Editor’s note: The Order of Celebrating Matrimony, Second Edition, has been approved for use by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Holy See. The new rite—with both ritual and rubrical changes, as well as a translation according to the principles of Liturgiam Authenticam—may be used as of September 8, 2016, and its use is mandatory in the United States beginning on December 30, the Feast of the Holy Family. In preparation for the new rite, Father Randy Stice recalled the underlying theology of the sacrament in the November 2015 issue of Adoremus Bulletin and looked specifically at the Nuptial Blessing. In this entry, Father Stice looks at the various ritual elements of the Order and shows how each expresses the Church’s theology of marriage. This article is adapted from Father Stice’s Understanding the Sacraments of Vocation published in May by Liturgy Training Publications.
The liturgy is composed of signs and symbols through which God manifests his presence as well as his saving and sanctifying action. When the Church speaks of liturgical signs, she uses the term in a broad and comprehensive way, including material objects, words, actions, song, and music. They are “bearers of the saving and sanctifying action of Christ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1189) and “have been chosen by Christ or the Church” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 33). Furthermore, they are “necessary for the mystery of salvation to be really effective in the Christian community” and to ensure “the presence of God.”1 The Holy Spirit uses the words, actions, and signs that make up a liturgical celebration to bring “both the faithful and the ministers into a living relationship with Christ, the Word and Image of the Father, so that they can live out the meaning of what they hear, contemplate, and do in the celebration” (CCC 1101).
The Sacrament of Matrimony is woven from a diversity of liturgical signs. It employs gestures such as joining hands and hands raised in blessing, postures such as standing and kneeling, and processions. Rings express important human and spiritual realities, as do cultural symbols such as coins (arras) and the lasso (lazo). Holy water is used as a sign of God’s blessing. Together these signs communicate to the couple “the saving and sanctifying action of Christ” (CCC 1189). Understanding the liturgy’s signs enables the participants “to pass from its signs to the mystery which they contain, and to enter into that mystery in every aspect of their lives” (Mane Nobiscum Domine 17).
The Introductory Rites
There are two options for the Introductory Rites. In the first option, the priest (or the deacon, if presiding at the Order of Celebrating Matrimony without Mass), vested in white or another festive color, meets couple at the door of the church and “greets them kindly, showing that the Church shares their joy” (OCM 45). In the second form, the priest meets the couple at the place prepared for them in the church, usually at the foot of the sanctuary, or goes to his chair. Once all the participants are in their places, the priest speaks to the couple and those present in order “to dispose them inwardly for the celebration of Marriage” (OCM 52). The rite provides two models (one of the new features of the Second Edition), stipulating that the priest may use “these or similar words.” For the couple, “this is a moment of unique importance,” for on this day they intend to establish between themselves “a lifelong partnership” (OCM 53). The assembly is urged to support the couple with prayers, affection, and friendship and to “listen attentively with them to the word that God speaks to us today” (OCM 52). All present are reminded that they gather as part of the universal Church and with her join their prayers for the couple, God’s servants, “that he lovingly accept them, bless them, and keep them always one” (OCM 52). This reminder may conclude with special petitions for the couple: “May the Lord hear you on this your joyful day. May he send you help from heaven and protect you. May he grant you your hearts’ desire and fulfill every one of your prayers” (OCM 53).
These introductory rites are significant for the language of sign that they employ. The priest greets the couple at the door to show that the Church shares their joy. The parents and witnesses who accompany the couple are a “sign of honor.” The procession to the altar signifies that marriage is a sign of Christ’s self-giving love for the Church, herself born from the altar of the cross. The instructions to those gathered emphasize that the celebration of this sacrament, as with all the sacraments, is not a private celebration but a celebration of the whole Church, the Body of Christ, Head and members. Finally, the rites include a simple catechesis on the sacrament to enable all present to enter more fully into the celebration.
Introducing the Celebration of Marriage
Following the homily, all stand for the celebration of marriage. This is another example of the importance of posture in the liturgy. Standing is “the basic posture of an Easter people lifted up to greet their risen Lord” (Introduction to the Order of Mass 29), the posture “of those who have risen with Christ and seek the things that are above.”2 It also expresses a readiness for action. It is a particularly apt posture for celebrating the sacrament of marriage, which is a sign of Christ’s self-giving, covenantal love for the Church, so that standing “becomes an efficacious sign, the sacrament of the covenant of Christ and the Church” (CCC 1617).
