Ordinary Time, White Dresses

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).

14 comments

  1. How does the wedding entrance procession work in your parish? My wife and I came down the aisle together at our wedding but at most Catholic weddings I’ve been to only the bride and her party process and the groom and priest sneak in through the back door.

  2. The most common practice for weddings at our parish is, after any formal seating (grandma, et al.) first for the men attendants to enter the church down the center (or right diagonal) aisle followed by the groom with one or both of his parents down the same aisle, then the women attendants enter down the center (or left diagonal) aisle followed finally by the bride with one or both of her parents down the same aisle. Although this is all “pre-liturgy,” there is great symbolic value in stating in gesture “We came here apart, as two parties, each approaching the altar of God (from our own side) and now we depart, with our new mission, united as one (always down the center aisle). The Entrance Rite of the Rite of Marriage (19-20) encourages the servers and priest to precede the couple in the procession which we generally do for Masses. As pastoral liturgists much of our responsibility is to help couples understand that while they are welcome to “customize” their wedding according to the choices given in the Rite that nuptial Masses are always liturgy, the work (and property) of the whole Church and so while it may not conform to their Hollywood image it can and should still be done beautifully. Michelle and my planning of our nuptial Mass was the near occasion for me to explore the details, books, and history of our Catholic liturgical rites that is, in part, responsible for where I am today. The Rites–even the entrance procession–can be very instructive in this way.

  3. Andrew, I like that you’re looking at the “pre-liturgy” gestures too. However I might suggest that the liturgy, especially sacraments, reflect not only what we hope for (in this case, the unity of husband and wife) but also what has already happened (the unity of this man and woman). Perhaps the rite directs that the couple enter together because they could never authentically approach the altar for this sacrament unless they were already united with each other in heart, mind, and mission. They come already united in mission; they leave strengthened, transformed, and commissioned.

    Maybe we need more pre-nuptial rites to mark those transitions and deepening commitment, as we do with catechumens.

  4. Good points Diana. I’ve often lamented the lack of preparatory rites for marriage. We have extensive discernment and formation followed by rites, including those instituting ministries, for those on the path to ordained ministry and, as you point out, many steps for those preparing for Christian initiation but nothing similar for marriage. Although I always use Book of Blessings 211 (of an Engaged Couple) at the first meeting when several couples at once come together before they are paired with their sponsor couples (so it feels like an assembly), perhaps something akin to the extended ritual journey of the catechumenate with discernment and deepening at each step could be devised as a local/regional ritual by the US Bishops (Rite of Marriage 12-18)?

  5. in spite of the various options given in the Rite, the vast majority of weddings I have played for opt for the “traditional” Men and Priest wait up front while the women process in. Suggestions to the contrary are met with skepticism or even hostility.

    I really wish it were possible for me to see weddings as liturgies, but the reality is that they are too often pageant-shows sanctioned by the Church during which a sacrament is conferred. Much like First Communion. Fortunately I have far fewer weddings here in Florida than I did in MA, where it was an average of 2 each weekend from June – November.

    I’m curious…how many out there have experienced the use of an Opening Song or Gathering Hymn at a wedding?

    1. At my wedding, 34 years ago, we each came down the aisle with our parents, to an opening song (I’m not telling you what it was because from today’s standpoint it was embarrasingly awful.) Then, at my daughter’s wedding, they did the same, although to a much better choice, I believe it was “For the Beauty of the Earth.” Pity the poor young bride whose mother is a liturgist!

      On rare occasions at our small non-traditional parish in NJ we would see this kind of entrance. Since I took the position in Staten Island, absolutely not. When I have discussed it with the parish priests they look at me as if I were proposing something totally unheard of.

      At this point, I count myself lucky if I don’t have to see the bride brought up to the door of the church in a horse-drawn, pumpkin-shaped carriage, greeted by trumpeters in tights. It happens regularly.

  6. Agree with much of what has already been said.

    Gathering Hymns and Opening Songs are quite common at weddings in England, but they are quite often proceeded by a Bridal March (read “fashion parade” ?) so perhaps don’t count. There is a tiny, almost imperceptible move towards a joint entrance procession of bride and groom — not led by the priest. There is something very powerful in seeing the couple enter together at the back of the church, saying in effect “Here we are. We have come together, to do something together in the midst of the community. And we’re delighted that you’re all here to witness to this.” And then processing up to be welcomed by the priest at the altar steps.

    Some couples embrace this wholeheartedly when it is explained to them, but many still do not. They have difficulty in understanding that it is they themselves who are the ministers of the sacrament to each other. “Father X is marrying us, isn’t he?” No, actually he isn’t. He’s the Church’s witness.

