Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Q. I just heard on a radio broadcast that wedding cakes are no longer absolutely required at wedding receptions. Isn’t there a religious significance underlying the custom of wedding cakes?

A. Evidently, there is a religious dimension to wedding cakes, although even most Christians, I would guess, hardly know about it.

In ancient Rome – pagan Rome, in other words – the religious aspects of marriage were acknowledged by the confarreatio, which entailed an offering of bread, a religious gesture solemnizing the union of the spouses. (The Latin word far refers to a species of grain.) White’s Latin dictionary defines confarreatio as an act of unity by virtue of bread (far); and one Latin verb for "wed" is confarreo, referring to a wedding "by making an offering of bread." (The historian Tacitus is cited as having used the verb in this sense.)

A further explanation appears in another Latin-English lexicon which I consulted. Confarreatio, it reads, was "so called, because a sacrifice was offered on the occasion [of the marriage] in which a cake made of corn (far) was used. The presence of ten witnesses was required for this ceremony."

Thus, it would seem accurate to suggest that the wedding cake had its origins in a religious ceremony, one which symbolized not only the union of a man and a woman, but the couple’s communion with the gods, thus identifying it as a religious rite. For this reason alone, one can mount a strong argument for retaining the custom. (Obviously, the usual wedding cake today hardly resembles its ancient model.)

Another religious custom not generally known about by contemporaries is that of the groom’s carrying the bride over the threshold. In pre-Christian Rome, a newly taken bride was prevented from entering, on her own, the home of her husband and thereby the sanctuary of his household gods (the manes, lares and penates – words which occur regularly in crossword puzzles today). First, the bride must be formally initiated into her husband’s household gods – hence, the originally religious custom of carrying the bride over the threshold. Once the new bride touched the hearth fire of her spouse’s home, she was invited to share the wedding cake (confarreatio).

That marriage involves the gods seems to be instinctive in man – the idea that marriage is not simply a natural contract, but by its nature possesses a religious dimension. A look back into primitive societies points to this conclusion, and the pagans of Rome acknowledged it in dramatic fashion.

However, the truth that marriage is especially blessed by God, had to await Divine Revelation. This first came in the Old Testament Scriptures, especially in the Book of Genesis, the Song of Songs, Ruth, Hosea, and, of course, in the Book of Tobit (which is, by and large, one of everybody’s favorite books of the Bible).

The summit of Revelation about the sacred nature of marriage arrived with Christ and his Apostles, and is found in the New Testament Scriptures as read within the Church. Therein we are informed with certitude that marriage is not only a sacred contract especially blessed by God, but a sacrament – one of the seven most sacred institutions in the world – in that it constitutes not simply a graced contract between husband and wife, but, more profoundly, a covenant of husband and wife with the living Lord, Jesus. As Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen used to repeat, it takes three to get married: husband, wife, and the Lord Jesus, who commits Himself to the union, pledging the spouses all necessary graces for their chosen state of life.