On Christian marriage, parenthood and family
On the occasion of the feast of the Nativity of the holy Theotokos, and the commemoration of her holy parents the day after, we will offer a few thoughts on marriage, parenthood and family. To be sure this unpretentious sermon is not meant to be a Magna Carta on the Christian family.
We could of course provide broad guidelines on the home and its relation to the individual, state and religion; the marriage and its sacred character; mutual love, faith, tolerance and help between the spouses; indissolubility of marriage; fruit of the womb being the fruit of marriage; collaborating with God in forming a Christian family; Christian child-rearing; respect, obedience and care on part of the children for their parents, especially in their old age; the home as “Church at home”—all important issues, each of which could easily take the length of an entire sermon.
We are a small community here, and perhaps it isn’t our place to address global issues, take position on world events, and attempt broad declarations. We will not do that. We’ll leave this task to others, higher up. We must, however, say a few needful words on these important subjects.
Morality in our society
Today morality has been relativized and redefined. Christian communities have been influenced by these trends in our western culture, and adopted as normal behavior that clearly runs against the biblical witness and the unanimous tradition of the Church. The Orthodox Church stands as a beacon of truth and a bastion of morality for two thousand years. She stands firm against modern re-definements of morality. A Russian Prelate, Metropolitan Kirill, said the following appropriate words:
[U]ntil recently all the Christians had unanimous views at least on man and the moral norms of his life. Today this unity has been broken... Some Christian communities have unilaterally reviewed or are reviewing the norms of life defined by the Word of God. Why is it happening precisely today, in the beginning of the 21st century? Why have some Christian circles come to favor so much the idea of evolving moral norms? ... [T]he greatest impact on this position has been made, in my view, by the non-religious spirit of this world. ... Post-modernism in a broad sense implies a compatibility of incompatible views and positions. Perhaps this attitude is justified in some spheres of society but it cannot be justified for Christians in the realm of morality. Believers cannot recognize at the same time the value of life and the right to death, the value of family and validity of same-sex relations, the protection of child’s rights and the deliberate destruction of human embryos for medical purposes.1
We should not be confused by the mixed and confusing signals emanating out of our agnostic society. For us, Orthodox Christians, morality, like dogma, is not subject to change, to adaptation, to development. The Orthodox Church rejects the philosophy of moral relativism. Instead of looking at the secular world, the Church is anchored to the word of God, to the solid tradition of the Fathers, and to her Saints, who have applied in their lives the source of morality and objective truth, in the person of the incarnate God, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Let us now look briefly at the Orthodox Christian marriage. The Orthodox Church has elevated marriage, by sanctifying the union of two people in a holy sacrament, a holy mystery. And if this does not seem particularly impressive or even significant to you, consider this: Marriage, outside the Orthodox Church, is essentially a contractual agreement between two consenting parties, a legal transaction, whether in a civil or a religious ceremony; whereas in the Orthodox Church such agreement is formally absent, because the essential element of this mystery (as of any other mystery) is God’s grace invoked upon the couple, which binds them together “in the Lord.”
The Church affirms “equal rights and mutual obligations” between spouses. They can work harmoniously, however, only as long as the union is “in the Lord.” This much is affirmed by St. John Chrysostom, who “speaks about the necessity of continual mutual respect between the spouses, love, and equality of rights and obligations. The chief goal should always be unity and for its sake one should sacrifice one’s point of view or preference. The perfect union of the spouses will occur when Christ is in their midst. St. John Chrysostom states that the foremost purpose of marriage is the moral and spiritual advancement and perfection of the spouses.”2
Now coming to Orthodox Christian parenthood we note first of all that the birth we honor today is the fruit of the prayers of the holy couple of Joachim and Anna. They didn’t turn to in vitro fertilization or surrogate motherhood, not even to adoption. Their hope, trust, and confidence was in the Lord, and in Him only. We then see how unselfishly and gratefully they dedicated their offspring to God. The holy Theotokos was God’s gift to them—and to humanity. Through her the Son of God would become incarnate, could become incarnate through her—and through no one else.
Do we rear our children in the faith? As we mentioned in a previous post on the subject of bringing up our children, a great aid to young couples, but also to Grandparents and God-parents as well, is a great little book, Raising Them Right, written by St. Theophan the Recluse, and translated by another contemporary spiritual man, Fr. Seraphim Rose. This book is excellent for family reading and discussion, whether at home or at the church. How do we expect our children to grow in the faith and in holiness, as they grow in stature and in years? We must feed them and nurture them from our faith, from our holy life.
What training are we imparting to our children at home? Do we train them in prayer, in the reading of the holy Scripture, in the exercise of the virtues? What example do we provide for them? What effort do we make to steer them away from TV, from frivolous and indecent shows, from games and parties, from wasting this valuable gift of God, time, and instead suggest to them to read the life of a Saint and to be involved in their church? But how would they do that, if they don’t see us doing it?
The "traditional family" is the main target for advocates of social immorality today. Today we witness that the very concepts of marriage and family are blurred. Our society wishes to think that it cares for its children every bit as much as previous generations did, however the growing evidence points to the contrary. Today we witness the great sickness and cultural decay that pervades our society, and we must resist by staying close to each other and to the Church.
As Orthodox Christians we must remain strong and immovable in our faith and moral and ethical values that spring from it. The holy child we honor today, and her pious parents, exemplify the Christian virtues we are called to imitate: strong faith and trust in God that powered their lives, conjugal fidelity, mutual trust and respect, perseverance, tolerance, prayer, and love. They are our heroes and our role models.
May the holy example of pious Joachim and Anna, together with that of Zacharias and Elisabeth and other holy couples, inspire and strengthen us, my dear brothers and sisters, to fulfill our duties and responsibilities before God. May the light of Christ shine through us as it does through this holy couple. Amen.
Fr. E.H./Sep. 9, 2007
- “The Light of Christ and the Church”, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, Address at the Third Ecumenical Assembly in Sibiu, Romania, September 5, 2007, Sibiu, Romania.
- This quote is from the Introduction to the book Married Saints of the Church, by Monk Moses of the Holy Mountain (St. Xenia Skete, 1991, p. vi). In its 175 pages you will find the lives of 300 married Saints, 2 to 3 per page, an easy and very informative read. Incidentally, if you read Greek I also recommend to you two other great little books: Ὁ Χριστιανικὸς Γάμος καὶ ἡ Οἰκογένεια by the Protopresbyter Constantine Kallinikos, and Τὸ Ἱερὸ Μυστήριο τοῦ Γάμου, by Protopresbyter Charalambos Hatzopoulos.