I sometimes forget we met at an altar.
As Catholics, man and woman don't meet in a field or on the beach, in a forest or under the local golf course trellis. We meet at the altar. The structure for sacrifice. Perhaps, so used we are to seeing them, we forget. It is an ancient construct, one that -if we haven't forgotten- should call to mind not roses and flutters but sacrifice and death. It is a table where life is lost and blood is spilled. It is there - there! - where we vow our lives to each other completely, witnessed by family and friends and an ordained minister of the Church until death do us part. Before a table of sacrifice, the Sacrifice.
This is why in the Catholic Church it is required that the marriage ceremony be done in an actual church, unless extraordinary permission is granted otherwise. Because marriage is a bit of a death, a sacrificial offering of our very selves. It is where we pledge to another human being to love as He loved, all the way to the cross. Completely free, we choose to give up that freedom out of love for the other. We meet at an altar, before the image of Him who became the ultimate Sacrifice and we pledge to give ourselves until it hurts. "It is therefore fitting that the spouses should seal their consent to give themselves to each other through the offering of their own lives by uniting it to the offering of Christ for his Church made present in the Eucharistic sacrifice, and by receiving the Eucharist so that, communicating in the same Body and the same Blood of Christ, they may form but "one body" in Christ" (CCC, 1621).
It is this idea that led to the Catholic custom of married couples hanging a crucifix over their beds. It is a symbol of that culmination of gift of self, right down to their very bodies. They give of themselves first at the altar and complete that total gift within the bedroom. Their gift of self truly encompasses all of them - soul and body. And it is only when we have completely given our selves in spirit, pledging the total, free, and faithful love of the rest of our lives before that altar that we can enter the physical self-gift of love honestly. It is this complete gift of self that brings new life.
The world's says marriage is about happiness. The Church says it's about holiness. One certainly doesn't exclude the other, of course, but we recognize the reality that life is hard, sometimes brutally so. We claim that marriage is for those times and lives, too, perhaps especially. We see in marriage a chance for real love, an active love that pours out its life for the sake of the other, no matter the cost to itself. We see an opportunity to mimic our first Love, who laid His life down for His beloved so that she might be free. "Their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man" (CCC, 1604). We remember that it is through those times of deep suffering and pain and darkness that real love is proven. It is those times that water the ground for a new and profoundly more fulfilling and fruitful redemption.
Christian sacramental marriage is strikingly different from the way that the world views it. The world wants happy, we want holy. They want pleasure, we want joy. They want pretty, we want stunningly beautiful. Their marriage exists until someone has "changed," ours desperately hopes that we will be.
Christian marriage takes something natural and human - a happy partnership - and elevates it to something supernatural, to something filled with the life of God and able to bring us to heaven. Perhaps if it doesn't lead us to change, we're doing something wrong. Our marriages are meant for far, far more than what the world would give - they are called to be a share in the work of God Himself as He purifies us and calls us to complete and total lifelong love the way that He loves. Our marriages are meant to change us. We are called to be transformed little by little into the people He has created us to be in what the Catechism calls a daily mutual self-giving (1644). We begin this life before an altar, that table of sacrifice. We call to mind His death for His bride, He who showed us the epitome of self-gift and we remember that we are called to do likewise. We pledge to love as He loved, laying our lives on that same table for the sake of our beloved, giving and loving even when it is not always well returned. And the beautiful kicker is, the more we give of our own self, the more we find who we truly are meant to be as well. God help us if we don't change.
As our marriage grows and changes and deepens and enters into more blessedly joyful moments and more bitterly painful ones, I am called to remember this. I as a wife remember that I am to lay down my life for my husband and he for me. Forgetting this has proven itself over and over again to be the recipe for discontent, frustration, and cynicism. Remembering it is the prescription for joy. He called us to a lifetime of real love - a love that sacrifices, changes, purifies, redeems, and lays down its very self. He called us to an altar.
"The marriage of baptized persons thus becomes a real symbol of that new and eternal covenant sanctioned in the blood of Christ. The Spirit which the Lord pours forth gives a new heart, and renders man and woman capable of loving one another as Christ has loved us."
Familiaris Consortio, 13