The Proper Aim of Marriage

Marriage in the Orthodox Church

The modern Western distinction between the objective aim (procreation) and the subjective aim (the nuptial community) is inadequate; it does not take account of the basic hierarchy. The texts of the Orthodox Church, when they are not showing the influence of Western handbooks, are unanimous in placing the aim of nuptial life in the spouses themselves. In his Dogmatic Theology, Metropolitan Macarius gives this definition, the most recent, one which is very clear and explicit, and says nothing about procreation: “Marriage is a sacred rite. The spouses promise reciprocal fidelity before the Church; the grace of God is bestowed through the blessing of the minister of the Church. It sanctifies their union and confers the dignity of representing the spiritual union of Christ and the Church.”

The light that was at the beginning has been dispelled through the Fall. St Paul, while speaking of adultery, says “one body” (1 Co 6:16) instead of “one flesh,” a complex term, thereby rendering the spiritual isolation, the frustrated communion, more incisive. Origen draws attention to the first chapter in Genesis where mention is made of the male and the female; their natural union places man in the species, subjecting him to the commandment given to the animal kingdom: “Be fruitful and multiply.” Man survives in his progeny, and through feverish fecundity he hastens to find in it an assurance of his survival. Only the Gospel makes us understand that it is not in the species but in Christ that man is eternal, that he strips off the old man and “is renewed in the image of the One who has created him.” Marriage grafts man into this renewal. The account of the institution of marriage, found in the second chapter of Genesis, speaks of “one flesh” without mentioning procreation at all. The creation of the woman is an answer to the statement, “It is not good for man to be alone.” The nuptial community constitutes the person, for it is the “man-woman” that is in the image of God. All the New Testament passages dealing with marriage follow the same order and do not mention offspring (Mt 19; Mk 10; Eph 5). The coming of man completes the gradual creation of the world. Man humanizes the world and gives it a human and spiritual meaning. It is in man that the sexual differentiation finds its meaning and its proper value, independently of the species.

The economy of the Law ordained procreation to perpetuate the race, for the increase of the chosen people in view of the birth of the Messiah. In the economy of grace, however, the birth of the elect derives from the preaching of faith. The side from which the woman was taken no longer has this utilitarian role assigned to it by sociology. Nowadays the Arabs say, “he is my side,” which signifies, “inseparable companion.”

In the fourth century, St John Chrysostom further declares: “There are two reasons for which marriage was instituted…to bring man to be content with one woman and to have children, but it is the first reason that is the most important. As for procreation, it is not required absolutely by marriage…The proof of this lies in the numerous marriages that cannot have children. This is why the first reason of marriage is to order sexual life, especially now that the human race has filled the entire earth.”

In the image of the creative love of God, human love strives to “design” an object on which to pour itself. In itself, the existence of the world adds nothing to the fullness of God; nonetheless, it is this plenitude that confers on Him His quality as God. God is fullness, not for Himself, but for His creation. Likewise, the nuptial union in itself is plenitude. It can, however, also acquire a new qualification out of its own superabundance: fatherhood or motherhood. The child born of this nuptial community prolongs it and reaffirms the already perfectly realized unity. Love contemplates its reflection in the world and begets the child. “When she has given birth to the child, the women forgets her suffering in her joy that a man has been born into the world”; a new face is called to become an icon of God.

Motherhood is a special form of the feminine kenosis (emptying). The mother gives herself to the child, dies in part for it, follows the love of God that humbles itself, and in a certain sense repeats the utterance of John the Baptist, “He must grow greater, I must grow smaller.” The sacrifice of the mother includes the sword of which Simeon speaks. In this sacrifice, every mother bends over the crucified Christ.

The veneration of the Virgin-Mother brings out the vocation of every woman, her charism of protecting and of nurturing. There is an ever growing number of beings in the world who live like those who are abandoned by God. Their existence is a call to every Christian household to express its nuptial priesthood, its true nature, as a “domestic Church” that receives only to give and thereby reveals itself as a force of compassion and help to return prodigal children to their Father.

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

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