The priest begins by addressing the couple. He may use the remarks in the rite “or similar words.” In the model introduction, the priest begins by summarizing why the couple has come to the Church, “so that in the presence of the Church’s minister and the community your intention to commit yourselves to Marriage may be strengthened by the Lord with a sacred seal” (OCM 59). He then briefly characterizes the meaning of the sacrament of Marriage, explaining that Christ “enriches and strengthens those he has already consecrated by Holy Baptism, that they may be faithful to each other for ever and assume all the responsibilities of married life.”
The mutual consent of the spouses is “the indispensable element that ‘makes the marriage’” (CCC 1626). Through this consent, which is irrevocable, the spouses “freely give themselves to each other and accept each other” (OCM 2). This consent establishes the marriage covenant—without it, there is no marriage. For this reason, the Catholic Church teaches that “the spouses as ministers of Christ’s grace mutually confer upon each other the sacrament of Matrimony by expressing their consent before the Church” (CCC 1623).
This consent must be a free act of the will by each spouse, neither coerced nor imposed through fear (CCC 1628). The priest first questions the couple about their freedom to enter into marriage and their understanding of the ends of marriage. He first asks the couple if they have “come here to enter into Marriage without coercion, freely and wholeheartedly?” He next asks if they are prepared “to love and honor each other for as long as you both shall live?” Finally, he asks if they are “prepared to accept children lovingly from God and to bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?”3 (OCM 60). These are the concrete signs which establish the necessary freedom to enter into Marriage and to fulfill the two ends of marriage, the good of the spouses and the generation and education of children.
The priest then invites the couple to join their right hands and declare their consent “before God and his Church” (OCM 61). The act of joining hands is found in Tobit, when Raguel took his daughter Sarah “by the hand and gave her to Tobiah” (7:12). The bridegroom says to his bride, “I, N., take you, N., to be my wife. I promise to be faithful to you, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love you and to honor you all the days of my life” (OCM 62). The bride then says, “I, N., take you, N., to be my husband,” followed by the same promise. The rite provides the option of obtaining consent through questioning: “N., do you take N., to be your wife/husband? Do you promise to be faithful…” (OCM 63), to which the other answers, “I do.” In the Second Edition, two formulas for exchanging consent are given, as in the First Edition.
The priest, whose presence is a visible sign of “the fact that marriage is an ecclesial reality” (CCC 1630), receives their consent “in the name of the Church” (CCC 1630). The rite provides two options for the reception of consent: “May the Lord in his kindness strengthen the consent you have declared before the Church, and graciously bring to fulfillment his blessing within you. What God joins together, let no one put asunder;” or “May the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God who joined together our first parents in paradise, strengthen and bless in Christ the consent you have declared before the Church, so that what God joins together, no one may put asunder” (OCM 64). The priest then says to the assembly, “Let us bless the Lord,” to which they reply “Thanks be to God,” or another similar response. This participation by the assembly further signifies the ecclesial dimension of marriage.
Blessing and Giving of Rings
The exchange and reception of consent, the essential element of the sacrament, is followed by the Blessing and Giving of Rings. The custom of wedding rings was taken over from the non-Christian Roman betrothal rings at an early date. The earliest Christian blessing of the rings comes from the marriage of England’s King Edilwulf to Judith of France in 856. The blessing explained the meaning of this liturgical sign: “Receive the ring, the sign of faithfulness and love and the bond of conjugal union, inasmuch as man must not separate those God has joined.”4
The custom of placing the ring on the fourth finger goes back to St. Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636), who “attributed it to the belief that there was a vein in the fourth finger that ran directly to the heart,” a belief traceable to the Roman author Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD).5 In the Middle Ages the placing of the ring was accompanied by a Trinitarian formula. According to a late 15th century liturgical text, “the priest should place the ring on the bridegroom’s thumb, saying, In the name of the Father. And afterward on the index finger, and he should say, And of the Son. Then on the middle finger; and he should say, And of the Holy Spirit. Then he should leave the ring on the bridegroom’s fourth finger, saying, Amen.”6
The rite begins with the priest blessing the rings. It provides three different formulas:
– “May the Lord bless + these rings, which you will give each other as a sign of love and fidelity” (OCM 66);
– “Bless, O Lord, these rings, which we bless + in your name, so that those who wear them…” (OCM 194);
– “Bless + and sanctify your servants in their love, O Lord, and let these rings, a sign of their faithfulness, remind them of their love for one another” (OCM 195).
The blessing includes the sign of the cross, and the priest may sprinkle the rings with holy water.
