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Crown Them With Glory And Honor

In 2016, David Brooks, the New York Times columnist and author, gave the commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania in which he didn't offer the graduates platitudes about the future or praise for what they've accomplished. Rather, Brooks focused on what constitutes a fulfilling, meaningful life. He was dismissive of the notion that money, fame, or power could offer fulfillment or meaning. Rather, he focused on the necessity of making permanent commitments involving faith, family, and community.

In this article, we would like to use this as the framework for a discussion of Christian marriage, divorce, and their relationship to one's commitment to the Church.

Before we discuss the nature of Christian marriage, it is important to note what it is not. It is not merely a contract entered into by two persons who have chosen to make a legal commitment to live together and form a partnership. In the Orthodox marriage ceremony, there are no spoken vows and no "until death do us part."

Christian marriage is not meant to make us feel happy or provide for our emotional and physical needs. While these may be a fruit of marriage, they are certainly not in and of themselves a goal.

In his book, For the Life of the World, Fr. Alexander Schmemann describes Christian marriage in these words:

A marriage which does not constantly crucify its own selfishness and self-sufficiency, which does not 'die to itself' that it may point beyond itself, is not a Christian marriage. The real sin of marriage today is not adultery or lack of 'adjustment' or 'mental cruelty'. It is the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God. This is expressed in the sentiment that one would 'do anything' for his family, even steal. The family has here ceased to be for the glory of God; it has ceased to be a sacramental entrance into his presence. It is not the lack of respect for the family, it is the idolization of the family that breaks the modern family so easily, making divorce its almost natural shadow. It is the identification of marriage with happiness and the refusal to accept the cross in it. In a Christian marriage, in fact, three
are married; and the united loyalty of the two toward the third, who is God, keeps the two in an active unity with each other as well as with God. Yet it is the presence of God which is the death of the marriage as something only 'natural.' It is the cross of Christ that brings the self-sufficiency of nature to its end. But 'by the cross, joy entered the whole world.' Its presence is thus the real joy of marriage. It is the joyful certitude that the marriage vow, in the perspective of the eternal Kingdom, is not taken 'until death parts,' but until death unites us completely. (For the Life of the World, 90)

This is the crux of the Orthodox understanding of marriage and it may be beneficial to stop and unpack what Schmemann writes here, because there are true pearls of wisdom contained therein. The first sentence reflects the Pauline teaching found in Ephesians chapter 5 with which some contemporary couples may find offense. Yet, the teaching is profound and defines the core of human love. Paul exhorts the married couples of Ephesus to a mutual submission of life, will, and desire for the sake of other. This mutual submission is not about subjugation or domination, because it's centered upon the icon of Christ and His Church.

This submission is symbolized most beautifully and profoundly in the second part of the marriage ceremony in which the couple are crowned. These crowns are not of kings and queens but μαρτυρία, (martyria or "martyrdom"). The original understanding of the word signified witness. The crowning therefore is a witness to the sacrificial love of Christ who willingly poured himself out (kenosis) for the life of the world. In St. Paul's letter to the Philippians, he describes this kenotic love in terms of servanthood, humility, and obedience. This is what entails the mutual submission of husband and wife. This is simply not possible without the inner workings of the Holy Spirit conferred in the holy mystery of matrimony. If husband and wife are always and perpetually in submission to one another, how can there be discord or strife? Understood properly in this context, when there is discord and strife, the husband and wife recognize the need for repentance and run not to a therapist or a lawyer but to a priest to confess their sin.

Schmemann goes on to explain that the proper end of marriage is the salvation of the husband and the wife through the love and martyrdom of the other. He writes of “the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God.” The real purpose of joining a man and a woman together in holy matrimony is the sanctification and deification of both. The wife is supposed to bring the husband to theosis, and the husband is to do the same for his wife. They are joined together not because they fell in love or find each other attractive. The ultimate goal is eternal.

The next line from Schmemann may even sound cruel to the contemporary ear when he offers a critique of contemporary notions of marriage: “It is the identification of marriage with happiness and the refusal to accept the cross in it.” This is our contemporary worldview, but it’s not a Christian worldview. The cross—the symbol for triumph and salvation but also a sign of contradiction to the world and to suffering—is anathema to contemporary sensibilities. Marriages are only good to the extent that they are convenient and easy. We don’t want or accept children who are difficult or spouses who become sick. Those are crosses we refuse to bear. This makes sense if we view marriage as a this-worldly contractual agreement that terminates in death. However, if marriage is eschatological and determinative of our state in life eternal, crosses are accepted as beneficial to our very salvation. On Good and Holy Friday, we make prostrations in front of the Cross of Christ. Do we do that in our daily lives when confronted with the cross our Lord has fashioned for our own salvation?

