Skip to content. Skip to navigation
Personal tools

Part 2

Document Actions

PART II: The Family

The Family It is not uncommon to hear a conversation among Orthodox Christians who describe marriage as “also” a sacrament of the Church. The phrase betrays a sort of liturgical ambiguity as if the Grace of the sacrament is somehow added to the institution of marriage. Be that as it may, the marriage of two baptized Orthodox Christians is inherently a “mysterion” a Holy sacrament, a sign of the Kingdom of God which, - as we have begun to see - supports, enriches and mystically transforms the water-filled pots of natural marriage into the wine of a sacred family life!

I would like to now focus on a series of six affirmations that disclose the intrinsic sacramentality of the Christian family. The six affirmations focus on the: (a) design, (b) destiny, (c) diakonia, (d) dignity (e) dialectic, and (f) delight of the Christian family. The six affirmations correspond to the six water-filled pots of the Marriage in Cana at Galilee. Our task, therefore, will be to show how Christ can transform the water of our incomplete and secularized contemporary notions of marriage and family - into the rich wine of a more complete and dynamic praxis of nuptial love.

1. The first affirmation that discloses the intrinsic sacramental character of the family is the issue of its Divine design.

Marriage, and hence the family unit, is a reality created by God. By affirming the divine design of marriage and its institutions, we are underscoring the fact that as a creation of God, the family is not - as some social scientists or politicians might suggest – an economic or societal construction. This is an important issue, in that, if from the onset, we determine marriage to be a social construct, then society has the privilege to deconstruct and then reconstruct the notion of family at will.

The entire notion of “Civil” as opposed to “Church” marriage introduces a secularity unknown to the ancient world that did not accept a dichotomy between the holy and the profane, the sacred and the secular. Marriage is a communal matter that always involves the entire tribal family. Consequently, as I have described earlier, marriage is a sacrament, a transcendent sign of the Kingdom of God, emphasizing the fact that whether or not we are married in the presence of a thousand guests or if we elope to Las Vegas for a “private ceremony” – the institution of marriage – the unity of two individuals – takes place before God, spirits, angels, saints – we might say – all of humanity’s ancestors!

Understood in such a fashion, God is the Father of both individuals – presenting the husband as well as the Bride to one another as He did when He introduced Ishah, Eve’s original Hebrew name, to Adam. Consider for a moment that Eve was already a part of Adam – She was, in fact, an integral part – of his skeletal body - one of his ribs. God, however, describes Adam’s condition as “being alone.” It was not until God presented Eve to Adam “in a sacred relationship” – that the marriage union – the sacrament of the Kingdom was inaugurated – requiring individuals to be united into linked families.

This description of marriage differs greatly from the current secular understanding. Although the ritual of marriage may differ from culture to culture, religion to religion, it is interesting to note essential similarities across the historic and cultural divide. The stagnant anthropocentric waters of the secular ontological water-pot of marriage must be transformed into a wine that inspires the understanding that the idea of marriage and family emanates from a divine origin and not from the architecture of man. It is, in the final analysis, a co-creative, synergistic process between God and Man.

The wine of such a sacramental understanding of marriage and the family unit it presupposes is implicit in the Genesis creation accounts. One need only to study the two creation accounts in Genesis alongside the lofty prayers of the Orthodox marriage service to see the nuptial themes that are found in later OT stories. The grand themes of monogamy, fidelity, and the indissolubility of marriage are invoked by Jesus Himself in the New Testament.

The joy of the Genesis couple found in the first two chapters of the Old Testament is gradually eclipsed with the disastrous choices described in Chapter 3. The fall, or for the purposes of Orthodox Patristic thought specifically – the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden - and their subsequent separation from God, - is the result of wrong choices. Improper volitions have disastrous consequences: shame, anger, blaming, pain in childbirth, enmity with the soil, the alienation of Adam and Eve, and the rift between humanity and God. Understood in this ontological fashion, original sin had a direct and harmful consequence on domestic life – on marriage and consequently on the family. The Genesis passage concludes with a new name for Ishah -- She is now called Eve – mother of all living things created by God. It is within this alienated household separated from God that the first couple brought forth Cain and Abel – good and evil. Hence, the first dysfunctional family.

