The Mystery of Marriage—the Spiritual Foundation of the Family

Part
3. The First Year of Marriage

Why is it necessary to get crowned in the Church? What
is the symbolism of the rings and crowns? Why do the bride
and groom stand facing east during the crowning? What does
the phrase “to love as you love yourself”
mean? What is the proper understanding of the words:
“A wife should fear her husband?”

 

Hello, dear friends. Our series of talks “The
Grammar of Family Life” continues with a discussion
on the spiritual life of a family and on the beginning of
this spiritual life, which is the Mystery of Marriage.

The Mystery of Marriage can be compared with Baptism—with
the Baptism of a new family. Here a child is born: having
received life from his parents, having received an
immortal soul from God he comes forth into the
world—but a child needs to be
“spiritualized,” to be dedicated to God, to be
sanctified in the Mystery of Baptism. And so it is with a
family. The creation of a family is always a mystery: two
completely different people become one whole, but this
union is in need of sanctification—in the Mystery of
Marriage.

I have in my hand a Trebnik (Book of
Needs)—a book containing the order of services for
the Mysteries of the Church which are served in a parish:
the Mystery of Marriage, but also the Mystery of Baptism,
of Unction,
and so on. Today I, having read something to you from it,
will speak about betrothals and weddings.

On the Importance of a Church Wedding

Is it necessary to have a Church wedding? Yes, marriage
should absolutely be blessed. Many couples come to the
church with doubts: “We’re not ready for a
Church wedding. Maybe, we’ll think about it and come
to the church later…” For believing Church
people, the question “is a Church wedding
necessary?” is unbearable. If a child is born you
must baptize him; if a new union is created you must
“spiritualize” it—dedicate it to God.

To begin family life it is necessary to appeal to God for
help. We begin any good work with prayer: we serve a
Moleben before travel, building a house, and so on; and,
of course, before building our family home we must pray
purely to God, and the Lord bestows His grace. But God
does not save us without us. And the Mystery of Marriage
is not some magical action which binds a couple for life
regardless of their spiritual condition or faith, and then
everything will go just fine, according to their best-laid
plans. Of course, any Mystery and even any rite, such as
the blessing of automobiles, is not effective without a
person’s faith: if a person thinks that a priest
should do everything for him, and he himself makes no
effort, doesn’t pray, has no intention of obeying
traffic laws, it is clear then that it won’t help
him at all. In marriage it’s precisely the same:
spouses must maintain a Christian spiritual life, must
pray for one another, must be Orthodox Christians, and
must, naturally, themselves call upon the power of God for
help and believe in the power of the Mystery celebrated,
in which God will help them.

Betrothal

The Mystery of Marriage begins with the Betrothal.
Betrothal is a rite (not the sacrament yet), in which the
spouses exchange rings. By the way, the Betrothal in
antiquity, in the first centuries, wasn’t a
Christian rite: it was accompanied by a legal registration
of the marriage. This is how it is in Russia today, where
the Church is separate from the government. The Sacrament
of Marriage is celebrated separately from the civil
registration of the marriage, which happens at the city
hall. There was such a situation in the Russian Empire
too. Any marriage—something that was blessed and
crowned by a bishop and later by priests—must have
legal registration. Thus the Sacrament of Marriage has two
components: legal and spiritual.

 

The rite of Betrothal was celebrated by the exchange of
rings upon signing a particular marriage document in the
presence of witnesses—the Roman Empire very strictly
followed the records of civil status, the observance of
laws, and the norms of Roman law.

The rite of Marriage, which is now celebrated in the
Church on the required days, developed over the centuries
and formed up through the fourteenth. It is difficult to
say how they served weddings in the first centuries. But
one thing we know: the bishop stood the young couple, who
had legally registered, in the Church, read a certain
prayer, blessed them, and together they communed at the
Divine Liturgy. The echo of this joint Communion at the
Divine Liturgy is the common cup which the spouses drink
during the Wedding.

