The beginning of fall marks the end of the summer wedding season, and as I see the photos of friends, acquaintances, and distant family members getting married, I can’t help but reflect on the classic Catholic wedding photo. The young couple is standing together looking overjoyed at the foot of the altar framed by decoration and bright colors. Their smiles seem to shine like they never have before, and radiant happiness takes the place of pre-wedding nervousness and jitters. They are so excited to start their new life together that they can barely wait for their send-off after the reception to… celebrate their marital union.
Looking a bit more closely at these photos, however, I have noticed that in every one, something looms over their shoulders. Perhaps out of focus and distant in the background, the crucifix is nevertheless instantly recognizable. Maybe upon first glance, a statue or icon of Christ’s death might seem unsightly or overly grotesque for such a joyful occasion; but in fact, it points to the reality of becoming a husband in a Catholic marriage and the path that lies ahead. The purpose of a man’s vocation is to lead him to holiness over the course of his life; whether his call is to the priesthood or religious life, to marriage, or to committed single life, the goal is always sanctification by living his Christian vocation radically for love of God. It is through his God-given mission that a man is called to become entirely conformed to the perfect example of holiness in Christ Jesus.
For a married man, the way that he will be made holy and Christ-like is, of course, through his marriage. In Ephesians 5:25, St. Paul exhorts men to love their wives “even as Christ loved the church.” What does that mean? Paul goes on to say that Christ endured his crucifixion to sanctify the Church, his Bride, so that he may present her “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” Through this saving act of agape, Christ, acting according to the will of the Father, took up his cross for our sake, and set the example for the type of self-sacrificing love that husbands are called to have for their wives.
This idea is symbolized in the wedding ceremony by the couple’s attire; the groom traditionally wears black as a sign that he is dying to himself in imitation of Christ for the sake of his bride, who wears white to symbolize that she will become spotless and holy. The husband’s death to himself creates new life through the consummation of the marriage in the same way that Jesus’s death brings about the new life of the Church. Another example can be found in the Crowning Ceremony that is part of the Byzantine and other Eastern Catholic wedding ceremonies. The bride and groom are each given a crown that is co-equally representative of the glory and martyrdom of marriage, symbolizing both the honor and the sacrifice of each spouse’s individual life as they join together to become one flesh.
All this talk that the husband must “die” when he gets married may sound somewhat ominous, especially to a man discerning marriage, but in a way, it is supposed to be so imposing. Thankfully, Christian marriage is ordered toward God and was instituted to benefit us. We are imperfect and sinful men, and it is through the trials of our vocation that we will become holy. Jesus tells us, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it,” (Mark 8:34-35). Therefore, we see that even though we must take up our cross – an action that will necessarily be difficult and arduous – there lies hope in the promise of our Lord that if we give up our life for his sake and for the sake of our wife, in return we will receive eternal life in Christ.
The point of this is not to scare anyone away from marriage nor is it to say that marriage is not good – it most certainly is. The joys I have experienced as a married man are unparalleled by any other time in my life. I have learned the meaning of spousal love and how to act as a Christian husband… most of the time; there is certainly room to grow. Marriage is supposed to make you a better person (a saint, in fact!), and the process of becoming a better person is not an easy one. St. Rose of Lima said, “Apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.”
So, after you get back from the honeymoon and life as a married man starts getting real, when you have fights, when you’re tired, when you’re tempted, and when you think you can’t go on anymore, remember Jesus on the cross. Remember him, and rest in the promise that after this mortification, after being entirely conformed to Christ through your vocation, after giving up your own life for your beloved, you will be raised up and rewarded for your love. If by your sacrifice, you can deliver your bride “holy and without blemish” to God at the end of your life, you will have fulfilled your vocational promise, and you will hear the words of the master from Matthew 25:23: “Well done, my good and faithful servant… Come, share your master’s joy.”
Throughout your life as a married man, never forget about the crucifix above your shoulder in your wedding photos. Remember that it is your goal to get your wife to Heaven; in doing so, you will be ordering your life to Christ’s and purifying your soul – you, along with your wife, will become a saint.