A Commentary on the Holy Mysteries
The Mystery of Crowning
The Theology of Marriage
By Chorbishop Seely Beggiani
The idea of mysteries (sacraments) in the Syriac tradition is that visible and tangible earthly realities can be the threshold to divine realities. In each of the seven mysteries, the presence of God is made manifest through the performance of sacred rites using such earthly elements as water, oil, bread and wine. The same applies to the mystery of crowning through which a man and a woman are wedded to each other. In marriage it is the solemn and public life-long commitment of the bride and the groom that becomes the occasion for divine presence. St. Paul teaches that the love of a man and woman in marriage is the manifestation of the love of Christ for His people, the Church.
The Syriac Fathers drew a direct parallel between marriage and the ongoing reality of God’s love. The Syriac tradition teaches that God’s plan for the world is slowly and progressively revealed and put into effect in human history. Thus, the fulfillment of God’s plan of establishing the Church as the Bride of Christ was prefigured and taking place throughout human history and the Old Testament. The Syriac writer James of Seroug sees a foreshadowing of the marriage of Christ to His people in God’s providing Eve as a bride for Adam in the book of Genesis, and the declaration that they were to become two in one flesh in marriage. James portrays Moses, the author of Genesis, as knowing the full revelation, but because the world was not ready for it yet, Moses presented the marriage of Adam and Eve as a symbol of God’s future plan. James claims that in the Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul removes the cover of symbol from marriage and reveals the full reality, namely that each marriage is a reenactment of that ultimate union between Christ and His bride, the Church.
The quotation from James reads as follows:
The hidden Father betrothed a bride (the Church) to His only-begotten, having instructed her through prophecy in a symbolic way.
In His love He built a great palace (the universe) for the bride of light and depicted the bridegroom in various ways in her royal home [that is, signs of Christ are found in creation].
Moses entered in and, like a skilled artist, delineated the bridegroom and the bride, and then covered the great picture with a veil. He put in his writings that a man should leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, so that the two of them might be one completely.’
. . . He covered up his words by various means, hiding them from outsiders. And so he painted a picture inside the chamber of the royal bridegroom; he called them man and woman’, although he knew the truth, that the one was Christ and the other the Church, both being veiled. . . .
After the wedding feast [the redemptive work of Christ], Paul entered in and beheld the veil lying there; he seized and removed it from the fair couple . . . and began to show what the covered picture was: in those called “man and wife” in the prophetic writings, I recognize Christ and His Church, the two being one.’
Therefore, the mystery of marriage reveals a profound teaching and reality. Love is at the heart of creation. The ultimate goal of creation is the mutual love between God and His people. Each act of love by human beings is a participation in the divine plan. Among the forms of love expressed by human beings, especially significant is the committed and life-long love between man and woman. Each marriage celebrated before God and the Church is a microcosm of the love of God for His people. Each celebration of the mystery of crowning is an occasion for divine presence.
The Requirements of Marriage
Since marriage is not only a human act but a sacred event, men and women should approach marriage with maturity and seriousness. Because God’s love for His people is unfailing, the commitment made between groom and bride should be perpetual. Otherwise, marriage loses its meaning as a mystery (sacrament). It becomes merely a revokable human contract. This is why the Church requires that those approaching marriage should be mature and serious enough to know what is involved in their commitment.
In past times and centuries, when societies were heavily structured and even dictated human affairs, it was almost impossible to leave a marriage once it was entered into. Divorce was rare and such a social stigma that very few sought it. In the past marriages were often arranged by the bride and groom’s parents and people got married at a very young age.
However, in recent decades the social fabric in the United States has unraveled. Society provides little or no safeguards in support of marriage. People do not often think in terms of life-long commitment. Many enter into marriage with the thought that if things do not work out, they can always get a divorce. Also, in a rapidly changing world, commitments made in one’s youth are considered difficult to fulfill as time goes on.
In the view of the Catholic Church, since marriage is a mystery (sacrament) established by Christ, Christ will give graces to the husband and wife throughout their married life so that they will be faithful to their commitment. In other words, since God is true to His promises, and since God recognizes the burdens and difficulties of married life, God will provide all the grace to fulfill one’s responsibilities in marriage providing we wish to cooperate with God. A Christian marriage gets into trouble either because the two parties should not have gotten married in the first place, or because one or both parties in the marriage are not cooperating with God’s grace because of their own moral failure.
The Catholic Church has become alarmed by the fact that as much as one out of two marriages end in civil divorce. Many of these broken marriages were due to the fact that the spouses were either too young when they got married, or got married too hastily, or really did not know what they were getting into. To address some of these causes of breakdown, many Catholic dioceses have instituted a waiting period before parties can get married, and have increased the amount of pre-marriage instruction.
