THE ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN MARRIAGE
The Orthodox church marriage is a great sacrament: no wonder that in our times of apostasy it has been subjected to such terrible attacks and destruction, for it is the foundation of a morally healthy society existing within the framework of God’s commandments. The Orthodox marriage and the family which issues from it have always constituted the major impediment to the corruption of mankind for the purpose of preparing it to accept the Antichrist. All of us have personally witnessed the immense efforts which have been made over the past decades – and are still being made today – to destroy marriage and the family. In order for us – Orthodox Christians – to withstand this anti-Christian campaign, we must under-stand and come to realize the great significance of true Orthodox church marriage. To this end we would first like to bring to your attention a brief exposition of the Orthodox teaching on marriage, and then an excellent article by Father Alexey Young, which illuminates the subject from all sides.
Orthodox teaching on the sacrament of marriage
The marital union has been elevated in the New Testament to the level of God’s great mystery; it is an image of the union of Christ and the Church. But the union of Christ and the Church is full of grace and truth (John 1:14), i.e. it is a true union, filled with grace; therefore, the marital union must also be considered full of grace, a union upon which God sends the grace of the Holy Spirit, and which is thus a true union. On the basis of this, the marital union is concluded not only through parental blessing or the wish of those entering the union, but with the blessing of the Church, through priests ordained within the Church, who perform a special solemn rite – the sacrament of marriage, – in order to transfer to the newly-wedded pair the grace of the Holy Spirit.
The Christian marriage is holy and spiritual, as is the union of Christ and the Church. For this reason the apostle says: “May the marriage of all be honourable and the bed undefiled” (Heb. 13:4) and enjoins Christian spouses: for this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication; that every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour, and not in the lust of desire, even as the pagans who know no God (Thess. 4:3-5).
Marriage should be indissoluble: what therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder (Matt. 19:6), – willfully, of course. The only acceptable cause for divorce is adultery; but even in this case the husband and wife are not divorced except by the authority of the Church itself, through its lawful priests, i.e. by the authority which had originally united the spouses, for only to the apostles and their successors did the Saviour give the power to bind or loosen men (Matt. 18:18).
All other forms of divorce, outside of the Church, are condemned by the words: “what God joined together, let not man put asunder.”
What is the purpose of the divine establishment of marriage?
First of all, the propagation and preservation of mankind, as is seen in the words of God Himself, Who blessed the first people: be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth (Gen. 1:27-28).
Secondly, the mutual aid of spouses in this life: “And the Lord God said: it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper that is meet for him” (Gen. 2:18).
Thirdly, in order to restrain man’s sinful lusts and the chaotic inclinations of his sensuality. This purpose of marriage is pointed out by the apostle, who says: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman; nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband” (1 Cor. 7:1-2).
The last and most important responsibility placed upon Christian spouses by the sacrament of marriage is the preparation of themselves and of their children, if God should please to grant them such, for eternal life, for future eternal bliss. All of us know that only true piety can make a person happy both in this and in the future life. This happiness can easily be attained by people united in marriage, if they, while loving each other, will at the same time love the Lord God above all; if above everything else they will prefer the fulfillment of God’s commandments; if by their own example they will compel each other to penitence; if they will help each other to tread the narrow path of virtue. Parents especially must regard as their great and sacred responsibility the nurturing of their children in the spirit of Christian piety; otherwise, having been the cause of their temporary life, they may easily become the cause of their eternal perdition. It is not enough for Christian parents themselves to be pious: their children must equally love God and be pious. The influence of the mother in the matter of religious/moral education of children is particularly indispensable.
Orthodox Christianity is a way of life, not merely something we do on Sunday morning and quickly forget when we leave the church. A way of life is a whole coming together of habits and attitudes, ideas and actions: a style of life, a way to live. For us Orthodox, Christianity is our daily bread. Like a fish in water, we must swim in our faith. As followers of Christ, we take our whole direction from Christ and His Church, and not from the standards of today’s world.
Most of us Orthodox Christians do not live in monasteries; we are married, we have homes, children, jobs. Among many married Orthodox there exists the mistaken idea that their following Christ does not require the same dedication required of the Orthodox monastic. But of course all Christians, whether monastic or not, are equally called by Christ to repentance and eternal salvation. There are no “classes” of Orthodox Christians – all are equal and all are expected to be followers of Christ, regardless of their position in the Church.
It is, however, very difficult for us non-monastic Christians to live an Orthodox lifestyle from day to day and year to year, because we are constantly exposed to and live within a society that is not only not Christian, but even at times, and increasingly, hostile to Orthodox Christian beliefs. But this should not discourage us, for Christ Himself understood the situation when He said: Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matt. 10:16).
