and I in thee, that they also may be in us.” (John 17:21)
What makes the Orthodox Christian marriage a mystery (sacrament) of the Church? People love the Orthodox wedding service. They love its beauty, its joyous celebration, the crowning, the “dance of Isaiah,” the sharing by the couple of a glass of wine, and the joyous sounds – all without any instrumental accompaniment! It’s just beautiful! Yes, but what is it that makes this wedding ceremony a mystery? And what is it that makes it even a marriage? After all, the familiar to all “I do’s” are entirely missing!
In this four part series, it is our intention to address these questions, and explain not the overstressed symbolism, but the essence of Orthodox marriage. We don’t intend to trace the historical evolution of marriage or to write a monograph on marriage. Others have done this.1 After discussing our purpose in life as Christians, we will examine the purpose of marriage, what the true highlight of the wedding rite is, and look at the essential elements that make marriage a Church mystery.
Our life “in Christ”
Everything a Christian does is—and, in any case, should be—“in Christ.” The great Apostle enjoins us: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col. 3:17). Our union with Christ constitutes the goal of our lives as Christians. The life of a Christian is life “in Christ.” What does “in Christ” mean? It expresses the unity we have with Christ our Lord and God, and our membership in His Body, the Holy Church; it means that we are inseparable from Him (Rom. 8:39), that through Him and because of Him we are “sanctified” in Him (1 Cor. 1:2); it means that we live holy lives dedicated to Him, and that through the Theanthropos Christ we are united with the Father by the uncreated grace of the Holy Spirit.
Our Lord and Savior expressed our intimate union “in Him” in His prayer to His Father: “That they all may be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us” (John 17:21). St. Paul uses several expressions for our unity with the Lord, all having the same meaning, such as (only samples are given):
- “In Christ Jesus our Lord” (1 Cor. 15:31)
- “in the Lord Jesus” (Phil. 2:19)
- “in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24, Phil. 1:1)
- “in Christ” (Rom. 9:1)
- “in the Lord” (Col. 3:18)
- “in Him” (Eph. 1:4.6-13, 2 Cor. 13:4), etc.
So also does St. Peter, according to whom “in Christ” constitutes a point of reference of Christian conduct and life (1 Pet. 3:16, 5:10). He addresses the followers of Christ as
- “all of you that are in Christ” (1 Pet. 5:14).
To be “in Christ” expresses not only our individual unity with Him, but also our unity with all the other members of His Body, the Holy Church:
- “You are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
This unity with the Lord is not static, but dynamic. We “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18), and in that knowledge, and by His grace, our love for Him increases, and our love for each other also grows “in Him.” In no better way can the members of the Church express their unity “in Christ” than when they receive the Lord in Holy Communion. In the Divine Liturgy we pray, “…and unite all of us to one another who become partakes of the one Bread and Cup in the communion of the Holy Spirit.”2 When the faithful are united with Christ they are united with each other. Therefore “in Christ” finds its ultimate fulfillment especially in our participation of the Divine Eucharist, in the partaking of the Body and Blood of the Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.
Christian marriage is a union “in Christ”
In particular, marriage, an event of such great significance in the life of Christians, should be “in Christ.” In the sacred union of a man with a woman the Apostle Paul sees a figure, an image or an antitype of the ineffable union of Christ with His spotless spouse, the Church:
“This mystery is great, and I am referring to [the union of] Christ and the Church” (Eph. 5:32).3
As an image of the Great Mystery, marriage also becomes a source of the grace of the Holy Spirit for the couple married “in Christ,” just as an icon transmits grace from the One depicted. In the parable of the Great Supper the Lord compared the Kingdom of heaven to a “Marriage feast” and indicated the depth of His union with the Church He established by presenting Himself as the Bridegroom of the Church (Mt. 22:2,3).
In a Christian marriage the couple comes before Almighty God and the assembly of the faithful, His holy Church, to receive God’s blessing and to seal their union “in Christ.” The union of a Christian couple should be done “in the Lord,” as the Apostle states (1 Cor. 7:39), a union that continues throughout their lives. This is also petitioned in the second prayer of the wedding service: “That they may live according to Your will… and having pleased You in every way may shine as the stars of heaven, in You, O Lord.”4 But what specifically did the Apostle mean by this expression, “in the Lord”?
