On the third finger of my left hand I wear a wedding ring, which I understand to be a sign of my love for and fidelity to my wife, Catherine. Yet the words of the liturgy seem to say otherwise. After all, when I received this ring from my wife at our wedding, she said, “Take this ring as a sign of my love and fidelity.” So I seem to be wrong in my understanding: the ring that I wear stands for her fidelity, not mine. Or does it? How should we resolve this problem?
One way out is just to change the words. I’ve seen it suggested on a popular wedding website, lacking official authorization, that the couple should use the words, “I, _________, take this ring as a sign of my love and fidelity”!
So there is unclarity, which people by their commonsense try to correct. You might suspect the unclarity entered with the Novus Ordo. You’d be right. The Extraordinary Form, much clearer, has a blessing, of the bride’s ring only, by the priest:
Bless, + O Lord, this ring, which we bless + in Thy name, that she who shall wear it, keeping true faith unto her spouse, may abide in Thy peace and in obedience to Thy will, and ever live in mutual love.
Notice the words do not mention the ring’s being a “sign” of anything. There is only a purpose clause, “that she who shall wear it.” The reason is that the ring is regarded as a “sacramental,” that is, as something holy which has the conferred power to do what it signifies (like holy water). The ring, then, does not merely signify her fidelity: it is meant to assist her in being faithful. (We sense this: the man who takes off his wedding ring before entering a bar thereby forsakes heavenly help in remaining faithful.)
The blessing also mentions obedience to the will of God. A sensible person understands this. To be married is to accept a rule; it is to be constrained. One freely takes on a yoke – an “easy” and a “light” yoke, to be sure, which, if worn in the right spirit, brings with it much “peace.” But it would be foolish to deny that a wedding ring is a pledge to a discipline of life as much as Roman collar.
There is a flaw, or shortcoming, in the ritual: the blessing refers to “mutual love,” and yet only the husband gives a ring to the bride, not the reverse. (It was the common custom throughout Europe until the late 1800s for only the wife to wear a wedding ring.) The new rite, as we shall see, tries to remedy this.
In the Extraordinary Form, the priest gives the blessed ring to the groom, who gives it to the bride, using one of two formulas:
With this ring I thee wed, and I plight unto thee my troth.
With this ring I thee wed; this gold and silver I thee give;
with my body I thee worship; and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.
Linguists call this sort of language a “performative,” since the words both signify the action and serve to accomplish the action. What the words signify and effect is the perfection of the marriage covenant through the giving of a precious object, the ring.
The precious object need not even be a ring! A ring happens to be the precious object that in ancient cultures could easily and safely be kept with you always. But the “gold and silver” refers to coins which may additionally be given – the famous “arras” still given in the ceremony in Hispanic cultures and for that reason incorporated as an option in U.S. Catholic weddings in 2016.
Back in the day when marriage was more widely understood not as a personal relationship simply but as an institution that was a path to financial stability, the man’s gift of a precious object to the woman was “earnest money” of his commitment to establishing this institution with her in particular. Moreover, one family or both would provide initial capital for the newly founded institution, the “dower.” Since it remains true that marriage is that sort of institution, one might argue that the tradition of “arras,” as a vestige and testimony to this understanding, would profitably be revived outside of Hispanic cultures too.
We can now see, in contrast, the meaning of the words in the new rite. When the groom says, “Take this ring as a sign of my love and fidelity,” he is referring not to the wearing of the ring but to the gift of the ring as a precious object. He confers the ring out of love and with pledged fidelity; afterwards, she wears the ring out of love and as a pledge of fidelity. (In 2016, the language was changed to: “Receive this ring. . .” – not “Take this ring …” – which arguably helps to remedy the problem by emphasizing better the one-time act of conferral.)
So is the new language confused, confusing – or (perhaps inadvertently) deeply true? Ask yourself this: is a wedding ring in modern contexts the whole object or half an object? Compare: a shoe is half an object, not a whole object, since shoes come in pairs. Clearly, today we do conceive of wedding rings as similarly coming in pairs, so that, strictly, one person does not wear “a ring,” but two wear a single object – “the rings” – with two locations in space. Thus, each ring, especially as it is incomplete on its own, signifies the love and fidelity of both.
Thus, the words of the new rite despite their initial unclarity perhaps, turn out to be deeply true. A thing often signifies its provenance. That ring on my left hand never ceases to “say” that it was received as a sign of love and fidelity. And as worn, it signifies love and fidelity that are precisely reciprocated and mutual.