When my editor proposed I write about wedding dresses, I hesitated. True, I am married, but I thought I was more likely to be told I had less of a right to a view on wedding dresses than a man on “choice.” Not having yielded to the latter attempts to censor me, I figured, why not grab the third rail one more time?

Many people regard the wedding day as “the bride’s day.” It’s why priests and parish organists still have to fight about why “Here Comes the Bride” is not an appropriate entrance hymn for a nuptial Mass. So am I going to rain further on the secular-ish wedding day parade?

No. Let me instead try to bring the three evangelical counsels—chastity, poverty, and obedience—to bear on it.

1. Chastity

The idea that chastity has a place in marriage might seem fantastic. But it does. What, after all, is chastity? Here I follow Karol Wojtyła: chastity is a virtue that lifts up to the value of the person the values of sex and sexual attraction. Sex and sensuality are powerful elements in human life. God created them, and so they are good, but they can be abused. They are abused when they overshadow the value of the person, when the person becomes first and foremost a sexual object. That is wrong, outside marriage or in it.

Now, let’s be honest. There are styles and fashion that do just that—accentuate the sexual over the person. That is not a Christian perspective, and it shouldn’t be our perspective as we celebrate a Christian marriage.

I won’t venture to provide norms or measures of modesty. Suffice it to say that people tend to know what is modest (and attractive)—or immodest—when they see it. And the Christian bride, “all dressed in white” (a symbolic color), should be at least sufficiently attired so as not to be confused with “the lady in red.” Modesty and taste never go out of style.

2. Poverty

No, poverty should not be the consequence of buying a wedding dress. Brides are frequently pressed to “say yes to the dress,” no matter how obscene . . . the price tag. Yes, a wedding is a great day, a celebration, a once-in-a-lifetime event. Maybe a family even has a tradition of handing down a wedding dress to the next generation, which augurs for a better investment.

But I suspect that this is rare, which again reminds us: it’s a one-time use. A bride can be beautiful, attractive, modest, and appealing without necessarily spending a fortune on the gown. That suggests some moderation in the outlay, especially when the excess can be put to longer-term use by today’s young couples, who are often starting out in tenuous financial circumstances.

Why mention poverty? After all, what’s so great about poverty? Well, a basic part of any spirituality is detachment from worldly things. Pretty things often get in the way of our path to God. One way we learn not to be diverted on that path is being able to say “no” to them. And let’s face it: a young couple will probably not be initially rolling in the dough, so learning to do what is beautiful without breaking the bank and without incurring extra debt for just a moment is a good thing. It’s a preparation for life, of being able together to say “no” to things and to sacrifice what’s dear to us for the other. Want an example (and get a jump on Christmas)? Read O. Henry’s short story “The Gift of the Magi.”

Poverty does not mean shabby, but it does mean simple. And simple can be elegant.

3. Obedience

No, I am not going to quote you the traditional marriage vow about “love, honor, and obey” (which is probably heard far more often from English-accented Protestant clergy in old movies than anywhere else). In speaking of obedience, I want to suggest Someone to whom both husband and wife need to be obedient.

God is Love (1 John 4:8). God is also Life (John 14:6). Those two realities—life and love—are what marriage should be about. They are authentic in spouses only insofar as they mirror God, who is Life and is Love. That’s why I resist the idea that the wedding day is the “bride’s day.” It’s also the groom’s day. But above all, it’s God’s day.

It is this day that God has prepared both bride and groom for, and this day that he gives them is a special sacrament for the rest of their lives. That’s why the focus ought to be there. That doesn’t diminish the celebration or the joy or the specialness of the day. It should, in fact, amplify all of those.

But it’s out of obedience to that God—who is the true measure of any love and the lord and giver of life—that we want to celebrate this day. In that sense, our celebration wants to be modest, because God is the giver of all gifts, including sex and sex appeal. We want it to be simple, because yes, this is the beginning of a lifetime together, but there’s still that whole lifetime to live.

Obedience is an important virtue with regard to marriage because it involves obedience to God and his plans for marriage—a vision alien to our culture. It involves a commitment “till death do us part,” not just in words, but in deeds. How many Catholics explicitly say to themselves, “Divorce will never be for me?” It involves commitment to openness to life when God plans it (even if we didn’t). How many Catholics think contraception, even abortion, is “okay”? It involves a commitment to exclusivity. Just look in the papers to see the campaign for “polyamory,” previously simply called adultery.

The Christian marriage that is modest, simple, and obedient to Christian faith need not be dull or depressing. Rather, it can be a model of the expectations of a life lived in faith according to those values for the rest of the bride’s and groom’s life together, starting today. In that sense, the wedding day is not so much the occasion for excess bling as it is the model for a lifetime—a lifetime that will be challenged by chastity, one that will sometimes have to be simpler in living the “poorer” of “for richer, for poorer,” one that is obedience to the law and teaching of Christ, whose union to his Church is the model and measure for what the Christian marriage is.



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