A tremendous bastion of strength for Orthodox lay people in our circumstances is marriage and family life, a state that has been blessed by God for the salvation of each individual member of the family. In order to fully understand this, we must look at the doctrinal foundations of marriage found in Scripture and sacred Tradition – which are the ongoing conscience of the Church.
The righteous Joachim and Anna –
a supreme example of Christian marriage in the Old Testament
The Old Testament and the New Testament Views of Marriage
When we look at the practice of marriage, family life, and multiplication of the human race as described in the Old Testament, we are immediately aware of the fact that great emphasis was placed on the continuation of the Hebrew race. We have endless family trees given to us in the Old Testament. But marriage was not the only way by which the race was continued at that time. Children were also begotten through the custom of concubinage and the practice of having a man marry the widow of his brother, even though he might already have a wife. Many of the great personages of the Old Testament had multiple wives and concubines. This emphasis on perpetuating the race seems to us extreme. However, the primary reason for all of this mating was not the gratification of lust, but the desire for descendants. Sexual promiscuity was in no wise condoned by God in Old Testament times any more than He condones it in our own times. But during Old Testament times God began to reveal to man what His expectations were. Gradually we see that God condemned polygamous marriages, concubines, and the practice of marrying one’s brother’s widow. He began to shift the focus of marriage from procreation to a higher, spiritual level. Finally, God made His intentions very clear by the way He dealt with people who were involved in illicit sex. To us, who consider ourselves enlightened modern people, God’s actions might seem to be very harsh. But He was trying to make plain that He was the ultimate source of life, and not the physical union of a man and a woman. And where God is, there can be only holiness and mystery. What procreates and perpetuates life cannot be anything but a mystery. And holiness and mystery must be protected, guarded, and preserved against blasphemy, uncleanness, and irreverence. The way in which God dealt with sexual transgressions and perversions in the Old Testament makes it very clear that marriage is an extremely wonderful and holy mystery – so holy and mysterious, that any kind of sexual transgression is an abomination in God’s sight, and to be avoided at all costs.
With the coming of Christ, marriage no longer had as its primary goal the reproduction of human beings and the perpetuation of a family line, although procreation was still regarded as an important part of marriage. But Christ had come to the world and brought with Him the proof and guarantee of the resurrection of the dead, therefore giving to Christian marriage a new primary goal – the attainment of eternal life by husband, wife, and all children.
The marriage service in the Orthodox Church begins with the words “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.” This exclamation emphasizes the seriousness of marriage, and also the goal of marriage. According to church canons, those Orthodox Christians who marry outside the Church are deprived of the sacraments of the Church. Some people find this shocking; they feel the Church is being too harsh. But the question is: what gives validity to a marriage? From a spiritual standpoint, what gives meaning to a marriage? Unlike the wedding ceremonies in most non-Orthodox churches, marriage in the Orthodox Church is not a contract – a legal agreement with the exchange of vows or promises – between two people. Rather, marriage is the setting up, by two people, of a miniature church, a family church, wherein people may worship the true God and struggle to save their souls. It is also a family church that is in obedience to Christ’s Church. As St. Basil the Great says, it is natural to marry, but it must be more than natural; it must be a yoke, borne by two people under the Church.
Thus we see that in New Testament times the focus of marriage was switched from a primary purpose of producing children to a primary purpose of providing a way for human beings to save their souls. The wedding ceremony itself is filled with rich symbolism that makes this whole aspect of marriage very clear.
Characteristics of a Successful Marriage
Experience tells us that when two people get married, they immediately begin to discover how very different they are. The fact is, we do not really even beginto know ourselves until we are married. We live too close to ourselves. It really does take someone else to see ourselves as we really are. One of the fringe benefits of a good marriage is that one acquires a built-in psychiatrist: a good spouse who cares enough to listen without having to be paid for it! We know that many emotional illnesses are a result of a person having some inner burden weighing on him which he had never been able to really share with someone else. In a good marriage, husband and wife share their burdens with one another, and this sharing is without reservation, without having to worry about how the other person will react, without having to keep up a front.
A marriage is not a missionary enterprise! It has enough problems and difficulties of its own without each partner trying to thoroughly change and remake the other. One of the most common and most serious illusions young marrieds have is that of marrying someone in hope and expectation of changing that person.
True love does not force itself on anyone, and it does not force change; it evokes growth. How? First, by accepting one’s spouse as he or she is. When we marry, we do not sign up to change the other person; we just agree to love him as he is. The best thing a husband can do to change his wife, or vice-versa, is to change himself, to correct his own faults – in keeping with Christ’s instructions to His followers.
