During my short trip to St. Meinrad Archabbey, my two friends and I went on a little road trip where, somehow, the subject of unity candles came up. Now, Chris (who really needs a blog) was raised in a corner of the earth where people apparently have never heard of unity candles. So for those of you who are similarly innocent, allow me to corrupt you.
The basic gist is that there's a big unlit candle and two smaller lit candles in the sanctuary. The mothers of the bride and groom (according to local practice) take wicks, and each one catches a flame from the smaller candles, which they then use to light the big one together.
It's meant to be a symbol of (duh) unity. But as far as images of unity go, candle-flame unity is contrary to the Christian understanding of unity. Think about it: nothing in Christianity is simply One. To be sure, God is more One than the one-ness of any created unity; he is One beyond all imagining. But God, as much as he is One, he is essentially relationship. So in God there is (all symbolic language here) community of Lover, Beloved, and their fecund and living Love.
Consider also the Genesis text, "the two of them become one body" (Gen 2:24). More 'traditional' translations render this "one flesh"--which, to our American ears, might conjure up an image of a big lump of undifferentiated flesh (as the Belgians working the fried treat stands in Louvain would politely offer, "would you like a flesh ball?" Mmmm... flesh ball). Anyway, marriage is not a flesh ball.
But, no, marriage brings two together as one body; but a real body is not just an amorphous thing; it is essentially community in unity, with part coming together not merely for the functional life of the organism, but for its beauty and creativity as well, and in order to bring it in relation to others. The unity of Matrimony images the unity we hope someday to have with God; to finally experience fully the fact of his being closer to us than we are to ourselves--yet not to be absorbed into his Being. Because our absorption would add nothing to him, it would be mathematically no different than our annihilation.
And that is the key to the insidiousness of the unity candle. Two flames do not join in a community of unity; they are mutually absorbed, and what is left is no different essentially than what came before. Taken to its limit, there is something tremendously abusive in the imagry of the Unity Candle. It makes marriage look like the Borg. Resistance is futile.
To be sure, I am not advocating an opposite mistake--prenuptial agreements, separate bank accounts, etc., which manifest a deeply "contraceptive" parasite attacking the union; a kind of self-sabotage meant to hedge one's bets against an uncertain future. This is not unity in community--it is not even unity--it is mere utility. Any such conscious reservation suffocates the marital love; it makes the individual spouse into a closed system, only permitting commerce with the beloved on his terms. Those terms eventually become more important than the commerce itself, at which point the love shrivels and dies.
So if marriage isn't undifferentiated union, nor is it contraceptive union, what is it? Henri de Lubac makes an important point in his book, Catholicism--the unity of lovers is such that, the less they hold back, and the closer they come, the more they naturally come to know themselves as separate individuals. The union and the distinction are part of the same process; but it is the complete and unreserved mutual self-giving which is primary. The distinction, the mutual building up of both individuals, is a natural biproduct, which lives best when it does not become the focus and is not forced via manufacture or technique.