The sacrament, as a visible sign, is constituted with man, as a body, by means of his visible masculinity and femininity. The body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus be a sign of it. So in man created in the image of God there was revealed, in a way, the very sacramentality of creation, the sacramentality of the world.
- Pope Saint John Paul II, Theology of the Body, February 20, 1980
What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do?” (John 6:30)
This is the question posed by the unbelieving Jewish authorities to Jesus. Although their intentions may not have been the most pure, the fact is that we all look for signs of one sort or another. We are truly a symbolic people and without symbols, it would be difficult to assign meaning to anything in life. Whether it is a simple stop sign or a complex literary piece, it seems like part of the human condition to look for the symbolic, to look for signs.
Saint John Paul II really drove this point home in his great catechesis known as Theology of the Body, where he proposes Christian marriage as the closest sign on earth to the mystery of Blessed Trinity. More on that later.
The truth is that we use and seek symbols all the time, which becomes even more apparent in our engagement and marriage rituals. In our society, of course the symbol of that which I had already expressed is the purchase of the engagement ring, which is supposed to be a tangible sign of a man’s commitment to a woman. It is supposed to cost a significant portion of his salary, not because women are materialistic, but because women need to know that they are cherished. While the ring is supposed to be costly, it of course, falls short of the depth that the couple shares but like any sign it does signify a greater reality.
This discussion of the ring is so important because the ring is the sign of that love between the couple. In the same way, sacraments are the sign of Christ the Bridegroom’s love for us, His Church. His gift of His life was so much more costly than a mere ring, yet the sacraments, although consecrated from ordinary elements, confer the blessings, promises and graces of the Bridegroom to the Bride, most especially the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
Our time of engagement really drove that point home for me. I like to remind people that I asked Judith to marry me three times. The first was on that day when we heard God’s call. Of course, there was no ring. Judith would tell me that when she would share the story of how we heard God tell us that we were to be married and how we expected to do so, the first question most women would ask was, “Where’s the ring?"
She told me how awkward it felt not to have the ring because it didn’t seem “real.”
In all seriousness, how would the prospective bride or anyone else know that I wasn’t just saying I wanted to marry her? After all, talk is cheap. None of us can read hearts so, as humans, we need outward signs. Again, “the body and it alone, makes visible that which is invisible.”
Of course, I had not picked out a ring right away, but after I had gotten her mother’s permission, I began my search and found, by God’s Providence, the perfect ring. Since I clearly owed the Mother of God homage for all the graces she had obtained for me, I had planned to “surprise” Judith with the ring and formally ask her to marry me on August 15, the Solemnity of the Holy Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, when she would be in town for a visit. A lot of folks don’t know that the Church has a specific ceremony and blessing for engagements, so I arranged for the pastor to preside over a private ceremony after Mass.
Then, in walked Saint John Paul II…well, not literally. Before knowing that I would be getting engaged, I had previously scheduled a pilgrimage to Toronto with the young adults of my diocese to celebrate what would end up being the pope’s last World Youth Day.
Judith was originally not supposed to be there, but at the last minute, was able to go. I had briefly entertained the notion of asking her to marry me there, but it was going to be a pilgrimage and I didn’t feel comfortable taking the uninsured ring with me to another country into pilgrimage conditions. My friend, Isaac, however, convinced me that this was the opportunity of a lifetime and that I just had to propose in the presence of the Holy Father.
So, I decided I would do it…but without the ring…again.
I made it as special as I could. I bought a small photo album (remember those?) and made color copies of pictures of me from the time I was born until the present, and I left the last half of the album empty with a note asking her to help me fill the remaining pages together.
I had also brought with me my high school ring on a gold chain. I had never had a high school “sweetheart” for obvious reasons, so I really wanted for her to be the one I never had. I also thought this ring could serve as “collateral” for the real ring, which would be coming the next month.
The one problem was that Judith and I were traveling with separate groups and would not be stationed in the same place during the overnight vigil at Downsview Park. We decided ahead of time that we would keep in contact via cellphone (no easy task in those pre-smartphone days). I had planned to pop the question (again) on Saturday night while the Holy Father presided over vespers, the universal night prayer of the Church and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
So, we met under one of the great paper lantern lights set up to illuminate the field. I gave her the album and let her read it. When she got to the end, I got down one knee, in the middle of this dusty path, with people walking all around us. It was not the most intimate of settings, but it was truly enthralling to be in the midst of this young and universal assembly assembled before the Pontiff of Rome. It was an experience we will never forget and I have no regrets about doing it.
But there was still no ring.
Despite the extraordinary nature of this second proposal, it still just did not feel complete without that ring. It wasn’t until three weeks later as we stood before Our Lady’s altar and I placed the ring on her finger that our engagement finally felt “real” and official. This, the great John Paul taught is the symbolic purpose of marriage…to provide the true sign of the Blessed Trinity present to a world so desperately in need of it.
The body indeed makes visible that which is invisible.