This week, Catholics are listening attentively to the deliberations of the bishops gathered for the Synod in Rome. Throughout this year, Catholics have inquired whether or not the Orthodox Church might offer a perspective on the sacramentality of marriage by referring to the Orthodox rite of second marriage. In late May, the discussion intensified among some observers when a short essay by Nicola Bux titled “The Orthodox Church and Second Marriages” was distributed through social media.
In his essay, Bux claims that second marriages in Orthodoxy are akin to “sacramentals,” asserting that the replacement of communion with a common cup in the marriage ceremony “appears to be an attempt to ‘de-sacramentalize’ the marriage.” Bux suggests that second and third marriages caused “growing embarrassment” that resulted in the “disappearance of Eucharistic communion from Byzantine marriage ceremonies,” because the second and third marriages had compromised the integrity of the Eucharist.
Liturgical scholarship on the rite of marriage demonstrates that the use of the cup in the Byzantine rite of marriage is of domestic origins, not a remnant of the Eucharist (Peter Galadza and most recently, Gabriel Radle). For Orthodox theology, authentic sacramentality does not depend on identifying particular ritual actions as epicletic (such as sharing the cup or participating in the rite of crowning). The integrity of divine action depends on the rite as a whole, and I believe that a strong case can be made for the sacramentality of the rite of second marriage.
The rite of second marriage certainly has a penitential character. In Orthodoxy, the pastoral application of the rite varies by diocese for the rites of marriage and second marriage, so for the purposes of this post, I will refer to the guidelines and text of the rite published in English by the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
The guidelines state that the bride’s gown may not be white, her father may not give her away, there is to be no bridal procession, and the clergy are not to attend the dinner. From the outset, a sense of gravitas permeates the entire celebration. The distinctive character of the rite of second marriage occurs with the prayers on pages 4-5. The prayers petition God to forgive the couple of their sins, referring to the forgiveness God granted Rahab, the Publican, and the thief on the cross. The second prayer refers to Paul’s sentence on the benefit of marriage in 1 Corinthians 7:9: “it is better to marry in the Lord than to burn.” Clearly, these two prayers were composed to establish that the parties seeking marriage needed to repent before entering into the covenant of marriage for the second, or even third time.
Despite the emphasis on repentance and the gravitas of second marriage we see in the Antiochian Archdiocese’s guidelines that diminish the ornamentation of the rite, the couple still receives the fullness of the sacrament. They are betrothed by the exchange of rings; they receive divine forgiveness; and then they participate in the rite of crowning in its fullness, including the sharing of the common cup. The position of the prayers of repentance is of central importance: the couple repents before they receive the rite of crowning, suggesting a parallel with the practice of receiving the sacrament of penance before partaking of holy communion.
My own take on the rite of second marriage is that it honors an anamnesis of divine mercy: despite failures, men and women whose marriages have failed can enter into the holy covenant again. The rite functions as a rehearsal for their second marriage: the Church beckons them to repent so that this repentance would permeate the elements of their shared daily life. The placement of repentance before crowning demonstrates that there is no deprivation of full participation in the communities of marriage and the Church once the couple has repented.
I see something very healthy in this rite, a reminder that marriage itself is Paschal, a daily rehearsal in preparation for life in God’s kingdom. Most priests require couples who have been divorced to receive marriage through this rite, though there are exceptions (some priests omit the penitential portions, depending on the circumstances of the first marriage). I simply cannot see anything in the rite of second marriage that would lead one to reduce its sacramentality or compare it unfavorably with the rite of marriage. I also think that this rite offers lessons informative for all Christians; let the reader decide.