The Orthodox Mystery of Holy Matrimony
From the very beginning of Christianity, the Orthodox Church stressed the value and importance of the holy institution of marriage by according it an exceptional place in its ritual and by classifying it as one of the God-established sacraments. Through marriage a man and woman are joined in an indissoluble bond as husband and wife to maintain a Christian home, to rear a Christian family, to make their home a “Little Church,” to have the love and peace and grace of God and the Holy Trinity flow into their home and between them.
The Orthodox Sacrament of Marriage consists of inspiring and symbolic ritual accompanied by beautiful and meaningful hymns and prayers. All these combine to express the sanctity and purity of marriage. Rooted within the hymnology and prayers are constant reminders of the favorable position the bond of marriage occupies in the eyes of God. Within these hymns and prayers we become aware that it is God who joins the couple together as man and wife; bestowing upon them His spiritual and material blessings for fair children, concord of soul and body, harmony of heart and mind. The Orthodox Sacrament of Marriage is divided into parts: the Betrothal Service and the Sacrament of Marriage.
The Betrothal Service
In Orthodox countries pews are not found within the Church. Therefore, the Sacrament of Marriage takes place in the center of the Church nave in front of a small altar table. However, since pews occupy this space in our Orthodox Churches in the Americas, the small altar is placed on the solea in front of the iconostasis (icon screen). The bride and groom hold lighted candles which symbolize the perpetual light and warmth of Christ and His teachings of salvation. The candles also symbolize the light which shone from the lamps of the five wise maidens. Having not been caught unprepared, they were found ready and waiting to receive the Bridegroom, Christ, when He came in the darkness of the night. The couple hold candles symbolizing their preparedness and willingness to receive Christ, who will bless them through this sacrament.
After the Blessing of God is invoked, a series of petitions are chanted:
For the salvation of the betrothed . . .
That perfect and peaceful love might descend upon them . . .
That God will grant them an honorable and undefiled marriage . . .
Blessing and Exchange of Rings
Blessing and Exchange of Rings
The rings are the symbol of betrothal from the most ancient of times. The exchange signifies that in life the weakness of the one partner will be compensated for by the strength of the other partner; the imperfections of one will be exchanged for the perfections of the other. Standing alone, the newly-betrothed couple is incomplete; together they are made perfect. The exchange of rings gives expression to the fact that the spouses in marriage will be continually complementing one another. The priest blesses the rings over the Holy Gospel Book, and then blesses the couple betrothing the Groom to the Bride and the Bride to the Groom, touching the rings to their foreheads and saying:
The Servant of God is betrothed to the Servant of God in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The rings are then placed on the couple’s right hands and the Paranymphos exchanges the rings three times. In the Orthodox Church the right hand is the symbolic hand of God. Our Lord Himself blessed with the right hand, and historically the holy people of God have bestowed His blessings upon one another using their right hand. During this very sacrament the priest will bless the couple by marking the sign of the cross upon them with his upraised right arm. While the exchange of rings takes place, the priest recites the Betrothal Prayer which contains Old and New Testament references to the Betrothal, the ring as a pledge, and the symbolism of the right hand.
The Betrothal Prayer
The Greek word for betrothal is “arravona,” which is taken from the Hebrew word meaning “to pledge.” The Betrothal Prayer says:
O Lord our God, who accompanied the servant of the Patriarch to Mesopotamia, where he was sent to find a bride for his master Isaac, and through the watering at the well revealed to him that he should betroth Rebecca, bless the betrothal of your servants, and confirm the promise they have given to each other. Fortify them with Your divine unity; for You from the beginning created male and female, and by Your will is woman joined to man for help and for the continuance of the human race. Yes, Lord, our God, who sent your truth upon Your inheritance and Your promise upon Your servants our Fathers, Your chosen ones from generation to generation, look down upon Your servants and strengthen their betrothal in faith and concord and truth and love; for it was You, Lord, who taught us to give our pledge through a ring and to remain faithful in everything. Through a ring the authority was given to Joseph in Egypt; through a ring Daniel was glorified in the land of Babylon; through a ring the true identity of Thamar was discovered; through a ring our heavenly Father showed mercy on the prodigal son; for he said, ‘Put a ring on his finger, and bring the fatted calf and kill it, so that we can eat and rejoice.’ Your right hand, O Lord, enabled Moses to cross the Red Sea; by Your true word the heavens were made firm and the earth was established; and the right hand of your servants shall be blessed by Your mighty Word and Your upraised arm. Do You now, O Master, bless this putting of rings with a heavenly blessing; and may an angel of the Lord go before them all the days of their lives. For You are He who blesses and sanctifies all things, and to You we ascribe glory, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.
