Saturday, July 18, 2015

On the Sacramental Nature of Marriage

One of the obvious differences between the Orthodox and Western understanding of marriage is that in the West, marriage is what two people do, while in the East, it is something that is done to them. This difference is expressed in the wedding service. In the West, the two people give a set of vows, thus entering into a contract with each other. In the Orthodox service, no vows are exchanged; after the initial inquiry as to whether they want to be married to each other (more on that later), they say absolutely nothing. They also do nothing: something is done to them—crowns are placed on their heads, they are led by the priest around the gospel stand, the common cup is given to them, even their wedding rings are placed on their fingers by other people. Whatever the historical development of the Orthodox rite may have been, its form points to the belief in the sacramental nature of marriage. In this way, the rite of marriage similar to the Eucharist. One does not produce the Body and Blood of Christ the way that one would negotiate and produce a contract. All of the actions of the priest and the congregation are not aimed at the production of the Gifts, but at preparing their own hearts and souls for receiving the sacrament.

But when we speak of the sacramental nature of marriage, I think that we have mean some specific thing. Marriage is not a sacrament because it is listed as such in the catechism; and it is not a sacrament because God blesses the couple in some general way. One of the ways we can define a sacrament to be more precise for the purposes of this study is to look at it as transformation: it is not quantitative (whereby vows, blessings, certificates, etc. are added to the couple) but qualitative—the couple does not remain the same two people they were before the weddings but is transformed (“changing them by Your Holy Spirit” in the Eucharistic sense) into something they were not–a specific icon of Christ and His Church.

Just saying this, however, does not make it so. Many—if not most!—of our Orthodox marriages do not resemble the icon of Christ and look very similar to whatever model of marriage that our current society presents. If our theology is not having any practical effect in the actual marriages, then we must strive harder to make theology relevant to the lives of Orthodox spouses. The sacramental nature of an Orthodox marriage and the real presence of God as the third Person in the “trinity” of God, man and woman, needs to be made real in order to help move toward the sacramental transformation of the spouses. 

Read the rest here.


Anonymous said...

I just read a (very good) article at First Things which said in passing that in Orthodox weddings the bridal couple place crowns on one another's heads. Is that a common practice? At my Orthodox wedding we were crowned by one of our sponsors. Crowning one another would be neat from a romantic point of view but it would seem to obscure the idea that God through his Church is the one joining the couple together, not they themselves. It appeared that the a writer of the article was Catholic, so perhaps he was referring in a practice in Byzantine Catholic services, but he used the word Orthodox, so it left me wondering if that is a variation in liturgical wedding practice that I wasn't aware of. For all I know, that may be more the traditional way.

I have also heard that the Roman Catholic practice of celebrating the Eucharist at weddings is the more ancient practice, and that it was the East that, perhaps for good reasons, removed that custom and replaced it with the common cup shared only be the bridal couple.

Unknown said...

The priest crowns or should crown the couple, no one else. However, the sponsor or koumbaros does walk behind the couple during the procession holding the rope which connects the two crowns.

August said...

I think, due to feudalism, an undue emphasis on a person's assent became important in the West. You can also see this in the fact that confirmation became separated from baptism, so that there would be some 'age of reason.'

It seems to me that in earlier times, and in the East, assent would be known and assumed. One would not need assent in a sacrament, but the calling down of the Holy Spirit upon the couple.

All of this would be taking place in a functional community in which we would not have seen this unfortunate devolution from the assent to mere whim being the new norm.

Anonymous said...


Yes, you're right. I remember it better now.