The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony
From the beginning, God in His providence planned
the union of man and woman.
There is no relationship between human beings
as close as that of husband and wife
if they are united as they ought to be.
- St. John Chrysostom (349-407 AD)
In the eyes of the Church, marriage is the sacramental union between a man and a woman that is used in the Bible as the image of God’s faithful love for ancient Israel (Isaiah 54; Jeremiah 3; Ezekiel 16) and Christ’s sacrificial relationship to the Church (Ephesians 5).
Holy Matrimony is a Sacrament of the Orthodox Christian Church in which a man and a woman are united together "in faith, in oneness of mind, through and in love." The Sacrament of Marriage is the Church’s recognition of a union that God has already begun to work with two persons lives. In marriage, the union enters a new reality, that of God’s Kingdom. It becomes open to the possibility of what God had intended marriage to be from the beginning: an eternal life of joy in union with Him.
For this reason in the Orthodox service there are no vows exchanged. Marriage in Christ is beyond a legal contract. Nor is there the phrase, "till death do us part." If marriage is brought into the Kingdom of God, death as separation has no power over it. Christ destroyed death by His Cross and proclaimed Life by His Resurrection, therefore the union of man and woman is eternal; it does not end with death.
The celebration of the sacrament of marriage is made up of the Service of Betrothal and the Service of Crowning. The text of these two services summarizes in words, images and symbols the Orthodox Christian teaching regarding marriage.
The first part the wedding service is the Betrothal. It is in this service that the Church first prays for the couple. Here the Church recognizes and blesses a union which has begun "in the world” yet awaits fulfillment in the world to come. It is here where the exchange of rings takes place. After being blessed by the priest, the rings are placed on the right hands of bride and groom. The exchange of rings gives expression to the fact that they will constantly be complementing each other. Each will be enriched by the union. The exchange of rings represents a pledge to share and exchange both their physical and spiritual goods, a pledge of eternal love and devotion.
With promises reconfirmed and after the words of the final prayer, "let Thine Angel go before them all the days of their life," the Betrothal ends. The priest now leads the bride and groom into the Nave of the church into the bonds of Holy Marriage, where the Crowning takes place. This point in the service most clearly reveals the "action" of the sacrament.
The bride and groom bring themselves, each other, their lives and all that fills their lives to the altar as an offering to God. As they enter into the midst of the Church their relationship enters into the new reality of God’s Kingdom.
The Candles & Joining of the Right Hands
The bride and groom are given candles which are held throughout the service. The candles represent their willingness to follow the light of Truth, Jesus Christ, and that they will have their way through life lighted by the teachings of the Church.
The right hands of the bride and groom are joined together with a white cloth as the priest reads a prayer which asks God to “join these Thy servants, unite them in one mind and one flesh."
After prayers are offered on their behalf, the bride and groom are crowned.. These crowns have two meanings. First, they reveal that in their union with Christ, the couple participate in His Kingship. Second, as in the ancient Church, crowns are a symbol of martyrdom. The word martyr means "witness". Martyrdom is usually associated with death. So the reality of God’s Kingdom in the life of husband and wife will necessarily take the form of dying to one's self, to one's own will and the giving of one's life totally to the other, and through the other to Christ.
When the crowning takes place the priest taking the crowns and holding them above the couple, says: "O Lord our God, crown them with glory and honor!" This is the highlight of the wedding service. The verse from the Old Testament (Psalm 21) is then sung by the choir: "Thou hast set upon their heads crowns of precious stones, they asked life of thee, and Thou gavest it to them."
The epistle is taken from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians 5:20-33. It represents the cornerstone of the Christian vision of marriage: the love of man and woman parallels the love of Christ and the Church. As Christ gave Himself totally to and for His Church, so the husband is to give himself totally to and for his wife. As the Church, in turn, is subjected to Christ, so too the wife subjects herself to her husband. Thus the two become one in a life of mutual love and subjection to each other in Christ.
The Gospel, John 2: 1-11, is the familiar account of the Wedding Feast at Cana where Christ turned the water into wine. Water is always what one drinks just to survive. Wine, on the other hand, is more than just a drink that quenches thirst and continues life. Wine is associated with joy, with celebration, with life as being more than mere survival. By His presence at this wedding, Christ changes the union of man and woman into something new. Marriage becomes more than a mere human institution existing for whatever purpose society assigns to it. It becomes, like the Church herself, a sign that God's Kingdom has already begun in our midst.
The Ceremonial Walk
After more prayers a common cup of wine is blessed and shared by the couple as a sign of their common life together. With right hands joined, the priest, representing the Church, leads the bride and groom in procession, guiding them as they take walk together as husband and wife. They circle the table (the circle symbolizing the eternity of marriage) with burning candles, symbolic of the Light of Christ. At the Center of their journey through life together, they must treasure the gospel and the Cross and should light their way with the Light of Christ. Their hands are joined together in their new unity of love. If they walk this way, then indeed they can hope to attain the perfect unity of the Holy Trinity, symbolized by circling the table three times.
During this ceremonial walk, a hymn is sung to the Holy martyrs reminding the newly married couple of the sacrificial love they are to have for each other in marriage - a love that seeks not its own, but a willingness to sacrifice it all for the one loved.
The Removal of the Crowns
At the end of the service the crowns are removed and the prays that God will receive these crowns in His Kingdom. The reality of this Kingdom into which the bride and groom have entered is not completely fulfilled, but only begun.