There are many traditions for weddings that I do not understand. Why does the bride’s family sit on the right? Or is it the left? Why is there a bouquet toss? What is the order of speeches at the reception and when do they happen? Can you have more than one flower girl? I am sure many people know the answers to these questions and are very passionate about their execution. As my own wedding day approached recently, I could sense mounting frustration from my family when I had no answers for the questions they posed—such as “What color is the mother of the groom wearing?” or “Are you distributing wedding favors?”
Now, I have been to many, many weddings. I am the youngest in my family and one of the last among my friends to get married. I have seen my siblings and friends throughout the wedding preparation process and I wondered, does it have to be that stressful? I dreamed about getting married since childhood, but I never dreamt about worrying if the flowers at the wedding reception matched the tablecloths or if the centerpieces were big enough.
I did have many strong opinions and dreams about the wedding Mass, however. To me, if there was anything to get in the weeds with, it was to be this most important part of the wedding day. Perhaps, if I knew the history of the many extra-liturgical wedding traditions for the celebration, I would have put more thought and effort into them. But, knowing little about them, I did not even know how to stress their importance. I imagine that is how many couples feel approaching the marriage rite itself. Without understanding why the bride wears a veil, the couple exchanges vows and rings, or the significance of the readings, it can be difficult to mind those details with much attention and care. Yet, in a way, these details are eternally more important than the flavor of the wedding cake or the color of the groom’s tie.
I read a lot on wedding websites and listened to families to learn more about the wedding customs at the reception. I am happy to say that my husband and I incorporated some of those customs at our wedding last April after learning how significant they were to family and friends. But more importantly, I would like to share a little about the significance of the rituals of the actual marriage rite so that, perhaps, greater emphasis or appreciation may be shared with other brides-and grooms-to-be.
Dates, Times, and Moments
The liturgical calendar is always a great place to start when planning important days of our lives. My fiancé and I got engaged on St. John Paul II’s feast day, October 22. I have a special devotion to St. John Paul II, and I may have dropped many strong suggestions to my future husband that we should get engaged on his feast day. To have his intercession while we prepared for marriage was possible without getting engaged on his feast day, but because of my great love for this saint, I wanted to honor him and relish the graces received through his feast day. Similarly, finding out which saints or feasts were celebrated on days such as our birthdays, the day of one’s baptism, days on which occurred moments of reconciliation or good news—these are all times to turn to the saints and pray for their continued intercession.
While I was seeking the patronage of St. John Paul II, I had not realized at the time that Divine Mercy Sunday 2022 would be exactly six months later, on April 24—it was the first available day we could get married at my parish. This particular date is especially significant to me for three reasons. First, Divine Mercy Sunday holds a special place in my heart—a feast instituted by St. John Paul II, but also a feast my family was deeply devoted to during my childhood. But not only is April 24 my birthday, it is, more importantly, the day I received my first Holy Communion. What a trinity of gifts!
With the perfect date in mind, my fiancé and I contacted our parish priest. After obtaining permission to be married on a Sunday, we formally began marriage preparation. I admit that I began marriage preparation with a bit of a theological head start. Having extensively studied the sacraments, taught about them, and walked with others through their celebration, I was neither overwhelmed nor surprised at the preparation process for marriage. My fiancé, on the other hand, got hives when we met with our pastor to begin the process. He was born and raised Catholic and took seriously what we were embarking on, whether or not he could explain the form, matter, and minister of the sacrament. It was a humbling moment in our preparation for me, and I realized we both had much to learn from each other throughout this process.
At our first meeting, Father asked us, “So, why do you love each other?” There was an awkward silence as he looked at each of us, gently smiling. We were having difficulty putting into words our love for each other. And he laughed. He explained that marriage preparation—and our married life—will not be about finding all the perfect things to say, being right, or knowing what life has in store for us. Rather, it will be about expressing our love for one another through sacrifice and joy, whether or not the path is clear or easy. These words have become a source of consolation and encouragement, and we were able to keep our wedding in perspective. The day did not have to be perfect for our love to be expressed.
Bridal Attire—Yes, the Dress
I bought my wedding dress two weeks after meeting the man who was to become my husband. It was an easy purchase: I found a used dress online. I refrained from telling him that I had bought my wedding dress until after we were engaged as, I admit, it was presumptuous of me. However, I was excited, already convinced I had met my husband, and already anticipated being a bride. While buying a used wedding dress online sounds completely unromantic, it worked for me. What was important to me about the dress was not the hunt for the perfect cut in sleeve and hemline, or the increasingly wearisome visits to countless stores, or the big reveal on the day of the wedding itself; rather, it was the symbolism of the dress that mattered most.
The newly baptized are presented with white garments to signify that they have been clothed in Christ. The procession of the bride to her groom is rich in this baptismal imagery and points us towards the heavenly wedding feast. Christ has clothed his bride, the Church, through the gracious outpouring of his life, and he draws her to himself so that they may be one. I wanted this to be on my mind when I walked down the aisle. Despite the nerves and the awareness of the moment, walking down the aisle with my father was truly a joyful and spiritual experience.
My father represented my family and the journey of my life up to this point—all the good and bad that has shaped who I am, and the love and support that has guided me along the way. This small procession encapsulates the drama of salvation history, of the Divine Bridegroom preparing the way and constantly seeking his bride, drawing her to his heart. My heart was bursting as I looked down the aisle and saw the man who was soon to be husband expectantly waiting for me. His joy drew me close to him. It is the joy that Christ longs for us to know as he draws us close to his most Sacred Heart. And the dress, symbolizing life in Christ, outwardly expresses—reveals!—this mutual desire and joy of the bride and bridegroom.
