A reflection on Marriage by Matushka Bea Dunlop, Saint Herman Seminary
Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed. (Gen 2:23-24)
As the couple embarks on this journey as one, I was asked to say a few words about the Orthodox theology of marriage. Genesis narrates that God created man and woman as mutually dependent creatures. No other was found worthy to be a helpmate for man among God’s creatures. Being a “help” does not imply merely being a servant—another man could have done that—or even some animals could be trained to do that. “Help” in Scripture is most often attributed to God’s providential help. In Exodus we hear, “The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.” (Ex 18.4) The Psalmist cries out, “Lord, help me!” in many places. (70.1, 71.12, 109.76) “Help” in Scripture is help that saves. It is deliverance.
So man and woman were created as a complementary pair for their salvation. They are not called to be “independent,” nor for one to be a power over the other, but are called to become a special community dedicated to salvation. Their life in marriage is a journey together to the Kingdom of God. Orthodox Christians frequently say that the home is a little Church, and this is a true goal for us. Christ said, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Mt 18:20) The two persons who are to be joined are becoming such a “two or three gathered” in the community of marriage.
Christ in teaching about marriage referred to the creation of man and woman and added his authoritative interpretation:
Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder. (Mt 19:4-6)
From Christ’s words we learn that God joins the two. This is so important because we know that in this fallen world so often our human efforts to get along with one another fail—we know this from the wars, conflicts and arguments that plague us. It is only God who can unite us, make us really one. It is God who brings peace. It is God’s saving power that will enable the couple to be salvation and help for each other. As they journey to the Kingdom of God, they are called to grow in God’s likeness, and to help each other increase in holiness.
God is Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit—humans who are made in God’s image and likeness are called to live in relationship. Marriage is a specific type of community—a way to put into practice this Trinitarian life—that God has implanted in our very make-up. As the Father and the Son are one, Christ prays that his disciples become one, and that prayer applies very especially to the couple as they begin this journey.
Additionally, the Father and the Son are not locked into a static dyad, but also their love overflows to the Holy Spirit. And not only does God’s love express itself in His inner Trinitarian life, but God’s love goes outside and creates an “other”: the entire universe and even us—the human creature. Just so, the couple’s love will not be just among themselves, but should go outside and bear fruit. This fruit is often offspring, but being fecund is not limited to producing biological children. It is a mistake, even for a family that produces children, to live as though they existed only for themselves. Such selfishness does not build up the Church and does not result in holiness, only a stunted sort of humanity. God’s love is Trinitarian and creative. God’s love took the ultimate risk in creating us, even though God knew we would spurn that love, disobey and turn away. God’s love took on the ultimate risk in becoming incarnate and suffering death to restore us.
As Bishop Kallistos Ware writes in the foreword to Marriage as a Path to Holiness: Lives of Married Saints:
John Chrysostom calls marriage “the sacrament of love.” As such, marriage expresses something altogether fundamental to our human personhood. For we humans are created in the image of God, and that means first and foremost in the image of God the Holy Trinity. “God is love” (I John 4:8): not self-love but shared love, not a single person loving himself alone, but a communion or koinonia of three Persons loving one another. God is not just personal but interpersonal, not just a unit but a union. God is solidarity, exchange, response, reciprocity. If all this is true of God, then it must be true also of the human person formed in God’s image. If God is love, then the human person also is love: not self-love but shared love. The human person also is solidarity, exchange, response, reciprocity. We humans, like the three divine Persons, fulfill ourselves by living in communion or koinonia: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God.” (I John 4:7)
Our prayer for the couple to be wed is that God’s love will provide them a model, and the power, to love in the same way that God loves us.