At what point is the marriage done? After the crowning? After circling the table? Historically it was after receiving Holy Communion—and it’s missing today.
IV. Holy Eucharist is central in everything
Based on our analysis of the sacrament of Orthodox Marriage in the previous three installments, we offer the following concluding remarks.
In the first place what we need to realize is that we don’t have mysteries, but only one Mystery, the Mystery of Christ and His Body, the Holy Church (which is the same thing), Who sanctifies and fills all things with the Grace of the Holy Spirit, by the Good-will of God the Father.
Thus, St. Dionysios the Areopagite reserves the term Mysteries (pl.) only for the Divine Eucharist. What we now call sacraments he calls them rites or services (τελεταί). According to him without the Eucharist the other services would be incomplete.1 They derive their completion only from the gifts flowing from the streams of the Eucharistic cup. In the ancient Church all the sacraments were attached to the Divine Liturgy with the reception of the Immaculate Mysteries (τὰ ἄχραντα μυστήρια), which sealed and completed them with their abundant Grace.
The Divine Liturgy not only includes the Holy Eucharist, but it is celebrated for the sole purpose of receiving the Holy Eucharist. Liturgy is the Mystery of the Divine Eucharist (τὸ Μυστήριον τῆς Θείας Εὐχαριστίας).2 If any other services offer the holy Eucharist it is because of its previous inclusion in the Divine Liturgy. And here lies the problem: the “sacrament” of marriage is no longer attached to or connected with the Holy Eucharist. What is needed is to reconnect the rite of marriage to what gives it fulfillment and completion and where it belongs: the Divine Liturgy.
Holy Eucharist in marriage makes sense
We realize that in the holy sacrament of Marriage, as in holy Baptism, we receive (that is, we used to receive) more than the Lord’s blessing and His grace; we receive (at least, we used to receive) the Lord Himself, the Giver of all blessings! Receiving the Lord Himself is proper and right in the holy sacrament for two reasons: First, it seals a couple’s union “in Christ”. In the past, if a couple became Christian and were already married civilly, the only act required of them to complete their union “in Christ” was to partake of the Divine Eucharist; and second, because, as in baptism, in this union we have a new birth—a new entity—for out of two we now have one, and this new one, is born spiritually on this day. For this reason it is proper to approach the altar and partake of the Immaculate Mysteries, and thus seal the union “in Christ.”
Marriage is an image of Christ and the Church
There is also a special reason why the Divine Eucharist needs to complete the marital union. As we have seen, St. Paul compares the union of a man and a woman to the mystical union of Christ and the Church, that is those who believe in Him. The Lord unites with His Church as a husband is united with his wife:
“I will betroth you to Me forever…I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness.” (Hos. 2:19.20)
And the betrothed that is the soul united with her Beloved responds,
“My Beloved is mine and I am His.” (Song of Songs 2:16)
There is a strong spiritual union between Christ and the believers:
“He who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with Him.” (1 Cor. 6:17)
The strongest and perfect union with the Lord takes place in the partaking of the most Immaculate Mysteries.
Holy Communion is the foundation of marriage
When a couple receives the Holy Mysteries on the day of their wedding (before the priest who prays over them that the Lord bless them, unite them and “crown them into one flesh”), it is “in the Lord.” Receiving the Holy Mysteries when they return the following Sunday (having most likely consummated their union), is not “in the Lord.” Receiving the Lord on the wedding day transforms a couple to a new life, and crowns them “in glory and honor.” Receiving the Lord together at another time does not.
