With the release of Amoris Laetatia earlier this month, the topic of marriage has likely been on a lot of people’s minds. Rather than try to comment on it, which should be left to the learned theologian, I think it appropriate for me to share briefly an aspect of the Eastern rite of Matrimony which will hopefully shine a light on this crucial topic. I do not know whether the Western rite was reformed at some point to drop this element or whether it was never used in the West, but the main element of the Eastern rite is not the exchange of rings, but rather the crowning of the husband and wife. In fact, Matrimony is referred to in the Orthodox Church as The Service of the Crowning. The bride and groom are each crowned and, after a series of blessings, the crowns are exchanged between them three times. Both these actions bear serious significance to the Orthodox understanding of what marriage entails.
In Byzantine iconography, crowns denote three things. First, they denote temporal power, thus saints who were kings or the like are portrayed with their crowns. Second, they denote ecclesial power, so bishop saints are commonly portrayed with the episcopal miter, which in the Eastern tradition is almost indistinguishable from a crown. Third-- and most common-- crowns denote martyrdom, since those who witness to Christ unto death win “the crown of immortality.”
When the couple being married are crowned, they are crowned in all three of these senses. First, they are crowned with temporal power as having legitimate authority over their children as their primary educators and guardians. Second, they are crowned with religious authority, since they become priests over their household and are charged with the great privilege and responsibility of their children’s formation and growth in the faith. The third aspect, however, is perhaps the most significant and one which often escapes the notice of couples in the West.
For those who are not enveloped in a romanticized vision of what marriage is, it is clear that married life-- and in fact, any life-long commitment to another person--does not come without its own set of difficulties and hardships. For this reason, each spouse accepts martyrdom for the other. They are to be witnesses of God’s love to each other, forever, through the thick and thin, through every joy and through every bit of suffering.
I think this is the great point in Ephesians 5:23, which is often misinterpreted to achieve a sexist conclusion. The husband is the head of the wife in the same way as Christ is the Head of the Church. But how is Christ the Head of the Church? Is He a tyrant, sitting on His golden throne oppressing the Church? Nothing could be further from the truth. Our Lord’s throne is not in some castle of stone, it is on the Life-giving Cross, where He voluntarily laid down His life for the Church.
Due to this, I think C. S. Lewis’ point that the Church does indeed place a crown in the head of the husband, but it is only a crown of thorns. The Orthodox Church, however, develops this point further. If the duty of the husband is to give up his whole life for his wife, to accept even crucifixion for her sake, then what is the duty of the wife and, analogously, what is the duty of the Church? The answer is one and the same. Our Lord accepted crucifixion for our sake and asked us to imitate Him in all things. The duty of the Church, therefore, is to accept crucifixion next to Christ. As the troparion for women martyrs says:
Thy Ewe Lamb O Jesus cries with a loud voice, Thee my Bridegroom I desire and I seek Thee with strife, And I’m crucified and buried with Thee in Thy Baptism, And suffer for Thee so that I may reign with Thee, And die for Thee so that I may live in thee. Therefore accept as an unblemished sacrifice, her who ardently was slain for Thee. By her intercessions, O Merciful Saviour, save our souls.
This is why the two crowns are connected and why they are switched three times over each spouse’s head. The duty of the husband and the wife, the duty which Christ accomplished and the Church has imitated until this very day, is precisely that mutual sacrifice. For this reason, the Fathers describe the husband and wife as living icons of God and the Church to their children and to the world. There can be no proper discussion of dualities within the marriage bed. The head and the body are one, as Christ and the Church are one, as the husband and the wife are one: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mt. 19:6).