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Last December, our family was thrilled to enter into a new phase of life as our oldest daughter and her fiance announced their engagement. They became officially betrothed during a little ceremony after the Sunday Divine Liturgy the very next weekend, and are now happily planning the day in early September when they will be crowned as husband and wife. This will be the first wedding in our family to be held in a Byzantine church since my own and we are looking so forward to it. It's been so exciting! While looking for just the right venue, just the right dresses, just the right invitations, just the right everything else, it occurred to us that not everyone who is coming to this event has ever seen a Byzantine Crowning Ceremony before. In general, our Byzantine church services are a little bit different than your typical Latin Catholic or Protestant services, and crownings are even more so!
Yes, we do call it a crowning ceremony and there really are crowns! Gorgeous ones at that!
The bride, my Anastasia, was a bit worried that her new family might feel a bit lost amid all of our cultural tradition and ceremony so she has asked me to write a bit about it and all of its symbolic components. This blog post will be shared on their wedding website for the benefit of those who may wish to familiarize themselves with our customs before the day arrives.
Here are a few of the things you will see at Anastasia and Vince's Wedding The Byzantine Divine Liturgy: It's not the Mass
The first question you'll probably have will be about the Liturgy,itself. We are a Catholic Church, but it is not our custom to use the Roman Catholic Mass. The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is based on the rites used by the Antiochian Church in Syria where St. John Chrysostom was a priest. It was later refined and used by him in Constantinople where he was bishop from 398 to 404AD and has been the Byzantine Church’s primary liturgy ever since. Since our Church is in communion with the Latin/Roman Church…and every Catholic Church...it is perfectly acceptable for any Catholic to approach the Eucharist, and yes, our Sunday Divine Liturgy does fulfill the Roman Sunday obligation.
The church architecture is a bit different.
The body of the church is divided into three main parts, the Vestibule, the Nave and the Sanctuary.
You will enter the Vestibule where people are expected to gather themselves mentally to enter into the presence of God.
The Nave is the interior of the church building where the faithful gather for worship.
The most striking feature of the church architecture is the iconostasis. This is the screen that separates the sanctuary from the nave and is meant to symbolize the division that exists between Heaven and Earth. The icons on the screen are “windows” where we may see Christ, the Theotokos, and the saints all cheering us on to join them in eternity there someday. There are doors in the center of the screen through which only the priest may pass, since he acts as Christ Who is the only one Who exists simultaneously in both realms. Altar servers may not pass through this door, nor can they pass directly in front of the tabernacle, which is always found in the center of the sanctuary, upon the altar. There are doors on either side of the Royal Doors, called Deacon’s Doors, which they may use.
The Betrothal Service
When Anastasia accepted Vince's marriage proposal, the couple was given a special blessing in the Church during a betrothal service back in December. This is a little ceremony after the Sunday Liturgy during which the rings are traditionally blessed, the couple promises to remain faithful to one another during the betrothal period, and accepts the blessing of the Church upon their engagement. Some couples choose to hold such a service right away, while others choose to make it a part of their wedding day ceremony and begin their wedding day festivities this way in the back of the church.
In the Byzantine Church, the father of the bride doesn't traditionally "give the bride away" as in most other wedding services, although many do opt to do so as an accommodation to their American culture. The couple, lead by the priest and the bridal party, traditionally process down the center aisle toward the sanctuary together, as equal partners in their union, while the choir chants Psalm 127: Psalm 127: Blessed are those who fear the Lord, and walk in his ways. By the labor of your hands you shall eat. You will be happy and prosper. Your wife like a fruitful vine in the heart of your house; Your children, like shoots of the olive around your table. Indeed shall be blessed the man who fears the Lord. May the Lord bless you from Zion; may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life. May you see your children's children. On Israel, peace!
The maids of honor, (the sisters of the bride in this case, our Alexandra and Victoria) will carry, in addition to their bouquets, icons of Christ and his mother the Theotokos. These are our traditional gift from the parents of the bride to the newly married couple so that they may be used to create the icon corner, the focal point of prayer in their new home. They may be blessed during the ceremony for use in their new domestic church.
The Divine Liturgy begins after the priest first ascertains the desire of the couple. He will ask both the bride and the groom in turn if they have come to the altar freely and without reservation to take the other in marriage. If they agree, the Divine Liturgy begins.
The Crowning Unlike most weddings where the exchange of vows is the focal point of the service, at a Byzantine wedding it is the crowning of the couple which signifies the actual point at which the mystery of marriage takes place. The custom comes from the book of Isaiah 61:10:
I delight greatly in the Lord;
my soul rejoices in my God.
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation
and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness,
as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.. These particular crowns are special to our family because they were donated to the Church in memory of the bride's grandfather, Charles Wardach, who passed into eternal life in 2004. May God grant that he be spiritually present with us on this day and may his memory be eternal!
These crowns are symbols of the dignity and honor of a sacramental marriage and they and have a two-fold meaning. First, they are crowns of martyrdom, and they serve to remind the couple that they are called to a new vocation as martyrs, or witnesses, to the faith for one another. Each is to live for the salvation of the other completely, dying in martyrdom to their former lives as singular beings and now offering themselves as a total sacrifice to their new life together as one. Secondly, they represent the authority they will have over their own new domestic church as king and queen of their new household and all who will inhabit it in the future! Their home is to be their own little domestic church where the husband is called upon to serve as priest.
