…is what brings us together, today

wedding chairsby Kate Henley Averett

The Sacrament of Matrimony: Matrimonial Consent
1630 The priest (or deacon) who assists at the celebration of a marriage receives the consent of the spouses in the name of the Church and gives the blessing of the Church. the presence of the Church’s minister (and also of the witnesses) visibly expresses the fact that marriage is an ecclesial reality.
1631 This is the reason why the Church normally requires that the faithful contract marriage according to the ecclesiastical form. Several reasons converge to explain this requirement:
– Sacramental marriage is a liturgical act. It is therefore appropriate that it should be celebrated in the public liturgy of the Church;
– Marriage introduces one into an ecclesial order, and creates rights and duties in the Church between the spouses and towards their children;
– Since marriage is a state of life in the Church, certainty about it is necessary (hence the obligation to have witnesses);
– the public character of the consent protects the “I do” once given and helps the spouses remain faithful to it. (from the Catechism of the Catholic Church)

Over-the-top celebrity weddings that cost more money than most of us make in five years. Entire television shows dedicated solely to brides-to-be picking their “perfect” wedding dresses. Entire shelves at bookstores filled only with magazines targeted to engaged couples.

I think it’s safe to say that American culture is wedding obsessed. According to theknot.com, the 2.4 million couples that marry in the U.S. each year create a market that generates $70 billion in annual retail sales. The average wedding in the U.S. costs around $20,000, and couples getting married make more buying decisions and more retail purchases in the six months on either side of their wedding than at any other period in their lives.

I would count myself among those in our society that are suspicious, even critical, of the “wedding industrial complex.” I would wholeheartedly agree with the assertion I’ve heard many times that it’s a little scary how much society encourages us to dream and plan more about our wedding than our marriage. We put so much stock into this one day, when really, it’s the many days, years, and countless beautiful, unplanned moments that follow that are what really matter.

So why even have a wedding? I’ve asked myself this question a number of times over the last year as my partner and I have planned our own upcoming wedding. Just going to city hall, signing some paperwork, and declaring our consent in front of whomever is a tempting idea, and it would certainly make a statement against our society’s crazy tendency to worship “the wedding.” But at the same time, there’s a part of me that really doesn’t like that idea (hence why we’re having a wedding). And in reading the Church’s teachings about the sacrament of matrimony, I’m reminded why.

The sacrament of marriage is, according to the Church, a liturgical act. Part of what this means is that it’s something done in the presence of a community. It requires the presence of witnesses, and of an officiating minister, even though the sacrament itself is conferred by the married couple. So the marriage isn’t really just about the couple getting married (and certainly not, as our society would like to have you believe, just about the bride), but it’s also about those gathered to witness the event.

The Catechism explains that giving consent to marriage in public serves several purposes, including a) to make the event certain in the eyes of the community (I remember learning at some point that in the past, before the Church insisted on public marriage vows, couples would just say they were married, and this led to some pretty nasty disputes when one party decided that they wanted out and refused to acknowledge that they were ever married!), and b) to help the couple “remain faithful” to their vows. I get the sense that what the Church means here is that we’re less likely to break a promise we made in public, mostly, I would guess out of fear of embarrassment or ridicule, or at least that we are less likely to make such a promise to begin with if we have to do it in public, unless we’re quite sure it’s a promise we want to keep

But there’s something missing, I think, from this assessment. That something is the primary reason that I think a wedding is an important way to start a marriage – the role of the community in upholding the vows. When the family and friends of the couple gather to witness the creation of the marriage, they take on a vested interest in the success of that marriage. By being present, they, too, are consenting to the union and offering their support to the couple. That support should not just be support for their wedding, but for their marriage as well.

And this, fundamentally, is why I want a wedding to start of my marriage. I want the people closest to me to share in our joy, of course, but also to share in our marriage by serving as our support network. And while we’ve got them all gathered together, well, we may as well show them a good time!

Kate Henley Long, soon to be Kate Henley Averett, has a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School and resides in Cambridge, MA with her partner, to whom she will be married in September. This is the second in a series of four reflections she is writing this summer leading up to her wedding.

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