Tomorrow, in new cassock and surplice and for the first time as priest, I will read the Gospel and lead the matrimonial prayers in The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage. The couple is young and dear and in love (with Christ and with one another) and is, I feel confident, about as ready for marriage as is humanly possible, which is to say, not really ready at all. Lord, have mercy upon them. Shield the joyous.
In the Orthodox Church, marriage is considered a sacrament, though it is not called by that name. Instead, the Orthodox speak of marriage — and each sacrament — as a mystery (mysterion). And isn’t that a wonderful word to describe marriage? Soon, my wife and I will celebrate our thirty-eighth wedding anniversary, and I still find our marriage — and, at times, my wife — to be as mysterious as ever, in the truest and most blessed sense of the word. Marriage is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace and the sure means by which that grace is received — perhaps not a sacrament, but certainly sacramental, certainly a mystery.
This is why marriage is about far more than who and how we love, and it is precisely why the church is so protective of it. From the beginning, even in Eden, the union of the man and the woman was about more than love; physical and spiritual complementarity, support in vocation, fruitfulness — these were and are integral to marriage. To reduce marriage to modern concepts of love is to impoverish it and to delude those who enter into it.
Now, we are exiles from Eden, and certainly the fall has changed marriage, as indeed it has changed everything. But, in the case of marriage — perhaps uniquely — the fall did not diminish the relationship, but enhanced its importance, its dignity, its purpose. In addition to all it was before, marriage is now also about grace, redemption, and sanctification.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle, or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church (Eph 5:25-27, 32, ESV).
One day, sooner than I would like, a young man will likely ask to marry my daughter. I imagine the ensuing conversation.
“And why do you want to marry my daughter?” I will ask pointedly in my best father-teacher-priest- you’d better get this right voice.
“I love her more than anything,” I can just hear him say.
“Who cares?!” will be my response. “That’s not nearly good enough. Will you give up your life for her as Christ gave up his life for the church? Will you devote yourself not to loving yourself through my daughter but rather to her sanctification? Will you do everything within your power to present her to Christ in splendor, without spot or wrinkle, so that she might be holy? Will you lay aside all that has gone before and hold fast to her until you no longer know where you leave off and where she begins Will you?” God help him if he says no. God help him if he says yes.
This is marriage this side of the fall. Love is nice, but it’s not the basis of Christian marriage unless that love partakes of and mirrors the love with which Christ loved the church and gave himself for her. It is a high standard and humanly impossible. So, following the vows that commit the man and woman to do more than they can possibly do, we pray:
O gracious and everliving God, you have created us male and female in your image: Look mercifully upon this man and this woman who come to you seeking your blessing, and assist them with your grace, that with true fidelity and steadfast love they may honor and keep the promises and vows they make; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
And so, to the dear couple who will, in the name of Christ, commit themselves to each other tomorrow: Blessings.
Photo: John A. Roop. Used by permission.