    Having said that, I have to confess that at my own wedding 17 years ago, we entered together, accompanied by our parents. It just seemed like a good thing to do, and symbolised the union of two families coming together. (And no, before you ask, we did not use a unity candle.) And the fact that my bride’s father had terminal cancer made a difference to the emotional content of what was going on.

  7. My wife and I processed together … at a regular “Sunday” Mass (it was a Saturday). When I speak with couples I tell the stories connected with our preparation and wedding (also memorizing the vows). I don’t have a 0% success rate in convincing people to consider something off the page of the Bridal magazine. But yes, there’s an occasional nudge.

    Years later, we became friends with a family, and the eldest daughter was at our wedding. (She was six then.) She remembered details and her mother recounted that she was amazed to come to Sunday Mass to see a wedding. (And she wondered why it didn’t happen more often.)

  8. In an early draft of my post (before it grew too lengthy), I intended to invite others to share any experiences they had in having couples celebrate the sacrament of marriage during the Sunday Mass (as is stated as the preference in the Rite of Marriage) similar to what our parish does for all other sacraments and rites. I have personally had some success with one or two couples who initially asked about the possibility of a Sunday wedding because they were looking for cheaper rates at reception venues but had previously assumed that they were are only allowed to do a wedding on Saturday who were quite thrilled not only to end up with a more affordable reception site but also to be able to include the whole parish and the excellent choir to make the celebration all the more, well, celebratory. In at least one of those instances that I recall we merely made mention of the forthcoming marriage rite in the introductory remarks although the couple didn’t make their “debut” (by standing up from their reserved pews and stepping up into the sanctuary) until after the homily. While I would like to see this done more often, I think we need to be careful not to push all couples to make their wedding liturgies “too pure” and so potentially set up too many barriers for the faithful to come to the Church for the celebration of their wedding. It is a great opportunity for catechesis but what most will most likely take away is a positive (or, possibly, cumbersome) experience of…

  9. “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)”

    Citation? While the Eastern Code of Canon Law requires the presence of a priest (a deacon or even a specially delegated layperson is sufficient according to the Latin Code) I think the exchange of consent is still necessary (even if it’s only implied, but isn’t it also carried out earlier as part of the betrothal ceremony?) Here’s a test. If a priest blessed the marriage without the consent of the couple, would it still be valid? If not, then the consent is a necessary condition. I doubt Eastern priests can marry people against their wills.

    1. Thank you for the clarification, Samuel. I suppose the proper way I should have indicated that would have been to have stated that “consent, while certainly necessary, is not sufficient to constitute a valid marriage” in Eastern rite churches (as it is in the Western/Roman Rite) as a valid marriage requires the priest to impart the blessing for those subject to that rite:

      Canon 828 – §1. Only those marriages are valid which are celebrated with a sacred rite…§2…a sacred rite is the intervention a priest assisting and blessing…Canon 834….for validity, however, the blessing of a priest is required.

  10. I’m surprised no one has mentioned it yet, so I will…

    I wonder about the use of the phrase “Man-and-Wife” (twice) in an otherwise fine post. Did it strike anyone else? The Eucharistic Prayer preface, when speaking of the couple says “husband and wife” or “man and woman.”

    On a completely different note, have you experienced, or has there been any writing on, celebrating the Rite of Marriage within the Office? I know that one fruit of the Council has been the reconnection of Scripture to Sacrament–paraphrasing Augustine, the Sacrament is the Word made visible. Yet, the Liturgy of the Hours, one can maybe say, is heavily Scripture focused. And of course the Eucharist is the most appropriate liturgy in which to celebrate any sacrament. Yet we do have the option of celebrating the RIte of Marriage with only the Liturgy of the Word.

    Thoughts?

  11. Matt and I walked together, as he said. We had a gathering song after the procession, although I can’t remember what it was. (The recessional was “Alleluia! We sing your praises!” and I still can’t think of anything that could have been more perfect.)

    I was talking to someone at lunch the other day and confessed how processing together was not only liturgically right, but gave us a much more intimate “first moment together” the day of the wedding, in the entrance in the relative privacy of just our parents and bridesmaids. The person I was talking to was suitably impressed and wished she’d known to tell her daughter (in law?) as she had been wishing there was an alternative to being “given away”.

    I wonder if the intimacy would be more convincing to brides and grooms than the “it’s just better this way” argument. I know that moment, meeting within the doors of the church, close enough to see his eyes light up, is still one of the most tender memories of my wedding day.

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