The Orthodox Pages

email: pater@christopherklitou.com 

TALK ON MARRIAGE

IN THE ORTHODOX CHURCH

11th October 2007

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If we go back to our grandparent’s generation we see that divorce was a rare occurrence, it was unthinkable and scandalous for a woman to leave her husband even if the marriage had reached a point where communication between the couple was unbearably painful. With our parents generation, the swinging sixties and seventies, divorces started to increase, especially so in western societies where economical help and social support was available for single and divorced parents. Today divorce amongst couples has become so common that we can liken it to an epidemic spreading and destroying marriages. The reason of course is not marriage which has been around as long as man, but society which has changed the fundamental laws and peoples ideas and expectations of marriage. People in general do not understand the true meaning of marriage thinking that it’s a license for legitimate sexual relations and a way to fulfil their bodily passions. For many it is also a viable way to progress up the social ladder and with two incomes it is easier to be financially stable. But what then is marriage, what is the Orthodox teaching on marriage and how does an Orthodox marriage differ from other marriages?

There is the civil marriage which is nothing more that a contract between two people promising to live together as husband and wife. Then there is the western church marriage which, similar to the civil marriage, involves an exchange of marital vows and promises and where the couple are said to marry one another. In other words they marry themselves by saying: "I Christopher take you Katherine to be my lawful wedded wife…" and then the priest blesses their action. Then we have the Orthodox marriage which is regarded as a sacrament because the priest commands God to marry the bride and groom.  In our Orthodox Marriage service the priest addresses God directly saying Do Thou Thyself now O Lord and Master, stretch forth Thy hand from Thy Holy dwelling place, and join together this Thy servant, Christopher, and this Thy handmaiden Katherine, for by Thee is a wife joined to her husband. Unite them together in oneness of mind; crown them together as one flesh, grant unto them the fruit of the womb and the pleasure of well-favoured children… Thus, the meaning of marriage between the east and west is from the very onset very different. For the west it is a contract between two people promising to live together through good and bad times until death separates them. In the east no contract is exchanged, but the union is mystical, where God joins two bodies into one flesh, but this is not the only difference we have with the west on the meaning of marriage. The Orthodox Church regards marriage as one of the paths to true holiness of life, that is, it is seen as a way of salvation. The other path is through monasticism. 

But let’s take marriage from the beginning. In Genesis we read:

“And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him… And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And 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. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”

Human history began with a wedding. 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. In the very beginning of human existence, God established one of the essential laws of human nature: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” Man’s road through life and the expectation of his true destiny requires of him to participate with other people in mutual effort, love and cooperation. For this very purpose God established marriage and blessed it, as is written in Holy Scripture: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it.” (Genesis 1:26-28). During the joining of man and woman, a mystery of the union of two opposite sexes takes place as if they are blended into one living being, one body. And they are one body if we remember that Eve was taken out of Adam. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh. Adam could not be fulfilled in life without his part that was taken out of him. Marriage then is the re-union of Adam, the joining of the two halves into one.  Marriage was instituted by God in the Garden of Eden before the fall when Adam and Eve were still innocent and immortal, thus the Lord intended that marriage should be everlasting and indissoluble. As we know from the Bible, the later disobedience to God and the fall of our first parents brought corruption into human nature: evil and death entered into the world and all aspects of human life went astray from their original form and purpose. This damage to human nature had an adverse effect on all forms of private and social life, including the marital relationship. Thus, natural attraction between individuals sometimes becomes disordered, taking various forms of sexual perversion such as prostitution, polygamy, homosexuality, marital unfaithfulness and so forth.

