At what point is the marriage done? After the crowning? After circling the table? Historically it was after receiving Holy Communion—and it’s missing today.
“O Lord our God, crown them with glory and honor.”
The real meaning of marriage crowns
We now turn to examine in brief the rite of crowning, considered by many to be the climax of the wedding ceremony. Crowns1 were already in use in the Graeco-Roman world, not only in civil marriages, but on many other occasions as well. For this reason Tertullian finds it unbecoming for Christians to be crowned at weddings, and rails against this heathen custom. He writes:
We have recounted, as I think, all the various causes of the wearing of the crown, and there is not one which has any place with us: all are foreign to us, unholy, unlawful, having been abjured already once for all in the solemn declaration of the sacrament. For they were of the pomp of the devil and his angels, offices of the world, honors, festivals, popularity huntings (sic), false vows, exhibitions of human servility, empty praises, base glories, and in them all idolatry, even in respect of the origin of the crowns alone, with which they are all wreathed.2
According to him, it is not becoming for Christians to participate with heathens in all these things or to copy their ways, and therefore he forbids the use of crowns as idolatrous. As for their specific use in weddings he writes:
[Heathen] marriage, too, decks the bridegroom3 with its crown; and therefore we will not have heathen brides, lest they seduce us even to the idolatry with which among them marriage is initiated. You have the law from the patriarchs indeed; you have the apostle enjoining people to marry in the Lord.4
Even so, the Church eventually adapted the heathen custom of crowning, giving it, however, an altogether different meaning. St. John Chrysostom explains:
Garlands are wont to be worn on the heads of bridegrooms, as a symbol of victory, betokening that they approach the marriage bed unconquered by pleasure. But if captivated by pleasure he has given himself up to harlots, why does he wear the garland, since he has been subdued?5
Therefore the newlyweds are crowned for having finished the race successfully (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24-27 and 2 Tim. 4:6-8), overcoming the temptations of the flesh and for having arrived at their wedding day chaste, pure, virgin. St. Symeon Archbishop of Thessalonica (+1429) is explicit and direct:
“For this reason are crowned those who are virgin and pure, for being pure when they are united, and for having kept their virginity until their marriage.”6
This is why we hear the hymn to the holy Martyrs:
and were crowned as victors,
do intercede with Christ our God
to have compassion and to save our souls.7
The same, of course, is expected of all Christians: to fight “the good fight” in order to maintain their purity. This is what the crowning signifies. Also, the first hymn to the most holy Virgin, besides presenting to the couple, and to all of us, an ideal person to imitate, is chanted because of its repeated reference to the Virgin:
for the Virgin has indeed conceived,
and had a Son, Emmanuel, God with us,
who truly is God and man.
His name is called Daybreak from on high
and by extolling Him
we call blessed the young Virgin.
Strong proof of this interpretation also comes from another source. There is a short service contained in the Greek Euchologion.8 This service takes place on the eighth day after the wedding, that is, on the Sunday following the Wedding Day, since weddings were performed on the Lord’s Day (Κυριακή). According to an old custom, the couple wears the stephana (wreaths) for seven days. On the eighth day they return to church, where, after the Divine Liturgy, they receive a blessing whereupon their wreaths are taken off their heads, to be taken to their home and be placed in the stephanothiki (the case for the wedding wreaths) over their bed.20
This short service consists of two prayers; the first one is said by the priest over the couple; the second is read by the couple itself (something unique, as far as I know). This is what the first prayer says:
Lord our God, who blessed the annual cycle [in Greek stephanos, meaning wreath] of the year, and gave these wreaths [stephana] to be placed upon those who have joined each other in lawful wedlock as recompense for their chastity [σωφροσύνης], having presented themselves pure [ἁγνοί] at the marriage established by You; bless also at the taking off the present wreaths from the heads of those who were united to each other and preserve their union unbroken; so that they may always give thanks to Your all-holy name, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.9
It is very clear that the newlyweds were crowned with a wreath as a reward for their chaste and pure life. Like the Apostle, they too have fought the good fight and have kept their purity, therefore upon them is laid the crown (stephanos) of righteousness by the Lord, the righteous judge (cf. 2 Tim. 4:7-8).10
Digamists and trigamists, that is those who entered into a second or third marriage, were not crowned, up until at least the ninth century, as Patriarch Nicephoros the Confessor states: “A digamist is not blessed with crowns, but, on the contrary is even amerced [censured] to abstain from Communion for two years; and a trigamist for three years.”11 St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite (+1809) explains the reason: “Because crowns belong to those who are victorious conquerors, and not those who have been defeated by the pleasures of the flesh.”12 It seems that such marriages were not even performed in the church, since the wedding ceremony was part of the Liturgy, which necessarily involved reception of the holy Sacraments. The couple came to receive holy Communion at the end of the imposed penance, and thus seal their union “in the Lord.” Until then, they were married legally, but not ecclesiastically.
