And he left there and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to him again; and again, as his custom was, he taught them. 2 And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away.” 5 But Jesus said to them, “For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” 10 And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Revised Standard Version)
See also: Matthew 19:3-12
The following reflections are based on the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday after the Holy Cross, Eve of the Fast of the Holy Cross of Varak:
This is the second of two similar accounts in the Gospels in which Jesus talks about the union of marriage. The Cross stands in the center binding together what God has joined. Click here to read the themes written for St. Matthew’s version, also used as a Sunday Gospel reading during the Church year.
To the Victor Goes the Crown
The crowning is the central symbol and ritual of the entire sacrament of marriage in all of its several rituals. In fact, the sacrament in the Armenian Church for marriage is not “matrimony,” but the “Rite of a Maiden’s Crown.” In Armenian, «Կանոն Պսակ Կուսի:» Why the emphasis on crowning? It is the triumph of Jesus Christ, the victory of the Cross!
One of the required roles in the wedding ceremony of the Armenian Church (as well as other Eastern traditions) is not, as some may assume, a “best man,” but a “Godfather of the Cross” or խաչեղբայր (khachyeghpayr). The image is clear. The խաչեղբայր stands behind the bride and groom holding a cross that hovers over them, the sign of God’s infinite, unconditional, sacrificial love, a sign to give oneself fully to the other person.
Marriage and martyrdom
In the Church, martyrs are also said to be crowned. Why? Because they are living witnesses of the victory of Christ! The crown of thorns that Jesus wore as he hung on the Cross was meant to serve as a mockery of the royal crown, but for Christians, it came to represent life in the Kingdom of God: victory over sin, suffering, and death. As fellow heirs in the Kingdom of God, the husband and wife share his crown of thorns. St. Paul writes,
And if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:17)
Surprising as this may seem, rather than romantic love, the tradition of Christian marriage belongs to the genre of martyrdom. In fact, this is the opposite of how marriage is commonly perceived. Rather than a fantastical cure to the boredom or illness of being single, marital union matches what Jesus demonstrated on the Cross: self-consecration, self-sacrifice, suffering, and martyrdom.
Therefore, the things we should truly value in marriage are what Jesus embodied in his ministry and on the Cross, and it is the qualities of a martyr from which Christian marriage derives its strength and glory: patience, endurance, sacrifice, selflessness, generosity, kindness, steadfastness, loyalty, and of course, holiness, none of which are possible without the presence of suffering, i.e the crown of thorns.
Marriage and the Kingdom of God
Christ and the Cross are the center of the marital union, and where Christ is the Kingdom of God is present. To be a part of God’s Kingdom, to join the lineage of that royal family is to wear the crown of victory and splendor. But that crown is more than just victory in the ordinary sense. The crown of marriage means victory through suffering, strength in weakness, becoming a martyr to one’s self for the sake of the other person. A husband sacrifices himself fully for his wife, and the wife dies to herself for the salvation and good of her husband.
This is what it means to be crowned and live as King and Queen in the Kingdom of God, as co-heirs of his royalty. Again, surprising perhaps, but the romantic images of a King and Queen that make up storybooks and movies is far from what the ancient, persecuted Church had in mind when it came to the joining of a husband and wife in Christian marriage. According to St. Paul, marriage is a symbol of the sacrificial love Christ displayed for his Bride, the Church:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. (Ephesians 5:25)
Here, St. Paul sees the Cross, sacrifice, and martyrdom as the foundation of marriage. Marriage has a mission, a purpose, not only as an expression of Christ’s love for the Church, but in a real way, marriage, when grounded in Jesus Christ and his Church, brings forth his divine life and holiness to a world rife with broken and unholy unions. As are our martyrs, the Church’s married couples are a gift, a true image or icon of the love which binds together the persons of the Holy Trinity.
The Cross unites us
Do we, as married couples, follow the example of Jesus, do we follow the example of the martyrs? Does the Cross stand at the center of our marriage? Beyond being cordial, tolerant, and friendly, does the Cross join us all together as an intimate parish community reflecting holy, sacrificial, selfless love? Does the Cross unite us as martyrs for Christ laying down our egos, agendas, our very lives for one another for the salvation of the Church, the Body of Christ?
It is no wonder why this Gospel reading appears in lectionary during the Season of the Cross. Marriage, like martyrdom, is the ultimate sacrifice, giving up one’s own life for someone else, and just as martyrs are in full communion with God having become champions over the ultimate enemy – death. Through the Cross of Jesus Christ, a husband and wife grow deeper in communion with God and with one another.
Marriage is not easy, but it is beautiful and holy, and as the Armenian Church, let us pray for our married couples, support them, and lift them up as they look to the Cross of Jesus Christ that crowned as they stood before the altar on their wedding day.