If we take a look at marriage and family life in the Old Testament, we are immediately aware of the fact that great emphasis was placed on the multiplication and continuation of the Hebrew race. But this continuation was not restricted to childbirth in marriage or to one wife. There was the custom of the man coming together with his wife’s concubine and the practice of a man marrying his brother’s widow even though he already had a wife. Polygamy was socially accepted.  We read that Solomon, for example, had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines,King David took more concubines and wives from Jerusalem after he came from Hebron; and more sons and daughters were born to him. And many other great personages of the Old Testament had multiple wives and concubines. 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 He also condescends to human weaknesses. He allowed such institutions as polygamy because He knew that man was still unable to understand his own original destiny and to live in accordance with it. Marriage in the Old Testament was considered as a temporal contract, which could be dissolved at any time.   Nevertheless, the ideal of a true marital relationship was not completely lost, and the Old Testament prophets were concerned about the purity of marriage. Among the Jews a happy marriage was considered to be God's blessing: Home and wealth may come down from parents, but a sensible wife is a gift from the Lord (Proverbs 19:14). In the Orthodox Marriage prayers many of these historic marriages are remembered as the Priest asks that God bless the couple as he blessed Abraham and Sara, Isaac and Rebecca, Joseph and Asenath, Moses and Zipporah, Joachim and Anna, Zacharias and Elizabeth. 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.

With the coming of Christ, marriage no longer had as its primary goal the reproduction of human beings and the continuation of the 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 Lord Jesus Christ, Who came to earth to restore the Divine moral foundation to human society, concerned himself also with restoring the marital union. By His presence at the marriage at Cana in Galilee the Lord blessed and sanctified the marriage and performed his first miracle there. The change of water into wine points to a transfiguration of the old into the new, a passage from death to life. Later, the Lord made clear to the Jews the true significance of marriage. Referring to the Scriptures regarding the union between man and woman, the Lord reinforced the principle of indissoluble marriage in definite terms: “Wherefore they (man and woman) are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” When the Sadducees questioned Christ saying: “Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He said unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.” (Matthew 19:3-9). In other words, a person entering marriage is required to remain in it. The breaking of marital fidelity is disobeying God's will and, therefore, a grievous sin. The New Testament and especially the Epistles of St. Paul give the true teaching on what marriage should be and the recipe for a strong and happy marriage.  Let’s take a look at the reading from the Marriage service taken from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians. (5:20-33). St. Paul says: Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church: and he is the Saviour of the body. Therefore as the Church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.”

Does this mean that the wife should be subordinate to the husband and obey his every wish and demand? Absolutely not! Here the Apostle describes the ideal marital relationships. The Church obeys Christ as its Saviour and benefactor. This is not slavish subordination but an impulse of responsive love. Every institution must have a head, a leader. The same is true of a successful marriage, for the family is also a unit, a spiritual and physical organization. According to Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition, the leader in a marriage is the husband. He represents the principle of authority in the family. Just as the priest is the spiritual leader of the parish, and responsible to God for the parishioners, and thus the spiritual authority in the parish, so too the husband is the priest in his family, responsible for setting the tone of family life. This does not means that he is superior to his wife. In Christ's sight, all are equal; there is neither male nor female. In fact, marriage is a partnership of equals. Being the head does not give a husband any kind of dictatorial, tyrannical, arbitrary, or absolute authority over his wife and children.  But, as with every position of importance, certain responsibilities go with this one, and they are very heavy and difficult, but also very challenging and potentially creative responsibilities. The reading continues saying that the husband must love his wife even as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for it (Eph. 5:25). Most Christian husbands have little idea of what this kind of love means. In the world, "love" usually refers to physical love or sentimental, romantic love. This has nothing to do with the Christian concept of love. Just recall Christ's words to His followers: Greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for his friend. (John 15:13) Love, then, from the Christian standpoint, means sacrifice, and self-denial. A husband must take as much care, concern, thoughtfulness, attention, regard and precautions for his wife as Christ takes for the Church. The husband's attentiveness might even have to extend to death itself. For just as Christ was put to death for His love of the Church, so too the Orthodox Christian husband must yield all things - even his life, if necessary - for his wife. St Paul continues saying that men ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourishes and cherishes it, even as the Lord the church: This balances and makes clear that what St. Paul said earlier: that “The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church...” is not to be interpreted with meaning that the husband is superior to the wife. A husband's duty to give love to his wife and family does not allow him to intimidate his wife. He must not treat his wife as a hired servant which many men do. Here is what Saint John Chrysostom has to say about this: “A servant, indeed, one will be able perhaps to bind down by fear; nay, not even for him, for he will soon leave you. But the partner of one's life, the mother of one's children, the foundation of one's every joy, one ought never to chain down by fear and threats, but with love and good temper. For what sort of union is that, where the wife trembles at her husband? And what sort of pleasure will the husband have if he dwells with his wife as with a slave? Yea, even though you suffer everything on her account, do not scold her; for neither did Christ do this to the Church.”