We think of disloyalty in a marriage as being when one spouse commits adultery. The fact is, we can be disloyal and unfaithful just as thoroughly by putting business, or parents, or hobbies, or someone else before our spouse. That, too, is disloyalty. And anyone who is not ready to place his spouse ahead of career, ahead of parents, ahead of friends, ahead of recreation, is not ready for marriage – and such a marriage will fail. Marriage is for adults, not for children.
If you fit the first button into the first hole of your suit, all the other buttons will fall in their proper place. But if the first button is placed in the second hole, nothing will come out right. It’s a matter of putting first things in first place, of keeping priorities straight. Likewise in marriage. Husbands, if you put your wives first – and wives, if you put your husbands first – everything else will fall into its proper place in the marriage relationship.
There are many characteristics that a successful marriage has, but in my view the three most important are these:
1. Praise. No marriage can prosper if there is no praise. Everyone in life needs to feel appreciated at some point by someone. And nothing can kill love faster than continual criticism. When we husbands and wives praise each other – in small ways as well as in big ways – we are also saying to one another: I love you; I value you. Praise nurtures a good marriage. And it is the one characteristic that is most lacking in modern marriages.
2. Forgiveness. Forgiveness is essential for a happy marriage. When couples ask me, “Do you think our marriage can survive?” my answer is always, “Yes, providing you are willing to forgive each other.” And this forgiveness should not be just after a major crisis in a family. It should be every single day. In a successful marriage, a husband and wife are constantly asking forgiveness of each other. When we do not do this, wounds do not get healed. We grow apart from each other. We grow cold towards one another, and we do not obtain the blessings that God sends down on husbands and wives that mutually forgive one another.
3. Time. A successful marriage takes time. It does not happen overnight. It must grow. It is a long and difficult process; like all good things in life, it comes through considerable effort and struggle. Those of you not yet married, or on the verge of marriage, should remember this: we live in a society of instant gratification – we want what we want when we want it, and that when is now. And this impatience on our part has had a very destructive effect on marriages, even in the Orthodox Church. If we have no patience with each other, and are not willing to give many years to working out a successful marriage, then our marriage is doomed.
The Royal Martyrs – perfect example of an Orthodox marriage and family
No marriage is so good that it cannot be better, and no marriage is so bad that it cannot be improved – provided that the persons involved are willing to grow together by God’s grace towards the maturity of Christ, Who came “not to be served but to serve.”
An absolutely essential requirement for a good marriage is the capacity to grow up. Emotional immaturity is one of the greatest causes of failure in marriage. Of course, we all come to marriage with our private assortment of immaturities and hang-ups. But we have to learn to outgrow them. When I was a child, observed St. Paul, I thought as a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things. How essential it is to a happy marriage to put away childish things: irresponsibility, insisting on one’s own way, egotism, lack of empathy, temper tantrums, jealousy. How important it is to pray every day: “O God, help me to grow up… to look beyond myself… to realize the needs and feelings of my wife/husband, and to accept the responsibility God has laid upon me.”
The Orthodox Christian Home
What is an Orthodox Christian home? To answer this question we must go back to square one and talk about the three main ingredients of true love. Our Faith teaches us that love is composed of three parts – not all of them of equal importance:
- The physical
- The mental
- The spiritual
The physical is obvious: a man is naturally attracted to a woman physically. This is the part of love which is very dominant early in a relationship. But there must also be a mental attraction between a man and a woman if they are going to have a successful marriage: by that I mean that they should have many interesting things to talk about, and genuinely enjoy each other’s company, being interested in each other’s total personality. This is an aspect of love that must last for the duration of the marriage, until death. Sadly, it is often the first part of love that dies; and it dies simply because it has not been nurtured by both spouses. Thirdly, love consists of spiritual attraction – when two young people can talk about God and agree. They must be able to talk about the goals of life and agree; no wall should exist between them when they talk about the purpose of life. In other words, they have common goals. If they do not have common goals, if they believe differently about God, how can they seriously travel the path of life together? So, the most important ingredient of true love is this spiritual oneness.
What most often happens, however, is this: the spiritual attraction of love is completely overlooked or ignored by two people contemplating marriage. They experience a physical and mental attraction, and they get married. They have never really dealt with the spiritual aspect, so that it does not exist in their marriage, and soon, because of a lack of hard work and nurturing, the mental attraction that had originally existed begins to fade and finally dies. Then they are left with the physical attraction. And if there is nothing more substantial to base a marriage on than a physical attraction, then the first time a third person comes along to whom one of the partners is strongly attracted, the marriage dissolves, and we have the tragedy of adultery being committed by one of both spouses and, ultimately, divorce.
