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An Orthodox Handbook

by Fr. Anthony Alevizopoulos


Chapter 21 - The Gift of Marriage

1. The communion of man and woman

«And God made humankind; according to divine image He made it; male and female He made them» (Gen.1:27)

The image of God - mankind - was created from the beginning as a pair: as a man and a woman.  Just as the Triadic God is not a unit, thus mankind was likewise not created as a unit. «Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning made them male and female?» as Matthew the Evangelist repeats (Matt.19:4; cmp Gen.1:27).

In other words, the dogma of the Holy Trinity - which is expressed by the "oneness" of essence and the "threeness" of hypostases - constitutes a basic truth which also expresses the reality of mankind. This immense and unique reality (the Holy Trinity) constitutes the basis of our lives and the foundation of our salvation.

This is how we can explain - without any hesitation - this Old Testament verse and underline that man was created "in the image of" the Trinitarian God, both in regard to man's nature as well as the fact of man's "oneness" with other people. This is the reason man was created from the beginning as a couple - as man and woman.

The Holy Bible makes very frequent references to the mystery of marriage.  In the Book of Proverbs we read that «Fathers distribute house and substance to their children, but a woman is joined to a man by God.» (Proverbs 19:14); the Prophet Malachi underlines that God Himself is the guarantor and witness of the marital bond (Malachi 2:14) - the common Creator of man and woman.

The same Prophet opposes the perception of his era, where the sole purpose of marriage was believed to be the acquisition of children (cmp.Wisdom of Solomon 4:1-6 and Wisdom of Sirah 16:1-4) and that consequently, divorce was permitted after the fulfillment of this purpose.  The Prophet implies that the essence of this Mystery is found in the actuation of a common life, in the preservation and the cultivation of the unbreakable bond between spouses, who are rendered "one spirit and one body" (Malachi 2:15, Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:5, Mark 10:8). It thus becomes obvious why God "abhors separation", that is, divorce, which deconstructs the primary purpose of the Mystery (Malachi 2:16).

The same meaning must also be ascribed to the following words of the Holy Bible: «But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.» (Matth.5:32 and 19:9; Luke 16:18). «... but fornicators and adulterers God will judge.» (Hebrews 13:4).

On the basis of the above we can also say that man's destination is to become "in the likeness of" his Creator - that is, to live a life of complete love with his fellow-man, in accordance with the divine model - in accordance with the Trinitarian God's kind of love. In other words, this destination is not unrelated to the communion of the two sexes of the one mankind.


2. Communoin of love

It is obvious, that communion between man and woman will not correspond to human nature, if it is attempted outside of God's love, which is the cause and the source of unity and love in the world.

For as long as Adam remained within God's love, he regarded his wife Eve as a part of himself (Genesis 2:23-24). But with his act of disobedience - when he ceased to love God - that is when he looked upon his wife as a foreign individual; and it was also the reason he placed all the responsibility of that disobedience upon her (Genesis 3:12).

The differentiation in mankind (as man and woman) and the marriage union are both a benefit that God has provided for mankind and evidence of His tender care, which - after man's fall - has become the prerequisite for one's hope for Salvation that was promised to him by God. Because from the very first moment of man's fall, God promised him rectification; He did not abandon man, leaving him to wander through life without hope. (Gen.3:15) It was the Incarnation of Christ, Who "vacated" Himself to become a man in the flesh, and Who did not hesitate to go as far as the ultimate sacrifice on the Cross for the sake of His beloved people (Philip.2:7).

How could fallen man possibly comprehend such a gesture of God's love?  How could he possibly grasp the divine will of that God of love Who entered upon a personal relationship with man?  Man therefore needed to have a specific foretoken of that perfect union of God with man, in the Person of the God-Man Christ: the union of divine nature with human nature.  And that foretoken - that foreshadowing - that heralding of man's redemption with the Incarnation of Christ - is the union of Marriage between a man and a woman.

Thus, the love of God is what constitutes the very starting point of marriage, and at the same time the purpose of marriage. In other words, marriage constitutes a communion of love.


