Marriage as a human institution exists in all major civilizations since the dawn of time. The Mystery of Holy Matrimony draws its sacred foundation from the creation of the first man and woman, whom God made in His own Image and Likeness and told to be fruitful and multiply. In Orthodox tradition, marriage and monasticism goes hand in hand, and are both considered holy in its calling in the service of God and His People.
The wedding ceremony is composed of the Betrothal, during which the rings are exchanged and the Crowning, during which lengthy prayers are offered for the couple, the wedding crowns are exchanged, the common cup is shared and the Dance of Isaiah is taken place around the analogion.
In both Chinese and Orthodox traditions, vows that are normally exchanged in western weddings are noticeablely absent. This does not undermine the commitment and sacrificial love required for a lasting marriage. Instead, the Church takes marriage beyond a legal contract or a temporal vow of “till death do us part”, to a sacrament of entering into a new spiritual reality, namely the Kingdom of God, where death is made powerless since “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tomb bestowing life.” Therefore the union of man and woman is eternal and indivisible in Christ.
Also, instead of the typical white color used in western cultures signifying purity, Chinese and even Russian bridal attire has been traditionally red. The prominent use of red is evident in Chinese culture for any joyful festivities while white is used in memorials and funerals denoting death. In Orthodoxy, red denotes martyrdom and any union between a man and a woman is a true martyrdom or death of the self for the love of one’s spouse and for Christ. As the ceremony begins, you may follow along beginning on pg. 166 in the Red Service Book found in the pew.
The betrothal in ancient times occurred separately up to a year in advance and was treated as marriage itself, as we recall how the Righteous Joseph was considering to divorce his betrothed quietly, when he found out she was with Child whom he was not the father of. In contrast, engagement in modern times is treated as a dissolvable last step of the dating process. The Church in her pastoral wisdom has placed the betrothal and crowning together as one ceremony. Nevertheless, the priest formally asks whether the man and woman has come to be wedded with a free and un-coerced will without prior commitments to any other.
The betrothal begins in the narthex, with the priest offering intercessory prayers for the couple, and then asks God’s blessings upon the rings. The priest then blesses the bride and groom with the rings three times in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, first from the groom to the bride, and then from the bride to the groom. The back and forth movement can be interpreted to mean that the lives of the two are being entwined into one.
The priest then places the rings on the ring fingers of the right hands of the two. Unlike American culture, the right hands are used in the putting on of the rings. As attested to in Holy Scripture, it is the right hand of God that blesses, it was to the right hand of the Father that Christ ascended, and it is to the right that those who will inherit eternal life will go. The rings are then exchanged three times on the fingers of the bride and the groom by the Spheen as a further expression and witness that the lives of the two are being brought together. As the final prayer is read, the putting on of the rings convey the agreement was sealed between the betrothed and that the marriage was enacted by God Himself.
The priest then leads the newly betrothed from the narthex, the furthest point away from the sanctuary, into the nave, becoming a visible sacrament into the new reality of the Kingdom of God from the world. The priest then chants one of the “Psalms of Ascent” sung by Levites on their way to the ancient Jerusalem Temple, “Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in His ways...” Likewise, the couple brings themselves to the altar as a living sacrifice unto God, with their patron saints, sponsors and attendants as witnesses.
The Crowning begins with the invocation of the Holy Trinity. After intercessory prayers are offered, three prayers are read ascribing to God the institution of marriage and the preservation of His people through the ages. Humanity is portrayed as one organic continuum from Adam and Eve to the present generation of believers. The bride and groom joins into this fabric with the reading of the third prayer, where the priest joins the right hands of the two to symbolize the union of love coming from God. Since God is the true Priest of every sacrament, the priest always expresses himself in the third person. He is simply God’s instrument in the service.
The climax of the wedding is the Crowning. Taking the crowns from the analogion, the priest blesses the bride and groom in the same manner as he blessed them with the rings. He then places the crowns upon their heads, chanting, “O Lord our God, crown them with glory and honor.” The Spheen then exchanges the crowns three times.
