WHEN PEOPLE CHAT ABOUT WEDDINGS they've attended, what do they mention? The color of the bridesmaids' dresses? The readings or songs? Eye-catching decorations? The meal? Perhaps a unique souvenir, such as a CD of the couple s favorite music? Or the release of live butterflies to mark the occasion?
While many people voice concerns about the institution of marriage today, its greatest threat receives little attention. True understanding of sacramental marriage is diminishing, but ironically it's wedding customs themselves that undermine it the most. Despite the church's efforts to focus on the spiritual significance of the day, the consumer mentality that dominates our culture also pervades the sacrament.
Since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church has encouraged couples to personalize the ceremony with readings and hymns of their own choosing, which can be quite meaningful. But who could have predicted the concurrent rise of the "wedding industry," relentlessly promoting the ideals of "perfection" and "uniqueness"? The Association of Wedding Professionals International estimates that last year alone $85 billion was spent on weddings in the United States. Even for faith-filled, actively practicing Catholic couples, it can be difficult not to get swept up in that kind of whirlwind.
Though our own (relatively simple) wedding took place 15 years ago, my husband and I regularly reflect on these matters because of our work with engaged couples at our parish. Increasingly I believe that our culture's overemphasis on the wedding day as the pinnacle of one's life impoverishes our understanding of marriage as a lifelong covenant. While a joyous celebration, the wedding is just the stepping off point for the journey. The essence of marriage lies not in any peak experience but in the everyday. Changes in the marriage ritual itself, to more clearly contrast the sacramental aspects from the secular, would benefit the entire church.
A REVISION OF THE RITUAL MAKES EVEN MORE SENSE CONSIDERING that certain wedding customs, such as the father "giving away" the bride, the bridal gown, and flowers, originated in early Roman times. The civil government controlled marriage for hundreds of years, even after Christians were granted religious freedom in the fourth century. No particular Catholic marriage ritual emerged until after the 11th century, and then the church's requirements focused on the presence of witnesses.
The church now considers Matrimony a sacrament of vocation and commitment. The marriage ritual should express these themes more explicitly and eliminate secular pageantry. Such a shift could be accomplished by changing the entrance procession and attire, by liturgical participation of the bride and groom, and by putting the reception in the context of our faith.
At many parishes, when babies are to be baptized during the Sunday liturgy, the parents, child, and godparents are part of the entrance procession, joining the presider, servers, crossbearer, and so forth. A similar procession at weddings would better resonate with the sacramental significance of the ceremony than a parade up the aisle of the couple's friends arrayed in formal attire. Instead of a "wedding party" at all, the bride and groom could each select one witness or perhaps jointly choose a married couple whom they admire to serve as "sponsors." The witnesses or sponsors would wear typical dress clothes. Eschewing secular finery, the bride and groom would don a symbolic garment like an alb, the white robe worn by liturgical ministers, deacons, and priests. The wearing of such a vestment, which evokes Baptism, would locate marriage within the context of church life and stand in sharp contrast to cultural practices. …