A Byzantine marriage ring from the fifth century shows a couple in profile in front of a cross: their gazes are locked, their noses nearly touching. On another ring Christ himself stands between the two spouses and joins their hands. Such marriage rings are small but powerful examples of the ancient and enduring Christian esteem for marriage, even in the early church, which often ranked marriage second to consecrated virginity. They show that marriage was already woven deeply into the fabric of Christianity. The fact that each ring is unique—each a singular variation on a few basic themes—is also suggestive. It prefigures the diversity of theological and pastoral approaches to marriage within Orthodox Christianity. There is no one Orthodox Christian theology of marriage. Nor are there many universal rules when it comes to divorce and remarriage.
Of course, this kind of diversity characterizes the Orthodox tradition more generally. As an Orthodox theologian, I am often in the position of answering a seemingly straightforward question with the rather unprofessional, “Well, it depends.” For example: “Did the Mother of God experience real human childbirth, with pain?” Well, in the Orthodox context, it depends. According to Irenaeus and Gregory of Nyssa, who cite Isaiah’s prophecy, she did not. But, according to Tertullian and the Syriac poet-theologians, she did experience an authentic human childbirth, because her humanity is critical to her son’s humanity.
Properly understood, Orthodoxy’s theological diversity does not make it capricious or flaky. The solid basis of doctrine affirmed in the ecumenical councils, the dedication to the liturgy, and the continuous theological tradition and presence of the saints all attest to the solidity of Orthodox theology. Orthodoxy’s freedom of theological thinking and pastoral care is built on the bedrock of its spirituality. Orthodoxy’s pastoral flexibility has a word: economia, which can be roughly defined as a principle of mercy employed when a norm is not met. This concept can be difficult to get a handle on—and not only for those outside Orthodoxy. Different Orthodox theologians have understood it in different ways, and its application to particular cases is not systematic. This is partly because it begins with the recognition that God’s grace exceeds even the most comprehensive moral system.
THE PRACTICES OF marriage in the early church are not entirely clear. Most of what is known about them has been pieced together from references to marriage in texts and letters. From those fragments, it can be concluded that in Christianity’s first centuries the practice of civil marriage was accepted by Christians East and West—at this time, the church did not legally marry anyone—and that the church found ways to incorporate marriage into Christianity, including ritual action in the context of the liturgy.
After a Christian couple married in a civil ceremony, they came to church and received the Eucharist together. This, in part, brought their marriage into the church—made it Christian. Tertullian attests to this when he writes to his wife that marriage “is arranged by the church, confirmed by the oblation [the Eucharist], sealed by the blessing, and inscribed in heaven by the angels.” In the early church, baptism and ordination were also celebrated in the context of the Eucharist, and sanctified by their proximity to it.
In addition to receiving the Eucharist together, newlyweds would also be blessed during the liturgy by a priest or bishop. That blessing was not just a formality. In a letter to Polycarp, Ignatius of Antioch writes: “It is right for men and women who marry to make their union with the consent of the bishop, that their marriage may be for the Lord and not for passion. Let all things be done for the honor of God.”
Already there was some divergence between East and West. For example, the fourth-century pope Siricus I dictates that the bride be veiled, and Ambrose refers to the “giving away” of the bride. Neither of these customs was taken up in the Christian East, which saw the introduction of another distinctive tradition: the crowning of both bride and groom with jewels or flowers. The crowns themselves may have been a remnant of Jewish practice (Song of Songs 3:11) or an emulation of Saint Paul’s concept of athletic discipline in Christian life (1 Corinthians 9:24–25), or both. John Chrysostom describes crowns as “symbols of victory” over the passions, which suggests an interpretation of the custom that is still popular today: the marriage crown is, in part, a martyr’s crown—a reminder of the ascetic dimension of marriage.
These developments reflect a growing esteem for marriage in the early church. Even among those who favored monasticism, there was a strong sense that, when spouses dedicate themselves to each other’s sanctification, marriage is a worthy relationship. John Chrysostom, who began his preaching career with a strong animus against marriage, observed, “There is no relationship between people so close as that between man and wife, if they be joined together as they should be.”
