The Orthodox service of Crowning is often the first experience many people have of the Church’s liturgical tradition. And yes the service is beautiful and while not long (by our own standards at least), it isn’t 10 minutes in front of the justice of the peace. Beauty and solemnity however are not what matters in the Orthodox wedding service. No what’s important it is the theology of marriage and family life that embodied in the prayers for the couple.
Look at the opening prayer:
O God most pure, Author of all creation, Who through Your man-befriending love transformed a rib of Adam the forefather into a woman, and blessed them and said, “Increase and multiply, and have dominion over the earth,” and, by the conjoining, declared them both to be one member, for because of this a man shall forsake his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and the two shall be one flesh‑and whom God has joined together let not man put asunder.
The celebrant goes on the recall how God blessed Abraham “and made him the father of many nations” by healing Sara;; how He gave Esau and Jacob to their parents Isaac and Rebecca and raised up the Twelve Patriarch from Jacob and Rachael; “bestow[ed] … Ephrem and Manasse” on Joseph and Asenath. Moving to the New Testament, the prayer reminds us of John the Baptist, “offspring” of Zacharias and Elizabeth, who God “declared … the Forerunner” of Jesus.
The centrality of marriage and family life to salvation history reaches its culmination when God “out of the root of Jesse, according to the flesh, produced the Ever‑Virgin Mary, and from her were Incarnate-born for the salvation of the human race; Who through Your unspeakable Grace and plentiful goodness were present in Cana of Galilee, and blessed the marriage there, that You might show a lawful union, and a generation there from, is according to Your Will; do You Yourself, O Most Holy Master, accept the prayer of us, Your servants; and as You were present there, be present also here with Your invisible protection.” This is the historical context within which the Church asks God to bless the couple’s marriage and grant them “a peaceful life, length of days, chastity, love for one another in a bond of peace, offspring long‑lived, fair fame by reason of their children, and a crown of glory that does not fade away.”
The blessings we ask God to give the couple don’t end with love and babies. Along with long life, conjugal chastity and mutual fidelity, we ask God to give the couple material wealth.
Account them worthy to see their children’s children. Keep their wedlock safe against every hostile scheme; give them of the dew from the Heavens above, and of the fatness of the earth. Fill their houses with bountiful food, and with every good thing, that they may have to give to them that are in need, bestowing also on them that are here assembled with us all their supplications that are unto salvation.
In imitation tof God’s “mercy … compassion, and … manbefriending love” the Church asks God to bless the newly married couple with three things: love, children and wealth. Taken together these are also the goals of Christian marriage. While the exact mix will differ, at a minimum the couple can’t do anything that undermines the blessing God would bestow.
This doesn’t mean that the couple must make as much money as possible. It does, however, mean that the couple should work and exercise enough financial discipline so that they are self-supporting and able to take part in the philanthropic work of the Church. Yes, circumstances might make one or both of these goals difficult, or even impossible, but this is different from refusing to be gainfully employed or to care for the poor.
Likewise with love and children.
A couple may not be able to spend the amount or quality of time they wish with each other. Work, familial obligation and illness can all place a strain on the relationship between husband and wife. This however is different from one spouse ignoring (or worse) the other. At the same time, love doesn’t mean that the couple spend every moment of their day with each other. What it does mean is that the couple can’t undermine the gift of love.
Children too are a gift from God and are an inherent part of marriage as both a natural and a sacramental relationship. Unfortunately, even among Christians, children are often seen as optional. When we do talk about a couple having children, we typically do so as something they want and not something God wants for them and from them.
Love, children and wealth together make up the blessing of marriage—again both as a natural institution and as a relationship in Christ that reveals God’s love for the Church (Ephesians 5:21-33). We misunderstand marriage when we reduce it to only one or two these.
The moral challenge is balancing the responsibilities that come with three-fold of married life. Either because of God’s will or circumstances one or more of these blessings might be more abundant in the life of any particular couple. Whatever the circumstances what matters is not so much the presence or absence of the blessing but the couple’s fidelity to their vocation to be husband and wife. Circumstances might change the specific form but pastorally and morally what matters is the couple’s ability and willingness to live “their life together be … without spot of sin. … [K]eeping Your commandments in a pure heart.”