"Marriage as Sacrament and the Sacramental Family"
By Panayiotis Sakellariou
Everything was perfect. The families and friends of the wedding couple, along with many children, had filled the cathedral long before the service started. The flower girls and alter boys stood in position ready for their first movement in the divine choreography of the marital service. As the priest led the bride and groom by the hand down the aisle, the angelic voice of the Protopsaltis rose high above the aroma and smoke of the incense, seemingly joining “the Heavens and the Earth.” I vividly remember the powerful message delivered by the priest on that extraordinary morning. He underlined three aspects that should be found in marriage and family life: sanctifying, sacrificial and caring. At the time, these words sounded lofty and abstract. From that very day, though, and throughout my marital and family life, I have begun to understand how fundamental those words are to our unity and indeed to our very salvation.
+++ Sanctifying +++
According to its theology and tradition, the Orthodox Church has always perceived life in its entirety as sacramental, which can be described as bringing everything back into a correct relationship with God.
In The Sacrament of Marriage and Union with God, Dr. Bruce Beck speaks about the sanctifying nature of marriage, which derives from the real presence of Christ in the marriage itself. By definition, a sacrament is an act of transformation; it makes us more like Christ. In Beck’s words, “Sacraments are a door through which Christ returns to us.” All sacraments, including marriage, are ultimately a mystery and a foretaste of the Kingdom of God.
What exactly, one may ask, does Christ’s presence in marriage transform? It transforms each spouse individually and their relationship as a whole. It is the inauguration of a new creation and the presence of the Kingdom of God in the marital union. Above all, it transforms human love into an icon of Christ’s love.
Moreover, the Wisdom Literature instructs us, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). It’s only through this constant “sharpening” through Christ’s mutually sanctifying love that true healing takes place. Ultimately, it is this transformed love for one another that leads both husband and wife toward loving God more and makes marriage a vehicle for entering into communion with Him.
+++ Sacrificial +++
In his article Reflections on Ephesians 5:22-33, Fr. Stanley Harakas discusses the sacrificial nature of the marital relationship as defined by St. Paul. He eloquently redefines the popular notion of these verses, which misinterprets the role of the husband’s headship as authoritarian and the wife’s obedience as servile. Instead, the original intent of the text was to indicate that the husband’s headship is to imitate Christ’s love and headship over the Church. This headship is not to be understood as one that possesses worldly power and authority. It is a headship of sacrifice, service and love based on the example that our Lord Himself gave us.
Fr. Harakas points out that the preceding verse, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21), is key to understanding the rest of the text. The concept that is introduced here is mutuality in love between the husband and the wife as shown by self-sacrifice and obedience to one another and together, by obedience to Christ: “Both husband and wife exercise authority over their spouse and both husband and wife obey each other.” In the end, each spouse’s needs are met not by focusing on their own but by concentrating on the welfare of the other! How full of wonder and how glorious are God’s ways!
+++ Caring +++
We see in Genesis 1:26 that man is made in the image and according to the likeness of the Triune God. Expressing this Trinitarian theological point of view in her book Persons in Communion, Dr. Kyriaki FitzGerald reminds us that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are expressed as existing ‘in communion,’ perfectly united in love but without losing their subjectivity—a diversity within unity. Emphasizing the communal and relational aspect of the Trinity, she points to the implications of viewing human relationships as icons of the Triune God: “We are called to grow in authentic relationship with creation, God, self and others.” This kind of relationship by definition includes caring, which in the marital union is often taken for granted. Caring is a softening of heart that embraces the other unconditionally and requires prayer, forgiveness, and ultimately, love.
The Sacramental Family
If the marital union is the cornerstone of family life, children are its fruit. The crowns received by the bride and groom on their wedding day signify that the couple is also called to be the king and queen of their new home, and that together with their children, they are to become a prophetic witness to God. Their goal is to provide trust, care and growth of personhood, which are necessary to become more Christ-like.
According to the Orthodox idea of sacrament, as described above, family life can also be understood as sacramental. To that end, it is important to recognize that the Church, the Body of Christ, begins at home and in the family. This is made evident in St. John Chrysostom’s Homily 20 on Ephesians: “If we regulate our household [properly] . . . we will also be fit to oversee the Church, for indeed the home is a little Church.”
As parents consider their roles as king and queen in the little Church of the home, they discern the vocation of true Christian parenthood. St. Paul exhorts parents, “Do not provoke your children to wrath but raise them in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). St. Chrysostom in Homily 22 explicates this passage: “Let us give them a pattern. Where there are spiritual ties, the natural ones will follow. Do you wish your son to be obedient? Make him from the earliest age a diligent hearer of the divine Scriptures and make him apply himself to the reading of the Scriptures. Make him a Christian!” The spiritual formation children receive at home is critical to their overall growth and wellbeing. Modern day disciplines, such as psychology, confirm this, that every human interaction is of consequence and can become part of our inner fabric. What an awesome and humbling responsibility for parents to shoulder!
Recalling the three characteristics of Christian marriage discussed earlier, we are called to raise our children in an environment that is sanctified by our love and devotion to each other and to God. Our sacrificial service to each other is extended to our children, as we seek to imitate our Lord who offered His very life for us. Finally, in the image of the Holy Trinity, one witnesses loving care for the good of each individual in the family. In our Orthodox tradition, these three characteristics are wonderfully illustrated in the lives of saints who were raised in pious families and in an atmosphere of grace—and many whose parents also became saints.
Let us take great care of our wives [or our husbands], our children and ourselves. In our care both of ourselves and of them, let us ask God sincerely that He help us in our effort.
--St. John Chrysostom, Homily 22 on Ephesians
Panayiotis Sakellariou is the Resource Coordinator for the Center for Family Care of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Prior to working for the Center, Panayioti spent 5 years on the mission field in India and Albania. He received his B.A. in Political Science and a Master’s in Theological Studies (M.T.S.) at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. He and his wife, Shannon, have two daughters, Sophia, 5 and Iliana, 3.