I’m not really good at weddings. Too often, I find them to be unctuous affairs, overburdened by unreasonable expectations, occasions for the playing out of family dramas and the seething of long-standing resentments, marking a commitment that in all likelihood will not last or a relationship that has technically long since been consummated. Civility requires me to try to keep such unorthodox thoughts to myself. So when I find myself at such an event, I try my best to smile and remark on the good time I am having while making repeated visits to the bar.
Now, I make no secret of this curmudgeonliness, which is why I was surprised when my friend Kessler told me our soon-to-be married friend Charlie was going to ask me to do something at his upcoming wedding.
“And what exactly does he want me to do?” I asked.
“He’ll tell you,” Kessler said.
“No,” he said.
“Then why are you telling me?” I asked.
“No,” Kessler said. “You’re not.”
Keep in mind that my friendship with Charlie mostly consisted of animated arguments about religion and politics at our local bar, where as wide-eyed graduate students in the ’90s, we would congregate after long hours in the library to knock back pitchers of cheap beer, all the while bickering like an old couple, sometimes worrying onlookers that we might come to fisticuffs over some arcane aspect of the theology of Saint Augustine or the impeachment of President Clinton.
The point is that I am not the guy any happy and loving couple in their right minds would want participating in their nuptials. But a few moments later, I received the call from Charlie.
“We have a favor to ask,” he said.
“Shoot,” I said.
“Of course, I’d be honored,” I replied, relieved that this would not require anything strenuous like renting a tux or walking old ladies down the aisle. Reading was easy; reading I could handle. I could read. I did it for a living, more or less.
“Well,” he said, and then paused, just long enough to arouse suspense. “Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Chapter 13.”
“Really?” I asked. I was astonished by their choice. “The passage they read at weddings about love being this and that?”
“Yes,” he said. “That one.”
“Seriously?” I asked.
“Seriously,” he replied.
“Yes,” Charlie said. “We have. Only you,” he added, “can do it justice.”
Now, in truth, I really didn’t have any qualms about reading from the Bible at a wedding. I appreciated, of course, the irony of a secular, at best agnostic, Jew reading Paul (perhaps that most apocalyptic of Jews), and not only that, but reading what is arguably the most saccharine-sweet portion of the New Testament, not to mention the entire Bible — in fact, possibly the most treacly bit of prose in the entire canon of Western literature, for that matter.
I asked if they preferred any particular translation.
“We trust your judgment,” he said. Which seemed to me a most questionable thing to do.
- – - – - – - – - -
A couple of days before the wedding, I finally got around to looking over my lines. Pulling from the shelf my old college copy of the Oxford New Revised Standard Version, I looked up I Corinthians 13 and read it over a few times.
I should confess that even after repeated perusals and a consultation of the notes, and despite my Ph.D. in religious studies, I had no idea what Paul was talking about. This discussion of theological virtues, of tongues of men and angels, of clanging cymbals and horns, of prophecy and mysteries and faith and childish things, all of this was completely foreign to me, and, despite my so-called expertise, I couldn’t figure out what this had to do with the upcoming ceremony.
The Apostle went on and on about the nature of such love, its sufferings, modesty, successes and all-around good behavior, but I think he had something on his mind other than the ordinary, run-of-the-mill kind of romantic affection that one is usually celebrating at weddings.
“Love never fails,” he says. Wasn’t he setting the bar awfully high here? And, to confound the matter, didn’t he write, just a few chapters earlier in the same letter, that: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman”? And: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion”?
Frankly, I found this all rather confusing, but I thought so long as I dressed appropriately and enunciated clearly, no one would notice or care about my ignorance.
- – - – - – - – - -
The wedding was held in an old New England meetinghouse, a simple post-and-beam building, although to me, it appeared as a hive built by some exotic species of WASP. The tall pulpit, from which I imagined many a fire-and-brimstone jeremiad was delivered, loomed over the simple box pews. Bright July light poured in from the windows, making the wood floors shimmer and blanching the austere whitish walls. One got the sense of old-fashioned puritan severity. Naturally, the place was not air-conditioned, and soon Kessler and I were sweating in our dark suits.
As the guests shuffled in, we looked over the program. It was to be an inter-denominational ceremony (the bride was Jewish-Buddhist; the groom, Episcopalian) presided over by the dean of an Ivy League divinity school. A newly engaged couple would be reading from “The Song of Songs.” Another friend would chant a series of Hebrew blessings. Kessler would be reciting the passage from the Gospels where Jesus admonishes the Pharisees for permitting divorce. (“What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder,” he tells them. That Kessler would be reading this piece of advice seemed to me to be a something of a well-crafted inside joke, as the newly engaged woman happened to be his ex.)
The minister welcomed us and then the newly engaged couple stepped up to the pulpit to recite from “The Song of Songs.” Now, while the ancient Jewish Sages and Church Fathers valiantly attempted to interpret the poem as celebrating the love between God and Israel or between Christ and his bride the Church, on the surface “The Songs of Songs” is really an example of ancient Near Eastern erotica that somehow happened to find its way into the Bible. And the bride and groom made sure that their guests did not fail to get the message, selecting the choicest of verses for the couple to declaim. Such as:
Your two breasts are like two fawns,
Like twin fawns of a gazelle
That browse among the lilies.
