Marriage is honourable, and the marriage-bed undefiled. For on both Christ has given His blessing, eating in the flesh at the wedding in Cana, turning the water into wine and revealing His first miracle, to bring you, my soul, to a change of life. –From the Great Canon of St. Andrew, Archbishop of Crete
Marriage in the Orthodox Church
Genesis 2:18-25 (The Creation)
And the Lord God said, “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make him a helper comparable to him.” Also, God formed out of the ground all the wild animals of the field and all the birds of heaven, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. Thus whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name. So Adam gave names to all the cattle, to all the birds of heaven, and to all the wild animals of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper comparable to him. Thus God brought a trance upon Adam, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and filled up the flesh in its place. Then the Lord God built the rib He took from Adam into a woman, and brought her to him. So Adam said, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh. She shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh. Now the two were naked, both Adam and his wife, and were not ashamed.
God, not man, established the law of marriage; therefore, marriage is holy. In the marriage union, the husband and wife become one flesh (v. 24), which St. Paul calls “a great mystery” (Eph 5:32). This mystery is so great and wonderful that a man will leave his father and mother with their blessing, and be joined to a woman in marriage. In this joining, he will be devoted to her with sacrificial love and devotion, and she to him.
John 2:1-11 (The First Sign at Cana)
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Now both Jesus and His disciples were invited to the wedding. And when they ran out of wine, the mother of Jesus said to Him, “They have no wine.”
Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does your concern have to do with Me? My hour has not yet come.”
His mother said to the servants, “Whatever He says to you, do it.”
Now there were set there six waterpots of stone, according to the manner of purification of the Jews, containing twenty or thirty gallons apiece. Jesus said to them, “Fill the waterpots with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. And He said to them, “Draw some out now, and take it to the master of the feast.” And they took it. When the master of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom. And he said to him, “Every man at the beginning sets out the good wine, and when the guests have well drunk, then the inferior. You have kept the good wine until now!”
This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him.
By His presence at this wedding, Jesus further declares marriage to be holy and honorable (Heb 13:4*); therefore, this passage is read at Orthodox weddings, and these images are incorporated into many prayers in the wedding service.
Here is an example of Mary’s gift of intercession. Even now, Mary continually speaks to her Son on our behalf and is our preeminent intercessor before His Throne. This is declared in the words of an Orthodox prayer: “The intercessions of a mother have great effect to win the favor of the Master.” This is confirmed as Jesus grants her request here.
In this passage, wine is symbolic of life, and thus there are two levels of meaning to Mary’s statement, “They have no wine”: (1) a marriage is not complete without the presence of Christ; and (2) the old covenant was unable to bestow life even on the most faithful people.
(*Hebrews 13:4 – Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge.)
Ephesians 5:22-33 (The Mystery of Marriage)
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
For husbands, concerning sacrificial love (vv. 25-31): St. Paul writes three sentences to wives, but writes at greater length to impress on husbands that they should love their wives. Just as the wife’s submission is to accept the headship of the husband, the husband’s submission to his wife is to sacrifice himself for her.
1 Corinthians 7:1-24 (Concerning Marriage)
Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me:
It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment. For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that.
But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife.
But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?
But as God has distributed to each one, as the Lord has called each one, so let him walk. And so I ordain in all the churches. Was anyone called while circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Was anyone called while uncircumcised? Let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters. Let each one remain in the same calling in which he was called. Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it. For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freeman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. Brethren, let each one remain with God in that state in which he was called.
If a Christian couple cannot stay together, the two alternatives are to remain unmarried, that is, separated, or be reconciled. Divorce is hated by God (Mal 2:16), a last measure, a great calamity.
Colossians 3:18-21 (Spirituality in the Home)
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives and do not be bitter toward them.
Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord.
Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.
Life in the home is in the Lord; the family is a little church and is to live in the baptismal and eucharistic life of the Church. Duties are reciprocal, everyone having the same standing before the same Master. All authority is for the sake of loving service (all authority is humbling) and all submissions is to God (all submission is glorious).
ESSAYS ON MARRIAGE
Marriage in the Orthodox Church
The Sacrament of Marriage and its Impediments (Holy and Great Council)
THE SACRAMENT OF MARRIAGE
AND ITS IMPEDIMENTS
I. On Orthodox Marriage
- The institution of the family is threatened today by such phenomena as secularization and moral relativism. The Orthodox Church maintains, as her fundamental and indisputable teaching, that marriage is sacred. The freely entered union of man and woman is an indispensable precondition for marriage.
