Most of our friends and family members have already entered into, or will enter into, marriage. Observing the experiences of those close to us, we see what struggles and blessings wait for two people who choose to make a life together. We see what works and what doesn’t. We see good, healthy, strong marriages, and, unfortunately, we may see marriages dissolve for any number of reasons. These experiences shape our views and expectations of what marriage is and what we look for in a spouse.
Our views are also formed by society, largely through the media, which presents us with contradictory messages. We value “eternal love” above all, yet the divorce rate for new marriages is greater than half. We should “have faith” in love, yet many couples live together before marriage to test the relationship. We’re supposed to look for a “soul mate,” but the result is serial monogamy. It is an immense challenge to separate wheat from chaff, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Yet the Church offers us an unchanging, eternal, faithful and life-giving foundation on which to build our marriages—Christ Himself. No matter the failures we see in society regarding marriage, we know that God did not make man to be alone. Rather, He made him for communion with both God and neighbor. St John Chrysostom, commenting on St Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, writes that
“ …indeed from the beginning, God appears to have made special provision for this union; and discoursing of the two as one, He said thus, ‘Male and female created He them’ (Gen 1:27); and again, ‘There is neither male nor female’ (Gal. 3:28). For there is no relationship between man and man so close as that between man and wife, if they be joined together as they should be.” (Homily 20 on Ephesians)
For the Church, it is Christ who blesses the marriage and makes the union between man and woman real, just as he blessed the marriage in Cana by His presence and by His first public miracle—turning water into wine. Marriage itself is a miracle, a new creation of the Lord. It is celebrated in the center of the temple, under the icon of Christ the Pantocrator, the Creator of All.
St Paul, in his epistle to the Galatians, quotes Genesis 2:24: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” The notion that two people can become “one flesh” is not a metaphor for the Church. It is a spiritual reality that transcends reason. In marriage, man and woman are united in their very being. Only God has the power to do this.
In fact, the union between husband and wife has to transcend romantic love as the two grow closer to each other and to God. In the service of Holy Matrimony, we read from St Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians:
“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 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.” (Ephesians 22–24)
This is not the modern idea of romantic love and marriage. For many of those attending the wedding service—Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike—St Paul’s words seem antiquated and misogynistic. Yet St Paul is talking about a submission in love, obedience undertaken out of love for the husband. This is in imitation of the hierarchical Church: no person is “better” than any other, yet some are given specific functions within the One Body of Christ. Wives do not submit out of custom or for practical considerations. Their submission is always balanced by the husband’s vocation, which is similarly difficult and self-sacrificing:
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her…[s]o 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.” (Ephesians 5:25–28)
Husbands undertake a fearful charge: to sacrifice themselves as Christ did for His Church and to treat their wives as their own bodies. This kind of love would never expect or ask slavish devotion of the bride; rather, this love would go to any length to ensure her salvation. St John Chrysostom takes St Paul’s words to their logical conclusion:
“You have seen the measure of obedience, hear also the measure of love. Would you have your wife obedient unto you, as the Church is to Christ? Take then yourself the same provident care for her, as Christ takes for the Church. Yea, even if it shall be needful for you to give your life for her, yea, and to be cut into pieces ten thousand times, yea, and to endure and undergo any suffering whatever—refuse it not.” (Homily 20 on Ephesians)
Certainly there are cases where the husband must sacrifice his life to save his bride. Yet St Paul and St John seek to instruct both spouses in the ongoing, constant struggle to purify the passions and live in Christ, Who calls both husband and wife to take up the Cross daily. It is this sacrifice—not magic formulas or rituals—that make two people into one flesh. Embrace the Cross together, receive the Resurrection together—this is St Paul’s vision of the heroic calling of marriage.