An Orthodox Christian Perspective on the Mystery of Marriage
In the Orthodox tradition the Mystery (Sacrament) of marriage is understood as an institution sanctified by God. It is God Who is the Author and Celebrant of marriage; it is God Who brings two people together, making them one flesh. As a Divinely-sanctioned communion, existent from the beginning of the human race, we understand marriage to potentially be a paradisic experience. Marriage reaches far beyond the realm of social construct or biological evolutionary necessity, and leads the couple to an experience of communion like, and with, the Divine Trinity. This communion makes marriage a means of attaining holiness.
Having said this, it is clear that marriage reveals to the couple a new life and a new relationship. At the heart of this relationship is a sacrificial love, in which spouses become God’s martyrs for each other. Each spouse “dies” daily to self-centeredness, exploitation, hidden agendas, etc., and rises again for the other. In Orthodox terminology, this means losing one’s individuality, which is associated in Orthodox writings with narcissism and, instead, discovering one’s “personhood” (which is related to authentic human existence as a communal being) in otherness.
Thus, it is in their marital relationship that the couple first and foremost experiences the greatest love, selfless love, of which the Lord speaks [John 15:13]. This selfless, God-like love leads to joy and a discovery of the deepest reality of each spouse’s unique being and the depth of their mutual relationship.
Characteristics of Marriage
Among the vital characteristics of the community of marriage, there are some of essential primacy. First is an understanding of the indissolubility of marriage. Marriage, as a covenant, is a lifelong commitment. Moreover, in accordance with the teachings of the Scripture [cf., 1 Cor. 7:9,9], the marital bond is understood to endure beyond death. Should a marriage end, whether by the death of a spouse or by divorce, a second marriage is allowed only as a pastoral concern for those who are not able to lead a celibate life.
Indeed, marriage reaches beyond the grave and into the Kingdom of God: it is this eternal connection that allows marriage to effect a transformation (transfiguration) of the couple on earth. That is to say, the eschatological dimension of marriage overcomes the reality of sin, corruption and death in the world.
A second fundamental characteristic of Christian marriage is the equality of each spouse. In the marriage service the couple is called to realize and acknowledge the equality of honour and dignity of both the woman and the man. While the Orthodox rite of Matrimony acknowledges the Scriptural teaching that the man is called to be the head of the wife [cf., Eph. 5:231, this headship is founded in the example and teachings of Christ. Indeed, ultimately, marriage is viewed as a living icon of the relationship between Christ and His Bride, the Church. Thus, what ever may be said about the nature of the relationship between Christ and the Church may also be said about the relationship of husband and wife.
Therefore, like Christ Who came not to be served but to serve, he who is the head in the relationship holds a primacy of servitude. The husband is seen as the first servant, the first martyr, the first to give up his “self” and reach out in love to his wife. Likewise, a wife’s “honouring”/”obeying” of her husband is seen as a loving response to his love for her. Always, the foundation of marriage must be selfless love, which by its nature is affirming, life-giving, and never exploitative or abusive. Orthodoxy would see the use of Scripture to support the husband oppressing his wife and family as a corruption of the Apostles’ Doctrine regarding marriage.
The third fundamental characteristic of marriage is that it is understood as a monogamous relationship. Again, this is founded on the iconic characteristic of marriage in relation to Christ and His Church. As there is One Divine Bridegroom with One All Pure Bride, so one husband is united to one wife. Thus, in the Ancient Church, adultery was viewed as tantamount to apostasy. Monogamy, then, preserves Divinely- established human dignity and holiness in the area of marital love.
Purposes of Christian Marriage
The fundamental purpose of marriage is to attain holiness. Ultimately, the spouses grow together in Christ, to realize their God-likeness [cf., Gen 1:27] and to actualize their salvation. The couple is called to continuously create and recreate a communion of mutual love, trust, personal fulfilment, and self-sacrifice. This is achieved by the couple inviting the active presence of God into their relationship. The Holy Spirit of God leads husband and wife to sanctification and glorification of God through, and with, their relationship.
Also, in the service of matrimony, one can identify numerous other secondary purposes for marriage: mutual assistance, interpersonal faithfulness, procreation and nurturing children, the realization of each spouse’s sexuality, etc. In short, the purpose of marriage includes the entirety of human existence and experience. All that each spouse is, and experiences individually and together, may be lifted up to God and may become a means of realizing salvation.
According to Orthodox teaching a marriage can be dissolved only through the “death” of one of the spouses. This death is understood either as physical death or the moral/religious death involved in denying the spiritual significance or moral foundation of the marital communion (e.g., adultery, chronic abuse, apostasy).
While marriage is to be used to realize heaven on earth, the Church understands that it also might be corrupted into an instrument of exploitation, oppression, destruction, even death. Thus, the harsh and disruptive nature of sin reaches even into this most hallowed of human relationships. In this case, when the relationship is not germane to the personal spiritual, emotional, or physical well-being of the spouses, the Church will recognize the civil divorce of the couple.
Always, though, divorce is viewed as “radical surgery” — an invasive and disruptive force, which contradicts the mystical: character of the marital union. For this reason, after a divorce the Church encourages a time of emotional and spiritual therapy: counsel and repentance, which allows a person to work through the grief of a lost relationship.
