Looking over my sister’s wedding photographs recently, I was struck by the prominence of the Crucifix overlooking the altar where she and my brother-in-law exchanged their vows. Amidst the flowers, lace and radiant smiles hung an image of a naked man, abandoned by his friends and dying in agony. Yet there he was, hanging between them as if uniting them. But then I thought again: Isn’t the Cross out of place in a wedding? What does the Crucifix have to do with marriage?
Today the Church celebrates the Exaltation of the Cross. We remember when Saint Helena, mother of Constantine, found the true Cross in Jerusalem. Christians quickly began venerating this saving wood. In all Christian vocations, we also can find the spiritual presence of the saving Cross. Most of us, though, are slow to see these personal crosses and even slower to venerate them.
Like a marriage, the Cross brings about a union, not that of man and woman, but of the divine Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, with his bride, the Church. This union at the Cross reveals both the great and the wretched: the infinite love of God and the full depravity of human sin. The lesson: however terrible our sins may be, God’s love is infinitely greater. Our worst sins are but a drop of water compared to the fiery furnace of the heart of Jesus Christ (St. Thérèse, Last Conversations).
Here at this intersection of the great and wretched, what is the response of Jesus Christ? He cries out: “I thirst” (Jn 19:28). Seeing humanity at its worst, he proclaims his unending desire to savor the intimacy of our hearts. He does not simply offer forgiveness; Jesus offers a share in his very life.
St. Paul ties all this together: Christ’s death on the Cross is the model for Christian marriage. Man and woman join themselves by self-sacrificial love, dying to self for the salvation of the other just as Christ did for the Church (Eph 5). Like the Cross, married life reveals both the joys and the struggles of human life. At their best, couples enjoy a friendship of unconditional, mutual love. Yet couples also struggle. For some, it’s the daily choice to forgive repeatedly and to accept the other’s flaws, if not their own. For others, they drink the dregs of infidelity and even divorce.
Amidst these struggles, we can take the Cross as a sign of our hope. Christ has seen our worst and has responded with forgiveness, healing, and love. In these struggles, Christian couples are never alone. Christ is in their midst. “We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn 3:19). We forgive because he first forgave us. We remain faithful because he is eternally faithful.
But Christ is not merely a model of love, he is the source and the mover of love. By the grace of the Sacrament of Matrimony, Christ works through the couple—quietly, almost imperceptibly—to forgive, to heal, and to unite. And when human love fails like the wine at Cana, Christ offers the choice wine of God’s ineffable love: His blood shed for us on the Cross (Jn 2). For just as the Crucifix stood between bride and groom when they exchanged their vows, the Crucified Lord stands between and within husband and wife in good times and in bad, in sickness and health, pouring out his total love with and through the spouses.
Come, let us exult.
Image: Wedding, Buzzy Photography (used with permission)