So, the betrothal. The spouses exchange rings—the
priest changes their rings. According to strict Orthodox
Tradition, the bride wears a golden ring and the groom a
silver one. But in fact they are not their rings: the
groom as if wears the ring of his bride, because silver is
a symbol of the moon, which receives its light from the
sun; and the bride wears the ring of the
husband—golden, like the sun. Why exchange the
rings? So that the husband and wife might remember one
another at all times. Recall that rings, a closed circle
without beginning or end, is a symbol of eternity and
infinity. This exchange of rings can be compared with
banded birds; in seminary the monks joked about the
married students, calling them “banded,” and
congratulating their classmates with their
“banding.” I don’t think there’s
anything offensive in this joke; after all, what does it
mean to be banded? It means that you belong to someone
else. A banded bird has a master who oversees it and sets
certain rules for it…

So, a priest, by the authority given him by God, exchanges
the couple’s rings, putting the groom’s ring
on the bride’s finger, and the bride’s ring on
the groom’s finger. Usually the rings are made
according to the size of the person who will wear it,
because a man’s fingers are bigger than a
woman’s, and strictly speaking you shouldn’t
remove the ring from your finger. But all the same, you
must always remember when looking at your ring that
it’s the ring of your spouse who has been given to
you in betrothal.

Further, particular prayers are read and litanies are
proclaimed in which a blessing and help for the spousal
life is solicited; and then immediately afterward begins
the Sacrament of Marriage.

Marriage

I will focus only on the main points of this sacrament,
because the format of our conversation doesn’t allow
for a deep study of it.

First is the Litany of Peace, in which in addition to the
regular petitions are added special ones about peace,
love, harmony, the granting of children to the couple and
the blessing of their common life.

Next we read three prayers in which are mentioned Old
Testament righteous who succeeded in family life: Abraham
and Sarah, Joachim and
Anna, Zechariah
and Elizabeth and other saints whom we venerate as a
rule of faith and an image of meekness in married life and
with whom we align ourselves in our own family life.

 

Then follows the Sacrament of Marriage itself: the priest
places the crowns on those being wed; therefore the
Mystery is called a crowning. By the way, this rite was
not immediately either, but we know it was already in use
by the fourth century because St. John Chrysostom already
wrote about the crowns. What are the crowns for? The Holy
Fathers said this: it is, on the one hand, a martyric
crown, and people receive the crowns for some kind of
podvig. The martyr is crowned for faithfulness and
steadfastness in his confession of Christ. Spouses are
crowned as people who have maintained their faithfulness
to one another and preserved their virginity and chastity
until their married family life. But crowns also have the
meaning of crowns of royalty, as if a new kingdom is
created—the family, where you have a king and queen.
Earlier these people lived in the house of their parents
where they weren’t the masters, but now begins a new
stage in their lives. The king and queen will have their
subjects—children. Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh
has noted that in antiquity the couple being crowned were
called “prince and princess.” So these crowns
are a symbol of authority—the crowning of a new
kingdom.

Next comes the very important reading from the Epistle to
the Ephesians by the Apostle Paul about the duties of the
husband and wife in relation to one another. Here is
revealed the depth of the Wedding service. After all an
Orthodox crowning is an image of the union of Christ and
the Church. As Christ is the head, the savior of the
body
, as the Apostle Paul says, which is His Church,
and the bride of Christ is the Church, and the Lord is
ready to give His soul for the Church, which He did,
offering for us and for all the great sacrifice on the
Cross, so is a husband ready to sacrifice for his wife the
most important, most valuable things in life if necessary.
For the husband is the head of the wife, even as
Christ is the head of the Church: and he is the savior of
the body. Therefore as the Church is subject unto Christ,
so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the
Church, and gave himself for it
(Eph. 5:23-25). Here
it speaks about how the Church should obey Christ and how
Christ should care for the Church, be the head of the
Church. And a husband, as the head of the church—a
family is a tiny church community—is compared with
Christ. Families have such a title—“little
church,” or “home church.”

Why is the family a little church? We know that the Lord
created the human race as a family—from the
beginning as the family of Adam and Eve, then as the
Church of God. Even monasteries are an image of the
family, where people call one another “brothers in
Christ” or “sisters in Christ” under the
authority of a single father, for example, an abbot or
abbess. Man is not saved alone but in community.
Interacting with one another, serving one another, we are
saved. The most important task in starting a family is
precisely the salvation of its members: together we walk
towards salvation. It’s not without reason that
during the Mystery of Marriage we look in a very important
direction—towards the east, with the couple not
standing facing one another, turning to one another only
when they are congratulating one another and kissing one
another at the end of the sacrament of the
crowning… But they look, standing side-by-side,
holding lit candles, precisely to the east—that is,
together they move towards Christ. As Antoine de
Saint-Exupery said: lovers are not those who look upon one
another, but those who look in the same direction. For us
it is precisely the direction of the head
Himself—the east.

