08 August 2012

The Orthodox Wedding Ceremony

The wedding ceremony in the Greek Orthodox Church is an ancient and meaningful service that has been celebrated in its present form for centuries. The service is abundant with symbols that reflect marriage: love, mutual respect, equality and sacrifice.

The ceremony consists of two parts which are distinct and separate from each other: the Service of Betrothal and the Service of Crowning. Everything in the ceremony has a special meaning and significance, especially the repetition of each act three times to symbolize and to invoke the mystical presence of the Holy Trinity.

The Service of Betrothal
Petitions are chanted for the spiritual welfare of the couple. The highlight during this service is the blessing and exchanging of the rings. The presbyter (priest) holds the rings in his right hand, and making the sign of the cross over their heads, betroths the servants of God, the bride to the groom. The rings are then placed on their right hands, for it is the right hand of God that blesses, it was the right hand of God to which Christ ascended, and it is also to the right that those who will inherit the eternal life will ascend.

The koumbaro or koumbara (religious sponsor) then exchanges the rings three times. The exchange signifies that in married life, the weakness of one partner will be compensated by the strength of the other, the imperfections of one, by the perfection of the other. By themselves, the newly betrothed are incomplete, but together they are made perfect. The rite of the betrothal ends with the priest praying for the firmness of the betrothal, in true faith, concord and love.

The Service of Crowning
The crowning service consists of the prayers, the crowning, the scripture readings, offering of the common cup, and the circling of the ceremonial table or the “dance of Isaiah”. At the conclusion of the prayers, the priest joins the hands of the bride and the groom. The hands are kept joined until the end of the service to symbolize the union and the oneness of the couple.

The Crowning
The wedding crowns (stefana) are signs of the glory and honour with which God crowns the bride and groom during the sacrament. The crowns are joined by a ribbon which symbolizes unity, and the presence of Christ who blesses and joins the couple and establishes them as the king and queen of their home, which they will rule with wisdom, justice and integrity. The priest takes the two crowns and blesses the bride and the groom, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and then places the crowns on them. The koumbaro or koumbara then steps behind the bride and the groom and interchanges the crowns three times as a witness to the sealing of the union.

Some interpret the crowns used in the Orthodox wedding ceremony to refer to the crowns of Martyrdom since every true marriage involves immeasurable self sacrifice on both sides.

The Scripture Readings and the Common Cup
The rite of crowning is followed by the reading of the Epistle and the Gospel. The Gospel reading describes the marriage at Cana of Galilee which was attended and blessed by Christ and for which He reserved His first miracle. There He converted the water into wine and gave it to the newlyweds. The change of water into wine in Cana points to the change of the old into the new, a passage from death to life. As the rest of the crowning service, it announces the possibility of transforming the natural order of things into joyful celebration of God’s presence among men.

In remembrance of this blessing, wine is given to the couple. This is the "common cup" of life denoting the mutual sharing of joy and sorrow, the token of a life of harmony. The drinking of wine from the common cup serves to impress upon the couple that from that moment on they will share everything in life, joys, as well as sorrows. Their joys will be doubled and their sorrows halved because they will be shared.

The Ceremonial Walk or "Dance of Esias/Isaiah"
The priest then leads the bride and the groom three times in a circular procession around the table on which are placed the Gospel and the Cross. The koumbaro or koumbara follows behind, holding the crowns over their heads. The bride and the groom are taking their first steps as a married couple, and the church, in the person of the priest, leads them in the way they must walk. As in the case of the rings, the circle is a symbol of eternity and emphasizes marriage as a permanent commitment.

During this ceremonial walk, a hymn is sung to the Holy Martyrs reminding the newly married couple of the sacrificial love they are to have for each other in marriage - a love that seeks not its own but is willing to sacrifice its all for the one loved.

At the conclusion of the ceremonial walk, the priest removes the crowns from the bride and the groom and beseeches God to grant to the newlyweds a long, happy and fruitful life together. He then lifts up the Gospel and separates their joined hands, reminding them that only God can separate the couple from one another.

The Wedding Favours
The sugar coated almonds (koufeta), which were placed on the tray with the crowns and which will later be offered to the guests are also symbolic. In the early days of the Church, honey dipped almonds were offered to the newlyweds by the priest. The white symbolizes purity. The egg shape represents fertility and the new life which begins with marriage. The hardness of the almond represents the endurance of marriage and the sweetness of the sugar symbolizes the sweetness of future life. The odd number of almonds given to each guest is indivisible, just as the bride and the groom shall remain undivided.

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