Holy Communion is the foundation of a couple’s communion with each other. Marital life for Christians is a life of virtue, sobriety, chastity and temperance—as celibate life is. The Apostle shows us the way: “Let those who have wives live as though they had none” (1 Cor. 7:29). The goal is the same: our “undivided devotion to the Lord” (v. 35). The scope of marriage is not procreation, but “an aid for the whole life,” as Clement of Alexandria (+c. 215) beautifully says:
All who seek [mere] pleasure in marriage are condemned. Marriage for others may find its meaning in voluptuous joy, but for those who practice philosophy [i.e. Christians], marriage finds its meaning in accordance with the Logos, because it teaches husbands not to treat their wives as lovers by dishonoring their bodies, but to preserve marriage as an aid for the whole life and for the excellence of virtue and temperance.3
The “aid”, marriage, goes beyond this present life; it also prepares us for the next, the lasting one. And this aid is mutual, that is why the couple is “yoked” to each other (Mt. 19:6, Mk. 10:9).
A call to be true to the Church’s mission
Now that in our society not the religious wedding rite but the civil ceremony is legally recognized by the state, it is no longer necessary for the Church to make concessions and deviate from Her faith and holy tradition in order to accommodate Her nominal members. Instead of drowning in the ocean of economy (οἰκονομία) ignoring the holy Canons, the Church should stay true to Her mission to lead us to the truth and to the new life “in Christ,” and not sway according to the whims of Her alienated members.
In an age when morality is laughed at and trampled upon, when pansexuality reigns supreme, and is accepted even by Church members, when the sacred marriage blessed by God in His holy Church is thought to be no different than unnatural homosexual “marriage,” what should the Church do? Let Herself be washed away by the tsunami of godlessness? The words of the Apostle addressed to the profligate Corinthians apply in our culture as much, if not more.
The Church should not oppose civil marriage, because it frees Her to strictly administer the sacrament (mystery) of ecclesiastical marriage, which includes the Holy Mysteries, to those who are “worthy” members4. The Church hierarchy, perhaps, has not realized that civil marriages give Her the freedom she used to have during the first centuries. The Church needs to reclaim her right to marry couples—according to Her rules—She needs to re-establish “the obvious connection between Church marriage and Eucharist,”5 that She has lost.
Before we close, something else to reflect and ponder upon: Although “mixed marriages” are prohibited, ecumenism has already accepted them “κατ᾽ oἰκονομίαν” (which has become the rule) and this practice would have been codified at the pseudo-synod of Crete, were it not for the objection of the Orthodox Church of Georgia, which kept the resolution at bay.
Think of this: if non-Orthodox are admitted to participate in one sacrament of the Church—marriage (even without Holy Communion)—on what grounds can the Church exclude them from other sacraments? On what rationale are non-Orthodox commemorated by name in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, but they cannot be commemorated together with the names of Orthodox in the holy Prothesis? And why can’t they be anointed with the Holy Unction or given an Orthodox burial? On what grounds are they not permitted to receive Holy Communion? I close with this question, waiting for your answers. Just keep in mind: what we want is to live, and die, “in Christ.”
- “Now we affirm that the completion of the other church services [συμβόλων, i.e. the sacraments of Baptism, Ordination, etc.] derives from the gifts of the Eucharist. For it scarcely ever happens, that any church service [τελετή, i.e. sacrament] is done without the most Divine Eucharist, as head [κεφαλαίῳ] of the things done in each, ministering the collecting of the person initiated to the One, and completing his communion with God, by the Divinely transmitted gift of the perfecting Mysteries. If, then, each of the Hierarchical initiations, being indeed incomplete, will not make perfect our communion and our gathering to the One, even its being initiation is precluded on account of the lack of completeness.” (Ecclesiastical Hierarchy 3.1, PG 3:452)
- See “Centrality of the Eucharist in The Heavenly Banquet, pp. 61-62.
- “The Stromata, or Miscellanies” II.xxiii, ANF II, p. 378. I followed the translation of Sommer (see Note 7), p. 302 (except for the parenthetical words that render the meaning and for the emphasis added).
- “In good standing,” to use the contemporary expression, does not mean “members who have fulfilled their financial obligations”, but those who are ascertained by their spiritual Father.
- John Meyendorff, Marriage,St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1975, p. 30.
Article graphics and editing: Tony Hatzidakis