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.

The Holiness of Marriage: Love Your Wife

“Saint Paul goes on to speak of the oneness of Christ with His Body, the Church, and of the endless sacrificial love which Christ has for His Bride, the Church. Every married couple is called to live in such a perfect union and harmony that their relationship reflects the relationship of Christ and His Church: ‘For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church’ (Eph. 5:23). But this passage as a whole provides the proper understanding of the headship of the husband, which is based on Christ’s teaching about leaders being self-sacrificing servants (Mark 10:44). This means that the husband has the responsibility to love and serve his wife as Christ loves and serves the Church. For Saint Paul goes on immediately to say: ‘Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her.’ The natural response of the wife to a husband who lives with authentic Christ-like love for her will be to cooperate with him (hence, this is not a response that has to be forced from her). The headship of the husband is intended to be a source of unity and harmony in the family – not the source of oppression and division.”   (David and Mary Ford, Marriage as a Path to Holiness: Lives of Married Saints, pgs. XXIV-XXXI)

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 9:18-23 (a)

See:   God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 9:8- 17 (c)

Genesis 9:18 The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. 19 These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled. 20 Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted a vineyard; 21 and he drank of the wine, and became drunk, and lay uncovered in his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23 Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.

Shem, son of Noah, holds special honor in both the biblical tradition and in the Orthodox sacramental tradition.  In the Wedding Service of the Crowning, we invoke this blessing on the wedding couple:  “Remember them, O Lord our God, as You remembered Enoch, Shem, Elijah.”    Shem is remembered between the two men of the Old Testament who were taken by God and whose deaths are not recorded in the Scriptures.   God’s remembering His saints is the same as His blessing them and safely protecting them from harm and evil.  Somewhat unexpectedly the survivors of the flood are invoked several times in the Sacrament of Marriage.   In the Wedding service we want God to bless the wedding couple and to see their righteousness as He saw the righteousness of Enoch, Shem and Elijah.  Both Noah and Shem, two men who found refuge in the ark from the cataclysmic flood which destroyed the world, are both invoked in the prayers of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony.  The story of the flood is used in the Orthodox Church to invoke blessings on newlyweds.  A good trivia question:  In which sacrament of the Orthodox Church are the people on Noah’s ark remembered?   I wonder how many would guess that Noah and flood are so connected to the sacrament of marriage.  What does it say about our understanding of life for newlyweds in this world?

 “Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted a vineyard …“   Genesis 4:2 told us that Cain was a tiller of the ground, so in what sense is Noah the first tiller of the soil?  The story has him being the first to have a vineyard, and some think the story only implies that he was the first husbandman. We had not yet been told that humans ate grapes, but apparently they have already learned the art of fermenting the grapes. This is also the first mention of wine and of drunkenness.  Prior to this the only wickedness detailed by Genesis was violence.   Though no mention of wine occurred before this reference, obviously Noah acted with intention in planting a vineyard – he somehow knew the product he wanted to produce.  (Chrysostom excuses Noah thinking Noah was [pleasantly] surprised by the drink he could produce from grapes.  St. John assumes Noah was depressed as every where he looked there would have been the dead carcasses of humans and animals left by the flood).   The text has so far not spoken about or against alcohol nor alcohol abuse (drunkenness).  God has not warned the humans of the potential dangers of alcohol abuse just as He had not warned Eve and Adam about the dangers of talking to the serpent.   Does God think experimenting, discovery, learning by experience, and mastering desire are valuable for His free willed humans?    Has God continued to assume the humans would practice self control?  The Bible is circumspect in detailing what happened here but certainly implies that Ham in seeing his drunken father naked perhaps saw something lewd but more likely engaged in a lewd act far beyond voyeurism.  Noah upon waking from his drunken stupor immediately knew what his son “had done to him” (:24).  Noah wouldn’t have known if Ham had only looked – he felt or could see that something had been done to him.   The text modestly avoids detailing what may have been an incestuous and homosexual act.

 “he drank of the wine, and became drunk…”  According to Psalm 104:14, God gave “wine to gladden the heart of man.”   Wine is meant to serve a good purpose, but like the rest of creation it is subject to abuse by fallen humanity.

Chrysostom remarks that after the flood things were totally different for Noah – he is introduced to a carnivorous diet, and discovers wine as a new drink.  Chrysostom goes on to say that wine was the first medicine invented by humans – it helped reduce the pain which Noah felt by realizing his world had been destroyed by the flood.

