This post is part of a series about the sacraments of the Orthodox Christian Church. In this post, we will look at the Orthodox Christian Sacrament of marriage.
In His teachings while He was on earth, our Lord told us that marriage is the best way for us to experience what God’s love for humankind is like; as well as for us to see how Christ loves the Church. Fr. Thomas Hopko writes that the most perfect form of love between a man and woman is “unique, indestructible, unending, and divine. The Lord Himself has not only given this teaching, but he also gives the power to fulfill it in the sacrament of Christian marriage in the Church.” (1) Mere mutual love does not provide the depth of unity of spirit and body that the sacrament of marriage offers to a man and woman. The sacrament brings the Holy Spirit into the relationship in a way that binds them together most perfectly. And He continues His work in their marriage throughout their earthly life and on into the heavenly kingdom, as well.
In the early years of the Church, there was not an official ceremony for marriage. Christian couples wishing to be married expressed their love for each other in the church and then their union received a blessing from God which was sealed in their partaking of the Eucharist. When the Church recognized the unity of the couple and their union was incorporated into the Body of Christ through communion, their marriage became a Christian marriage.
Several hundred years into her existence, when the Church developed a ritual for the sacrament of marriage, that sacrament was modeled after baptism and chrismation. Fr. Thomas explains the parallels as follows: “the couple is addressed in a way similar to that of the individual in baptism. They confess their faith and their love of God. They are led into the Church in procession. They are prayed over and blessed. They listen to God’s Word. They are crowned with the crowns of God’s glory to be his children and witnesses (martyrs) in this world, and heirs of the everlasting life of his Kingdom. They fulfill their marriage, as all sacraments are fulfilled, by their reception together of holy communion in the Church.” (1)
Unlike other wedding ceremonies in current culture, the Orthodox sacrament of marriage is not a legal transaction: there aren’t even vows. Instead, Orthodox marriage is a “‘baptizing and confirming’ of human love in God by Christ in the Holy Spirit. It is the deification of human love in the divine perfection and unity of the eternal Kingdom of God.” (1) Fr. Thomas Fitzgerald offers more insight into the sacrament in his article on all of the sacraments: “According to Orthodox teachings, marriage is not simply a social institution, it is an eternal vocation of the kingdom. A husband and a wife are called by the Holy Spirit not only to live together but also to share their Christian life together so that each, with the aid of the other, may grow closer to God and become the persons they are meant to be.” (2)
That type of shared Christian life extends beyond “death do us part.” The Church encourages married Christians whose partner departs this life before them to remain faithful to that partner even after their death, because “only one marriage can contain the perfect meaning and significance which Christ has given to this reality.” (1) (However, there is a service of second marriage for people who are not able to fulfill this ideal.)
A Christian couple who wants to be in complete union of spirit, body, and intellect, as well as social and economic union, will only find that depth of union in the sacrament of marriage. This sacrament places their union in the Kingdom of God, which is perfectly unified, right from the start. When centered in God’s Kingdom, a couple’s human love can echo Divine love, and will spill out into the world around them through their interactions with each other, with their children, with their neighbors, and even with nature itself. This is how the sacrament of marriage can be the best blessing to the world: when it is lived out as it is intended to be lived.
However, this level of complete union is not guaranteed. “This does not mean that all those who are ‘married in church’ have an ideal marriage. The sacrament is not mechanical or magical. Its reality and gifts may be rejected and defiled, received unto condemnation and judgment, like Holy Communion and all of the sacramental mysteries of the faith. It does mean, however, that when a couple is married in the Church of Christ, the possibility for the perfection of their marriage is most fully given by God.” (3)
Marriage is a gift from God that offers blessings to those who partake. But the couple must enter into this sacrament completely, choosing daily to cooperate with the Holy Spirit, in order for those blessings to be fulfilled. God does not force Himself on a marriage, just as He does not force Himself into any other part of a Christian’s life. However, with humility and self-sacrifice, Christian couples have the opportunity to grow together towards godliness through the sacrament of marriage.
Glory to God for His gift of the sacrament of marriage!
1. Hopko, Fr. Thomas (2011, October 5). The Sacraments: Marriage. Retrieved from https://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/worship/the-sacraments/marriage
2. Fitzgerald, Rev. Fr. Thomas (1985, June 11). Understanding the Sacraments of the Orthodox Church. Retrieved from https://www.goarch.org/-/the-sacraments
3. Hopko, Fr. Thomas (2016, March 18). Sexuality, Marriage, and Family: Marriage. Retrieved from https://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/spirituality/sexuality-marriage-and-family/marriage1
Here are some ideas of ways to teach your students about the sacrament of marriage. What resources have you found helpful? Comment below and share them with the community!
The Teaching Pics ( http://ww1.antiochian.org/christianeducation/teachingpics) offer a series of pictures on the sacrament of marriage that can be very helpful as you teach a lesson on the subject to any age group. Pictures S12 – S16 show images that denote the significant parts of the marriage service. The text that goes with each picture explains the process well at a level that even young children can understand. Order the teaching pics here: http://orthodoxchristianed.com/files/4114/9885/4473/ocec2017_2018.pdf
Find printable activities at a variety of levels that could accompany a lesson on the sacrament of marriage, or could be sent along with students as a potential lesson follow-up at home, here: http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/epistles-feasts-and-sacraments/3-5-years-old/marriage-0
This brief lesson plan can help students in early elementary learn about the sacrament of marriage: http://www.orthodoxabc.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/015-EN-ed02_Holy-Matrimony.pdf
Here are lesson plans about the sacrament of marriage, at a variety of levels:
Students will benefit from studying our Lord’s first miracle at the Wedding at Cana. If you are able, include this lesson in conjunction with one on the sacrament of marriage. Then, when your students attend a wedding and hear this Gospel reading, they’ll already know what it is about!
Printable activities which could be used in class or sent home to extend the learning about the Gospel story of the Wedding at Cana can be found here: http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/gospels/3-5-years-old/wedding-cana-0
Teens will find this article (a timeless homily given in 1971 by Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra, Mount Athos) interesting. It addresses young people considering whether or not God has called them to the sacrament of marriage. If you choose to include this article in a lesson on marriage, you may wish to add a twist: encourage each student to make a list of all the different things that the article says that marriage is, and/or have them sketch their favorite, then share it with the class, explaining why they liked that metaphor for the sacrament of marriage. http://orthochristian.com/47495.html