The aforementioned brief exegesis of Genesis opens the way for St. Paul to describe the “Great Mystery of marriage”. Through the work of Christ the institution of marriage and family is healed. It is elevated to its original primordial position in the created order through Grace.

This image is discussed in the 21st Chapter of the Book of Revelation as the Bride of the Lamb – the metaphysical archetype of the Church – the New Jerusalem. As Yahweh was the stilted Bridegroom of Israel – Jesus is the faithful Bridegroom of the New Israel. In its original intent, marriage is, therefore, the union of two baptized individuals, a man and a woman, who live as one in the Church – the extended family of the Kingdom. The contemporary Christian couple that enters this Mystery does not do so in order to proclaim the teaching of a doctrine, but for the purpose of participating in self-giving act of Jesus who sacrificed Himself on the cross.

2. The second affirmation that discloses the intrinsic sacramental character of Marriage and Family deals with its destiny.

The Family is destined to be a living icon of the Church. According to the Four-Source Theory that ascribes four different literary sources for the material found in the Pentateuch - the creation accounts found in Genesis Chapters 1-3 are comprised of four distinct explanations of human origin. The first and perhaps most popular account of creation (Genesis 1:26-31) is a priestly version.

According to this theory, the first creation account expresses the Levitical teaching concerning mankind’s origins and, as such, insists that the human person was created by and in the image and likeness of God. Humanity is expressed in a complementary fashion as seen in the phrase “male and female he created them.”

According to the Four-Source Hypothesis Theory, the second creation account (Gen 2:15-25) is the product of the Yahwist tradition and consequently provides a more psychological vision of the divine origins of marriage and family. Adam is referred to as “ISH” which means “the one who chooses.” Ish, however, is incomplete. Although there are other living things in the Garden, that have been directed to serve the needs of “ISH” he remains incomplete. God, consequently, creates woman --“ISHAH” from the same essence as ISH. Through this conjoining, Adam experiences completeness. The entire process of Eve’s creation during Adam’s sleep will be later used by numerous Church Fathers and allegorically adjoined to the Passion of Christ, the messianic Bridegroom on the Cross. It is ultimately this juxtaposition – this theological connection - that provides the ultimate foundation for any understanding of the sacramentality of marriage and family. This is what St. Paul describes as the Great Mystery – the equivalence of marriage and family with the Church.

It is easy to see how and why Orthodox Theology utilizes the priestly creation account as the lynchpin for its theological imagery which understands the union and ensuing representations of the marriage family in the same way that God ordained Adam and Eve as Lord and Lady of their respective Kingdom-Family. Crowned as King and Queen of their respective domestic Kingdom, the Orthodox couple vividly reflects the eschatological thrust of the priestly genesis account of creation.

When the celebrant removes the crowns from the heads of the bride and groom at the conclusion of the Orthodox Marriage ceremony, he does so by invoking the protection of God. Once again, it is significant that the priest asks God to bless the marriage as he blessed the marriage at Cana of Galilee. Turning away from the couple, the celebrant enters the sanctuary with their crowns. “Receive their crowns into your kingdom,” he asks “and preserve their marriage undefiled, blameless, and beyond reproach to the ages of ages.” In the end, the crowns signify the means as well as the goal of their marriage for it is in and through the Church, the Eternal Kingdom, that the family, the Domestic Kingdom, will be sustained and preserved. Only by accepting to live a life of sacrificial love within their family can the couple expect to receive their crowns once again at the conclusion of this life. This time, however, they will receive them from the hands of God who will not re-crown as king and queen but rather as faithful martyrs with the wreaths of marital victory.

Understood in this fashion, the Church, is thus the means as well as the primordial destiny of family. It is at the very heart of the creative act of God. Within this institution Adam and Eve are ontologically created for self-giving. In becoming one flesh, Ish and Ishah are intrinsically linked to the Kingdom of God in the image of divine family in the same fashion as the hypostatic relationships are expressed in the Holy Trinity.