The main purpose of divorce is to overcome all that which is destructive in the relationship and to allow each spouse to travel the path of sanctification. Remarriage, as mentioned above, is not generally counselled. However, remarriage is allowed as a means of overcoming loneliness, alienation, abandonment, and difficulty in maintaining celibacy. Thus, the Church shows Her deep concern for the person, giving him/her another opportunity to enter into the mystery of love, holiness, and personhood in marital communion.
For the sake of order and internal integrity, though, the Church allows only two subsequent remarriages should a first (and possibly a second) marriage end. Moreover, the second and third marriage service takes on a more penitential character.
Orthodoxy refers to a “mixed” marriage as one of persons of two different Christian faiths. Strictly speaking, “mixed” marriages are not allowed because marriage must be centered in, and fulfilled by, the Holy Eucharist. Orthodoxy does not practise intercommunion with other Christian faiths; therefore, both spouses could not nourish their relationship in the Cup of Life. Nevertheless, from a pastoral perspective, “mixed” marriages are accepted because of the Church’s deep concern for Her children and for all humankind, and the wish not to exclude the spouses from the possibility of love and happiness. However, such marriages are not performed in the context of the Eucharistic Liturgy for the aforementioned reason. Moreover, the non-Orthodox spouse in a “mixed” marriage must be a baptized believer from another Christian faith, which practises baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity.
The Orthodox Church will not bless the union of an Orthodox person and a person from a non-Christian tradition because of the deeply Christ-centered understanding of marriage, which presupposes that both spouses confess Jesus of Nazareth as Lord and Christ. Finally, it must be stated that in a “mixed” marriage the Orthodox Church wishes and prays that any children born will be baptized and nurtured in the Orthodox faith.
The Rite of Holy Matrimony
The Orthodox Holy Mystery of Matrimony is composed of two interdependent rites, the “Betrothal” and the “Crowning”: In the Early Church, when the Church was not tolerated, Christian couples wishing to marry would first go to the state offices to have a legal civil ceremony, and would then gather with the Church community to have their marriage blessed by the bishop. The division of the contemporary rite of marriage into two sections is a remnant of this ancient practice.
The first part of the marriage service, the “Betrothal:’ takes place at the back of the church building in the “narthex” (the “foyer”- effectively outside the church proper, again a remnant of the civil marriage that used to take place in ancient times before the Church ceremony). The physical mark or gesture which confirms the betrothal is the exchange of the wedding rings. The couple exchanges their rings three times (in honour of the Holy Trinity), and wears them on their right hands (an ancient symbol of strength and honour). This exchange of rings serves as a pledge of the couples commitment to fidelity and love, land as a sign of their shared strength and honour in their marital relationship. The prayers of the betrothal center on the marital themes of faithfulness and the indissoluble bond of love between spouses.
The second part of the service, the marriage service proper, is the “Crowning.” The prayers and hymns of the Crowning refer to the sacredness and eternal quality of marriage, which make it a living expression of the Kingdonm of God in the world. Thus, the rite begins with the priest pro claiming, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit …”As the name for the rite suggests, the central act in the marriage service is a crowning, a coronation. Husband and wife are literally crowned, as another sign of the connection of marriage to the Kingdom of God. Thus, after placing the crowns on the heads of the couple, the priest proclaims: “O Lord, our God, crown them with glory and honour!” The crowns are also crowns of martyrdom, as each spouse must die to self-centeredness and live for the other. In this context, an underlying theme of the service is the joy which the Cross brings into the world. Other important liturgical gestures in the rite include the couple’s drinking from a common cup of wine, signifying their unified experience of life’s bitterness and sweetness; a ceremonial walk around a table upon which lie the Gospel and Cross, symbolizing the idea that marital life must be a continuous orbit around the words (Gospel) and deeds (Cross) of our Lord; and the joining of the couple’s right hands, again symbolizing the union of strength and honour between the spouses.
Additionally, one of the most essential principles of the Crowning is its connection to the Eucharist. For the first seven centuries of Her history, the Church did not know a specific “rite” of matrimony, but included the crowning of couples as part of the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Indeed, even today, if one were to do a structural analysis of the Eucharistic and matrimonial liturgies, one would see the common “superstructure” founded in the fact that the rite of Crowning is based on the rite of the Eucharist. Thus, the marital rite is understood in Orthodoxy as an act of the community and not as a “private” event. It is within the Eucharistic community, that the union of the couple is confirmed and is completed in the reception of the Body and Blood of Christ. Furthermore, throughout their life together, the food of the couple’s love will be the Holy Eucharist, which will continuously strengthen them in their struggles and ever-deepen their love and happiness.
A practice specific to the Ukrainian marital custom is to present the bride and bridegroom, at the end of the service, with an icon of Christ — as a reminder of God’s love and compassion, and an icon of the Mother of God — as a reminder of humility and sacrifice. These icons will become a spiritual focal point in the couple’s home, and will be the first building blocks with which they begin to realize, by God’s grace, the Kingdom of God in their lives and in the world.