What Happens at an Orthodox Wedding?


Orthodox wedding couple wearing Stefana crowns and holding candles

An Orthodox wedding combines ancient church and Greek cultures to form a beautiful ceremony. Generally, these ceremonies are colorful events with some rituals and traditions only typical to the Orthodox Church. Whether you are a first time guest at a Greek wedding or are marrying an Orthodox Christian, you may wish to know what these unions entail.

So, what happens at an Orthodox wedding? There are two main events at an Orthodox wedding, the betrothal (engagement) ceremony, and the marriage service (crowning). The betrothal ceremony is the first stage of the union that involves exchanging rings by the couple even before the ceremony commences. Secondly, the marriage service involves all the Orthodox Church rituals, such as the lighting of the candles, the Stefana crowns, the readings, and the blessings.

As an Orthodox believer, you must understand that the church conducts some ceremonial rituals that the participants must follow to the latter. Otherwise, if you are new to the religion, you need not worry about feeling left out. Read on for all the rituals akin to the Orthodox wedding, their significance, and any other information you need to know about these ceremonies.

An Orthodox Wedding

There are specific rules about the Orthodox wedding that remain unchanged over the years. First, the Orthodox wedding has to take place at the Orthodox Church. Therefore, there is very little room for negotiation. You may not expect to have an Orthodox wedding at a beach or a garden. The rule stands that the union is a sacramental occasion. It must occur in God’s dwelling place, the couple’s Orthodox Church.

Similarly, the church has rules that bar a person without a ‘good standing’ from having a church wedding. They include previously married people and a couple with a close blood relationship. If you were previously married, the church expects that for you to remarry, you must be widowed or legally divorced; otherwise, the wedding will not push through. The same applies to a couple with some hindrances such as family relationships or unorthodox identities.

For instance, you will notice the frequency of “number three” in the wedding ceremony. This number is especially significant as it symbolizes the Holy Trinity; God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

You will notice this at the ceremonial walk and the “common cup,” rituals that we will soon discuss. Apart from this, there are still some very vital rituals that the church conducts, and they all bear significance to the believers.

A typical Orthodox wedding is in two parts, the betrothal service, and the marriage service. Most wedding activities occur at the marriage service, while the betrothal service mainly entails the exchange of rings. Let’s have a look at the aspects of an Orthodox wedding ceremony.

Marriage Preparation and Setting the Date 

Before the wedding, the soon to wed must first have a counseling session with their church leader. Here, they set particular dates before the wedding to go over every aspect of the ceremony and obtain advice on the best way to go. The main topics during these discussions are the religious, physical, and emotional aspects of marriage. It is essential that the two understand their union’s essence and what the church expects of them as a married couple.

Secondly, the two need to discuss which day and date are the most appropriate for the wedding. This way, they can prepare adequately for the ceremony and avoid last-minute inconveniences.

The best way to go about this is to consult with the priest on the dates that the church’s calendar is open. Next, the couple and the leaders meet to go over the wedding preparations’ requirements to start.

You may realize that most Orthodox Churches have prohibited days where you cannot conduct a wedding. Therefore, you need to ask beforehand. Such days include Lenten, Christmas, Epiphany, and the church’s feast days.

The Bridal Party

Typically, an Orthodox bridal party consists of a Koumbara/ Koumbaros, a faithful church member. While in other church weddings, we have the maid of honor or the best man, the Orthodox wedding has the Koumbaros/ Koumbara.

However, their role is not just limited to being the legal witness at the ceremony. The couple has to select who gets to act in this capacity carefully. Sometimes, this person is so important to them that he/ she may also be the Godparent of their child and the key advisor in their union.

He/ she will be an active participant at the wedding, which is a tremendous honor. Their role is to help exchange the rings and hold the ribbons as they perform the ceremonial walk. In the traditional setup, their role was to acquire the crowns for the crowning ceremony, the candles, the tray, and the almonds; all were significant for the ceremony rituals.

The Exchange of Rings

It is also the espousal/ betrothal ceremony where the priest inter seeds on the couple’s behalf.  He blesses the rings first then gives them to the soon to wed. Here, you will notice the invoking of the Holy Trinity as they exchange the rings three times.

