The traditional Christian wedding ceremony includes a range of vows that have been refined over a long time and have stood the test of time. The problem with such things, especially when they are familiar to our ear, is that we tend to treat them like a child’s rhyme rather than a meaningful expression of truth that has to be understood and committed to.
I find this is often the case when Christians read the Bible, tending to breeze over it, rather than consider what they are reading or hearing. So it’s no wonder people might do that with other things as well.
I was recently reflecting on a short phrase from the traditional wedding ceremony and it prompted a thought I want to share with you here.
The words I reflected on were, “to have and to hold”.
I was struck by the contrasting elements of the marriage relationship embodied in those few words. So, let me explain.
A man or woman chooses to marry another person so they can ‘have’ that person. They have them as their husband or wife, with all that the role represents to them. They have a feeling of ownership or possession even, delighting in the fact that they have a wife or husband.
Having a spouse means you can enjoy a physical relationship with them. It means you have their company and support. It means you are not alone or trying to deal with life on your own. It means you will share responsibilities and be considerate of each other. It means you will share life’s workload together.
People have used various expressions to explain what they enjoy about ‘having’ their spouse, including “you decorate my life”, “you complete me” and “I am safe in your arms”.
People tell others such things as, “You have a beautiful wife”, “You have a wonderful husband”, etc. And the possessive term is used freely in the having. “My” wife and “my” husband are perfectly natural terms that don’t offend anyone.
This all relates to the word ‘have’. To have a wife and to have a husband.
The other side of the relationship is embodied in the words “to hold”.
Having and holding might seem like the same thing. Someone might say, “I have a wonderful husband and I hold him close”, or “If I had a beautiful wife I’d hold her and never let her go”. But I would like to suggest a different reflection of that word.
I heard a couple sharing at a marriage session many years ago about how there was an upset between them. The wife had become out of sorts and stayed that way for several days. The husband, busy with his work and ministry activities, didn’t have time to wrestle with his wife’s troubled mood, so he kept out of her way, hoping she’d settle down.
After several days of this he took the time to dig into her problem. He had to convince her first that he was interested and was listening, since she was already upset that he hadn’t wanted to know about her troubles for several days. It turned out she had been deeply hurt by a phone call from a family member and didn’t know how to process the hurtful things that were said.
When the husband realised what the problem was, knowing this is something that had happened before, he held her in his arms and let her pour out her pain on his shoulder. That was all she needed. She needed him to ‘hold’ her, comforting her and caring about her. Up to that point he was too distracted and busy to do it and that pained her even more.
We have the imagery too of someone in need or pain saying to someone close to them, “I just want you to hold me”. An upset child wants to be held by their parent. A man dealing with his insecurity or trauma wants to be held by his wife. A wife struggling with an issue wants to be held by her husband.
In one sense it’s when they are making a withdrawal on the emotional account, like saying “I need a dose of your comfort.”
So let me pick up that application of the word ‘hold’ and suggest that holding is when we are ministering to our spouse, not taking delight in them, or receiving from them.
To ‘have’ our spouse is to enjoy them, take delight in them, and be blessed by all the things they bring into our life. Having the spouse carries all those selfish things we enjoy about our marriage and spouse.
To ‘hold’ our spouse is to be there for them, caring for them, sharing their load, listening to them and loving them, unselfishly.
What happens in many relationships is that we want our spouse to ‘hold’ us, as in giving us what we think we are entitled to. If they don’t ‘hold’ us, we feel like not letting them ‘have’ us. “If he / she won’t hold me he / she can’t have me!”
The wedding commitment is ‘to have and to hold’. When we deny our spouse their right to us as husband or wife we are not ‘holding’ them, but only wanting to ‘have’ them.
I note that there is an equality here, like a balance between the having and the holding. Marriage is not one-sided, where we can demand that we can ‘have’ the spouse, but don’t take time to ‘hold’ them.
Experience shows that when someone feels loved (held dearly) they are more ready to delight in and please the one who loves them. While it’s not an absolute, it’s the way it tends to work in normal relationships with good willed people.
So, for those who are married, take a moment to reflect on the ‘have and hold’ elements of your relationship and maybe take time today and each day to be sure to ‘hold’ your spouse. Hold them dear. Hold them in your arms. Hold your attention on them, making the marriage a blessing for them. Maybe then you will be all the more delighted that you ‘have’ them.