All this may seem otherworldly to us, living in our permissive and lax society, but this has been the Christian teaching since the beginning. St. Polycarp of Smyrna (+155), a disciple of St. John the Theologian, writes: “[T]he younger men must be blameless in all things, caring for purity [ἁγνείας] before everything and curbing themselves from every evil.”13 St. John Chrysostom too stresses that young men should be trained in chastity, “so that their brides may receive their bodies pure and unpolluted, so their love will be more ardent.”14 His advice for girls is to be “pious, modest” and the like. It does not include being pure, because it is a given.
Of course the struggle is not over once one is married. The Church, and Christ Her founder expect all the faithful to be chaste not only before the wedding but also after it, exercising temperance and living a life of continence,15 so that they may receive from the Lord “the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10). Couples are expected to exercise self-control (1 Cor. 7:5) and keep their marriage “honorable in everything [they do],16 and the [marriage] bed undefiled” (Heb. 13:4). Married life has its demands, and requires fortitude and virtue. It is not casual that all three prayers read by the priest over the newlyweds mention crowns – the first for them to receive “a crown of everlasting glory,”17 the second for God to remember them as He remembered “His holy Forty Martyrs on whom [He] sent down crowns from heaven,”18 and the third asks God to “crown them into one flesh.”19 Crowns stand for victories after a contest, in this instance of a married life “in the Lord.”
- Crowns (stephana) means wreaths or garlands, consisting mostly of laurel leaves – not diadems of gold with precious stones, although such crowns were introduced after the 9th century, together with the misunderstanding that a couple is crowned king and queen of their household.
- De corona militis, ANF III, p. 102. The subject of the whole treatise is that Christians should not be crowned. A discussion on the subject can be found here: “The History of Marriage Within Orthodoxy”. The crowning by Christians at weddings mentioned by Tertullian was most likely not yet liturgical, but rather a social custom, which later was incorporated into the liturgical life of the Church. Notice that marriage is already called “sacrament”. Keep in mind this writing belongs to his Montanist period.
- It seems only the grooms were crowned in the western Church, whereas in the east both groom and bride were crowned. See “A History of Christian Marriage” (pp. 45-63), Report to the 78th General Convention (2015?), p. 50.
- Ibid., p. 101. Again, he repeats his favorite expression, “in the Lord,” clearly understanding it as meaning marrying a Christian, having a Christian marriage.
- Hom. ix on I Tim. 2 (PG 62:546), NPNF I, vol. 13, p. 437.
- De honesto et legitimo conjugio, caput CCLXXVI (PG 155:195A). Men who had not kept their virginity had to undergo a penance before being admitted to communion when they married (Canon 31 of Council of Elvira).
- Our rendering. Words in italics in this and the following hymn have been added to match the melody.
- The two Greek-English Priest’s Service Books in use in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese do not include this service, which was already obsolete at the time of St. Symeon of Thessalonica (see Πρωτοπρ. Δημητρίου Β. Τζέρπου, Σύμβολα καὶ Συμβολισμοὶ κατὰ τὴν τέλεση τοῦ Ὀρθοδόξου Γάμου, pp. 683-705).
- Μικρὸν Εὐχολόγιον, Ἀποστολικὴ Διακονία (2009), p. 125.
- “The Taking Up of the Crowns” takes place presently towards the end of the service. The last moving request made as the crowns are being lifted up should not be missed: “Take up their crowns into Your Kingdom, and preserve them undefiled, blameless and beyond reproach to the ages” (The Priest’s Service Book, p. 119).
- Rudder, Second Canon, p. 963.
- Ibid., Note.
- “The Epistle of St. Polycarp to the Philippians” 5, The Apostolic Fathers, p. 179/170. What follows is also of interest: “For it is a good thing to refrain from lusts in the world, for every lust warreth against the Spirit, and neither whoremongers nor effeminate persons nor defilers of themselves with men shall inherit the kingdom of God, neither they that do untoward things. Wherefore it is right to abstain from all these things, submitting yourselves to the presbyters and deacons as to God and Christ. The virgins must walk in a blameless and pure conscience.”
- Hom. ix on I Tim., NPNF I, vol. 13, p. 437.
- I chuckled at a translation of the Apolytikion of St. Nicholas, which rendered “ἐγκρατίας” as “abstinence,” instead of “continence” or, better yet, “temperance.”
- ἐν πᾶσι is taken by Prof. Trembellas, following the Fathers, of neuter gender. “Keep marriage honorable ‘in all things,” “in everything,” “in every respect,” “entirely,” “in every way” (NIV, God’s Word, Darby); not, “by all” (masculine gender, that is “people”), as most translations have it. The phrase it taken as exhortatory (ἔστω), like the rest of the verses, whereas St. John Chrysostom understands it as an assertion (ἐστί).
- The Priest’s Service Book, p. 103. The Greek text is τὸν ἀμαράντινον τῆς δόξης στέφανον, “the wreath of glory that fades not.” (Cf. 1 Pet. 5:4)
- Ibid., p. 105.
- Ibid., p. 107.
- The heading image shows a stephanothiki.
Article graphics and editing: Tony Hatzidakis