The Crown of Life

“Do not fear—be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10)

It seems we’re always explaining the unusual adornment of crowns that the Orthodox Christian Church uses in our wedding sacrament. It fascinates the non-Orthodox visitors and gives them something to watch as we call upon the Holy Spirit to fill the couple with grace sufficient to proceed through their life together enduring and overcoming all obstacles that the world lays upon them so that they will take up and be worthy of wearing crowns in the Kingdom of God. In the epistle of St. James we read:

“Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been proved he will wear the crown of life—promised to those who love Him” (James 1:12).

and in St. Peter:

“And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away” (I Peter 5:4).

Here’s another instance of the nuances of tradition that separate the way the nations of Orthodoxy celebrate the same service to the Lord. There are two kinds of crowns in the New Testament, even in the book of Revelation:

A. Here above in the blessings to the church in Smyrna the crown is stephanos, a garland used for happy occasions and festivals, the laurel wreath used in the Olympic games and almost always appears as a reward. St. Paul uses that image to contrast the perishable crowns of contests to the everlasting crowns given to Christians as rewards in heaven. The Christian on the marathon of life competing with Satan and overcoming every diabolical temptation on the way will be rewarded with the crown of victory when he breaks the tape of death and is greeted by the Lord of love, Jesus Christ, with the crown of conquest.

B. The royal crowns worn by priests in the Old Testament and by kings and queens, ornamented with precious stones of various types, tiara and full regal imperial type, symbol of royalty, diadeema in Revelation 12:3, 13:1, and 19:12: “His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems” (Revelation 19:12).

One finds in the Greek churches the wreath type, normally a ring of mother of pearl worn by both the bride and bridegroom. At one point in the service they are exchanged like the rings, signifying the sharing of all things in life henceforth. They are often tied with long ribbons, showing that the man and woman no longer are exclusively themselves, but that they are of one flesh and therefore must respond in all ways accordingly. Theologically, they have reached a point in life where old ways are laid aside and new responsibilities are taken up. They are blessed for responsibility not only to bring children into the world but to sacrifice for their sakes. And to accept their role as good citizens, realizing that whatever blessings God provides are to be considered in trust for the welfare of the parish where they worship and the community in which they live. (See Being a Communicant, John D. Zizioules, Ftnt. P. 61)

The Slav tradition such as in the Russian weddings is to have both man and wife wear the imperial crowns. They are to understand that they are given a new life not just in contemporary society, but as another chance to set things aright in the realm of their family. They are spiritually Adam and Eve, entrusted and charged with making their home an Eden of obedience to God’s will. They have the opportunity to live in Christ, open to the grace of the Holy Spirit and living by the commandments of God.

Looking into and beyond the life of the earth, they are to live in all situations with heads held high, taking their places among the saints of the ages whose crowns are portrayed as haloes.