As the bride and groom move inwards towards the table in front of the iconostasis, they are preparing to be crowned. Often these crowns are interpreted as martyr’s crowns, foreshadowing a life of sacrifice and death for the other as we are called to in the Epistle to the Ephesians and elsewhere in the New Testament. An area which is so often overlooked in most descriptions of Orthodox marriage that I’ve heard is that these crowns represent the small kingdom being established under the rule of Christ here in this newly formed family. The husband, a generative king whose strong labor and leadership will produce strong healthy offspring and a prosperous kingdom. The wife, a glorious queen who is adorned in fine jewels and receives the gifts bestowed upon her and increases the fruitfulness of the house. The crowns do symbolize martyrdom and death, but they also symbolize glory and prosperity, life and children. In this post I want to focus on the wedding prayers in the Orthodox wedding service as they pertain to sacrifice and care.
Bless (+) this marriage and grant unto these Your servants (Name) and(Name) a peaceful life, length of days, chastity, love for one another in a bond of peace, offspring long‑lived, fair fame by reason of their children, and a crown of glory that does not fade away.
This proclamation comes after a long list of married saints from the Old Testament and turns the direction of the litany from sexual prosperity to spiritual prosperity. Note how they are blessed with a peaceful life, chastity, love for each other, and a crown of glory which will not fade. In the midst of prosperity and children the newly married are called to remember that the vocation of marriage is not about self aggrandizement but about self sacrifice, fasting, feasting, and an eternal reward which will never fade.
And now, O Master, Lord our God, send down Your heavenly Grace upon these Your servants,(Name) and (Name), and grant unto this woman to be in all things subject unto the man, and to this Your servant to be at the head of the woman that they live according to Your Will.
It’s not uncommon to see people flinch during this portion of the litany as ideas of submission and humility are not highly praised in contemporary society, but did you note how the blessing is that the wife will learn to die to herself–sacrificing her own wishes and desires for her husband–and that the husband will do likewise for his wife? and to this Your servant to be at the head of the woman that they may live according to You Will. Central to the roles of husband and wife in the Bible are their mutual submission and sacrifice of themselves daily to Christ as He submitted His will to the Father. Here the woman sacrifices herself to her husband and he to the Father so that together they may experience length of days and blessing.
The Priest, taking up the Crowns, crowns first the Bridegroom, saying:
The servant of God (Name) is crowned for the servant of God, (Name),in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.(Thrice)
And he crowns the Bride, saying:
The servant of God (Name) is crowned for the servant of God (Name),in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.(Thrice)
The Priest takes the Crown of the Groom in his right hand, and the Crown of the Bride in his left, and places them on their heads while he intones:
O Lord, our God, crown them with glory and honor.
After these and other prayers to be considered lately are recited by the priest, the couple are crowned for each other. No longer are they in submission to their fathers and mothers–now they must submit to one another and guide the other in submission to Christ. The role of a King and Queen–to see the prosperity of the kingdom and the production of offspring–is not for the faint of heart or the cowardly. To walk in newness of life is not a quiet, pastoral wonderland but a battlefield, a fiery furnace, the belly of a great fish–and it is to this life the new couple have been assigned.
So what is the point of this discussion? I want to begin our exploration of marriage and all of its corresponding elements as a crucible for saints–not just godly children, but godly husband and wife who fulfill their marriage roles and create a small Kingdom in their homes; who establish and consecrate a holy temple dedicated to God within the walls of their houses. Marriage is not the lesser path to holiness, but a glorious one! May we find courage to sacrifice and to care for our Kingdoms, and may we see Paradise together around our tables.