Laurel-like leaves and baby’s breath wreathed Michael’s hair. The leaves were difficult to weave into the crown, but my maid of honor and I managed--with some help from my sisters and a lot of flower tape.
Turning to me, Father held out another almost identical crown, and I leaned forward to kiss it. The crown smelled fresh and green amidst the thick, rich incense in the church. As Father placed the crown on my head, I was married to Michael in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
My husband grew up Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic, and we were married in the Byzantine rite, whose liturgical traditions came from Constantinople. The Byzantine Catholic marriage sacrament, called the Mystery of Crowning, emphasizes God’s sovereignty over marriage, his call to martyrdom, and a glimpse of Heavenly community. Learning about another Catholic rite’s marriage traditions can provide new understandings of God’s beautiful plan for marriage.
On our wedding day, we exchanged no rings and said no vows. Instead, our wedding began with a crowning ceremony, continued with readings, a dance around the Gospel book, and finally culminated when we took the Eucharist together.
A Note about Rings, Vows, and Chalices
In the Byzantine tradition, the priest places rings on the couple’s fingers at the betrothal ceremony. Eastern Catholic Churches take betrothal very seriously; an annulment may be required to dissolve it. Because of this, couples have the option to celebrate their betrothal on the same day as their wedding or, if their priest allows, during their season of engagement. Once betrothed, Byzantine Catholics continue to wear their rings just like Roman Catholics wear wedding rings. The ring symbolizes the commitment to the couple’s vocation together.
Vows were traditionally not a part of Byzantine Catholic marriages. However, in the spirit of blending cultures, some Byzantine couples in America choose to include vows in their ceremony. The vows are not sacramental but carry emotional significance.
Most Byzantine couples share the Common Cup, a chalice of unconsecrated wine that symbolizes their common life together. Traditionally, Byzantine Catholic weddings do not include the Liturgy of the Eucharist. However, if both spouses are Catholic, the couple may choose to replace the Common Cup with the Liturgy of the Eucharist, or to include both in their ceremony.
God’s Sovereignty over Marriage
God calls us to our vocations; we assent to participate in His plan. After assenting to be married, the couple remains silent throughout the wedding. The sacramental moment of a Byzantine marriage is when the priest places crowns upon the couples’ heads.
“The sacrament is not administered by the couple to each other,” as in the Roman Catholic tradition; “in the Byzantine tradition, the priest gives the sacrament of marriage to the couple like baptism, like the Eucharist,” explains Father Michael O’Loughlin in “The Heart of Marriage,” a podcast episode from Catholic Stuff You Should Know.
Marriage Crowns: The Call to Martyrdom
Marriage crowns remind the new spouses that they are now the leaders of a tiny church: their family. Just like the Church, the couple is led by the Holy Spirit to do the will of the Father and to draw closer to the Son. The marriage crown says, “here is the beginning of a small kingdom which can be something like the true Kingdom,” wrote Fr. Alexander Schmemann in For the Life of the World.
Marriage crowns are crowns of martyrdom, signs of glory and triumph when man and woman lay down their lives as an act of love for the other. “A martyr gives everything, even their very life for the kingdom of God and for Christ. So the couple is now crowned with martyrdom… they have now died to themselves to live for the other,” said Fr. O’Loughlin.
By accepting the crowns of martyrdom, the couple has already surrendered their lives to each other and to God. They are led to the front of the church for the Dance of Isaiah, a victory dance for their sacrifice.
The Dance of Isaiah: A foundation on Christ and a glimpse of Heavenly Community
After the crowning and the readings, the priest leads the couple three times around the Gospel book, which rests on a table near the front of the church. The priest holds a small cross in front of them.. Christ is their beacon as they take their first few steps as a married couple. The Gospel is at the center of this dance. They walk in three circles: a circle has no end. This is because the marriage sacrament “is not taken ‘until death parts,’ but until death unites us completely,” wrote Fr. Schmemann.
Married love is an icon of Christ’s love for us as well as a foreshadowing of the redeemed love we will share in Heaven: unending, selfless, and always encouraging each other to grow closer to the Trinity.
Meanwhile, the congregation sings four troparia (hymns). They lyrics include praise for the couple receiving their crowns: “O Holy martyrs, you have suffered courageously and received your reward; pray to the Lord our God to have mercy on our souls.”
During this dance, the couple is surrounded by the singing of their family and friends, as well as the heavenly community present whenever the sacraments are celebrated. Painted icons around the church serve as reminders that the angels and saints are present. In this moment, the cloud of witnesses is fully present, able to be seen and heard.
A Sacramental Sign
In a shadowbox on the wall in our home, our marriage crowns remind us that God chose Michael for me and me for Michael. We are called to be martyrs for Christ and for each other. Although our love is imperfect, through our marriage, the Lord gives us a taste of heavenly community—unconditional, supported by our community, and always oriented toward the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kiki Hayden is a freelance writer and bilingual Speech Therapist living in Texas. She is a Byzantine Catholic. To read about how God has changed her life through speech therapy, visit her website.