- In the Orthodox Church, marriage is considered to be the oldest institution of divine law because it was instituted simultaneously with the creation of Adam and Eve, the first human beings (Gen 2:23). Since its origin, this union not only implies the spiritual communion of a married couple—a man and a woman—but also assured the continuation of the human race. As such, the marriage of man and woman, which was blessed in Paradise, became a holy mystery, as mentioned in the New Testament where Christ performs His first sign, turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, and thus reveals His glory (Jn 2:11). The mystery of the indissoluble union between man and woman is an icon of the unity of Christ and the Church (Eph 5:32).
- Thus, the Christocentric typology of the sacrament of marriage explains why a bishop or a presbyter blesses this sacred union with a special prayer. In his letter to Polycarp of Smyrna, Ignatius the God-Bearer stressed that those who enter into the communion of marriage must also have the bishop’s approval, so that their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own desire. Let everything be to the glory of God (V, 2). Therefore, the sacredness of the God-established union and the lofty spiritual content of married life explain the affirmation: So that marriage should be honored among all, and the bed undefiled (Heb 13:4). That is why the Orthodox Church condemns any defilement of its purity (Eph 5:2-5; 1 Thes 4:4; Heb 13:4ff).
- The union of man and woman in Christ constitutes “a small church” or an icon of the Church. Through God’s blessing, the union of man and woman is elevated to a higher level, for communion is greater than individual existence because it initiates the spouses into the order of the Kingdom of the All-Holy Trinity. A necessary condition of marriage is faith in Jesus Christ, which must be shared by the bridegroom and the bride, man and woman. Consequently, unity in Christ is the foundation of marital unity. Thus, marital love blessed by the Holy Spirit enables the couple to reflect the love between Christ and the Church as a mystery of the Kingdom of God—as the eternal life of humanity in the love of God.
- Protecting the sacredness of marriage has always been crucially important for the preservation of the family, which reflects the communion of the persons yoked together both in the Church and in society at large. Therefore, communion achieved through the sacrament of marriage does not merely serve as an example of a typical natural relationship, but also as an essential and creative spiritual force in the sacred institution of the family. It alone ensures the safety and formation of children, both for the spiritual mission of the Church as well as in the life of society.
- It was always with the necessary strictness and proper pastoral sensibility, in the compassionate manner of Paul, Apostle of the Gentiles (Rom 7:2-3; 1 Cor 7:12-15, 39), that the Church treated both the positive preconditions (difference of sexes, legal age, etc.) and the negative impediments (kinship by blood and affinity, spiritual kinship, an existing marriage, difference in religion, etc.) for the joining in marriage. Pastoral sensibility is necessary not only because the biblical tradition determines the relationship between the natural bond of marriage and the sacrament of the Church, but also because Church practice does not exclude the incorporation of certain Greco-Roman natural law principles that acknowledge the marital bond between man and woman as a communion of divine and human law (Modestin) compatible with the sacredness of the sacrament of marriage attributed by the Church.
- Given our current context, which is unfavorable for the sacrament of marriage and the sacred institution of family, hierarchs and shepherds must actively cultivate their pastoral work in order to protect the faithful, standing by them to fortify their hope shaken by many hardships, and asserting the institution of the family upon an unshakable foundation that neither rain, nor river, nor wind can destroy, since this foundation is the rock which is Christ (Mt 7:25).
- The pressing issue in society today is marriage, which is the center of the family, and the family is what justifies marriage. Pressure to recognize new forms of cohabitation constitutes a real threat for Orthodox Christians. This variously-manifested crisis in marriage and family profoundly concerns the Orthodox Church not only in light of negative consequences for the fabric of society, but also in light of its threat to particular relationships within the bounds of the traditional family. The main victims of these trends are the couples themselves, and especially the children, since regrettably the children often endure great suffering from an early age, while nonetheless bearing no responsibility for the situation.
- A civil marriage between a man and a woman registered in accordance with the law lacks sacramental character since it is a simple legalized cohabitation recognized by the State, different from a marriage blessed by God and the Church. The members of the Church who contract a civil marriage ought to be regarded with pastoral responsibility, which is necessary to help them understand the value of the sacrament of marriage and the blessings connected with it.
- The Church does not allow for her members to contract same-sex unions or any other form of cohabitation apart from marriage. The Church exerts all possible pastoral efforts to help her members who enter into such unions understand the true meaning of repentance and love as blessed by the Church.
- The grave consequences brought about by this crisis of the institutions of marriage and the family are manifested in the frightening increase in the number of divorces, abortions, and other problems of family life. These consequences constitute a great challenge to the mission of the Church in the modern world, which is why the shepherds of the Church are obligated to make every possible effort to address these problems. The Orthodox Church lovingly invites her children and all people of good will to defend this fidelity to the sacredness of the family.
