The Marriage Crown

Before the final blessing of the marriage, the priest prays that God will “take up their crowns.” This image is an encouragement for married couples to live in holiness and follow the ways of the martyrs and married saints to salvation. Salvation is a gift that is tried by many obstacles and temptations; yet, it is expressed as joyful life in the presence of God in his kingdom. This joy is not as fleeting or simple as temporary “happiness.” Rather, it contains within itself the fruits of labor and assists in the development of the unquenchable desire to serve the other in accordance with one’s natural inclination as a communal being.

Then secondly, the glory and the honor is that of the martyr’s crown. For the way to the kingdom is the martyria–bearing witness to Christ. And this means crucifixion and suffering. A marriage which does not constantly crucify its own selfishness and self-sufficiency, which does not “die to itself” that it may point beyond itself, is not a Christian marriage. The real sin of marriage today is not adultery or lack of “adjustment” or “mental cruelty.” It is the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God. (Schmemann, For the Life of the World)

Crowns become the reward for and sign of carrying the cross. Before marriage a specific cross is given to the individual, but now a new cross is given to the two united as one. This new cross requires cohesive work with the other in a way that is unique to the individual and is bearable only in services to Christ, through the spouse, by the Holy Spirit and in concordance with the Father. In this sacrificial love, martyrdom is made manifest. Again, in the words of Fr. Schmemann,

In a Christian marriage, in fact, three are married; and the united loyalty of the two toward the third, who is God, keeps the two in an active unity with each other as well as with God. Yet it is the presence of God which is the death of the marriage as something only “natural.” It is the cross of Christ that brings the self-sufficiency of nature to its end. But “by the cross joy [and not ‘happiness’!] entered the whole world.” Its presence is thus the real joy of marriage. It is the joyful certitude that the marriage vow, in the perspective of the eternal Kingdom, is not taken “until death parts,” but until death unites us completely.

(Bp. John Abdalah and Nicholas G. Mamey, Building an Orthodox Marriage, pp. 57-58)

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Mother of All the Living Ones

The man called his wife’s name Zoe (Life), because she was the mother of all the living.  (Genesis 3:20)

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As we in America honor our mothers today, we remember that it is through women that we come into the world.  Women have a unique role to play in the life of the world and are involved in God’s life-giving nature in a way that men cannot be.  Even the life-giving incarnation of God, required a woman for our salvation.  Males had no direct role in the incarnation itself, except to be in need of it for salvation.  So motherhood itself is a necessary part of the salvation of every human being.  Males cannot be saved without a woman, which is why all Christians should also honor, Mary, the Theotokos.  As St Elizabeth shows in her own praise of Mary as  “she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?   (Luke 1:42-43)   Elizabeth was overwhelmed that the Mother of the Lord should visit her.

30107253080_7ee0ce7d69_nHowever unique and great the role of motherhood is in the continuation of the human race and in the salvation of all humans, motherhood is not the only role women play in the life of the church.  The ability to give birth is a unique role for women, but not the only role for women in the Church.  Obviously the entire history of women monastics shows us that child birth is not essential for the salvation of women.  There are many women who are saints in our Church, who were never mothers, nor even tried to be.

Women, including mothers, have the same path to salvation as men: through holiness.  There are women Disciples of the Lord such as the Myrrhbearing Women.  There are women who are proclaimed Equal to the Apostles (such Photini the Samaritan Woman and Helen the mother of Constanine).  There are women who are titled Evangelizers   (such as Nina of Georgia  but also God chose women to serve as the first Evangelists – the Myrrhbearing Women carried the message to the male Apostles).   In the Church calendar of saints there are women martyrs, confessors, ascetics, women prophets, deacons, teachers, rulers and monastics.

So while motherhood is a unique role for women in God’s creation and in the Church, it is not the only role for women.  And few women are glorified as saints just for being mothers. The women saints of the Church are generally recognized for all the other roles they played in the life of the Church.

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Mothers like all women can know the Lord.  They can be saints and disciples because they can be imitators of Christ.  Mothers give us life, but they can also be examples of how to love and live for eternal life.   Giving birth is a natural thing, which may be why it is not always the way to holiness.  We are a pro-life Church, and we honor our mothers because they show the sanctity of life in their pregnancies, in giving birth and in their rearing of children.  Mothers reveal a unique relationship between themselves and the infants to whom they are giving life as well as to the life-givingness itself.   Mothers are the human element in the birthing process.   Mothers can be examples not only to their children, but to all women and men of how to follow Christ (Titus 2:3-4), to be His disciple, to experience His presence every day in the most mundane circumstances, in the most natural way.  Jesus in fact says everyone who does the will of God becomes His mother (Mark 3:33-34).  The holiness of motherhood lies in doing God’s will.    And the children of believing mothers are considered to be holy (1 Corinthians 7:14) based on the mother’s faith.

