March 1982, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 48-59.

Christopher Kiesling:
      The Liturgy of Christian Marriage: Introduction to Marital Spirituality

Couples choosing prayers and Scripture readings for their nuptial Mass have an opportunity to reflect upon and grasp a vision of Christian spirituality which can guide their life together.

Father Kiesling, O.P., in addition to being editor of Spirituality Today, is professor of systematic theology at Aquinas Institute, St. Louis, Missouri.

THE whole of Christian life is a journey, according to the image set forth in the rites of Christian initiation. The journey reaches its first major climax in the celebration of baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist at the Easter vigil, at least for the adult convert. That baptismal celebration, a dying and rising with Christ sacramentally, embraces the rest of the journey in Christian discipleship. Christian life is living out one's baptism. Included in living out one's baptism is, for many people, Christian marriage. That Christian marriage is grounded in baptism is testified to in the opening words which the presiding priest addresses to the bride and groom in the presence of the assembled community; among other words, he says: "He [Christ] has already consecrated you in baptism and now he enriches and strengthens you by a special sacrament so that you may assume the duties of marriage in mutual and lasting faith."(1)

Marital spirituality, therefore, like every other spirituality, is radically baptismal, a continuation of dying with Christ to sin and death and rising with him unto life with the Father in the power of the Spirit. But what are some of the distinctive characteristics of marital spirituality? Our aim in this article is to examine the prayers of the liturgy for Christian marriage to see what clues they offer to what marital spirituality can be. We will then consider briefly under what conditions the liturgy of Christian marriage can be an introduction to marital spirituality.

There are, of course, a number of factors which we would expect to be characteristic of marital spirituality and which we would anticipate the liturgy's expressing in one way or another. A most obvious element of marital spirituality would be the spouses' love for each other. The liturgy of Christian marriage unquestionably affirms that love -- the fact of it and its holiness. In the opening address to which we referred above, the presiding celebrant says words which recognize the centrality of that love (in the sense that it is the core of what is celebrated in the rite of marriage) and which affirm its holiness and pleasingness before God: "My dear friends, you have come together in this church so that the Lord may seal and strengthen your love in the presence of the Church's minister and this community. Christ abundantly blesses this love"

The importance of the couple's mutual love is seen also in the fact that, while not the only subject in the possible opening prayers, or collects, for the nuptial Mass, it is mentioned in three of the four prayers. The first of these prayers declares that the bride and groom "pledge their love today" and asks God that "their lives always bear witness to the reality of that love" (106). The second prayer petitions God to "strengthen their love for each other" (107) and the fourth begs him "to make their love fruitful" (109).

The third among the choices for the opening prayer does not explicitly mention the spouses' love but a result of that love, or a quality of it; the prayer asks that God "increase their faith in you and in each other" (108). That notion of "faith in each other" is repeated in alternate blessings of the rings, where the priest asks God to "grant that those who wear them may always have a deep faith in each other" (110) or that "these rings be a symbol of true faith in each other" (111). The faith referred to in these passages is not precisely fidelity, a notion which is taken up in other prayers of the rite. The faith mentioned in this context is more a matter of trust. In fact, in one form of the nuptial blessing, the celebrant prays: "May her husband put his trust in her and recognize that she is his equal and the heir with him to the life of grace" (33). Faith, or trust, is not only the fruit of love: if we love someone, we are inclined to trust her, have faith in her, count on her. But faith, or trust, is also an important presupposition for love: unless we are willing to entrust ourselves to others, we cannot expect that they will know us in order to be able to love us, nor can we hope that they will entrust themselves to us. So the mutual faith, or trust, which the liturgy of Christian marriage mentions is an important factor in marital spirituality along with mutual love.


