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[Published in The Greek Australian Vema, November 2008, 8]

CROWNED IN MARRIAGE
Seeking New Life
Revd Dr Doru Costache

It has been some time now since Christians realised that family has ceased to be – in
the eyes of contemporary sociologists and politicians – the cornerstone of society,
and that together with it the ideal of a social body founded on communion has
become in many ways obsolete. And in fact what we witness in this world dominated
by individualism and egocentrism is that in the process of defending their rights (or
rather mere indulgencies), many people become nowadays oblivious with regard to
the others’ rights, aspirations and needs; for many, generosity and compassion seem
to have lost their traditional significance.

As a consequence, in an epoch of worldwide communication people become


increasingly isolated, more and more estranged, distant and lonely. This very
complex phenomenon is not without repercussions to family life. The monstrously
amplified ‘self’, unwilling (and eventually unable) to cope with the other(s) presence,
becomes one of the main factors causing the dissolution of – mostly – new families.
There is nothing wrong about defending one’s own dignity and expectations yet there
is nothing more wrong than transforming self-awareness into the only measure under
the stars…

In the following, the readers will find a brief account of the ecclesial wisdom
concerning marriage and family life, as conveyed in the liturgical services of betrothal
and crowning. On the one hand, these may be seen as implicit guidelines to be
considered by those wondering why in our society families do not hold together;
given that most people ignore the very basics of ecclesial life there is no surprise with
them feeling helpless before contemporary pressures and challenges. On the other
hand, these guidelines may be also useful to people who, having received the crowns
of blessing, did not grasp their meaning yet still look to improve the quality of their
family life.

Although we have at our disposal only scarce documentary data, apparently the
wedding ceremony was performed in the early Church as a blessing within the Divine
Liturgy. This custom stressed the ecclesial and spiritual dimensions of marriage.
Indeed, according to St Gregory of Nyssa’s treatise On Virginity marriage has been
perceived from the outset as a Christian leitourgia; that is, a sacred office that
encapsulates more than the current idea of household management. In line with this
understanding, the current wedding ceremony promotes in a mystagogical manner a
powerful message, spiritual in nature. Basically, it constitutes an appeal to
communion that should be taken into consideration by those willing to succeed in this
first true social experiment, namely family life.

The sacrament of marriage, or crowning, is performed by the bishop, or priest, for a


man and a woman who – in love and mutual respect – want to share their lives as
husband and wife. Or, in the words of Fr Dumitru Stăniloae, are willing ‘to become
spiritual bread for each other’. We are forced to acknowledge that this is something

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rare these days; one might note that apparently there is a lot of love around although
not much commitment… In the case of people receiving the marital blessing as a
fulfilment of their union, mutual commitment is shown symbolically within the service
by the rings they exchange and by the partaking of the ‘common cup’. In light of
these two symbolic acts, it becomes clear that commitment goes hand in hand with a
profound sense of (inter)personal transformation.

Thus, the two acts indicate the pair’s willingness to be part of each other’s life and to
share in all matters, each leaving behind their idiosyncrasies for the sake of the
other. It is not by chance therefore, that in the scriptural texts read within the service
of crowning, the wedding appears as endowed with mystical character – a true
sacrament of communion – since it takes place ‘in the Lord’ (see 1 Corinthians 7:39).
Thus, the apostolic reading (from Ephesians 5:20-33) asserts the sanctity of marriage
by assimilating it to the love between Christ and his Church. In turn, the evangelic
lecture (from John 2:1-11), speaking of the change of water into wine on the occasion
of the wedding in Cana of Galilee, suggests spiritual transformation as a fundamental
dimension of Christian marriage. This message of transformation is in fact conveyed
by the entire process of consecration.

According to the first prayer of betrothal (service preceding the sacrament of


crowning), God is the one who calls people together into union and blesses them with
love. In our tradition, therefore, love is never treated lightly as merely a ‘natural’
accident or an ephemeral event of chemical reactions. The synaxis of love manifests
a mystery of divine-human interaction, on the one hand through the mutual affection
and agreement of the groom and the bride, and on the other through the gift they
receive from above.

As a next stage in the ongoing catechetical initiation of believers, the true


significance of the wedding ceremony plays a determinant role: the whole ritual
points to the Christian wisdom and sacrificial spirit in which the two are called to
share together.

This aspect is suggested by the recalling of a series of saintly families mentioned in


both Scripture and Tradition – living icons of wisdom, commitment and blessed life.
Also, by the crowns bestowed upon the groom and the bride – crowns of martyrs,
indicating the spiritual, or ascetical, dimension involved with living together in Christ.
This is further confirmed by the mystical dance performed around the Book of the
Gospels, when they learn to hold each other for, and throughout, the common
journey. Thus, all these indicate that togetherness requires a mutual predisposition to
make room for one another, to grow in mutual respect and communion, goals
impossible to attain without the everyday small sacrifices for the sake of one another.

In this algorithm the personal value of each is safeguarded and nurtured; however, it
is clear that within such a framework there is not much allowance for the ego, which
is challenged to attain fulfilment by taking the cross of acknowledging the other. This
sacrificial dynamic, inherent in all dimensions pertaining to Christian life, leads St
Maximus the Confessor to point out the validity of both ascetic ways – marriage and
celibacy – in regard to realising the virtuous path (see his Difficulty 10:31a5).

The idea, ultimately, of both the sacrament’s order and traditional literature (worth
mentioning here are the homilies dedicated to marriage by St John Chrysostom) is
that without spiritual progress there is no accomplished married life. Or, within
contemporary society with its individualist features and propensities, the very spirit
of marriage is negotiated and in the end dramatically compromised.
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The wisdom is there, in our very tradition; the lesson is served by the Church. Yet,
how can the miracle of family life still happen within the context of an individualist
and anti-traditional culture? I guess this and many other things remain entirely up to
us; the ball is on our court. Are we not those believing that if we want, we can?

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