Marriage as Sacrament or “Mystery”

Marriage in the Orthodox Church

“This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:32). In chapter 5 of the letter to the Ephesians we discover the different meaning of Christian marriage, that element which cannot be reduced to either Judaic utilitarianism or Roman legalism — the possibility and the responsibility given to both husband and wife to transfigure their “agreement” into the reality of the Kingdom.

Every human being is a member of earthly society, a citizen of his country, and a member of his family. He cannot avoid the needs of material existence and must fulfill his social obligations. The Gospel does not deny man’s responsibility for the world and for human society. True Christianity never called for a denial of the world. Even monks render a peculiar service to the world by denying not its existence and its importance, but its claims to control man and to restrict his freedom. The calling of man — the “image and likeness of God” in him — is, first of all, a limitless, a “divine,” a free use of his creative potentials, his yearning for the absolute Good, for the highest forms of Beauty, for true Love, for the possibility of really experiencing this Goodness; because God Himself is that Goodness, that Beauty, that Love and He Himself loves man. To Him man can appeal; His voice he can hear and His love he can experience. For a Christian, God is not an idea to be understood, but a Person to meet: “I am in my Father, and you are in Me and I am in you” (John 14:20). In God man discovers his own humanity, because he has been created as an “image of God.” And Christ, being True God, also manifested a true humanity, not in spite of His divinity, but precisely because He was True God: in Him, we see divinity as the true norm of humanity.

When man is baptized and becomes “one body” with Christ in the Eucharist, he, in fact, becomes more fully himself; he recovers a truer relationship with God and with fellow-men, and he returns to his worldly responsibilities with all the God-given and limitless potential of creativity, of service, and of love.

Now, if St. Paul calls marriage a “mystery” (or “sacrament”: the Greek word is the same), he means that in marriage man does not only satisfy the needs of his earthly, secular existence, but also realizes something very important of the purpose for which he was created; i.e., he enters the realm of eternal life. In the world, man does possess a diversity of talents and powers — material, intellectual, emotional — but his existence is limited by time. Now, to “be born from the water and the Spirit” is to enter the realm of eternal life; for through Christ’s Resurrection this realm is already open and can be experienced and shared. By calling marriage a “mystery,” St. Paul affirms that marriage also has a place in the eternal Kingdom. The husband becomes one single being, one single “flesh” with his wife, just as the Son of God ceased to be only Himself, i.e., God, and became also man so that the community of His people may also become His Body. This is why, so often, the Gospel narratives compare the Kingdom of God with a wedding feast, which fulfills the Old Testament prophetic visions of a wedding between God and Israel, the elected people. And this is also why a truly Christian marriage can only be unique, not in virtue of some abstract law or ethical precept, but precisely because it is a Mystery of the Kingdom of God introducing man into eternal joy and eternal love.

As a mystery, or sacrament, Christian marriage certainly conflicts with the practical, empirical reality of “fallen” humanity. It appears, just as the Gospel itself, as an unattainable ideal. But there is a crucial difference between a “sacrament” and an “ideal.” A sacrament is not an imaginary abstraction. It is an experience where man is not involved alone, but where he acts in communion with God. In a sacrament, humanity participates in the higher reality of the Spirit, without, however, ceasing to be fully humanity. Actually, as we have said above, it becomes more authentically human and fulfills its original destiny. A sacrament is a “passage” to true life; it is man’s salvation. It is an open door into true, unadulterated humanity.

A sacrament, therefore, is not magic. The Holy Spirit does not suppress human freedom but, rather, liberates man from the limitations of sinfulness. In the new life, the impossible becomes truly possible, if only man freely accepts what God gives. This applies to marriage as well.

Mistakes, misunderstandings, and even conscious rebellion against God, i.e., sin, are possible as long as man lives in the present empirical and visible existence of the “fallen world.” The Church understands this very well, and this is why the “mystery” of the Kingdom revealed in marriage is not reduced in Orthodox practice to a set of legal rules. But true understanding and justified condescension to human weakness are possible only if one recognizes the absolute norm of the New Testamental doctrine of marriage as sacrament.

Meyendorff, John. Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000.

Comments are closed.