This act means that the couple’s lives will become one and that they should expect both the good and the bad in their marriage. Similarly, they use double wedding bands to refer to the Old Testament rituals, where the rings symbolized the sealing of a covenant. Marriage being a covenant as well, the church deemed it fit to include the ancient ritual of covenant sealing.

Waiting for the Bride

Unlike other Christians, Orthodox Christians have a different way of performing the processional. In a more traditional environment, the groom and guests wait for the bride outside the church, and when she arrives, the couple and the entire assembly enters the church. However, in a typical procession, the groom waits for the bride outside the church while carrying her bouquet. Once she arrives with her father, the spouses greet each other, the groom hands the bride the bouquet, after which they proceed down the aisle to the sanctuary.

On the contrary, in the United States, it is common to see guests seated before the spouses enter the church. Her father brings the bride, and they meet her spouse with whom they walk down the aisle together with the wedding party.

After the ring’s exchange, the wedding officiant leads the couples to the middle of the church and chants an excerpt from Psalm, which says that everyone who fears the Lord is blessed. This Psalm is an original song by the Jewish as they traveled to the temple in Jerusalem.

The Lighting of the Candles

After the procession, the couple must declare that they are marrying out of their free will and without prior commitments or hindrances. The wedding ceremony begins with candles’ lighting called Lambathes; the bride and groom take a white candle and light it. It marks the end of the Espousal ceremony and kick starts the sacrament of matrimony.

Besides, the burning candle flames depict that the two are ready to accept Christ and receive God’s blessing to help them live peacefully as a married couple unless death separates them.

During this ceremony, the priest asks them to hold each other’s right hand while the left hands carry the candles. Holding with the right hands means that the couple is together in serving Christ and living everyday life.

Crowning/ Stefana Crowns

The crowning event is the focal point of the entire ceremony. The priest retrieves two wedding crowns, one for the groom and the other for the bride. Before placing the crown on couples’ heads, he blesses them with a prayer as he invokes the Holy Trinity. Afterward, either a Koumbaros or Koumbara swaps the couples’ crowns three times.

This ceremony indicates the responsibility and honor that the church bestows on the couples as they form a new Christian family. Being the king and queen of their basic unit, the church expects that they rule with integrity and oneness. This unity will help ensure that their offspring receive salvation due to residing in an environment of genuine Christian faith.

The Stefanas have a white ribbon connecting them to signify that God cannot bless one partner and leave the other; the blessings are for both individuals because they serve as a single unit in Christ.

The Stefanas also have an extended spiritual translation; martyrdom (the bride and the groom must experience great sacrifice to make their marriage successful). The two will wear the crowns for the rest of the ceremony.

Readings and Drinking

After the crowning ceremony, the Priest reads the Gospel, highlighting the Galilean wedding in Cana, where Jesus transformed water into wine. It is a symbol of evolution from the old to the new and traversing from death to life. After the Gospel reading and a short prayer, the priest presents the spouses a blessed wine cup, which they drink three times. This sharing act is why the church refers to the ritual as the ‘common cup.”

The cup depicts that the couple will have to share everything that life throws at them, whether sorrow or joy; their problems will reduce by half, and their happiness will double. The ‘common cup’ also symbolizes life. Hence the bride and groom will share everything that the cup (life) presents to them.

Walk and Hymns

Next, the officiant leads the couple to a round table with a Cross and a Gospel. The Cross signifies our redemption through Jesus’ acceptance to die on the Cross, and the Gospel is the book that contains God’s word.

The groom and the bride make their first walk as a couple, as the church (represented by the minister), guides them on the Lord’s ways. The Cross and the Gospel are symbolic of Christian living. Therefore, for the couples to live right in Christianity, the church requires them to have the essential tools; a Gospel and a Cross.

The marriage celebrant will walk them three times around the table, signifying joy, respect, and thankfulness towards God’s blessings. The walk around the table is also a religious dance.  During this ritual, three hymns accompany the couple in their circuit.

The initial one narrates the utmost joy that Prophet Isaiah had when he prophesied the Savior’s coming, while the second one highlights the martyrs’ struggles and how they gave the ultimate price of life. It reminds the newly married couples how marriage life comprises of sacrifices to one another in the marriage. Finally, the last hymn is about praises to the Holy Trinity (the father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit).

