“That can’t be me — she’s too beautiful.”
I caught my breath and looked again. The mirror wasn’t lying; the blue eyes and dark hair were mine, but the blue was deeper, the dark curls more smooth, than the tousled head I normally saw in the morning. I felt like Eve, bewildered at her own graceful, unfamiliar reflection in the waters of Eden. The lovely woman in the mirror smiled, then laughed, as I remembered: today was the wedding day, and I was the bride.
In the months leading up to my wedding, I thought a great deal about Paul’s claim in Ephesians 5 that human marriage reveals something of the “profound mystery” of Christ’s love for the Church. As my fiancé and I grew in knowledge, trust, and love for one another, I eagerly watched for signs that our relationship was enacting this mysterious covenant. Before the wedding, these signs were almost entirely invisible, even abstract: as Steven and I learned to forgive one another, or as we dreamed our future together, I thought I was enlarging my intellectual and emotional understanding of Christ’s love for his people.
This kind of mental analogy-hunting was a familiar pastime long before my engagement. Throughout my teens and twenties, some of my friends had a standing joke that I wasn’t real, in a “her feet never touch the ground,” sort of way. As an academic and a dreamer, I did live largely in my head, and only my hound-dog and good theology saved me from a kind of de facto Gnosticism. For much of my life I would rather study than eat, rather finish another page than fix my hair.
A wedding allows for none of that disembodied nonsense: it demands a flesh-and-blood bride, and says she should be beautiful. I began to learn this as I made my wedding dress. Sketching and planning through the fall, I bought my silk and lace as winter fell and began to sew in early spring. With each cut and stitch, I had to attend to my body: its contours, length, height, and breadth. For most of my engagement, sewing was the most concrete, material form our wedding preparations took. Sometimes I thought I might be spending too much time on the dress: surely it would be more prudent to think more about marriage? However, it was through this physical, mundane work that the words of Scripture began to come alive in unexpected ways. I began to catch glimpses of myself in the exultant words of Song of Songs, whose lover writes of his bride, “My dove, my perfect one, is the only one, the only one of her mother, pure to her who bore her (6:9 ESV). The dress was entirely my own, fit just to me, and yet it was also, without a doubt, a bride’s dress. No one from my culture would mistake the signs of white silk and a long veil as anything else. This process was the first of many signs that the deep mystery of Christ and the Church would be revealed in my body as much as my emotions, will, or intellect.
Making the dress was only a foretaste of the wedding itself. Days before, my aunt insisted that I have my nails done. I protested, but nevertheless found myself in a salon chair, with a grown man painting my fingernails and toes. I felt ridiculous, asking my aunt, “How in the world will I wash dishes with my nails so fancy?” “You won’t” she said, almost sternly. “You will let other people take care of you this week.”
And they did take care. When I gasped at my own reflection on the morning of the wedding, I wasn’t marveling at my own handiwork. My hair, eyes, skin, and lips — all had been carefully, tenderly adorned by my bridesmaids, women whose friendship I’ve cherished for years. For an hour they worked, leaning over me, their shoulders grazing my cheek as they tended an errant curl, applied oils, perfumes. It was a quiet hour, a sacred hour, but not without laughter.
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;
my soul shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels
(Isaiah 61:10 ESV)
I had never felt so beautiful, never so free from pride. As I put pearls in my ears and felt my mother’s hands on the dress’s satin buttons, my beauty weighed on me as an unfathomable gift. Not my own creation, not the sign of my power or virtue, but my birthright as a beloved child. Inherited from my parents, revealed by the skilled hands of my friends — my body was teaching me what it means to be full of grace.
Seeing myself so beautiful was poignant, even painful, because I knew it would not last. Mediocrity is easier to bear than unprecedented excellence. Resignation and defeat make more sense than this grace that shines and spears and burns. As I was preparing for feasts and celebrations, friends I loved were reeling from cancer diagnoses, from lost pregnancies, broken bones and other signs of the body’s frailty. Even as I delighted in a bride’s strange beauty, I felt those tremors in my own flesh: the troubling spot the doctor found on the back of my eye, the ache of my monthly cycle, inevitable attrition by sickness and age. What do these harder lessons tell of grace?
I am still a very new bride, but just as I heard the joy of Song of Songs on my wedding day, so also do I hear the thundering hope of Revelation in brokenness of my own body. “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come,’” longing for the return of Christ and the fulfillment of his kingdom (22:17 ESV). As I met my groom at the altar, I wondered if he could feel it in his bones, as I did: the marvel that his love, more than anything else, made me beautiful that day. The mystery is profound.