An Explanation of the Sacrament of Marriage in the Orthodox Church
Sacraments in the Orthodox Church are God-given gifts that have emerged from Holy Tradition, and have been instituted by Christ or the Apostles. Our Tradition refers to sacraments as mysteries because some aspects are tangible, and other sacraments must be accepted by faith. The sacraments are best understood as God-given points of contact, in which God makes Himself available to us personally. As we make the choice to faithfully participate in these mysteries, God’s life-giving and life-changing grace touches us and makes us holy.
The Sacrament of Marriage as we know it today has evolved over several centuries. In the early church (up until the 9th century) marriages were blessed within the context of the Divine Liturgy. Since then, marriages have been celebrated as a distinct liturgical event and since the end of the 16th century the Orthodox Church has celebrated the Sacrament of Marriage very much as we witness it today.
The service has blossomed from the common Judeao-Christian teachings found in both the Old and New Testaments and properly infers that marriage existed even from the creation of the first man and woman, whom God blessed and told to be fruitful and multiply. In the Orthodox tradition, the wedding ceremony is actually two services in one. The first, which is the briefer of the two, is the Service of Betrothal, during which the rings are exchanged. The second is the Service of Crowning, during which lengthy prayers are offered for the couple, the crowns of marriage are placed on their heads, the common cup is shared and the celebrational procession takes place around the table.
The Church has always sought to place marriage in the context of one’s religious and spiritual journey. Beyond the legal, psychological and sociological aspects of marriage identified by society, the Church defines marriage as a holy union in which a man and woman struggle together toward sanctification and eternal life within the community of faithful. As the symbolism, prayers and rituals unfold during the Betrothal Service and the Sacrament of Marriage, they reinforce and celebrate the sacred meaning of marriage.
The Service of Betrothal
In this service, the priest begins by offering petitions of prayer on behalf of the man and woman who are being betrothed. The petitions begin with general requests that God "bless those present, be mindful of our world, the Church and our leaders." The petitions then focus on the bride and groom who are pledging themselves to one another, asking God to "bless the couple with divine peace, love, harmony and oneness of mind." Then, the petitions request that God bless the couple with children, fidelity, and mutual trust throughout their lifetime together. Two short prayers follow that communicate the significant theological truths about marriage, reminding the couple that God’s love has brought them together, and will sustain them in “peace and oneness of mind” throughout their lifetime.
The priest then prays for God’s blessings upon the wedding rings and proceeds to bless the bride and groom with the rings. He does this three times "in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit," first from the groom to the bride, and then from the bride to the groom. The back and forth movement can be interpreted to mean that the lives of the two are being entwined into one. Double wedding bands are used, since according to Old Testament references, the placing of rings was an official act indicating that an agreement had been sealed between two parties. In this case, the agreement is that a man and a woman agree to live together in the fellowship of marriage as husband and wife.
The priest then places the rings on the ring fingers of the right hands of the two. It is noteworthy that the rings are placed on the right hands of the couple, since according to all Biblical knowledge we have, it is the right hand of God that blesses; it is to the right hand of the Father that Christ ascended; it is to the right that those who will inherit eternal life will go. Thus, the Church preserves the superiority of the right also in marriage.
The rings are then exchanged three times on the fingers of the bride and the groom by the Sponsor as a further expression and witness that the lives of the two are being brought together. A final prayer is read, sealing the putting on of the rings, which then take on the added meaning that the agreement was sealed and that the marriage was enacted by God Himself. It is interesting to note that from an Orthodox perspective, this liturgical action serves to seal the couple’s commitment. No vows are requested or required. The couple’s silent participation in this rite presupposes their commitment and is more than a sufficient witness of their dedication to one another.
The Service of Crowning
The Service of Crowning begins with the invocation of the Holy Trinity. Petitions of a general nature are followed by a series of personal requests made on behalf of both partners. This personal aspect reminds us that God knows us and loves us personally. The remaining petitions help the couple understand that they are entering into a community of marriage that will be both separate and joined to a larger community of faithful individuals, couples and families. These prayers ask Christ to be present in this marriage, as He was present and blessed the marriage in Cana (John 2:1-11).
After the Doxology, and initial petitions offered on behalf of the bride, groom, and wedding company, three prayers are read which ascribe to God the institution of marriage and the preservation of His people through the ages. These prayers portray humanity as one continuous fabric, in which everyone, from the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, to the present generation of believers, are interwoven. The bride and groom enter into this fabric with the reading of the third prayer. During this prayer the celebrant joins the right hands of the two to symbolize the union coming from God. Since God is the true Celebrant of every sacrament, the priest always expresses himself in the third person. He is simply God’s instrument in the service.
The union is then completed with the Crowning. The celebrant takes the crowns from the altar table and blesses the bride and groom in the same manner as he blessed them with the rings. He then places the crowns upon their heads, chanting, “O Lord our God, crown them with glory and honor.” (Psalm 8)
The crowns have several meanings, two of which are most important. First, they conform to Biblical teachings where God bestows His blessing upon His children in the form of crowns. Second, they identify the bride and groom as the beginning of a new kingdom, and as such they reign supreme under the Divine Authority of God, Who reigns over all. The sponsor exchanges the crowns over the heads of the bride and groom as a witness to the sealing of the union.
The Common Cup
Following the Gospel reading and brief prayers, the common cup is presented to the bride and groom. The cup contains a small portion of wine. This is blessed by the celebrant and offered to the now wedded husband and wife as a witness that from that moment on they will share the cup of life, and whatever life has in store for them, they will share equally.
The service continues with the Epistle (Ephesians 5:20-33) and Gospel (John 2:1-11) readings. The Epistle addresses the responsibilities of each partner in the marriage and the Gospel reading recounts Christ’s first miracle, the changing water to wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. The Church sees a pertinent relationship between the presence of Christ at that particular wedding and God’s presence in the Garden of Eden. For just as the first public act of God the Father, in the Book of Genesis, was to unite man and woman and to bless them for the continuance of His people on earth, so also the beginning of Christ’s ministry on earth was at a wedding.
The celebrant then takes the arm of the groom and leads him and the bride around the table as an expression of joy. The three-fold walk around the anti-altar is seen as a religious dance. In this respect it is an expression of gratitude to God for His blessings, and joyfulness at the receiving of those blessings. As the bride and groom are led around the table three times, three significant hymns are sung. The first speaks of the indescribable joy that Isaiah the Prophet experienced when he envisioned the coming of the Messiah upon the earth. The second reminds us of the martyrs of the Faith, who received their crowns of glory from God through the sacrifice of their lives. The third is an exaltation to the Holy Trinity.
The Crowns and the Benediction
When the bride and groom have returned to their original places, the Priest faces the groom and says: “Be magnified, O Bridegroom, as Abraham, and blessed as Isaac, and increased as was Jacob. Go your way in peace, performing in righteousness the commandments of God.” Turning to the bride, he says, “And you, O Bride, be magnified as was Sarah, and rejoiced as was Rebecca, and increased as Rachel, being glad in your husband, keeping the paths of the Law, for so God is well pleased.” Through these prayers the couple is asked to emulate the faith of Old Testament figures who found happiness and marital fulfillment through faith in God. Then, removing their crowns, the Priest says, “Receive their crowns in Your Kingdom, preserving them spotless, blameless and without reproach unto the ages of ages.” After this, the prayer of benediction is recited and the newly married couple departs from the Church.
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