This is a part three in a three-part series on the Byzantine wedding liturgies of betrothal and crowning. Specifically, we are discussing how these liturgies offer a unique illumination of three important principles of a good marriage: God’s faithfulness to his people, the importance of community, and the call to martyrdom.
In part one, we discussed the portrayal of God’s faithfulness in the Byzantine wedding liturgies and the importance of that faithfulness in making marriage sacramental and not merely a human contract. Part two discussed the wedding’s emphasis on the importance of the community’s role in building a strong marriage. Today, we discuss how the Byzantine wedding emphasizes the couple’s call to martyrdom in their marriage.
The culmination of a Byzantine wedding is the Crowning liturgy, which developed specifically to emphasize the martyrdom inherent in a sacramental marriage. The crowns themselves are intended to evoke the image of the crowns that are given to the martyrs as a symbol of their victory over death through Christ (Meyendorff 37-39). After the wedding, couples generally display their crowns in a visible part of the home to remind them of this call to martyrdom.
This emphasis on martyrdom is continued in what is called the “Dance of Isaiah,” in which the priest guides the crowned couple in a procession around the book of the Gospels, leading the couple with a crucifix in his hand. The couple is thus meant to follow Christ and the Cross in their life together. Continuing the theme, one of the troparia sung during this procession is a prayer specifically to the martyrs (Meyendorff 41).
Still one of the most profound allusions to martyrdom in the Crowning liturgy is in the words of the actual Crowning. Each person is crowned “unto” or “for” the other spouse: “The servant of God, [groom’s name], is crowned unto the handmaiden of God, [bride’s name]: in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Meyendorff 124). The husband’s life thus belongs now to more than just himself, and the same is true for the wife. They are each now for one another in Christ, and this is the true essence of the martyrdom of marriage.
It is vastly important for the Eastern churches to make this emphasis. Martyrdom is indeed the entire point of marriage. However, we–myself included–often miss or waste opportunities to practice this martyrdom.
We have developed an idea as a culture that marriage is primarily meant to make two people mutually happy, and I mean “happy” as a fickle emotion rather than true blessedness and fulfillment. I’ve heard many people claim this is exemplified in the “contraceptive mentality,” and I would agree, but I think that phrase ought to include much more than simply making the choice to use birth control.
The contraceptive mentality which has so damaged our families and society includes any and all refusals to bring new life into one’s relationship. We refuse new life whenever we refuse to give up a habit that hurts our spouse. We refuse new life whenever we refuse to forgive. We refuse new life whenever we refuse to give completely and totally to our spouse for the sake of the Lord. We refuse new life and engage in the contraception of our union with God and with one another whenever we refuse the fruit-bearing martyrdom to which we are called in marriage.
And the result is sterility and dysfunction.
But love’s martyrdom–whether it be the welcoming of a child or putting our spouses’ needs ahead of our own–often brings a blessedness and fulfillment that we could never have imagined otherwise, if only we are open to the Grace that makes such martyrdom possible.
Kahlil Gibran gives, perhaps, one of the best meditations on this kind of sacrificial love that I’ve ever read outside of Scripture. I can think of no better way to end this series than with his words on love from The Prophet:
“When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.
For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you.
Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.
Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast.
All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart.
But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.
…And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.
Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself.
But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.”
A note about my source: I have referenced Father John Meyendorff’s book Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective. This book is an excellent resource for Eastern Catholics wanting to learn about the marriage liturgies, and in general, everything Father Meyendorff explains about the liturgies is in line with Eastern Catholic teaching. However, he takes an Orthodox perspective on marriage theology and canon law, which is one of the very few areas where Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians differ substantially. A Catholic reading this book should understand that, while it is an excellent source for understanding Orthodox teaching on marriage, it is not 100% congruous with Eastern Catholic teaching in theology and canon law.
Copyright 2015 Brittany Balke
Images: Icon of the Crucifixion of Christ, by Meister der Schule von Nowgorod [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Byzantine flower crowns (2015) (Brittany Balke) All rights reserved.
Gibran, Kahlil. The Prophet. New York: Knopf, 1952. Print.
Meyendorff, John. Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1975. Print.