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.
(To be continued)
(Reprinted from “Orthodox America,” No. 154)