On Saturday, I was witness to a wedding between two people I did not know. I was supposed to help lead a rosary devotion in our church, but the prayers were removed from the schedule because of a wedding that went on for some time longer than anticipated.
This often happens on Saturday. And every time it happens, I am secretly glad. Because, though I hesitate to tell anyone for fear of seeming maudlin, I like weddings.
Nobody’s wedding is private. It isn’t your ‘special day’ or your ‘time to shine’ – that’s hoopla right out of Brides magazine. The wedding day belongs to the bride and groom, yes, but not only to them. Because it’s a real wedding, it’s not just for two people.
Marriage is a sacrament.
What’s a sacrament? In ancient Rome a sacrament, sacramentum, meant a soldier’s oath. The Church borrowed the word. Now a sacrament is, as it says in the Catechism, “a sign of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” (CCC 1131). That’s how it is! And this particular sacrament, this holy pledge of marriage, is as magnificent as any of the seven.
You’ll notice it says, “to us” – through each marriage, divine life is dispensed to us.
Why? A sacrament is a wellspring, a flood of grace for every person in the church. You don’t control a flood. Its graces and its power flow over the people who are in the church and those who are not in the church… and even those who choose not to sit or to stand with the Church. Even they are washed by the grace of the sacrament. “He has washed us in the tide flowing from His wounded side,” as the old hymn says.
We are soaked to the skin, all of us, by a flood of divine favor that the spouses’ willingness and God’s mercy set free. And, sure as Christ will come again, every sacrament, every marriage, brings divine life – to us all.
A sacrament is powerful. That’s why we treat it with respect.
Who can stand up and say ‚yes’ to a sacrament? Who can take the soldier’s oath?
A soldier. One who fears but is not ruled by fear, because Christ is his ruler.
In the Holy Land today there are many soldiers. Some of them are my friends. And the word for soldier in that place is: ish chayil. Ish means man. Ish chayil literally means: man of valor.
The first reading at the wedding Mass I witnessed, from Proverbs, was originally written in Hebrew. It starts, “a woman of worth, who can find?” (Prov. 31:10). A woman of worth? The better translation is “woman of valor”: we had the soldier, ish chayil, man of valor. And here the Hebrew says, eyshet chayil – a woman of valor.
There are Jewish homes where the husband and wife sing this song from the Bible every week around their Sabbath table, with the children listening. It’s a tribute to the wife. It’s like mom’s signature song; the feminine Leitmotif. It says: “Oz ve hadar l’vushah vatiskhak l’yom acharon.” “Strength and honor are her clothing, she smiles at the future.” She smiles at the future – that’s a strong woman!
The Scriptures ask a question: „Eyshet chayil mi yimtza?” Eyshet chayil – a woman of valor – who can find? Most men never find such a woman. Because a lot of men aren’t looking for a wife, they’re looking for a therapist or a pot-washer or a plastic doll. They aren’t looking and they never find a woman of valor.
But a woman of valor and a man of valor are the only ones who can take this oath and receive this sacrament. Only a man of courage; only a woman of strength. Because you have to be strong to tear up the escape plan and strip yourself naked before the Maker and rely utterly on God.
This marriage I saw today can last. And God’s going to make it last. But first He needs the spouses’ ‘yes’, their ‘I do.’ He waits for them to show valor.
At the wedding, we heard a reading from Saint Paul: “I urge you… in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1). That’s what Paul said to the bride and groom.
That is tough to hear on your wedding day! “Offer your bodies as a sacrifice” — that’s not our culture! Turn on TV, and they’ll gladly tell you what a wedding is supposed to be: a consumer event. And it’s all about you, right down to the cake and the moonlight seaside ceremony in Tahiti, blessed by the Dalai Lama.
Do you think that’s new, all this pop-culture junk? Listen to what Paul says: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world.” Consumerism is bad, but pagan Rome was bad, too. “Do not con-form to the pattern of this world, but be trans-formed – changed and converted – that you may prove what is the good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Rom. 12:2).
The will of God. Not our whim. The will of God. And our own free will that has the bravery to submit, to say yes, to His will. To say ‘I do’ to the husband, ish chayil, a man of valor. To say ‘I do’ to the wife, eyshet chayil, the woman of valor. And in saying ‘I do’ I am saying ‚Amen’ to the One who made me. Amen to the Lord God Sabaoth, the God of armies, and to the divine Messiah, the king of the line of David. I will serve. I will love. Let it be with me according to Your word.
A sacrament is a sign, an outward sign. Signs show and teach. And this wedding today, like every wedding, and every sacrament, taught me. It instructed, like the good wife guides her spouse; it led with charm. It clarified like the good husband, who husbands: who ministers with modesty.
I thought about those people who filled the church behind the bride and groom, on the benches up and down the aisle. Today they learned, along with me, from the spouses’ witness. They were edified. The spouses showed love, they showed the courage it takes to make a permanent vow. They were not “afraid of forever” as Pope Francis says so many people are. They stepped out on the Lord. And it was awesome to behold.
Today, a young man and young woman entered into a sacred space formed by God between the two of them. They entered „into His gates… and into His courts with praise” as the Psalm says (Ps. 100). As I stood near the door of the sacristy, I saw a new temple rise that has never existed before today. And dwelling in that sacred temple will change everything for those two. It is their new home, for life.
There is a strong Catholic tradition (though it is not definitive) that says: the priest or deacon is not the minister of the sacrament of marriage, even if he wears a shiny robe. The spouses are the ministers of this particular sacrament, and as the ministers, they give themselves each to the other – freely and generously, like a grace.
There is something about marriage that reminds us of the Eucharist: each spouse receives the other like a consecrated host. The gift of God through the spouse is given over and over again, just like the host is given each day at Mass. Again and again, every day, each spouse finds in the other the permanent presence of a sanctifying gift. They receive grace, again and again, and this grace heals, bit by bit. It restores: it binds up the interior harmony of their love. It heals the wounds left in husband and wife by Adam and Eve.
That is why, if there are problems in the marriage (and problems will come, no matter how blissful the wedding day), husband and wife must turn to each other. In so doing, they turn to Christ. They turn to Him to ask him to renew the sacrament. And He will always do so. Christ can change the water of their efforts into wine, just as he did at Cana.
I saw something powerful today. I marvel that the wedding I witnessed, with its flowers and its music and its potent prayers, started in total silence. It started in the heart, where a holy intuition was born. Then, it was expressed in a whisper from one to another. But it grew, and it filled the church. The marriage has become its own temple, in which husband and wife abide with Christ. It has become a sacred house of God. And if they stay close to Christ, it will stand, strong, until death.
“And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon the house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock” (Mt. 7:25).