Many little girls dream of having a fairytale wedding – whatever that may look like in their mind. Some dream of getting married in a cathedral, dressed like a princess, others perhaps on a beach surrounded by only a few of their family and friends, and some opt to want no one there, but to simply elope with the man of their dreams. No matter what their version of the fairytale looks like, the wedding is “their special day.” Americans tune in by the millions to watch “Royal Weddings” in England, fantasizing about ourselves in the place of the princes and princesses. The wedding industry is a billion-dollar market, selling false manufactured royalty, expected to lead to “happily ever afters.” Unfortunately, the same society that commercialized Christmas and turned Pascha into a celebration of chocolate and springtime also lies to us about what marriage is all about.
Over the years, we have either heard of requests from other clergy, or else received many requests ourselves to alter the wedding service by adding, subtracting, or substituting traditional Orthodox wedding practices. Everything from walking down the aisle to pop music, to changing the Epistle reading, to adding a unity candle or vows to the service, to having girls stand with the groomsmen because she is the groom’s best friend, to having the family pet serve as the ring-bearer, and the list goes on. While similar requests take place at baptisms and funerals, wedding planning seems to bring out the worst in people.
In order to understand why the Church has the traditions that it does, we should understand what a wedding is. A wedding is a mystery (sacrament), where God takes a man and woman, who have already promised themselves to each other, and blesses their union, making them one flesh. The marriage service gives the couple grace to endure the hardships of life. It blesses the man and woman to consummate their relationship and to bring children into the world. It changes the role of the bridal pair with their parents, still teaching them to honor and love them, but also instructing the “man [to] leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife” (the same is implied for the wife), and to no longer be under obedience or directed by their parents, but that they become an independent unit, walking together with the Lord.
Instead of contemplating the prayers and scripture passages from the wedding service as a preparation for marriage, we spend way too much time tasting cakes, taking engagement photos, and selecting a playlist for the DJ to play at the reception. This leads the foundation of the marriage to be built on unstable ground. St Paisios advises that the betrothal period not be too long in order to avoid the temptation of premarital relations, but this is often ignored to accommodate the fact that “we need time to plan the wedding.”
The Church is in the business (for lack of a better word) of sanctification and salvation. If the Church says, “Stand,” we shouldn’t even ask, “For how long?” What is more beautiful than a bride walking down the aisle to a hymn dedicated to the Virgin Mary, in a white wedding garment, comparing the bride’s purity to the Theotokos – not that they are comparable, but that through prayer, confession, and abstinence (at least for a while), this bride has prepared herself to enter the bridal chamber? We do not need to add any of our own words to the wedding service because the Church is going to do all the talking and God is going to do all the blessing. We do not get to choose what scripture passages will be read because the saints, those who are purified through very close communion with God, have decided all of these things for us through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The saints wrote these services, who are we to change them?
The selfish nature of “I want…” found in some wedding planning is the same selfish behavior that is responsible for the falling apart of more than half the marriages in our country. We know from our Lord and from the Church Fathers that ego (self-love) is the opposite of true love. Ego is the rejecting of love, and when it interferes with the sacrament of Marriage offered by the Church, it prevents the love that Christ has for us to reach us on that day when we are supposed to be receiving His blessing to live together as one for the rest of our lives. While we are all individuals and different, we all share the same human nature. There are times to celebrate our individuality, but also times to embrace the solidarity of our humanity. Laws are created and enforced equally on all people because no one is better than anyone else. To individualize our wedding service is to say that we are different from all other people; this is heresy and inflates our ego.
There are certain customs that may creep into our churches such as having a young girl through flowers while a young boy walks [usually fake] rings doing the aisle, but these changes do not really effect the wedding service, and so they are accepted by many priests, however some may not allow anything to distract from the true purpose of the wedding: The sanctification and purification of the bride and groom to live as one with each other with Christ.
Pastors understand that many marriages in our churches these days are mixed marriages, meaning an Orthodox is marrying a heterodox, but so long as the marriage is happening in the Orthodox Church, it must be conducted in an Orthodox manner. Let us remember that Orthodox means “true believing,” and our traditions – regardless of whether or not we fully understand them – must be maintained. If a bride and groom are not willing to trust the Church to instruct them about how to be married, we should question why the bridal pair desire to get married in the Orthodox Church at all. The heterodox person’s willingness to accept or reject the Orthodox wedding service is a good indicator of what faith will look like within the married couple’s life, especially in the raising of children.
To repeat a commonly asked question concerning the what will happen if we change these services, “Will anyone go to hell over it?” We would first say that we do not know – only God knows, but this retort is not a healthy attitude toward living a Christian life. Are we interested in doing the bare minimum to get avoid going to hell, or do we want to be pleasing to God? If we are asking the Church to change to suite our wants, are we really acting as Christians, or are we acting as “lukewarm” Christians, who our Lord will reject? The secularization of our Mysteries and services will not bring us closer to God, but only serves to move us further away.