Destination Weddings.
Googling “Destination Weddings” brings up 12,100,000 results in .20 seconds, the first one of which informs me that I should choose them for my Destination Wedding, because they are “the largest planner of Destination Weddings in America”, have “planned thousands of exceptional luxury weddings”, “offer Free (that’s with a capital “F”) concierge”, and “promise no hidden fees”. (I was tempted to Google “concierge” next because in my experience concierge has little to do with tying the matrimonial knot, and I wondered what the not so hidden fees could possibly cover.)
The popularity of Destination Weddings is a symptom of a more profound cultural dysfunction. The problem is not just that this is a rich person’s game, and one that effectively excludes as guests those not able to bear the cost of jetting away to the Destination and staying at a fancy hotel. The problem is that the wedding day is conceived as part of a fantasy, a dream come true where everything is perfect—the bride’s dress (which often costs more than my first car), the bridesmaids’ dresses, the palm trees, the sunset beach, the romantic vows. Destination Weddings thus cater to the modern preoccupation with self. It is part of a larger industry which uses the wedding day as an instrument to enact a fantasy. It is an expensive instrument, and one which often focuses upon the feminine fantasies of the bride. That is why the newsstands offer magazines for Brides, not for the Grooms, and stores helping the couple with their special day are called Bridal Shops. Most grooms (be honest, guys) do not care what they wear at the ceremony, so long as they finally get the girl and a chance to live happily ever after. And one hears horror stories about “Bride-zilla”, not (say) “Groom Kong”. The industry knows where the money is and who nurtures the fantasies.
The popularity of Destination Weddings and the cultural obsession with The Perfect Day is all the more odd given that many couples getting married at their Destination have already been living together as man and wife for some time before actually tying the matrimonial knot. It makes the proverbial “You may now kiss the bride” at best a bit anti-climactic to say the least, since he has been kissing the bride long before obtaining this liturgical permission. In Canada living together as man and wife for a certain length of time brings with it the same legal ramifications as if the couple had been married, so that the difference between “marriage” and what used to be called “common law marriage” is fairly minimal. Even if the couple doesn’t make it legal they can’t split up without lawyers insisting upon a fair division of their assets. One may ask therefore: why bother? The answer often seems to be: to enact the fantasy—to climb into the white dress, to stand on the beach under the swaying palm trees and the setting sun, and to say the lines which reproduce the happy ending of every rom-com movie they have ever watched. Increasingly in our culture, that is point of marriage. What else could it be?
In a word, a covenant. The purpose and point of the wedding used to be not the enactment of a fantasy, but the making of a covenant. The covenant could either be made simply and modestly, or elaborately and with great fuss. But regardless of whether it was done simply or elaborately, and regardless of the cost of the dress, the cost of the venue, the cost of the reception, and the number of guests, the point of it all was covenantal, focussing on the fact that two people were agreeing to live together as a unit forever. The marriage covenant consisted of the exchange of promises, and it marked the beginning of the time when two lives were being merged into one. At the wedding the man and woman promised to stay together until separated by death, and then began to live together and share all things jointly—their wealth, their poverty, their joys, their sufferings. And of course their bodies. It marked a change from solitariness to union, from independence of each other to permanent mutual support. It was this element of change and transition that was considered cause for celebration. That was why one made a fuss (even if it was just a simple fuss). The dress, the guests, the reception, the flowers—all drew their sole significance from the fact that a change had now taken place in the lives of two persons. It is nonsense at best and hypocrisy at worst to retain the dress, the guests, the reception, and the flowers if there is no actual change in the lives of the persons being married. There is, of course, some change of legal status afterward, but as we have seen, even this is minimal. In many places, this change does not even involve a change of name for the bride. One wonders if such a minimal change is worth the expense of a Destination Wedding. In this latter case, covenant has been nudged out of the picture by fantasy.
And for Christians there is an even more profound option, for the covenant is not simply the universal one common to all couples throughout the ages, but involves union with Christ as well. For Christians, marriage is not primarily about the mutual love between man and woman, but about Christ and about how His love can transfigure our own. We come to the sacrament of Marriage as we come to the sacrament of Baptism, and for the same basic reason, that of transformation. That is why Christian weddings are solemnized not under a palm tree on a sunset beach, but before the altar in a candle-lit church. Mutual love, celebrated in romantic comedies, is a wonderful thing, but even it springs from a heart that needs healing. That is why about half of all North American marriages end in divorce (a factoid not often mentioned in romantic comedies). This healing comes from Christ, and He is the only One who can heal and transform our hearts. Husband and wife are to love each other with Christ’s love, making their service of one another a part of their mutual service to Him. Marriage is hard work (hence those divorce stats) and it stands a better chance of succeeding if both partners keep Jesus Christ central to their marriage. It is just here that the cultural institution of the Destination Wedding fails, for it proclaims that marriage is all about the couple, and that marriage is best sustained and nurtured on a diet of emotional romanticism. It is a lie. Marriage, for Christians at least, is all about Jesus, and it is best sustained and nurtured by a diet of prayer, self-sacrifice, and Eucharist. It is just these crucial elements in marriage that I could not find in all those Googled ads promoting a Destination Wedding.