Friday, July 13, 2012
The Mystical Significance of the Wedding Ceremony
This is my transcription of a homily by a priest of the FSSP, which you can listen to here. This homily is from 2008, and was given during the nuptial Mass of a couple whose names, where the priest used them, have simply been changed to [husband] and [wife]. My apologies in advance to the priest for any errors in my transcribing efforts.
This is a long post (the homily was about 20 minutes long), but the priest does a wonderful job of describing the symbolism of some of the elements of the wedding ceremony.
Marriage: Fall from Eden to the Rise in Grace
The Council of Trent commanded priests to occasionally explain the mystical significance of our ceremonies. So this morning we’ll spend a few minutes considering some aspects of the wedding. We’ll start with a little Old Testament background and then we’ll move forward.
The Garden of Eden…we need to start here. Everything in our holy religion is related in some way to the Garden of Eden, that first sanctuary on earth where man lived happily in the presence of God.
In the commentary on Genesis of St. Ephrem of Syria, that great doctor of the Church, St. Ephrem points out that God gave Adam ruling authority over the earth – gave him a garden-to-garden key. And when God made Adam and Eve, they were clothed in such a heavenly glory that when the animals passed by, they had to keep their eyes cast down. They could not look directly on Adam nor Eve.
Then the enemy entered the scene with his seductive lie that man could be as a God, deciding what was good and evil.
St. Ephrem describes Eve’s response to this lie and claim that she could attain divinity.
Because she believed the serpent, she ate first, thinking that she would be clothed in divinity in the presence of that one from whom she as woman had been separated. She hastened to eat before her husband, that she might become head over her head, that she might become the one to give command to that one by whom she was to be commanded, and that she might be older in divinity than that one who was older than she in humanity.
So Eve, seduced by the serpent’s lies, wanted to rise up and become as a god. She wanted to attain the so-called divinity first before Adam so that she could have headship and authority over him. It didn’t work.
Misery loves company, so then she in turn inspired her husband to disobey, and all mankind fell from grace. Since they were no longer holy, they were no longer veiled in glory and had to begin to wear clothing. They were driven out of the Garden and could no longer live in the presence of God.
The entrance to Eden was closed; it was covered; it was veiled. God placed cherubim and a flaming sword turning every which way to keep anyone from entering the Garden.
Now hold those thoughts and let’s consider the temple in Jerusalem.
It contained a number of items, including the two tablets containing the Word of God – the 10 commandments carved in stone by God Himself; and a jar full of manna, that heavenly bread that had fallen down.
The Ark had a gold lid which was called the mercy seat with two cherubim on it. And above the mercy seat, the glory cloud of the Lord would come down to rest.
The glory cloud of the Lord was the OT equivalent of the Real Presence. The Ark was placed in the Holy of Holies, which was covered with a massive veil embroidered with images of cherubim, because among other things, it was a symbolic Garden of Eden. How’s that? Because that’s where the glory cloud of the Lord, the presence of God, would dwell.
And the cherubim on the veil symbolically guard the entrance to the Holy of Holies, just like the cherubim who guarded the entrance to the Garden of Eden.
Symbolically and liturgically, in the Old Testament, the high priest was consecrated as a type of the new Adam whose role it was to faithfully guard the Holy of Holies, the new garden, which was veiled off from all other men.
Although the high priest alone had the privilege to pass behind the veil, even he had to scrupulously observe each and every one of God’s directives in order not to be struck dead himself when he passed behind the veil.
Of course, all these things in the OT prefigure Catholic realities. For example, the Garden of Eden, where man was in communion with God, prefigures the sanctuary of a Catholic church where man comes into communion with God.
The golden Ark containing the manna and the word of God carved in stone, which was kept behind the veil in the Holy of Holies, prefigures the ciborium which contains the word of God made flesh which is kept behind the veil of our tabernacle.
Now with all that as background, let’s turn to the wedding and consider the most obvious of the feature of the bride at a wedding: her bridal veil and gown.
At the first level, as everyone knows, and St. Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians, the veil is a visible sign of that very thing he is talking about in today’s epistle: that the woman is under the authority of a man. These days, this idea of submission to the authority of the husband tends to be frowned upon, to put it mildly.