To marry “in the Lord” may mean, “according to the law of God,” or living in “undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:35). St. Athanasios calls it, living in “honorable matrimony,”5 following in this respect St. Paul, who says, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled” (Heb. 13:4), words echoed in the petition of the marriage rite: “Cause their marriage to be honorable; preserve their marital bed undefiled.”6 What the Apostle may also mean is made somewhat clearer in his second Letter to the Corinthians, where he tells them,
Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What harmony has Christ with Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God (2 Cor. 6:14-16).
This is also how Tertullian, an early witness of the Church (c. 155 – c. 240), understands the apostolic injunction:
“No Christian should intermarry with a heathen… we will not have heathen brides, lest they seduce us even to the idolatry with which among them marriage is initiated.”
He then refers to the Apostle: “you have the Apostle enjoining people to marry in the Lord.”7 This understanding is corroborated by the tradition of the Church that does not allow a marriage between an Orthodox and a heretic or a non-Christian.8
Ultimately, “in the Lord” in 1 Cor. 7:39 means, in a Christian-like manner, it means “in the Church,” with the blessing of the Church. The earliest witness that marriage “in the Lord” meant in the Church, or with the Church’s blessing, is found in the Letter of St. Ignatios the God-bearer to St. Polycarp, where he states that a Christian marriage is blessed by the bishop:
If any one is able to abide in chastity (ἁγνείᾳ) to the honor of the flesh of the Lord, let him so abide without boasting. If he boasts, he is lost; and if it is known beyond the bishop, he is polluted. It becomes men and women too, when they marry, to unite themselves with the consent of the bishop that the marriage may be after the Lord and not after concupiscence. Let all things be done to the honor of God.9
It is truly amazing to read these lines so early in the life of the Church. Tertullian also attests to the same ecclesial meaning in a much-quoted saying:
Whence are we to find words enough fully to tell the happiness of that marriage which the Church cements, and the oblation confirms, and the benediction seals?10
The liturgical nuances of this expression unmistakably refer to a Church service that includes a blessing and, more importantly, the Eucharist, because this is what Oblation is. From this and other evidence we have from apocryphal accounts and from catacomb art, one can draw the conclusion that “there must have been specifically Christian ceremonies to go with the legal obsequies,”11 which included a blessing by the bishop, the joining of hands, the crowning over the heads of the couple, and the reception of the Divine Mysteries within the Eucharistic celebration.12
- For example, John Meyendorff, Marriage, An Orthodox Perspective (SVSP, 2000,3R) and “Introduction” by Catharine P. Roth to the book St. John Chrysostom – On Marriage and Family Life (SVSP, 1986), pp. 7-24. There are many good studies in Greek, including, Christian Marriage and Family by Constantinos Kallinikos (Athens, 1958), and Thomas Zeses, Be Magnified, Groom… (Athens, 1992).
- “Anaphora of the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great.” The Heavenly Banquet: Understanding the Divine Liturgy by Father Emmanuel Hatzidakis (Orthodox Witness, 20133), p. 373.
- The word mystery (μυστήριον) used here does not have the meaning it has today. The Apostle makes it emphatically clear that the “mystery” is not the marriage of a couple, but the union of Christ with the Church, of which the marital union is a type, a symbol, an image of the “great mystery” of Christ’s union with the Church, that is with the members of His Body. As we stated in The Heavenly Banquet, “The Lord compared the Kingdom of Heaven to a Great Banquet (Lk. 14:16), even a marriage feast, in which the heavenly King’s Son is married (Mt. 22:2. Cf. Mt. 25:10). The marriage is between the Son of God and each soul: ‘Christ is the Bridegroom, and the Church and the soul are the bride.’” (p. 44) See also Rev. 19:7: “Let us rejoice and exult and give Him glory, for the marriage feast of the Lamb has come, and His Bride has made herself ready.” This is also made clear in the second prayer of the wedding service: “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, celebrant of the mystical and pure marriage, and Law-giver of the corporal one…” (The Priest’s Service Book by Father Evagoras Constantinides (1989), p. 102 – my translation.)