In every family, the mystery of redemption becomes present when its members truly participate in the Cross of the Savior, accepting the Christian paradox that joins joy with the bearing of suffering in the spirit of faith. To offer such fidelity of heart to one’s spouse or children, the family itself must have recourse to God in the certainty of receiving assistance. The way of true agapic love, therefore, must pass through the grace of Christ’s charity. Only in this fashion can the family hope to become an epiphany of Christ’s eternal faithfulness.

Jesus calls Himself the Bridegroom of the Church. He is the Messianic Bridegroom (Mark 2:18-20; Mat 9:14-15; 22:1-14; 25:1-13). In so doing, He invites His listeners to recall the dysfunctional marital relationship between God and Israel. Jesus points to John the Baptist as his Best Man (Paranymphos) or friend of the Bridegroom (John 1:27). Although Christ refers to Himself as the Bridegroom, it is significant that He never divulges the identity of His bride. It is St. Paul who resolves the question that, in the Gospels, is not directly answered. Paul reveals that it is the Church – the entire spiritual family – that is the bride of Christ. This is the Great Mystery to which St. Paul equates marriage and family. In so doing, St. Paul is not merely indicating a loftier doctrine of marriage and family than that which was followed by the Jews. He is doing much more. By linking the messianic bridegroom to Christian marriage, Paul is directing the family to its Divine design and pan-ultimate destiny - the Kingdom of God.

The apostles followed Christ as friends, as witnesses to the supernatural nuptials of His Passion. If the contemporary family wishes to express its intrinsic sacramentality, it can do no less, for it is through His self-giving on the cross that Jesus transforms, and redeems human marriage into a New Israel. He transforms the water-filled pot of the Old Covenant, our inadequate and imperfect understanding of family, into the Eternal Wine of the Kingdom of Heaven – the Church.

3. The Third Affirmation that discloses the intrinsic sacramental nature of the family concerns its diakonia.

As the Domestic Church - the diakonia (the ministry) of the Christian Family must reflect the saving work of Christ. If the contemporary Christian family desires to express this most important characteristic, however, it must become a living icon of the Church as prophet, priest and king. These three components of the family as church can be connected to the three most vivid rubrics of the marriage ceremony, namely the rings, candles, and the crowns. These three elements of the ceremony should be understood as much more than merely liturgical props. The rings, candles, and crowns are sacred liturgical elements that reflect the axilogical praxis of marriage and its intrinsic family structure.

Through the three sacramental articles of the rings, candles and crowns, the family is summoned to be a permanent historical reminder of the saving work of Christ. Parents are called to be witnesses to their children of the salvation in which the sacrament of marriage makes them sharers. Of this salvation, the sacramental nature of family, like every sacrament, entails three interrelated components: (a) anamnesis (recollection), (b) actuation (activity), and (c) divination (expectation).

As anamnesis, the sacramentality of family gives its members the grace and duty of commemorating through education and worship the salvific actions of God. The rubric of blessing the wedding rings both on the Holy Gospel and the foreheads of the Bride and Groom symbolizes the need for the family to recollect, and proclaim the sacred actions of God. The couple is invited to develop the mind of Christ. As such, if the newlyweds desire to properly express the intrinsic diakonia of marriage they must strive to faithfully witness the truth of the Gospel to their children, to the extended families within the Church and finally to the historical family of humanity.

As actuation, the sacramentality of the family provides the grace and duty of living a praxis of selfless love, forgiveness and care in their current historical context. The crowns that the bride and groom wear during the wedding ceremony bear witness to two theological truths. As we have seen, apart from expressing the royalty and dignity of marriage, the crowns bear witness to love’s sacrificial character, its diakonia. Consequently, the family actuates (activates) its sacramental nature whenever selfless love, forgiveness and care are expressed in its daily activities.

