Fathers should stop giving their daughters away at weddings. When the bride starts down the aisle the father should be out of the spotlight. Not leading her. Not lifting her veil. Not kissing her one last time. Not handing her off to the groom.
In a culture that boasts a growing sympathy towards women's issues, why do we continue to ritualize this backward approach to wedding processions? Does the father own the daughter? Has the father selected the groom for his daughter? Does the daughter get passed from one family to another? Does the groom become the new owner of this property? What is going on here?
There was a time when daughters were indeed treated like property. The traditional wedding procession simply underlined the roles people played in society. Men dominated. Women passively acquiesced. The groom's new marital status signaled not just his coming to manhood, but his improved economic stability. A bride sweetened the groom's net worth. Today's wedding procession still treats the bride like a transfer of assets.
And that's only the tip of the iceberg. Much of the wedding procession is just plain wrongheaded. It ritualizes all the things a wedding is not: a show, a transaction, a photo-op, a comedy routine. A church wedding is liturgy. But you'd never know it from the way things get underway.
What should a wedding procession look like? A good description comes from the Catholic rite of marriage. It suggests a procession that would revolutionize weddings. It's been in our rubrics for years, but most Catholics ignore it. Here's what it says:
At the appointed time, the priest, vested for Mass, goes with the
ministers to the door of the church or, if more suitable, to the altar.
There he greets the bride and bridegroom in a friendly manner, showing
that the Church shares their joy. . .
20. If there is a procession to the altar, the ministers go first, followed by the priest, and then the bride and bridegroom. According to local custom, they may be escorted by at least their parents and the two witnesses. Meanwhile, the entrance song is sung.
Walk through this step by step. You'll see how weddings at your parish could get off on the right foot.
"At the appointed time. . ."
Are the rubrics naive? Or are we hearing the weary voice of experience valiantly trying to staunch a common abuse? Weddings rarely start on time. Yes, last minute details never decrease. They multiply. But the procession that starts late already sends a discourteous signal to those gathered in church--before the wedding has ever begun. Common courtesy and hospitality request a prompt start for those who made an effort to arrive on time.
"The priest goes to the door of the church."
A typical wedding procession starts the women up the aisle while the men line up in front of the pews and the priest appears from the sacristy. It seems to symbolize that the bride comes from her (female) friends, the groom comes from his (male) friends, and no one knows just where the priest comes from (deus ex machina), but somehow they all make it to the sanctuary.
That's what we often see, but it's not what the rubrics describe. No, the priest should go to the door of the church. Why? Because we start liturgy with one procession, not three. And because the door of the church strengthens the symbol of entry. We go to the door for the infant to be baptized, for the catechumen seeking community, for the deceased making their final journey, for the bishop's first arrival at his cathedral, and for the bride and groom who enter new life together with Christ.
"The priest greets the bride and bridegroom in a friendly manner."
You get the impression he has threatened to greet them in some other way. Incidentally, the rite of reconciliation gives the priest a similar instruction. He should greet the penitent warmly.
But note, too, that the priest greets the bride and the bridegroom. He's got access to both of them at the door of the church and before the procession begins. This assumes we dispense with the old fear of bad luck if they see each other before the procession. Throw out that fear together with snake charmers, eight balls, open ladders, broken mirrors, black cats, and the thirteenth floor of office buildings. It's poppycock. Hogwash. Baloney. Nonsense. Such fears have no place at the celebration of the sacrament of marriage.
The ritual envisions a friendly greeting among the priest, bride, and bridegroom just before the ceremony begins. In a private moment the three face the full significance of the service about to begin. The priest should let the couple know that the church shares their joy. This poses a challenge if the priest selfishly resents giving up a Saturday night to help a couple do what he never could. Some priests have to fend off a bad attitude that dogs them through the preparation, the rehearsal, the dinner, the ceremony, and the reception. Marriage is good. It deserves to begin in joy.
"If there is a procession to the altar."
"If"??? What wedding doesn't have a procession? Photographers, dress-makers, florists--just think of the people who'd be out of work! Well, believe it or not, you don't have to have a procession. This is why the ritual indicates the priest doesn't have to go to the door of the church. He can just go to the altar, "if it is more suitable." Meaning, if there is no procession. He has to get to the sanctuary somehow.
A wedding without a procession would begin like a simple church service. The bride and groom would already be in place. That would eliminate a lot of problems in the way we ritualize processions, but the procession isn't a bad idea. It's just that we do it so poorly. Done well, it lends solemnity to a great occasion.
"The ministers go first."
"Huh?" Yeah, ministers. Like servers? The reader? Remember them? We're starting a liturgy, not a pageant. Altar servers lead the procession into the church. Whoever is proclaiming the scriptures for the wedding should grab the lectionary, get to the door of the church, and line up in the procession. The lectionary. That's a book. Not a flabby sheet of dog-eared paper hurriedly photocopied from a lectionary, creased, and shoved into the pocket or purse of the cousin who was too shy to say no even though s/he has never read in public before but at least could look up the hard words at home before the big day. The lectionary. The same book we use for every other parish Mass gets used here. The reader who joins the procession should be prepared to proclaim the scripture. This is liturgy.