But it shouldn’t be… once we realize that the bridal veil signifies the submission of this particular woman to the loving care of her husband. It signifies her trust and confidence in his Christ-like leadership. It signifies that she has chosen to follow him as a loving partner and a companion. That’s something beautiful. That’s what we’re here to celebrate.
But obviously the mystical significance of the veil goes far, far beyond the relationship of one particular woman to one particular man. See, every Catholic woman, as woman, is a living icon of the Church. So when she veils herself in the presence of the Lord it’s a visible reminder for all of us of the perfect spousal relationship between the Church and Christ. It’s a visible reminder of the perfect submission of the Church to the loving rule of Christ.
The veil is a visual sermon; it’s a visual statement. It’s a public proclamation before the Lord that he IS the Lord, and that we love him, and that we’re ready to obey him. It’s a totally countercultural statement proclaiming obedience in the midst of a culture totally permeated with an attitude of “I will not serve”.
And if we take a closer look at four Latin words that are related to the word which means “to veil”, even more of the mystical significance becomes apparent.
Okay, Father, why would we bother with Latin words? Because Latin is one of the three sacred languages, Greek and Hebrew being the others, and words from the sacred languages can often offer us very deep insights into the meanings of things.
In Latin, the word nubere means to cover, to veil. Nubere. Four words closely related to nubere that we’re going to look at are nebula, nubes, nimbus, and nupta.
First, nebula. Nebula means a cloud or foggy mist. Also means a thin transparent substance, like a thin transparent garment. So that’s the first one: nebula.
Second, nubes. It means the smoke of frankincense.
Third, nimbus. A nimbus is a specific type of bright cloud. In fact, it’s that brilliant cloud-shaped splendor that envelopes a heavenly being like an angel or a saint when he appears here on earth. A nimbus is also a halo, that bright radiant disc around the head of a saint. That’s the third term, nimbus.
Fourth, nupta. Nupta is where we get the word nuptial in English, which means pertaining to marriage or weddings. In Latin, nupta means to cover, to veil, in the sense of a bride covering her or veiling herself for the bridegroom. It means to marry, it means a bride, it means the wife herself.
[He reviews what he has just presented.]
These meanings are all related. In other words, when we’re in a sacred setting and we see a veil – like the veil in front of the tabernacle or the veil on the chalice, or the veil on the bride, or a cloud, the cloud of incense around the altar – all these images should come to mind: clouds of glory, and haloes, and incense smoke, and bridal imagery, and we should instantly realize that we’re dealing with something untouchable, something awesome, something unutterably holy and filled and overshadowed with the divine presence.
Now let’s start tying everything together. Ordinarily, clothing is a reminder of original sin and our fall from grace. But when we see a bride being brought forth, adorned in her beautiful white gown and veil, it’s reminiscent of that heavenly garment of glory which our first parents were clothed with in Eden. This beautiful clothing reminds us of our re-creation in Christ, of our restoration in Christ – the dignity, the supernatural state of sanctifying grace, this incredible dignity to which Christ has raised us.
What about the color? Yes, white is symbolic of purity; yes, white is symbolic of virginity; but when we see this beautiful white gown and veil enveloping her, surrounding her, it’s like a brilliant cloud. It should strike us with the impression of a nimbus. We’re being confronted, as it were, by the splendor of a heavenly creature who suddenly appears before us, right here on earth, striking us with the impression of a new Eve, recreated, restored to a state of grace and holiness.
The thin transparent veil covering her evokes images of the bride being overshadowed and wrapped, as it were, by a symbolic cloud, like the glory cloud of the Lord over the Ark of the covenant; like the glory cloud of the Lord filling the Holy of Holies; like the glory cloud of the Lord filling the Garden of Eden.
The veil evokes images of a misty cloud of frankincense enveloping the temple of God, images of the bride as a temple of the holy ghost, reminding us that as long as she’s in a state of grace, the most blessed Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are actually present – alive – in the depths of her soul, pouring out supernatural light and life, and filling her with the light of glory and the flames of charity.
The veil overshadows her, like Our Lady was overshadowed by the Holy Ghost; it gives us glimpses and refractions, as it were, of the brilliance and beauty and purity of the Immaculate Virgin. Her garments are reminiscent of St. John’s vision in the Apocalypse, giving us the impression of the beauty and obedience and submission of the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, the holy Catholic Church, to Christ our Lord.