The current rite retains the traditional symbolism discussed above. The rings are first and foremost “a sign of love and fidelity” (OCM 66 and 67A) and a reminder “of their love for one another” (OCM 195). One of the blessing formulas asks that those who wear the rings “may remain entirely faithful to each other, abide in peace and in your will, and live always in mutual charity” (OCM 194). The Trinitarian symbolism discussed above (although not the accompanying gesture) is preserved in the current rite. The words said by each spouse when placing the ring conclude with the Trinitarian formula, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (OCM 67A).
Adaptations: Arras and Lazo
All of the sacraments permit certain adaptations, which are outlined in the last section of the Introduction found at the beginning of each of the ritual books. For example, the Order for the Celebration of Marriage permits, “in keeping with local customs, the crowning of the bride or the veiling of the spouses” following the giving of rings (OCM 41.5). The joining of hands and the Blessing and Giving of Rings can be omitted or replaced if these “are incompatible with the culture of the people” (OCM 41.6). Finally, “elements from the traditions and culture of particular peoples” can be adopted after careful and prudent consideration (OCM 41.7). An example of this is the option approved by the American bishops of including two elements from the Hispanic tradition: the Exchange of Coins (Arras) and the Blessing and Placing of the Lazo or Veil.
The Exchange of Coins, or Arras, normally takes place after the Blessing and Giving of Rings. The rite begins with the Blessing of the Arras (Coins): “Bless, + O Lord, these arras that N. and N. will give to each other and pour over them the abundance of your good gifts” (OCM 67B). The bridegroom gives coins to his bride, who receives them by placing her hands below her husband’s hands. In handing over the coins, the bridegroom says, “N., receive these arras as a pledge of God’s blessing and a sign of the good gifts we will share” (OCM 67B). The wife receives the arras and then gives them to the husband and says, “N., receive these arras as a pledge of God’s blessing and a sign of the good gifts we will share” (OCM 67B). As these words indicate, the arras concludes the wedding contract. The arras are a sign of God’s blessing and also a sign “that the couple will share everything mutually.”7 According to custom, thirteen coins are often used as a sign of prosperity 8 as well as “the presence of Christ and his disciples.”9
Depending on local custom, “the rite of blessing and imposition of the lazo (wedding garland) of the veil may take place before the Nuptial Blessing” (OCM 71B). The words of the blessing express the meaning of the lazo: “Bless, + O Lord, this lazo (or: this veil), a symbol of the indissoluble union that N. and N. have established from this day forward before you and with your help” (OCM 71B). Family members or friends hold the lazo or veil and place it over the shoulder of the couple (OCM 71B). The lazo signifies the unity and indissolubility of Marriage and the grace—“your help”—that God grants through the sacrament. It is removed at the conclusion of the Nuptial Blessing.
These two adaptations, the arras and the lazo, are commonly used in Spanish-speaking communities, and the rubrics for each (for the arras, “If the occasion so suggests”; for the lazo, “According to local custom”) guide their appropriate inclusion in the rite.
The final liturgical sign is the blessing of the couple at the conclusion of Mass. The Ritual Mass for the Celebration of Marriage includes several Solemn Blessing formulas. The solemn blessing is inserted after the dialogue, “The Lord be with you. R/: And with your spirit,” indicated by the invitation given by the priest or deacon, “Bow down for the blessing.” It consists of three separate invocations; after each invocation the assembly responds, “Amen.” The priest says the blessing with his hands extended over the people, the gesture that accompanies an epiclesis. It concludes with the general formula, “And may the blessing of almighty God, the Father, and the Son, + and the Holy Spirit, come down on you and remain with you for ever. R/: Amen,” and the Dismissal.
The tripartite structure is modeled on the threefold blessing God instructed Aaron to give the Israelites:
“The LORD bless you and keep you!
The LORD let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you!
The LORD look upon you kindly and give you peace!” (Num 6:24–26).
In addition to the solemn blessings for the Celebration of Marriage, the Roman Missal contains a large number of solemn blessings for other occasions. There are twenty different solemn blessings for Celebrations in the Different Liturgical Times, such as Advent, the Beginning of the Year, Easter Time, and six options for Ordinary Time. There are four solemn blessings for Celebrations of the Saints, one for the Dedication of a Church, and one for Celebrations for the Dead. Several Ritual Masses also include optional solemn blessings: Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, Orders, the Blessing of an Abbot or Abbess, the Consecration of Virgins, Religious Profession. Appropriate solemn blessings can be used not only at the end of Mass, but also to conclude liturgies of the word and the Liturgy of the Hours.10
The solemn blessings are “undoubtedly a great acquisition, because they add appropriate aspects to the general formula of blessing and interpret them as well.”11 This is certainly true of the three options provided for the Celebration of Marriage. The first option (Form A) includes petitions for mutual love and the peace of Christ; blessing in children, comfort in friendship, and peace with all; and effective witness to the charity of Christ. The second option, Form B in the Roman Missal, is explicitly Trinitarian in structure, asking that God the Father would grant joy and bless the couple in their children, that the Only Begotten Son of God would support them with his compassion in good and bad times, and that the Holy Spirit of God would always pour forth his love into their hearts.
