The Sacrament of Marriage
The sacrament of marriage, or crowning, is performed by the bishop, or priest, to a man and a woman who – being blessed with love and mutual respect – want to share their lives as husband and wife. Their commitment is expressed by the rings they exchange and by partaking from the ‘common cup’. In the scriptural readings within the service, wedding appears as endowed with mystical character, taking place ‘in the Lord’ (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:39).
Thus, the apostolic pericope (Ephesians 5:20-33) asserts the sanctity of marriage by assimilating it to the communion between Christ and his Church. In turn, the gospel reading (John 2:1-11), of the change of the water into wine, suggests marriage’s dimension of spiritual transformation.
According to the first prayer of betrothal (preceding the sacrament of crowning), God is the one who calls people together into union and blesses them with love. In our tradition, consequently, love is never treated lightly as merely natural’ or an ephemeral event of chemical reactions.The synaxis of love manifests a mystery of divine-human interaction, on the one hand through the mutual affection and agreement of the groom and the bride, and on the other hand through the blessing they receive from above. In addition, there is a related aspect indicating the significance of marriage: the whole ritual points to the Christian wisdom and sacrificial spirit to which the two are called together. This aspect is suggested by the remembrance in the ceremony of a series of saintly families – icons of wisdom, commitment and blessed life. Also, by the crowns bestowed upon the groom and the bride, crowns of martyrs, indicating the spiritual, or ascetical, dimension involved with living together in Christ (as further suggested by the mystical dance around the book of the Gospels and the holy cross).
In fact, living together requires a mutual predisposition to make room to one another and to grow in communion, goals impossible to attain without small sacrifices for the sake of one another. This dynamics of sacrifice determines St Maximus the Confessor to point out the validity of both ascetic ways – marriage and celibacy – with respect to realising the virtuous path (see his Difficulty 10:31a5). The idea, ultimately, of both the order of the service and the traditional literature (worth mentioning here St John Chrysostom’s homilies dedicated to marriage) is that without spiritual progress there is no accomplished married life.
The wedding was initially performed as a blessing within the frame of the divine liturgy, to indicate the ecclesial dimension of the event. Only after the eighth century did it became a separate service, comprising moments and prayers with strong mystagogic character.
There is a series of differences between the various ecclesial traditions with respect to marriage. In the Roman rite marriage as a sacrament is unique and therefore people are unable to divorce and remarry; another feature, suggesting the ‘natural’ dimension of it, is the fact that the recipients are also considered performers of the sacrament; probably related to this ‘natural’ aspect, Roman clergy cannot marry. To the Churches of the Reformation, marriage rather is a contractual bond than a sacrament and therefore can be dissolved for innumerable times. In our tradition, the sacrament of crowning is performed once and for all. However, our Church approaches life realistically, allowing people to divorce and remarry but no more than two times; usually, the second and the third weddings are not considered sacraments and the prayers they comprise have a penitential character. This indicates again, even if indirectly, the spiritual dimension of marriage in the Orthodox Church.
Very Rev. Dr Doru Costache
Senior Lecturer in Patristics at St. Andrew’s Theological College