The Orthodox Pages

email: pater@christopherklitou.com 

TALK ON THE

SACRAMENT OF MARRIAGE

29th JANUARY 2009

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As a special request, I have been asked to talk again on the Subject of Marriage. We saw the history, the spiritual meaning and purpose of the Orthodox marriage in a previous talk in October of 2007. I think that then we covered the subject fairly well and if today’s talk is based on the same spiritual meaning and purpose then in fact it would just be a recollection of what has already been said. This is not a bad thing as we should continually refresh our minds on spiritual matters. But what we didn’t look at in depth last time was the actual Marriage ceremony and all the symbolic meanings of the things that take place within it; so today we will concentrate more on this and at the same time look again at the spiritual meaning as one cannot just speak of prayers and symbols without referring to their spiritual interpretation.
A wedding can be simple of very elaborate; it can be arranged with just a few pounds (Euros) or it can be very expensive. These of course are personal preferences; for the Church there is no difference between a costly wedding or a simple one, the service is the same for both whether rich or poor. All flower and other decorative arrangements have nothing to do with the actual service other than making a beautiful surrounding for the couple’s special day. The most important thing needed for the day is the Marriage License as the Priest cannot perform the wedding without it. Also needed is the customary tray containing the rings, the crowns, a wine glass, not a silver goblet as the Priest cannot see the level of wine in it as he gives it to the couple and so there is always the danger of spilling it over the Brides lovely white wedding gown. Two other things are also usually brought with the tray; a small white cushion, which is used to lay the Book of the Holy Gospel and customary small silver bowl filled with sugar coated almonds. The sweets again have nothing to do with the actual wedding ceremony, but as the Church allows them to be on the table with the other things then I suppose we should offer an explanation to their meaning. It is a folk custom apparently preserved from the early days of the Church when the newlyweds were offered honey dipped almonds. Today this custom is given many symbolisms such as the egg shape representing fertility and the new life which begins with marriage. The white colour symbolizing purity, the almond often bitter and the sugar coating symbolizing both the bitter and sweet times of marriage; the hardness of the almond representing the endurance of marriage and the sweetness of the sugar symbolizing the sweetness of future life. That aside, let’s take up the wedding from outside the Church before the couple come inside. Unlike western weddings where the Bridegroom waits and receives the Bride at the chancel steps (what we call the Solea), the Orthodox tradition is for the Groom to wait for the Bride at the steps of the main entrance. This was probably because the first part of the service (the service of the rings) was performed in the Narthex and then they would walk down the aisle, lead by the Priest for the main service of the Crowing. Today we don’t have Narthexes so both services are performed in the main part of the Church. Some couples who have been influenced by western traditions prefer to follow the custom of the Groom receiving the Bride by the chancel steps. This is a personal preference and most Priests are only too happy to oblige. As the couple walk down the aisle or the Bride on her own with her father the choir sing the Hymn “Meet it is in very truth…” or “We hymn thee, we bless thee… we give thanks unto thee…” These are both hymns that we hear during the Divine Liturgy, so why are they sung before the start of the Wedding ceremony? In times past Weddings were performed during the morning Liturgy and the couple would begin their married life by partaking of Holy Communion together. Today the service has been isolated and performed on its own, but we can still see remnants of the Divine Liturgy in the Wedding Service, which we will see further down. In recent years there have been devout couples who had requested for their wedding to be performed according to the old tradition during the Divine Liturgy with great success.
On the Solea itself is a table or rather a makeshift altar representing the actual altar found within the sanctuary. On it is placed from the tray, the cushion and on this the crowns and the Gospel Book on top. On top of the Gospel Book are placed the rings ready for the first part of the Service. The Groom and Bride stand in front of the altar with space enough for the Priest to stand between them and the altar. The Groom stands to the right and the Bride to the left with the Best Man and Maid of Honour standing beside them.
