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Marriage. Marriage is what brings us together today. Marriage, that blessed arrangement: that dream within a dream….and love, true love will follow you forever….
These words of wisdom were spoken by The Impressive Clergyman in the movie The Princess Bride and they are a good way to introduce today’s topic.
So what do you think? Is marriage just a sentimental notion of true love and dreams come true? Do people still live happily ever after…or did they ever? What should we even expect when it comes to marriage? If over 50% of marriages end in divorce anyhow, why should we even bother getting married in the first place? In our modern times, is it even realistic to expect to be with the same partner for life?
Although it is surely not as popular as it once was, marriage continues to be a valued institution in North America and is still more prevalent than common-law relationships. However, the trend over the past decade has been a gradual decrease in marriages and an increase in single-parent homes and common-law relationships. At least, this is what is happening in my home country of Canada. According to the 2011 national census, the number of married couples in Canada only rose by 3.1% between 2006 and 2011, whereas the number of common-law couples rose by 16.7% and the number of single parent homes rose by 16.3% within the same 5 year period. As of 2011, only 63.6% of children aged 14 and under lived with married parents. In 2001 the percentage was 68.4.
In light of these statistics, I want to now turn our focus to marriage as a sacrament in the Orthodox Christian Church. To begin, I want to read you Matthew 19, verses 4 to 6, which shows us what Jesus Christ taught about marriage:
Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.
St. Paul teaches us in Ephesians 5: 28-31 that marriage is a reflection of the relationship between Christ and his bride, the Church. Christ, the faithful bridegroom laid down his life for his bride. Christian marriage is a living image of this relationship. He writes:
…husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
Here Christ and Paul are both alluding to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis chapter 2, which tells us how God created mankind. The Bible reveals that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit: an eternal communion, “one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity.” And it is this eternal, undivided God-in-three-persons who created humanity in His own image and likeness. First He made a man and then out of the rib of the man he formed a woman, the man’s perfect mate and counterpart. The two were made of the same flesh, yet they were two persons; they were co-equal, yet unique in gender.
When Adam and Eve desired to be independent of God, they ceased to be all that God had made them to be and the image of God in them was darkened. The communion with God, which created and sustained them was interrupted. The world became distorted. Knowledge of good and evil did not enlighten them. Independence did not free them.
Outside of the garden, Adam and Eve had to struggle to get by and to live with the tarnished image they now bore. However, they still had a creative mandate from God to “be fruitful and multiply” and to be stewards of His creation.
This is where the teachings of the Orthodox Church come in. Every teaching is meant to restore the darkened image of God in us to its intended glory and to bring us back into full communion with God.
First of all, Orthodox Christianity teaches that marriage was created and designed by God and is a mystery, otherwise known as a sacrament, through which a man and a woman become “one flesh.” Through this communion, which reflects the image of the Triune God, human beings procreate in order to populate the earth, in cooperation with the creator.
Marriage is a picture of unity and love, reconciliation and co-operation and it can be redemptive, if we seek Christ in it. It is not an end, rather it has been given to us as one way to work out our salvation. Not everyone will be called to marriage, so the decision to do so should be made very carefully. However those who are married must remember that it is indeed a calling and its purpose is for the image of God to be manifested more in us.
In the Orthodox wedding service, the bride and groom have crowns placed upon their heads. These crowns have several symbolic meanings. First of all, they are like the crowns of athletes. In ancient times crowns were given instead of gold medals in athletic competitions. St. Paul compared our life in Christ to an athlete running a race to receive a crown, although the crown we receive for perseverance in faith is eternal. Secondly the crowns symbolize that the husband and wife are now the king and queen of their own little kingdom within God’s kingdom, which is their family. Thirdly the crowns are associated with martyrdom and the calling of the husband and wife to die to their own selfish motives and instead to love and serve one another. Just as martyrs offer their lives to God, a husband and wife should love each other sacrificially.
What motivates anyone to get married these days? Is our culture just too jaded to believe nothing can stop true love – not even being mostly dead all day? I don’t think so. I think something deep within us keeps hoping for an unseen ideal, longing for happily ever after. I believe this is because God created us this way and he created marriage to be holy and good. I also believe that if we look to God, the source of life and love, we will find the motivation and the strength to form healthy marriages which last into eternity. It won’t always be like riding off into the sunset, of course. Sometimes you may find yourselves in a fire swamp being chased by a rodent of unusual size. But marriage, by its very nature will always be blessed by God. Whether It feels like a marathon, a martyrdom or a monarchy, marriage crowns us with glory and honour.
I’ll end with a quote from the Royal Martyr Empress Alexandra Fedorovna:
When the beauty of the face fades, the shining of the eyes dims, and with age come wrinkles, or when illnesses, sorrows, and cares leave their traces and scars, the love of a faithful husband should remain just as deep and sincere as before. There are no measurements on earth that are capable of measuring the depth of Christ’s love for His Church, and not a single mortal can love with the same depth of feeling, but nevertheless each husband must do it to the extent that such love can be recreated on earth. No sacrifice will appear too great to him for the sake of his beloved.
Sure, that sounds a little bit like a fairy tale, but it’s one that rings true. True Love is God’s love and you could not ask for a more noble cause than that.