Crowning is considered by many to be the climax of the Orthodox Christian marriage ceremony. What the crowns really symbolize may surprise you.
What makes it a marriage?
Most people, especially those already married, know that the cup they partake consists of plain wine. But how many are those who know that this cup stands in place of the “cup of salvation,” the Holy Eucharist, which they ought to be receiving in its stead, but no longer do? And how many of them know that marriage is holy, and it is called a sacrament, because of its connection with that, or rather with the One that gives sacramentally to all Church services?
How impoverished the sacrament of marriage has become when missing from it is the central Mystery of our Faith, the Divine Eucharist, substituted by a “symbolic” common cup of plain wine – even if blessed! How come the “cup of salvation”, as it is called in the hymn chanted right after the “crowning”, has been substituted by a resemblance of it? Why the symbol and not the real thing? Because we are not worthy of it! Let me explain.
Let us point out something of crucial significance: until the ninth century the marriage rite was celebrated in conjunction with the Divine Liturgy.1 Even until the fifteenth century when a separate marriage rite was developed, newlyweds continued to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord. How? In the same way it is done in baptisms: from the “Reserved Gifts,” as attested by St. Symeon of Thessalonica.
And immediately (the priest) takes the holy chalice with the Presanctified Gifts, and exclaims: “The Presanctified Holy Gifts for the holy [people of God].” And all respond: “One is Holy, One is Lord,” because the Lord alone is the sanctification, the peace and the union of His servants who are being married. The priest then gives Communion to the bridal pair, if they are worthy.2
So they did not automatically receive the Gifts, as the Saint says, but only if they were worthy. Thus, after saying that “the Lord alone is…the union of His servants who are being married” he states:
Indeed, they must be ready to receive Communion, so that their crowning be a worthy one and their marriage valid. For the perfection [τέλος] of every sacrament [τελετῆς] and the seal [σφραγίς] of every mystery is Holy Communion… so that those who get married must be worthy of Holy Communion; they must be united before God in a church, which is the house of God, because they are children of God, in a church where God is sacramentally present in the Gifts.
Then further down he adds:
But to those who are not worthy of Communion, for example those who are being married a second time, and others – the Divine Gifts are not given, but only the common cup, as a partial sanctification, as a sign of good fellowship and unity with God’s blessing.
St. Symeon does not clarify who those “others” are, who are not worthy3 to receive Holy Communion at the very Church service in which they are honored—their wedding day! I would think he means couples that do not live a life “in the Lord.” In our days most couples have probably consummated their union prior to appearing before the altar of the Lord. In certain regions (Cyprus, for example) it is expected during the engagement period. Such marriages are not “in the Lord,” and would fall into the “other” category.
Even so, the Church condescended to human weakness, and allowed such couples to get married (after going through a period of penance) and even to be crowned, but at a ceremony outside the Divine Liturgy, at which they were offered only the common cup—plain wine, not Holy Communion—and this is tragic. Allow me to explain further.
If someone would ask us, at what point of the Sacrament of Marriage can we safely say that the couple is married, what would we answer? (After all, there are no “I do’s”) If someone would answer, At the crowning, there is some merit to this answer, although someone, as we saw above, finds the act itself of crowning objectionable, because even the heathens were crowned. How about after circling around the “ad hoc” altar table? Perhaps… But why? What is so special about circling the table three times while singing three hymns? We do not find anything substantive to justify it as the main act. What is it then, that which seals the marriage?
Before answering the question, let us turn to the rite of Baptism, which was in liturgical unity with the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist until the 15th century.4 Even after its separation from the Divine Liturgy, it kept the same pattern. Later on, when the rite of Marriage was established as a separate service, it followed the pattern of Holy Baptism, which can be easily detected. Having said that we ask: Which is the highlight of the baptismal service? The act of baptism, of course (and of the Chrismation that follows, with which it forms a unity). And what happens after both are administered? After a few prayers are said by the priest to give time to the newly illumined to get dressed, the triple circling around the font takes place. Well, in the wedding ceremony we also have a triple circling. But what act precedes it, which is the cause of the rejoicing expressed by a ceremonial dance? The crowning? No. The crowning comes later on, followed by the readings. What then? It follows immediately after the “common cup,” which is in place of the cup of salvation. This act, then—not the drinking from the common cup, but the partaking of the Holy Mysteries—is the core event,5 as it was from the beginning, which is now missing!
