Marriage & Family as Sacrament

by Fr. Gregory C. Wingenbach

The Age of Aquarius is gone for good. Long live the Age of the Family!

For Western society in general, and America in particular, the tide of rugged individualism and selfish independence has finally begun to recede. No longer does society judge the benefits of a social institution solely by the criteria "What's in it for me?" No longer do the "me-first" values of the tumultuous '60's and yuppie-oriented '70's hold center stage.

Today, even the United Nations is planning an "International Year of Family and Families." Sociological studies emphasize the critical necessity of wholesome family life. And national and local election campaigns have placed the family and traditional values as the "make or break" issue for politicians.

For Christians, the vital importance of the family can never be overemphasized. We might welcome this new opportunity to deepen our understanding about family life and its centrality to our society, but the importance of the family cannot-or at least should not-come as a surprise. After all, it is God Himself Who established marriage as the very basis of human society.

In Genesis 2:18, we find the words: "Then God said, 'It is not good for man to be alone. I will give him a partner, a helpmate.'" Here is a three-way covenant-of God, man, and woman. Through this covenant, which mirrors the unity of the Divine Trinity, man and woman are no longer separate individuals, nor are they alone.

In fidelity to that Divine covenant which the Creator made with man, woman, and their progeny, the very Son of God became the Messiah in this world. The Son of God was born humbly of a woman who was and remains the epitome of her sex, "the crowning glory of womanhood," as one of the more poetic Church Fathers was to call the Theotokos, Blessed Virgin Mary.

In the course of His earthly ministry, the Son of Man forever righted the relationship of man and woman. In sharp contrast to all the ancient prejudices, He proceeded to consecrate the human act of male/female union. As a hallowed act of the Body of Christ, instead of being merely a civil contract or temporal arrangement for the sake of the state and secular order, marriage consecrates the man and the woman together to God and unto one another. They are strengthened for constant celebration.

The Home: A School for Life

Throughout the course of human history, God has always gone directly to the roots and heart of the human condition-acting together with, in the midst of, and using the very elements of humankind, nature, and history. God's acts are incarnational and relevant to us. He most often works through the ordinary and Ire material, rather than grandiose schemes or incredible feats of magic, to effect change and give meaning to life. The supreme example of this principle of Divine action is the Son of Man's own life, death, and ministry in this world.

Marriage and family are the most commonplace of human situations, the first and most basic community of all. Marriage and family are the place where all of humankind's-man's and woman's, children's and adolescents'-proclivities, strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears, sinning against one another, learning to love and care for "the other," failing and succeeding, and just being human have the chance to take place. By contrast, the world "outside" is more quick to pounce, to rule, to judge and quantify, and doesn't easily allow such an openness and gradual coming into being.

Marriage and family are sacred because the drama and events of life take place and unfold there. Not so the world, where social priorities and temporary trends take precedence over the struggling individual. Marriage and family are where-more than anywhere else-the free-acting grace of God and faith, hope, and love must be. The example of the servant-Christ is the model here-or else there is no marriage, no family, no household, no "brethren dwelling together in unity" (Psalm 133:1), and no future.

It is here that we as human beings can "let down our hair" and take off the masks that otherwise keep us from intimacy. Here we can see our most primal emotions mirrored in another's equally vulnerable eyes, as well as voice apparently absurd kinds of dreams and hopes, trustingly, without fear of ridicule, put down, or betrayal. Needless to say, these benefits are ours if the family relationship is itself trustworthy and healthy.

Marriage and family are, then, the school for life, the micro-cosmos that contains within "the mustard seed of the Kingdom" (Mark 4:26-32). Marriage and family hold up before a too-often insensitive society the ideal by which men, women, and children can truly live, not just exist. Perhaps this is why the Apostle Paul speaks of marriage and family, consecrated in God, as a "great mystery" (Ephesians 5:32-33). He goes even further to say that marriage touches on-contains within itself-the very nature of the relationship between Christ and His Church.

Reclaiming Sexuality

No doubt that is why the blessed Church Father John Chrysostom reacted so indignantly when both contemporary libertines and some of those teaching within the Church tended to reduce marriage to the animal level, when they characterized the very human sexual and spiritual relationships between a man and a woman as something to be regarded as "a necessary evil…something tainted… allowable for the sole sake of procreating offspring." In righteous anger, he said, "I am disgusted; for the very gift of God, the root of our generation, has been insulted. Let us cleanse our discourse on this subject and see marriage pure and noble, as God created it, for only in that way can we stop the mouths of heretics…" (Homily 12 on Colossians).

Yet that very attitude which Chrysostom condemned is a theme present within certain elements of both Eastern and Western Christian tradition, persisting to this very day, and it has frequently hedged, circumscribed, and unnaturally demeaned the marriage relationship and human sexuality by rules and notions artificially constructed and ungraciously arrived at.

Such attitudes are extremely harmful, for they betray our fundamental feelings. They teach and prophesy-rightly or wrongly as the case may be-the world that is to be. Do husband and wife treat their relationship wearily as a "duty"? Do they treat their love-making and human sexuality as unmentionable facts of life "decent folks" just don't talk about, thus giving a negative witness to their children and each other?

Such attitudes also betray that we are, nevertheless, titillated by the world's distorted and often sordid portrayal of sex-instead of appreciating it as something which God Himself designed to be the most beautiful expression of human intimacy, something that is indeed wonderful and sacred. Such will also be the attitudes of our children, who may very well feel they have to seek artificial intimacy and excitement outside of marriage and family, just as the Victorian generations did.