II. On Impediments to Marriage and the application of economy
- Concerning impediments to marriage due to kinship by blood, kinship by affinity and adoption, and spiritual kinship, the prescriptions of the canons (Canons 53 and 54 of the Quinisext Ecumenical Council) and the church practice derived from them are valid as applied today by local autocephalous Orthodox Churches, determined and defined in their charters and their respective conciliar decisions.
- A marriage that is not completely dissolved or annulled and a third marriage constitute absolute impediments to entering into marriage, according to Orthodox canonical tradition, which categorically condemns bigamy and a fourth marriage.
- In accordance with the rigor (akribeia) of the holy canons, entering into a marriage after monastic tonsure is forbidden (Canon 16 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council and Canon 44 of the Quinisext Ecumenical Council).
- Priesthood in itself does not constitute an impediment to marriage, but in accordance with the prevailing canonical tradition (Canon 3 of the Quinisext Ecumenical Council), after ordination entrance into marriage is forbidden.
- Concerning mixed marriages of Orthodox Christians with non-Orthodox Christians or non-Christians:
- Marriage between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christians is forbidden according to canonical akribeia (Canon 72 of the Quinisext Ecumenical Council).
- With the salvation of man as the goal, the possibility of the exercise of ecclesiastical oikonomia in relation to impediments to marriage must be considered by the Holy Synod of each autocephalous Orthodox Church according to the principles of the holy canons and in a spirit of pastoral discernment.
- Marriage between Orthodox and non-Christians is categorically forbidden in accordance with canonical akribeia.
- The practice adopted in implementing ecclesiastical Tradition with respect to impediments to marriage should also take into account the relevant provisions of state legislation, without going beyond the limits of ecclesiastical economy (oikonomia).
The Bible and human history begin and end with marriages. Adam and Eve come together in marital union in Paradise, before the Fall, revealing marriage as a part of God’s eternal purpose for humanity in the midst of creation (Gn 2:22-25). History closes with the marriage of the Bride to the Lamb (Rev 19:7-9), earthly marriage being fulfilled in the heavenly, showing the eternal nature of the sacrament.
Between these bookend events of history are the accounts of numerous other unions of man and wife. In the centuries-old Christian wedding ceremony used to this day in the Orthodox Church, several of these historic marriages are remembered: Abraham and Sarah (Gn 11:29—23:20); Isaac and Rebecca (Gn 24); Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Virgin Mary; and Zacharias and Elizabeth (Lk 1:5-58).
The marriage most prominently featured in the wedding ceremony, however, is the one at Cana of Galilee, described in the Gospel passage read at every Orthodox wedding (Jn 2:1-11). In attending this wedding and performing His first miracle there, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, forever sanctified marriage. As with all the Christian sacraments, marriage is sacramental because it is blessed by God.
Parenthetically, we note that it is at this wedding at Cana that Mary first intercedes with Christ on behalf of others: “They have no wine” (Jn 2:3). Then she calls all humanity to obey Him: “Whatever He says to you, do it” (Jn 2:5).
In modern society, as well as in Christendom, a recurring debate concerns the tension between equality of the partners in marriage and office or order in marriage. Often, this tension has turned into a polarity between men and women, and sometimes even breeds hostility. Two elements in the Orthodox service of marriage serve to heal such tension, while making clear the teaching of the Church on the twin themes of equality and order concerning husband and wife.
As to equality, during the ceremony crowns are placed on the heads of the bride and groom. This act is symbolic of their citizenship in the Kingdom of God, where “there is neither male nor female” (Gal 3:28), and of their dying to each other (the crown is often a symbol of martyrdom; see Rev 2:10). The words of St. Paul on marital equality are clear: “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does” (1Co 7:4). Husband and wife belong to each other as martyrs, they belong to God as royalty, and they are called to treat each other accordingly.
But within marital equality there is also order. The epistle passage read at the sacrament of marriage is Ephesians 5:20-33, an exhortation to husbands and wives that begins with a call to submit to each other (v. 21). The husband is to serve God as head of his wife, as Christ is Head of the Church (v. 23). The wife is to be subject to her husband as the Church is subject to Christ (v. 24). There is nothing here to suggest the wife is oppressed in marriage, any more than one would call the Church oppressed in relationship to Christ. He who calls us “brethren” (Heb 2:11) and “friends” (Jn 15:15) exhorts the husband to love his wife, to nourish and cherish her as He Himself does the Church (vv. 28, 29).
Thus, marriage is a sacrament – holy, blessed, and everlasting in the sight of God and His Church. Within the bonds of marriage, husband and wife experience a union with one another in love. We pray for them the fruit of children and one day the joy of grandchildren. And within the bonds of marriage there is both a fullness of equality between husband and wife and a clarity of order, with the husband as the icon of Christ and the wife as the icon of the Church.
The Orthodox Study Bible, St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology, 2008.