The significance of the reception of the Holy Mysteries is also shown not only by what follows this act, but also by what precedes it. What is that? The recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. As we say in our book,
The place of the Lord’s Prayer immediately before Holy Communion provides a commentary as to what the Church considers to be the “daily bread” which we ask our Father in heaven to give us—none other than the Lord Himself.6
For this reason the Lord’s Prayer was introduced in the Divine Liturgy in the Fourth century.7 Let us remember that the holy Baptism, the wedding service, as well as all the services (sacraments) of the Church, used to take place within or in conjunction with the Divine Liturgy.8 But while Holy Communion is administered at the end of the baptismal service, it is woefully missing from the marital service. (Let us say parenthetically that although the Eucharistic participation is present in Holy Baptism, it is disconnected from the Synaxis (Liturgy) of the faithful. It too needs to be reconnected to the Divine Liturgy.)9
The centrality of the reception of the Holy Mysteries is also shown by the hymn chanted during the partaking of the “common cup”: “I will take the cup of salvation, and will call on the name of the Lord” (cf. Ps. 115:4/116:13), chanted by the people, even now, when the cup is no longer the cup of salvation, but a cup of plain wine. It is a testimony to the time when the wedding couple, and all the people present, received the Holy Mysteries. Still the hymn has remained, as a vestige from the past, a reminder of what is missing: the Sacrament that seals every sacrament.
Perhaps the centrality of Holy Communion in the marriage rite is shown best in the practice of the Church in ancient times. In explaining what marriage is “in the eye of God,” Tertullian answers:
when God joins ‘two into one flesh;’ or else, finding (them already) joined in the same flesh, [He] has given His seal to the conjunction.10
This is the clearest evidence that Holy Communion is what seals and completes a Christian marriage. If a couple became Christian and were already married civilly, the only act required of them to complete their union “in Christ” was to partake of the Divine Eucharist.11 As we have seen, Tertullian already attests that reception of the Holy Mysteries sealed the couple’s union “in the Lord.”
Another practice of the Church carried on confirms the ancient practice. Even today when married converts are received in the Orthodox Church they are not remarried, even though a marriage, or any other sacrament, outside the Orthodox Church is not recognized.12 What seals the union of a couple is the reception of the Holy Sacraments after their admittance to the Church. No crowning, no ceremonial dance, no common cup; none of them takes place. None of these is essential. What is of essence is our union in Christ, particularly in Holy Communion. I think I have answered the question about what constitutes the main act of the marital union and the cause for celebration: it is not the crowning, but the completion of a union already decided by a couple by their partaking of the Holy Sacraments as a couple, which seals their union.
Although the detachment of the wedding from the Divine Liturgy has entered into the tradition of the Church, reception of the Holy Eucharist is still possible, by offering for communion the Presantified Gifts instead of the common cup. This is recommended by St. Nikodemos:
Let the priest not fill the cup with common wine and bread but with Holy Communion when the newlyweds have no canonical obstacle.13
Personally, I would like to see the wedding restored to its rightful place, performed within the Divine Liturgy, with the couple partaking of the Divine Eucharist—if they are worthy.
Ideally, a return to the full incorporation of the wedding into the Divine Liturgy is preferable. But how? There is a way, already tried by the Church: by restoring the so-called “Byzantine Wedding,”14 that is a wedding incorporated into the Divine Liturgy. The benefits of such a wedding are many: chiefly, the ancient practice of the Church is recovered (in which weddings, baptisms and funerals were conducted in the context of the Divine Liturgy), and the centrality of the Divine Liturgy (with its unitive act of Holy Communion) is preserved. Obviously, not every wedding will be celebrated this way, especially in large churches. But in small churches, and when both members are “worthy” Orthodox, such a wedding should become normative.15
A wedding performed before the Ecclesia of God is an ecclesial act; it involves the entire community. Marriage, despite the appearances, is not only a family affair. As the baptism is not a personal or a family affair, so with marriage. The couple is intricately connected with the Divine Liturgy, which is an affair of the people of God in communion with their heavenly Father and with each other. If we understand the connection of marriage with the liturgical act of the Church, we will understand that marriages celebrated in parks, seashores, or anywhere else outside the house of God are out of place. Let’s repeat: marriage is an ecclesial act, taking place in the midst of the ecclesia.