By late in the first millennium, a marriage rite had begun to coalesce in the East. The rites extant from this period, with plenty of local variation, include the two parts of the Orthodox marriage rite that endure today: the Betrothal and the Crowning. Today the Betrothal is nearly always enacted immediately before the rest of the rite, but in the past it was sometimes practiced separately. The betrothal is thought to reflect the ancient Roman understanding that marriage was based on consent, though the spouses’ consent is never actually expressed in the Orthodox rite of betrothal. Most rites of betrothal from the end of the first millennium included a litany for the couple, various Psalm-steeped priestly blessings, and an exchange of rings. The rite continued with the Crowning, which was sometimes followed by an Epistle and Gospel reading, and then the Eucharist. In some places, the Eucharist at the marriage rite was “presanctified”—meaning it was consecrated before, rather than during, the service. The Crowning often concluded with the Common Cup, from which the new couple took the first drink of their new life together.
THE TENTH CENTURY brought dramatic change to Christian rites of marriage. By an imperial decree of Byzantine Emperor Leo VI in 912 AD, the church was put in charge of marriage until the fall of Byzantium. Christians no longer had their marriage first sanctioned by the state and then sanctified by the church. As the distinction between the secular and sacred dissolved, rites were altered to address new challenges. Whereas previously a citizen could legally remarry without the church’s blessing, now it became the church’s job to decide who could remarry, and on what terms.
Prior to Leo VI’s decree, divorced Christians who entered into another civil marriage had to talk with their priest about when they could receive the Eucharist again and thus have their new marriage made a Christian one. This usually took place after a period of penance. Liturgically, the presanctified gifts were removed from the crowning, as an acknowledgement that the church might now be marrying couples who were—due to their divorce or otherwise—not ready to receive the Eucharist during the rite. (In some places, a rite with the presanctified sacrament for couples who were both in good standing with the church survived as late as the fifteenth century.) Over time, the Common Cup came to be understood as a Eucharistic substitute, though this may not have been its original symbolism.
After the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the church lost its control of civil marriage. In many places, a couple married first in a civil ceremony and later in a church, as in the ancient world. In other places, like the United States today, Orthodox Christians do not need a separate civil marriage; the state recognizes their church marriage as legally valid. (There are many Orthodox who would prefer, for various reasons, that the church in America once again get out of the civil-marriage business.)
The second thousand years of Christianity saw embellishments of the Orthodox marriage rite, but no radical alterations. Beginning in the fifteenth century, the priest led the crowned couple around in a circle three times. This came to be known as the “Dance of Isaiah,” after a hymn sung at the time: “O Isaiah, dance your joy, for the Virgin was indeed with child.” At the end of the dance, the priest intones, “Accept their crowns in Your Kingdom unsoiled and undefiled; and preserve them without offense to the ages of ages.”
Also of note was the seventeenth-century addition of an expression of consent in the Slavic rite. Although this was due to Western influence, the Slavic expression of consent is very different in its wording from the Latin rites of this period: the couple is simply asked if they are here of their own free will and if they have promised themselves to anyone else. There is no sense, as there is in the Western marriage rite of the same period, that the couples themselves are the ministers of their marriage. In some cases, this expression of consent spread to the Byzantine rite, but today it is included in some of the Slavic but none of the Byzantine versions. Finally, it was also during this period that Ephesians 5:20–33 became the universal Epistle reading within the rite. This passage, along with the gospel reading of the Wedding at Cana, signified the sacramental significance of marriage.
By the fifteenth century, the Orthodox marriage rite was essentially as we know it today, containing both Betrothal and Crowning, and full of prayers of supplication for the health, procreation, and deification of the couple. (In Orthodox theology “deification” is the process of transformation that leads to union with God.) These prayers implicitly acknowledge the sexual union of the couple and suggest that the saints and martyrs rejoice at their coming together. They repeatedly invoke the community’s interest in the couple’s union, as well as the ways in which their marriage brings them into the history of God’s people.
IT WAS ONLY AFTER the marriage rite settled into the form known today that Orthodox theologies of marriage began to be formulated. This is not to suggest that no one in the Orthodox Church thought theologically about marriage before the past few centuries. As noted above, the Eastern church fathers had quite a bit to say on the subject. But it is only recently that the Orthodox began to construct comprehensive theologies of marriage. These theologies vary from one another in important ways, but they also have important things in common, three of which I will discuss here: the understanding of marriage as a sacrament or mystery, the significance of the Eucharist to marriage, and the eternal dimension of marriage.
