Our holy Church uses a very beautiful and appropriate ritual when she blesses the matrimonial union of two of her children. The ceremonies with which the Sacrament of Matrimony is administered express the solemnity of the contract by which the man and woman bind themselves, and the holiness of the sacrament which they receive.
The Ceremonies of a Marriage. Although the Church recommends most strongly that the Sacrament of Matrimony shall be received at Mass and shall be accompanied by the giving of the Nuptial Blessing, a marriage may be performed apart from Mass and even in some other place than a church. We shall, therefore, describe briefly the ceremonies employed in the actual administration of this sacrament, whether at Mass or not, and afterward we shall explain in detail the beautiful ritual which is used at the solemn celebration of a marriage at a Nuptial Mass.
A marriage is a very simple ceremony. It consists essentially in the expression of mutual consent by the parties to take each other as man and wife. This is followed by the blessing of their union and the ceremony of the ring.
At a marriage of two Catholics (which is the only one we shall consider), the parties, attended by the witnesses, appear before the priest, who wears a surplice and a white stole if no Mass is to be said. If the Nuptial Mass is to follow the marriage ceremony, he is vested for it, except that he does not wear the maniple during the marriage rite.
The Expressing of Consent. The priest first asks the consent of the parties. Addressing the man by name, he says, in Latin and in English: “Wilt thou take . . ., here present, for thy lawful wife, according to the rite of our holy Mother the Church?” To which the answer is given aloud, “I will.” The same question is put to the bride: “Wilt thou take …, here present, for thy lawful husband,” etc. to which the same answer is given by her. Then, at the bidding of the priest, they join their right hands.
In many places it is the custom for the parties to pledge themselves to each other formally by repeating certain words after the priest. This is not essential, as the consent of both has been sufficiently manifested already; but the solemn repetition of the mutual obligations which they are assuming adds to the impressiveness of the ceremony. The words used for this purpose are not defined in the Church’s ritual, and vary considerably in different countries and different languages. The following is the form generally used by us:
“I, N. N., take thee, N. N., for my lawful wife (or husband), to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.” Indeed, these are solemn and impressive words! Very beautiful also is the formula usually employed by those speaking French: “I take you, N., for my wife (or husband) and my lawful spouse; and I swear to you that I will be a faithful husband (or wife), and that I will assist you with all my power in all your necessities, so long as it shall please God to leave us together.”
Then the priest, in Latin, pronounces the words by which the marriage is blessed: “I join you together in marriage, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” — and while saying this he makes over the couple the sign of the cross, and then sprinkles them with holy water.
The Giving of the Ring. The blessing of the wedding-ring comes next. The priest recites in Latin the following beautiful prayer: “Bless, O Lord, this ring which we bless in Thy name, that she who is to wear it, keeping true faith unto her husband, may abide in Thy peace and in obedience unto Thy will, and ever live in mutual love. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” Holy water is sprinkled over the ring, and the bridegroom then places it on the third finger of the left hand of the bride, saying in old-fashioned English, which has come down to us from past centuries: “With this ring I thee wed, and I plight unto thee my troth.” In other lands and tongues the words are different. The French formula is: “My spouse, I give you this ring in token of marriage.”
The priest then recites certain versicles and the Our Father; and it is usual for the married couple to recite this latter prayer also. A final prayer is said, asking God’s protection for those whose union has been sanctified by the Church. “Look down, we beseech Thee, O Lord, upon these Thy servants, and graciously protect Thy institutions whereby Thou hast provided for the propagation of mankind; that those who are joined together by Thy authority may be preserved by Thy help. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
The Nuptial Mass. It is the desire of our Church that the Sacrament of Matrimony shall be administered, in every possible case, in connection with the Adorable Sacrifice of the Mass. The graces needed in the married state are so many that every available means should be taken to obtain them. The Church bestows these graces not only through the Sacrament of Matrimony itself, but also through the Holy Mass which is celebrated for the special benefit of the married couple, and through the solemn blessing which is pronounced over them.
As early as the second century we find traces of this practice. St. Evaristus, Pope and martyr, decreed that “in accordance with Apostolic tradition marriage should be celebrated publicly and with the blessing of the priest”; and in the third century marriage with a Mass was common.
The Nuptial Mass is filled with special prayers invoking the blessing of the Almighty on those who are entering the married state. It may be said during the greater part of the year. On the most important festivals the Mass of the feast is said instead, with a commemoration of the Nuptial Mass.
The long-established law of the so-called “closed times” has been greatly changed by recent legislation. Formerly a marriage Mass was not allowed from the beginning of Advent till after Epiphany, and during Lent and Easter week. The new rules merely forbid the giving of the solemn Nuptial Blessing during Advent and on Christmas Day, and during Lent and on Easter Sunday. The Nuptial Mass is not forbidden at all in the new law — and the Bishop, for sufficient reason, may permit the giving of the Blessing even during those times, merely advising the parties to abstain from too much pomp. Thus has the Church given to her children greater opportunities than they ever enjoyed before, of receiving the Sacrament as it should be received — before the altar of God, at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
The Nuptial Mass is filled with beautiful quotations from the Scriptures, expressing the dignity and holiness of the matrimonial union. The Introit is taken partly from the Bible narrative of Tobias and his bride. The Collect or prayer of the Mass asks that “what is performed by our ministry may be abundantly filled with God’s blessings.” The Epistle is very appropriately taken from the teaching of St. Paul to the Ephesians: “Let women be subject to their husbands as to the Lord; because the husband is the head of the wife” — a teaching not precisely in harmony with the spirit of our twentieth century. The Gospel is that in which our Lord declared the indissoluble character of matrimony. “What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.”
And so it is through the whole Mass. All the parts which admit of change are adapted to the spirit of the ceremony, expressing the sanctity of marriage and invoking God’s blessing upon those who are contracting it.
The Nuptial Blessing. After the Pater Noster of the Mass, the priest turns and faces the married couple, and imparts to them the solemn Nuptial Blessing. This is directed rather to the woman than to the man, and is given to her only once. Consequently, if it has been received by the bride at a previous marriage, it is omitted at a subsequent one; and if a marriage takes place without a Mass, it is not given.
It consists in the invoking of God’s grace upon the union which has just been made; and the prayer goes on thus: “May her wedlock be to her a yoke of love and peace. May she marry in Christ, faithful and chaste, and be an imitator of holy women. May she be amiable to her husband, like Rachel; wise, like Rebecca; long-lived and faithful, like Sarah. . . . May she be fruitful in offspring, approved and innocent. May she attain to the repose of the blessed in heaven; and may they both see their children’s children, even to the third and fourth generations, and arrive at their desired old age. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Near the end of the Mass, just before the usual blessing, the priest turns to the married couple and prays that they may enjoy fruitfulness, peace and everlasting happiness. Holy water is then sprinkled up them, and the Mass concludes as usual.
Such is the Nuptial Mass, stabled as a means of grace for the Church’s children who are entering into the married state. It is not necessary to have an ostentatious celebration when a marriage takes place; but the marriage in the church, with a Mass, with the Nuptial Blessing and with the reception of Holy Communion by the parties, should never be omitted except for the gravest reasons. The Catholic man and woman who wish their married life to be happy and blest by God should never be tempted to deny themselves the graces which will be obtained through the beautiful ceremonial which the Church has authorized for the solemnizing of Christian marriage.