In times past the couple were given candles to hold, but these are now placed on stands to one side or are held by pageboys and bridesmaids. Within the Orthodox tradition, the lighting of candles during prayer, symbolizes the light of Jesus Christ, which enlightens and sanctifies “every man, who comes into the world” (John 1:9). The candles also stand as a reminder of the flames of Pentecost. And yet another symbolism is taken from the parable of the Ten Virgins who waited for Christ the Bridegroom to come. The five wise virgins trimmed and lit their lanterns and entered with Christ into the marriage. (Matth. 25.1-11). After the service the candles should lead the procession out of the Church, symbolizing the light of Christ, which the newly weds received through the sacrament, and which will enlighten their path in their new life together.
With everything and everyone in place, the first of two services is ready to begin. The first service is called the Service of the Rings or the Service of Betrothal. Again in times past, when the wedding was performed during the Liturgy, the Service of the Rings was performed on the actual day of their betrothal, but since the isolation of the Marriage service from the Liturgy, the two services of the Rings and the Crowns have been joined to appear as one service.
The Priest begins “Blessed is our God always, now and for ever: world without end.” Next follows the usual peace petitions “In peace let us pray unto the Lord” with special petitions added for the Couple such as “For the servant of God (Name) and the handmaiden of God (Name), who now plight their troth to one another, and for their salvation,” “That there may be promised unto them children for the continuation of their race,” “That there may be sent down upon them love perfect and peaceful,” “That the course and manner of their lives may be preserved blameless and without spot,” “That the Lord our God may grant unto them an honourable marriage and a bed undefiled,” and other such petitions.
Next follows a short prayer whereby the Priest asks of God to bless the couple and guide them into every good work. This is followed by another pray where the priest blesses the rings and asks God to unite the two people keeping them in peace and oneness of mind. He then takes the rings and blesses them over the Gospel Book. After this he touches with the rings the man’s forehead and then the woman’s and then making the sign of the Cross over the man says: The Servant of God (Name) is betrothed to the handmaiden of God (Name) in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. This he does three times then does the same again, but this time beginning with the woman. The rings are then kissed by the couple and the Priest puts them on the third finger of their right hand.

There are two things a westerner might notice at this moment: firstly the putting on of the rings on the right hand. With western Marriages the rings are placed on the left hand, but in the Orthodox tradition the right hand is used because as said on other occasions the right is symbolic of what is good and correct. Throughout Holy Scripture there are countless references to right meaning good and holy and the left meaning wrong and evil. In the parable of the Last Judgement for example, Christ placed the good, gentle sheep on his right hand and the undomesticated and wild goats on his left. Also we are told that after the Ascension of our Lord into heaven, he sat on the right hand of the Father. This does not mean that he literally sat on the Father’s right hand, but that the right hand refers to man being saved. The right hand thus means salvation. The second thing that the westerner might notice is that the service of the rings doesn’t exist in western Churches. The rings in western marriages are in fact the highlight of the actual wedding and are not blessed by the priest but are given by the couple to each other as a symbol of their bond to one another accompanied with the words “with this ring I thee wed”. In the Orthodox tradition the couple do not wed each other; neither do they exchange vows and promises. The meaning of marriage between the east and west is from the very onset very different. For the west it is a contract between two people promising to live together through good and bad times until death separates them. In the east no contract is exchanged, but the union is mystical, where God joins two bodies into one flesh, but this is not the only difference we have with the west on the meaning of marriage. The Orthodox Church regards marriage as one of the paths to true holiness of life, that is, it is seen as a way of salvation.