Marriage as Sacrament or “Mystery”
“This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:32). In chapter 5 of the letter to the Ephesians we discover the different meaning of Christian marriage, that element which cannot be reduced to either Judaic utilitarianism or Roman legalism — the possibility and the responsibility given to both husband and wife to transfigure their “agreement” into the reality of the Kingdom.
Every human being is a member of earthly society, a citizen of his country, and a member of his family. He cannot avoid the needs of material existence and must fulfill his social obligations. The Gospel does not deny man’s responsibility for the world and for human society. True Christianity never called for a denial of the world. Even monks render a peculiar service to the world by denying not its existence and its importance, but its claims to control man and to restrict his freedom. The calling of man — the “image and likeness of God” in him — is, first of all, a limitless, a “divine,” a free use of his creative potentials, his yearning for the absolute Good, for the highest forms of Beauty, for true Love, for the possibility of really experiencing this Goodness; because God Himself is that Goodness, that Beauty, that Love and He Himself loves man. To Him man can appeal; His voice he can hear and His love he can experience. For a Christian, God is not an idea to be understood, but a Person to meet: “I am in my Father, and you are in Me and I am in you” (John 14:20). In God man discovers his own humanity, because he has been created as an “image of God.” And Christ, being True God, also manifested a true humanity, not in spite of His divinity, but precisely because He was True God: in Him, we see divinity as the true norm of humanity.
When man is baptized and becomes “one body” with Christ in the Eucharist, he, in fact, becomes more fully himself; he recovers a truer relationship with God and with fellow-men, and he returns to his worldly responsibilities with all the God-given and limitless potential of creativity, of service, and of love.
Now, if St. Paul calls marriage a “mystery” (or “sacrament”: the Greek word is the same), he means that in marriage man does not only satisfy the needs of his earthly, secular existence, but also realizes something very important of the purpose for which he was created; i.e., he enters the realm of eternal life. In the world, man does possess a diversity of talents and powers — material, intellectual, emotional — but his existence is limited by time. Now, to “be born from the water and the Spirit” is to enter the realm of eternal life; for through Christ’s Resurrection this realm is already open and can be experienced and shared. By calling marriage a “mystery,” St. Paul affirms that marriage also has a place in the eternal Kingdom. The husband becomes one single being, one single “flesh” with his wife, just as the Son of God ceased to be only Himself, i.e., God, and became also man so that the community of His people may also become His Body. This is why, so often, the Gospel narratives compare the Kingdom of God with a wedding feast, which fulfills the Old Testament prophetic visions of a wedding between God and Israel, the elected people. And this is also why a truly Christian marriage can only be unique, not in virtue of some abstract law or ethical precept, but precisely because it is a Mystery of the Kingdom of God introducing man into eternal joy and eternal love.
As a mystery, or sacrament, Christian marriage certainly conflicts with the practical, empirical reality of “fallen” humanity. It appears, just as the Gospel itself, as an unattainable ideal. But there is a crucial difference between a “sacrament” and an “ideal.” A sacrament is not an imaginary abstraction. It is an experience where man is not involved alone, but where he acts in communion with God. In a sacrament, humanity participates in the higher reality of the Spirit, without, however, ceasing to be fully humanity. Actually, as we have said above, it becomes more authentically human and fulfills its original destiny. A sacrament is a “passage” to true life; it is man’s salvation. It is an open door into true, unadulterated humanity.
A sacrament, therefore, is not magic. The Holy Spirit does not suppress human freedom but, rather, liberates man from the limitations of sinfulness. In the new life, the impossible becomes truly possible, if only man freely accepts what God gives. This applies to marriage as well.
Mistakes, misunderstandings, and even conscious rebellion against God, i.e., sin, are possible as long as man lives in the present empirical and visible existence of the “fallen world.” The Church understands this very well, and this is why the “mystery” of the Kingdom revealed in marriage is not reduced in Orthodox practice to a set of legal rules. But true understanding and justified condescension to human weakness are possible only if one recognizes the absolute norm of the New Testamental doctrine of marriage as sacrament.
Meyendorff, John. Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000.
The Proper Aim of Marriage
The modern Western distinction between the objective aim (procreation) and the subjective aim (the nuptial community) is inadequate; it does not take account of the basic hierarchy. The texts of the Orthodox Church, when they are not showing the influence of Western handbooks, are unanimous in placing the aim of nuptial life in the spouses themselves. In his Dogmatic Theology, Metropolitan Macarius gives this definition, the most recent, one which is very clear and explicit, and says nothing about procreation: “Marriage is a sacred rite. The spouses promise reciprocal fidelity before the Church; the grace of God is bestowed through the blessing of the minister of the Church. It sanctifies their union and confers the dignity of representing the spiritual union of Christ and the Church.”