Finally, as divination, the sacramental nature of family provides the grace and duty of bearing witness to the eschatological hope and expectation of the future encounter of the Parousia of Christ’s Kingdom. By holding candles during their wedding ceremony, the Bride and Groom, (a) proclaim their baptismal identities, and (b) accept the invitation to vigilantly prepare their family for the Coming Kingdom. Like the 5 wise virgins, the family must always be prepared to properly welcome the Eternal Bridegroom into their midst. Only by assuming such a expectant posture can the family experience the sweet New Wine of His Kingdom.

Needless to say, much more could be added here concerning these three components of the diakonia of the Christian Family. However, it is important to encourage the contemporary Christian family to strive for spiritual vigilance at a time when postmodernism seeks to deconstruct its sacramental dignity.

As we have observed thus far, marriage, like the other six major sacraments, is a sacred sign, an “epiphenomenon” of Christ and His Church. It is through anamnesis, actuation and eschatological hope that each family reveals the grace of its sacramental nature. Each spouse as individual, together as couple, and united through mutual fertility with their children as family is called to faithfully reflect the great mystery of Christ’s incarnation, passion and resurrection. The two - the bride and groom - mystically become one flesh (an incarnation) a unity that entails much more than physicality. Such incarnational indissolubility entails that each spouse is prepared to live a life of sacrifice and true selflessness which can only be possible through personal participation in Christ’s passion. Finally, by reason of its association with the wider community of marriage throughout humanity, the Christian family bears witness to the hope of a significantly new understanding, a foretaste of “new wine”, of eschatological unity through conjugal faithfulness.

Family, therefore, and the issue of Fertility that it presupposes, embraces much more the notion of procreation. It is a sacred act through which every couple collaborates in the continuation of the process of creation itself. Such an orientation arises from God’s creative intention. Through the act of child bearing a couple continues the creative process of God. Consequently, family is the sign, the icon of mankind’s co-creative work, synergia with God. In a real sense, the orientation towards fertility and family is intrinsic to marriage itself. It is a sacred consequence of the marital dynamic between a man and a woman whose relationship is based on a shared dignity, partnership and sacred diakonia with God.

4. The Fourth Affirmation that discloses the sacramental nature of the family concerns its intrinsic dignity.

As we have observed, St. Paul dignifies the institution of marriage, and by extension the family by referring to it as a Great Mystery. To interpret to what exactly St. Paul refers by the word “mysterion” – we must briefly look to the witness of Patristic literature. For the Church Fathers the term mystery refers to the entire work of Salvation wrought by God for His entire Creation. Consequently, whenever the Fathers examined the issue of the Mystery of the Church they discussed three interdependent theological concepts, namely: (A) the incarnation, (b) cross, and (c) the resurrection. In order to understand the true dignity of marriage and family we should examine them in light of these three theological components.

1. According to the Church Fathers, the incarnation provides the basis for the sacramental indissolubility of marriage. By assuming our human nature, Christ – “Marries us”. God takes on our very flesh. This is the incarnation espousal of the Messiah and the new Israel- His bride. All sacraments are grounded and are extensions of this Incarnational economy of God.

2. If the incarnation is the espousal, the Cross is the Praxis of the Great Mystery, for it is an extension of the self-giving of Christ for His Beloved Bride. Understood in this fashion, the miracle of Cana prepares humanity for the new wine of the Kingdom. Jesus freely consents to the union of His self-giving on the Cross. His consent to die for His Bride, the Church, is a specific choice. To achieve a complete and lasting union, at Golgotha, Christ, the new Adam sleeps in much the same fashion as the Adam of old slept. From Christ’s side, however, the Holy Church is formed. Consequently, we are all part of the Bride of the bridegroom.

The significance of this rich patristic tradition can not be overstated as it is used to weave the very fabric of our understanding of the sacramental nature of marriage – and by extension – the sacramental dignity of the family. The Messianic Bridegroom calls all married couples to make the same choice – to freely choose faithfulness and selfless love – the agape of Jesus – as the lynchpin of the marital praxis of their familial expression.

3. Finally, it is through the Resurrection that the Great Mystery and the Dowry of the Vine is made permanent. The resurrection is therefore a Cosmic Crowning – which reintroduces us to the pedigree of our original spiritual nobility. As such, we may now enter the Banquet of the Lamb which is described in the 19th Chapter of Revelation. Every marriage, church or secular includes this eschatological hope.