What does it mean to be the head? Christ is the head of the Church and he washed the feet of His disciples. To be head, to be first, means to serve - to be the first in giving love, in giving understanding, in giving patience, in providing his family with protection. This is the kind of leader, or head, that the husband is called to be. The reading from the Epistle of St. Paul during the marriage service ends with the words “let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.” In Greek the word for reverence is φοβείται in other words it could also be translated as the wife see that she fears her husband. This is often misunderstood as meaning that the wife should be subordinate to the husband. Very correctly was the Greek word for fear translated into English with the word reverence. When we use the word fear in religious terms we mean reverence. In the Divine Liturgy when the priest calls the faithful to approach for Holy Communion he says: With fear of God, faith and love draw near. Fear of God means reverence of God. When we speak of having fear of God we do not mean that we tremble before the fearful God who will punish us for our sins, but we fear of losing the communication we have with him and of losing the grace we have been granted to be able to feel his love for us. A wife who reverences her husband shows not only that she loves him but also that she has complete trust in him to be there for her and the family no matter what difficulties they might encounter throughout their married life. A wise woman will encourage her husband to be the head of the household and will not try and take on the position of authority herself. Each has his or her role in marriage, but these roles are not meant to suppress the other into doing the other’s bidding. It should be said that these roles are not exclusive: there are times when it is appropriate for a wife to show strength, or for a husband to be obedient to his wife.

In the most mature, highly developed and spiritual marriages, the relationship of a man and woman evolves into one of mutual obedience. Today's society, despises the spirit of obedience. We are instead told to "do our own thing," to look after "number one," to satisfy our every whim and desire. But an Orthodox Christian marriage is not part of secular or worldly society. The aim of Christian marriage is eternal life in Heaven with Jesus Christ; the aim of worldly society is pleasure, enjoyment of the here and now, and, especially, self-indulgence and self-will.  We have all, at one time or another, seen examples of families where the wife "wears the pants." And what do we usually mean by this expression? We mean that the wife has taken over the position of leadership in the family and has tried to become the head of the husband. This may happen because the husband is very weak - or perhaps too selfish and preoccupied to assume his proper responsibilities; or it may be because the wife herself has a spiritual or emotional problem that causes her to desire authority and power. In such cases the woman often has a pushy and aggressive personality that manifests itself in her relationships outside the family as well. Such a wife lacks the most basic qualities of womanhood - gentleness, modesty of mind, and kindness. In such a situation there are only feelings of despair, frustration, discontent and even anger among family members.  

St. Paul reminds us in the epistle to the Corinthians that “man is not from woman, but woman from man. It is not man who was created for the woman, but woman for the man (as his friend and helpmate) Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God” (1 Cor. 11:8-12). With the Apostle’s teaching we see the early Christian attitude towards marriage -  husbands and wives are co-workers in God. They are absolutely equal as members of the Kingdom of God and inheritors of eternal life. But even though there is equality as members of the kingdom of heaven, there is a difference between them determined by their nature and role for which they were created. The wife was created to be a helpmate to the husband, but not the husband for the wife. The wife is equal in everything to the husband, but in practical aspects she is his helper and dependent on him, and the husband is the head of the wife. These different roles for the man and women are continually referred to during the marriage service: an example is the following prayer: Do Thou now, O Lord and Master, our God, send down Thy heavenly grace upon these Thy servants (…..) and (…..) and grant unto this Thy handmaiden to be in all things subject unto her husband, and unto this thy servant, to be at the head of his wife, that they may live according to thy will.

