Marriage, Not Monasticism, is the Mystical Image of the Church

Sts Joachim & Anna

While it is true that monastic piety and asceticism has dominated the Orthodox spiritual life for many centuries, setting standards and norms for all the faithful in terms of prayer, fasting, confession and the liturgical life, it is interesting that St. Paul the Apostle upholds marriage, not monasticism as the mystical image of the Church.   St. Paul in his epistle to the Ephesians first quotes Genesis 2:24 to which he gives it a Christological meaning.

“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 mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church…  (Ephesians 5:32-33)

Genesis 2:24 read literally in its context makes perfect sense in giving a divine meaning to the marriage of one man and one woman. A man grows up and leaves his parents home and takes a woman to be his wife in fulfillment of God’s plan for humanity.   Despite this apparently plain meaning of the text, St. Paul reads the text as having  a much more profound meaning when it is read as a prophecy fulfilled by Jesus Christ.  His comment comes almost unexpectedly as he is talking about Christian marriage and how it should reflect Christ’s own love for and authority in the Church.   The Christian husband is to love his wife in the same way that Christ loved the Church.   Here St. Paul is imbuing a Christ-like love on Christian marriage and how the husband is to reflect that self sacrificial love which Christ had for the Church. Here are St. Paul’s words and the context in which he makes his Christocentric interpretation of the Genesis text:

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.  “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 mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.   (Ephesians 5:21-33)

In the writings of certain Patristic authors and in numerous Orthodox liturgical hymns, there is mention of the idea that just as Eve is taken from the side of Adam, so too the Church emerges from the pierced side of Christ, the new Adam, as he sleeps on the cross.  Even in the original iconographic tradition of the Church Christ is portrayed on the cross not in twisted agony, but at rest, as Adam was when God took Eve from his side.

St. Paul sees the reference to marriage in Genesis 2:24 as mystically speaking about Christ and the Church.   Christ became one flesh with humanity in the incarnation, uniting divinity to humanity.  Marriage as a divine and sanctifying institution is a mystical image of the Church.   It is an image not found in monasticism, where the ‘mono’ alone pursues what is needed for salvation.

So while many Orthodox today look to monasticism as an ideal of the Christian life, it is marriage which is the mystical image of the Church according to St. Paul.    In our marriages husbands can love their wives as Christ loved the Church.  In marriage husbands can incarnate not carnal love, but God’s love for humanity.   Marriage has that ability to transform natural human love into the image of Christ’s love for the Church.  Christian husbands can practice that self-denying love which took Christ to the cross where in co-suffering love he gave his life for the Church.   It is a mystery this divine love. Husbands in obedience to Christ, love their wives as Christ loved the Church.  Christian wives in obedience to Christ subject themselves to their husband’s Christ-like love.  Both husband and wife are thus to be be subject both to Christ and to one another (Ephesians 5:21).   St. Paul says this is a mystery, which to this day is how Orthodoxy understands true marriage.

St Gregory Palamas (d. 1359) writes:

“The love associated with the married state seems somehow superior to other forms of love.  ‘For this cause’, it says, ‘shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh’ (Matt 19:5).  “This is a great mystery’, says the divine Paul, ‘but I speak concerning Christ and the church’ (Eph 5:32).”  (THE HOMILIES, p 464)

Palamas thought the love associated with the married state is a superior form of love.  It is the love and the state that every married Orthodox ought to be striving for.