You are stately as a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters.
I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its branches.
And the readers did their job, too, heating up the already sweltering room as the fiancé rhapsodized about his betrothed and her breasts (who, as it happened, was a voluptuous woman clad in a revealing summer dress).
Down in the pews, Kessler and I eyed each other nervously. I sweated more, and my heart trembled with trepidation, because I knew, despite my preparations, I was in deep trouble.
The giggles were coming.
Yes, that insuppressable, silly, juvenile laughter I felt welling up deep within me, brought forth by the couple’s enraptured declamation of their physical love and enhanced by the shameful memory of a childhood indiscretion, when, during a Friday evening Shabbat service in summer camp, I was chosen to say the blessing over the wine and started giggling involuntarily when the camp mother, Mother Eva, began genuflecting before the candles. Unable, despite my horror, to stop, I was unceremoniously tossed off the stage and dispatched back to my bunk, where I was left to sulk in the dusk and ponder my guilt. I thought of the Psalm we recited, week after week, and knew I was no longer one of the righteous but one of the wicked, one of the workers of iniquity. I curled up into a ball, sick to my stomach.
So, that’s what I’m thinking about as I’m perspiring through my shirt down in the pews, about to climb up to the pulpit to deliver to 200 or so friends and relatives a paean to love that I don’t understand at all.
Now, every year, thousands of people recite these verses at their friends’, siblings’, children’s weddings, and they get through it just fine, without even cracking a smile or breaking a sweat. At worst, a few stammer over the syntax, but they all get through it.
But I am going to get up there on that very high pulpit and look down at all of those people, and as I am about to pronounce upon the powers and wonders of love, I am involuntarily going to think LEAPING! FAWNLIKE! and will be overcome by an uncontrollable fit of laughter. I am going make a complete ass out of myself and ruin this perfectly beautiful New York Times-wedding-announcement wedding! And then the minister is going to yank me from the pulpit, and Charlie’s brother, the best man, who is in the military, by the way, is going to beat me to a pulp, and then I’ll be tossed out into the courtyard and likely stoned by the crowd as a heretic! For years, the dearly beloved will all remember this day, recounting to friends and family about that schmuck who couldn’t take a wedding seriously.
And the fact that I picked out something nice from the bridal registry (the pretty duck-shaped wine decanter) won’t mean a thing. I’m not going to get to drink any of that champagne, suck down an oyster, or have any wedding cake. Not that I wanted any cake. For at that moment, I thought I might throw up my rehearsal dinner.
What were my so-called friends trying to do to me?
Biting my lip, I looked to Kessler, who returned my gaze with glazed doe-like eyes. He was, after all, up after me.
The newly engaged couple concluded their recitation and made their way down from the pulpit. I glanced again at Kessler, with entreating eyes begging for words of courage and fortitude.
He leaned in to whisper to me. “Don’t screw up,” he said.
“I love you, too,” I replied.
I slowly made my way up the steps, trying to avoid looking at the newly engaged couple as they passed, and stepped up to the pulpit. From that height, the warm mid-summer light streaming in upon me, I felt very important. I glanced down into the pews, surveying the guests peering up in hushed anticipation. I took the page from my breast pocket and placed it upon the lectern, smoothing out the creases with my hand, and looked to the happy couple whose happiness confounded me. And then, trembling, I gripped the edges of the lectern and took a deep breath and began to recite.
I have no idea how I got through it. Here I rely on the testimony of others. Apparently, once I opened my mouth, my voice was transformed, transfigured, or possessed by some strange daemon or dybbuk, the words emerging with a conviction I could not possibly muster myself, my hands raised up to the air as I read, or rather, brothers and sisters, preached it. I preached those words as if I knew what they meant, preaching as though demanding the audience’s comprehension, an audience now astonished by my metamorphosis.
I was astonished, too. Astonished that I managed to get through it; that, in that hot austere space, I was able to transform near sacrilege into sanctity. Astonished at the power the words suddenly had, their immediacy and urgency in being proclaimed here. Finally, astonished at the love that all of these people had for one another. For a second it occurred to me that, by having me deliver this reading at his wedding, perhaps Charlie was trying to teach me something, that he was providing me, at his wedding, with a spiritual gift.
After that, I was a bit too dazed to follow the rest of the ceremony attentively. Apparently things went off without a hitch. Blessings were chanted, the minister delivered a homily, the couple made their vows. The groom choked up a bit while doing so. I looked over to Kessler, and I caught him tearing up a bit, too.
Afterward, the guests filed out of the meetinghouse and congregated in the old graveyard for the toast. Local oysters were shucked and glasses of Veuve Clicquot were poured to overflowing.
Before long, the newlyweds emerged and were immediately surrounded by a crowd of well-wishers. From the sidelines, I stood sipping a second glass of champagne and contemplated the mysterious transparency of their love, as the guests, sweating under the July afternoon sun, partied among the weather-beaten headstones of the long dead.
I felt a hand upon my shoulder. I turned and saw the dean of the Ivy League divinity school.
“Jerome,” she said, gazing at me with gentle and smiling eyes I suspect are part and parcel of her vocation. “Have you ever considered a career in the ministry?”
I took another sip of champagne. “Oh, yes, I replied. “All the time.”