By Frank Wessling
The traditional late spring and summer time for weddings is coming, at least so far as tradition and weddings still apply in our culture. With more couples going to the beach and parks to make their marriage vows, tradition seems to be losing its grip. The Church is fading as the setting for this life transition.
Should this worry us? A case can be made for worrying. Although Catholics may not be leading the beach and garden party trend in weddings, we are affected, especially young people pulled by romantic fantasies and the influence of friends.
For us, marriage is a sacrament, a sign carrying the hidden reality of God acting in the world. The sign is in the promises that the baptized bride and groom make to each other, in the midst of the church gathered as witness, to reflect the enduring love of God for each other. This can be done on a Jamaican beach by people serious about the sacrament.
But churches are the place for people to be public about their seriousness.
We can pray anywhere and at any time, but our public declaration of seriousness as pray-ers happens as we gather in churches. People pledging their lives to each other in love can do so when and where they wish. But if they want the rest of us to take them seriously, they must stand up among us and repeat their promises.
In other words, they must acknowledge a reality greater than themselves alone in what they do. Church is a most appropriate place for doing that.
We surround the beginning of marriage with ritual because of its importance as a transition from private to public responsibility. Young people often may not be aware of this. They may imagine that what they do in marrying is mostly a private affair and the wedding should be done in whatever way fits their mood and convenience.
A wedding in church is most clearly a sign of acceptance by the marrying couple that they are stepping into something greater than themselves. In church they are not the center of the universe: the invitation and promise of Jesus is. On that beach or in the park flower garden this is not so clear, even if an outdoor Mass is celebrated.
It is easier in that romantic and personalized setting to miss the opening to transcendence, to reality beyond their control or even their knowing, that must be in those vows the bride and groom make to each other. And if that mystical, sacramental element remains missing in the marriage, its vitality, even its survival, is at risk.
Marriage is a great act of faith. The proper place for its celebration, the best place, is in the natural home for celebrating faith. In church.