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Marriage: Society's View vs. Reality

Jesus answered, “Have you not read that he who made them from the begin­ning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mt. 19:4–6).

Today, a marriage has a 50/50 chance of sur­viving intact. Many think it’s unnecessary: “Why do I need a piece of paper to prove I love this person?” is a common question. In many instanc­es the old rhyme, “first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes junior in a baby carriage,” has been shuffled around: First comes love (lust), then comes junior in the baby carriage, then comes marriage . . . maybe. As much as anything else, this confused behavior comes from a com­plete misunderstanding of marriage.

The first and gravest mistake is to view mar­riage as a contract, and a wedding as a ceremo­nial blessing on the contract. Marriage is not a contractual relationship, it is a living union, en­compassing everything (mental, physical, emo­tional and spiritual). Look to Scripture and see the word used to describe this union: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife and the two shall become one fl esh” (Gen. 2:24; Mt. 19:5; Eph. 5:31). It doesn’t say “agree to live with”, “sign a pre-nup with,” “vow to stay with until death,” or any such thing – but cleave. The force implied in that word shows the power of the union. The late Princess Diana once complained that there were three people in her marriage. There are actually supposed to be three; she just had the wrong third person. Through Baptism, we put on Christ; Christ lives in us through the grace of that Sacrament. Through the Holy Mystery of Matrimony, that “one fl esh” alluded to earlier is baptized into Christ. Christ is the necessary third person in every marriage.

Divorce, then, is a woeful and tragic thing – those who divorce are ending a relationship in which Christ is a direct participant.

The contemporary wedding ceremony often demonstrates the misunderstanding of marriage, in some instances becoming a faint caricature of itself. The wedding becomes a mode of self-expression and/or a showcase of Hallmark senti­ments. It becomes centered on shows of wealth, personal idiosyncrasy (performed underwater, at a racetrack, in free fall, by Elvis, and so forth). There can be an attempt to define love based on personal opinion, in self-composed vows that can wax poetical, philosophical, or even slight­ly pornographic. In all these things there is the predisposition to compete: we have to do bigger, wilder, and better, than others; we want people to remember our wedding. It all comes down to indi­vidualism and egocentricity, as though this couple is the one that gets love and marriage right.

In fact, it is individualism that kills most mar­riages. Each comes to the other with what he or she wants to “get out of the marriage,” as though it were a sweepstakes, instead of coming into the marriage thinking of what he or she can contrib­ute to the marriage. Marriage is the creation of a community and must be approached that way. Just as the three persons of the Trinity are unique persons, yet bound by their divine nature, so also in marriage the husband and wife are dis­tinct persons, bound by their love for each other, which is infused with the divine love of Christ. One can view this another way: just as Christhas two natures, which are not fused, combined, mixed, or anything of the sort, but distinct from each other, that work in perfect harmony within the one person of Christ, so the two spouses are distinct, yet called on to act in perfect harmony as “one flesh.”

The Church, on the other hand, uses the same ceremony no matter who the people are, because they are being united by the one true God. It is his view of love and marriage that counts, because it’s the only one that’s right. We do not get to define love – Christ has defined it for all time, and has handed it down through his Church and through its Sacraments. Christ said, “Greater love hath no man, than to lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13). The Church declares the nature of love in the ceremony, most centrally through the reading from the Epistle to the Ephesians. In it St. Paul states that a wife is to honor (obey) her husband as the Church does Christ. Most men, and some religious groups, stop listening there. And even St. Paul’s exhortation here has been warped. The Church does not follow Christ out of servile submission, or as though it were his property. Christ actually condemns the demand for that sort of obedience, when he tells the Twelve that such is the manner of authority exercised by the Gentiles, and he prohibits them from following it, saying that whoever wants to lead must serve those he would lead (Mk. 10:42–43). Thus the Church follows Christ as one would follow one’s champion, one’s defender. The Church follows, honors, and obeys Christ on account of the next exhortation: Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church. How did Christ love the Church? He served it (healed, resurrected, taught) and then died for it, all without being asked, and when He had the choice not to. That is the example of love Christ has given us. The Church follows Christ because Christ put the Church’s needs first and his own last. It is not about power and authority, it is about service (Mt. 20:25–28). The husband is not to control his wife, but put her front and center, and himself in the background. When one freely gives of oneself, it is natural that others will follow; this is the defi nition of love. St. Joseph the Betrothed is a shining example of this. A simple man is thrust into the most unique situation imaginable and he places the safety of his betrothed and her child (who isn’t his) before his own interests, putting aside all doubts, and probably advice from numerous friends and relations as well.

The present generation is not wholly to blame for the sad state of marriage; in part it is reacting to generations of distortions in the understanding of marriage. Paul’s injunction to women, that they should honor or obey their husbands, has been distorted by some to mean that the woman is the husband’s property (chattel), which in turn has made some women hostile to these elements of marriage. St. Paul, however, refutes this distortion when he says that the wife’s body does not belong to her, but to her husband and – keep reading – that the husband’s body does not belong to him, but to his wife (1 Cor. 7:3–4). If anything, each is the other’s chattel. The distortion of Paul’s injunction has caused some horrendous social consequences, including the deplorable common-law rule that a husband cannot be charged with raping his wife (and some states, God forbid, still have this law on their books). St. Paul would take offense at this, for he said that a husband who abuses his wife abuses himself. So if a husband commits such a violent crime on his wife, he is committing it on himself (Eph. 5:28–30). Objectively, if one were prepared to give of oneself for the other, such a heinous act of pure self-centeredness wouldn’t cross one’s mind.

