In the Holy Orthodox Church, marriage is a divine Mystery that culminates in two people being transformed into a one-flesh unity through the work of the Holy Spirit. The ultimate goal of this one-flesh unity is the salvation of the husband, wife, and any children the Lord grants to the couple. Orthodox Christian marriage, therefore, is a path towards holiness.
Today, this beautiful reality of marriage is oftentimes overshadowed by the dark cloud of the modern wedding reception, which is sadly welcomed by even devout Orthodox Christians. If you’ve attended one of these receptions, you’ve attended them all, because they have become quite formulaic and predictable: a rowdy party at a hotel/banquet hall/restaurant with unseemly dancing to some mix of Middle-Eastern and Western music, an open bar, and oftentimes some type of photo station for selfies with generic signs or funny hats.
These types of receptions have become so prevalent that they are now normative in the minds of many young Orthodox Christian couples. It is not my intention to comment on those who may have had such receptions in the past, because they most likely didn’t know better. If they made a mistake, it was that of being followers rather than leaders. The goal of this essay is to reach out to couples who will get married in the future and encourage them to have a frank discussion about how they wish to celebrate their blessed marriage.
It’s hard to reconcile modern wedding receptions with the beautiful reality of Orthodox Christian marriage. On the one hand, the Crowning service in the Church has the spirit of holiness — everything is illuminated in the light of Christ and the prayers speak of blessings, harmony, love, obedience and self-sacrifice. On the other hand, the modern wedding reception has the spirit of worldliness with blaring music, indecent attire, open bars, and unseemly dancing. A couple’s wedding day thus begins with the beauty of prayer in the Church, but by nighttime, the world always gets the last word.
To understand the problem better, we need to get back to basics.
When a couple comes to the Church on the day of their marriage, they humbly ask the Lord God to unite them just as He married the first couple, Adam and Eve. As the Holy John Chrysostomos preached in his Homilies on Romans 23,
Thus when a certain wise man saith, “It is by the Lord that a man is matched with a woman” (Prov. 19:14, LXX.), he means this, God made marriage, and not that it is He that joineth together every man that cometh to be with a woman. 1
By coming to the Church, therefore, the couple acknowledged that pure marriage, indeed, is a gift from God that comes only from Him. For their union to last, they not only begin their marriage in the presence of God, but they must continually strive to place themselves before Him. This is why, in the beautiful original rites of marriage, which have regrettably been largely abandoned today, the Crowning was done within the Divine Liturgy so that the couple might receive Holy Communion together as their first act of marriage. In the Mystery of the Crowning, God joined them to one another, and in the Mystery of the Eucharist, they received Communion with God together as the ultimate expression of their union.
When a couple comes to the Church on the day of their marriage, they ask our Lord Jesus Christ to bless their marriage with His presence just as He blessed the Marriage Feast of Cana at Galilee. As the Scholar Origen of Alexandria wrote in his Homilies on the Gospel of John,
The third day was now come from Jesus’ baptism, and there was a marriage taking place in Cana of Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there when, on the failure of the wine, He made wine out of water.… Jesus being Maker of man and woman does not refuse to be called to a marriage; it was He who after forming Eve brought her to Adam. Therefore in the Gospel He says about this union, “What God has joined together let no man put asunder.” 2
It is this presence of Christ that gives joy to a newlywed couple and sustains them throughout the years of their marriage as they work out their salvation together. St. Maximus of Turin (4th c.), a Western Father, beautifully expressed it in these words,
The Son of God went to the wedding so that marriage, which had been instituted by His own authority, might be sanctified by His blessed presence…He went to the wedding not, certainly, to enjoy a banquet but rather to make Himself known by miracles. He went to the wedding not to drink wine but to give it. 3
Here, we see how the Holy Fathers interpreted our Lord Jesus Christ’s presence at the Marriage Feast of Cana. Many people today use this story as supposed proof that Christ must have accepted dancing and drinking at such celebrations, but St. Maximus clearly says that our Savior attended that wedding to manifest His Divinity and sanctify it by His presence. The Holy John Chrysostomos teaches us that the presence of Christ is wholly incompatible with the worldly celebrations we find today:
If you ask Him, He will work for you an even greater miracle than He worked in Cana: that is, He will transform the waters of your unstable passions into the wine of spiritual unity, but remember: if He should come and find the musicians and the crowd making a tumult, He will expel them all before working His wonders. 4
When a couple comes to the Church on the day of their marriage, they humbly stand before the entire ekklesia, the Body of Christ constituted in the Church, and ask the people to witness their union in the Church at the hands of the priest. By beginning their marriage in a holy and righteous way before the entire Church, they are pledging that their marriage will continue to be holy and righteous until the end of their lives.
These are only some of the delightful realities behind what a couple does when they get married in the Orthodox Church. Let us frankly ask ourselves, “Do modern wedding receptions reflect these realities?” Clearly not. The sad truth is that, only minutes after the Crowning service ends, these beautiful realities are forgotten by everyone, including the couple. God, Who married and united them at the hands of the priest through the work of the Holy Spirit, is not invited to the reception. He is left behind the closed doors of the Church while the couple opens the worldly doors of the reception. Struggling with the same problem in the fourth century, our father among the saints, the Holy John Chrysostomos asks,
Why then do you celebrate weddings in a silly and immodest manner? Have you no idea what you are doing? You are marrying your wife for the procreation of children and for moderation of life; what is the meaning of these drunken parties with their lewd and disgraceful behavior? You can enjoy a banquet with your friends to celebrate your marriage; I do not forbid this, but why must you introduce all these excesses? Camels and mules behave more decently than some people at wedding receptions! 5
What, then, should we do?
Above all else, we need to understand Orthodox Christian marriage and its ultimate goal of salvation. I encourage couples to seek out a legitimate Orthodox premarital counseling program with an Orthodox priest. I know there are many “Christian” books and programs out there, but they oftentimes don’t reflect the beautiful realities of marriage mentioned above. We need to go beyond the general understanding of marriage found in books like His Needs, Her Needs and focus on the Mystery of Marriage found in Orthodoxy and expressed in foundational Orthodox texts like Chrysostomos’ On Marriage and Family Life. If a couple doesn’t have access to an Orthodox priest for this purpose, I welcome them to send me a message for a reading list on Orthodox marriage that they can study on their own. Only after understanding marriage and its goal will we be able to celebrate it appropriately. As Chrysostomos says,
There is nothing more pleasurable than virtue, nothing sweeter than orderliness, nothing more honorable than dignity. Those who celebrate weddings such as this will find true pleasure…If you drive away the [worldly] things, Christ Himself will come to your wedding, and where Christ goes, the angels’ choir follows. 6
Lord, grant us all to conduct our lives in a manner that invites You to be among us and bless us with Your presence.