Within Orthodoxy, there is no discrete, agreed-upon list of sacraments. Instead, there is an expansive understanding of the “sacramental.” In fact, anything that brings the divine and the human together can be understood as sacramental. Nevertheless, Orthodox Christians do see particular rites as sacraments, because they involve specific human persons in epiphanic moments of communion with the divine. In the case of the sacrament of marriage, there is no guarantee that this communion will be sustained. Through the grace of God and the effort of the spouses, perhaps it will be. But just as there is no certainty that those who receive the Sacrament of Baptism will grow in Christ throughout their lives, there is also no certainty that a particular marriage will grow in Christ.
Given Orthodoxy’s diversity, it should come as no surprise that there are even those who insist that the marriage rite is only a blessing, not a sacrament. But most Orthodox Christians agree with Archdeacon John Chryssavgis when he writes, “Marriage is, according to the Orthodox view, a sacrament because through it God directly reveals the heavenly Kingdom to the world in two specific persons.” Indeed, for most Orthodox, Saint Paul’s comparison of marriage with the relationship between Christ and church and his proclamation of marriage as a “great mystery” are sufficient testimony to marriage’s sacramental nature.
As each of the other ritual sacraments has its own telos, so also does marriage. The Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov is known for calling marriage “the sacrament of love.” For the Orthodox Church, the love union—not consent or consummation or procreation—is the heart of Christian marriage. This is prayed for in the Betrothal: “That He will send down upon them perfect and peaceful love…let us pray to the Lord.” This perfect and peaceful love is not the stuff of troubadours or rom-coms; it is rather a reflection of the love among the three persons of the Trinity. This love is a communion rather than just an expression of desire.
The understanding of marriage as a sacrament relates to the importance of the Eucharist within Orthodox marriage. Before they receive the Eucharist, Orthodox Christians pray, “May the communion of Thy Holy Mysteries be neither to my judgment, nor to my condemnation, O Lord, but to the healing of soul and body.” This prayer underscores a central Orthodox belief about the Eucharist: that it heals. Through its mediation between the human and the divine, the Eucharist helps repair whatever ails a person or a community. There is a strong sense in Orthodoxy that all other sacraments are completed and fulfilled in the Eucharist because of this mediation and its power to heal us. Even today, when the Eucharist is rarely received during the marriage rite, the expectation is that an Orthodox married couple will continue to receive the Eucharist together throughout their marriage, thus healing whatever rifts develop between them and sealing the communion between themselves and God again and again. Just as the couple’s one-flesh union is celebrated in their matrimonial union, they are also united with Christ’s body in the Eucharist.
The Orthodox also believe that marriage may be eternal. There is no mention of parting at death in the Orthodox marriage rite. In fact, most Orthodox premarital instruction suggests that there is an eschatalogical dimension to marriage. Evoking a baptismal understanding of things, an encyclical letter of the Orthodox Church in America puts it this way: “For those who fight the good fight as good and faithful servants, the crowns become their eternal reward as witnesses to Christ and the wedding garments are transformed into robes of salvation and eternal glory.”
This is why, even though the remarriage of the divorced or widowed is now treated mostly the same way in the canons and the rite, it is not always treated the same way in practice. Because of his eschatalogical understanding of marriage, my own father did not remarry after my mother’s rather young death, even though he was fortunate enough to have a loving companion for the last five years of his life. He took seriously, as do many Orthodox, the possibility that his first and only marriage crown might be part of his eternal reward.
This emphasis on the eternal quality of marriage is in some ways similar to the language of “indissolubility” used in the Christian West. In Orthodoxy, being married just once is understood not only as the ideal but as the norm. Divorce is considered to be nothing short of a failure to honor the sacrament and achieve the eternal union—a failure both on the part of the couple and on the part of the greater community who ought to support them. Divorce is not “permitted” in Orthodoxy any more than sin is permitted. The sinful “unchastity” that Christ referred to when advising the multitudes (Matthew 5:32, 19:9) is understood broadly in the Orthodox Church. Unchastity includes all the many sins that violate or undermine the sacramentality of marriage. But unchastity has always existed and always will, and the Orthodox tradition has a way of working toward forgiveness and reconciliation in its aftermath. The brokenness of this life is manifested in divorce, but there is a path toward wholeness and redemption for the divorced, as there is for everyone.
