Marriage is holy; it is blessed by God. It can bring a man and a woman tremendous satisfaction and fulfillment, but it is anything but easy. If we were to take a poll of those who enter into the monastic life and ask them what their number one reason for becoming a monastic was, we would hear the majority say it had something to do with SALVATION and HARD WORK! If we were to take the same poll of people getting married, my hunch is that the answer would be quite different. Most people get married because they are “in love” and they want to be happy. Most Americans, if they are honest, when deciding who to marry ask themselves how this woman or that man is going to make them happy. Whether in their mind or on paper, they have their “wish list,” not describing who they should be, but rather, who their prospective spouse should be. The prevailing attitude can best be described by the question: “What’s in it for me?”
Very few Americans look at marriage in the following way (imagine the following as a Want Ad or a Job Description): “Wanted! A man who is willing to cut his will and be obedient to his wife. He must be willing to deny Himself and put her first. He must be willing to exercise self-control, purify his passions, and learn how to become selfless, humble, and a servant in imitation of Christ–even unto suffering and death. Remember, at the top of modern man’s list is personal happiness. These are not the characteristics of relationship that are going to make today’s American top ten list when it comes to how we perceive marriage. People often enter into marriage with selfish motives and a very shallow and distorted understanding of love. The kind of love that sustains marriage is not based on feelings; rather, it is based on a person’s free will–his/her lifelong commitment. People don’t fall in and out of love as much as they fall in and out of commitment; they fall in and out of repentance. Remember the famous words of St. Paul in 1Corinthians 15: “love never fails.”
This is why the current picture of marriage is not so bright. Somewhere between 40 and 50% of marriages are still ending in divorce. In the United States, over the past 40 years, there have been a decline in the number of marriages by 50%, with only slightly more than half of the adults in the US married today. At the same time, the percentage of unmarried cohabitation is rapidly increasing, and even how we understand marriage between a man and a woman is being redefined. Only slightly over 60% of married couples today claim that their marriages are going well, and only 63% of American children are growing up with both biological parents. We live in this society, and it has an effect on us. Although we are called to be in the world and not of the world, in reality, this is difficult. If marriage is under attack, and it is, then we are vulnerable to the negative effects this can have on us and our children.
The only we can combat this attack of the evil one on marriage is to educate ourselves about the true purpose of this holy mystery. With the right understanding of marriage, we can then reorient ourselves (repent) and become better stewards of this tremendous gift and opportunity. If we, who are married, avail ourselves of the grace of God and, by this grace, imitate Christ and the Church, we will see the transformative, healing and sanctifying power of God in our own lives and as a couple. Marriage is meant to change us–to aid us along our journey from image to likeness. If we mutually submit ourselves to Christ and to each other as to Christ, as St. John Chrysostom says, “he Himself will come in to our relationship, and where Christ goes, the angels will follow. If we so desire, Christ will work for us an even greater miracle than He worked in Cana: that is, He will transform the water of our unstable passions into the wine of spiritual unity.” In the book Marriage as a Path to Holiness, the authors, David and Mary Ford, say “many have noted that the changing of the water into wine is a fitting symbol for Christian marriage: taking something good–natural human marriage–and transforming it, through God’s grace, into something better–a foretaste and mystery of the Heavenly Kingdom. Also, the saving of the best wine for last is an appropriate theme for a good marriage: as the years pass and husband and wife grow closer and closer together [and to Christ], the wine of their love gets better and better.”
This transformation, however, does not happen automatically or accidentally; it must be an intentional choice, and this continuous choosing, my dear brothers and sisters, is an ongoing martyrdom. Godly love, agape, is not limited to human feelings but is founded upon our free will, our commitment. We know that our Lord taught “for whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Mt.16:25). This refers to the death of the old, sinful nature that is drowned in the waters of baptism. Our obedience to Christ and His commandments and our participation in the holy Mysteries, like the sacrament of marriage, enables our new nature in Christ to thrive and brings us into union with Christ.