In traditional Chinese weddings, the bride wears an elaborately decorated Phoenix Crown or a red silk head cover, while the groom is adorned with a tassled cap, and their attires with Chinese dragon and phoenix motifs, signifying for that day the newly weds get to be the Empress and Emperor. Orthodoxy likewise affirms the royalty of bride and groom, as they are incoronated to be King and Queen for not merely one day, but to establish the beginning of a new little kingdom, i.e. a household centered on Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords. Their crowning is also in martyrdom, so that they may die to their own individual wills for each other and when necessary, even literally for the Faith.
In the reading from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians, the Apostle presents the love of husband and wife as a mystery of the love of Christ and the Church. As Christ gives Himself totally to and for His Church, and as the Church submits to Christ as Head, so does the husband and wife. Thus the two become one in sacrificial love and mutual submission to each other in Christ.
Then, the priest intones the Holy Gospel according to St. John, recounting Christ’s first miracle of changing water to wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. Christ’s presence at the wedding in the beginning of His earthly ministry, and also the presence of God in Paradise with Adam and Eve displays the pre-eminence of the union of man and woman by God to bless them for the continuance of His people.
Following the prayer to Our Father, the common cup of wine is presented to the bride and groom in a jue, a Chinese wine drinking vessel. Alcohol with its word play on the Chinese word for longevity is served as a joyful element in wedding celebrations. Likewise, Jews during Christ’s time also made full use of wine, prompting Christ’s first miracle. Today, this cup of wine is blessed by the priest, not as the Eucharistic cup, but nonetheless it serves as a reminder that the mystery of the Eucharistic liturgy was where marriage ceremony originated and finds its ultimate unity in the Holy Communion of Body and Blood of Christ. It is offered to the newly weds as a witness that from that moment on they will share the cup of life, where joy is doubled and suffering is halved.
The Groom takes the Bride’s right hand in his left, and followed by their sponsors, walks three times around the analogion, with the Priest preceding them and censing as he goes, as a form of religious dance. The Church leads them in their first steps as Husband and Wife in following the Light of Christ, as represented by the candles they are holding. Keeping the Gospel and the Cross which is on the analogion as the center of their journey, the Church graphically guides them to walk in the way of our Savior, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
Meanwhile, three troparia (hymns) are chanted: one to the Holy Prophet Esaias (Isaiah) who danced with joy foreseeing the advent of Christ born of a Virgin, another to the Holy Forty Martyrs of Sebastes, who fought the good fight of Faith receiving a martyr’s crown, and the third to the glory of Christ our God.
At the end of the service, the crowns are removed and the priest prays that God will receive these crowns into His Kingdom. The reality of the Kingdom into which the bride and groom have entered is not completely fulfilled, but only begun. The Priest then bestows the Nuptial Blessing upon the newly-married pair.
Eight days later, the newly weds return to the Church once again with the crowns upon their heads for a blessing in the removal of the crowns and a prayer to preserve their union indissoluble.
 Transliteration of the Greek word most often translated into English as sacrament.
 See Gen. 1:26-28
 A small table for ceremonial use.
 See The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony, Book of Common Prayer.
 The paschal troparion, a hymn chanted during the paschal season celebrating Christ’s Resurrection.
 See Mt. 1:18-24
 Narthex is the back part or porch of the temple, and the Nave is the middle part of the temple, where the parishioners worship, while the Sanctuary is the most Holy Place, i.e. the front part of the temple separated by an icon wall called the iconostasis.
 See Ex. 15:6, Mt. 25:33-36, 26:64
 Arabic term for Spiritual Sponsor, the ecclesiastical witness of the wedding ceremony.
 See Psalm 127 (128)
 See Eph. 5:20-33
 See Jn. 2:1-11
 See Jn. 14:6
 see. pg. 181 of the red service book of the Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church.