The rings are not symbols of marital union, but symbols representing the promise of marriage just as they are in the west for an engagement. Rings have been used since ancient times as symbols of this promise and are frequently encountered in the Old Testament. Apart from being symbols of the bond between couples, they are also symbols of authority and honour. In ancient times, by giving her a ring, a man gave his wife authority to govern within his household. Authority and honour are also manifested in the story of the Prodigal Son, where the father welcomes back his son and orders a ring to be placed on his right hand as a sign of his acceptance of him as a free man. The ring signifies his reinstatement as a son and heir because rings were worn by free men, by lords and masters, by someone with authority and power and not by servants. Thus the last prayer of the service of the rings expresses this double symbolism of the rings – a pledge and a sign of authority and honour. “Look down upon Thy servant (Name) and Thy handmaiden (Name) and preserve their betrothal in faith and harmony, truth and love: for Thou, O Lord, hast declared that a pledge should be given and confirmed in all things. For by a ring Joseph was given authority in Egypt; by a ring Daniel was exalted in Babylon: by a ring the truth of Thamar was made manifest: by a ring our heavenly Father showed compassion upon His prodigal son, for He said, “Put a ring upon his right hand, kill the fatted calf, and let us eat and be merry”. Thine own right hand, O Lord, armed Moses in the Red Sea. Yea, by Thy truthful word were the heavens established and the earth set upon her sure foundation; and the right hands of Thy servants shall be blest by Thy mighty word, and by Thine arm on high. Wherefore, O Lord and Master, bless this putting on of rings with Thy heavenly blessing; and may Thine angel go before them all the days of their lives.
During the reading of this prayer, the Best Man and Maid of Honour exchange the rings on the couple’s fingers. They are representatives of the people of God and stand as witnesses to the promise of love and devotion between the new couple. Their exchanging of the rings is symbolic of their promise to stand by the couple and always support them in their new life. With the last prayer the Service of the Rings comes to an end and the Service of the Crowns is ready to begin.
As mentioned earlier, the Service of the Rings was in the past performed in the Narthex and then the couple were lead into the main part of the Church for the Crowning Service. As they walked down the aisle, the priest would recite Psalm 127 (128), “Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in His ways”. The Psalm is recited for two reasons: firstly because the Psalm mentions the marital life with the wife and children and grandchildren and secondly because this Psalm is one of the “Psalms of Ascent” sung by Jewish pilgrims on the way to the Jerusalem Temple. This point in the service most clearly reveals the “action” of the sacrament. The couple bring themselves, their lives, and all that fills their lives, to the altar as an offering to God. As the couple enters into the midst of the Church, their relationship enters into the new reality of God’s Kingdom. Today the Psalm is still chanted, but is it usually abbreviated to just three lines and after each, the choir sings “Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee.” The Priest then places the Crown on the Gospel Book and lifting it up will make the sign of the Cross saying: “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and for ever: world without end.”
This is in fact the opening blessing of the Divine Liturgy and the first indication that the Wedding Service was once adjoined to the Sacrament of Holy Communion. If fact the whole order of the Wedding Service follows the order of the Divine Liturgy. Next we have the Peace petitions which again are from the Liturgy, but with added petitions on behalf of the couple, for example: “For the servants of God (Name) and (Name), who are now being joined to one another in the community of marriage, and for their salvation,” “That this marriage may be blessed, as was that of Cana of Galilee,” “That they may rejoice in the beholding of sons and daughters,” and others.
Then follows two long prayers similar in content, but the first concentrates more on the blessing of children as the result of marriage. It mentions the Old Testament personages who were blessed to have children and prepared the way for the coming of Christ.
O God most pure… who didst also bless Thy servant Abraham and opened Sara’s womb, and made him the father of many nations: who bestowed Isaac upon Rebecca, and blessed her offspring: who joined Jacob and Rachel, and from him didst make manifest the twelve patriarchs: who didst yoke Joseph and Asenath together, and as the fruit of their procreation, didst bestow upon them Ephrem and Manasse: who accepted Zacharias and Elizabeth, and didst make manifest their offspring John the Baptist: who from the root of Jesse didst bring forth according to the flesh, the Ever-Virgin Mary, and from her wast Thou incarnate and born for the salvation of the human race.” The prayer continues with the Priest asking God to bless this marriage also and to grant unto the couple a peaceful life, length of days, integrity, love for one another in a bond of peace, offspring long-lived, grace by reason of their children, and an unfadeable crown of glory. The Priest also prays that God will grant them prosperity and wealth. He says: “give them of the dew from heaven above, and the fatness of the earth. Fill their houses with wheat, wine and oil and with every good thing that they may give to them that are in need.” Here we are told how we are to acknowledge our wealth. Everything belongs to God and if he blesses us so that our homes are filled with every good thing then we also on our part must give to those in need. Our good fortune must not be stored up just for ourselves, but distributed to those less fortunate.