Article photo: The author giving Holy Communion to his mother.>
- Meyendorff, o.c., p. 24. St. Basil (+379) excluded from communion those entering a second or third marriage. (Canon IV, Rudder, p. 792)
- De honesto et legitimo conjugio, 282 (PG 155: 512-513). See Love, Sexuality, and the Sacrament of Marriage by John Chryssavgis (Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1996), pp. 74-75.
- Practically, “worthy” means having no impediment, as is the case with holy Ordination (except in the latter case “more” is required). Infants are “worthy” to receive Holy Communion because they don’t resist the grace of the Holy Spirit.
- See the study of Metrop. John (Zizioulas) of Pergamos, “Holy Baptism and Divine Liturgy” (in Greek), Ειδική Συνοδική Επιτροπή Λειτουργικής Αναγεννήσεως (Κανονισμός 139/1999), (pp. 9-27).
Rubrics for conducting baptism within the Divine Liturgy, can be found in, Entering the Orthodox Church-The Catechism and Baptism of Adults by Metrop. of Nafpaktos Hierotheos (Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 2004), pp. 183-87.
- St. Symeon of Thessalonica confirms that, “the reception of the awesome Communion by the one baptized is the completion of this and of every mystery.” (De Sacramentis LXVII-LXVIII (PG 155:85B)
- The Heavenly Banquet, p. 306.
- Sometimes we hear, “The couple does not utter a word during the Service.” This is not true. All the responses to the prayers and petitions belonging to the people belong to them as well, especially “The Lord’s Prayer,” as they are about to receive the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation.
- See “Centrality of the Eucharist” in The Heavenly Banquet, pp. 61-62. Let us say at this point that the number seven was introduced late from the West. Theodore the Studite (turn of the 8th c.) mentions six mysteries. Marriage is not among them nor Holy Unction or Confession. Instead he lists monastic vows (he call it perfection) and the funeral service (Ep. II, 165 to Gregory; PG 99:1524B).
- This is also proposed by Zizioulas, o.c., p. 25.
- De Monogamia 9, ANF III, p. 66. Tertullian writes about 160 years after Christ.
- During the first three centuries marriage was primarily a civil matter. In later years the right to legalize marriages was given exclusively to the Church. Emperor Justinian with his 74th Neara (538) required that marriages needed to be solemnized in church before witnesses, while Emperor Leo the Wise with his 89th Neara (893) placed all marriages entirely under the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts. Under Emperor Alexis Komnenos (1184) the Wedding Ceremony as we know it today was established. See Zeses, o.c., p. 63 and Kallinikos, o.c., p. 55.
- In this parenthetical note let us state that this includes baptism – especially baptism. See our blog post, “My desire was to be received through Baptism.” See also “The Catechumens” in The Heavenly Banquet, p. 153, particularly Note 441, and “One Baptism” also in The Heavenly Banquet, pp. 211-12, particularly Note 652.
- Χρηστοήθεια τῶν Χριστιανῶν (ἔκδ. Ρηγοπούλου Β., Θεσσαλονίκη 1991), p. 46.
- Several years back, when I was in Greece, I had the opportunity to attend, for the first time, the celebration of a wedding according to the ancient tradition of the Church, that is, a wedding celebrated within the context of the Divine Liturgy. It is called “Byzantine Wedding.” (See here for how it is conducted.)
- We had suggested this in our book The Heavenly Banquet (p. 62): “In recent years we have seen an occasional return to the celebration of marriages within the Liturgy (called ‘Byzantine’ weddings). In small communities not only could this be easily done, but it would also be a communal (ecclesial) event—the way it is supposed to be. The same is true with baptisms. This way we would realize that the Holy Eucharist is the ‘Mystery of Mysteries,’ the central, unifying element of the sacramental life of the faithful, as ‘was the Eucharistic practice of the Early Church.’ We must recapture this orientation and perspective of the early Church. We must return to our healthy roots.”
Article graphics and editing: Tony Hatzidakis