 Next:   God Questions His Creation: Genesis 9:18-23 (b)

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 8:1-5 (a)

See:  God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 7:21-24 (b)

Genesis 8:1   But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided; 2 the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, 3 and the waters receded from the earth continually. At the end of a hundred and fifty days the waters had abated; 4 and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest upon the mountains of Ar’arat. 5 And the waters continued to abate until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains were seen.

“God remembered Noah…”      We do pray in our church that God will remember us in His kingdom.  To be totally forgotten by God is a fate worse than death, for it means non-existence.  We also pray that He eternally remember those who have died.  We pray that God will remember us but that he will not remember our sins (Psalm 25:7, Isaiah 43:18, 64:9). 

“God remembered Noah…”     Here is a trivia question:   In which Orthodox Sacrament is Noah and the ark explicitly mentioned?     Here is the quote from the service:  “Preserve them, O Lord our God, as You preserved Noah in the ark.”    It is in the Wedding Service of Crowning that we remember and invoke Noah and the ark as we ask God to bless the couple being united in marriage.  One may wonder about the connection of Noah to marriage – he was married but his wife’s name is not even mentioned and she plays absolutely no role in the story other than being one of those preserved by God in the ark.  She is not known to have given birth to children after the flood so it is really her sons which preserve humanity and repopulate the earth.  So does the wedding service imply that marriage is like a devastating storm and flood?  The imagery of Noah is invoked purely as someone whom God preserved from evil and destruction which is what we pray He will do for the newlywed.  The wedding service in Orthodoxy is very cognizant of the fact that life sometimes throws at every married couple as well as at each of us devastating contingencies.  Marriage cannot protect us from these life threatening problems and sudden disasters – only God can help us when one of life’s tidal waves overwhelms us.

Noah is also mentioned in the Service of the Great Blessing of Water, where we might more expect to find his name:  “For You are our God, who through water and the Spirit, have renewed our nature grown old through sin.  You are our God, who with water drowned sin in the days of Noah.” 

“God remembered Noah…”   Was there ever a danger that God who had ordered Noah to build the ark and had him work on it for 100 years and had him take his family and the various species of animals into it, might forget about Noah?  Does the story suggest that God was tempted with simply letting the chaos overwhelm the cosmos?  Or that the destructive forces of the cataclysm were so appeasing His anger with humanity that it was lulling God to sleep with indifference towards His creatures?   The God whose heart was pained by humanity still has room in His heart for the righteous Noah.  Whether God “snapped back” to remembrance or whether he remembered Noah all along, when He thinks about one righteous human God is moved to save that person.

Chrysostom tells his flock not to overly think about or try to rationally approach the story which surpasses our credulity.   Questioning the literal facts and doubting their veracity obviously occurred to the Christians of the 4th Century.   Such questions of faith are not just the result of secular humanism and science.    He acknowledges that the story does not tell us how the humans and animals could have survived being shut up in a big box for so many days.  He acknowledges drinking water would have been a problem, the unbearable stench would have been a problem, the lack of fresh air would have done them all in, the wild animals would not have reacted peaceably to being housed in the bowels of the ark as this is totally unnatural to them and many don’t do well in captivity.   He advises his faithful not to focus on the literal details but rather to consider the faith of Noah and Noah’s virtuous obedience to God which is what he says the story is mostly about.  He admits the facts of the story- what literally happened – remain a secret of God.  Chrysostom then argues that since we know the loving nature of our God we simply have to trust Him in His revelation.  The story, St. John concludes, teaches us to persevere in obeying God no matter what conditions we have to live under.

The story teaches us that doing God’s will and even God’s salvation might require patience and suffering on our part as it did Noah.  That is something we modern people find hard to accept.  We want instant success, not a long protracted struggle.  Yet as any farmer/gardener knows there are many potential threats and disasters from planting until harvest, and one has to meet them all if one has any hope of having a harvest.  Even if one does everything just right, the harvest might be ruined by events beyond one’s control.  For Christians the real harvest though does not occur in this world, but in the world to come.  The suffering and problems here, bad as they are, are nothing compared to the harvest which awaits the faithful in God’s kingdom.

Next:   God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 8:1-5 (b)