The light that was at the beginning has been dispelled through the Fall. St Paul, while speaking of adultery, says “one body” (1 Co 6:16) instead of “one flesh,” a complex term, thereby rendering the spiritual isolation, the frustrated communion, more incisive. Origen draws attention to the first chapter in Genesis where mention is made of the male and the female; their natural union places man in the species, subjecting him to the commandment given to the animal kingdom: “Be fruitful and multiply.” Man survives in his progeny, and through feverish fecundity he hastens to find in it an assurance of his survival. Only the Gospel makes us understand that it is not in the species but in Christ that man is eternal, that he strips off the old man and “is renewed in the image of the One who has created him.” Marriage grafts man into this renewal. The account of the institution of marriage, found in the second chapter of Genesis, speaks of “one flesh” without mentioning procreation at all. The creation of the woman is an answer to the statement, “It is not good for man to be alone.” The nuptial community constitutes the person, for it is the “man-woman” that is in the image of God. All the New Testament passages dealing with marriage follow the same order and do not mention offspring (Mt 19; Mk 10; Eph 5). The coming of man completes the gradual creation of the world. Man humanizes the world and gives it a human and spiritual meaning. It is in man that the sexual differentiation finds its meaning and its proper value, independently of the species.
The economy of the Law ordained procreation to perpetuate the race, for the increase of the chosen people in view of the birth of the Messiah. In the economy of grace, however, the birth of the elect derives from the preaching of faith. The side from which the woman was taken no longer has this utilitarian role assigned to it by sociology. Nowadays the Arabs say, “he is my side,” which signifies, “inseparable companion.”
In the fourth century, St John Chrysostom further declares: “There are two reasons for which marriage was instituted…to bring man to be content with one woman and to have children, but it is the first reason that is the most important. As for procreation, it is not required absolutely by marriage…The proof of this lies in the numerous marriages that cannot have children. This is why the first reason of marriage is to order sexual life, especially now that the human race has filled the entire earth.”
In the image of the creative love of God, human love strives to “design” an object on which to pour itself. In itself, the existence of the world adds nothing to the fullness of God; nonetheless, it is this plenitude that confers on Him His quality as God. God is fullness, not for Himself, but for His creation. Likewise, the nuptial union in itself is plenitude. It can, however, also acquire a new qualification out of its own superabundance: fatherhood or motherhood. The child born of this nuptial community prolongs it and reaffirms the already perfectly realized unity. Love contemplates its reflection in the world and begets the child. “When she has given birth to the child, the women forgets her suffering in her joy that a man has been born into the world”; a new face is called to become an icon of God.
Motherhood is a special form of the feminine kenosis (emptying). The mother gives herself to the child, dies in part for it, follows the love of God that humbles itself, and in a certain sense repeats the utterance of John the Baptist, “He must grow greater, I must grow smaller.” The sacrifice of the mother includes the sword of which Simeon speaks. In this sacrifice, every mother bends over the crucified Christ.
The veneration of the Virgin-Mother brings out the vocation of every woman, her charism of protecting and of nurturing. There is an ever growing number of beings in the world who live like those who are abandoned by God. Their existence is a call to every Christian household to express its nuptial priesthood, its true nature, as a “domestic Church” that receives only to give and thereby reveals itself as a force of compassion and help to return prodigal children to their Father.
Evdokimov, Paul. The Sacrament of Love. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985.
The Domestic Church
Clement of Alexandria calls marriage the “House of God,” and applies to it the words about the presence of the Lord, “I am in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20). According to St Ignatius of Antioch, then, “Where Jesus Christ is, there is the universal Church,” which enables us to clearly see the ecclesial nature of the nuptial community. It is not by mere chance either that St Paul puts his magistral teaching on marriage in the context of his Letter on the Church, Ephesians. He speaks of the “domestic Church,” he kat’ oikon ekklesia (Rm 16:5). There is more here than a simple analogy. Biblical symbolism depends on a very intimate correspondence between the various levels, showing them as different expressions of a single Reality.
According to the Fourth Gospel (2:1-11), the first miracle of Christ takes places at the wedding at Cana. Through its very matter — water and wine — it serves as a prelude to Calvary and already announces the birth of the Church on the Cross, “out of the pierced side came blood and water.” The symbolism brings together and links the place of the miracle, the wedding, to the eucharistic reality of the Church.
The presence of Christ bestows a sacramental gift upon the betrothed. It is of this that St Paul speaks when he states that “everyone has received his special gift from God.” Through its action, the water of the natural passions is changed into “the fruit of the vine,” the noble wine that signifies the transmutation into “the new love,” a charismatic love springing forth to the Kingdom.
