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An Orthodox Christian View of a Beseiged Sacrament
by Vigen Guroian
In recent years, homosexual persons and their supporters in North America have argued that marriage should be redefined to include the union of two persons of the same sex. Increasingly, this argument has been cast as a civil liberties issue: homosexual persons seek constitutional rights and liberties that have long been denied to them, key among these being marriage.
Same-sex marriage, however, is not just a legal matter. It is also a religious issue. For millennia, Western civilization has strictly understood marriage to be the union between a man and a woman. This definition, grounded in biblical beliefs about the nature of God and humanity, was reflected in common morality and civil law. Only recently has this understanding been questioned.
At present, the debate is principally over marriage between homosexual persons, but it is not likely to remain so. For if our society extends the boundaries of marriage’s meaning beyond the union of a man and a woman, there will remain no compelling reason under the law to deny “marital” status to heterosexual same-sex partners who seek the benefits that come with it, or, for that matter, to persons in polygamous relationships. This will explode the historical meaning of marriage that has obtained in our culture for millennia.
Under these circumstances, the gay and same-sex marriage issue obliges Orthodox Christians to be very clear about their Church’s theology of marriage, and why a partnership—and partnership is the appropriate term, not union or marriage—of any sort between persons of the same sex is not in character nuptial.
Understandings of Marriage
In pagan Rome during the first centuries of the Christian era, marriage was one of several acceptable forms of cohabitation and family life, and was available as a legal status only to free citizens. If two such persons, man and woman, lived together by consent in a regularized fashion and assumed the roles and responsibilities of husband and wife, then they were considered married under the law.
Roman law stipulated that marriage in its essence was not about intercourse but the free consent of the individuals entering into it. Marriage would exist, therefore, where there was the intention to form a household and did not require legal formalization, though that was available and qualified a couple for the special privileges accorded marriage. These included passing down the family name to children and inheritance of the father’s estate by the legitimate offspring of the marriage.
To this day, Western Christian understandings of marriage strongly reflect the Roman principle of consent. This consensual view of marriage became dominant in Latin and Western Christianity as the Church ingested Roman law. To one degree or another, in Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions alike, consent was “baptized” as a central element of marriage. The Roman Catholic Church eventually defined marriage as a sacrament, but the principle of consent has been at least as important in its theology of marriage. The principle of consent lies behind the Roman Catholic Church’s belief that the bride and groom administer their marriage to one another and is reflected in its denial of divorce. (Space does not permit a more nuanced discussion of the Roman Catholic theology of marriage, especially more recent emphasis on the “nuptial mystery” by some writers, including John Paul II. This emphasis is more compatible with Orthodox theology.)
In the Orthodox tradition, however, consent was not “baptized” as the validation or essence of a marriage. The clerical officer (bishop or priest), representing the Church, marries the bride and groom, and the couple is by this act bonded as husband and wife to Christ and the Church. The conjugal love union, and not consent, is understood to be at the heart of marriage. Marriage is a sacrament of love. This love union is founded and grounded in God’s will, in his creative act of making mankind male and female, so that, through their love for one another and sexual union, a man and a woman may become “one flesh.” Consent properly belongs to betrothal and is incorporated in Orthodox rites for the same.
The Logic of Consent
Nevertheless, many North Americans who identify themselves as Christians, including Orthodox, quite simply assume that the couple’s consent seals the marriage; that in a practical sense the will of the couple brings the marriage into existence and the withdrawal of this will is sufficient to terminate it. This is what present secular marriage and divorce law reflects. My point is simply that the principle of free consent has remained fixed as a cultural norm even as contemporary people have forgotten the sacred meaning and sacramental depths of marriage.
This very principle of consent, and the logic supporting it, is what today enables the advocates of gay marriage to make great headway in the legislature and the courts—and within the churches, especially Protestant churches that lack a sacramental understanding of marriage. It should surprise no one that, as the belief diminishes in these churches that homosexual acts are sinful, unnatural, or psychopathically abnormal, the argument for gay marriage will gain plausibility and persuasiveness among their adherents.
There prevails among many religious as well as secular people the belief that when two homosexual persons desire and freely consent to share their lives with one another as a domestic couple, the state should grant this partnership legal status as a marriage. And many, also, are coming to believe that the churches should solemnize these civilly contracted same-sex unions as Christian marriages.
