So, some time ago, nearly ten years now, we prepared to celebrate the marriage of one of our children. Our third daughter was marrying a high school sweetheart. Both of them grew up together through high school and the Catholic youth group and a Catholic wedding was being planned. Being a bit freer spirited and artistic, she wanted to have her wedding beneath two very large and shady Florida oak trees just outside of the Church. The priest said ‘No’ and gave an ‘unacceptable’ explanation to mother and daughter. The question has remained open in our family for these past ten years. Why we never sought more information is to the detriment of our own catechesis, but now that I’m doing some extra studying I thought I’d make an effort to share what I’ve learned about Catholic thought on this question.
Our question then and more recently has been ‘What makes the building and altar more sacred than the natural beauty of the earth that God made “…and saw that is was good”?’
The simplest answer is, “We did.”
Now, it’s not that we think we improved upon the work of God. What we’ve done, as the Living Church, is make the stacking of stone, mortar, steel, plaster and art our gift of talent and worship back to God. We’ve created ritual to reflect those signs and sacraments we profess point to the reality of the Living God, as our predecessors have since the dawn of human memory and contemporaries continue to do in other religions. Being Catholic, the seven sacraments we practice point to the salvation history we profess in Jesus, so our worship space reflects the practice of these sacraments. In particular, to answer the question posed in our family quandary, the sacraments of initiation play an important role in the marriage ceremony.
Baptism and Confirmation are the rites we practice as we are received into the Church. Consequently, in the development of most church buildings the Baptismal font greets us as we enter the Church. Here, either as children or as Confirmandis, or as Catechumens we professed our faith in “all the Catholic Church holds and teaches.” We pass it every time we enter and leave the sanctuary, and as we desire, we bless ourselves in remembrance of this promise.
Eucharist is the third of the Sacraments of initiation. The celebration of the Eucharist is still considered ‘the sacrifice of the mass’, the remembrance of the commission to ‘do this in remembrance of me’. Through the consecration of the bread and wine the elements become the Body and Blood of Jesus which we share in communion within our communities and with the universal Church. The consecration takes place on an altar that is “the natural focal point of the sanctuary”, elevated enough so that all may see but not so far as to suggest a separation from the congregation. It’s a community table, where we are offered with the gifts of bread and wine and from which we all share in this meal of commemoration.
Surrounding us in this space made sacred by our hands, we find the tabernacle, the repository for the Eucharist not consumed at mass, a place of reverence and prayer in the presence of Christ, and places for healing of the soul, the practice of reconciliation. From the Ambo, the scriptures speak to the perfection of humanity in the joining of man and woman before God. Genesis tells us of our creation by God and our commission to be fruitful and multiply. Song of Solomon is a book of wisdom that extols the relationship of God to the People. Paul writes us of the marriage of Christ and the Church. The wedding feast at Cana is the first accounting of the revelation of Jesus as God. At this altar and in the presence of the Church community is the most appropriate place for us to make our vows to each other in marriage.
Christian marriage is about more than the government monetary benefits afforded its citizens. Christian marriage is about more than the beauty of the world God made and commissioned us to care for. Catholic Christian marriage is a Sacramental sign of the Church reminding all that observe it of the commitment of the man and woman to each other, of Christ to His Church, and of the Triune God to the world. These are the reasons to hold a wedding in the communal space of the Church building. It is our communal place of meeting with Him.