It has been noted over recent years that weddings here in the prosperous West have become ever more elaborate and expensive—the decorations, the lavish food, the music and entertainment, and above all—The Dress! Yet, for all that, marriages have a remarkably short lifespan. Divorce is an everyday part of life, with few families unaffected.
What makes a marriage last, however, is not the size of the wedding cake, the cost of the lace, or the quality of the photographs; rather, a marriage endures because the spouses are willing to embrace their new lives together in an unbreakable sacramental bond. One way to tap into this new life is to help it unfold for the couple as they approach the sanctuary for the wedding ceremony and prepare to commit themselves to a love that, by God’s grace, will last a lifetime.
Working with young couples in marriage preparation, I have found that discovering the riches of the wedding liturgy—and concentrating on the rite as a focal point for opening up the whole of the Church’s teaching on matrimony and family life—is a truly effective way of communicating the truth and beauty of lifelong and fruitful marriage.
The Church’s liturgy for marriage draws us into this mystery, teaches us about the nature of marriage, opens us to receive God’s grace and brings his rich blessings into the souls and lives of the bride and bridegroom, strengthening them for their new tasks as husband and wife in the establishment of a new family.
Marriage is not just an arrangement for the raising of children and the establishment of a structured society: it is God’s plan from “the beginning.” It is a sacrament, an outward sign of God’s grace working in human hearts, a means of sanctity, a gift of God to the human race.
The Church is anxious about the fact that many couples do not marry but simply cohabit—and also split up and find new partners during the course of a lifetime. Today she calls with a sense of urgency for good marriage preparation. Understanding the truth about marriage—the lifelong union of a man and a woman, open to new life and the foundation of a new family—can no longer be assumed to be an essential part of growing up in Western society. Such truths about marriage must be taught because they certainly will not be “caught” in the way they were by generations who went before us.
Liturgy as Marriage Prep
When a couple comes to a Catholic priest to talk about getting married, they may already be living together, even if one party may have a vague understanding of the Catholic faith or be practicing it in a perfunctory way. (Of course, there are a good many exceptions—young Catholics who have met through a college chaplaincy, a pro-life campaign, a World Youth Day event or similar faith-filled programs, and whose faith and commitment to the Church is impressive.)
Experience of marriage preparation has shown that using the Church’s wedding liturgy to teach about matrimony is extremely fruitful in the following ways:
- The liturgy relates specifically to what they have come to church to do. They have rung the doorbell of a Catholic church and have signed up for (even if compulsory) marriage preparation as part of the deal. They are thinking about the wedding, the ceremony, the event.
- The liturgy is non-confrontational. It starts the whole project on the right note, allowing a couple’s potentially muddled understanding and confusion of marriage, and possibly guilt, to be addressed within the framework of what the nature of marriage is.
- The liturgy goes deep into the spiritual aspects of the sacrament, getting to the essence of matrimony as a means of sanctification.
- The liturgy offers essential catechesis in basic doctrine, for, as in all prayer of the Church, lex orandi, lex credendi (“As we pray, so we believe.”) is an operative principle in the marriage liturgy.
Christ on the Guest List
Marriage is intimately bound up with God’s redeeming plan for the human race, and so it isn’t surprising that marriage has an intrinsic link with the Eucharist—the great Sacrament of the Mystery. Do not imagine that those contemplating matrimony will be incapable of grasping this connection. On the contrary, they can be open to making the Mass central to their wedding plans (especially if both bride and groom are Catholic). They may even find this element in their wedding fascinating.
I found that a good place to start teaching about marriage and the Eucharist is the choice of Scripture readings for the marriage rite. While the Church presents us with various options, I’ve discovered the Wedding at Cana a good place to focus. The passage opens the way for an understanding of the link between marriage and the Eucharist. For many, this will mean the first time they have really had to think about the Church’s understanding of the Eucharist in any deep and adult way.
Cana was Christ’s first miracle: the start of his public ministry, as a marriage is the start of a couple’s new life. Mary’s words, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5), are pivotal. Christ turns the water into wine. He has spoken to Mary of his “hour” (John 2:4)—the time of his Passion and death, the time on which all time hangs, the time of our redemption, the fulfilment of God’s union with the human race—and the moment his own bride is drawn from his opened side. In anticipation of that “hour” (John 13:1) we will hear the word “do” again: “Do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19). The water Christ turns into wine at the wedding supper in Cana reminds us of the wine at the Last Supper that Christ turns into his very blood.