Do husband and wife strike out at each other's vulnerability, even in slighting little ways which show a lack of respect for "the other"? So will our children! Do husband and wife put social, religious, and workaday interests and ambitions ahead of marriage, family, and human needs? So will our children!

In all of this, the net effect will be that marriage and family will drop more than just a notch in our children's estimation and planning for the future. "Katoikon ekklesia" ("the Church in/of the Home"), as Saint Paul liked to characterize it (see Romans 16:5, 1 Corinthians 16:19, Colossians 4:15), will become perceived as just another convenient societal living-arrangement, another fact of life to be endured rather than rejoiced over and lived.

What it often adds up to are the modem phenomena of child runaways, breakdown of parent/teen communication and mutual respect, youthful despair and alienation, and aberrant misbehavior. Ultimately, the children of such marriages are "grown-up" only in physique, becoming self-centered adults-children who act out rather than actually live marriage and family Thus they become the tragic human statistics of abuse, divorce, and broken homes. History is repeated, not improved, in this tragic cycle.

Marriage and family are a sacrament of life, because they are where the "unseen warfare…of the soul" (cf. Ephesians 6:12-17, 1 Timothy 1:18-19) is fought. Above all, they are where the "holy things" that matter in life can and ought to be present. The very word and notion of "sacrament" derives from the most basic elements of life: the Latin sacra, "holy things" and the Greek roenoun, "live/abide/persist." Thus "sacrament" is the place, the state of being, where the "holy things" that matter in life can and ought to be present. Here is where above all the holy ones, by the grace of God, dwell and have their being in His covenant. Now we see more clearly why the Apostle liked calling marriage and family life katoikon ekklesia-the Church in/of the Home. For this, so far as he was concerned, is where the very Liturgy of Life begins and continues, day by day and in every land.

Garden of the Soul

In basic human terms, what can all this possibly mean? First of all, we frequently use the Greek/Latin words "family" and "sacrament" to describe the married state. Obviously, family denotes and involves the "familiar," the most ordinary of relationships common to life. In demotic Greek, it becomes oikogeneia-that is, the things that are of the most basic origin, those which get to our very roots and generate life, flesh, and blood anew out of what came before, within the context of a common household. Likewise, derivatively and theologically, "sacrament" involves those basic elements and doings of human life which, in God, are somehow transfigured with new purpose and being, in order that Christ can "take flesh and dwell among us."

Marriage, the male/female relationship, the household are that elementary stuff upon which the very fabric of both the human community and the Kingdom depend. This includes: Persons-expressing the diversity of gifts in personhood. Faithfulness-keeping promises, showing trust. Truthfulness-maintaining an attitude of openness and honesty. Community-living, giving, and sharing together. Communication-talking, listening, and hearing. Cooperation-the two-way street of working life out together. Accepting responsibility-putting aside the easy solution, avoiding temptation no matter how attractive or personally advantageous. Healing-reaching out to the other when he or she falls or is hurt. Humility-acting so that another may not feel or be humiliated. "But, most of all," to quote the Apostle, "the greatest of these is love" (see 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13) and the making and sustaining thereof by the partners, help-mates in marriage.

Obviously, these are all very homey, ordinary virtues and ways of behaving. But, without them, the human relationship and social contract itself crumble, for these very ordinary virtues are also the attributes of the Divine, necessary to the very sustaining of life. That is precisely why marriage and family are sacred. They are "Thy Gifts of Thine Own," the things of life that we offer in the Holy of Holies, out of what God has given to us in this world. It is appropriate, then, to conclude with a quote from Saint Gregory Nazianzos-a priest and bishop who came from a Levitical family which was not without its own share of life's problems: "So you fear to marry, surmising that you will somehow be corrupted by the flesh? Fear not this consecration of flesh unto flesh: know, rather, that by this act of marriage you will be pure" (Oration 40:18 on Holy Baptism). Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven!

After a sixteen-year secular career in journalism, government, and education, Father Wingenbach was ordained to the priestly ministry of the Greek Orthodox Church in 1971. He has pastored communities in America and Greece, as well as serving the Church in ecumenical assignments. He holds a secular theological bachelor's degree, a master of divinity, and a doctorate in pastoral and ecumenical theology. Presently the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese's national director of Family Life ministries, he is married, with four children.

Reprinted with permission from Again… Magazine, Vol. 12, No. 1, Mar. 1989, pp 13-15.

Helpful Reading

The Christian Family: The Church of the Home, 1987, 36 pp. (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Department of Church and Family Life, 840 E. 79th St., New York, NY 10021)
Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective, Fr. John Meyendorff; 1970, 104 pp. (Saint Vladimir's Seminary Press, 575 Scarsdale Road, Crestwood, NY 10707)
The Sacrament of Love, Ft. Paul Evdokimov; 1985, 192 pp. (Saint Vladimir's Seminary Press, 575 Scarsdale Road, Crestwood, NY 10707)
Marriage, Sexuality & Celibacy, Fr. Demetrios Constantelos; 1975, 93pp. (Light & Life Publishing Co., 4836 Park Glen Road, Minneapolis, MN 55416)
The Family: God's Handiwork, John Williams; 1984, 176 pp. (Tyndale House, P.O. Box 80, Wheaton, IL 60189)
The Family Covenant: Love and Forgiveness in the Christian Home, Dennis Guemsey; 1984, 115 pp. (David C. Cook Publishing Co., 850 N. Grove Ave., Elgin, IL 60120)
As for Me and My House, Walter Wangerin, Jr.; 1987, 252 pp. (Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN 37204)

© 1996 by Orthodox Family Life and the original author(s).
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