A Baha’i wedding is a simple ceremony—the couple exchanges a ten-word vow. That’s it—no clergy, no long sermons, no rituals.
Of course the bride and groom are free to embellish their momentous occasion with any introduction, music, readings, sacred writings or prayers that they wish. However, this vow is the only requirement:
This vow represents the core of the Baha’i marriage contract. Nothing else—and nobody else—needs to be involved in the ceremony. No other person “marries” the couple, since the Baha’i Faith has no clergy.
Why don’t Baha’is have any clergy? Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, proclaimed that we are now experiencing the dawn of the age of fulfillment, which will supplant the former age of prophecy. In this transitional era of humanity’s coming of age (hence, the world’s current adolescent-like upheavals), all are capable of recognizing truth for themselves—without the intermediary of a clergy or priesthood. Thus, in keeping with that Baha’i principle of the independent investigation of truth, the Baha’i wedding couple—through the exchange of that simple vow—actually marry each other.
Of course, the Baha’i Local Spiritual Assembly is a legally recognized religious body for overseeing a lawful marriage, and two witnesses are chosen as the law requires, but the Baha’i marriage ceremony itself involves only two people. A third participant exists—as the title of this essay implies—but it’s not a priest, a minister or any other human agent.
Within the few words of the Baha’i wedding vow lies a wealth of meaning. First of all, note that the vow does not say, “We will both abide by the will of God”—and given the Baha’i principle of the equality of men and women, it certainly does not say, “I will abide by my husband’s will—or by my wife’s will.”
Instead, the pledge specifies, “We will all, verily, abide by the will of God.” So, who then is this “all” being joined in union, and what exactly is “the will of God”? Since the role of the clergy has been abrogated in the Baha’i Faith, I’m not here to interpret scripture for anyone else. We all have to meditate upon revealed truth for ourselves—and not be dependent on another’s explanation. But with that said, allow me to offer some ideas for consideration.
According to a recent ABC News report, 60% of the marriages in the world are arranged (in India, 90%!) These marriages are usually arranged by parents. However, such a practice is forbidden by the Baha’i teachings. Baha’u’llah said that no one can decide for a young (or any other) person whom he or she will marry. The couple has to first find each other.
However, by the same token, the Baha’i teachings recognize that marriage is not just about the married couple. In a very real sense, two families are joined together by a marriage. Indeed, as Baha’u’llah’s teaching and the evolving social reality that “the earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens” is increasingly recognized and practiced, more and more people marry across ethnic, racial and national lines. As a consequence, many modern marriages have the potential to unite not only families but also cultures.
The essential purpose of the Baha’i Faith is to create world unity—unity of nations, of races, and of religions. So, of course, its function is to create unity between families as well. Therefore, one requirement of a Baha’i marriage is parental involvement—but not in the choosing of a marriage partner. The couple finds each other. However, if, after their initial attraction, followed by their investigation of each other’s character, the two decide to marry, Baha’i law requires that they seek out and benefit from the wisdom of their parents. In a show of love and respect for family, before marrying, the couple requests from both pairs of parents consent that this marriage, this union, take place.
Oftentimes this very show of effort and respect on the couple’s part proves to be a catalyst for family unity. Obedience to spiritual law always creates harmony (both inner and outer), whose ripples go forth and touch shores as yet unknown. By seeking parental consent—and by exchanging a simple, albeit profound vow—the marrying couple lays a firm foundation for true unity between two families, creating an atmosphere of harmony ideal for nurturing children yet to be born. No doubt, such harmony likewise attracts the blessings of the departed ancestors of both families as those ascended souls bear witness to their descendents’ noble efforts to create a legacy of unity. Baha’i marriage, as the wedding vow confirms, truly involves all.
But, most of all, Baha’i marriage involves the Unknowable Essence, that Great Spirit breathing through all creation Whom language inadequately describes as All-Knowing, Almighty and All-Wise. In contrast to the contemporary concept of romantic love with its faulty notion that the beloved is all the lover will ever need, the Baha’i wedding vow stresses the necessary presence of the most vital component of any marriage—spiritual guidance from the Creator. Baha’i marriage is about two helpmates—two mates helping each other to know God’s will.
The future is uncertain. The world is round to remind us that we cannot see where we are going. The only infallible guide, the only reliable compass on that unpredictable journey is the will of the Almighty—because God knows us better than we know ourselves, or than we know our spouse. God knows better than we do what we need and will need. Therefore, the marrying couple, by vowing, “We will all, verily, abide by the will of God,” pledges each other to a life of prayer and meditation as foundation of their nascent family. How else could each married partner intuitively perceive what the bible calls “the still, small voice within”?
The Baha’i writings contain a beautiful metaphor regarding marriage:
Abdu’l-Baha alludes to the fact that rivers consist of fresh water and the ocean is composed of salt water. Fresh river water flows down from a mountain to meet the salty sea; and the union of fresh and salt waters at the mouth of a river forms a rich estuary, fertile with life, where birds and fish flock to feed. Just as an estuary represents a rich source of life-giving sustenance, so too does marriage. By coming together in Baha’i marriage, the wedded couple does not lose their individual identities. On the contrary, seeking to know the will of God assists in fulfilling one’s maximum individual potential, while the marriage union creates a life-giving source of sustenance, of harmony — not only for the couple — but potentially for all.