We can also say this about the husband and wife in this
little church: the husband is the head, as if he were the
high priest, and the wife is compared with a
deacon—the second degree of the
priesthood—with a servant. The word
“deacon” is translated as
“servant”—during the celebration of the
Mysteries. And their children—Behold I and the
children whom the Lord hath given me
—are the
parishioners of this little church. The task of this
family vessel is salvation: For where two or three are
gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of
them
(Mt. 18:20)—it is the most important thing
for which we serve the Wedding, and for which we bless
marriage as a little church.

By the way, some elements of the Wedding are very similar
to priestly ordination: a priest is also led around the
altar as the spouses are led around the analogion, and we
sing the same hymns, just in a slightly different order.
As a priest marries the Church, so the groom marries his
bride.

Then it speaks—and this is a very important
point—about the duties of a husband: So ought
men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that
loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated
his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as
the Lord the Church
(Eph. 5:28-29). That is, the
future bride is compared with the body of the husband.
There is an expression: to love, as you love yourself.
Some think that this is somehow something
passionate—a special kind of love, but this
expression has a completely different meaning. Each of us
wants to be respected, pitied, honored, taken care
of—this is what it means “to love, as you love
yourself.” No one wants to be nagged, to be teased
endlessly, to be treated poorly, that his responsiblities
go unfulfilled… It’s really very simple: you
don’t want to be treated poorly, so don’t do
it to someone else; you want kindness, and to be
well-liked—so relate to others in this way.

But in this passage from the apostle’s epistle read
at the Wedding is commanded a great love: husbands are
commanded to love their wives as Christ loves the Church.
And what did Christ do for the Church? He gave His life
for it. Do we love ourselves with such love? We
won’t harm ourselves. But for the sake of our loved
ones we can do something at our own expense. When a family
member gets sick, a child for example, I think that any
normal parent would undoubtedly give their own kidney for
him, if necessary; and give their second one, give their
life, and sell their apartment so that the their child
might live, that he might be healthy… And you love
any person close and dear to you even to your own
detriment, which means you love him even more than you
love yourself. It’s the highest love that the Lord
commands in the Mystery of Marriage, and it is quite well
revealed in the Epistle reading.

The last words of this reading are and [let] the wife
see that she fear her husband
(Eph. 5:33). Usually
some thunderous reader or deacon proclaims this throughout
the whole church, and all are in awe, and someone begins
to smile, remembering some story from his life. What does
let the wife … fear her husband mean?
Firstly, recall that it said in the Apostle Paul before
this: Let every one of you in particular so love his
wife even as himself
(Eph. 5:33), that is, to love,
as was said, as Christ loves the Church. And what does
let the wife … fear mean—what does
“fear” mean? As is often the case, the word
“fear” has very many meanings. We know, for
example, the words of the Psalmist David: Serve the
Lord with fear and rejoice in Him with trembling
(Ps.
2:11). So fear is precisely some trembling—it is a
relationship of awe. It’s not fearing some kind of
punishment or despotism from your husband—it is the
fear to humiliate or offend your beloved, a near and dear
one. Wives should feel precisely this fear towards their
husbands.

Then we read the Gospel that everyone knows about how the
Lord was present at the wedding in Cana of Galilee and He
blessed this marriage, performing their His first
miracle—turning water into wine. Met. Anthony of
Sourozh, commenting on this passage, speaks about that in
the marital life there can come a moment when people can
exhaust their reserve of love, when their relationship
begins to cool, and then they must especially supplicate
God’s help and intercession to replenish these empty
vessels of their souls, their love with new wine and a new
grace of God, which the Lord naturally grants.

 

Then the couple is lead around the analogion as a symbol
of eternity and joy, as in Baptism we are led around the
font. After this follows the removal of the crowns after
some time and the congratulations to the newlyweds. With
this ends the Sacrament of Marriage.

* * *

And now a few words on the spiritual life of a family. The
spiritual life in a family stems, essentially, from the
Mystery of Marriage. The family is a little church, as I
already said, and spouses should not only solve problems
of how to raise children, or some economic issues and so
on. A couple’s most important task is
salvation—in order to be together not only here, but
also in eternity, with one another and with their
children. And as St. John Chrysostom noted, the task and
responsibility of the husband is to care not only for the
spiritual upbringing of his children, but also for the
spiritual upbringing of his wife. That is, a husband must
always be a few steps ahead of his wife—she
shouldn’t have to drag him to the Sacrament of
Marriage, then to his first Communion, and so on; but a
husband must be the head, in front of this small ecclesial
ship. And may the Lord help you in this difficult but very
blessed, very salvific, very happy family sailing! May the
Lord and the Mother of God preserve you all!

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