The centrality of the couple's love for the meaning of Christian marriage is brought out most clearly in two of the three prefaces for the Mass of Christian marriage. The second preface speaks of God's entering into a new covenant with his people through Jesus Christ, restoring humanity to grace, giving men and women a share in divine life through union with Christ, and making them heirs of Christ's eternal glory. The prayer goes on to say: "This outpouring of love in the new covenant of grace is symbolized in the marriage covenant that seals the love of husband and wife and reflects your divine plan of love" (116). We see here the love of husband and wife -- a very human reality; the church is accepting something that can be felt, that is a source of joy, desire, longing, anguish, pain, hope, disappointment, and a host of other feelings -- this love of husband and wife is "sealed" by the marriage covenant, the mutual promises whereby spouses pledge themselves to one another as persons for life together in Christ.(2) Their marriage covenant symbolizes the outpouring of God's love upon humanity in Jesus Christ and reflects that divine plan of love. What is noteworthy here is the human love of the spouses which, sealed by the marriage covenant, is to be permeated, so to speak, by God's grace, becoming radiant from within with the selfless agape of Jesus, to bear witness to the Father's abounding love.

The third of the prefaces also throws the spotlight on the love of the spouses. The prayer reads (with its sexist language):

You created man in love to share your divine life.
We see his high destiny in the love of husband and wife,
which bears the imprint of your own divine love.

Love is man's origin,
love is his constant calling,
love is his fulfillment in heaven.

The love of man and woman
is made holy in the sacrament of marriage,
and becomes the mirror of your everlasting love. (117)

In their love for one another, husband and wife participate in the divine life, a life of love, which embraces men and women on all sides, so to speak. Man and woman's participation in that love is further enriched by the sacrament of marriage, which reflects the bond of love between Christ and his church (33, 106, 120), and so reflects the Father's eternal love.

To love is not easy. As Eric Fromm points out, there is scarcely anything we all want so much as love; and yet we do such a poor job of it, as divorce courts and separated couples eloquently testify.(3) The central place given to the mutual love of husband and wife in the liturgy of Christian marriage indicates that the effort to learn to love as Jesus loves is at the heart of marital spirituality. A prayer over the gifts for the Mass of Christian marriage petitions God: "May the mystery of Christ's unselfish love, which we celebrate in this eucharist, increase their love for you and for each other" (114). It is that unselfish love of Christ which the married couple are to strive to imitate. The importance and quality of love between spouses which married couples are to pursue is well described in Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World in a passage on married love (no. 49). On the wedding day this love is not all that it can be but it must grow -- a fact implied in the words of one of the possible nuptial blessings where the assembled congregation are invited to pray that Christ "will unite in love the couple he has joined in this holy bond" (33). The couple are married; what love they have has been sealed to become an image of Christ's and his church's mutual love; but their own love underlying that seal can still develop, become more intense, more trusting, more caring, and, above all, more selfless like that of Jesus.

We mentioned above that the prayers concerning the couple's faith in one another were not about fidelity but rather trust. There are prayers, however, which call attention to this expected characteristic of Christian marriage, namely, fidelity. The rings are exchanged as signs of "love and fidelity' (27, 28). Preliminary to the exchange of vows, the priest asks the couple: "Will you honor each other as man and wife for the rest of your lives?" (24). The marriage vows are promises "to be true" to one another "all the days of life" or "until death do us part" (25).


Another expectation we may very well have of marital spirituality is that it usually entails having and rearing children. The liturgy of Christian marriage does in fact reflect this facet of marital spirituality in references to the fruitfulness of the couple's love and marriage. The couple, unless advanced in years, is asked before the exchange of vows: "Will you accept children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?" One of the prefaces for the Mass of Christian marriage speaks of God's having "designed the chaste love of husband and wife for the increase both of the human family and of your own family born in baptism," and his bringing together "in Christian marriage . . the two orders of creation: nature's gift of children enriches the world and your grace enriches also your Church" (115). One nuptial blessing petitions God to "bless them with children and help them to be good parents. May they live to see their children's children" (33). A second possible nuptial blessing prays: "Help them to create a home together and give them children to be formed by the gospel and to have a place in your family" (120). A third nuptial blessing prays that the couple may "enrich your Church with their children" (121). While the relationship of marriage to bearing and educating children is clearly affirmed in the liturgy of Christian marriage, it certainly does not stand in the foreground; more central is the couple's love, which, however, is seen as being fruitful in children.