Booking a Wedding
The Church’s selections of Scripture readings for the Order of Celebrating Matrimony are of course not random: they are doctrinal, sacrament-centred, and often Eucharist-themed. There is certainly a choice of Scriptures offered, but it is unwise to place too much emphasis on the young couple for the choosing—it becomes yet another consumer option, like the color-theme or bridesmaids’ dresses. No matter which Scripture reading is chosen, the couple and their wedding guests will discover in them a vital truth: what is happening at a marriage is real and is connected to the drama of our very existence, our very destiny in God.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the “nuptial covenant between God and his people Israel had prepared the way for the new and everlasting covenant in which the Son of God, by becoming incarnate and giving his life, has united to himself in a certain way all mankind saved by him, thus preparing for the ‘wedding feast of the Lamb’” (1612).
In the Order of Celebrating Matrimony, this passage from the Catechism echoes through the prayers and especially the Nuptial Blessing:
“O God, who by your mighty power created all things out of nothing, and, when you had set in place the beginnings of the universe, formed man and woman in your own image, making the woman an inseparable helpmate to the man, that they might no longer be two, but one flesh, and taught that what you were pleased to make one must never be divided;
“O God, who consecrated the bond of Marriage by so great a mystery that in the wedding covenant you foreshadowed the Sacrament of Christ and his Church;
“O God, by whom woman is joined to man and the companionship they had in the beginning is endowed with the one blessing not forfeited by original sin nor washed away by the flood. Look now with favor on these your servants, joined together in Marriage, who ask to be strengthened by your blessing.
“Send down on them the grace of the Holy Spirit and pour your love into their hearts, that they may remain faithful in the Marriage covenant…” (OCM 74).
In the liturgy, as the Nuptial Blessing shows, there is an emphasis on God’s plan from “the beginning” (Mt 19:4). At a wedding, there is, or should be—and the Church’s liturgy helps there to be—a strong sense that what is happening is somehow bigger than the celebration of a particular couple’s relationship. Rather, this couple is now embarking on something magnificent, something life-changing and glorious, which is also rooted in the normality of things, in doing just-what-God-always-planned. Their love is caught up in God’s love, and they now co-operate with him in a new way, bringing new life into the world: children who will also receive new spiritual life in Baptism.
Pope St. John Paul II taught the centrality of the mystery of male and female—prophetically so, since even in his time the ideologies of “gender neutrality” and “gender fluidity” were becoming fashionable. In response, John Paul II emphasised how understanding the nuptial meaning of our bodies shows us the nuptial essence of things from “the beginning” (Mt 19:4).
The liturgy of every Mass echoes with matrimonial imagery Christ and his Church as Bridegroom and Bride. In pondering this mystery, we see how the marriage of Christ and his Church is indeed fruitful—you and I and all the baptized are children of this union. Thus, we speak of the Church as Mother and live within her household rules and traditions: feasting and fasting, holy days and pilgrimages, the art and music and literature and deeds of her children down through generations. In discussing this rich patrimony, we can teach about the centrality of every marriage being open to new life. Children are not an optional extra in marriage: they are its essence.
I AM: “I do!”
We should encourage couples to read and understand the prayers of the marriage liturgy and emphasize that these convey what is central to all that lies ahead for them as a married couple. We should not assume that they want to create their own prayers: most do not. In fact, some couples may actually feel awkward and ignorant when they become involved in any sort of church service. Rather than forcing them into complicated choices, we should offer them what the Church offers, explain how things will unfold, and present simple options where these occur.
We should not be minimalist: a Catholic marriage should be a glorious celebration of a great sacrament—an evangelistic opportunity, an announcement of God’s original plan for the human race and its fulfilment in Christ.
We should encourage an understanding that marriage is “the one blessing not forfeited by Original Sin nor washed away by the flood” (OCM 74). We should proclaim that the Church triumphantly affirms new life, faithfulness, fruitfulness, and hope for the future.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums it all up well: “Sacred Scripture begins with the creation of man and woman in the image and likeness of God and concludes with a vision of the ‘wedding feast of the Lamb.’ Scripture speaks throughout of marriage and its ‘mystery,’ its institution and the meaning God has given it, its origin and its end, its various realizations throughout the history of salvation, the difficulties arising from sin and its renewal ‘in the Lord’ in the New Covenant of Christ and the Church” (1602).
God invites us to this Marriage Feast of the Lamb in every liturgical action of the Church. Sundays and weekdays, he is calling to us to join in this feast. He is also calling to couples preparing for a lifelong adventure in marriage. In responding to this call, prospective newlyweds will see in the liturgy an opportunity to deepen their love for one another and for God through the sacrament they are about to receive from one another. As an element of preparation, too, the liturgy offers an invitation to join the rest of the Church in a deeper bond of understanding and love for Jesus Christ, the perfect Bridegroom, who is proposing to us an everlasting marriage in heaven. How do we respond?
Joanna Bogle has an MA in Theology and is Visiting Research Fellow at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London.