The third option is a threefold petition to Christ, exploring the relationship between his love for the Church and marital love. The first petition is that Christ would bless the couple and their loved ones just as he blessed the marriage at Cana. “The Church attaches great importance to Jesus’ presence at the wedding at Cana. She sees in it the confirmation of the goodness of marriage and the proclamation that thenceforth marriage will be an efficacious sign of Christ’s presence” (CCC 1613). The interpretation by St. Maximus of Turin (4th-5th century) is a good example: “The Son of God went to the wedding so that marriage, which had been instituted by his own authority, might be sanctified by his blessed presence.”12 Christ is next asked to pour his love into the hearts of the bride and groom as he “loved the Church to the end,” a reference to John’s description of Christ’s love for his disciples as he prepared to wash their feet: “He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end” (13:1). Finally, he is asked to enable the couple to “await with joy the blessed hope to come” as they bear “witness to faith in his Resurrection.”
These solemn blessings offer a concise catechesis on the sacrament of marriage. The first summarizes the ends of marriage and its missionary dimension. The second emphasizes the sacrament as the work of and communion with the Trinity. And the third option highlights the sacrament as a sign of Christ’s relationship with the Church.
The sacrament of marriage employs a rich variety of signs and symbols to make present “the saving and sanctifying action of Christ” (CCC 1189). Gestures such as joining hands and hands raised in blessing signify powerful spiritual realities. Postures such as standing and kneeling signify interior dispositions of humility and readiness. The sacramental of holy water signifies the holiness of marital unity symbolized by the rings. Cultural adaptations like the arras and lazo reveal how the Church incorporates into the liturgy elements of human culture, “conferring on them the dignity of signs of grace, of the new creation in Jesus Christ” (CCC 1149). And the rich use of blessings signifies the power of the Spirit sent from Christ to communicate the Father’s love, for “blessing is a divine and life-giving action, the source of which is the Father; his blessing is both word and gift” (CCC 1078). Together these signs reveal and make present the life of the Trinity and Christ’s love for his Church.
Father Randy Stice is the Director of the Office of Worship and Liturgy for the Diocese of Knoxville (TN) and the pastor of St. Mary Church in Athens, TN. He holds an STL in Systematic Theology from Mundelein Seminary and an MA in Liturgy from the Liturgical Institute at Mundelein Seminary. He is the author of Understanding the Sacraments of Healing: A Rite-based Approach (LTP, 2015) and Understanding the Sacraments of Vocation: A Rite-based Approach (LTP, 2016). His articles have appeared in The Heythrop Journal and Sacred Architecture.
1. Liturgiae Instaurationes, 1.
2. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Praying with Body, Mind, and Voice (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2010).
3. This question can be omitted if circumstances such as the age of the couple suggest it.
4. James Monti, A Sense of the Sacred: Roman Catholic Worship in the Middle Ages (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2012), 215.
5. Monti, A Sense of the Sacred 216.
6. Monti, A Sense of the Sacred, 217.
7. James L. Empereur and Eduardo Fernandez. La Vida Sacra: Contemporary Hispanic Sacramental Theology (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), 156.
8. Mark R. Francis and Arturo J. Perez-Rodriguez, Primero Dios: Hispanic Liturgical Resource (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2007), 104.
9. Empereur, 156.
10. Johannes H. Emminghaus, The Eucharist: Essence, Form, Celebration, trans. Linda M. Maloney, rev. and ed. Theodor Mass-Ewerd (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1997), 213.
11. Emminghaus, The Eucharist, 214.
12. Joel C. Elowsky, ed., John 1–10, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press Academic, 2007), 90
Father Randy Stice is the Director of the Office of Worship and Liturgy for the Diocese of Knoxville, TN. He has served as a parochial vicar, a pastor, and from 2017 to 2020 was the Associate Director of the Secretariat of Divine Worship at the USCCB. He holds an STL in Systematic Theology from Mundelein Seminary and an MA in Liturgy from the Liturgical Institute. He is the author of three books: Understanding the Sacraments of Healing (LTP, 2015), Understanding the Sacraments of Vocation (LTP, 2016), and Understanding the Sacraments of Initiation (LTP, 2017).