This is why the Theotokos, like a guardian angel, bends over the world in distress: “They have no more wine,” she says. The Virgin means to say that the chastity of old, considered the integrity of being, has ceased. Nothing is left but the impasse of masculinity and femininity. The jars destined for the “ablutions among the Jews” are hardly sufficient; but “ancient forms have passed away”; the purification of the ablutions becomes baptism, “the bath of eternity,” in order to grant access to the Eucharistic Banquet of the one and only Bridegroom.
The intercession of the Virgin hastens the arrival: “Do whatever He tells you,” “People generally serve the best wine first and keep the cheaper sort”; the good wine of the betrothal is but a fleeting promise and is rapidly exhausted; the nuptial cup dries up — such is the order of nature. At Cana this order is reversed: “You have kept the best wine till now.” This “now” is the moment of Christ; it knows no passing. The more the spouses are united in Christ the more their common cup, the measure of their life, is filled with the wine of Cana and becomes miraculous.
At Cana, Christ “manifested His glory” within the confines of a “household Church” (ecclesia domestica). In fact, this wedding is the wedding of the spouses to Christ. It is He who presides at the wedding of Cana and, according to the Fathers, at every Christian wedding. It is He who is the one and only Bridegroom whose voice the friend hears and in which he rejoices. This dimension of the mystical bethrothal of the soul to Christ, of which marriage is the direct figure, is that of every soul and that of the Church-Bride.
In its full measure, all grace comes at the end of a sacrifice. The spouses themselves receive it from the moment they undertake to present themselves before the Father in heaven in their dignity as priests, and to offer to Him the sacrifice in Christ, the “reasonable gift,” the oblation of their entire nuptial life. The grace of the priestly ministry of the husband and the grace of the priestly motherhood of the wife form and mold the nuptial being in the image of the Church.
By loving each other the spouses love God. Every moment of their life rises up like a royal doxology, like an unending liturgical chant. St John Chrysostom brings forward this magnificent conclusion: “Marriage is mysterious icon of the Church.”
Evdokimov, Paul. The Sacrament of Love. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985.
Marriage As A Path To Holiness (Foreword)
“Take up their crowns into Thy kingdom,” the celebrant says to our Lord shortly before the final blessing over the bridegroom and the bride at the Orthodox marriage service. In this present book David and Mary Ford set before us a few out of the many Christian couples whose crowns have indeed been “taken up” by Christ into His heavenly kingdom. Drawing on that rich but often neglected source, the Lives of the Saints, their book provides us with a representative selection of models, of icons in words, to encourage us on our own journey to the kingdom, whether we are married or not.
The Orthodox faith is not abstract but personal. It is concerned, not with general principles or with a theoretical code of morality, but with the salvation of unique and particular persons created in the divine image. In this book we are introduced to some of the particular and unique persons who found sanctity and self-fulfillment specifically upon the married path. What is striking first of all about the examples chosen is their diversity. They are spread in time across nearly four thousand years, from the Old Testament era up to our own day. In space they extend no less widely: from Persia in the east to Alaska in the west, from Egypt in the south to England in the north. Some will be well known to most readers, such as St Spyridon (December 12) or St John of Kronstadt (December 20). Others will be less familiar, such as St Rictrude (May 12) or St Golinduc (July 13). In each case the story has been told in a simple but vivid style, with frequent quotations from the original sources and from the liturgical texts.
John Chrysostom calls marriage “the sacrament of love.” As such, marriage expresses something altogether fundamental to our human personhood. For we humans are created in the image of God, and that means first and foremost in the image of God the Holy Trinity. “God is love” (1 John 4:8): not self-love but shared love, not a single person loving himself alone, but a communion or koinonia of three persons loving one another. God is not just personal but interpersonal, not just a unit but a union. God is solidarity, exchange, response, reciprocity.
If all this is true of God, then it must be true also of the human person formed in God’s image. If God is love, then the human person also is love — not self-love but shared love. The human person also is solidarity, exchange, response, reciprocity. We humans, like the three divine persons, fulfill ourselves by living in communion or koinonia: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God” (1 John 4:7).
There are of course different ways in which this mutual love can be expressed; monasticism and the single life can also be “sacraments of love.” The command to “love one another” is issued to all alike, and not just to married couples. But the basic and primary form of human koinonia or communion remains always the mutual love of man and woman within marriage; this is the primordial human relationship, on which all other expressions of interpersonal community are based. Marriage, then, as the “sacrament of love” expresses our fundamental human personhood according to the divine image, precisely because we humans believe in the God who is Trinity and are created in His triune image.