The second prayer begins with the beginning of human existence and how God instituted marriage in the garden of Eden thus revealing marriage as a part of God's eternal purpose for humanity in the midst of creation: “Thou, O Lord and Master, who from the beginning didst create man and appointed him as the king of creation, and didst say; “It is not good for man to be alone upon the earth; let us make a help meet for him”, thus, taking one of his ribs Thou didst make woman, whom when Adam saw didst say; “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman because she was taken out of her Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and the two shall be one flesh”: and “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder”.
The prayer continues asking for God to send down his heavenly grace upon the couple and bless them as he blessed other in the Old Testament. “Bless (+) them, O Lord our God, as Thou didst bless Isaac and Rebecca. Bless (+) them, O Lord our God, as Thou didst bless Joseph and Asenath. Bless (+) them, O Lord our God, as Thou dist bless Moses and Zipporah. Bless them, O Lord our God, as Thou didst bless Joachim and Anna. Bless (+) them, O Lord our God, as Thou didst bless Zacharias and Elizabeth.” At each “bless them” the Priest Blesses the Bride and Groom. He next asks of God to Preserve them: “Preserve them, O Lord our God, as Thou didst preserve Noah in the Ark. Preserve them, O Lord our God, as Thou didst preserve Jonah in the whale’s belly. Preserve them, O Lord our God, as Thou didst preserve the Three Holy Children from the furnace by sending down upon them dew from heaven. And may that joy come upon them which the blessed Helen had when she found the Precious Cross.”
The prayer continues with asking God to remember them, in other words to remember them in his kingdom: “Remember them, O Lord our God, as Thou didst remember Enoch, Shem and Elias. Remember them, O Lord our God, as Thou didst remember the holy Forty Martyrs, sending down upon them crowns from heaven. Remember them, O Lord our God, and the parents who have reared them, for the prayers of parents make firm the foundations of houses. Here is reference to how important and beneficial parent’s prayers are for their children. Children brought up by devout parents in a Christian surrounding have Christ as their firm foundation to start building their own home. This prayer as the first again asks for material wealth for the couple: “Bestow upon them a rich store of sustenance, so that having a sufficiency of all things for themselves, they may abound in every good work that is pleasing unto Thee.” We see again the meaning is not for the couple to be rich, but to have a sufficiency of all thing for themselves and to do good works pleasing to God, in other words to be charitable and hospitable and to show love for those less fortunate than themselves. The prayer ends asking for the couple to grow old together with their family around them. “Let them behold their children’s children as newly planted olive trees around their table; that being pleasing in Thy sight, they may shine as stars in heaven.” The olive tree is also known as the evergreen tree and is symbolic of life and endurance. It can live for 2.000 years or more and its fruit produces the oil which is the sustenance in most Middle Eastern diets. The reference to the couple seeing their grandchildren like newly planted olive trees is a prayer for them to live unto a ripe old age as olive trees and from their branches to produce children rich in sustenance to strengthen others in the faith. St. Paul says that “if the root is holy then so are the branches” and also likens Christ as the good olive tree to which we as wild branches are grafted on to and thus partake of the fatness of the olive tree. (Romans 16-17)
With this prayer ended there follows another shorter prayer. During this prayer the priest joins together the right hands of the couple asking God to unite them in oneness of mind and to crown them together as one flesh. The hands are kept joined together throughout the service, pointing to the unity of the couple in the eyes of God. From this moment on, they are joined in harmony both in a spiritual as well as in a physical way. The prayer mentions “to crown them together as one flesh” because it is now time for the highlight of the Orthodox Marriage, the Crowning itself. The Priest blesses the Crowns over the Gospel Book and then with the Crowns touches the man’s forehead, and then the woman’s, making the sign of the Cross between them saying:
The servant of God (Name) is crowned to the handmaiden of God (Name), in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” This he does three times then does the same starting with the woman. The couple then kiss the Crowns and as the Priest places them upon their heads he chants “O Lord our God, crown them with glory and honour.”
