This post is part of a series about the sacraments of the Orthodox Christian Church. In this post, we will look at the Orthodox Christian Sacrament of marriage.
In His teachings while He was on earth, our Lord told us that marriage is the best way for us to experience what God’s love for humankind is like; as well as for us to see how Christ loves the Church. Fr. Thomas Hopko writes that the most perfect form of love between a man and woman is “unique, indestructible, unending, and divine. The Lord Himself has not only given this teaching, but he also gives the power to fulfill it in the sacrament of Christian marriage in the Church.” (1) Mere mutual love does not provide the depth of unity of spirit and body that the sacrament of marriage offers to a man and woman. The sacrament brings the Holy Spirit into the relationship in a way that binds them together most perfectly. And He continues His work in their marriage throughout their earthly life and on into the heavenly kingdom, as well.
In the early years of the Church, there was not an official ceremony for marriage. Christian couples wishing to be married expressed their love for each other in the church and then their union received a blessing from God which was sealed in their partaking of the Eucharist. When the Church recognized the unity of the couple and their union was incorporated into the Body of Christ through communion, their marriage became a Christian marriage.
Several hundred years into her existence, when the Church developed a ritual for the sacrament of marriage, that sacrament was modeled after baptism and chrismation. Fr. Thomas explains the parallels as follows: “the couple is addressed in a way similar to that of the individual in baptism. They confess their faith and their love of God. They are led into the Church in procession. They are prayed over and blessed. They listen to God’s Word. They are crowned with the crowns of God’s glory to be his children and witnesses (martyrs) in this world, and heirs of the everlasting life of his Kingdom. They fulfill their marriage, as all sacraments are fulfilled, by their reception together of holy communion in the Church.” (1)
Unlike other wedding ceremonies in current culture, the Orthodox sacrament of marriage is not a legal transaction: there aren’t even vows. Instead, Orthodox marriage is a “‘baptizing and confirming’ of human love in God by Christ in the Holy Spirit. It is the deification of human love in the divine perfection and unity of the eternal Kingdom of God.” (1) Fr. Thomas Fitzgerald offers more insight into the sacrament in his article on all of the sacraments: “According to Orthodox teachings, marriage is not simply a social institution, it is an eternal vocation of the kingdom. A husband and a wife are called by the Holy Spirit not only to live together but also to share their Christian life together so that each, with the aid of the other, may grow closer to God and become the persons they are meant to be.” (2)
That type of shared Christian life extends beyond “death do us part.” The Church encourages married Christians whose partner departs this life before them to remain faithful to that partner even after their death, because “only one marriage can contain the perfect meaning and significance which Christ has given to this reality.” (1) (However, there is a service of second marriage for people who are not able to fulfill this ideal.)
A Christian couple who wants to be in complete union of spirit, body, and intellect, as well as social and economic union, will only find that depth of union in the sacrament of marriage. This sacrament places their union in the Kingdom of God, which is perfectly unified, right from the start. When centered in God’s Kingdom, a couple’s human love can echo Divine love, and will spill out into the world around them through their interactions with each other, with their children, with their neighbors, and even with nature itself. This is how the sacrament of marriage can be the best blessing to the world: when it is lived out as it is intended to be lived.
However, this level of complete union is not guaranteed. “This does not mean that all those who are ‘married in church’ have an ideal marriage. The sacrament is not mechanical or magical. Its reality and gifts may be rejected and defiled, received unto condemnation and judgment, like Holy Communion and all of the sacramental mysteries of the faith. It does mean, however, that when a couple is married in the Church of Christ, the possibility for the perfection of their marriage is most fully given by God.” (3)
Marriage is a gift from God that offers blessings to those who partake. But the couple must enter into this sacrament completely, choosing daily to cooperate with the Holy Spirit, in order for those blessings to be fulfilled. God does not force Himself on a marriage, just as He does not force Himself into any other part of a Christian’s life. However, with humility and self-sacrifice, Christian couples have the opportunity to grow together towards godliness through the sacrament of marriage.
Glory to God for His gift of the sacrament of marriage!
1. Hopko, Fr. Thomas (2011, October 5). The Sacraments: Marriage. Retrieved from https://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/worship/the-sacraments/marriage
2. Fitzgerald, Rev. Fr. Thomas (1985, June 11). Understanding the Sacraments of the Orthodox Church. Retrieved from https://www.goarch.org/-/the-sacraments
3. Hopko, Fr. Thomas (2016, March 18). Sexuality, Marriage, and Family: Marriage. Retrieved from https://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/spirituality/sexuality-marriage-and-family/marriage1
Here are some scriptures and quotes from Church Fathers on marriage, as well as a resource that you may find interesting and helpful as you study this important sacrament. What resources have you found helpful? Comment below and share them with the community!
“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.” (1 Cor. 7:1-9 NKJV)
“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.” (Eph. 5:22-33 NJKV)
“Comprising one flesh, [the couple] also has a single soul, and their mutual love awakens in them a zeal for piety. For the state of wedlock does not estrange us from God, but rather ties us more closely to Him, for it brings forth a greater impetus to turn to Him. Even under a light breeze, a small boat moves forward…., a light breeze will not move a great ship…. Thus, those not burdened with secular concerns have less need of help from Almighty God, but one who has responsibilities, who looks after his beloved spouse, his estate and his children, traverses a broader sea of life, and has greater need of God’s help. In return [for that help], he himself comes to love God even more.” ~ Holy Hierarch Gregory the Theologian
“The love of husband and wife is the force that welds society together. Men will take up arms and even sacrifice their lives for the sake of this love. St. Paul would not speak so earnestly about this subject without serious reason; why else would he say, ‘Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord?’ Because when harmony prevails, the children are raised well, the household is kept in order, and neighbors, friends, and relatives praise the result. Great benefits, both of families and states, are thus produced. When it is otherwise, however, everything is thrown into confusion and turned upside-down.” ~ St. John Chrysostom
“…The husband and wife must lay virtue, and not passion, as the foundation of their love, that is, when the husband sees any fault in his wife, he must nudge her meekly, and the wife must submit to her husband in this. Likewise when a wife sees some fault in her husband, she must exhort him, and he is obliged to hear her. In this manner their love will be faithful and unbroken, and thereby having mutually composed their happiness, they shall take pleasure in the virtue.” ~ St. Tikhon of Zadonsk
“Dearly beloved, had marriage or the raising of children been likely to prove a stumbling block on the way to virtue, the Creator of all would not have introduced marriage into our life lest it prove our undoing in difficult times and through severe problems. Since, however, family life not only offers us no obstacle to wisdom in God’s eyes as long as we are prepared to be on our guard, but even brings us much encouragement and calms the tumult of our natural tendencies, not allowing the billows to surge but constantly ensuring that the barque dock safely in the harbor, consequently He granted the human race the consolation that comes from this source…” ~ St. John Chrysostom
“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.” Read more about the sacrament of marriage in the article titled “Marriage,” found in the midst of Ephesians 5 in the Orthodox Study Bible. (p. 1607 in the hardcover version)
“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.”
Read about the Old and New Testament views of marriage, the sacrament itself, the responsibilites of each partner, how marriage can help both partners’ salvation, and more in this helpful article: http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/orthodoxchristianmarriage.aspx