I was really happy with the gospel today, because I didn’t plan it like this—I wish I had—but the gospel today speaks about doing unto others as we would unto us, unto ourselves, but also especially the idea that Christians are called to be different from everybody else in the sense that they are called to love in a very different way than the way the world loves. Because the Gospel says if we only love those who love us, well, what good is that? Even sinners do that, which means that everybody else does that, and we are sinners as well. If we only lend to those we expect to return, then what good is that? There is no kindness in that.
Christ is referring to true love, true compassion, true forgiveness, helping people in a true way. He’s referring to himself on the cross, because true love, the perfect kind of love, divine love is giving without expecting anything in return, which is something that is very difficult for us to do as human beings. We almost can’t do it without the help of God. It’s very, very hard for us, because we as human beings are weak. We need love, we need affection, we need to have returned to us what we give. We expect it in relationships.
This gospel happened to be read today in the lectionary, and it’s very, very good, because in the last few sermons that we’ve had in the last four weeks, we’ve been speaking about the different sacraments of the Church and what they mean for us as Orthodox Christians, and how do we participate in them and what do they mean for us as members of the Church from an ecclesiological point of view.
Today I want to speak about marriage. Of course, this gospel has very much to do with marriage, because I think, personally as a priest, having done quite a few weddings, at least in my time as a priest, and doing marriage preparations and speaking with couples and preparing them, I find that there is a great misconception of what marriage is, at least from an Orthodox point of view. Of course, many people have many different concepts of marriage, but from an Orthodox point of view, from a Christian point of view, very, very few of us understand what marriage is supposed to be: What is the purpose of it? Why do we do it?
The common conception in our society is that we get married because we love another human being and because we want to have a happy life. We want to have children sometimes. Some people don’t want to have children. We have to have a nice family. We want to be successful. But especially: I want to find another person that I am compatible with, somebody who will give me the love that I give them. Exactly what the Gospel says not to do. Somebody who will give back to me what I give them, what I put into the marriage.
This is the concept that many people enter into marriage with. Of course, Christ says this is the wrong type of attitude, because true Christian love is to give without receiving, of course very difficult. So many, many people often come to me, and they speak about the problems they have in their relationships, and they talk about and they pinpoint the difficulties that they have in their marriage or in the faults or the things that they see that are wrong about their spouses or their significant others.
I always respond to them that those things that they’re complaining about, those things that really drive us crazy about the other person are the things that are the greatest blessings to us in our relationships, because those are the opportunities that help us become better human beings and better Christians, because the faults in our spouses, the faults in our partners are those opportunities where we learn how to truly love, how to forgive, how to have hypomoni, how to have patience, how to overcome those things, because we, too, have faults, and our spouse has to get over those things as well. The faults in our spouse are blessings; they are not difficulties. They are not something to be avoided, but something to be used to make us better people.
The whole point of marriage from an Orthodox point of view is to attain theosis, to attain divinization, unity with God. That’s the whole point of marriage. It’s not to attain unity with your spouse. Unity with your spouse is a by-product. But the whole point of marriage, the whole point of two people getting together is that we can learn how to love another human being, at least one other human being in this world, a little bit more, or at least as equal as we love ourselves, because we’re very selfish people. All the prayers in the marriage service, if we listen to them we hear, and especially in the epistle of Paul when he speaks about marriage, he says that—he’s speaking to the men at that time, and he says that the husbands need to love their wives as they love themselves and must give up everything for her, even unto death, as Christ does for the Church.
There’s a parallel between the husband—and of course, by implication, the wife as well—of giving up everything, just like Christ gives up everything on the cross and expects nothing in return. That is a radical form of love that doesn’t really exist any more in our society. That is not a 50/50 relationship. I always say that the Orthodox Church, an Orthodox marriage, it’s 100/0. You give everything from yourself, and you shouldn’t expect much in return. Why? Because we’re all flawed human beings, and we should just give because it’s right to give. It’s right to help; it’s right to love, even when we get nothing in return. It’s very, very difficult. It’s easier said than done.