In one of the prayers offered by the celebrant during the marriage ceremony, God is revealed as “the Author of mystical and pure marriage” who communicates transformational life to every couple. What is most significant for us, is not merely the understanding that marriage in the Lord signifies the saving work of Christ, but most importantly – that marriage communicates grace to and through the married couple and through their respective family. This, in the final analysis, is the nobility – the great dignity of the family.

5. The fifth affirmation that discloses the intrinsic sacramental nature of the family is its sacred dialectic.

The Christian family is rooted in the sacred dialectic, the idiom of sacrificial love. However, what exactly do we mean when we as Orthodox Christians make such a bold affirmation? Unlike its Roman Catholic counterpart the Orthodox Marriage ceremony does not include a predetermined set of vows that are brokered between the Bride and Groom by the officiating clergyman. Although the rubrics for the ceremony indicates that the couple should approach the altar of their own free choice, the ceremony focuses rather on the acknowledgment of the vertical, rather than the horizontal covenant relationship in marriage.

While always a possibility in every marriage relationship, the sacred – sacramental nature of marriage is not based on the contractual or mutual consent of the bride and groom. It is not the byproduct of a horizontal agreement but rather a sacred dialectic of sacrificial love that begins with the consent of the couple with God. The manner of a couple’s shared life will be determined by their respective relationship with God. The “I do!” of Orthodox marriage is not to each other – but it is in the image of Christ’s Gethsemane prayer – the “I do” to the “will of God!” As Christ the Eternal Bridegroom consented to His Father’s Will in the Betrothal of Gethsemane – the mutual consent of the Bride and Groom with God their Father inaugurates a life of Passion – a Praxis – a Sacred Dialectic of sacrificial love – replete with transformational Grace – within the Mystical Body of the Church.

Such an interpersonal, self-sacrificial relationship between man and woman, every Bride and Groom, should be understood in terms of the image of the hypo static union of God and man as “Theanthropos” in Jesus Christ. Every married couple is therefore called to be a permanent (preferably an unrepeatable) sign of Christ’s sacrificial love for His Bride – the Church. It is to this mystery that St. Paul points his pastorally sympathetic, yet theologically precise pen. Every family, therefore, has the potential to be sacramental if in fact it consents to enter into the Dialectic of Christ’s economic work – to be a sign of healing and redemption to the wounded humanity described in the opening chapters of Genesis.

The family is thus consecrated, sacred – it is sacrificial - not as event – but as a relationship of potential – through which the couple and their children both experience and express the Love that provides access to God’s holiness. Understood in this fashion, the family as a unit, as well as each individual within the family, may be considered distinct yet interrelated organs in the mystical Body of the Church. Only by accepting such an understanding can we guard family life from despotic structures that enable personal credos of self-centeredness. The Christian Family must therefore choose conciliar frameworks that express the Dialectic of self-giving agape.

It is the dialectic, the idiom, the Praxis of sacrificial love (of Agape) that inaugurates, sustains, and perfects the sacramental nature of marriage. Unlike the covenant established and sustained between God and Humanity in the Old Testament, the Orthodox understanding of marriage and family are modeled on the New Covenant which calls for a synergetic response of fidelity by the bride and groom, husband and wife, mother and father, king and queen. They are invited to reign, not as tyrants but as servants with love by means of the Grace provided to them by God for the benefit of their immediate and extended family, as well as the entire cosmic order. The Epistle lesson read at the Orthodox Wedding Ceremony underscores this sacrificial praxis of family life by asserting the need for the husband to love his wife as Christ loved the Church. While often misunderstood as securing an autocratic rule of the husband over his wife, the Epistle lesson genuinely underscores the reverse position. It is the husband and not the wife who is called to love the other to the point of sacrificial death!

Speaking in the voice of the husband, St. John Chrysostom provides advice to couples on self-giving love. “I have taken you into my arms, I love you and prefer you to my life. In this present life my most burning desire is to spend it with you in such a way that we will be sure not to be separated in the future life that is reserved for us. I put your love above everything!”