Since this logic of consent is deeply embedded in our culture and in modern jurisprudence, it is easy to imagine that the sorts of changes in marriage law and tax codes that the gay lobby is seeking may eventually be extended to other same-sex households that are not homosexual. How could the state possibly discriminate—or even ask the questions needed to discriminate—between homosexual and heterosexual couples of the same sex that come to get licensed? If marriage is no longer defined as strictly between a man and a woman, why shouldn’t widows or widowers, brothers or sisters, and the like, who live together for mutual assistance and economic reasons, be granted licenses for domestic partnerships that entitle them to the legal benefits and protections now accorded to married couples?
It may well be that the law ought to grant some of the privileges of marriage to some of these household arrangements, just so long as the law remains clear that marriage is between a man and a woman. The logic of the law and the modern egalitarian ethos, under the pressure of gay marriage advocacy, seem, however, to be pressing in a direction that will stretch the definition of marriage far beyond all historically recognizable bounds. This may sit well with a secular government, but such a redefinition of marriage cannot be acceptable to the Church.
A Two-Tiered Arrangement
This rising challenge to the traditional understanding of marriage is emblematic of the crossroads at which our society is poised. And it places Orthodox and other Christians in an agonizing countercultural position whether they like it or not. This requires careful navigation, at least as careful and considered, and needing as much attention and wisdom, as the period that began with the emperors Theodosius I and Theodosius II of the fourth and fifth centuries and continued through Justinian in the sixth century.
For this was the period in which Christianity became the official religion of the Empire and the great codes were promulgated that truly defined and shaped Christendom. This has been our legacy until today, when the heart and spirit of Christendom are, alas, being banished from North American soil and the last remnants of these codes, which privileged marriage, supported sanctions against abortion and suicide, and provided for public prayer and the observation of Christian holy days, are being cleansed from the land.
For reasons that in this essay I can only sketch out, it is advisable that Orthodox churches in such states as Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut cease to cooperate or collaborate with the government in marrying persons, as has been done in one form or another within Christendom since the fifth and sixth centuries. I have urged my own church, the Armenian Orthodox Church, to act in this manner.
Such action would bring about a de facto two-tiered arrangement in which Orthodox Christians would obtain a civil marriage to meet the legal requirement and qualify for married status before the state, and then come to the Church to receive the sacrament or marital blessing. Even under present arrangements, two marriage certificates are issued in most states, one religious and the other civil. Henceforth, the Church would no longer assume responsibility for consecration of the civil contract.
By so acting, the Church would lodge its profound disagreement with the state’s unilateral and theologically erroneous redefinition of marriage. And the difference between marriage within the Body of Christ and the new forms of “marriage” that society has invented would be made clear.
The Orthodox Theology of Marriage
Allow me for a moment to address the theology of marriage that the Orthodox faith embraces.
According to the new wisdom, legal marriage will be defined to cover a whole range of consensual domestic relationships, both heterosexual and homosexual, so that all who enter into these arrangements may receive the benefits traditionally reserved for marriage between a man and a woman. Marriage will be defined strictly as a civil liberty under the law, irrespective of sex or procreative intent. This signals the rise of a juridical nominalism that denies the ontological and sacramental view of marriage kept for nearly two millennia by the Church; it is the final outworking of the principle of consent as the definitive element in marriage.
By contrast, the Orthodox theology of marriage is established in the Church’s doctrines of God and Creation. While an anthropological argument opposing same-sex marriage on biological or natural-law grounds is not necessarily incompatible with the Orthodox faith, it is not sufficiently theological, nor is it ecclesial. For the Orthodox Church, the primary argument is sacramental and ecclesial.
From the standpoint of Orthodox theology, whether or not the individuals who seek a same-sex union are homosexual or heterosexual is not what is theologically decisive. Neither is the argument from procreation, in other words, that same-sex couples cannot produce offspring in the manner that heterosexual couples are able to do.
While human beings, like other members of the animal kingdom, are sexually dimorphic, mate, and produce offspring, only human beings marry; birds and monkeys do not. A spiritual and sacramental dimension of human existence modifies human sexuality and transforms the human organism into something unique in the animal kingdom. Marriage is sign and symbol of this unique dimension of human sexual coupling. This is what makes marriage a sacrament; and male and female are the essential and non-substitutable elements of that sacrament. Thus, the Orthodox objection is to same-sex unions and not gay marriage per se, though the latter is a subset of the former.
The world is itself sacramental. In other words, it is epiphanic of God its Creator. The appointed sacraments of the Church are not exceptional (super) realities; they are not magic. Rather, they are specifications of the symbolical ontology of Creation; and they witness to the fact that humankind is created in the image of God. Each of the sacraments names and employs particular “natural” elements, reveals their epiphanic character, and employs their inherent capacity to serve God’s salvific purpose.
