In the Orthodox wedding icon, the icon of the wedding in Cana of Galilee, Christ is not at the center. Christ is in the icon, in the foreground and in an exalted position, but not the center. In the center of the wedding icon is the bride. The bride is both at the center of the icon, and she is also the only one who is crowned–the groom is not crowned. In fact, who exactly the groom is, is not clear (an ancient tradition says the older man on the bride’s left is the groom, but I have read others who say it is the younger man on her right). I would like to suggest that the reason why only the bride is crowned and the groom is not clearly identified is that this icon not only reveals the mystery of Christ’s blessing of earthly marriage, but also reveals the mystery of the heavenly marriage of Christ and the Church, of which blessed earthly marriage is an image.
In this icon and in the marriage service itself, we mystically see the coronation of the Bride of Christ, the Church. In fact, this is exactly what the Epistle reading of the marriage ceremony tells us: “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church…the saviour of the body…. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church and gave himself for her…. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the Church.” In a sense, the only groom in the icon of the wedding in Cana of Galilee is Christ himself, and the bride is identified twice: once crowned and sitting at the head of the banquet celebrating her coronation, and once as Mary, the Mother of God, intimately standing close, to His right and behind Jesus, talking softly to him, with Jesus’ head turned toward her. These are both mystically pictures of the bride, at once exalted to the head and prominent position as queen of the heavenly household, and at the same time hidden behind Christ Her Groom speaking softly only to Him and receiving His full attention.
In the marriage traditions of the English-speaking West, until quite recently a woman lost everything to her husband in marriage. A woman could hold very little authority in society and almost none in relation to her husband. The man was the head of the house. In the Orthodox Christian tradition and by Byzantine law, however, a married woman has quite a bit of authority. The woman is the head of the house–in both Orthodox Christian culture and law the woman had authority to organize and run everything related to the home, which, if the family were wealthy, could be a huge estate with hundreds of servants. In the Orthodox Christian tradition, the husband is the head of the wife, but the wife is the head of the home, the queen-mother, so to speak.
This mystical reality of the bride’s headship over the house manifests the role of humanity in creation. As the Bride of Christ, redeemed humanity is called to resume its position as head over creation (God’s house, so to speak), to manage, care for, and offer back to God that which God has given Her. However, the crowned bride sitting at the head of the table is also, mystically, the Mother of God, standing meekly behind her Son, quietly interceding on behalf of all. And it is Her quiet intercessions that are responsible for the miraculous transformation of that which is merely natural and merely human into that which is divine: water becomes wine.
In the icon we see that all of nature is not enough–the wine runs out. Without the miraculous Grace of God at work in a marriage or any human endeavor, even the strongest human love will run out. The water of natural affections must be changed into the wine of God’s love or it will not be enough. The Queen is revealed in two places at once. She sits as head over creation, manager of the household; but she also stands quietly behind her Groom supplicating and humbly submitting to His words and encouraging (commanding really) others to do the same: “whatever He says to you, do it.”
The wise Solomon said that the way of a man with a woman, like the way of an eagle in flight, is too wonderful for him. In a healthy Christian marriage, a mystery is revealed: “I speak concerning Christ and the Church.” On the one hand the bride is exalted. “The King greatly desires her beauty,” as the psalmist says. She becomes queen of over all the household. On the other hand, the stands submissively behind her groom where she receives His full attention. She stands where no other can stand. She has access, intimate access, to His ear and to His attention, access no one else can have. And there she intercedes on behalf of the whole household. There she supplicates the Master for more wine, for all that is necessary, for all that is needed to make the feast joyful.
In Orthodox Christian marriage, the wife is the queen, crowned and exalted at the head of the household; however, she is also the intercessor, standing submissively behind her husband, receiving his full attention and quietly interceding on behalf of the household. In this image is revealed the mystery of Christ and the Church, the mystery of the miraculous transformation of water into wine, of what is natural into what is above nature, of what is merely human into what is divine.
Thank you for explaining this icon so beautifully, Fr. Michael!