Be blessed like Rebekah

In giving birth to us, in giving life to us, our mothers make it possible for us to experience God, to be in God’s presence.  For this alone, we should thank and honor our mothers.

Vicious Gossip vs. The Vivifying Gospel

Jesus said:  A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  (John 13:34)

Anyone who has worked to love another, knows how much energy this requires.  It is easy for us to say that we love someone, but life shows us how much love can demand from us.  Spouses realize over a lifetime of marriage that love requires a great deal from them – demands things they never imagined would be required if you truly desire to love someone.  Parents bring their children into the world, and desire to love them, but again learn that love demands much of us in ways we cannot even imagine.   Just on a daily level, even when things are going well in our family, we realize that loving, forgiving, apologizing, overlooking faults, dealing with personalities drains a lot of energy, and yet this is what love requires.

Wrestling with love occurs in our lives as Christians as well.  Desiring to be a Christian while living in the world tests the limits of our love.  This was also the experience of monks who left everything to follow Christ.  It is easy to imagine that going to a monastery – where one naively believes “everyone is committed to Christ and Christ’s love just like I am” – will be the perfect world to work out one’s salvation.  But in the monastery too, love puts its demands on us – to deny ourselves in order to follow Christ.

The elders were keenly aware, from their own personal experience, of the high cost of fulfilling the commandment to love. Their reading of Scripture served to confirm this sense and to encourage them to risk loving even under extreme circumstances. It is startling, as we listen to the monks talk about the requirements of love, how literally they took the words of Scripture. Poemen’s interpretation of one Gospel text illustrates well the particular kind of demands love made upon the monks in their life in the desert, and how their reading of Scripture helped them to respond to these demands.

Abba Poemen saw the text, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13) as referring to just such a situation: “If someone hears an evil saying, that is, one which harms him, and in his turn, he wants to repeat it, he must fight in order not to say it. Or if someone is taken advantage of and he bears it, without retaliating at all, there he is giving his life for his neighbour.” Fulfilling the commandment, then, entailed having the courage to love in circumstances where one’s natural response would lead one in precisely the opposite direction.  (Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, pp. 264-265)

 

Reflection on the Christian Family

While in the Orthodox Tradition, the family is often considered to be “the little church” in which we live and practice our Orthodox Faith, the family as a social unit has not gotten the attention in our spiritual tradition that one can find for monks and nuns.

Be that as it may, most of us spend at least part of our lives in families and there we do have to consider how to be Christian.  In the modern age we see some attempts to write about the family from an Orthodox perspective, including trying to emphasize married saints of the Church.  This literature though gives witness to the dearth of writings on family in the mostly monastic spirituality of Orthodoxy.  Even in the New Testament, depending on what English translation you read, the word “family” only occurs 5-20 times, and even there gives almost no instruction on what Christian family might look like.

In addition to temptations from the evil one, Starets Macarius  [19th Century, Russian] gives several other important causes for family problems. To one correspondent he writes: ‘It is this growing indifference to His Word, and our consequent refusal to examine our hearts-where we could find both the peace He bequeathed us and the insight into our lack of love of Him and of our neighbor-which brings in its wake this punishment, this disruption of the home.’  He also says that this is due to our failure to see Christ in others. He reminds us that when we mistreat others, we are in a real sense mistreating Christ. So he tells us, ‘Remember that you are pupils of Christ-of Christ who teaches us to love not only our friends but even our enemies, and to …  forgive all who trespass against us. “But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses’”Matt. 6:15). What a frightful prospect!’

Along these same lines, he tells a correspondent that while it is good that she has a long prayer rule and often reads the Church Fathers, ‘remember that love of the neighbor is the first work you must strive for. And you do not even have to leave your house to find that neighbor: your husband is that neighbor; your mother is that neighbor; and so are your children.’ To another spiritual child, he says that the ‘poison’ in the family cannot be cast out of their home ‘unless you promptly cease condemning each other. You clearly think you are always in the right; she, of course thinks she is. You heap on her a multitude of grave or petty accusations. She does the same to you. Where will this all end?’  Then he points out that the chief things the husband accuses his wife are actually the same faults he has. The Elder concludes:

All this financial trouble between you comes of your having completely forgotten that yours is a Christian home, or should be. A home is a Christian one when all the members of the household bear each other’s burdens, and when each condemns only himself. You have forgotten this, both of you. And so every word of hers pieces you, like an arrow dipped in poison. And your words, likewise, pierce her.