The last section of Schmemann’s passage brings the whole notion of Christian marriage together in a magnificent work of salvation. The crosses and sufferings bring joy and peace because there is a third Person actively involved in the marriage. Christ is at the center of the relationship between husband and wife, perfecting them through their struggles and difficulties. The third Person in the marriage transforms the bond from a natural one to a supernatural one. If Christ is at the center of married life, spiritual preparation is vital and an obvious requirement. In this view of marriage, certain cultural and social elements of the pre-ceremony ritual such as bachelor and bachelorette parties as an expression of one last night of “freedom” are completely contrary to the Gospel and the matrimonial bond.

Marriages fail because couples enter into them without considering whether or not they are ready and willing to commit to what the life entails (Luke 14:28). When pilgrims visit a monastery, they are often overcome with joy and happiness. They don’t see the spiritual warfare that is ongoing in the life of each monastic. It is similar to the couple who choose to marry because they feel a strong attraction. Yet, they fail to calculate whether they or the object of their attraction is capable of real spiritual warfare. They fail to take into account St. Paul’s exhortation: “Be subject to one another.” They fail to examine themselves to determine whether or not they recognize the cost involved and the labor required. 

Mutual subjection requires war with one’s own passions. While the monk’s obedience to his elder is overt, the obedience owed to one’s spouse is often more subtle and unspoken. When marriage is entered into, one’s own will must be set aside, crucified for the other. This is what it means to be subject to the other. 

Just as a monk works out his salvation within the confines of a monastery and through the daily interactions with his brotherhood, the married person works out his salvation within the home, the domestic church. Work and prayer are required in both realms. The couple should pray together and with their children, preferably in the morning and evening. Each task should begin with prayer. Even the small tasks, such as taking the children to school, can be begun with a short prayer. Prayer in the home is the spiritual glue that keeps the matrimonial and domestic bonds together. A domestic prayer rule that includes the Jesus Prayer benefits the entire household, cutting off the passions, removing temptations, and making virtuous behavior habitual. 

Couples should have a spiritual father with whom they confess and relate their particular issues and problems. Without consistent prayer, the domestic church is reduced to the secular and all living within become prey to the passions and competing interests of selfish desire. 

When couples divorce, it is not only a tragedy for the man and the woman but the Church as a whole. Just as marriage involves the community of the Church, so does divorce. There are pastoral and spiritual consequences attached to any divorce. The pastor must use discretion to weigh the best possible means to heal the wounds of those who have suffered such a tragedy and bring them to restoration of the sacramental life. Also, when asked about a proposed second marriage, the pastor must discern whether it will be to the salvation of the couple, as well any children, or will merely end with similar pain. As Fr. Thomas Hopko writes:

It’s a pastoral decision, and the pastor should meet with the people, come to a conclusion himself, and then ask the bishop for permission to follow his conclusion, either not to marry the couple because they’re not really repentant of what happened before, or to marry the couple because they are repenting, just like you would allow a person who sinned after baptism to repent and have the prayer of absolution and to stay in communion of the Church. 

Divorce is such a serious affront to the holy mystery of marriage that divorced couples may not commune without the express written permission of the Metropolitan. Our Archdiocesan requirements note:

First and foremost, after a person is divorced he or she is separated from the sacraments for a period of time including Holy Communion. The person may still confess and be absolved for other sins, but must refrain from being absolved for the divorce and from receiving Holy Communion until the person has been restored in writing by the Metropolitan in all cases. This is not a matter for pastoral discretion.

It is the solemn duty of the pastor to ensure that those who have been divorced are following a repentant path toward reconciliation with the sacraments of the Church. This is to be done with great pastoral love and concern, and must integrate frequent application of the sacrament of confession. The pastor must become convinced that the repentance is sincere, and that concrete steps have been taken to demonstrate that sincerity. Only at that time should the pastor write to the Metropolitan and recommend that the divorced person be restored to full communion.

These are serious consequences and it would be beneficial if any couple contemplating divorce consider them prior to embarking upon divorce. It is the sacred duty of the Church and her ministers to be concerned with the salvation of souls, particularly those of the divorced couple. The priest also must consider his own salvation when ministering to such couples and exhorting them to sincere repentance. 

Life is short and filled with many blessings from our heavenly Father. Marriage is one of the greatest blessings and is given to us for our salvation and the salvation of our spouse and our children. We must nurture it with tender, loving care through a life of prayer, repentance and frequent reception of the holy mysteries. Only then will it be a blessing unto eternal life.

Bishop THOMAS is an auxiliary bishop of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. Peter Schweitzer is a married Orthodox layman.

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