After the Litany of Peace and some prayers for the couple, and the customary exchange of vows as an accommodation to the local custom, the priest will then place crowns upon the couple, saying:
The servant of God, Vincent, is crowned in marriage for the servant of God, Anastasia, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The servant of God, Anastasia, is crowned in marriage for the servant of God, Vincent, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
And blessing the couple, the celebrant says: O Lord, our God, crown them with glory and honor.
From that moment on, the two will be officially and sacramentally married according to the laws of the Church!
The Liturgy of the Word
Next, the couple will hear encouragement from the scripture readings. The Epistle is taken from the letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians:
Brethren: Give thanks to God the Father always and for everything in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Defer to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives should be submissive to their husbands as if to the Lord because the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of his body the church, as well as its Savior. As the church submits to Christ, so wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church. He gave himself up for her to make her holy, purifying her in the bath of water by the power of the word, to present himself a glorious church, holy and immaculate, without stain or wrinkle or anything of that sort. Husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. Observe that no one ever hates his own flesh: no, he nourishes it and takes care of it as Christ cares for the church – for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cling to his wife, and the two shall be made into one.” This is a great foreshadowing; I mean that it refers to Christ and the church. In any case, each one should love his wife as he loves himself, the wife for her part showing respect for her husband.
The Gospel is from St. John and speaks of Christ's first miracle at the wedding in Cana:
At that time there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had likewise been invited to the celebration. At a certain point the wine ran out, and Jesus’ mother told him, “They have no more wine.” Jesus replied, “Woman, how does this concern of yours involve me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother instructed those waiting on table, “Do whatever he tells you.” As prescribed for Jewish ceremonial washings, there were at hand six stone water jars, each one holding fifteen to twenty-five gallons. “Fill those jars with water,” Jesus ordered, at which they filled them to the brim. “Now,” he said, “draw some out and take it to the waiter in charge.” They did as he instructed them. The waiter in charge tasted the water made wine, without knowing where it had come from; only the waiters knew, since they had drawn the water. Then the waiter in charge called the groom over and remarked to him: “People usually serve the choice wine first; then when the guests have been drinking a while, a lesser vintage. What you have done is keep the choice wine until now.” Jesus performed this first of his signs in Cana in Galilee. Thus did he reveal his glory, and his disciples believed in him.
The Dance of Isaiah This beautiful custom may or may not be done at our daughter's wedding as it has sadly fallen out of use in many parishes. It symbolizes the first steps the couple will take together as man and wife. The priest places his stole upon their joined hands and escorts them three times around the tetrapod, a small table which sits in front of the Royal Doors of the Iconostasis. The book of the Gospels is placed upon the tetrapod as a reminder that their lives should always revolve around it. The choir sings these beautiful troparia as they walk:
O Lord, O Lord, look down from heaven and see, and visit this vineyard and perfect this vine, which your right hand has planted.... After the Dance of Isaiah, the priest removes the crowns from the heads of the bride and groom saying:
Be exalted, O Bridegroom, as Abraham; and be blessed as Isaac; and multiply like Jacob, walking in peace and keeping the commandments of God in righteousness. And you, O Bride, may you be exalted as Sarah, be happy as Rebekah; multiply like Rachel, rejoicing in your husband and observing the prescriptions of the law, for such is the will of God.
and the Divine Liturgy continues.
The Liturgy of the Eucharist The gifts of bread and wine will be consecrated and the Eucharist will be distributed, first to the bride and groom, and then to the rest of the congregation.
Note: The Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic Church is in full communion with Rome, so any practicing Catholic without serious, unconfessed sin is encouraged to approach for Communion.
That said, the Eucharist in the Byzantine Church doesn’t resemble what you may be used to receiving in the Roman Church. We use leavened bread, cut into particles in an elaborately symbolic rite which takes place immediately before the liturgy, usually privately observed by the priest at the side altar known as the Table of Preparation. These particles, once they are consecrated, are mingled with the Precious Blood in the chalice and distributed to the faithful on a golden spoon. The protocol is as follows:
Two lines form, one on either side of the nave of the church and each communicant in turn approaches the priest. You may notice the priest may pause as he prays, “The servant/handmaid of God…” and here you may give him your first name….then he continues to pray for you as you receive Christ. Altar servers may (or may not) stand on either side to hold a cloth under the chin of the communicant, who will cross his hands upon his chest, tip his head back and open his mouth wide (like a baby bird) without extending the tongue. Father will then place a particle into your mouth (like the mama bird). You must not bite down upon the spoon. Just allow the priest to deposit the Body and Blood of Our Lord into your mouth. You need not say anything. You may cross yourself as you return to your seat.
(It must be noted that since the Eastern Church grants all three sacraments of initiation to infants, you may see infants and small children receiving Our Lord in the Eucharist. I say this so you won’t be scandalized as many in the west don’t realize that we do this and may come away quite shocked.)
Conclusion of the Liturgy
After the distribution of the Holy Eucharist, the prayers of the Divine Liturgy continue and will soon conclude with the intonation for God's blessing upon the newly married couple.
The priest will chant: "Grant, O Lord, to your newly-wed servants Vincent and Anastasia, peace, health, and happiness for many and blessed years."
Then the choir and all of the congregation will all joyously, and no doubt tearfully, sing a beloved hymn of blessing that has been passed down from generation to generation as the couple will exit the church and begin their new life together:
God grant them many years! God grant them many years! God grant them many happy years! In health and happiness! In health and happiness! God grant them many happy years!!
(...and the mother of the bride, and I suspect the mother of the groom, will need a handkerchief.)