Ponder the truth of Christian marriage: man and wife are one flesh! Does it not follow that they must share all their possessions? And yet you two haggle over this property! And why? Because of words!

Unless you promptly strive for and achieve a loving peace between you, it is hopeless to try to bring tidiness and fairness into your business dealings with one another. Humble yourself, not her. Love her, not yourself.”

 (David and Mary Ford, Marriage as a Path to Holiness, p. xlvi-xlvii).

Christian Marriage: A Sign of Christ’s Presence

“It is an adulteration of marriage for us to think that is is a road to happiness, as if it were a denial of the cross. The joy of marriage is for husband and wife to put their shoulders to the wheel and together go forward on the uphill road of life. “You haven’t suffered? Then you haven’t love,” says a certain poet. Only those who suffer can really love. And that’s why sadness is a necessary feature of marriage. “Marriage,” in the words of an ancient philosopher, “is a world made beautiful by hope and strengthened by misfortune.” Just as steel is fashioned in a furnace, just so is a person proved in marriage, in the fire of difficulties. When you see your marriage from a distance, everything seems wonderful. But when you get closer, you’ll see just how many difficult moments it has.

We often speak of seven “mysteries,” or sacraments. In this regard, a “mystery” is the sign of the mystical presence of some true person or event. An icon, for instance is a mystery. When we venerate it, we are not venerating wood or paint but Christ, or the Theotokos, or the saint who is mystically depicted. The Holy Cross is a symbol of Christ, containing his mystical presence. Marriage, too, is a mystery, a mystical presence not unlike these. Christ says, “wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am among them” (Mt 18.20). And whenever two people are married in the name of Christ, they become the sign which contains and expresses Christ himself. When you see a couple who are conscious of this, it is as if you are seeing Christ. Together they are a theophany.”   (Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra, The Church at Prayer, pp. 95-96, 98)

Love Another Language

 

fiddler-on-the-roofIn THE FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, the beleaguered family patriarch Tevye finds his thinking on marriage to be challenged in different ways by each of his daughters.  While the usual way of marriage for the villagers is an arranged marriage by the parents of the bride and the groom, Tevye is confronted with a new idea: people choosing to be married based on their love for one another.  Tevye asks his wife if she loves him.  She is struck by the question:  after 25 years of her raising their children, washing his clothes, cooking his meals, why would he even ask, isn’t it obvious?  An issue is raised, do we by our behavior speak love to our spouses in a way that they can understand and feel loved?

five-love-languagesI read Gary Chapman”s book, The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts, and found it an interesting read and a potential tool to help couples strengthen their marriages.  The book and the tools it offers help people gain self knowledge and also to gain understanding of others.  This can help people overcome stumbling blocks in their relationships.  Here are a few quotes from the book:

Our most basic emotional need is not to fall in love but to be genuinely loved by another, to know a love that grows out of reason and choice, not instinct. I need to be loved by someone who chooses to love me, who sees in me something worth loving.  (Kindle  Location 310-312)

Chapman argues that love is a form of language.  Humans have different love languages – some behaviors from family and friend make us feel more loved than other behaviors even if all the behaviors are shown to us in love.  If I am feeling like a failure, offering me cookies might be comforting, but praising me for deeds I’ve done might be the thing that makes me feel loved.

Forgiveness is not a feeling; it is a commitment. It is a choice to show mercy, not to hold the offense up against the offender. Forgiveness is an expression of love. “I love you. I care about you, and I choose to forgive you. Even though my feelings of hurt may linger, I will not allow what has happened to come between us. I hope that we can learn from this experience. You are not a failure because you have failed. You are my spouse, and together we will go on from here.” Those are the words of affirmation expressed in the dialect of kind words.  (Kindle  Location 463-467)

Forgiveness is central to our Christian lives.  Chapman reminds us that forgiving a loved one who has hurt or offended you is an act of love.  It is one way we do show love to another.

We forget that marriage is a relationship, not a project to be completed or a problem to solve. A relationship calls for sympathetic listening with a view to understanding the other person’s thoughts, feelings, and desires.  (Kindle  Location 686-688)

A good reminder for any couples who are struggling – your marriage is not a problem to be solved, but a relationship which requires us to listen and to speak.

But I vacuum our house now, and I vacuum it regularly. There is only one reason I vacuum our house. Love. You couldn’t pay me enough to vacuum a house, but I do it for love. You see, when an action doesn’t come naturally to you, it is a greater expression of love. My wife knows that when I vacuum the house, it’s nothing but 100 percent pure, unadulterated love, and I get credit for the whole thing!  (Kindle  Location 1613-1616)

We show love in many ways.  The issue is that not everyone sees our behavior in the same way.  Doing acts of kindness are a form of love, but some people need to be held and touched gently before they feel loved.  We can learn the love language of those around us.  We can learn the love language we like to speak.  We can learn how to love people so that they feel loved.

