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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

The Great Mystery

Reflections on the marriage ceremony in the Byzantine rite.

According to the Eastern Fathers, the sacrament of matrimony was instituted in Paradise. Marriage inherits a portion of the grace of Eden. In the beginning God set man and woman as king and priest over all creation. By the liturgy of their daily lives the whole world offered a hymn of praise to the Creator. Christ’s presence at the marriage feast in Cana confirmed the honor of wedlock in the New Covenant and elevated it to be an icon or image of His love for the Church.

The wedding ceremony in the Byzantine Rite manifests all the riches of this patristic tradition. The priest meets the bridal party at the inner door of the church and betrothes them one to the other, praying:

In the beginning You created male and female. It is You that unite a woman to a man, to help him and to perpetuate the human race. Therefore, O Lord our God… look now upon Your servants and confirm their betrothal in faith, in harmony, and in love.

Then distributing candles to the party, he leads them into the nave of the church through the body of worshippers singing “Glory to you, our God, glory to you.”

Incensing the wedding table, the icon screen, the entire altar and the faithful, the priest proclaims, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages.” With these words only those rites begin which reveal in an eminent way the future kingdom as somehow already present: Baptism, the Divine Liturgy, Marriage and the Great Blessing of Water at the Theophany. The priest then mystically ushers in an invisible entourage of blessed couples from the Old and New Covenants to accompany the bride and groom on their path to glory: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Joachim and Ann, Zacharias and Elizabeth.

Since the couple will constitute a miniature church within the Church, images of the church are invoked: Noah in the ark, Jonas in the belly of the whale, the three holy children in the fiery furnace. As the couple inherits a portion of grace that survived the fall, the priest refers to Old Testament images of preservation from death: Enoch, Shem and Elias. Finally in an ecstasy of prayerful joy he sings: “Exalt them as the cedars of Lebanon and as a fruitful vine. Grant them the fruit of the earth that, having all good things in abundance, they may contend in every work that is good and acceptable to You. Let them behold their children’s children as newly planted olive trees around their table. And after they have led a life that is well-pleasing to You, let them shine like stars in Your heaven.”

At this, the most solemn moment in the sacrament, the priest crowns the man and woman to be bride and groom, queen and king, priests of the churchin-the-home. To this end he invokes the transfiguring power of the Life-giving Spirit:

“Lord our God crown them with honor and glory and establish them over the works of Your hands.”

The reading from St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians (5:20-33) follows in which the Apostle reveals that marriage is an image of the great mystery of love that binds Christ and His Church together. The Gospel (John 2:1-12) retells the story of the marriage feast of Cana. There water was transformed into wine: here human love is made divine.

The couple drinks from a blessed cup of wine and follows the priest in a procession three times around the wedding table. Three anthems are sung – the same three that accompany a priest around the altar on the day of his ordination. This emphasizes the priestly character of marriage by which the Christian home is consecrated a little church. The newly crowned couple contemplate the life of prayer and sacrifice that awaits them. Their life is to be a sign of redemption to a world wanting in love.

There follows the touching prayer during which the priest removes their wedding crowns, saying, “Accept their crowns in Your kingdom and preserve them bright and pure, safe and sound unto the ages of ages.”

The photographs that follow invite the reader to recall the teaching of St. John the Theologian, “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love each other, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”

Father Russo is rector of St. Michael’s Russian Catholic Chapel on Mulberry Street in New York City.

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