This is why, in the marriage service, we put crowns on the couple. Many people wonder: Why do we put crowns on the couple? A lot of times I hear the more modern happy-go-lucky explanations: You’re king and queen for a day. You’re creating your own little kingdom in your home. Those are nice interpretations, but really that’s not where the crowns come from. If we listen to the prayers, they tell us where the crowns come from: They come from the martyrs of the Church, those who have struggled for the faith, those who have died for the faith, those who have suffered for the faith. Those are the ones who attain crowns from heaven at the end of their lives.
The Apostle Paul speaks about this when he talks about the Christian life being like a marathon. The person runs. Why? Because they want to win. And at the end of that great struggle, the end of running that great marathon, like in the ancient Olympics, they get the wreath. They get the crown of victory. He even says it himself. “I have run the good race. I have fought the good fight.” So when we put the crowns on the married couple, we are essentially saying: Now begins your death. I say that at weddings, and people kind of laugh—and some people don’t laugh—but I tell them that this is the beginning of your death. And they look at me, and I say, “Well, not death in the physical sense or death in the spiritual sense, but rather it is supposed to be the beginning of the death to the self, death to the ego, death to our pride, death to all those things that we hate about ourselves.”
How do we put those things to death? By living for the other human being. By giving up everything for them. By focusing on them and not focusing on our own needs, what I want, what I need. This is what the vision of Orthodox marriage is, what the image of ancient Christian marriage is from the very beginning, for the last 2,000 years. It’s something that has been lost in our modern day and age. This is why divorce rates are high. This is why people don’t want to get married. This is why people are afraid of it, and that’s natural for us to be afraid of those things, because we have lost that sense of what we’re supposed to be doing.
We have to teach our youth these things—we have to teach ourselves these things—so that we can give them a new vision—or rather an ancient vision—of what true marriage is. This is why it’s very important that marriage happens within the Church. Many people don’t know this, even the Orthodox Christians, and one of the biggest problems that we have, especially as a priest, counseling and prepping people for marriage, is that many of our young people, many of my friends included, have been married outside of the Church, because they don’t consider it a big thing and because we’ve lost this ecclesiological dimension, this spiritual dimension, this very, very deep theological connection with Christ and with the Church.
We feel that marriage can happen anywhere, so our young people go to other churches or they go to the beach or they go to resorts and they do these marriages. For us, they have to understand that that is outside of the reality, the spiritual reality, of the Church. When that happens, our people are by themselves. The Church is not kicking them out, but they themselves are walking away from the Church. They’re turning their backs on it. That means that, because they’re not married within the Church, they cannot receive holy Communion any more. They cannot be godparents any more. Technically, they cannot be buried by the Church any more.
That seems very, very harsh for us when we tell people that or when we explain to them the consequences of that, but as we’ve said in the last few weeks when we talked about the different sacraments and especially holy Communion: What is the purpose of Christian life? To be one with the body of Christ, who is one with Christ as the head, and all of us as the body. So all these sacraments that we do—baptism to come into the Church, initiation; holy Communion, to receive and to become one with the Body; confession, to be able to cleanse ourselves so that when we sin and we cut ourselves off from the Body, we can somehow come back to the Body and we can be reconciled with the Body.
We do all these things so that we can be one, and it’s the same thing with marriage. Marriage happens within the Church for us as Orthodox Christians. It happens here in our spiritual home; it doesn’t happen on the outside. These things are extremely important for us to understand and to teach to our children so that when we live our lives and we begin these relationships with our significant others, those people that we choose to live our lives with, that our lives are full. They’re full of spirituality. They are full; they’re really alive. They’re not just going through the motions or just doing what society tells us is a very, very successful marriage: having the big house and having the nice children and going to all the different programs and having enough money to survive and being well-off and doing all those things that society tells us makes a happy marriage—and being happy and getting those things that we want from our spouse. And when we don’t get those things, we divorce or we separate or we do whatever we want to do.
No, rather, we want our life to be within the Church, and we want our lives to be full of the Church, and we want our lives to be participating in the sacraments with our spouses, together in the Church. That is the vision of what the Orthodox Church gives to us for marriage, and that is the vision that is reinforced by all of the sacraments of the Church and the spiritual life of the Christian. Amen.