It is true that the late Byzantine Empire endured a particularly awkward period when, after the edict of Leo, the Orthodox Church was in the business of issuing legally binding divorce, but this was mostly not the case either before or after this period. Today, the Orthodox Church deals with the outcome of civil divorce, but does not issue divorces. Practices vary from one Orthodox jurisdiction to the next. Some jurisdictions have an official process for recognizing a civil divorce; others require only that the divorced speak to their priest. What is permitted in Orthodoxy is a return to the Eucharist after confession and repentance for divorce—and the possibility of a second marriage.
A lot of Orthodoxy’s canonical language about remarriage has to do with the concept of economia, and penance is an important part of this concept. In the fourth century, Basil of Caesarea asserted that those who marry for a third time are not to be thrown out of the church, but are instead to do penance. In such cases, the couple acquired a civil marriage, and then waited a period appointed by their priest before coming to receive the Eucharist together and having their marriage sealed by the church. Around the same time, the Council of Laodicea declared that those who were lawfully married for a second time could be received back into Communion. These are but two examples. There are other canons sprinkled throughout the Orthodox Church’s history—from its earliest centuries well into its second millennium—that support a period of abstention from Communion for the remarried, whether they were divorced or widowed.
The Emperor Leo—the one who put the church in charge of civil marriage and divorce—may be the reason that Orthodox canons do not permit a fourth marriage. Leo married a fourth wife after she alone produced an heir, and he swapped out patriarchs in order for this marriage to be accepted by the church. Ever since then, Orthodox Christians have agreed that a maximum of three marriages is an appropriate disciplinary limit.
The Orthodox rites of marriage also include the principle of economia when it comes to remarriage. Toward the end of the first millennium, a different rite for remarriage was established, one that included penitential language not found in the ordinary marriage rite. In place of the names of the great scriptural families mentioned in the ordinary rite, the “Office for a Second Marriage,” which survives today, mentions figures in the Bible who were forgiven great sin: Rahab the harlot, the thief on the cross, and the publican. Its language makes quite clear that a second marriage is not to be considered the norm: “Do Thou cleanse the transgressions of Thy servants, for, unable to bear the burden and heat of the day, and the burning of the flesh, they have come to a second communion of marriage."
ALTHOUGH ORTHODOX CANONS and rites together point to a penitential understanding of remarriage, I should add that they are not always observed in practice. I do know of cases of remarriage in which the “Office of a Second Marriage” has been used, but I know of far more cases in which it has either been modified or not used at all. And here I can give a bit more than a “Well, it depends” sort of answer: when it comes to remarriage, Orthodox practice strongly tends toward generosity.
One priest reports that he modifies the second marriage rite because he cannot tolerate the “snickering from the audience” that he hears whenever the couple before him is characterized as “unable to bear the burden and heat of the day.” It isn’t just that the laughter is inappropriate; it may also embarrass or even shame the couple, which is completely at odds with the sacrament. Another priest includes the prayer of the scriptural sinners, but omits entirely the “burning of the flesh” prayer. A priest’s wife told me that she had never heard the “Office for a Second Marriage” used in any of her husband’s parishes. Of the dozens of priests and laypersons I have spoken with, only one person told me he was comfortable with the “Office for a Second Marriage”: a young, newly ordained priest who spoke with relish of his intention to consistently use the second-marriage rite, because it aligned with the canons.
Just as the use of the second-marriage rite varies from parish to parish, so also do the practices of excommunication after divorce. Many priests recommend to the newly divorced that they undergo penitential practices, such as increased almsgiving, a prayer rule with prostration, and possibly a time of excommunication. Many have completed this penance before a second marriage is even on the horizon, in which case they may not be asked to do further penance before they remarry. Sometimes Orthodox priests understand that, depending on the circumstances, the process of divorce may be penitential enough by itself.
Such decisions are based on discernment about the particular people involved. This reflects the authentic Orthodox practice of economia, which is fundamentally about persons, not principles, rites, or laws. The thread running through all these decisions is the acknowledgement that a second or third marriage, while not the same as a first, may nevertheless become a marriage in Christ. The return of the divorced and remarried to the Eucharist affirms once again that they, too, might be received in Christ’s Kingdom, having been healed and strengthened by his body and blood. Perhaps one or both of the two figures in profile on the Byzantine nuptial ring were marrying for the second time, and the cross that stood between them served as a reminder that Christ, the true physician, was at work in their union.