Holy Matrimony

In this section: An OverviewThe Theology • A Practical Guide

1. An Overview of Marriage

Since the Pastor’s role is to assist you with this preparation, he usually needs to meet with you and your fiance(e) before scheduling a wedding.  As a part of her liturgical tradition, the Church (and not the Parish) has very specific times when weddings may be celebrated, which you can view here.  Learning about this tradition and why it exists is part of one’s preparation for the celebration of this Mystery.

Society itself forms many of our expectations regarding this event.  Some of these expectations are compatible with the vision of the Church, and some are not.  The Pastor will help you consider the many options that young couples are faced with, and guide you in making the best choices, those that are consistent with the tradition and mind of the Church.  Why is this important?  Instinctively, we know that a wedding is a sacred event, a manifestation of God’s grace, and that is why we want to hold our wedding there, in the Church.  Since that is the case, it makes sense to prepare for that event by learning just how the Church, and not society, understands this sacred moment.  In doing so, we can see how to actively cooperate with this grace in order to allow our marriage to be and remain precisely what it is intended to be.  In a sense, the preparation we make for our wedding will forecast how we will come to see our marriage and what we will expect from it.  Indeed, since it is such an important event, we cannot afford to look at it as merely ceremonial, unrelated to the rest of our lives.

2. The Theology of Marriage.

Simply put, in marriage we accept the responsibility for the spiritual and material well-being of our spouse.  This becomes a higher good for us in our life, and we place our own needs and satisfactions below this.  We then need to order our life in a consistent manner, doing whatever is necessary to promote this well-being in our spouse’s life.  Very literally we are making a gift of our life to that other person.  In some Orthodox traditions, this mutual giving and acceptance was expressed by the exchange of their baptismal crosses by the bride and groom.  The couple is then “crowned” with the martyr’s crowns, the goal and summit of married life.  This is to show not an accomplishment (for they have just begun) but the purpose for which they have been united: their mutual sanctification before God.  Thus the crowns are an advance reward, indicating the way of self-renunciation that leads to real glory, the glory of the martyrs.

In the ancient Church, marriage was essentially the permission of the bishop, bestowed by his blessing, for a couple to enter into this unique, legal relationship established under Roman law.  The Christian was obliged to respect the requirements of this law, which is today preserved by the Church.  Thus, Christians must marry freely, without compulsion, they must not already be married, and they must be of legal age.  However, the Christian was also expected to exceed these requirements in patiently submitting his or her will to God’s will in all things, expressed before the community in the blessing of the bishop.  For this reason, cohabitation before marriage was and is considered a presumption of sorts, a taking, an action apart from the gratuitous, undeserved gift that marriage was understood to be.

As it came to be understood in Western Christendom, a Christian-legal relationship with rights, duties and obligations, this view of marriage is virtually unknown in the Orthodox tradition.  Rather than being a human and sexual relationship “sanctioned” and “permitted” by the Church for the duration of our earthly life, Orthodox see marriage as an eternal union that transcends death.  As we are drawn deeper into this union, we realize that marriage provides us with a unique mode of experience, a means of participation with God in and through the mystery of our spouse.  The sacrament then is so much less about establishing a household and starting a family — things which certainly can be done otherwise — and so much more about our spiritual life.  For this reason, Orthodox writers have often linked marriage with monasticism, the two great ways or paths of our salvation.  The relative complementarity of these two paths may not appear evident, especially if marriage is viewed primarily with regard to sexual relations and monasticism is reduced to and equated with celibacy.  The reality is actually much more complex and the two lives have much in common.

The focus of marriage on the spiritual life is also not the isolation of the spiritual life.  The spiritual life must be portable, in the sense that it comes with us wherever we go and whatever we do.  We have to be looking and watching for the moments when God reveals Himself to us in the midst of establishing a household and starting a family.  If we undertake these things in a distracted manner or as ends in themselves, we should not be surprised if we don’t experience them as epiphanic events.

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