The significance and symbolism of the ring through a promise is illustrated by bringing to mind that: By a ring, authority was given to Joseph in Egypt, Daniel was honored in the land of Babylon, the sincerity of Thamar was made manifest, and our Heavenly Father showed mercy to the Prodigal Son. The Betrothal Prayer concludes:
Lord, bless this putting on of rings with a heavenly blessing and may an angel go before them all the days of their life.
The Sacrament of Marriage
The Sacrament of Marriage begins with the chanting of several verses of the Psalms which speak of health, happiness, children and prosperity. The priest then proclaims the blessedness of the eternal Kingdom of God while blessing the couple with the Holy Gospel. Petitions are now offered which ask that God might bless the couple with mature judgment, fair offspring and a righteous life. These petitions are followed by the reading of three prayers which recall God’s Creation; His plan for mankind’s salvation; and His charge to Adam and Eve to increase, multiply and enjoy the fruits of the earth according to His Covenant Promise.
The Crowning Prayers
The first and second prayers enumerate the couples of the Old and New Testament whom God united and blessed with a heavenly blessing. The priest asks God to bless the union of this couple as He did our ancient forebearers. Bless them, Lord God, as You blessed Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, Moses and Zipporah, Joachim and Anna, Zacharias and Elizabeth. The priest then invokes a personal blessing for the Parents who nourished them, for the prayers of parents make firm the foundations of homes. The bridal party and all those in attendance are also blessed. Finally, there is a special blessing for the couple, as their names are added to the list of Old and New Testament couples, thus perpetuating the continuity of God’s people: Remember, Lord our God, Your Servants and bless them. During the third prayer, the priest joins the right hands of the couple, saying:
Do You, the same Lord, extend Your Hand from Your Holy Dwelling-place and conjoin these Your servants for by You is man united with woman.
The Greek word for conjoin is “harmoson,” from which we extrapolate “harmonize.” This perhaps is a better word to describe what occurs. The husband and wife do not cease to be individuals nor function as separate persons. Through the grace of the Holy Spirit, who they are, their likes and dislikes, skills, talents and characteristic traits are brought into a harmonized oneness. Although the two never lose their individuality, the strengths of the one compensate for the weaknesses of the other. In this manner they grow both as individuals and as a couple. It is in this manner that the two become one flesh.
Blessing and Exchanging of Crowns
The crowns appear to be artificial orange or lemon blossoms in white, joined by a white ribbon. They symbolize the crowns of monarchs whey they are vested with the authority to rule and charged with the welfare of their realm. Theologically, each marriage is a kingdom in particular, leading the couple to God’s Heavenly Kingdom. The priest blesses the crowns over the Holy Gospel Book, and then blesses the couple crowning the Groom to the Bride, touching the crowns to their foreheads and saying:
The Servant of God is crowned to the Servant of God in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The priest then reverses the order by crowning the Bride to the Groom in the same manner. Then he places the crowns on their heads as he chants,O Lord our God, in honor and glory crown your servants [Psalm 8:5]. The Orthodox Sponsor then exchanges the crowns in the same manner as the rings and for the same symbolic reason: They are now bonded together as king and queen of their own little kingdom which they will rule with wisdom, justice and integrity. The crowns are kept in the home to remind the couple that they are charged to live expressing Christian love, forbearance, compassion, righteousness and respect.
The Scripture Readings
The first reading is taken from the Epistle to the Ephesians, Chapter 5:20-33. The text is pertinent because the bride and groom are reminded they should love each other as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for it. Their relationship should be without spot, blemish or wrinkle but rather a holy one. The Gospel passage, taken from St. John, chapter 2:1-12, tells us of Jesus’ attendance at the Wedding of Cana in Galilee where He performed His first miracle. When a man and woman first meet and their love for each other grows by leaps and bounds, the prospect of going down life’s path together is simply indescribable. How could they possibly surpass the excitement and the fullness of their love at that point? Then they were married and began to taste the blissful joys of marriage. They learned to love each other all the more, as they set the sails of their journey down life’s path. Who would fault them at this point in their life together when they cannot fathom their love becoming any richer, growing any deeper and becoming any stronger?
Nevertheless, a man and a woman, a husband and a wife — lovers, companions, parents, persons with careers and personalities with responsibilities — continue to reach unimagined heights in their marriage relationship. Every day of marriage, each new experience with each other, with the children, at home, at work every place we live our lives, there is another joy, more happiness, new adventures and more exciting things to make us feel alive and give us the feeling that love and marriage are great. Even enduring situations and tolerating circumstances and conditions yield inconceivable dividends in a marriage because we are still in love. In spite of the years? Not only in spite of the years, but as a consequence and result of them. As we pass through the portals of early marriage into the middle years of marriage, surely we will ask ourselves, “Can there be anything greater than this? Anything better that the love we now experience?” Yes there is! And it is in the later years of marriage when we taste the “good wine.” The “good wine” is that rare blend of a husband and wife who have grown together through the years. They have learned to laugh and cry together, to anguish and rejoice together. They are a man and woman who have truly touched each other’s lives, and through their marriage have touched the lives of others.