“Let marriage be held in honor among all” (Hebrews 13:4). In numerous ascetic groups on the margin of the Church during the early centuries, the married state was seen as incompatible with a full Christian commitment. Candidates for baptism, if as yet unmarried, were expected to remain celibate for the remainder of their life, while married couples were required to separate from one another before undergoing Christian initiation. But the Church as a whole, rejecting the demands of these “encratite” movements, insisted that marriage is indeed a genuine path to holiness. Married couples, no less than monastics, can attain the fullness of theosis or “deification” in Christ.
It is true that the Fathers, both Greek and Latin, regularly affirm that the monastic vocation — understood as an “angelic” or eschatological anticipation of the human condition after the resurrection (see Mark 12:25; Luke 20:35-36) — is intrinsically higher than the married state. But this does not mean that marriage is not also to be “held in honor.” Moreover, there are Patristic texts which suggest that the highest state, for each person individually, is always the particular state to which that person is specifically called. Once the great anchorite St Macarius of Egypt was told to journey to a certain city, where he would find two people more advanced on the spiritual way than he was. They turned out to be two married women, living with their husbands in the usual way. “Truly,” exclaimed St Macarius with amazement, “there is neither virgin nor married, neither monk nor secular, but God gives His Holy Spirit to all, according to the intention of each” (Vitae Patrum VI, iii, 17). In the words of St Symeon the New Theologian, “In every situation, whatever the work or task involved, it is the life lived for God and according to God that is wholly blessed” (Chapters iii, 65).
How, then, are we each to discover the state to which we are personally called? To this there can certainly be no single answer. There is no exterior method which, in a mechanical and automatic way, will reveal to us what our personal vocation may be, whether married or monastic. If undecided, we have each to wait on the Spirit, obedient to our spiritual father, and the Spirit in His own time and way will speak to us in our concrete and particular circumstances. At the same time, as we wait on the Spirit, it will be of the utmost help for us to have before the eyes of our heart specific examples of those who have followed the vocation of marriage. Here exactly the present work can be of vital assistance.
This is, however, a book not only for those who are married or who are contemplating monasticism, but also for those pursuing the road of monasticism. For, as Paul Evdokimov has rightly maintained, there is only one way in which to learn the distinctive value of the monastic vocation, and that is by learning to appreciate the wonder and sanctity of the married state. By the same token married couples cannot properly perceive the beauty of their own vocation unless they also honor the monastic life. The two callings are not opposed but complementary; each affirms the other.
“Take up their crowns into Thy kingdom.” The supreme purpose of marriage is that husband and wife should each help the other to enter the heavenly kingdom. Through their mutual love and their shared life, the two of them — together with their children, if God has given them offspring — are called to bring one another closer to Christ. As an eternal union between two unique and eternal personalities, the sacrament of marriage has no other end than this. May all the husbands and wives who read this book be enabled, through the prayers of the saints here remembered, to offer up their bridal crowns more completely to Christ the King. And, whether we are married, monastics or single, as we look at the living icons of the Holy Trinity on the pages that follow, may we all of us be brought to a deeper appreciation of this “great mystery” (Ephesians 5:32).
BISHOP KALLISTOS OF DIOKLEIA
Ford, David, and Mary Ford. Marriage As a Path to Holiness: Lives of Married Saints. Pennsylvania: St Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1995.
Marriage As A Path To Holiness (Preface)
“Let them be one in the Lord and each other’s adornment.”
This description from Saint Gregory the Theologian (Asia Minor; 4th century) is a very fitting one for the relationship a Christian husband and wife should seek to have. However, Saint Gregory originally said this about the relationship between those who are married and those who are monastics.
Perhaps it is important to emphasize from the beginning that by selecting only married Saints’ Lives for this book, we do not intend to divide, oppose, prefer, or in any significant sense separate them from the monastic Saints. In fact, quite a few married Saints later became monastics (for example, after the deaths of their spouses). In any case, as Saint Gregory himself points out in the same passage, both are necessary for the Church.
It has always been important for all Christians to be encouraged to be holy. As we read in Saint Peter’s first epistle, “but as He who called you is holy, so also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy’” (I Peter 1:15-16; Lev. 11:44-45). There also has always been a special need to encourage people to become monastics, since it is an unusual path. Probably now, in our indulgent, “post-Christian” society, monasticism is needed more than ever.
In contrast, there was not a need in the past to encourage marriage. It has simply been the normal way of life for most people, and its value has not been questioned by society at large, or by the Church (where it is considered a holy sacrament). So, the main pastoral need in the past was to encourage Christians who were married to strive to be holy. And this can be done partly by reading Saints’ Lives — any Saints, whether monastic or married.
But today it is also necessary to emphasize the fundamental goodness of marriage itself, since marriage and family life are often disparaged in our society. As part of emphasizing the need for all to seek holiness, it is helpful for people to know that many married people have achieved holiness, even though they remain unknown to the Church as a whole, and also that there are those among the married who have been held up by the Church through formal canonization as examples for all.
