I didn’t know I was going to a wedding: I left the house today to attend the noon mass, as usual. But when I got there, I found that the church was awash in wedding preparation: not that the noon mass had been replaced by a wedding, as I first apprehensively surmised; but that the bride and groom had chosen to celebrate their wedding as part of the noon mass on the sixth sunday of Easter!
I have never seen or heard of such a thing before, but the celebration of marriage was completely and thoroughly and beautifully incorporated into our parish mass, just in the same way that our celebrations of infant baptism and first eucharist often are.
The bride and groom, best man and maid of honor, and ringbearers were part of the entrance procession, behind the crucifix and before the lector and presider, as we all sang the opening hymn. There were several rows in the front-center portion of the church that were reserved for their family and friends; the bride and groom sat together near the altar, symmetrically to the left as the presider’s chair was to the right. The presider (our pastor) took a moment after the greeting to explain that we would be celebrating their marriage after the homily, and to reassure us all that mass wouldn’t take any longer than it usually does when he preaches. 😉
He preached a very nice homily, which not only drew out the nuptial imagery of Christ and the Church (that is, all of us) as symbolized in the joyful and loving presence of the bride and groom, but also reminded us that each time we come to celebrate the eucharist, we come with just such joy and love to renew our promises to Christ. He also spoke beautifully about the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, Advocate, Counselor, Consoler, the one who rushes in to help us; and about the three commands that Jesus gave us: to serve humbly, to love our neighbor, and to keep faith.
(I must say, he also did a fabulous job proclaiming the gospel. This is one of those Johannine discourses that can make me roll my eyes and monotonically chant “I’m in you and you’re in me and we are all together” — I used to have a hard time “getting” John’s Jesus, and all those repetitive permutations of [I and you and the Father and he and we]. But Fr. Gerry proclaimed it with very clear phrasing and emphasis so that it was easy to follow and to take in.)
After that was the celebration of marriage. The bride and groom, their two attendants and the ring bearers, stood up before the altar as the priest stood behind it. He asked and they answered the prefatory questions, then led them through their vows to each other.
I have not previously seen wedding rings treated so explicitly as sacramentals before – it’s been a long time since I’ve been to a Catholic wedding, so perhaps this is a fine evolution of the rite. They were first placed upon the altar by the bride and groom, which is terrific symbolism: the altar on which we offer not only our gifts of bread and wine, but “also the gift of our lives” as some of priests like to put it. Then the priest took them and carried them over to the baptismal font (still in its elaborate Easter form, and decorated today with bridal touches) where he blessed them with holy water; then brought them back to the bride and groom and led them through the words of exchanging the rings.
After that, they together brought a bouquet over to the statue of the Holy Family (behind the pulpit, in our church), laid it there and prayed for a moment. Then, in front of the pulpit, they each lit four of the eight votive candles that had been placed there, in memory and symbolic presence of deceased members of each of their families, whose names the priest read as they lit the candles.
Then all returned to their places, and mass continued with the general intercessions, as usual. During the preparation of the gifts, after the bread and wine had been prepared at the altar and while we were singing the last verse of the preparation song, the priest took the bride and groom each by the hand and led them around the church, where the three of them paused before each section of the pews and bowed to us, as we bowed in return — similar to what we do at Easter Vigil and other high masses when the people are censed, after the priest and the altar. This I thought was so beautiful, it brought tears to my eyes.
The preface sounded as if it was intended for a nuptial mass during the Easter season. After the Lord’s Prayer, in place of the embolism, we prayed over the couple with a blessing spoken by the priest in which we all participated with outstretched hands. The bride and groom received communion immediately after the priest, then our communion rite proceeded normally.
Following the prayer after communion was a prayer for the bride, and a prayer for the groom, in perfectly parallel words, which I liked very much, praying that they would follow the example of the holy women (for the bride) or holy men (for the groom) in scripture, to each of which the people assented with a hearty and enthusiastic “Amen!”
“Finally,” the priest said, “one more thing to say: You may now kiss the groom!” Which she did, very sweetly, as we all applauded.
(The gender-flip was cute, and certainly better than the traditional, but it had its own problematic associations to my ears, bringing up connotations of purity culture. I think I’d rather hear an invitation (not a permission-given) for the couple to *exchange* a kiss, as they exchanged their rings.)
Then the closing blessing, and the wedding party gathered again for the recessional, as we all sang “This Little Light of Mine.” There was a simple little reception out in the lobby to which we were all invited, and a chance to congratulate the bride and groom.
I must say, I cannot think of a stronger sign of the generous, fruitful, outward-facing love to which sacramental marriage calls married couples than this generous sharing of their wedding celebration with the whole parish: rather than having a special, private mass just for friends and family, and over against the pervasive and powerful societal expectations that your wedding should be pageantry that is all about you. Nor can I think of a stronger sign of the centrality of faith in a marriage than the desire of the bride and groom to want to celebrate their wedding as an integral part of Sunday mass, as part of their parish family.
Lately I tend to hear the presence of priestly vocations talked about as an indication of the spiritual health of a parish. But surely, the presence of couples who want to celebrate their marriage as part of the regular eucharistic life of the parish is an even stronger indication.
Please, join me in praying for Nick and Barbara, married today at St. John the Evangelist, every grace and blessing in their married life together. May God bless them with an ever more generous outpouring of joy, of laughter, and of love.
May God bless them, hold and keep them,
May God’s mercy shine on them,
Guide their work and guard their resting,
keep their love forever new.