Bread and wine are natural symbols of flesh and blood. Christ reveals them as symbols of his body and blood, in and through which he is verily present; and by consuming these translated elements, we enter into the most intimate communion with him as one ecclesial body.
Male and female are the exclusive elements and symbols of transformation in the sacrament of marriage. Marriage brings male and female together as God originally intended them: as spouses and companions to one another, husband and wife, one Christic and ecclesial being (Eph. 5:30–32). Through the sacrament, God heals our divided humanity at the primary source of its division, the alienation of male and female; he renders it whole once again; he restores male and female natures to their original unity and integrity.
This sacramental union of bride and groom is no mere cipher or allegory of human relationality, as represented by some proponents of gay marriage. Bride and groom are not nominal titles that may be bestowed upon any two persons, irrespective of their sex or gender, who enter into a “loving relationship.” There is nothing incidental, accidental, or volitional about heterosexual humanity, or the fact that the male is groom and the female is bride, or that the marital union of a man and a woman is an icon of the eschatological union of Christ and the Church.
Christ is the Groom and the Church is his Bride of the New Creation. The referend of groom is the eternal first man, Adam, and the referend of bride is the eternal first woman, Eve. The nuptial Adam-Eve humanity of the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, is the analogue of the heavenly nuptials of the marriage of the Lamb in the Book of Revelation (19:7), the last book of the Bible. The creation of nuptial humanity is an epiphany of the eternal humanity of God precedent to its complete revelation in the Incarnation. The creation of nuptial humanity is a prophecy of the Church, which itself, through its nuptial union with Christ, fulfills the goal and purpose of Creation.
Human willing and choosing cannot change marriage’s essence, or the symbolism that God has ordained for it. Thus, there simply is no such thing as same-sex marriage. There is not a same-sex equivalent to bride and groom. To insist that there are such equivalencies, and to act on this error, not only represents marriage as something it is not, but also envisions salvation as something it is not.
Three Key Actions
The essence of marriage as conjugal love union is symbolized in the Orthodox rites of marriage by three key actions: the joining of the hands of bride and groom, the crowning of the couple, and the sharing of the common cup.
At the start of Orthodox rites of matrimony, the celebrant joins the right hands of the bride and groom, by which is affirmed the primordial bond of union proclaimed by Adam: “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh . . . and the two shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:23–24). The Orthodox services recapitulate God’s primal act by which Adam and Eve were brought face to face to know each other as “self of self,” united in love, the image of God in his perfect communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
There follows the crowning of the couple. This indicates that, like every sacrament, marriage brings the kingdom of God into our midst. Every marriage is, as St. John Chrysostom explains, a small church in which the virtues of the kingdom are learned and rehearsed. The bride and groom are king and queen of this new heavenly kingdom of their marriage. And God calls upon them to exercise within the domestic household that form of dominion over the world that God instructed the first couple to practice. The crowns are also a reminder that the kingdom is won only though self-giving and self-sacrificial love, as when Christ went willingly to the Cross.
Last, the sharing of the common cup recalls Christ’s blessing of the wedding in Cana of Galilee. The water changed to wine is the sign that “marriage in the Lord,” as St. Paul puts it, is a sacrament of the kingdom of God. “Natural” marriage is revealed as the matter of the sacrament. Sharing the wine is emblematic of the one-flesh union and life of mutual love to which husband and wife must aspire. This practice of the shared cup and the remembered events at Cana also allude to Baptism and Eucharist. It is a means by which persons become members of the Body of Christ and participants in the divine life (2 Peter 1:4).
Marriage & Eucharist
The early Church saw no need to perform a special ritual for marriage. It recognized the validity of marriage that the civil authorities performed and authorized. Rather, the Church invited couples to share the Eucharist together as a sign of their union in Christ and commitment as a couple to the kingdom of God. It was not until the ninth and tenth centuries that a complete rite of matrimony emerged. At this time, marriage was removed from the Eucharist, and the sharing of the common cup was substituted.
Today, the reasons why the Church separated marriage from the Eucharist have gained new significance. In the ninth century, Emperor Leo VI (886–912) mandated that all marriages be sanctioned by a church ceremony. A marriage that was not blessed by the Church would not be considered a marriage. Some received this gesture as a great achievement toward the complete Christianization of the Empire. It presented serious problems for church discipline, however, and forced compromises upon the Church that blurred the distinction between church order and secular order and between marriage as a sacrament for baptized believers and marriage as a legal contract. We have been living with these compromises for over a thousand years.