3. In Christ, and in the Church

It is characteristic that, when the Holy Bible speaks of marriage it makes reference to the marriage of Christ to His Bride - the Church - and simultaneously to the marriage of a man to a woman, whose marriage it always relates to the bond between Christ and the Church.

«For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So 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.” This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church.» (Ephesians 5:23-32).

The model therefore of spouses and of the conjugal bond is Christ and His bond with the Church. This is the manner that the natural bond between man and woman becomes a "great mystery".  One surpasses oneself, ceases to live selfishly, with one's own person as the centre.  Instead, one transcends division and rediscovers the true self, in the unity and the love within marriage.  "Man and woman, who thought they were two from the beginning...", says Saint John the Chrysostom, "...observe now, how He has re-attached them and once again brings them together into one, through marriage".

In this manner, mankind returns to the unity of man and woman, which will be fulfilled in the Kingdom of God, where there shall no loger be "male and female", but all shall be "in one: Christ Jesus" (Gal.3"28), "as are the angels in heaven" (Matth.22:30, Mark 12:25, Luke 20:35). This is the reality that a Christian person has a foretaste of, within the mystery of the Divine Eucharist, where everyone is united into the one body of Christ and His Church.


4. The Eucharistic context of the divine mystery

As mentioned, the divine Liturgy is a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven and the final uniting of God's people.  It is in this light that we can comprehend why the Christian marriage was linked to the Divine Eucharist in the ancient Church: because the Divine Eucharist was the main feature of the holy mystery. Christ attended the Wedding at Canaa and symbolized this correlation by means of a miracle:  the transformation of water to wine. With this act, Christ not only admitted the overall rejoicing of the marriage; He not only blessed the entire reality of marriage, but simultaneously also symbolized the Divine Eucharist itself, that is, the transformation of the wine into His Blood and the bread (of the wedding feast) into His Body, and the assumption and metamorphosis of that marital bond into the Body of the Church, which is also His Body.

«When the husband and wife are joined together through marriage», says Saint John the Chrysostom, «they no longer appear as something terrestrial, but as an image of God Himself». In another excerpt he characterizes the Christian marriage as a «miniature Church».

Within the Christian marriage, man is called upon to live an "in Christ communion", that is, "concerning Christ, and the Church" (Ephes.5:32). Within a Christian marriage, Christ is also present with the Christian spouses, in accordance with His promise that He will be present wherever two people are gathered in His name (Matth. 18:20).

According to the aforementioned, we can understand why a Father of the Church refers to marriage as a "house of God" and why a contemporary theologian proclaims that in a Christian marriage, three persons are being married: "the husband and the wife to each other, and they with Christ".  In other words, it is a marriage that takes place "in the Lord" (1 Cor.7:39).


5. Marriage outside the Church

From all the above, it becomes clearly evident that there is a huge difference between the carnal union of two people outside the Church and the union in the sacred mystery of marriage. The conjugal bond outside the Church relates to laws of nature - and in fact, of nature in its fallen and corrupted state.

The same applies, even when we relate the meaning of marriage to societal purposes or when we refer to a demographic problem.  In all of these cases, marriage does not manage to transcend the reality of death. That is the reason it cannot possibly become acceptable as a sacred mystery in these cases.

On the contrary, the Christian marriage - which is blessed by God and is assumed into the Church - has, as its primary meaning and its final purpose the fullness of conjugal love, the fullness of that unity which does not end with death, but enters into eternity.

«For those of you who act carnally, these are all spiritual things, for in Jesus Christ you are doing everything» says Saint Ignatius the God-bearer, thus characterizing the overall reality of the conjugal bond which has been assumed into the Church as a spiritual one, even that very carnal union.


6. The example of Tobias

When the conjugal bond is blessed by God it then enters into the environment of God's love and thereafter acquires a unique, eternal meaning.

In the Old Testament we find a beautiful picture - a wonderful depiction of this fact. It is the marriage of Tobias with Sarah, in the city of Ecbatana of Media. 

