Our wedding anniversary is fast approaching and, as several friends’ marriages colapse and crumble, the meaning of Matrimony is something that is presently on my mind.
I proposed to my wife one year after we started dating. Before I met her, the married life was the farthest thing from my mind, but then the Lord has a way of pointing out the path when you continuously hit your head against the same wall. In a way, I was important in re-introducing her back to the Church, while she was pivotal in my becoming more “vocal” about my faith.
Our preparations hit a major obstacle which postponed our wedding 6 months. Not desiring to go into details, it should suffice to say that we had to run the metaphorical gauntlet because of the rite we desired. Over these 6 months I would frequently tell my (hopefully) wife-to-be that we would either come through this trial together, strengthened in our faith, or “we” would not come through it at all. The experience was not something I would wish on anybody getting ready to marry, but the Lord came through in the end (as He did in so many other ways for our wedding), and all that we suffered because of it – both before and after – helped to deepen the bond between us and to grow in faith and trust in Providence.
While other liturgical matrimonial rites (I am thinking of, for example, the Mozarabic and Byzantine) are rich in symbolism, the Roman rite is rather restrained. And yet there is one very subtle detail about the vetus ordo matrimonial rite which, as rich as it is, may easily go unnoticed by the aliturgical eye. I am speaking of the bride and groom entering the sanctuary. This might not seem a big deal, but those familiar with the vetus ordo will know that laity are not allowed within the sanctuary. The only occasion that a layman might enter, apart from ordination, would be on their wedding day. What is the big deal about such an insignificant detail, you might ask. We must remember that, liturgically, the sanctuary represents the sancta sanctorum, the Holy of Holies. When the couple enters into the sanctuary, where the priest offers the Holy Sacrifice, to exchange vows, what are they doing? It is not a mere blessing that they are receiving up there (though there is a blessing in the Mass that follows). No, they are taking their eros – their natural love – and offering it to God, that He may take it and transform it into a supernatural love. The couple exchange their vows – they sacrifice themselves for one another, so to speak – before the altar, so that the Lord might take it up and reveal its true meaning. When they come back from the sanctuary, they are not merely “husband and wife”. They are now an icon of Chirst and the Church. Just as Christ offers up his body for the Church at the altar, so too does the couple offer eachother themselves.
When people ask me what marriage is about I tend to reply: “martyrdom”. It always elicts surprise and shock. And while I might say it for the shock effect, (hopefully) the person asking will then ask what I mean by such a cryptic answer.
In my language, we can refer to our spouse as “conjuge”; the English language has “conjugal” as an adjective that relates to the married state. Why do I bring this up? Because of the etymology of the word. These words derive from the Latin conjungere – to be joined. A litteral translation would be “co-yoked”. The married couple is now “co-yoked”. They have both put on that same easy yoke which is the Cross. The couple’s life in common is now supposed to be an image of Christ and the Church. They must give witness – martys – of this reality in their everyday life. And everyday married life, especially after children come along, provides abundant occasions for mortification.
While there are plently of natural reasons for why Matrimony is indissoluble and must be open to life, I prefer to take a different approach to the matter, which I think is a valid approach.
If the couple now represents Christ and the Church, then it necessarily follows that their union must be indissoluble, for the Church is born of Christ’s side, just as Eve was of Adam’s, and Christ is ever-faithful to the flesh of His flesh. As for openness to life, just as the Church is generous in generating spiritual children, bringing them forth from her womb which is the baptismal font, so the couple must be generous.
Why this approach? I think part of our current crisis of faith is the inability to look at things liturgically. We do not see our lives as liturgy.
Is this just fanciful thinking? I think not.
As we prepared for that blessed day, the ill-reputed Ephesians pericope became the lense through which we were to see and understand the sacrament we were to “confect”, so much so that we had inscribed in the interior of our wedding bands “Ephesians 5”. I think it is worth recalling the pericope in question:
Let women be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord: Because the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church. He is the saviour of his body. Therefore as the church is subject to Christ, so also let the wives be to their husbands in all things. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the church, and delivered himself up for it: That he might sanctify it, cleansing it by the laver of water in the word of life: That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy, and without blemish. So also ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife, loveth himself. For no man ever hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, as also Christ doth the church: Because we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be two in one flesh. This is a great sacrament; but I speak in Christ and in the church.
It is from here that we get the understanding of Matrimony as icon. Hearing subjection refered to in the above-mentioned pericope might make some cringe and think it out-dated, but that would only be in the case of a faulty reading. One reads “women be subject to their husbands” and stops right there; one does not see the context in which it is said. Because we have a fallen understanding of subjection, we see it as a question of dominance, of power, of injustice. Yet if we don’t stop there, if we continue the reading we will see that the Church is subject to Christ as well. Does Christ “lord it over” the Church? Is the Church’s subjection to Him a humiliation, an injustice? Matrimony is about a mutual submission (and the Ephesian pericope’s greater context is just that – mutual subjection, though there may be heirarchical distinctions). Even in the Holy Rule we see that the Abbot must adapt himself to his monks for their salvation – is this not a form of subjection, even though they are subject to him? It is not, as certain would say, misogynistic, for even though both are helping the other in their sanctification, the greater burden seems to be placed on the husband. And if one reads the encyclicals on Matrimony (Arcanum and Casti Conubii, for example), the woman’s dignity and companionship is always stressed, as well as the husband’s responsibility to be as Christ.
We need to figure out how to apply this in our specific circumstances.
It surprises me that however often the subject of the Mandatum, the washing of feet, comes up, one rarely, if ever, hears mention of Matrimony to it. The washing of feet is rich in layers of meaning, especially depending on its context, so I don’t see why one cannot “adopt” it into the matrimonial context. When we finally got home on our wedding day it was something that came to my mind quite naturally. While it was done in silence, I think we both knew the meaning of what was being done in that context, especially given that part that Ephesians 5 plays in the understanding of our matrimonial vocation.
In closing, I would like to share this beautiful exhortation from the end of the Bragan rite’s Missa pro sponso et sponsa. At the end, the priest places the bride’s hand into the groom’s and says:
Frate, accipe conjugm tuam, et delige eam ut carnem tuam. Et trado tibi uxorem et non ancillam: tu autem custodi et dilige eam sicut Christus Ecclesiam: et ambulate in Pace. In nomine Patris, et Fili, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.
Brother, receive your wife and love her as your own flesh. For I give you a spouse and not a slave: you, then, must guard and love her as Christ the Church. Go in peace.