by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev
The love that exists between a man and a woman is an important theme in many books of Scripture. The Book of Genesis, in particular, tells us of holy and pious couples, such as Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel. A special blessing, bestowed on these couples by the Lord, was made manifest in the multiplication of their descendants. Love is praised in the Song of Songs, a book which, in spite of all allegorical and mystical interpretations in patristic tradition, does not lose its literal meaning.
The very attitude of God to the people of Israel is compared in the Old Testament with that of a husband to his wife. This imagery is developed to such an extent that unfaithfulness to God and idolatry are paralleled with adultery and prostitution. When St Paul speaks about marital love as the reflection of the love which exists between Christ and the Church (cf. Eph.5:20-33), he develops the same imagery.
The mystery of marriage was established by God in Paradise. Having created Adam and Eve, God said to them:
‘Be fruitful and multiply’ (Gen.1:28).
This multiplication of the human race was to be achieved through marriage:
‘Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh’ (Gen.2:24).
Marital union is therefore not a consequence of the Fall but something inherent to the primordial nature of human beings. The mystery of marriage was further blessed by the Incarnate Lord when He changed water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee.
‘We state’, St Cyril of Alexandria writes, ‘that He (Christ) blessed marriage in accordance with the economy (oikonomia) by which He became man and went… to the wedding in Cana of Galilee’.
There are two misunderstandings about marriage which should be rejected in Orthodox dogmatic theology. One is that marriage exists for the sole purpose of procreation. What, then, is the meaning of marriage for those couples who have no children? Are they advised to divorce and remarry? Even in the case of those who have children: are they actually supposed to have relations once a year for the sole purpose of ‘procreation’? This has never been a teaching of the Church.
On the contrary, according to St John Chrysostom, among the two reasons for which marriage was instituted, namely
‘to bring man to be content with one woman and to have children’,
it is the first reason which is the most important:
‘as for procreation, it is not required absolutely by marriage…’
In fact, in Orthodox understanding, the goal of marriage is that man and woman should become one, in the image of the Holy Trinity, Whose three Persons are essentially united in love. To quote St John Chrysostom again,
‘when husband and wife are united in marriage, they are no longer seen as something earthly, but as the image of God Himself’.
The mutual love of the two partners in marriage becomes life-giving and creative when a child is born as its fruit. Every human being is therefore to be a fruit of love, and everyone’s birth is a result of love between his parents.
Another misunderstanding about marriage is that it should be regarded as a ‘concession’ to human ‘infirmity’: it is better to be married than to commit adultery (this understanding is based on a wrong interpretation of 1 Cor.7:2-9). Some early Christian sectarian movements (such as Montanism and Manicheanism) held the view that sexuality in general is something that is unclean and evil, while virginity is the only proper state for Christians. The Orthodox tradition opposed this distortion of Christian asceticism and morality very strongly.
In the Orthodox Church, there is no understanding of sexual union as something unclean or unholy. This becomes clear when one reads the following prayers from the Orthodox rite of Marriage:
‘Bless their marriage, and vouchsafe unto these Thy servants… chastity, mutual love in the bond of peace… Preserve their bed unassailed… Cause their marriage to be honorable. Preserve their bed blameless. Mercifully grant that they may live together in purity…’
Sexual life is therefore considered compatible with ‘purity’ and ‘chastity’, the latter being, of course, not an abstinence from intercourse but rather a sexual life that is liberated from what became its characteristic after the fall of Adam. As Paul Evdokimov says,
‘in harmonious unions… sexuality undergoes a progressive spiritualization in order to reach conjugal chastity’.
The mutual love of man and woman in marriage becomes less and less dependent on sexual life and develops into a deep unity and union which integrates the whole of the human person: the two must become not only ‘one flesh’, but also one soul and one spirit. In Christian marriage, it is not selfish ‘pleasure’ or search for ‘fun’ which is the main driving force: it is rather a quest for mutual sacrifice, for readiness to take the partner’s cross as one’s own, to share one’s whole life with one’s partner. The ultimate goal of marriage is the same as that of every other sacrament, deification of the human nature and union with Christ. This becomes possible only when marriage itself is transfigured and deified.
In marriage, the human person is transfigured; he overcomes his loneliness and egocentricism; his personality is completed and perfected. In this light Fr Alexander Elchaninov, a notable contemporary Orthodox priest and theologian, describes marriage in terms of ‘initiation’ and ‘mystery’, in which
‘a full transformation of the human person’ takes place, ‘the enlargement of his personality, new eyes, new perception of life, birth into the world, by means of it, in new fullness’.
In the marital union of two individuals there is both the completion of their personalities and the appearance of the fruit of their love, a child, who makes their dyad into a triad:
‘…An integral knowledge of another person is possible in marriage, a miracle of sensation, intimacy, of the vision of another person… Before marriage, the human person glides above life, seeing it from outside. Only in marriage is he fully immersed into it, and enters it through another person. This enjoyment of true knowledge and true life gives us that feeling of complete fulness and satisfaction which renders us richer and wiser. And this fulness is even deepened when out of the two of us, united and reconciled, a third appears, our child’.
Christ is the One Who is present at every Christian marriage and Who conducts the marriage ceremony in the Church: the priest’s role is not even to represent, but rather to present Christ and to reveal His presence, as it is also in other sacraments. The story of the wedding in Cana of Galilee is read at the Christian wedding ceremony in order to show that marriage is the miracle of the transformation of water into wine, that is, of daily routine into an unceasing and everyday feast, a perpetual celebration of the love of one person for the other.
This article ignores that in the thought of many Fathers, and that of contemporary Orthodox theologians, the primary aspect of the marital union is indeed procreation.
Fr. John Breck:
“This very disagreement over the issue of contraception testifies to the fact that within Orthodoxy procreation is understood to be the primary aim of and justification for sexual activity. The unitive aspect of sexual love, therefore, is a blessed and joyful corollary to procreation. It is a gift for which we can rejoice and give thanks. It is so, however, only inasmuch as it derives from the more fundamental purpose of Christian marriage, which is to participate directly in God’s creative work through the bearing and raising of children.”
Fr. John A. Peck says
You are, like many, missing the entire point of Fr Breck’s statement – the primary aim of sexual activity must be procreation. He’s not talking about marriage in that excerpt. When he does mention marriage, almost as an aside, he mentions procreation has ‘the more fundamental purpose’ compared to deviant aims and justifications for sexual activity. Certainly you can see that though procreation is a ‘more fundamental purpose’ to sexual activity than others, the fundamental purpose of marriage is, and always has been, salvation. That’s why it is Holy Mystery within the Church, and not just the blessing of procreative activity.
Fr. John thank you for setting the record straight. Apologies to any other readers for my incorrect opinion. I have a lot to learn.