Some may wonder how the Lives of the Saints can really be relevant for us today. Even in Saint Gregory of Nyssa’s time and place (Asia Minor; 4th century), people were asking, “How can the Saints of old be examples for us now, since their lives and cultures were so different from ours?” As he wrote, “What then? Someone will say, ‘How can I imitate them, since I am not a Chaldean as I remember Abraham was, nor was I nourished by the daughter of the Egyptian as Scripture teaches about Moses, and in general I do not have in these matters anything in my life corresponding to any one of the ancients? … I do not know how to imitate anyone so far removed from me by the circumstances of his life.’”
Saint Gregory explains that, of course, the circumstances of a Saint’s life — including, we could add, whether they are monastics or married — do not have to resemble ours in any external way, in order to be edifying and to lead us closer to God. Some who are married may well feel closer to, and more inspired by, a monastic Saint than by any of the married Saints. As Saint Gregory goes on to say, “Perhaps, then, the memory of anyone distinguished in life would be enough to fill our need for a beacon light and to show us how we can bring our soul to the sheltered harbor of virtue” (our emphasis). And he suggests that “it may be for this very reason that the daily life of those sublime individuals is recorded in detail, that by imitating the earlier examples of right action those who follow them may conduct their lives to the good.”
A main purpose of reading any of the Saints’ Lives, then, is to be directed to the life of virtue — to be provided with “a beacon light.” Saint Basil the Great (Asia minor; 4th century) emphasizes this point with another helpful image: “Thus, generally, as painters, when they are painting from other pictures, constantly look at the model, and do their best to transfer its lineaments to their own work, so too, he who is desirous of rendering himself perfect in all branches of excellency, must keep his eyes turned to the lives of the Saints as though to living and moving statues, and make their virtue his own by imitation.”
While stressing that anyone holy can edify and guide us, Saint Gregory of Nyssa also says that looking to someone who is like us in some important way can be very helpful: “Human nature is divided into male and female, and the free choice of virtue or of evil is set before both equally. For this reason the corresponding example of virtue for each sex has been exemplified by the divine voice [i.e., Holy Scripture], so that each, by observing the one to which he is akin (the men to Abraham and the women to Sarah), may be directed in the life of virtue by the appropriate examples.”
Thus, although all the Saints’ Lives are edifying for all the faithful, at the same time it is also true that it is encouraging in a special way, for those of us “in the world,” to realize that people who also lived “in the world,” who owned property, had children, worked and shopped “in the marketplace” — and who had all the cares, heartaches, and joys which these things occasion — were able to be so devoted to God as to become holy. And it is very encouraging to remember that some of them have been held up as examples by the Church through formal canonization, for everyone to benefit from their lives and prayers.
The main reason for collecting Lives of married Saints, then, is not because only they can be inspiring to those who are married, but to encourage those who are married to realize that holiness is possible for them in the world, and thus to encourage all married people, along with their children, to strive for this. Our hope is that this book will provide such encouragement. We also hope that it will provide a more complete understanding for those who do not realize that there are canonized Saints who were married, as well as for those who believe that holiness is something only monastics need to strive for — since, they imagine, only the monks can attain it.
It is also important to remember that there are many holy people who have not been formally canonized — and indeed, there are many who have remained unknown to the world. The Church’s canonization of certain holy people as Saints has never implied that these are the only saints, the only people who attained holiness while on earth. Rather, the list of canonized Saints is but a sample of those who have become know to the Church, whom the Church has decided to hold up as examples for all. This is one reason they tend to be those who either had a very public role (for instance, bishops, royalty, abbots and abbesses, wonderworkers, and philanthropists), or those who were part of a monastic community whose members kept their memory alive and made them known.
The Monk Moses, a hermit on Mount Athos who recently collected and published over three hundred brief Lives of married Saints, notes in this book, “it is certain that there are many married Saints who remain unknown to us.” This anonymous quality is not surprising in the case of those Saints who did not have a significant public role, and is in fact generally considered to be a great advantage for the spiritual life. Well-known Saints often wished they could have remained unknown, and urged others to strive for this. Saint Nicholas of Zhicha (Serbia and America; 20th century), in his Prologue from Ochrid, quotes Saint Anthony the Great (Egypt; 4th century) on this matter: “Be fearful of becoming famed for anything that you may do. If men begin to praise you for your deeds, do not rejoice at it or find sweetness therein. Keep your deeds as secret as possible and do not make it necessary for any to speak of them.”
Ford, David, and Mary Ford. Marriage As a Path to Holiness: Lives of Married Saints. Pennsylvania: St Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1995.