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Christian nuptials today

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When a young couple approaches the Church to be married, their intention is to formally ratify the deep love they have for each other in the presence of their family and friends, with the blessing of the Church.

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It is assumed that they will have some connection with the Church: it may be that they want to be married in the same church in which their parents were married, or in the chapel attached to the school that they attended, or simply because the particular church building is very beautiful.

Whatever their reason, once they have made contact with the parish priest, he will want to ensure that they truly understand this most significant step that they are about to take, so that marriage will be for each of them the beginning of a long and happy life together. He will also ask if one or both of the spouses are Catholic, since at least one of the couple must be a baptised Catholic for a wedding to take place in the Catholic Church.

Getting ready for a wedding is a very busy and exciting time, but it is not only the reception, the wedding clothes, the flowers and so on that need to be attended to. It is important for couples to spend some time reflecting on what marriage demands of each of them and how God will fit into their future life together.

The very idea of a ‘covenant’ as opposed to a ‘contract’ may need clarification. ‘Covenant’ is clearly a biblical term. God made a covenant with the people of Israel, saying, ‘I will be your God and you will be my people’ (Exodus 19). Jesus, at the Last Supper, told his disciples that ‘this cup is the new covenant in my blood’ (1 Corinthians 11:25). While a contract is for a stipulated time, a covenant is meant to last forever. Contracts deal with the provision of services, while covenants deal with relationships between people, and so can only be made by adults who have reached a certain level of mental, emotional and spiritual maturity. A broken contract might result in material loss to either or both of the parties, but a broken covenant will result in personal loss and broken hearts.

To enter into a marriage covenant is a deeply serious commitment. The couple commits themselves to build up and sustain an environment of personal openness, acceptance, trust and honesty that will nurture abiding love. Such a commitment calls for adequate preparation. And so the priest will often suggest that they participate in a marriage preparation course.  In the Archdiocese of Adelaide, Centacare offers two such courses: Time for Us, in which couples work intensively with an educator for three or four sessions, and Is Love Enough, where the couples explore a variety of issues in a group format on a Friday evening and Saturday. (Contact Centacare on 08 8215 6700 or email jfiegehen@centacare.org.au)

To say that something is a sacrament is to say that it is an opportunity to encounter the love that God has for us. Writing about the sacrament of marriage, Deacon Ray Noll speaks of five levels at which Christian couples experience their marriage as sacramental: the sexual, the creative, the loving, the ecclesial and the spiritual. Our bodiliness is a gift from God and couples can thank God for the capacity to express their love for one another so intimately and completely. This togetherness enables them (in most cases) to produce and care for new life, calling them to move away from a focus on themselves to a focus on others. However, the bond of love and friendship between the spouses is something particular and special, and reveals to the rest of the world something of the comprehensive, unconditional love that God has for each one of us. Over time, the couple themselves will come to recognise that the mutual love between Christ and the Church is a model for their own love relationship.

Finally, Christian couples may understand that just as the life of God is relational within the dynamic community of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – so too marriage is a graced relationship that empowers them to live God’s own life.

What does a “church marriage” involve?

The sacrament of marriage is unique in that it is the man and woman themselves who minister the sacrament to each other through their exchange of vows. While the priest (or deacon) must be a registered marriage celebrant to comply with civil law, in the context of the sacrament, he is simply a witness on behalf of the Church.

Since the actual marriage rite can take place within Mass or outside of Mass, it is usually conducted in the parish church, by a Catholic priest (or deacon). In certain circumstances the Bishop can give permission for the wedding to be held at some other place (eg a garden or other building) and where one of the couple has a close affiliation with another faith, for a minister of that faith to act as co-witness.

The rite is made up of a greeting to the couple and those gathered, followed by readings from the scriptures (Liturgy of the Word), the Questions before Consent, the Declaration of Consent, the Reception of Consent, the Blessing and Giving of Rings and the Universal Prayer (Prayer of the Faithful). Couples can choose from a wide variety of readings, but they must be from the scriptures. In the homily, the priest is encouraged to stress the links between baptism, Eucharist and marriage. After the Our Father is prayed, the priest calls down the blessing of God upon the newly-married couple and the ritual ends with a further blessing on the couple and all those present before the signing of the Marriage Record takes place.

Because the sacrament of marriage is a rite of the Church, any music used within the celebration ought to reflect the sacred nature of what is taking place and the beauty of this new and loving union. Songs that are obviously ‘secular’ are best used at the reception rather than in the church.

While marriage in some form or another has existed in all cultures on earth, Christian marriage is regarded as a gift from God and a sacred institution. We have been created as relational beings, fulfilled through our love and friendship with others and our relationship with God. Let us pray that Christian spouses will reflect the love that God has for us in the love they have for one another, for their children, and for the wider community. ‘God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God and God in them.’ (1 John 4:16).

Dr Jenny O’Brien is team coordinator and liturgy educator with the Office for Worship, Adelaide.

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