There is one compromise the Church would not and could not make, however, lest it forfeit completely its identity as the Body of Christ in the world. And that was the admission of non-believers, the unbaptized, and known sinners to the Eucharist. In order to mitigate this problem, the Church developed a rite of matrimony separate from the Eucharist.
The time has now arrived when marriage and the Eucharist (or Lord’s Supper) should be rejoined as a regular practice in order to protect and preserve the integrity of marriage. The Eucharist is the “home” of Christians. And it is the home of Christian marriage as well. The early Christian apologists, who fully acknowledged the legal validity of civil marriage, insisted upon this mystical connection between Christian marriage and the Eucharist. The second-century writer Tertullian, in a letter to his wife, beautifully expressed this sentiment:
What words can describe the happiness of that marriage which the church unites, the [Eucharistic] offering strengthens [i.e., confirms], the blessing seals, the angels proclaim, and the Father declares valid. . . . What a bond is this: two believers who share one hope, one desire, one discipline, the same service.
Mounting a Defense
Sometimes, the children of God need to be wise as the serpent. They would be wise to contemplate the possibility that in the United States the day might arrive when the state, through legislative fiat or court decision, attempts to take marriage back from the Church completely and place it exclusively under its own control. The free exercise clause of the Constitution would then be crucial to the defense of marriage. Churches would need to lean on it heavily to keep and defend holy matrimony.
The best position from which to mount this defense is in the legitimate claim that Christian marriage is integral to Christian worship, is a sacrament and a Eucharistic feast. Any attempt that the state might make to require churches to marry same-sex couples, therefore, would amount to an unconstitutional interference with religious practice, as the state would be unilaterally and unconstitutionally redefining a religious sacrament.
St. Theodore the Studite, in the ninth century, mentions two elements that belonged to Eucharistic marriage as early as the fourth century. He informs us that a crowning ceremony existed, followed by a brief prayer, a prayer that is virtually replicated in Orthodox rites of marriage:
Thyself, O Master, send down Thy hand from Thy holy dwelling place and unite these Thy servant and Thy handmaid. And give to those whom thou unitest harmony of minds; crown them into one flesh; make their marriage honorable; keep their bed undefiled, deign to make their common life blameless.
This simple blessing encapsulates the entire meaning of Christian marriage. It is God who marries man and woman, and who is present at every Christian marriage. Christian marriage is a sacrament. It is a holy institution and divine call to discipleship. And through marriage God opens up the gates of the kingdom of heaven to man and woman in their one-flesh union, as he made them to be in the beginning when he placed them in the garden of delight.
Groundwork & an Invitation
Now hear that portion of the Armenian rite of matrimony that immediately follows the hymn of betrothal, when the bride and groom face one another to receive the priestly blessing. They stand facing each other as two complementary presences of a single humanity, once divided, that God now reunites. With his own hand, the priest joins the right hands of the bride and the groom. Then he states:
God took the hand of Eve and gave it into the right hand of Adam. And Adam said: This is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh . . . Wherefore them that God has joined together, let no man separate. . . . See my dear children in Christ, according to the divine command and the ordinances of the holy fathers of the Church, you have come to this holy church in order to be crowned and wedded in holy matrimony. May God keep you in mutual love, lead you to a ripe old age, and make you worthy of the incorruptible crown in heaven.
Can it be right for a priest of the Armenian Church to use the very same hand with which, as a minister of God, he joins bride and groom in holy matrimony, to sign a license of marriage for a state that has unilaterally redefined the meaning of marriage into something it is not? I, in conscience, have to say, “This cannot be so.”
My aim in this article has been to set forth in a reasonably brief space an Orthodox response to the gay marriage and same-sex union debate. This response was intentionally theological, but its larger purpose is to lay the groundwork on which churches in America can defend marriage in the public sphere and protect it against the radically new notions of marriage that today are being constructed and enacted into law. This article is an invitation to Christians of all confessions to think about and reason through how they are going to respond to the grave challenge of same-sex marriage.
Vigen Guroian is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Loyola College in Baltimore, Maryland. Among his books are the second, expanded edition of Incarnate Love: Essays in Orthodox Ethics (University of Notre Dame, 2002) and Rallying the Really Human Things: The Moral Imagination in Politics, Literature, and Everyday Life (ISI Books, 2005). "Family Offices" was given at Touchstone's conference, "Praying and Staying Together," in October 2004.