The grace of God operates within us, but it is also our responsibility to cooperate with this grace. Remember the words of our Lord: “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Mt.11:12). For this reason, it is our duty to make an enormous effort of our free will, to labor and to battle, in order to conquer and seize the kingdom of God and take possession of it. His Eminence Metropolitan Simeon Kostadinov of the Bulgarian Church explains that “the kingdom of God is divine grace, which is like a divine seed, but in order to make that seed grow and yield fruit, or to make that grace reveal its wonderful acts, we are called to abide resolutely and unflinchingly by God’s commandments, to engage in a fierce struggle against the passions, and to walk a narrow and arduous road– such as was followed by the Apostles, the Martyrs and all the Saints.” Remember the words of Scripture: “narrow is the gate and difficult is the way that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Mt.7:14). “We must through many tribulations, enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
Along these same lines, reverence for Christ must be for us the foundation of a holy Marriage “everything in marriage must be done ‘in Christ’, with the purpose of bringing the couple closer to Christ and to each other in truly Christian agape. Such love does not seek its own, but the welfare of the other” (Marriage as a Path to Holiness). Starets Makarios advises: “humble yourself, not your spouse. Love your spouse, not yourself.” St. John Chrysostom teaches that there is a link between unity in marriage and mutual love. He says “The lover and the beloved should no longer be two persons divided, but in a manner one unit, one flesh, something which can never happen except from love. Therefore, seek not your own, that you may find your own.” Ultimately, “reverence for Christ” means daily giving up our life in self-sacrifice and service for our spouse. It means cutting our will for the good of the other. Marriage provides the husband and wife daily opportunities to mortify the passions and cultivate the virtues, thereby fulfilling the commandments. Moment by moment, day by day, and year by year, as we abide in Christ and see Christ in our spouse, God transforms us and a healing takes place. The passions are transfigured and the husband and wife take on the characteristics of Christ.
Marriage is only truly effective unto salvation when it is a actualized through the power of the Cross. Marriage, like monasticism, is the way of the Cross, that is the way of self-sacrifice, obedience, humility, and patience. Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain has some wonderful insights into these nitty gritty ingredients of married martyrdom:
With regard to self-sacrifice, the Elder says, “Love must be found in spiritual nobility, in sacrifice. If there is love there is sacrifice. One will always arrive at the standpoint of the other, understand the other, have compassion for the other. And when we take our neighbor into our suffering heart, then we take Christ Himself into our heart, and He fills us with His ineffable exultation.This is why spouses must always strive to preserve their love throughout their life; they should sacrifice themselves for each other.”
In talking about obedience, he says, “through obedience, a spouse is constantly gathering, storing up Divine Grace. The secret to obedience is humility–its foundation.”
So he next offers us some pearls regarding humility:
“In the family, one person must be humble before the other; one must imitate the other’s virtues and also be patient and endure the other’s peculiar idiosyncrasies. To make this possible, it helps to think of how Christ sacrificed Himself for our sins and that He bears with us all, even though He is without sin. God, in His goodness, has arranged things perfectly, so that with our gifts, we can help each other, and with our faults, we can be humbled by each other.”
With regard to Patience, Elder Paisios says, “God has hung the salvation of man on the hook of patience. Patience stems from love. In order to endure the other person, you must feel deep compassion and pain for him. A family is saved with patience.”
My dear brothers and sisters, as we can see from the teachings of Elder Paisios, the way of the Cross is absolutely central to the Christian life and therefore to the mystery of marriage. This is why we remember the Empress Helen and her finding of the cross in the Marriage Service. By this reference, the Church is reminding married couples that by placing the Cross of Christ at the center of their marriage, this ongoing sacrament of love will be for them a fountain of healing, transformation and great spiritual joy.
In conclusion, I want us to think about why God has gifted us with this priceless and holy sacrament of marriage. It is the WHY that determines the how and the what in our lives. We know the normal answers of procreation and the continuance of the human race. We know that marriage is an intimacy of community, where two strive to become one flesh and help each other through life in a complimentary manner. But marriage, as a holy Mystery, is more than these. It ushers us into life in the Kingdom. It becomes our primary means in which we purify our hearts, which are illumined with God’s grace and experience union with God. And union with God is salvation. Everything necessary for our salvation can be found in our marriage and family. The only problem is that we all too often get married for the wrong reason. Christ has called us to seek the narrow way, not the wide highway that leads to destruction. We know that the majority of the members of the Orthodox Church are married, but I want to challenge you to think of marriage as the narrow path, that is not easy to find and must be intentionally sought. The WHY for us in marriage should not be so different from those who are entering the monastery. After all, the demands of the Gospel are the same. If we love our children and if we love our neighbor, the best thing we can do for them is work out our salvation through our marriage and model for them what life in the Kingdom looks like. Remember, marriage should be producing Saints, and the witness of the Saints is what our children and the world needs most. If we are married or called to marriage, there is no better preparation available to us than our marriages to witness to Christ and to prepare for whatever decisive moment awaits us. Marriage is indeed a blessed martyrdom, but like all martyrdoms, it is only possible in Christ, through Christ, and because of Christ–and therefore it is a great gift and an “ordeal” of true joy. “O Lord, our God, crown them with glory and honor!” – Fr Theodore