The Stuff That Marriages Are Made Of
Coming out of a fifteen-minute wedding service in another church (not Orthodox), my brother-in-law commented: “In the Orthodox Church, you know you’re really married by the end, because they do stuff to you.”
That, in a nutshell, is the Orthodox theology of the Mystery of Matrimony!
I thought of his trenchant observation recently as I was attending a wedding elsewhere. It was a Christian wedding, though not a church wedding. The venue was a beautiful park. The whole event, all twenty minutes of it, was executed with class and modesty. Unlike many modern weddings, it was a serious affair, and the vows exchanged were quite traditional. The ceremony culminated much as a royal wedding would, with an official signing of the certificates by bride and groom, then by witnesses and officiant. It was joyful and lovely.
But it just felt so different from an Orthodox wedding. Because it was. An Orthodox wedding and other weddings are completely distinct events, spiritually speaking. In terms of legal paperwork, the results are the same: the couple leaves with a signed marriage license. But sacramentally, our wedding and their weddings are as different as day and night.
In a Catholic or Protestant wedding, what is happening? Two people are coming before God to make vows to each other. Long story short: it is the man and wife who make themselves to be married. The clergyperson is there to lead them through their paces; family and friends are invited to witness; and God is called upon to bless the promise-making. But the core idea is that marriage is a contract between two people that they will be spouses. As symbols of their binding covenant, they put rings on each other’s hands. This all might happen in a church; it is not God, though, but two humans who enact the marital state for themselves.
In an Orthodox wedding it is altogether otherwise. What is the line that you hear over and over again? “What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” In the Orthodox wedding service, the man and woman stand silent from beginning to end. They say nothing, promise nothing, agree to nothing. They do not make themselves married. God unites them in wedlock. God—acting through His clergy and people—puts the rings on their fingers, joins their hands in a clasp, crowns them with glory, gives them to share in the common cup, and leads them in their first steps together as man and wife. “Stuff” is done to them, by God, acting through members of the Church.
(And this is why we always have church weddings. We take the trouble to go to God’s house to ask for His blessings. We don’t go wherever we please and call out, “Yoo-hoo, Lord, get over here!”)
And after the ceremony is over and the guests on their way, then the paperwork is signed—not so that the couple can seal the deal, but simply to satisfy the record-keeping of the state. It is curious to note that for the ecclesiastical forms, only the signature of the sponsor is needed; there is no dotted line for the bride or groom to sign on! The tacit theological message is clear. This couple was married by God through the Church; they did not espouse themselves to each other. “What God has joined, let not man put asunder.”
It is for this reason that our Orthodox wedding service is somewhat longer than other churches’ services. How much time, after all, does it take for two people to exchange vows and sign the papers? You can pad it with some hymns and prayers, a couple of readings, a brief Bible study by the pastor on matrimony, some witty pointers on how to be a good spouse. But in the end you are just playing to an audience that is eager to get to the reception, or preaching to a couple too fraught with emotion to heed your great advice.
The Orthodox service, by contrast, is directed almost entirely to the hearing of God, not the couple, not the guests. Why? Well, one does not just knock on God’s door and say, “Bless this for us, would you?” In the Orthodox service, we come together to invoke God’s presence and favor, and to seek His action in joining the couple. There is no bold presumption that this all happens automatically. Every wedding is a fervent and humble request for God to do His work of uniting two imperfect people into a perfect union, just as He did in days of old.
For this reason, the prayers and petitions evoke the memory of events from the Scriptures and Church history, where God stepped in and made two people to be one flesh. We tell of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, Joseph and Asenath, Moses and Zipporah, Zechariah and Elizabeth, and the unnamed couple at Cana of Galilee. We mention these names—not to give the guests a lesson in the Bible—but to ritually invoke ta megaleia tou Theou, “the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:11). Why? This is our Orthodox custom of prayer: to remind the Lord of what He has graciously done in times past, and so to move Him to show the same favor again to us today.
In the Orthodox Church we consider marriage to be a Mystery (a sacrament). By this, we are not talking about the solemn ritual officiated by an impressive clergyman. We are talking about the life together afterwards, with its daily ups and downs. In calling Marriage a sacrament, the Church is saying that it is one of those earthly things that can have the power to bring humans closer to God—like the consecrated bread and wine of Communion, the water of Baptism, the oil of Holy Unction, the episcopal hands of Ordination. This mystical power is not evident in every marriage (which is why the Orthodox Church makes provision for divorce). Nor is that sacramental power limited only to marriages that began in an Orthodox wedding service.
I am reminded of one of the most beautiful married couples I ever knew. They were married in 1934 in South Dakota, in the Dust Bowl of the Dirty Thirties and the depths of the Great Depression. What an act of faith, to start a family in those troubled times! He had no money to rent a tuxedo, nor she to buy a wedding dress. She showed up in her one good dress, and he came in his old three-piece suit. Except it wasn’t three pieces anymore. The trousers were so old that he had worn out the seat. His clever bride, however, was able to use material from the vest to replace the seat of his pants. No one ever knew it wasn’t a two-piece suit all along!
They got married in a plain country church, and the reception was in the basement: potato salad and ham buns and fruit punch. They started life together with nothing. But in terms of unwavering love and commitment, they were richer than royalty. Though they started with nothing, through diligence and dedication their home was filled, as our wedding prayer asks, “with grain, wine, and oil, and every good thing, so that in turn they might share with those in need.” For sixty years they lived in joyous companionship, with much laughter and love, until his death in 1994, followed by hers a year later.
What was the secret to their successful union? They did not stop invoking God’s presence in their lives for a single day. Their meals began and ended with prayers; they were regular church-goers and faithful stewards; they fed themselves daily with God’s Word; they strove to live according to God’s commandments, in love and honesty and singleness of heart.
If there is a problem with marriage nowadays, it is primarily this: young people show up at God’s house and demand a gift from Him; but then for the rest of their marriage they don’t bother to invite God into their own home so He can perfect that gift of unity. If the institution of marriage is in peril in our society, it is firstly due to spouses who don’t love each other enough to keep God at the center of their family life.
The stuff that God does—loving, giving, forgiving, blessing, helping, healing, waiting patiently—this is the stuff that good marriages are made of. This is the stuff that we ask God to give in the Orthodox wedding, so that the spouses can regift His goodness to each other. “Thine own of thine own do we offer to Thee!”—both in the Eucharist and in our family lives. It all starts with God, and continues only with God. For without Him, we can do nothing. Without Him, there can be no true marriage, but only cohabitation. But with Him, all things are possible—even the magic of two very different people becoming one flesh for a lifetime, crowned over the years with glory and honor.
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