Our society completely ignores the spiritual side of love, and is hostile even to the importance of a mental compatibility between a man and a woman; but the physical, the sexual – that’s another matter: that is one aspect of love that our society exalts above all others. You have only to walk into a bookstore and count the number of sex manuals to get the point.
Orthodoxy, on the other hand, seeks to keep all three ingredients in a state of harmony, with the spiritual aspect governing the other two. If we remember that the primary purpose of a marriage is the same as that of the Church: the attainment of eternal salvation, then we can see why the spiritual part of a marriage must not only govern the physical and mental, but must be nurtured and encouraged to grow.
Sex, Children, Birth Control, Divorce
Now we come to a delicate issue: sex. It must be stated at the outset that the commandments and prohibitions concerning illicit sex in the Old Testament do not mean that there is something sinful about sex in itself. These commandments are like a fence that God has built around sex in order to protect it, because it is something unique, something reserved by God for a special relationship – the marriage relationship – within which He gives the gift of life to our race. And there is some-thing else: we know from revelation that our first parents in the Garden of Eden did not have sex. The sexual relationship between a man and a woman came into existence when Adam and Eve fell; for when they fell, their bodies took on the curse of suffering, sickness, and ultimately death, and it became necessary to reproduce their kind so that the race would continue until the time that God would send the Messiah. Sex, then, is a function of our fallen human nature, just as hunger is a function of our fallen human nature. Neither the appetite for sex nor the appetite for food are in themselves sinful, but both can be abused and even perverted, and so God gave laws for us to use in governing these appetites (and others), so that they would not get out of order and cause harm. The sexual function of our nature, then, is something that dies when our bodies die, – and that is why the New Testament says that there will be no marriage or giving in marriage in the Kingdom of Heaven. Our sexual nature is not eternal, and it ceases when we die. In the same way, in Eden Adam and Eve did not hunger for food, nor were they sexually attracted to one another.
This is important to remember, because we have all grown up in a society which exalts sex and the sexual side of our nature to a very high degree, making sexual fulfillment the sign of the “good life,” and despising celibacy or a controlled sexual appetite as being somehow Victorian, puritanical, or even mentally and emotionally unbalanced and unhealthy.
Furthermore, we know that at the time woman was created, God said: It is not good that the man should be alone. Let Us make for him a help suitable to him (Gen. 2:18). This “suitable help,” woman, is of course much more than a helper; she is also bone of man’s bone, and flesh of his flesh, and when a husband and wife come together in sexual intercourse, there is the coming together – the fulfillment and consummation – of two halves of a human person, two which become one; as Scripture says, “and they shall be one flesh.” This is the mystical side of our sexual nature. And this is why adultery is such a serious sin.
Just as we cannot give free rein to our appetite for food without doing severe damage to ourselves, undermining our health, and eventually even killing ourselves, so the sexual appetite must also be subject to control. Thus, even in the Old Testament we learn that married couples underwent times of abstinence from each other – usually during Lenten times, or before going to the Temple in Jerusalem. And this practice was affirmed in the New Testament. St. Paul speaks of it in his first epistle to the Corinthians (7:5), when he recommends that man and wife abstain from each other at certain times of prayer and preparation. Consequently, to this day in the Orthodox Church, fasting days and fasting periods – such as Great Lent – are times not only of abstinence from certain foods, but of abstinence from each other as man and wife. Unfortunately, this ancient practice of our Faith is being neglected by more and more people today, who seem to think that the rules having to do with sexual activity are simply quaint old-world customs that have nothing to do with spiritual laws. Furthermore, it is the consistent teaching of the Church from the time of the Apostles, that a man and a wife abstain from one another for three days before receiving Holy Communion and for a whole day after. Why? So that each individual can give himself over to prayer and preparation before partaking of the Holy Mysteries, and prayer and thanksgiving after Communion. This is a standard that we should be striving to attain; those of you who are not yet married should be aware of this now, and understand why the Church has these rules – not in order to be stuffy and puritanical, but in order to show us how to control and properly use our appetites and maintain harmony between the body and the soul in the marriage relationship.
We see, therefore, that just as the Church prescribes rules of fasting to keep in check our appetite for food, it similarly imposes restraints upon our sexual appetites, so that we do not ruin the delicate balance between soul and body.
(To be continued)
(Reprinted from “Orthodox America,” No. 154)