Rings are intimate symbols of Christian marriage. They are exchanged by Christian husbands and wives as a sign of their public vows. These rings bear witness to the lifelong covenant they have entered upon. They are a silent sentinel guarding the fragile beauty of this communal life in the flesh. They wordlessly utter the pledge each spouse made to the other on their wedding day: "Take this ring as a sign of my love and fidelity. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (The Rite of Marriage, 28).
The truth that is exchanged here in the rings is a personal investment that promises to withstand the test of time and trial. The lover, according to the promise symbolized in the ring, cannot understand himself or herself apart from the beloved. This gift of love corresponds to the deepest truth of the person: One does not come into possession of his or herself who does not live for another. The rings express a profound awareness that the sole way to attain freedom of spirit is to give oneself to another unreservedly in an ongoing act of love and fidelity.
This perspective can be taken another step further: A ring is not sized to the one who is giving it, but to the one who is receiving it. This means that the gift of self, while being total on the part of the lover, must be accommodated to the capacity of the beloved. The gift of self, then, must never dominate or control the beloved. It ought to be patient, kind and gentle (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). It must come into possession of the virtue of forbearance, all the while seeking to draw the beloved out of him or herself. In this way, the lover wins the esteem of the beloved and becomes worthy of the beloved’s gift of self.
This devotion and union is expressed in the wedding Mass. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: "In the Eucharist, the memorial of the New Covenant is realized, the New Covenant in which Christ has united himself forever to the Church, his beloved bride for whom he gave himself up. It is therefore fitting that the spouses should seal their consent to give themselves to each other through the offering of their own lives by uniting it to the offering of Christ for his Church made present in the Eucharistic sacrifice and by receiving the Eucharist, so that, communicating in the same body and the same blood of Christ, they may form but ‘one body’ in Christ" (1621).
Continuing, in paragraph 1661, the Catechism adds: "The sacrament of matrimony signifies the union of Christ and the Church. It gives spouses the grace to love each other with the love with which Christ has loved his Church; the grace of the sacrament thus perfects the human love of the spouses, strengthens their indissoluble unity and sanctifies them on the way to eternal life."
Affirmed implicitly in this exchange of rings is the "Yes" of the Creator toward creation. When God said, "Let it be," and he drew creation into existence, the essential goodness of creation was affirmed. This goodness of the beloved, as a creature of God, is personally affirmed by the lover in his or her gift of self. If the beloved were not good, the lover would never entrust him or herself to the beloved. The lover, too, in an implicit way, reflexively affirms that he or she is good, because the lover is giving from the substance of his or her own goodness. Thus marriage reawakens an awareness of the presence of God through a sharing of personal goods.
Baptized into the mystery of Jesus Christ, Christian husbands and wives live out this sharing of personal goods as their express way of following Christ. Their fruitfulness has its source in the insuperable love of the Trinity. Christ inscribes his "Yes" to the Father in the covenantal promise that Christian spouses make. The rings boldly capture this "Yes" as a "Yes" that they make to one another by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit. It is a "Yes" that becomes an enfleshed word when, through their complementarity and openness to life, "the two become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24).
From this epicenter, Christian spouses present themselves as a visible sign of Christ’s presence in our midst.
As Pope John Paul II wrote in Evangelium Vitae, "A certain sharing by man in God’s lordship is also evident in the specific responsibility which he is given for human life as such. It is a responsibility which reaches its highest point in the giving of life through procreation by man and woman in marriage."
The rings, in no uncertain terms, become express symbols of this.
Sadly, there is a rising trend that threatens to silence or distort this Christ-centered meaning of the rings. The push to legalize civil unions and same-sex "marriage" hijacks the meaning of the rings in order to advance the belief that all forms of human relationship are morally equivalent.
By contrast, cohabitating couples refuse to wear wedding bands because of their intrinsic meaning. To do so would amount to a claim to common law, thus reaffirming, however faintly, the God-centered meaning of marriage.
While both of these extremes are tentative solutions to the agony of insecurity and infidelity in a secularized world, both solutions fall prey to the same error: They radically create an opposition between ratification of the will through a promise and complementarity. These forms logically lead to an eclipse of Christ’s sacrificial love and the truth of the human person symbolized in the rings.
As Cardinal Francis George and his fellow Chicago bishops noted in a Jan. 1 letter as the state of Illinois prepared to vote to recognize same-sex "marriage": "Civil laws that establish same-sex ‘marriage’ create a legal fiction. The state has no power to create something that nature itself tells us is impossible."
"When the ways of nature and nature’s God conflict with civil law, society is in danger," they stated.
The Chicago bishops said God’s way of marriage creates "not only a place of love for two adults, but also a home for loving and raising their children."
It appears that now, more than ever, there is a need to listen to the voice of the wedding rings.
The Church deftly attunes our ears to this voice on the occasion of an anniversary. She is particularly solicitous when it is of great importance, for instance the 25th or 50th anniversary of marriage.
According to the liturgical rite in the Book of Blessings, there is no provision for the repetition of wedding vows during an anniversary celebration. Rather, the couple is invited to pray in silence and to renew their vows in their hearts. The Book of Blessings then calls for a prayer to be said that acknowledges the significance of the wedding rings. The rings may be incensed or exchanged again, thus drawing attention to their itinerary for holiness and human fulfillment. This program, presented in the rings, is, therefore, our reason for celebrating and upholding the dignity of marriage.
Father Richard Schamber
is the parochial vicar of
St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Milton, Florida.
World Marriage Day is Feb. 10, 2013.