But the fruitfulness of the couple's love is not only in children; it is also in the witness of their love to divine love. At least that is an interpretation that may be given to an opening prayer of the Mass in which the presiding celebrant prays: "Make their love fruitful so that they may be living witnesses to your divine love in the world" (109). The fruitfulness of children may constitute the couple's love a witness to God's love in the world; and in that case, it surely means more than simply having children: it clearly implies a loving care and education of those children. But it need not be only in having children that a couple bears witness to God's love; their love may be fruitful in their solicitude for one another and in their care for the needy. A blessing at the end of Mass explicitly refers to such care for others: "May you be ready and willing to help and comfort all who come to you in need. And may the blessings promised to the compassionate be yours in abundance" (37). Another blessing begs: "May you always bear witness to the love of God in this world so that the afflicted and the needy will find in you generous friends" (125).

So the fruitfulness of the married couple's love is found not only in the family but also in witness, in the impact of their love upon others in the church and the world. Indeed, this notion of witness is quite frequent in the prayers of the liturgy of Christian marriage. There is the opening prayer which beseeches God: "May their lives always bear witness to the reality of that love" (106). "That love" refers to their human love but in the context of "the bond of marriage, a holy mystery, a symbol of Christ's love for his Church." So through the genuineness of their mutual love, they bear witness to Christ's love for the church. They are to be "living examples of Christian life . . . and . . . witnesses of Christ to others" (nuptial blessing, 33). There is the prayer that the couple may "become one in heart and mind as witnesses to your presence in their marriage" (120) and that "their love for each other [may] proclaim to all the world their faith in you [God]" (123).

We see from the last two paragraphs that marital spirituality is not wrapped up in the couple and is not even limited within the confines of the family. It is envisioned in the liturgy of Christian marriage as extending beyond the couple, beyond their own children, to the wider circles of church and world, and especially the afflicted and the needy. The love of the couple is fully fruitful when its beneficence touches those in need who are not part of the family. Insofar as this care includes not only alleviating the suffering of the needy but also rectifying the causes of that suffering by establishing just social structures, marital spirituality includes concern for social justice.


The third of the possible nuptial blessings for use contains several lines which summarize many qualities of marital spirituality. The prayer petitions the Lord:

. . . may they both praise you when they are happy
and turn to you in their sorrows.
May they be glad that you help them in their work
and know that you are with them in their need.
May they pray to you in the community of the Church
and be your witnesses in the world.
May they reach old age in the company of their friends
and come at last to the kingdom of heaven. (121)

The first of these petitions acknowledges the realities of married life: it entails happiness and sorrow. The couple will experience both joy and pain in the course of adjusting to one another and living compatibly with one another throughout a life time. There will be moments when they will wonder why they ever ventured upon this marriage; and there will be moments when the joy they experience together will be, in Peter Berger's phrase, "a rumor of angels."(4) Their children will be a source of joy and sorrow also, as they go through the difficult process of growing toward maturity. Frequently a couple will be called to ponder deeply Christ's love for his church, that is, for us -- Christ who emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, and becoming obedient, even unto death, for our sakes (Phil. 2:7-8). But in both happiness and sorrow the Christian husband and wife turn to God, to praise him for his blessings in their lives and to seek his help in trial. What is striking here is the reminder that we turn to God, not only in times of difficulty, but in times of success and happiness. Praise and thanksgiving are as much a form of prayer as is petition. Christians, moreover, have as their central celebration the Eucharist, which means "thanksgiving." Christian life is a eucharistic, grateful, response to God's love manifested in Jesus Christ. Marital spirituality will be marked by thankfulness, which will express itself in many ways in personal prayer, in family prayer, in the eucharistic prayer of the local Christian community, and especially in love for others, for if God has so loved us, we ought in turn to love others (cf. 1 John 4:11).