The crowns have a double meaning: they are the crowns of a king and queen and at the same time they are martyrs crowns. God in creating Adam, appointed him as king of creation. Now he appoints the new couple as king and queen of their own kingdom, a new household and family with the charge and responsibility of governing their household and offspring with integrity, wisdom and justice according to God’s commandments. The singing of “O Lord our God, crown them with glory and honour” refers to the glory and honour at the coronation of a king and queen. The crowns are also reminders of the crowns of the martyrs of the Christian faith, emphasizing the dimension of sacrifice and martyrdom required in the Christian life and marriage in order for the spouses to reach perfection.

After the crowning follows the Apostle and Gospel readings as in the order of the Divine Liturgy. The Apostle is from the Epistle to the Ephesians (5:20-33) Here we have a summary of the theology of the Church on marriage. This is essentially the mutuality of love between the husband and wife and the recipe for a good and strong marriage. St. Paul explains that the husband must love and take as much care, concern, thoughtfulness, attention, regard and precautions for his wife as Christ takes for the Church. The husband's attentiveness might even have to extend to death itself. For just as Christ was put to death for His love of the Church, so too the Orthodox Christian husband must yield all things - even his life, if necessary - for his wife. Thus in all aspects of life Christ and his selfless love for the Church is the prototype which man must imitate. But the wife also should love and respect her husband, just like the Church responds to the love of Christ. A wife who reverences her husband shows not only that she loves him but also that she has complete trust in him to be there for her and the family no matter what difficulties they might encounter throughout their married life.
The Gospel reading is from St. John (2: 1-11). It is the account of the first miracle of the Lord at the wedding of Cana in Galilee. There Jesus converted the water into wine so that people could drink and celebrate marriage. With his presence the Lord blessed and sanctified the institution of marriage and through his miracle he emphasized that the human “wine” is not enough: the Lord’s blessing is also required. Thus Jesus blesses where he is invited: he blesses the wine of love and happiness so that it may never run out.
After the Gospel reading we have just as in the Divine Liturgy the “Common Prayers” “Let us all say with all our soul, and with all our mind, let us say” followed by a short prayer beseeching God to preserve the couple in peace and harmony and to declare their marriage honourable just as he did by his presence at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. Then follow the petitions that lead up to the Lord’s Prayer which as in the Divine Liturgy is recited just before Holy Communion.
With the Lord’s Prayer finished the Priest offered another short prayer whereby he blesses the common cup that is to be given to the newly weds. He then takes a small piece of bread and offers it three times to the man and then to the woman and then taking the glass goblet will commune them again three times. The bread and the common cup offered to the couple during the service are probably the most vivid remnants from the time when marriage was blessed within the Divine Liturgy and the couple participated in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. Now that the marriage service is held outside of the Liturgy, the bread and the common cup are no longer the Body and Blood of Christ, but remind us symbolically that marriage finds its true meaning within the Holy Eucharist. With mixed marriages allowed with Christians from other denominations it would be impossible to offer them the true Body and Blood of our Lord, so this common cup, although it cannot take the place of Holy Communion, is offered as a blessing for their union.

From ancient times bread and wine were considered as basic elements of life. The bread nurtures the body and the wine makes the heart rejoice. The newly weds share symbolically for the first time from the same loaf of bread and drink from the same cup of life in order to seal in this way their love. Their participation in the common cup and bread also symbolizes that from now on they will be sharing everything in life, both the joys as well as the sorrows, and they will be lifting each others burdens. From now on, none of them is alone, but they have the other next to them: the two have become one. By retaining the elements of bread and wine within the sacrament of marriage, the Church wants to remind the newlyweds that they should be joining together frequently to Christ’s Body in the Divine Liturgy through their participation in Holy Communion in order to sanctify themselves.