While a marriage is filled with romance and is often a great social affair, it is important to remember that the two persons getting married are standing in the presence of God and asking Him to witness to the genuineness and seriousness of their promises. While marriage has civil and legal consequences, most importantly it deals directly with the salvation of the souls of the two persons getting married and the family they bring forth into the world. Therefore, marriage should be approached with great deliberation and caution.
The Rite of Betrothal
In former times, the mystery of crowning was preceded by a rite of betrothal. That practice reflected the biblical tradition that marriage consisted of two stages. The first stage or betrothal consisted in the act of giving consent to the marriage, the blessing of rings, and the blessing of clothing and jewelry. The betrothed parties while considered to be in the first stage of marriage did not live together. The second stage involved the rite of crowning which sealed the marriage and the couple began living together as husband and wife. In present practice, the rite of betrothal has fallen into disuse for the most part. The rite of crowning incorporates most of the elements of the rite of betrothal.
The Rite of Crowning The Service of the Word
In the Service of the Word, the Hoosoyo prayer addresses Christ as the heavenly bridegroom who in His love has betrothed the “Church of the Nations” [that is, the Church of the New Testament which is made up of all people]. It further states that by His Cross Christ sanctified the Church and made her His bride. Thus, we see that Christ who in His love was willing to suffer and die for His bride is being presented as a paradigm of the sacrificial love required of those preparing to be married.
The Hoosoyo prayer continues by tracing the history of marriage through the Old Testament. It emphasizes the fact that our ancestors served God in justice, and prays that this marriage be as honorable as those of the righteous and just of old. It reflects on the theme that in God’s plan various marriages in the past have produced children that became “priests, kings, prophets, apostles, preachers and teachers of your Gospel”. It concludes by petitioning Christ to assist and protect the bride and groom.
Both the Qolo hymn and the Etro prayer refer to the presence of Christ at the wedding feast of Cana where He brought joy to the groom and bride. It is noteworthy that in the Gospel of John, Christ worked as His first miracle the changing of water to wine. The goal of this miracle was solely to enhance the happiness of the bride, groom and their friends. Again, we see a sign that human marriage plays an essential role in God’s plan.
The Trisagion hymn prays for mercy from Christ who “betrothed the Church.” Scripture readings are selected presenting the biblical teaching of marriage.
The Marriage Covenant
The bride and groom each declare publicly their commitment to each other. After their exchange of vows and with their hands joined, the priest offers a blessing in the name of the Church. He declares that the bride and groom are joined in marriage in the name of the Trinity. The blessing then develops the biblical theme of covenant. It understands covenant as a solemn and abiding pledge. It recalls the covenant by which God created the heavens and the earth, and the covenants between Sarah and Abraham, Rebecca and Isaac, and Rachel and Jacob — that nothing shall separate them but death.
Giving of Rings
In former times, rings often contained one’s personal seal and were used to certify documents. The seal stood for the person. This theme is found in the blessing of the wedding rings, where the priest prays that these rings represent the seal and protection of Christ in whose image the bride and groom are. It prays that the rings be “a wall of protection for their bodies, and shield them from all harm”. The rings are then placed on the fingers of the groom and bride.
Christian mysteries often integrate ancient practices. Marriage through the centuries and in various cultures has developed a variety of customs. Certainly marriage symbolizes fertility and the exuberance of God’s creation. Flowers and wearing flowers as a crown are an ancient practice. In the context of Christian marriage, crowning can be seen to represent Christ and His kingdom. Just as the groom and the bride symbolize Christ and His Church, so they also represent the kingship of Christ and His kingdom.
The prayer blessing the marriage crowns first develops the theme of crowning and creation, how flowers crown the earth, stars crown the heavens and the sea enriches the land. It also sees crowning as a symbol of divine vocation and speaks of holy kings, priests and prophets being crowned. In crowning the groom, the priest prays for God’s blessing on him. When crowning the bride, the priest recalls the great women of the Old Testament and prays that she receive the crown of glory. He petitions that she be adorned with the fruits of the Spirit and “flourish as a blessed vine in the midst of the Church.” The witnesses are crowned as representing the whole community which is partaking in the event of blessed joy.
A hymn in the meter of St. Ephrem is chanted. It declares that Christ sealed His covenant with His Bride, the Church, in the upper room when He gave her His Body and Blood. Christ invites all those who are worthy to His wedding banquet which symbolizes our destiny to be with Him in heaven. In coming and seeking the blessing of the Church, the bride and groom are foreshadowing Christ’s heavenly banquet. The Service of the Eucharist, which is the ultimate celebration of Christ’s love and His call for unity, completes and perfects the celebration of the mystery of marriage.
The mystery of marriage teaches us that human love and the full range of love between husband and wife has a sacred dimension. Love that seeks the good of the other, to protect and support the other, love that perseveres, love that is never withheld or compromised, love that is loyal and never betrays, love that is unselfish discloses to the one committed to that love the mystery and presence of God Himself.
reprinted with permission