Blessings

As the event comes to a close, the wedding minister blesses the newlyweds. To multiply like Jacob, he may say to the groom to receive a blessing like Isaac and wish him a peaceful and righteous life before God. To the bride, he may say that she be great like Sarah, happy as Rebecca, and procreate like Rachel while gladly living with her husband and pleasing God by acting in the true Christian fashion.

The priest wishes the newlyweds a happy and rewarding life after the ceremonial walk and removing the crowns from the couples’ heads. The officiant holds the Gospel and parts the couples’ hands as he says that a union that God has put together in holiness nobody can lay asunder.

What To Expect in an Orthodox Wedding

You will notice that an Orthodox wedding celebration is a grand event, and God is in the center of everything. Whether you are a first time guest at an Orthodox wedding or are soon to marry an Orthodox Christian, there are some things to expect regarding the wedding. These are the general rituals and customs that you need to be aware of not to feel left out.

  • Vows Exchange
  • Dressing Code
  • Ceremony Etiquette
  • Sacrament
  • Throwing Rice
  • Koufeta
  • Reception Dance

Vows Exchange

In most Non-Orthodox churches, the couple exchanges vows; however, there are no vows in the Orthodox Church. The believers deem the union a sacramental commitment to God and the couple’s allegiance to take care of each other in all circumstances. Hence, you may notice that the couple will face the altar throughout the ceremony and not each other.

Dressing Code

Dressing code is a common dilemma among first-time guests at an Orthodox wedding. Given that the ceremony takes place at the church, the dress code should be decent. You may do away with jeans and extra revealing clothes. You can either pick your usual Sunday clothes or follow the dress code that the couple has directed in the wedding invitation.

Gifts

Gifts are always welcome by any couple. For the wedding, you may bring anything from the gift registry or consult with the couple if there is none. Money gifts are also permissible at an Orthodox wedding so that you can put some cash in an envelope.

You can also present food such as bread or cake as gifts; this food may also be necessary for the reception since they may serve it as dessert. Another common and valued wedding gift for an Orthodox believer is Greek-themed jewelry; this could be a cross or a bracelet inscribed with a Mari (eye), which most Greek believe can guard against an evil eye.

Ceremony Etiquette

The Orthodox Church is strict when handling sacramental matters. Therefore, it is good to be careful with your conduct at the ceremony. Consider how and where you sit, whether it is at the wedding or the reception.

As a first time guest, it would help if you are observant of what the other guests are doing. This way, you can easily pick cues about the church proceedings. Most weddings are not lengthy, and you may expect a typical ceremony to last around forty minutes.

Sacrament

In the Orthodox Church calendar, there are certain days in which no one can partake of the sacrament. These include The Holy Days, the Epiphany, Lenten Seasons, Holidays within the summer, the twelve days of Christmas, and any other day before a grand feast. During these days, the church prohibits partaking of the sacrament. However, there are exceptions, and you may consult with your priest to help decide otherwise.

Throwing Rice

The tradition involves the guests throwing rice at the newlyweds. Showering the couples with rice symbolizes fertility, bounty, and best of luck in their marriage. However, this tradition has many critics regarding what is best to throw over the couples; hence, some believers in some countries like France use wheat instead.

Koufeta

These are white sugar-coated almonds. Their color signifies purity, while the egg shape depicts purity and the beginning of a new life. In contrast, the sugar coat represents the sweet marriage life, and their hardness indicates the rough times that they will experience as a couple. It is a tradition for the bride and her bridesmaid to wrap the almonds in an odd number to show that their love will be inseparable.

Reception Dance

An Orthodox Greek wedding is a lively event. At the reception, guests indulge in feasting and dancing around the reception grounds. This celebration can occur traditionally or with the infusion of modern styles. Conventionally, the guests would pin money on the bride. However, the modern way involves giving the spouses the money and gifts to help the newlyweds start anew.

Lastly

The Orthodox Church attaches a lot of meaning to their ceremonies, especially their weddings. Here, the bride and groom join together in Holy Matrimony as they pledge allegiance to God that they will love and cherish each other for the rest of their lives. The two agree that they will put God at the center of their relationship under the church’s guidance.

You will notice that the Orthodox wedding is unlike other religious ceremonies. The believers perform certain rituals, with each having a religious significance. Most importantly, all these traditions revolve around the couple’s love, respect, and sacrifice. Even though some of these rituals died down as they pass on to subsequent generations, there are still some common traditions that the church maintains.

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