The service is nearing the end and it remains for the newly weds to embark on their life’s journey. The Priest takes the bridal pair by the hands and leads them around the table three times. The new husband and wife are taking their first steps together led by the Church, which is represented by the Priest. Each circle around the table is accompanied by a hymn. This is called the ceremonial walk or more commonly “Isaiah’s Dance”. This is taken from the first hymn “O Isaiah rejoice” which exclaims the good news of the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah through the birth of Christ. The circle symbolizes perfection and the circular walk eternity. Thus the Church leads the newly-weds toward eternal life and perfection. They are asked always to walk with Christ and have him at the centre of their lives. They are asked to make Christ the pillar of strength and centre of their family. Only in this way will they be able to stand firmly in the storm of life and attain the goal of theosis. Thus the Ceremonial walk is the couple’s commitment always to be led by Christ, and to have His teaching, proclaimed in the Gospels lying there on the table, at the centre of their lives. As they complete each circle they kiss the Book of the Gospels showing again their belief that Christ is in their midst and will be with them throughout their life together. For the Church, the Holy Gospel always represents Christ Himself; it is the written Image of the God-Man. Thus, in many of her services, the Book of the Holy Gospel is used to show the Very presence of Christ.

The second hymn sung during the circular walk around the Table gives us the second meaning of the crowns – that of martyrs crowns: “O Holy Martyrs who fought the good fight and thus received crowns of victory.” We all know that marriage is a martyrdom, but it is not this kind of martyrdom that it refers to. It refers to the self sacrifice that is involved in a Christian marriage. Martyrdom has another meaning. In Greek the word martyr means witness and the new husband and the new wife are thus called by the Church to be eternally witnesses of the union of Christ with the Church. Marriage, then, ceases to be a 'private affair.' It involves Christ and the whole body of the Church of which the married couple are members. The meaning of Christian life is precisely to go beyond the simple egotistic interests of man. This new dimension is what constitutes the whole difference between a Christian marriage and the one which is concluded outside of the Church. With the third hymn, we offer praise to the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the pride of the Apostles and the rejoicing of the Martyrs. It is for the sake of Jesus that we accept the martyrdom of the loving co-existence in marriage, confessing at the same time the God of one essence, who exists in Trinity in a perfect loving relationship.
On completion of the Ceremonial Walk, the Priest faces the groom and placing his hand upon his head says: “Be magnified, O Bridegroom, as was Abraham, and be blest, as was Isaac, and be multiplied, as was Jacob: Go thy way in peace, performing in righteousness the commandments of God.” Then placing his hand on the Bride’s head he says: “And thou, O Bride, be magnified as was Sarah, and be rejoiced as was Rebecca, and be multiplied as was Rachael, being glad in thine own husband, keeping the ways of the law; for thus is God well pleased.” The Priest then offers another short prayer for the removal of the Crowns. He blesses the couple and then says: “Receive their crowns in Thy kingdom, preserving them spotless, undefiled and without reproach, unto the ages of ages.” As he says “receive their crowns” he lifts the crowns from their heads. In practice we lift them only slightly, but leave them on because it is customary for the parents and close family to kiss the crowns as they congratulate them.
Finally, the priest reads a prayer of benediction and the Dismissal and the newly married couple may depart from the Church. The Service of Marriage is over but life for the newlyweds is only just beginning. Two people have mystically been joined by God as one flesh. With Christ in the midst of their marriage life together they have one primary goal, to help each other attain the highest state of human existence, the state of theosis (deification). Married life is the preparation for eternity. With the crowns on their heads, it is as if the Church is saying to them “You have worn these crowns briefly in your earthly life together; now strive to win the heavenly crowns that you will wear for ever in Heaven.”