We both knew it was the choice to love. We had realized that if we continued our pattern of demanding and condemning, we would destroy our marriage. Fortunately over a period of about a year, we had learned how to discuss our differences without condemning each other, how to make decisions without destroying our unity, how to give constructive suggestions without being demanding, and eventually how to speak each other’s primary love language.  (Kindle  Location 1731-1734)

There is hope.  We are able to learn and change and improve our relationships!

Marriage: Helping Your Partner Attain Heaven

“…The primary purpose of marriage in the Orthodox Tradition: that the married couple may aid one another in their journey towards eternal salvation. They, and any children God may give, are to be ‘glad with the joy’ of the Lord’s ‘countenance’, as the Psalm says. In other words, they are to be in His presence – to behold Him. We know from the Beatitudes that to see God requires purity of heart (Matt. 5.8), and this implies holiness of life. Clearly, by chanting of this beautiful Psalm in the marriage service, the couple is summoned to help each other towards holiness, so that they may abide in the presence of the Lord, both now and forever.” (David and Mary Ford, Marriage As a Path to Holiness: Lives of the Married Saints, p xxix)

Marriage as Christian Vocation

“Accordingly, Orthodox Christianity views marriage as essentially a Christian vocation, a union in and with Christ. The ultimate end of that vocation is the same as that of monasticism: theosis or eternal participation in the life of God. Like monasticism, Christian marriage requires a continual askesis: a spiritual struggle, grounded in ongoing repentance. In Yannaras’s words, ‘True virginity and true marriage are reached by a common road: the self-denial of the cross, and ascetic self-offering.’ This Way of the Cross is symbolized in the Orthodox marriage ceremony by the nuptial crowns, which are crowns of victory but also crowns of martyrdom, of saving witness one to the other and to the world. ‘O Holy Martyrs,’ the Church sings during the nuptial procession, ‘who have fought the good fight and have received your crowns, entreat ye the Lord that he will have mercy on our souls!’  […]

Ultimately its purpose is to lead beyond the experience of the flesh and to center wholly on God. Erotic love has as it telos, its end and fulfillment, the love of genuine eros. This is a love no less passionate, yet no less self-denying and self-transcending, than human conjugal love at its most pure and most perfect. It is a love that responds to God’s prior love (cf. 1 Jn 4:10). It is the deepest movement of the soul, impossible for us to produce or sustain. Rather, it is initiated and maintained by the passionate love of God, acting within the human soul or totality of the human person. ‘God is love,’ the apostle declares.” (John Breck, The Sacred Gift of Life, pp 69, 74)

Sts. Joachim & Anna

Tertullian on Christian Marriage

“How sweet the yoke that joins two of the faithful in the same hope, the same law, the same service! Both are brethren in the service of the same Lord.

They are truly two in one and the same flesh. And where the flesh is one, the spirit is one. Together they pray…instructing, encouraging and supporting each other in turn. They are equal in the Church of God, equal at God’s banquet, they share equally troubles, persecutions, and consolations. They hide nothing from each other, they never avoid each other’s company, they never cause each other pain… Christ rejoices to see such a couple and he gives them peace. Where they are, there he is himself.” (Tertullian in The Roots of Christian Mysticism by Oliver Clément, p 291)

Marriage: To Help Your Spouse Grow

“Because marriage is such a wonderful type of relationship, confrontation within the marital relationship is very important. You are a central delivery system for grace and truth in your spouse’s life and vice versa. You have a responsibility to both care for and confront one another. You are an agent for change and growth in each other. Love does not blind either of you to the other’s problems; in fact, love demands that you pay attention to them so that you can help resolve them. Who is better qualified to understand and speak to someone about a problem than the person who is living life right next to him? You are intimately involved with him. You see the real person, imperfections and all. His ways and actions affect you; you are not dispassionate about him.

More than anyone, a spouse should be able to see what her partner’s true problems are. This idea, however, is foreign to some people. They have the notion that their spouse’s job is to make them happy. Then when they are not happy, they think their spouse is not doing what he should be doing. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Marriage is not about making each other happy; it is about growing and helping one’s spouse to grow. Good marriages are a large part of how the body of Christ ‘grows and builds itself up in love’ (Eph. 4:16). Happiness can and does come to a good marriage. Happiness, however, is a byproduct of growth and life. It is not the goal.” (Dr. Henry Cloud, Boundaries Face to Face, pp 192-193)