This Sunday I will have the pleasure of performing a wedding. Weddings are always happy events, and I always look forward to performing them. Orthodox weddings are especially beautiful, and it’s actually composed of two ceremonies: the betrothal and the crowning.
The betrothal service, according to Fr. John Meyendorff, is the “…new form of marriage contract… It was originally a civil ceremony.”
The betrothal service is the exchange of rings
Interestingly, it is in the betrothal service (i.e, the official engagement) that the rings are exchanged! Though this is usually the culmination of the wedding service in western Christianity, the Orthodox Church builds up to a much more important moment: the crowning! But the mystery of the Orthodox betrothal service doesn’t stop there!
Not only are the rings exchanged at the betrothal, the rings are put on the right hand! And priest, not your spouse, puts them there! Wait a minute! Aren’t the rings supposed to go on the left hand? Why do the rings go on the right hand? What does all this mean? What do the rings signify?
First let’s look at the meaning of the rings.
Rings as faithfulness
We are typically taught, by secular society, that the rings represent our faithfulness to our spouse, or our trust in our spouse, or a pledge of our love for our new spouse. However, none of the prayers used in the wedding serve suggest this meaning! The rings represent the faithfulness of God! The references from the wedding service come from the Bible, and they suggest that the ring is a sign of God’s faithfulness!
Here’s the biblical references, along with what the prayers say,
The prayers starts this way:
“Therefore, O Lord God, Who have sent forth Your truth to Your inheritance and Your promise to Your servants, our fathers, who were Your elect, do You give regard unto this Your servant (Name) and Your servant (Name), and seal their betrothal in faith, in oneness of mind, in truth and in love. For You, O Lord, have declared that a pledge is to be given and held inviolate in all things.”
Joseph gets a ring
Then, it moves on to mention Joseph, who was sold into slavery in Egypt, but then rose to great power in Egypt: “By a ring Joseph was given might in Egypt…”
“And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Behold, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.” Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand… Thus he set him over all the land of Egypt.”
(Genesis 41:41-43 RSV)
Daniel gets a ring
Then the prayer moves on to mention Daniel, who was a prophet in exile in Babylon. When the Babylonian king forbad Daniel to pray, Daniel remained faithful to God and prayed anyway; for this reason the Babylonian king sealed Daniel in the lion’s den with a ring: “…by a ring Daniel was exalted in Babylon…”
“And a stone was brought and laid upon the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet ring and with the signet ring of his lords, that nothing might be changed concerning Daniel.”
(Daniel 6:17 RSV)
Tamar gets a ring
Then the prayer mentions Tamar, who was denied her legal rights to a Levirate marriage. She tricked Judah into sleeping with her by pretending to be a prostitute. However, she asked for his ring, so when Judah found out she was pregnant, she could prove it was his and that she was within her legal rights: “…by a ring the truth of Tamar was made manifest…”
“He said, ‘What pledge shall I give you?’ She replied, ‘Your signet ring and your cord, and your staff that is in your hand.’ So he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him.”
(Genesis 38:18 RSV)
The prodigal son gets a ring
Finally, the prayer mentions the Prodigal Son in the New Testament, who had disrespected his father, ran away from home, but then returned in repentance: “…by a ring our heavenly Father showed compassion upon His prodigal son, for He said, ‘Put a ring upon his right hand, kill the fatted calf, and let us eat and rejoice’.”
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet’.”
(Luke 15:22 RSV)
In other words, the rings symbolize God’s word that GOD will seal our marriage in “…faith, in oneness of mind, in truth and in love.”
The ring is a God’s pledge to us!
It short, the rings symbolize God’s pledge to us, his children. God promises to remain with us, whether we are sold into slavery (like Joseph), thrown into the lion’s den (like Daniel), denied our legal rights (like Tamar), or when we return to him in repentance even if we formerly rejected him (like the prodigal son). This is what the rings signify.
The right hand of power
But why the right hand? The prayer for the ring also mentions Moses.
“Your own right hand, O Lord, You armed Moses in the Red Sea. Yea, by the word of Your truth were the Heavens established and the earth set upon her sure foundations; and the right hands of Your servants shall be blessed by Your mighty word, and by Your uplifted arm.”
Moses’ right hand was, in fact, God’s hand, which saved the Hebrews through the waters of the Red Sea. God’s right hand “makes firm” the foundations of the earth. Thus, by putting the rings on our right hand, rather than our left, we are reminded that everything we do is with the help of God, who watches over us and protects us!
P.S. The rings are about God’s faithfulness to us!
The prayer for the rings ends in this way,
“Wherefore, O Sovereign Lord, do You Yourself bless this putting on of rings with Your heavenly benediction; and may Your Angel go before them all the days of their life, for You are He that blesses and sanctifies all things…”
The rings, in the Orthodox tradition, mean much, much more than simply, “I love you.” They symbolize God’s word to remain faithful to us, and seal our marriages in faith, in oneness of mind, in truth and in love. They also symbolize that God walks with us, protects us, and supports us.
Our marriages unite us to our spouse, but they also proclaim the gospel message, and remind us of the love God has for us, his children!
 Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1975), pg. 30.