Saturday, May 09, 2009

Liturgical Wedding Crashers

One of our readers asks us the musical question:

Now that we are fast approaching June and wedding season, the question of authentically Catholic wedding planning music and the liturgical norms for such celebrations are more and more poignant. [I appreciate his diplomatic tone.--MGA]

A number of secular songs have become popular over the years, including Bridal Chorus from Wagner's Lohengin ("Here Comes the Bride") and the recessional Wedding March from Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream. These songs made their ascendancy after their use at the Princess (soon to be Queen) Victoria. While popular, their use in a Catholic ceremony is not appropriate.

Hymns are clearly more approriate, but is it better to forego the singing and have the organist play the melody?

Finally, should the priest and groom's party process, and should different music should be played when the bridge processes?

Clarity and guidance is sought regarding these issues.
One very fine weddintg I attended at the Madeleine in Salt Lake had the cathedral choir sing the Introit in Latin for the nuptual mass as the procession entered. This is, of course, a very fine solution, though it is not always possible due to pastoral politics or resources.

This also brings up the difficult questions of whether bride and groom should enter together, before or after the priest in procession, as they are the ministers of the sacrament, and if the ancient if somewhat sacramentally peculiar custom of the father giving the bride away is appropriate in the present context.

I believe the practice is a Christianization of the elaborate contractual rites of the various Nordic peoples who received the Faith in the period after Rome's fall and is thus a somewhat alien addition to our predominantly Mediterranean liturgical roots, though its antiquity does also give it a certain merit as well. Of course, in such instances, discretion is called for, given weddings are nearly always emotional powderkegs.

I would like to put a word in for another custom I saw at a Tridentine wedding once; the bride's veil was kept down for most of the ceremony, and the first kiss of bride and groom was delayed until the Pax of the mass. The priest used the missal as a Pax-brede, kissed the cross at the front of the Canon, handed it to the groom to kiss, and then the groom raised his bride's veil and kissed her, a wonderful fusion of sacramental hierarchy and complementarity. The veil remained folded back until the end of mass. I do not know if it is medieval, but it certainly sounds like something a medieval mind could love. As a practical matter, it is important to make sure the veil is not too thick as the bride told me afterwards that while she looked quite picturesque under all that, she quickly discovered the polyester veil didn't breathe very well, and unfortunately neither did she.

One general difficulty with discussing this subject is so many of our wedding traditions are what Rebecca Mead, author of One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding calls "traditionalesque." (Thanks to Whapster Dan for pointing out this helpful verbal coinage.) In other words, they're largely new and made-up, without any footing in organic tradition.

The traditionalesque is the vaguely nostalgic, the instantly-invented traditions that so frequently define the modern wedding industry. Even the Wedding March from Lohengrin is fairly antique compared to some of these newly-minted age-old customs. (The unity candle would seem to be a glaring example of this.) Yet, perhaps it is best not to pry too deeply into such matters, given there is so little tradition lying around today already. White wedding dresses may go only as far back as Queen Victoria, and tuxedos and morning dress tailcoats even less. It appears diamond rings went into the mainstream as engagement gifts because of De Beers.

But it's what we're used to, and still remain potent symbols in an age devoid of symbolism. And white dresses do symbolize purity, and have for ages, no matter what hand Victoria Regina had in connecting them with weddings. (And as a bit of a pageantry groupie, I do have to admit where else are you going to see a girl wandering around with a fifteen-foot train and men in tophats? I take what I can get, where I can get it.)

As much as I'd like us to dispose ourselves like Sarum-rite groomsmen or grave Spanish courtiers of the seventeenth century, I realize such antiquarianism is not a going concern. Of course, this does not mean we have to tolerate unity candles and other much more glaringly faux accretions.

I would, however, love someday to get to the root of what Catholic weddings looked like in ages past, and cut past the myths and mystery. Though I'm not sure I'll tell any prospective brides what I find. I value my life too much for that.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: