Have You Ever Wondered Why a Bride and Groom Stand at the Marriage Altar with Their Backs to the Congregation?

14157224552_d054b78e05_mThere are reasons for this stance and the account of Solomon’s dedication of the just-completed temple gives us helpful hints (1 Kings 8).

To understand fully, we must visualize this magnificent building. Built in a rectangular shape, it was entered from the east into a large courtyard where the huge brazen altar stood for the offering of sacrifices. Then inside the building proper was the nave, called the Holy Place.

The inner sanctuary was deepest into the building and called the Holy of Holies. Here, the ark of the covenant had yet to be placed. God told his people that he would live among them, and this ark symbolized his presence.

Before King Solomon could begin the dedication, the Ark of the Covenant had to be carried by the priests from its prior resting place in the city of David and into the Holy of Holies.

The procession moved slowly and the courtyard was filled with great numbers of elders from throughout the nation. Solomon led the priests carrying the ark of the covenant toward the Holy of Holies. All the while, sacrifices were being offered extravagantly.

When the altar was finally placed in the Holy of Holies, and the priests withdrew, the Scriptures say, “… a cloud filled the temple of the Lord.” (1 Kings 8:10,11 NLT). Priests could not work because of this visible demonstration of God’s presence.

Now, notice how Solomon proceeded with the dedication. He faced the Holy of Holies with his back to the throng of elders. It was as though with mind, heart, and even position, he was focused first not on surroundings or the throngs, but on God as he prayed, “I have built for you a glorious house where you can live forever!”

Only then did he turn around to face the large gathering and bless them, following with explanatory sentences (1 Kings 8:11 -21 NLT).

Next, he turned away from the people and again faced toward the Holy of Holies and “with his hands lifted toward heaven before the altar of the Lord and before the entire community of Israel” he prayed a moving prayer for the nation (1 Kings 8:31 – 53 NLT).

But he also acknowledged with awe that the holiness and majesty of God were infinitely beyond any man-made structure, saying, “… will God really live on earth? Why even the highest heavens can’t contain you. How much less this temple I have built?” (1 Kings 8:27 NLT)

From that ancient time to the present, whether God is worshipped in lofty cathedral or humble frame church building, believers have taken their cue from Solomon’s dedication. At a wedding, for example, the bride and groom marry facing where communion table, open Bible, or mounted cross might stand as major symbols of the faith.

In a real sense, the officiating minister guides them as they exchange vows before God in his majesty and holiness. All of this explains why bride and groom face forward, with backs to the people, as though facing the “holy of holies” for their vows, and in a real sense saying: this is the house of the Lord, and by his living presence he is here with us.

In a Christian service, we who minister always hope the bride and groom will rise above the stresses of wedding detail and be moved to say their vows with an elevated sense of the presence and blessing of God.

And all of this is why the parties to a marriage stand with their backs to the congregation, looking forward, knowing in their hearts they are making vows in the presence of Almighty God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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Photo credit: Bill McChesney (via flickr.com)


2 thoughts on “Have You Ever Wondered Why a Bride and Groom Stand at the Marriage Altar with Their Backs to the Congregation?

  1. I tend to believe that there is some cultural aspects to this. In central Africa where I served as missionary, in a wedding the couple and party face the congregation with the bride’s family on one side facing the couple and the groom’s family on the other side facing the couple. The families make presentations endorsing the marriage and confirming that obligations have been met. Since the congregation is part of the ceremony this allows them to be integrated more fully into the proceedings and is both Christian and culturally appropriate.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Keith Lohnes
    Former missionary – D.R.Congo, Burundi

  2. Reading the Bible for the first time I found it very difficult to accurately visualize the layout of Solomon’s Temple ,the Ark of the Covenant and the priestly robes.

    Not because the Bible doesn’t give enough detailed description of them

    Measurements,colours and materials ae painstakingly described in the most minute If anything ,there was to much information for my mind to translate from the written page to pictorial form ,in my mind’s eye.Too many cubits to hold in my mind.

    So the second time I read the Bible through,many years later,I tried translating the written Bible verses to pages of drawing paper,drawing my own scale pictures.Unfortunately they were a bit sketchy as I’m not an accomplished draftsman.

    Then ,as my library of Bible editions expanded ,I found two of the great Protestant Bibles of the Reformation, both pre King James Bibles, had the most wonderful clear drawings of the Temple ,the Ark and the priests liturgical vestments.

    The so called Thomas Matthews Bible was named for two of Christ’s disciples,but no Thomas Matthews existed.The Bible was translated by William Tyndale and Myles Coverdale and edited by John Rogers.

    The name Thomas Matthews was given to shield the translators & editor from persecution.For translating the Bible into the ordinary tongue of common people was forbidden,punishable by death .

    Secular authority didn’t want their authority questioned ,didn’t want to play second fiddle to God’s authority.So wanted to keep certain Bible truths secret from ordinary people.