There are other distortions that have wormed their way into the western understanding of mar¬riage, based largely on this contractual view. One of these is the view that conjugal relations (even a set number per month) and children were essen¬tial elements that somehow made the marriage “valid.” Children are not essential to marriage; Sa¬rai, Elizabeth, and Anna were all shunned because they did not have children, but they were truly married. They were righteous people and loved their spouses before they had children. In fact, the miraculous conceptions of their children were granted for those very reasons. Childbearing is a purpose for marriage, but not the purpose. When God created Eve, He did not say specifi cally, Let us create for Adam a co-procreator, a mother for his children. Being co-procreators is part of our purpose, but not our raison d’etre. He said they should create for him a helpmate, a compan¬ion with whom to share his life, and whose life he would share. The creation of two genders is not, according to the Holy Fathers, rooted spe¬cifically in procreation. The Holy Fathers are in fact unanimous in their teaching, that God’s com¬mand to “be fruitful . . .” (Gen. 1:28) dealt with our dominion over the earth, not procreation, and is properly understood in terms of our intended role as prophet, priest, and king. We are, then, to “be fruitful and multiply (in gifts of the Spirit), fill the earth (with the Word of God) and subdue it (to his Will).” The dual genders are an external sign of the inter-dependence God intended in his preeminent creation. As husbands and wives are to be the companion and helpmate of the other, it stands to reason that they should complement each other. The strengths of one spouse comple¬ment those of the other, and often fulfill what is lacking in the other. This intrinsic arrangement can extend even to physically complementing each other. Yet the companionship came fi rst; the Bible clearly states that Adam did not have con¬jugal relations with (know) Eve until after they were expelled from Paradise.

In his mercy, God left us with a remnant of our partnership in his creation through procreation. Through the Sacred Mystery of Matrimony, the couple became intangibly “one flesh”; this is giv¬en tangible and physical expression in their child. The three Persons of the Trinity have been togeth¬er for all eternity; as a manifestation of their love, they created . . . everything. In the same way, the couples’ love, manifested in the conjugal act, pro¬duces a child. This is no contractual mandate, but the natural result of the couples’ affection, just as good works are the natural result of faith. Just as we are the enduring physical expression of the love shared by the Trinity, so children are (or are intended as) the enduring physical manifestation of the couple’s love. Seeing one’s “children’s chil¬dren” is more a prayer that one should see the flowering of the couple’s (Christian, not worldly) love through many generations, than a prayer for long life per se. As this is a divine grace, given through marriage and intended only for it, it is not to be tampered with in any way. In sum, God created them, man and woman, to work in har¬mony and complete the other, as each member of the Trinity works in harmony with the others, and by his mercy to add to his creation as we await his Second Coming.

All of this is embodied in the concluding rites of the Wedding Service. The couple is crowned with matching crowns. Be they western-style crowns in the Slavic tradition, or fl oral crowns in the Greek tradition, they symbolize the same things: they are royal crowns, as the couple be¬comes king and queen of their own little corner of creation, to rule over their family. They are also martyrs’ crowns, symbolizing that they must sacrifice their lives for each other and for Christ. They drink from a common cup. Christ said that each of the disciples would drink from the cup He drank from, that they would share his sufferings and his glory. Likewise the couple is to share each other’s sufferings and triumphs. They then walk around the table on which the Gospel rests, the circular walk symbolizing eternity (“Till death do you part” is not part of the Orthodox Tradition), three times, symbolizing the divine nature of their bond. This is the true understanding of marriage: not a contract that can be broken when one party finds a better deal, but an all-encompassing union binding two people together with Christ as the mortar. These two people are to give of them¬selves, without keeping score, for the sake of the other, and so manifest God’s love to all and to each other.

“ Find joy with the wife you married in your youth . . . . Let hers be the company you keep . . . hers the love that ever holds you captive” (Prov. 5:18–19).

“ Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled” (Heb. 13:4).

Priest. May the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the all-holy, consubstantial and life-giving Trinity, one Godhead and one kingdom, bless you and grant to you length of days, fair children, prosperity of life and faith, and fi ll you with abundance of all earthly good things, and make you worthy to obtain the blessings of the promise: through the prayers of the holy Theot­okos, and of all the Saints. Amen.

Priest. O God, our God, who came to Cana of Galilee, and blessed there the marriage feast: Bless, also, these Thy servants, who through Thy good providence are now united together in the Community of Marriage. Bless their goings out and their comings in. Replenish their life with good things. Receive their crowns into Thy king­dom, preserving them spotless, blameless, and without reproach, unto ages of ages.

Priest. O Lord our God, who in Thy saving provi­dence did agree by Thy presence in Cana of Gali­lee to declare marriage honorable: Do thou the same Lord, now also maintain in peace and har­mony Thy servants, N. and N., whom it pleases Thee to join together. Cause their marriage to be honorable. Preserve their life blameless. Merci­fully grant that they may live together in purity. Enable them to attain to a ripe old age, walking in Thy commandments with a pure heart.

Priest. O Holy God, who created man from the dust, and from man’s rib made woman joining her to him as a helpmate, for it seemed good to Thy Majesty for man not to be alone on earth. Do Thou now, O Master, extend Thy hand from Thy holy dwelling and unite this Thy servant, N., and this Thy handmaid, N., for by Thee is the husband united to the wife. Unite them in one mind. Wed them into one flesh. Grant them of the fruit of the body and the procreation of fair children.

Daniel Manzuk is a reader at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Alsip, IL.