When the Christian couple turn to God, they may be "glad that you help them in their work and know that you are with them in their need." The words of this second petition reflect a strong sense of divine providence in the liturgy for Christian marriage. There is, of course, firm affirmation of Christian marriage as part of God's creation (33, 115, 117, 120, 121 -- these are prefaces or nuptial blessings). But a touching thought is expressed in a prayer over the gifts: "By your love and providence you have brought them together" (112). In the couple's gift of themselves to each other is God's gift to them. An insert for the first Eucharistic Prayer refers to the couple and says of them to God: "You have brought them to their wedding day: grant them (the gift and joy of children and) a long and happy life together" (118). Another prayer over the gifts begs God: "In your fatherly love watch over and protect N. and N., whom you have united in marriage" (113). A couple's marital spirituality, it would seem, ought to be marked by a deep sense of God's care for them and their children in the vicissitudes of daily life -- sicknesses, accidents, disappointments, but also successes and joys.

The next lines of the nuptial blessing which sums up much of marital spirituality refers to the couple's praying to God in the community of the church and being his witnesses in the world. We have already noted the call of the married couple to bear witness to God's love in the world through their love for one another and their exemplary following of Christ. Here we note the couple's relationship to the church -- concretely, the local Christian community. It is "in the presence of the Church's minister and this community" that the couple come "so that the Lord may seal and strengthen your love" (23, priests introductory remarks to the rite of marriage). It is in the presence of this community that the couple state their intentions (23), that is, their freedom of choice, faithfulness to each other, and acceptance and upbringing of children. Their married love will be, as has already been noted more than once, an image of Christ's union with his church, an unbreakable union, the basis for the indissolubility of a valid, authentic marriage between baptized believers. Their love is also an image of God's covenant with his people, and God never forsakes his side of the covenant, as the Old Testament prophets remind the people, and as Paul notes in his letter to the Romans (chaps. 9-11). The image of such a covenant must itself be unbreakable if it is to be truly an image. Because Christian marriage reflects the community's link to God and Christ, it is bound to the life of the community. Marital spirituality will be a spirituality that nourishes itself and expresses itself in the community's regular eucharistic worship -- "as they come together to your table on earth . . . may they one day have the joy of sharing your feast in heaven" (120)and in its ministry to those who are afflicted or in need.

The last of the petitions we are reflecting on prays that the married couple "may reach old age in the company of their friends and come at last to the kingdom of heaven." The first part of this petition calls attention to the humanness of the spiritual vision of the liturgy of Christian marriage. As it recognizes that life entails sorrows as well as happiness, it is also realistic in acceptance of human goods. More than once do we find petition for a long life (33, 37, 118). Friends are also mentioned in prayers (125, 127). The marital union is not angelic, but the Father "made man and woman to be joined as husband and wife in union of body and heart" (120). The marriage vows themselves attest to the down-to-earth sort of spirituality that characterizes Christian marriage: "I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health" (25). And a spirituality which accepts into its aspirations for union with God the love and care of children, mentioned so frequently in the liturgy of Christian marriage, must, of necessity be very human and earthy.

In sum, the liturgy of Christian marriage presents the journey of Christian life for married couples as being made in ever more profound consciousness that their covenanted human love is good, to be cherished and nourished, seen as sacred, as an image of the Father's covenant with his people and of Christ's love for his church. That love is to become ever more like Jesus' love, self emptying for the sake of the beloved: spouse and children, but even beyond them, the needy. The couple's spiritual journey is to be made in fidelity to one another. Their love is to be fruitful, both in children brought up in the spirit of the gospel and in the good example of a serious Christian way of life, so that the couple are witnesses to the world of God's love in the world. Marital spirituality is realistic: it recognizes that life is a mixture of joys and sorrows, trials and triumphs. It is conscious of God's provident care in every moment, the good and the bad. It is sensitive enough to praise God and thank him for the good times, even as it turns to him for help in difficult times. Marital spirituality is conditioned by, and oriented to, community -- the family, Christian community, the world, including concern for a just social order and peace. Finally, it is not angelic but human and earthy in values which it gathers up into its aspirations for union with God and in which it experiences that union. It may be seen as distinguished from religious celibate spirituality and also from the spirituality of the single person in the world by the committed human love between man and woman at its core and by the thoroughness of its embodiment in the flesh, both in the expression of that human love and in the propagation of the human race.


