Saint Volodymyr le Grand b
Ukrainian Orthodoxy
Orthodoxie ukrainienne

Marriage Vows


Where exactly did the marriage vows come from?  I have read the Bible and even though it refers to marriage and love  the vows that we say in a marriage is not written down.  Please give me more information regarding "marriage vows"


Dr. Alexander Roman (e-mail)

You are absolutely correct in making the assumptions you do in raising this question on marriage vows in the history of the Church.

Initially, the Mystery of Coronation, (in Ukrainian "Veenchannya")as marriage is still called by the Orthodox Church, involved just that: a brief service of prayer for the husband and wife together with what is still the heart of the Mystery, the crowning of both with crowns of myrtle.

Originally, and before St Constantine the Great made his peace with the Church, Christians who married obtained their certificate from the Roman civil authorities. Marriage, as an institution was, of course, entirely regulated by the State. The Church did not intrude on that relationship.

The Mystery of Marriage-Coronation was the sacramental blessing of the couple in Church once the contractual obligations were fulfilled and signed.

It was only after the Church became integrally involved with the Christianized Roman State (how far it was "Christianized" is a point I leave for everyone to decide for himself or herself) that marriage was handed over to the Church to regulate. As a result, aspects of the civil side of the marriage contract entered even into the Church's Liturgy, in addition to the Coronation ceremony.

It is still not necessary for the marriage vows to be made during the wedding ceremony, and there are some good liturgical reasons for leaving them out. After all, the Crowning is what is the "form" and the heart of the Mystery. However, due to various influences, people marrying in the Eastern tradition often insist on the vows being made.

The vows are really a Western issue, rather than an Eastern one, and this is due to the completely different views on the rite of marriage itself. The West, under heavy Roman bureaucratic influence began to understand the Sacrament of Matrimony in a rather legalistic way, as a true contractual relationship. Thus, during the western ceremonial, the "terms" of the contractual agreement are explicitly stated. The marriage certificate itself is actually signed in Church as part of the ceremony (it happens in the East as well, unfortunately).

And, to top it all off, the true "ministers" of the Sacrament of Marriage are said to be none other than those entering into the contractual relationship - the man and woman themselves, not the clergy!

This legalistic view of the Mystery of Crowning is not a positive one, at least it isn't for me. I much prefer the mystical approach of the Orthodox Catholic East.

The Orthodox view of the marriage rite is that the presiding bishop or priest truly administer this Mystery to the man and the woman being married. 

(The term "marriage" is in use today, but it comes from the Latin Rite and the tradition of singing the "Hail Mary" at the end of the ceremony - i.e. getting "married.")

The emphasis here is entirely on the imparting of the Grace of God to the man and the woman. Again, there is the mystical element of coronation with myrtle or else with the marriage crowns that Churches have developed.

Myrtle was and is the symbol of martyrdom. It was initially the symbol of athletic victory by participants in the early Olympic and Roman games.

People suffered much in their exercises to achieve excellence and win contests.

This notion was then applied to Christian Martyrdom. The Church, as the Good Mother She is, knows that we need to make sacrifices, even great sacrifices, in order to live in harmony with one another, especially within the marriage relationship. This is why the Church crowns Her children with myrtle in advance, to let them know that they must be prepared for the coming experience of suffering as a result of mutual tolerance and forgiveness in Christ.

How different is this understanding of the Mystery of Crowning to that of the current western (pagan) view of marriage - a contract entered into by two parties who can therefore end it when they wish, whether through civil divorce or through what many Roman Catholics decry as the hypocritical "annulment process."

In the Orthodox Church, God seals the Mystery. Even though the Orthodox Church, in certain circumstances, will allow for divorce and remarriage, it is due to human weakness that such an allowance will be made (or not).

Traditionally, the Orthodox view is such that spouses have a relationship to one another even after one has departed this life.

In addition, the problem with such "vows" is not only their legalistic and contractual character, but also the way they delimit and rationalize the marriage relationship. The mystical approach of the Orthodox Church primarily sees in that relationship the relationship between Christ and the Church, as St Paul talks about. Marriage is something which needs to be lived out in a continual state of seeking God's Grace and Guidance. A Christian Marriage will succeed when it is lived in the Life of the Church within a constant state of openness to the Unexpected and to the Divine Surprise. God is a God of surprises and of joy. If we don't feel that joy, we should ask ourselves whether we are willing to cast ourselves onto God's mercy and allow the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit to transfigure our lives as Christians reflecting the Oneness of God through the Seal of Christ in marriage.

Rather than rationalizing things to marriage counsellors, "Well, if he doesn't improve on such and such a thing, I'll . . . " or "She always at me on this . . .", we need to see beyond the petty hurts we fling at one another. We need to remind ourselves of the fact that our Crowning is a real sharing in the spiritual Kingship of Christ where the willingness to suffer one another's faults is the fullest expression of love.

One person once explained this to me and I wanted to share it with you. Hesaid, "Love means suffering, one cannot have one without the other. What would imply greater suffering, then, for the Father to come Himself to save the world, or to send His Son?" I said, "To send His Son, of course." Then he said, "Now we know what it means for God the Father to love us whom He made."

Take from this what you will, but for me, the Rite of Crowning is the expression of the Church's wisdom in knowing that true love implies suffering. If the west were more imbued with this attitude toward marriage, then the experience of suffering within marriage would no longer be the justification for divorce. It would become a challenge to be met and addressed between husband and wife together!

Finally, I really wish we would go back to the old Orthodox Christian wedding bands with the Cross on it which should also be worn on the right hand. This way, whenever married people Cross themselves, they can briefly look at their band and remember that their mystical union was and is achieved in Christ.

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