We hear a lot about how our contemporary society devalorizes marriage, or is destroying marriage. That’s by no means untrue, but our society doesn’t, say, despise marriage (yet?); rather, it has some bizarre and distorted ideas about it that lead, almost unwittingly, to the decadence of the institution. (Nobody’s happy about the 50% divorce rate, for example–even though most people are typically totally unwilling to take steps that might address the situation.)
One of the most symptomatic aspects of this distortion is the institution of the American wedding (now spread all around the world via pop culture) as an extravaganza feast. The extravaganza feast American wedding is a consequence of the idea of marriage-as-capstone rather than marriage-as-foundation, and an icon of the now-dominant hedonic vision of marriage.
Christian and Catholic culture has been slow to push back against this institution, because the idea of the wedding as a big feast has a long history in Christendom, to say the least. The Christian big-feast wedding exists for very different reasons: basically as a symbol of the community’s engagement in the marriage institution (something which goes against our contemporary understanding of marriage). And there’s a temptation to say “Well, we think marriage is a really big deal, so let’s make a big bash!” which I think is short-sighted. In a culture trending indifferent-to-hostile towards Christianity, we have to witness through our actions, especially public, to the countercultural character of our faith. And, frankly, there’s the age-old reason that we always want to show off our wealth when we can.
Through our witness, we should witness to our different understanding of the wedding. Let’s make it so that, just like being Catholic isn’t about one hour on Sunday, in our culture “Catholic wedding” stands for more than a Mass.
- Low-key. This is the first, and obvious one. Let’s keep things low-key. Off-the-rack, second-hand wedding dress (you’re only going to wear it once! (my wife wore a second-hand dress, and she looked absolutely gorgeous)). No need for uniforms for the best men/bridesmaids (American innovation!). Etc. etc. Generally try to be not only cheap but resourceful: for our wedding, we used a friend’s restaurant as the reception area. It wasn’t just cheap (they charged us for the catering but gave us the space for free), but wonderful to be hosted by friends rather than some “corporate” venue. Not everybody has friends who have a restaurant, but the idea of leveraging your community to do things cheap would be good. Extra points: if you can afford a big fancy wedding, give the delta between what you can afford and what you can spend to a good Catholic work.
- Potluck. Now, this might not work for everyone, but if you can work it out it would be a great symbol.
- Foot washing. I’ve seen this on a couple blogs, and I completely endorse this. I wish we’d had that idea for our wedding. The Biblical symbolism works perfectly: foot washing is a symbol of the Eucharist, and the major symbol of the Eucharist in the Bible is…a wedding feast! Extra extra bonus points: reciprocal foot washing. (More Eph. 5:21, less Eph. 5:22!)
- Possibly: wedding gifts to charity. Now, I’m saying this tentatively. The tradition of wedding gifts is precisely linked to the marriage-as-foundation conception: when you get married, you’re just starting out in the world, and so you need your community’s help to set up the household. God knows we needed ours when we got married. But if you don’t need the wedding gifts, ask your friends to give to a worthy Catholic cause instead. Finding some other way to involve works of mercy and service to the poor in your wedding would also be a good idea, but I have nothing specific there–please help me. BONUS EXTRA IDEA: a few Catholics with some computing chops should set up an online wedding registry site that rebates its affiliate fees to charities. Have your cake and eat it too.
- And finally… relax! The grace of the sacrament is conferred ex opere operato. As to the rest–it’s just a party! “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” Bridezilla is a heretic.
- And finally, an idea that has a great traditional pedigree and always works: elope!
What are some other ideas for counter-cultural Catholic weddings?