The veil was a different story. I thought I looked childish with a veil on. I tried one on and thought, “Yes, I am eight years old, making my First Holy Communion once again.” But no matter what my sense of fashion might have to say, I wanted to wear a wedding veil because of its sacramental significance. In the Bible, sacred things are veiled to preserve their dignity. The sanctuary of the temple, the Holy of Holies, is separated from the rest of the temple by a veil. Moses’ face was veiled after he conversed with God because its radiance was too frightening to behold. In the liturgy today, the sacred vessels and reserved Hosts in the tabernacle are veiled.
The Church is the Bride of Christ, and each individual member of the Church is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Despite my cherubic face, I was going to wear a veil. Unfortunately, two nights before my wedding, my dogs were helping me pack for the hotel, except that their idea of “helping” was to shred my veil into neat little scraps. But I was undeterred. The day before my wedding, I visited a fabric store to look up how to sew a veil. (There were many things I imagined I would be doing the day before my wedding, and playing seamstress was not one of them.) A new veil was crafted, and no one was the wiser—except maybe my dogs. In the end, I was glad I took the effort to make as second veil and especially cherish the fact that I wore it, both as a gift of revelation to my husband and as a sign to the world that I was embracing my sacramental dignity as a Catholic bride as seriously as I was entering into the sacrament of marriage itself.
Words Ringing True
Our wedding Mass was celebrated on the eighth day of the octave of Easter, which means that the liturgy was as beautiful and ornate as it was on Easter morning. We had a sprinkling rite, chanted Latin Mass parts, and a 16-page worship aid. I spent hours poring over the details of that Mass, praying with the readings and hymns, and spending time meditating on the fact that my wedding would be celebrated on the feast of Divine Mercy. Spending that time before the Mass immersed in the richness of it helped me to be fully present in the moment. While much of the day leading up to and following the Mass is a blur, that hour and 45 minutes celebrating the heavenly realities which the liturgy reveals remains clear in my memory.
What remains particularly clear is the moment when my husband and I stood up to exchange vows. Up to that point, I oscillated from being immersed in the beauty and joy of the Mass to being too nervous to focus on anything. We were both nervous. My husband was mostly afraid he would forget how to say the vows. I asked that we memorize the vows because the sacrament of marriage, unlike the other sacraments, is administered by the couple and not the priest. My nervousness, however, vanished as soon as the questions before the consent were asked. I did not want that moment clouded with nervousness, and I see it as such a special gift that I was able to stand there with my husband calmly and joyfully.
My husband and I readily answered that we had indeed come to enter this marriage without coercion, freely and wholeheartedly. Without knowing what life has in store for us, we affirmed that we were prepared to love and honor each other for our entire lives. And yes, we were prepared—as any newlyweds think they are prepared—to lovingly accept children from God. And then, in front of our families and loved ones, we exchanged simple, honest, and humble vows to each other.
I find it striking that the words and actions that effect each of the sacraments are so simple and unassuming. From an earthly standpoint, there is nothing particularly unique or profound about the rituals in and of themselves—bathing, anointing, exchanging promises, etc.—and yet, they transmit to us the most profound and most gracious gifts of God, whose humility in these moments is palpable. That God would impart his grace and his very self through the sacraments, through such simplicity, is awe-inspiring. And while a simple exchange of words seems anticlimactic for all the preparation and build-up, it is the simplicity of that moment that make it so precious. The sacraments are simple because they are revealing something far greater than words or actions could ever contain.
I also find the rings to be beautiful symbols of the wedding vows in this regard. Again, there is nothing spectacular about a ring, even one made of gold; it can be easily overlooked or forgotten in a moment. And yet, the wedding rings are made of precious metals, sometimes even adorned with jewels, engraved, or otherwise set aside for a specific purpose: The ring becomes the sign of love and devotion because, although small, it is treasured and regarded with honor and respect. They are a gentle reminder that words will never be enough to express all our love for each other.
The wedding ring speaks the truth of love in silence, but it can also bear reminders of that love through words. Engraved on my wedding band is “Song 7:11-13,” which references a particularly beautiful passage in The Song of Solomon (or The Song of Songs). This Old Testament book is really a series of poems about the love the Divine Bridegroom has for his bride, Israel. Throughout the poems, the bride falters and even turns away from her bridegroom, revealing her sinfulness and unworthiness. And yet, the Bridegroom never tires in his pursuit of her and never utters a word of criticism or rebuke. He is only longing for her and drawing her to him. In the verse mentioned above, the bride tells the Bridegroom that she is ready to give him her love and that they will soon enjoy the fruits of their love together:
I belong to my lover,
his yearning is for me.
Come, my lover! Let us go out to the fields,
let us pass the night among the henna.
Let us go early to the vineyards, and see
if the vines are in bloom,
If the buds have opened,
if the pomegranates have blossomed;
There will I give you my love.
The choir sang these verses for the Communion meditation that day. At this moment in Mass, Christ had just poured out his love to his Church in Communion, immediately after my husband and I promised to pour ourselves out in love to each other. As St. Paul says, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church” (Ephesians 5:25). Our hearts overflowed with joy, and I only hope that those who gathered to pray with us also recognize God’s unique and tender love for them.
The next time you are at a Catholic wedding, pay attention to the beauty of the rite, to reflect on the prayers and nuptial blessings, and to savor the richness of the symbolism. Weddings are a taste of the heavenly banquet to come, so may we all be inspired to continually seek the Bridegroom and to rejoice in his love.
Caroline Smyczek has worked at the parish and diocesan level, focusing her efforts on discipleship and sacramental catechesis. She is a doctoral candidate in liturgical catechesis at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. and holds a masters degree in biblical theology from John Paul the Great Catholic University, Escondido, CA.