We know from church history that any special ritual of matrimony had not existed until the 9th century. The Sacrament of Matrimony was performed during the Eucharistic Liturgy. The newly-weds would partake of the Holy Gifts, which served as the seal of marriage (in Tertullian’s words). If for some reason the couple could not partake of the Lord’s chalice together, their marriage did not receive the blessing of the Church.
First references to a marriage ritual appear in the 4th century. St. John Chrysostom explains in his homilies that crowns symbolize the victory of Christians over their passions. We may assume from a letter by St. Theodore the Studite that the rite of matrimony was short and performed by a bishop or presbyter (priest) during the Holy Liturgy (St. Theodore the Studite, Letter 22: To Monk Symeon). Ancient euchologies of the same century contain the rite of matrimony, which was celebrated immediately after the eucharistic liturgy. How did matrimony get separated from the liturgy and become a separate sacrament?
Prior to that new law, marriage was registered directly by public administration, and marriage was governed by applicable Roman law. One could marry more than once and then get divorced, which was allowed by Roman law. The Church did punish that person with a penance, but his or her subsequent marriages were absolutely legal in the eyes of the State. Emperor Leo (in the 9th century) decided that from then on, marriage affairs were to be relegated to the Church, and that a marriage without a church blessing “would not be regarded as matrimony”. Instead, it was to be regarded as illegal concubinage. As the result of this reform, the Church was made responsible to the State for marriages and divorces. Following Leo’s novella, the line that separated civil marriage from church marriage began to blur. The Church was forced into blessing marriages it had not allowed before.
The Church sometimes had to seek compromises with the government. However, the sacred nature of the Eucharist was too important to be compromised. It was due to their fear of diminishing the greatest sacrament of the Church that the Fathers decided to separate the Holy Eucharist from the wedding ritual in the 10th century. Now the Church could stay on top of the new requirements while remaining true to its ancient principles and norms. If a priest had to bless a second or even a third marriage, he would perform a special wedding ritual, which excluded the crowns and contained penitential chants instead of laudatory ones. In the place of joint participation in the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ, the new couple received a cup of wine blessed by the priest. Those who married a second time were not allowed to partake of Holy Communion for several years, which allowed the Church to maintain penitential discipline. At the same time, it was clear to the Fathers of the Church that Christian marriage is intrinsically bound to the Church and therefore with the Eucharist. This is the reason why faithful who were marrying for the first time partook of the Holy Gifts during the sacrament of matrimony, thus becoming united to Christ and one another in Holy Communion.
This practice remained unchanged until the 15th century. The contemporary rite preserves numerous traces of its ancient Eucharistic roots. Thus, in the beginning of the sacrament of matrimony, the priest exclaims Blessed is the Kingdom… – the exclamation which opens up the Divine Liturgy. Before drinking the common cup of wine, the choir sings Our Father, which is another reference to the Holy Eucharist. According to the usual practice, the couple should confess and take communion before or after the wedding as to seal their marriage in the Holy Eucharist.
Holy Matrimony is one of the holy Mysteria (sacraments) in the Church; and as such it depends on the Holy Eucharist. Thus, husband and the wife are not only one body with one another but also members of the Body of Christ and the whole Church, effectively becoming a home church themselves; the husband representing Christ and the wife the Bride of Christ. Conscious participation in the life of the Church and mutual spiritual growth are the only ways to achieve the exalted ideal of a Christian marriage.