According to the Old Testament, Sarra - the daughter of Raguel and Edna (relatives of Tobit, Tobias' father) - had been married seven times. Except that an evil demon had consecutively caused the death of all seven husbands during each one's wedding night - that is, before the consummation of the conjugal bond.  The Book of Tobit describes Tobias' marriage:

«Then Ragouel called Sarra his daughter. And she came to him. Then taking her hand, he gave her over to him and said, “Take her according to the law, and, according to the decree written in the book of Moyses, she is your wife. Take her, and lead her away in good  health to your father. And may the God of heaven prosper you both with peace.” Then he called her mother and told her to bring a scroll, and he wrote out a contract, a scroll of marriage, that he gave her to him as wife according to the decree of the law of Moyses. After that they began to eat and to drink.  Then Ragouel called Edna his wife and said to her, “My sister, prepare the other room, and lead her in there.” So she went and made the bed in the room as he had told her, and she led her there. And she wept for her. Then she wiped away the tears and said to her, “Take courage, my daughter; may the Lord of heaven grant you joy in place of your sorrow. Take courage, my daughter.” Then she went out. When they had finished eating and drinking, they wanted to go to sleep; so they led the young man out and led him into the room. Then Tobias remembered the words of Raphael, and he took the fish’s liver and heart out of the bag where he had them and put them on the embers of the incense. And the odor of the fish became a hindrance, and the demon fled into the upper parts of Egypt. But Raphael went and bound him there hand and foot and tied him up at once. Then they went out and shut the door of the room. And Tobias got up from the bed and said to her, “Sister, get up, let us pray and implore our  Lord that he grant us mercy and safety.” So she got up, and they began to pray and implore that safety may be theirs. And he began to say, “Blessed are you, O God of our ancestors, and blessed be your name for all the ages forever. Let the heavens and all your creation bless you for all the ages. You made Adam, and you made for him a helper, a support—his wife Heva. And from the two of them the human race has come. And you said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone; let us make for him a helper like himself.’ And now not because of lust am I taking this kinswoman of mine, but with sincerity. Grant that I and she may have mercy and that we may grow old together.” And they said with each other, “Amen, Amen.” Then they went to sleep for the night. But Ragouel got up and called his servants to him, and they went and dug a grave, for he said, “Perhaps he may die, and we may become an object of ridicule and derision.” And when they had finished digging the grave, Ragouel went into the house and called his wife, and he said, “Send one of the maids, and have her go in to see if he is alive. But if he is dead, let us bury him so that no one may know.” So they sent the maid and lit the lamp and opened the door, and she went in and found them lying there fast asleep together. And the maid went out and told them that he was alive and that nothing was wrong. So they blessed the God of heaven, and they said, “Blessed are you, O God, with every pure blessing,  and may they bless you forever and ever. And blessed are you because you have made me glad, and it did not turn out as I expected, but according to your great mercy you have dealt with us. And blessed are you because you had mercy on two only children. Have mercy on them, O Master, and keep them safe, and bring their life to fulfillment with gladness and mercy.” Then he told his domestics to fill in the grave before it became dawn. And he told his wife to make many loaves of bread, and he went out to the herd and brought two steers and four rams and commanded that they be killed. So they began to make preparations.Then he called Tobias and swore an oath to him and said: “For fourteen days you shall not move from here but shall stay here eating and drinking with me, and you shall make my daughter’s spirit glad which has been depressed.»  (Tobit 7:12 to 8:20).

Sarra had been married seven times. However, her seven first husbands had obviously not placed their conjugal bond in the spiritual space of the mercy and love of God, Who transforms and animates everything in a person's life. Thus, they were all led to the grave and their bonds to death. They were under the control of the wicked spirit, which sowed death from the very first night of their conjugal life, before the communion between the spouses could be consummated, even at a purely carnal level. 

However, Tobias' marriage had from the beginning been placed in a different spiritual space.  Sarra's parents and the young husband also had hinged the fulfillment of the purpose of marriage on the mercy and the love of God.  Tobias sees as the basic purpose of his marriage to Sarra the communion of love (Grant that I and she may have mercy and that we may grow old together.") and the glorification of God's name.  And the young wife subscribes to that deep desire of her husband, with her own "Amen".   This was the reason the wicked spirit had no longer any place in that young maiden.