The purpose of marriage is for the couple to help one another and complement one another. And since the main purpose of human life is the salvation of the soul, the couples must encourage one another to live a Christian way of life according to the will of God. Then God's blessing will remain on the married couple; their marriage will be happy and will serve as a comfort and joy to them.

Marriage then is a constant effort to live not for one's own self, but for the other's because Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25); mutual dedication is the main psychological and moral content of marriage, for both the man and the woman. The role of direction and initiative, which belongs to the man, is primarily a function and a responsibility. It does not indicate any moral superiority of the man over the woman. The words of St. Paul are very clear on marital equality: The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does (1 Cor. 7:4). Husband and wife belong to each other but they should at all times remember that first and foremost they belong to God, as St. Paul says: What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's.(1 Cor. 6:19-20) True Marriage then is to honour each others body as the temple of God, striving always to live with Christ in the midst of this marriage who will help and guide the couple to salvation and the kingdom of heaven. 

The crowns that are placed on the bride and groom during the marriage service refers to this holy way of life. The crowns have a double meaning: they are the crowns of a king and queen and at the same time they are martyrs crowns. God in creating Adam, appointed him as king of creation. Now he appoints the new couple as king and queen of their own kingdom, a new household and family with the charge and responsibility of governing their household and offspring with integrity, wisdom and justice according to God’s commandments. During the placing of the crowns, the priest sings “O Lord our God, crown them with glory and honour” and it refers to the glory and honour at the coronation of a king and queen. Then with the singing of “O Isaiah rejoice” the newly weds embark on their life’s journey. They will be led by the Priest around a makeshift altar for the ceremonial walk commonly called Isaiah’s Dance. The circle symbolizes perfection and the circular walk eternity. Thus the Church leads the newly-weds toward eternal life and perfection. They are asked always to walk with Christ and have him at the centre of their lives. They are asked to make Christ the pillar of strength and centre of their family. Only in this way will they be able to stand firmly in the storm of life and attain the goal of theosis. Thus the Ceremonial walk is the couple’s commitment always to be led by Christ, and to have His teaching, proclaimed in the Gospels lying there on the table, at the centre of their lives. As they complete each circle they kiss the Book of the Gospels showing again their belief that Christ is in their midst and will be with them throughout their life together. For the Church, the Holy Gospel always represents Christ Himself; it is the written Image of the God-Man. Thus, in many of her services, the Book of the Holy Gospel is used to show the Very presence of Christ. Another hymn sung during the circular walk around the Table gives us the second meaning of the crowns – that of martyrs crowns: “O Holy Martyrs who fought the good fight and thus received crowns of victory.” We all know that marriage is a martyrdom, but it is not this kind of martyrdom that it refers to. It refers to the self sacrifice that is involved in a Christian marriage. Martyrdom has another meaning. In Greek the word martyr means witness and the new husband and the new wife are thus called by the Church to be eternally witnesses of the union of Christ with the Church. Marriage, then, ceases to be a 'private affair.' It involves Christ and the whole body of the Church of which the married couple are members. The meaning of Christian life is precisely to go beyond the simple egotistic interests of man. This new dimension is what constitutes the whole difference between a Christian marriage and the one which is concluded outside of the Church. To conclude, marriage is the union of two people joined by God as one flesh whose primary goal in life is, with Christ in their midst, to help each other attain the highest state of human existence, the state of theosis (deification). Married life is the preparation for eternity. With the crowns on their heads, it is as if the Church is saying to them “You have worn these crowns briefly in your earthly life together; now strive to win the heavenly crowns that you will wear for ever in Heaven.” At the end of our earthly life it doesn’t matter which path we chose to follow, that is whether we chose marriage or monasticism so long as we can proclaim as St. Paul to TimothyI have fought the good fight; I have finished my course; I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness (2 Tim.4.7/8).