Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Marriage in the Church – Why?

There are some of us in our St. Vladimir family who have not yet gotten married in the Church. We should address this issue, not with acrimony, but from an educational point of view. It is my hope that if we do this it will become clear that marriage in the Church is not some sort of optional thing, but is absolutely crucial if we hope to be successful as a couple. And we’ll talk about what “successful” means too. It might be something different than what you are thinking as you begin this note…

We should begin by making it clear: the point here is not to DEMEAN those who have not yet been married in the Church. It is understood that each person and each couple come to God at a different pace. The Church is here for you and your salvation. God is patient and loving. But that does not mean that we should equate ignorance with bliss either. The Church is a spiritual hospital – we all need to be healed. Staying away from treatment is not healthy once we realize we need that treatment. And the fact of the matter is, all couples need the treatment of the Sacrament of Marriage the Holy Church offers us.

But why bother, right? We’ve been together for years. The civil ceremony seems to have “stuck”. We love each other. That’s all that matters isn’t it? Love conquers all…

Love may conquer all – but that is Christian love. Not romantic love. Romantic love is not unimportant, but the hyper-focus we have a society have on this aspect of married life is an extreme that sets us up for failure, given few of us manage to age looking just as we did at 25. We are greatly hobbled in our limited lexicon for the word “love” in English. Russian is equally hobbled. The Greeks were good with love – they have lots of words for it and that is helpful. For instance, eros is not at all the same as agape. But for us – it is all “love”. And that is not helpful. Certainly we are not going to state here that love is not important. Of course it is. But our culture of marriage in society is very much informed by the Western Christian idea of marriage: that marriage is a contract with certain responsibilities of each partner in the contract. If the contract is broken the marriage is broken. This is true in Judaism and Islam too, by the way. But this is NOT true in Orthodoxy. Marriage is not a contract. At least is it not a contract strictly between the husband and wife. And this is made clear by the promises that the bride and the groom make to each other in the Orthodox wedding service. What are those promises? There aren’t any. :) The vows are made to GOD – not to the other spouse. And thus the Orthodox marriage is a covenant with God – not a contract with another human. Of course, it would be ideal if the bride and groom had discussed a few things before the marriage takes place, but they make two vows in the marriage service – both to God: that neither has promised themselves to any other and that they do this with a free will. That’s is. But that is everything. Because God is now a central part of the marriage. IF it is accomplished in His Church.

Those who are reading this are almost certainly Orthodox Christian churchgoers. God is part of their lives already. From a theological mathematical point of view “civil wedding + church attendance = God is part of our marriage”, no? Not really. It is not that a civil marriage doesn’t mean anything. Of course it does. Those who manage to stick together without God as an sacramental part of their marriage should be lauded – this is a great accomplishment! But why wouldn’t we ask God into our marriage? Not in the way that we make up with our own theological math, but in the way that HE HIMSELF taught us is the Christian way – the Orthodox way. How did He teach us? Recall please, where was the first miracle of Jesus Christ accomplished? At the WEDDING IN CANA OF GALILEE. Certainly Jesus Christ – the God man – could have chosen any place that He liked for His first miracle. He was not constrained to do this at a wedding. But He did. This was not a mistake. This is God clearly blessing marriage – that as Christians we may be married (and this might be surprising to you: this was a burning question in the early Church). And moreover, not only MAY we be married, but GOD BLESSES us to be married. If we chose the married life it is clear that this needs to be accomplished with God’s blessing – it is not our decision to do whatever we like. Of course, we could ignore Christ’s first miracle and His blessing of marriage. But we could also ignore the fact that He gave Holy Communion to the Apostles and told us to do this in remembrance of Him. In either case (and in all cases)  ignoring God is not going to be terribly helpful in our striving for transfiguration in Christ. Essentially, ignoring this teaching of Christ is striving for transfiguration WITHOUT Christ. I’m not the best priest – that is obvious. But even with my weaknesses and ignorances it is pretty clear to me – we aren’t to ignore the very teaching of our Lord that marriage is blessed where He is present. And striving for transfiguration without Christ is not likely to be terribly fruitful. The marriage in Cana of Galilee was blessed because Jesus Christ was there. Jesus Christ is present in His Church, which He gave us for our salvation. Thus, the only place for Orthodox Christians to be married is in the Church. And for those who are not yet married in the Church – it is probably time to heed the call of the Lord and accept His gracious invitation to be part of our marriage. And to have the sacrament of matrimony served for us in the Church.

But given that the goal of marriage is personal gratification and financial stability of the two parties involved why does this all matter? BECAUSE THAT IS NOT THE GOAL OF MARRIAGE! Success in marriage is measured by only one metric: salvation. Salvation is transfiguration in Christ. This is how we should choose a spouse and this should be our over-arching goal: salvation. Of course, there are other goals along the way, but this is the big one: salvation. Marriage, despite lots of good jokes in this regard, is not about suffering. Nor is it about having children (this is an expected and hoped-for part of marriage, but not the main goal). The main goal is salvation. Full stop.

But what if we came to the Church after we were already married? Then what? Are we lost? Of course not! One can be married at any point! There is no statute of limitation on marriage. I’ve married people quite beyond the usual age for marriage (into their 60s or 70s), and there is even a special marriage service for those who have been married outside the Church for a long time. It is not necessary to make a huge big deal of this. Such a Church marriage can be taken care of quietly and prayerfully. It not need be a huge undertaking. But it MUST be undertaken. Strictly speaking those living without a Church marriage are living in sin. It is understood that the Soviet authorities were not exactly promoting Church marriage and therefore many of our parishioners might not have a Church marriage. This is not a reason to judge anyone – that was just the plain fact in the Soviet Union. But thank God – the Soviet Union is no more. No one is constraining you from accomplishing this important – frankly crucial – sacrament of the Church. Why should we be holding to anachronistic atheistic practices? The answer is: we should not. :)

You all know a couple or a couple of couples who are not yet married in the Church. This article is NOT a call to embarrass these folks or make an example of them. Rather, let us apply this as we do all the guidance of the Holy Church: with love. Let us lovingly encourage our friends and loved ones who have not yet been married in the Church to do so at the earliest opportunity. With love. With genuine concern for their salvation. If you have this co-suffering love – love that has as its center the sincere desire for the salvation of another – then you can move mountains. And your invitation to your close ones who are not yet married in the Church will not be an occasion for strife, but an occasion for rejoicing in the Lord. A zealot for Church marriage must be a zealot for Christian love. Pray for this love first, only THEN talk to your close ones about this.

It is my hope that 2019 will be the year that EVERY one of our St. Vladimir’s couples is married in the Church, that by January 1, 2020 we will have 100% of our families living with the grace of the sacrament of marriage. May the merciful Lord grant it!

Fr. Gregory

Post Script:

One of our parishioners rightly pointed out that there is an exception to this rule: those who are married outside the Church, but baptized together in the Church. In this way the Grace of the Sacrament of Marriage is imparted to the couple through reception into the Church. This is an important caveat, and I’m very glad that our parishioner reached out to remind me of this!