Servers will set the right tone if they know what they're doing. Servers from the parish generally do a more competent job than youthful relatives unfamiliar with the sacristy, the priest, and the sanctuary of the church where the wedding takes place.
"The ministers are followed by the priest, and then the bride and bridegroom."
"Followed by the. . . Then the. . . What?" Yes. The Catholic rite of marriage suggests that after the servers, after the reader, after the priest comes up the aisle, the bride and bridegroom follow. Imagine them coming arm in arm. In the procession for a typical Mass, the main minister comes last. In a wedding, the ministers of the sacrament are the bride and bridegroom. They give their consent to each other. The priest and all the rest of us witness this event. If the ministers come last in Catholic processions, that place belongs to the bride and bridegroom, who should bump the priest out of his usual spot in line.
Notice, no mention of the father. No mention of candle-lighters. No white carpet either. Not that these are excluded. They just aren't primary symbols for what's going on. Too many wedding processions are so cluttered it's hard to tell just what we're ritualizing, except excess.
"They may be escorted by at least their parents and the two witnesses."
So, the father finally gets into the act. But he only gets equal billing with a few other people. We're talking parents here. Not parent. And not just bride's parents either. The Catholic rite of marriage recognizes the important role parents have played in the formation of their children and the significance this day has for them. They may have a place in the procession. But no special consideration is given to the father of the bride.
"Escorting" the bride and bridegroom could take different forms. They could all precede the couple, or after the best man and maid or matron of honor the parents of the groom and bride could each escort their child down the aisle.
The two witnesses are the best man and maid or matron of honor. They are not just best buddies. They are official witnesses of the church and the state who testify that the marriage has taken place. They represent the rest of us. A Catholic marriage requires the presence of at least two people besides bride, groom, and minister. So they have an honored place in the procession.
What about other attendants? Admittedly, the expression "at least" in this particular rubric opens the barn door for all kinds of other people to vault into the procession: battalions of bridesmaids and groomsmen, confused overdressed children in phony roles (a ring-bearer who carries fake rings and a flower girl who carries fake flowers) and on and on. These people may have played a significant role in the lives of the bride and bridegroom. But why include them and exclude the other parents? Hello? Didn't they have a significant role too?
"Meanwhile, the entrance song is sung."
Not, "the march is played." The song is sung. With all this discussion about the makeup of the procession, we've overlooked a few other people who came to the wedding. The guests. The congregation. The assembly of believers. Oops! Don't they have a role here too?
A typical procession for a Catholic church service calls for the assembly to sing. The people are the church. They are not spectators. They are active participants in the prayer that has begun. The liturgy of the church envisions that the guests of the wedding will sing the entrance and remain attentive throughout the celebration through their prayer, participation, and song.
When engaged couples think music, they think soloist. Instrumentalist. Performance. No. This is liturgy. It calls for liturgical music. Liturgical music calls for a congregation. Music plays the same role in weddings it plays on Sundays. A soloist and an instrumentalist can certainly perform a selection, but the musicians for a wedding should accompany the congregation as well.
"Here Comes the Bride" accompanies many a young woman's every dream of her wedding day. Why? Is it not the couple who are coming? Is it not the people who are assembled? Is it not Christ whom we are greeting? A proper opening song will proclaim the religious significance of the gathering.
The typical wedding procession just doesn't express what it could. It is caught in the midst of many conflicting values.
Tradition: "It's always been done this way." "My father's feelings will be hurt." "It won't seem like a wedding." Whoa! Let's think about this. Shouldn't our actions reveal our beliefs? Shouldn't we critique ritual in the same way we've critiqued women's roles? Shouldn't the father/daughter relationship be more mature then a stylized donation of used property?
Liturgy: Weddings are liturgy. We come to church for a sacred ceremony. Plans for a wedding liturgy should resemble plans for a Sunday liturgy. Such plans will affect the music, the ministers, the readings, the prayers--and the procession.
Intent: Perhaps most frightening of all is how the wedding procession symbolizes intent. When the father hands the bride over to the groom, he ritualizes his own intent. It is his will to entrust his daughter to this other male. The gesture distances the bride's own consent to the marriage. And her consent is essential to the celebration of this ceremony. By submitting her will to that of her father, she withholds some of the consent that should dominate the ceremony.
So, imagine it this way. The priest greets the couple at the door of the church. The assembly sings a song of praise. The servers and reader start down the aisle, followed by the priest. The parents and the two principal witnesses come next, escorting the bride and bridegroom. All participants have signified the role they came to play. And the ceremony proceeds in a spirit of authenticity.
wedding procession could signify union, freedom, faith, community, and joy--if
we'd only give it a chance.
This article first appeared online in Catholic Practice (1997)