Because a husband and wife have both learned and demonstrated to be satisfied with what they have, and have known what it is like to be in need and have more than enough; to be content with a little as well as with a lot; and because in their Orthodox Christian Marriage they have utilized the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, liturgical worship, reading of the scriptures, and partaking of the Holy Eucharist; they are able to say in the later years of their marriage, my spouse, my partner in life: the best is yet to come because we have ‘kept the good Wine until now!’
The Common Cup
The Scripture readings are followed by a brief prayer and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Then the bride and groom drink from a cup of blessed wine. The Common Cup of wine has come to symbolize the cup of life from which the husband and wife will drink: bitterness with sweetness, disappointment with happiness, and, tribulation with joy. In the early Church the Sacrament of Marriage was part of the Divine Liturgy and the newly-weds received their first communion together; beginning their marriage with Christ as the cornerstone. Later, the Sacrament of Marriage came to be performed separately and Holy Communion was replaced with the Common Cup. Today it is quite common for Orthodox spouses to come and receive Holy Communion together the Sunday prior to their wedding.
In Orthodox Countries where there are no pews in the churches, the theology of the procession is much clearer. The bridal party and the immediate families form the first circles around the table and couple. Then as many guests as are present form continuous outer circles. Here in the Americas we have lost the beauty of this portion of the sacrament by the introduction of pews, so only the Priest, Bride, Groom, Paranymphos and Maid of Honor join in the procession. The priest who represents the Bishop, who in turn, represents Christ, leads the couple in their procession around the small altar table. The procession around the lesser altar table symbolizes the un-ending circle which leads to God’s Heavenly Kingdom. The priest holds the Holy Gospel Book in his right hand while holding the joined right hands of the couple in his left hand. The couple is joined by the Orthodox Sponsor who walks behind them holding the ribbon of their crowns symbolizing a pledge to be at their side throughout the joys and disappointments of life. As each circuit is made, a hymn is sung.
O Isaiah dance for joy, for the Virgin has indeed conceived, and bore a Son called Emmanuel, both perfect God and man; Daybreak is His name, whom as we glorify, the Virgin we do truly bless.
The first hymn alludes to the Prophet Isaiah who prophesied that the Virgin Mary would give birth to the Christ Child. The prayerful wish is that the newly married couple will experience just such a joy as they take their first steps in life together, and that this joy may continue throughout their lives.
O Holy Martyrs, who have fought well and have been crowned; intercede with the Lord, that mercy be granted to our souls.
The second hymn alludes to the Martyrs who received crowns in heaven. The prayerful wish is that the couple will also receive their crowns in Heaven as a result of their faith, hope, love and trust in each other and in Christ. Glory to You, O Christ our God, the Apostle’s boast and pride the delight of the martyrs, whose message is: The consubstantial Trinity. The third and final hymn alludes to the relationship the Holy Apostles had with Jesus Christ. The prayerful wish is that Jesus Christ will always be an integral partner, an invited and desired guest in their marriage, not only on their wedding day, but throughout their lives.
Removal of the Crowns
When the bride and groom have returned to their original places, the priest gives the following charges:
Bridegroom: Be magnified like Abraham, blessed like Isaac and fruitful like Jacob, as you go in peace and work in righteousness the commandments of God!
Bride: Be magnified like Sarah, rejoice like Rebecca and be fruitful like Rachel, as you rejoice with your own husband and observe the limits of the law, for so god is well pleased!
Removing the crowns from their heads, the priest says:
Lord our God, receive their crowns in Your Kingdom, spotless, guileless and blameless, watching over them for ever more.
In a very real sense, the Lord is asked to keep the crowns and return them when the couple enters His heavenly Kingdom, having lived a blameless life with fidelity and commitment.
The Sacrament of Marriage begins with the invocation of the Holy Trinity and concludes the same way:
May the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the All-holy Con substantial and Life-giving Trinity, One Godhead and Kingdom, bless you and grant you long-length of life, good children, progress in life and faith, fill you with all the good things of the earth, and make you worthy to obtain the promised blessings through the intercessions of the Holy Theotokos and all the Saints.
The Dismissal Prayer is recited and then the priest takes the Holy Gospel Book and separates the joined right hands of the bride and groom. This symbolizes that once a man and woman have been joined in the Sacrament of Holy Marriage only God should separate them.