Full of gratitude, Ragouel glorifies God, he entrusts the young couple to His love and beseeches Him to complete their lives in good health and joy and mercy, and instructs his servants to cover up the opened grave and celebrates the joyous events for two whole weeks.


7. The purpose of marriage

This continuous course towards the fullness of love is the primary purpose of marriage. A fullness that can exist even between childless couples (cmp.Wisd.Solom. 4:1-6, Wisd.Sirach 16:1-5).

However, the existence of children adds to the Christian marriage a new element: parenthood, which is the overflowing of the love between the two spouses, which will embrace new presences, for which the two spouses are ready to offer everything.  In this way, man succeeds in transcending himself to a greater degree, and give himself completely in his love towards the new arrival (cmp.1 Cor.11:8-12, Ephes.5:20-21) and to also prepare himself for that fullness of love which he is called upon to experience eternally.

This sacred purpose of marriage - that is, the transcending of one's self and the fullness of love which begins with conjugal love and is fulfilled in the Kingdom of Heaven - can be observed in the entire Sacred Mystery of marriage, which is replete with symbolisms.

The exchange of rings - which denotes reciprocation and interdependence; the common chalice - which denotes the complete communing of life that is fulfilled during the common partaking in the Divine Eucharist - in the "communion of souls and bodies" under the protective love of God.

«And you, bride», says the Priest at the end of the sacred Liturgy, «may you be magnified like Sarra and delight like Rachel, rejoicing with her own man, guarding the conditions of the law, for God has thus willed» (cmp. Deuter.24:5; Prov.5:18-19).

It is obvious that the purpose of marriage is not accomplished through the attempts of the spouses alone. Its fulfillment is a gift of God. The Holy Spirit, Who acts within the Church and distributes the gifts to the faithful, gives the Christian spouses the gift of marriage (1 Cor.7:7). That is why the Christian marriage is also a sacred mystery.

But as it has become apparent, the Christian marriage is not a private matter of the Christian spouses. The reason is that not only does their place within the corpus of the Church change, and especially within the parish that the newlyweds belong; because, in the parish they are no longer two separate individuals - they are called to live the fullness of conjugal love "in the Lord" and they must express that bond during their entire life within the parish also.  Behold why the Christian marriage constitutes an event in the life of a parish and should be performed within that same parish, and not away from the parish!


8. The wedding wreaths

It characteristic, how the sacred mystery of marriage is referred to "coronation" in the Orthodox Church.

We know that victory wreaths belong to the martyrs and the Saints of the Church. This is the reason that halos are depicted in the icons that portray Saints. Our Church however also "crowns" the newlyweds during the sacred ceremony of marriage. Just as a martyr of the faith struggles to the end victoriously and is crowned a victor, thus also are the newlyweds crowned when they enter into the sacred bond of marriage with purity and chastity. They enter into a new arena of struggles - in the spiritual arena of the martyrs of our Church. That is why - during their steps around the small table before them, holding hands and accompanied by the Priest - our Church invokes Holy Martyrs:

«The Holy Martyrs», the laity chants solemnly, «who have struggled well and were crowned», and «glory to Thee, Christ the Lord....the jubilation of Martyrs… !».

The Church crowns the newlyweds and proceeds to an even more touching act:  She prays that God will "take over their marriage wreaths" into His Kingdom, "preserving them spotless and undefiled, and unthreatened, unto the ages of ages" and to crown the couple "with glory and honour".

«O God - our Lord God - Who were present at the Wedding at Canaa and Who blessed the marriage there, bless these, Your servants also, who are being joined in the union of matrimony by Your Providence.  Bless their enterings and their exits; fill their lives with good things; take over their marriage wreaths into Your Kingdom, preserving them spotless and undefiled and unthreatened, unto the ages of ages».


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Article published in English on: 11-8-2013.

Last update: 11-8-2013.