The Domestic Church

Marriage in the Orthodox Church

Clement of Alexandria calls marriage the “House of God,” and applies to it the words about the presence of the Lord, “I am in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20). According to St Ignatius of Antioch, then, “Where Jesus Christ is, there is the universal Church,” which enables us to clearly see the ecclesial nature of the nuptial community. It is not by mere chance either that St Paul puts his magistral teaching on marriage in the context of his Letter on the Church, Ephesians. He speaks of the “domestic Church,” he kat’ oikon ekklesia (Rm 16:5). There is more here than a simple analogy. Biblical symbolism depends on a very intimate correspondence between the various levels, showing them as different expressions of a single Reality.

According to the Fourth Gospel (2:1-11), the first miracle of Christ takes places at the wedding at Cana. Through its very matter — water and wine — it serves as a prelude to Calvary and already announces the birth of the Church on the Cross, “out of the pierced side came blood and water.” The symbolism brings together and links the place of the miracle, the wedding, to the eucharistic reality of the Church.

The presence of Christ bestows a sacramental gift upon the betrothed. It is of this that St Paul speaks when he states that “everyone has received his special gift from God.” Through its action, the water of the natural passions is changed into “the fruit of the vine,” the noble wine that signifies the transmutation into “the new love,” a charismatic love springing forth to the Kingdom.

This is why the Theotokos, like a guardian angel, bends over the world in distress: “They have no more wine,” she says. The Virgin means to say that the chastity of old, considered the integrity of being, has ceased. Nothing is left but the impasse of masculinity and femininity. The jars destined for the “ablutions among the Jews” are hardly sufficient; but “ancient forms have passed away”; the purification of the ablutions becomes baptism, “the bath of eternity,” in order to grant access to the Eucharistic Banquet of the one and only Bridegroom.

The intercession of the Virgin hastens the arrival: “Do whatever He tells you,” “People generally serve the best wine first and keep the cheaper sort”; the good wine of the betrothal is but a fleeting promise and is rapidly exhausted; the nuptial cup dries up — such is the order of nature. At Cana this order is reversed: “You have kept the best wine till now.” This “now” is the moment of Christ; it knows no passing. The more the spouses are united in Christ the more their common cup, the measure of their life, is filled with the wine of Cana and becomes miraculous.

At Cana, Christ “manifested His glory” within the confines of a “household Church” (ecclesia domestica). In fact, this wedding is the wedding of the spouses to Christ. It is He who presides at the wedding of Cana and, according to the Fathers, at every Christian wedding. It is He who is the one and only Bridegroom whose voice the friend hears and in which he rejoices. This dimension of the mystical bethrothal of the soul to Christ, of which marriage is the direct figure, is that of every soul and that of the Church-Bride.

In its full measure, all grace comes at the end of a sacrifice. The spouses themselves receive it from the moment they undertake to present themselves before the Father in heaven in their dignity as priests, and to offer to Him the sacrifice in Christ, the “reasonable gift,” the oblation of their entire nuptial life. The grace of the priestly ministry of the husband and the grace of the priestly motherhood of the wife form and mold the nuptial being in the image of the Church.

By loving each other the spouses love God. Every moment of their life rises up like a royal doxology, like an unending liturgical chant. St John Chrysostom brings forward this magnificent conclusion: “Marriage is mysterious icon of the Church.”

Evdokimov, Paul. The Sacrament of Love. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985.

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