It’s July. It may be Ordinary Time but those of us in parish life know that this is wedding season. Mine was inaugurated by my brother-in-law’s wedding on Memorial Day, has also included the wedding of the couple for whom my wife and I are their sponsor couple in preparation for marriage, a wedding for a young man our parish recently received into the full communion of the Catholic Church, and my daughter’s godmother’s wedding celebrated in Italy, and will have its finale on Labor Day with my sister-in-law’s wedding. With so many weddings taking place between Memorial Day and Labor Day let’s take a moment to step out of the heat and reflect on the Rite of Marriage itself.
Following the entrance rite (about which many couples preparing for marriage have great angst) we ask God, who long ago
created mankind [and] willed that man and wife should be one, to once again
bind [this couple] in the loving union of marriage… [and] make their love fruitful so that they may be living witnesses to [that] divine love in the world (109). Already here in the Opening Prayer we glimpse that it is Man-and-Wife that is the sacrament, the outward sign of the divine. While the couple being married certainly participates in the divine life (
receives grace, if you like) through the celebration of the sacrament of marriage their act of freely binding themselves to one another is itself a sign of the divine love that, though limitless, binds itself unilaterally to humanity in the incarnation. Each married couple, as a couple, is an icon of Christ, a window into the divine insofar as they allow their love to be conformed to the perfect love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father.
After the Liturgy of the Word (67-105, about which a great deal could be written but which I will leave for the homilists) we come to the Rite of Marriage itself which begins by reminding the couple of their purpose for coming to church, namely, for the Lord to
seal and strengthen [their] love and to
enrich and strengthen [them] by a special sacrament so that [they] may assume the duties of marriage in mutual and lasting fidelity (23). It is worth noting that through these words we, the Church, affirm that Christ a priori blesses the love between the couple even before they decided to enter the church to celebrate the sacrament of marriage. We ritually declare that their consecration to God begins not on this day but began on the day of their baptism which can and will only be fulfilled in faithful obedience to their vocation
in mutual and lasting fidelity. And so we ask the couple to state their intentions:
Have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage?
Will you love and honor each other as man and wife for the rest of your lives?
Will you accept children lovingly from God and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church? —24
I always tell every couple whom my wife, Michelle, and I have the blessing to lead through their preparation for marriage that the whole point of a lengthy process of preparation in the Catholic Church is geared toward these questions. The first question is addressed to the individual: Do you know yourself? Are you aware of your motives and desires? Are you living in the freedom of Christ of which St Paul so eloquently wrote? The second turns outward asking about concrete (one might even say incarnate) action: Will you bind yourself in stability and obedience to daily be converted to the way of life of Man-and-Wife that is the image of the divine life for those called to married life? And finally we come to the third question which, like the third person of the Trinity, is born of the love between the first and second: Will you establish a school for the Lord’s service in order form others in love? It has also often struck me that this third question closely parallels that taken in ordination where the ordinand promises obedience to his superior and his successors as both constitute a vow to love and honor even those we do not yet know: the true fruit of any sacrament in service of the communion of the Church. Only once this is declared in the assembly—whose role it remains to support the couple in upholding these intentions—do we move to the essential form of the Rite of Marriage, where the ministers exchange their vows:
I take you to be my husband/wife.
I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health.
I will love you and honor you all the days of my life. —25
Although it is this exchange of consent that makes a valid a marriage in the Latin Rite (and not the blessing of a priest as in the Eastern Rites), the one presiding in the name of the Church asks
the Lord in his goodness [to] strengthen your consent and fill you both with his blessings and reminds us that
what God has joined, men must not divide (26) before the exchange of rings.
During the Liturgy of the Eucharist we encounter some of the most striking language in the Rite of Marriage as the priest-celebrant prepares to invoke the Holy Spirit to transform mere human elements into the divine presence, bringing into our midst Christ himself who gives up his body for us, paralleling the actions of the sacrament of marriage itself as he situates marriage in its place within God’s plan of salvation:
You created man in love to share your divine life.
We see his high destiny in the love of husband and wife, which bears the imprint of your own divine love.
Love is man’s origin,
love is his constant calling,
love is his fulfillment in heaven.
The love of man and woman
is made holy in the sacrament of marriage
and becomes the mirror of your everlasting love. —117
As a mirror of love each couple is called to spiritual friendship with one another and with God, recognizing their common (indeed universal) longing for God and the unique manner in which they become the path of salvation for one another. As my wife and I approach our ninth anniversary of marriage next week I have come to appreciate not only the ascesis of putting another higher than myself, that discipline of humility by which I hope to attain to my full stature in Christ, but also learning to delight ever more in the joy we have been blessed to know, a foreshadowing of that perfect union for which we are all yearning. In the Rite of Marriage we see this beautifully summarized as the couple stands at the threshold of sharing in Christ’s body broken for us and blood poured-out for us as the Church imparts its nuptial blessing for those whose baptismal calls have been united in marriage,
the one blessing that was not forfeited by original sin or washed away in the flood…so that they may be witnesses of Christ to others…and, after a happy old age, [be granted] the fullness of life with the saints in the kingdom of heaven (33).