    In my comment on last week’s blog I mentioned how Hitler had the Old Testament removed from bibles in Germany ,in an attempt to stop folk seeing the Law given to Moses,the Law the Nazi state was breaking.

    Worldly authority will always try to suppress word of God’s Will when inconvient for them..In UK right now the legislature is attempting to pass a law to allow euthanasia ,against God’s 6th Commandment.All Christian church leaders ,including the head of the Anglican Church,Archbishop Justin Welby ,are fighting for God’s Law.I believe two states in USA already permit euthanasia in their statutes.

    Similarly ,abortion at will has been made legal throughout much of the Christian world in direst contravention of the 6th Commandment.Worldly legislatures are trying to bury God’s Law.

    Less than 500 years ago officials sought to conceal God’s Law from hs people,by denying Tyndale the right to translate the Bible into the common tongue.So he fled to the continent to carry out his evangelical vocation of bring God’s Word to all.He managed to put his translation into friendly hands before he was caught,strangled to death and hs body burned

    Ironically 80% of the King James New Testament of 1605,approved by the worldly authorities ,is actually Tyndale’s translation.

    Editor Rogers ,a Roman Catholic priest who had become a Protestant pastor was burned alive for his faith,in 1555.

    However,after Tyndale’s persecution and execution for translating the Bible,Myles Coverdale prayed :

    ‘’Lord open the King of England’s eyes’’

    Almost immediately his prayer was answered.For in 1537 Coverdale’s Bible was permitted to be printed,in the English tongue,in England.The people were allowed to read God’s Word.

    The edition of Matthew’s Bible I have is the 1537 one.It’s heavy Gothic font is difficult reading ,but by perseverance I can read it slowly.So can access the work of these brave evangelists who gave their lives to bring God’s Word to His people.

    Even one of my copies pf the 1388 Wycliffe Bible ,a modern spelling edition ,is easier reading,though it is in the Middle English of the 1300s and reflects the medieval world.Angels are described as sky knights in armour and there are castles and moot halls and the magi are called astromiens.My 1388 Wycliffe facsimile of a handwritten edition ,though beautiful in it’s calligraphy,requires slow careful reading.

    What a blessing that nowadays bibles in modern usage are available to all ,like ‘The Message’ and the’ New nternational Version’.

    The Geneva Bible,the Renaissance equivalent of our NIV, was translated by Protestant refugees fleeing persecution,It is easier to read than Matthews , having a more readable font.For the first time ,it is a bible with numbered verses making study easier.And it contains marginal commentaries and exegeses to aid lay Bible study. Like the Matthews Bible it gives clear scale drawings of the Temple,the Ark of the Conenant and of priestly vestments describled in the Bible.The edition I have is the 1560 edition.

    Many pages of Biblical description of the Temple , Ark and vestments came to life for me as never before,through these old Protestant Bible illustrations.

    I haven’t been to very many weddings ,so it wasn’t so much the fact that bride and groom had their backs to the congregation that aroused my curiosity.In fact when I first saw this,it seemed perfectly normal.

    For back then, every time I’d been in church during the sacrament of Lord’s Supper,the presiding minister always had his back to the congregation while preparing the bread and wine.

    This would have been mostly in Anglican churches,though I did go with Catholic friends on two occasions ,to their Roman Catholic church ,and the priests there also turned their backs to the congregation .

    Since, I can’t remember when,but not that long ago,Anglican ministers have started facing the congregation.Maybe this came in when we changed from the Book of Common Prayer to the Books of Common Worship.Though I didn’t partake in the symbolic body and blood of Christ , back then ,receiving a blessing instead,I noticed other changes in Lord’s Supper .

    One very warm change was the inclusion of ‘The Peace’ before we drew near to receive the bread and wine ,or a blessing.But in those rare services when we go back to using the BCP at Lord’s Supper,as sometimes happens in cathedral churches,like in the past the Peace is omitted.

    At ‘ the Peace’, the presiding minister prays the Lord’s peace be upon us and we return this prayer petition on his or her behalf..Then we exchane signs of peace with our fellow communicants,saying ‘Christ’s peace’ or ‘The Lord’s peace be upon you’ or anything spontaneous along those lines.

    The sign of peace we give is a handshake ,a hug or a kiss as seems naturally appropriate at the moment.In a large service we exchange with those congregants in our vicinity.In a congregation of 20 or less we exchange with every one present.It has become a very warmhearted part of Lord’s Supper ,so that when the bread and wine is then taken we feel even more that we are sharing Jesus.

    While at Lord’s Supper ,at the imposition of the Ashes on Ash Wednesday and at all times,the pastor now faces the congregation whatever denomination the pastor is from.

    Now I notice that at weddings bride and groom still face together away from the congregation.Maybe weddings are the last vestige of this custom.

    Thankyou Pastor Don,for this weeks fascinating blog on the Biblical reasons why bride and groom face liturgical east during the church service of holy matrimony.

    It’s good to be inquisitive about these things and think about them,since we are always led back to the Bible .I didn’t know why until you told us.

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