But, we may ask, does the liturgy of Christian marriage actually influence the spiritual lives of couples who get married? So many other concerns are on the minds of a couple at the time of their marriage, to say nothing of what is on the minds of parents, family, relatives, and friends. Is not the celebration of Christian marriage more a social event than a formative spiritual experience?

Without doubt we have to acknowledge that a single celebration on a Saturday morning or afternoon for an hour or so, in the midst of a welter of other concerns, is not, of itself, going to have much of an impact on the spiritual lives of a couple. But we also must recognize that liturgy is more than a ceremony that lasts for an hour, more or less. Liturgy is the expression of the life of faith. Liturgy is the climactic moment in the life of the Christian community and individual. It is part of a process, a high point in that process; and the liturgy's power is conditioned by the authenticity of that process which precedes the liturgical celebration. The sacrament of reconciliation, for example, presupposes a process wherein one recognizes sinfulness, repents of it, begins to mend his or her ways, and finally comes to be reconciled to the Christian community and God, or God and the Christian community, in the liturgy of reconciliation. That liturgy has weight and impact in proportion to the conversion which leads up to it and is confirmed, so to speak, in the liturgical act. The whole process is the work of God's grace, which is symbolized explicitly and publicly in the rite of penance.

So with the liturgy of Christian marriage. It is the expression, or should be, of a process that began long before the wedding day, a process which should be a fruit of God's grace in Christ and which comes to full expression as such in the liturgy of Christian marriage. As more and more marriages break up in our society, pastors and bishops and concerned married couples are becoming more aware that not every couple who wish to be married are truly ready for Christian marriage and the celebration of its liturgy. Programs to prepare young people for marriage, for Christian marriage, are becoming more widespread, though it is startling to think of how little preparation is expected for so tremendous a commitment when we compare it with the preparation presupposed, for example, for religious profession or ordination.

If marriage preparation programs are taken seriously and developed, there is reason to think that the celebration of the liturgy of Christian marriage can have some impact on those who participate in it. Part of that preparation will entail preparing for the liturgy -- choosing appropriate Scripture readings, prayers, songs, and the like. If properly guided, such a preparation can be a contemplative experience, not in the sense of sitting in imageless prayer, but in the sense of reflecting upon, and seeing the meaning and value of, Christian marriage as expressed in the liturgical texts and rites. A vision can be glimpsed which in future years can be clarified and prove a sure guide.

The impact of any liturgical celebration, moreover, is measured not only by that celebration, and not only by the process that went before it, but also by the community in which it occurs and by the support which the Christian community provides after the celebration. A community, for example, which has little appreciation for the gift of the Holy Spirit through baptism, will not provide a very stimulating experience of confirmation for those who are confirmed; nor will those who are confirmed experience the working of the Spirit in their lives if the community does not provide opportunities for them to do so. So also the effect of the liturgy of Christian marriage on a couple will depend in no small measure on the support other Christian married couples provide for them. Liturgy is intimately intertwined with life. Life and liturgy reciprocally influence one another. If actual celebrations of the liturgy are not all that we would like them to be, the first place to look for a remedy is in our lives. If the liturgy of Christian marriage falls short of what we think it should be doing, we need to look more closely at Christian marriage -- what we think of it, how we appreciate it, what value we place on it, how we prepare people for it, and how we support them in it.


  1. Rite of Marriage, no. 23. Henceforth references to the Rite of Marriage will be in parentheses in the text. The full text in English may be found in The Rites of the Catholic Church vol. 1 (New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1976), pp. 534-70.
  2. Paul Palmer, "Christian Marriage: Contract or Covenant?" Theological Studies 33 (1972): 617-65.
  3. The Art of Loving (New York: Bantam Books 1963), p. 4.
  4. A Rumor of Angels (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969).