6. The sixth and final affirmation that discloses the true nature of the family pertains to its intrinsic sacramental delight.

The faithful Christian Family is a sacramental delight. Unlike its natural, incomplete counterpart, Christian marriage draws its strength from a different cistern from a Divine vintage that provides immeasurable delight and eternal life.

I have always wondered what the Wine Steward, the Symposiarch who tasted the water which became wine at the wedding at Cana of Galilee said to himself upon drinking it. Perhaps he put it to his lips prepared to taste even poorer wine than that originally provided. I am sure he was caught off guard. The Time has come for the Orthodox Family in America to provide the “WOW experience” (“WOW” -- acronym for the “Wine of Orthodox Witness”)

As a contemporary Symposiarch of God’s Grace, the Orthodox Family is called to extend the wine of Cana to the spiritually thirsty. As we have observed, the family finds, in the original plan of God, information concerning its design = what it is . . . and its destiny = what it should do. If properly understood, therefore, the miracle of Cana summons the contemporary family to its ontological dignity and to its intrinsic responsibility. Family becomes sacramental when, through the Grace of God, the stagnant water-pots of its natural identity and praxis, are transformed into the dynamic sacred wine of the kingdom of God - the primary community of intimate life ad love.

As a living historical icon of the new-wine of Cana, the Christian family reveals and communicates sacramentalized love and life – that is love and life the way it was originally intended to be lived and shared by God. It is a living reflection of everything that is created and redeemed in the Church - the Bride of God.

Understood in this fashion the family is grafted into the mystery of the Church to such a degree - that it is a sign – an epiphany, a sacrament in the truest sense - of a “saved community”. As such, it has the responsibility of communicating God’s love by continually becoming a “saving community”. In the end, the family is both the fruit and the tree of the Church.

The family based the marriage of one man and one woman, as a natural institution is the primary cell of society. The sacramental dimensions of marriage briefly examined in this study provide abundant riches for the family. Although our postmodern society implies many models of the family, the sacramental foundation of family life bases its existence on marriage as a community of love and life between one man and one woman. By accepting a model that proposes that the family is willed by God as a natural institution of creation, we guard ourselves against accepting any view that conceives marriage and family as the product of ever-changing societal consensus which ultimately results in extensive instability and successive forms of philosophical erosions and deterioration.

The Christian Family has a responsibility to therefore be a “delightful” reflection of Christ’s economic work. By sharing a life of intimate selfless love the members of each family participates in the (a) prophetic, (b) priestly, and (c) kingly mission of Jesus Christ as expressed and realized in the Church. Understood in this fashion the Christian Family is an icon of the “Best Wine” reflecting the sweet loving covenant of Christ with the Church.

Listen to a famous statement by the early Church Father Tertullian who beautifully captures the essence of the delight of marriage and family life. “How can I adequately express the happiness of marriage” he insists “that is joined together by the Church, strengthened by an offering, sealed by a blessing, announced by angels and ratified by our Heavenly Father? How wonderful the bond between two believers, with a single hope, a single desire, a single observance, a single service. They are both brethren and both fellow servants. There is no separation between them in spirit or flesh. In fact, they are truly two in one flesh, and where the flesh is one, one is the spirit.”

The sacramental delight of the Christian family expresses itself primarily through love and discipleship both in service to the Church and in service to the world. Marital relationships provide a model of such discipleship by providing both the participants and their family unit with a unique way of encountering each other, the immediate community and the wider society. As we have observed humanity was originally created to share in “agapic love” . . . a love the effectively wills the good of the other. It is important, however, not to sentimentalize such love, for to effectively will the good of another may in fact mean to challenge not only one’s self, but the subject of one’s love quite forcefully. It is within the praxis of such a rich understanding of love as sacrificial agape that the intrinsic sacramentality of family life and love is manifested. In the end, those of us that are married and have families in the Church are summoned to be sacraments for both the church and the world. By there very existence, such families visibly manifest God’s love for the world. It is a contemporary epiphany of the Wine of Cana. It is a Delight in the truest sense of the word.