“And I, John, saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and the glory of God is its light and its lamp is the Lamb.”
Adorned in clothing that paradoxically conceals and yet at the same time reveals. Clothing that conceals her personally, in accordance with modesty, and yet reveals these hidden mysteries – clothing that evokes a whole cascade of images: the first sanctuary in Eden, the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy of Holies, our tabernacles, our chalices, our ciboria, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the holy Catholic Church.
Most profoundly, it reveals the inner spiritual beauty of woman as such, the reality that the psalmist sings of when he says in psalm 44:14 all the glory of the King’s daughter is within.
And all of this in turn, should give us deep insights into the role and the dignity of man. Just as God the Father presented the first woman to her husband, so also the father of the bride, the man who in raising this woman stood in the place of God the Father, presents the woman to her husband. At the same time, he presents himself before the Lord, saying in effect, “I guarded your garden, O Lord, and let no intruders in. I’ve kept her and protected her as a father. Now I’m presenting a chaste virgin before you, and solemnly handing her over to be protected and cared for by this man.”
As she processes forward, it’s a solemn passage; it’s a holy transition from the mystery of virginity to the mystery of motherhood. At the same time, for the waiting groom, the procession is meant to fill him with reverence, in awe and wonder and anticipation, at her beauty, at her mystery, at her purity, at her holiness… and to impress on him what a privilege it is – and at the same time what a fearful responsibility it is – to be her man, and to be entrusted with the care and safe-keeping of this gentle creature. It’s meant to make him say to himself, “I can’t believe she’s in love with me. What did I ever do to deserve that? How did someone like that fall in love with me?” And to inspire him with this burning desire to be a Godly man worthy of that love, worthy of that confidence, worthy of that submission.
And because they’ve administered the sacrament to each other – the priest is only a witness on behalf of the Church, and the groomsmen and the maids of honor are witnesses on behalf of society – because they are the ministers of the sacrament, when they exchange vows, [the husband’s] very first gift to [the wife] as his wife, is a flood of sanctifying grace that passed from Christ through him and into her. And at the very first moment of exchanging vows, her very first gift to him as her husband was a corresponding flood of sanctifying grace passing from Christ through her and into him.
And at that very moment they exchanged vows, they received the same incredible blessing that God gave to our first parents: to be fruitful and multiply. He’s been consecrated as a new Adam, her new Adam, and given a solemn obligation before God to care for, guard, and keep this enclosed and – may it please God – fruitful garden. He’s consecrated as a high priest who can safely handle this sacred vessel, as long as he approaches in accordance with God’s instructions: no divorce, no contraception, no sterilization. He’s consecrated as a high priest who can safely pass behind the veil, who can safely touch this holy ark.
These are just some of the mystical meanings of wedding ceremonies; we’ve only scratched the surface.
We’ve heard this before, but it bears retelling. Consider the fact that during the exchange of vows, and right here during the Mass, right now, that [husband] and [wife] are not actually facing each other. Right from the beginning, they’re both faced with facing the Cross.
Their marriage itself and their very first act of married life together, take place in the shadow of the Cross. It’s a stark reminder that in this fallen world, there is no escaping the Cross. The price of re-creation, the price of order replacing disorder, the price of grace driving away sin, the price of their marital happiness, the price of their eternal happiness is present, overshadowing their marriage from the beginning.
[Husband and wife] have come together this morning at the foot of the Cross, and kneeling before it they have vowed to spend their lives facing it, together. Now they’re engaged in a loving contest to grow in holiness. They’re engaged in a loving, cooperative effort to each become saints, and very great saints. They’re engaged in a cooperative effort to help each other bear the Cross, until death. Until death.
Let’s close with some thoughts written by a Hungarian bishop some seven years ago. Bishop Toth:
It’s a great joy if a wife can say to her husband, “I can thank you that I have such strong support in life, that I have such good children.” It’s a great joy if a husband can say to his wife, “I can thank you that I have such an understanding life companion, and such a peaceful home.” But the greatest joy of all will be if someday they can say to each other, “I can thank you that I have attained eternal life.”
The greatest joy of all will be if someday [husband and wife] can say to each other, “I can thank you that I have attained eternal life.”