- The Priest’s Service Book, p. 105. Let us note that here is addressed the Trinitarian God, as is done explicitly in the following prayer, which may be an ecphonesis of the previous longer prayer.
- Letter x. 4, NPNF IV, p. 529.
- Prayer before the Lord’s Prayer, see The Priest’s Service Book, p. 113.
- Against Marcion vii, ANF III, pp. 443-44, and De Corona xiii, ANF III, p. 101.
- The Council of Laodicea (343) forbids members of the Church to marry heretics: “One must not intermarry with any heretics, or give one’s sons or daughters to them, but rather ought one to take theirs, if they should promise to become Christians” (31st Canon, Rudder, p. 565). This Canon was confirmed by the Quinisext Ecumenical Council in Trullo (672), which reads: “Let no Orthodox man be allowed to contract a marriage with a heretical woman, nor moreover let any Orthodox woman be married to a heretical man. But if it should be discovered that any such thing is done by any one of the Christians, no matter who, let the marriage be deemed void, and let the lawless marriage tie be dissolved. For it is not right to mix things immiscible, or let a wolf get tangled up with a sheep, and the lot of sinners get tangled up with the portion of Christ. If, therefore, anyone violates the rules we have made let him be excommunicated” (Canon 72, Rudder, p. 376).
- Letter of St. Ignatios to St. Polycarp 5.2, J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer, eds., The Apostolic Fathers (Baker Book House, 1984), p. 133 and 161. St. Ignatios the God-bearer wrote his letters on the way to Rome, where he became food to the beasts at the Coliseum, probably in the year 116 or 117.
- Tertullian, Ad uxorem (To his wife), II, viii-6, ANF IV, p. 48. The entire treatise should be required reading for newlyweds. The book, On Marriage and Family: Classic and Contemporary Texts, by Matthew Levering, ed. (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005) is a collection of texts on the subject that includes Tertullian. For the benefit of the reader I transfer here what Tertullian says toward the end of his treatise:
For even on earth children do not rightly and lawfully wed without their fathers’ consent. What kind of yoke is that of two believers of one hope, one desire, one discipline, one and the same service? Both are brethren, both fellow servants, no difference of spirit or of flesh; nay, they are truly “two in one flesh.” Where the flesh is one, one is the spirit too. Together they pray, together prostrate themselves, together perform their fasts; mutually teaching, mutually exhorting, mutually sustaining. Equally are they both found in the Church of God; equally at the banquet of God; equally in straits, in persecutions, in refreshments. Neither hides from the other; neither shuns the other; neither is troublesome to the other. The sick is visited, the indigent relieved, with freedom. Alms are given without danger of ensuing torment; sacrifices attended without scruple; daily diligence discharged without impediment: there is no stealthy signing, no trembling greeting, no mute benediction. Between the two echo psalms and hymns; and they mutually challenge each other which shall better chant to their Lord. Such things when Christ sees and hears, He rejoices. To these He sends His own peace. Where two are, there withal is He Himself. Where He is, there the Evil One is not.
- See Carl J. Sommer, We Look for a Kingdom – The Everyday Lives of the early Christians (Ignatius Press, 2007), pp. 306-07.
- On the front cover of Meyendorff’s book already mentioned (p. 1, Note 1) appears an image of the front side of a medallion of a golden marriage belt (Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Washington, D. C.), dated VI or VII century. It shows a marriage scene, with a couple standing, groom on the right and bride on the left, both crowned and holding hands, with Christ standing behind them holding the Gospel book (where the Bishop stands εἰς τύπον καὶ τόπον Χριστοῦ, as a “type and in place” of Christ). The Greek inscription reads: “Concord, grace and health from God.”I came upon this superb study when my own paper was nearly completed. Much of what I say – and don’t say – is there, and better said.