And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” 8 He said to them, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.” 10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.” (Revised Standard Version)
See also: Mark 10:1-12
The following reflections are based on the Gospel reading for the Third Sunday after Transfiguration:
They Become One Flesh
Who or what is our model for marriage today? In a culture where marriage is becoming increasingly unpopular (who needs an institution to tell us we’re married?), is it too late for the Church to recover any sense of what marriage means, why it should be taken seriously and considered holy? How can the Church compete with celebrity “power couples,” or how the latest show on Netflix portrays “love” and relationships? How can the Church recover the very word love when society has redefined it and reduced it to whatever suits our desires, whims, feelings, and constitutional rights, when almost any expression of “love” is considered normal?
The origin of love
The highest ideals that our secular world has for marriage are love (however that is defined by an individual) and equality. That’s not entirely bad, but it is only the beginning, and it does not touch upon the sacred mystery of love, the origin of which is God, who is love. We hear the tautological mantra “Love is Love,” but the Church and Scripture throughout the centuries has proclaimed “God is love.” (In fact, this should ring very familiar as many Armenian Churches have the words «Աստուած Սէր Է» displayed over the Khoran/Altar.)
And so God is the starting point to discover and experience what love is because he is love by nature. And because love originates in him, because God is love, not everything is permissible nor does everything qualify as “love.” Our Creator knows what is best for us and has expressed “true love” through his Son. Indeed, the very center of our faith hinges upon the mystery of God loving us by becoming flesh and blood in order to dwell with us so that we might know him and unite with him in love.
Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. (I John 4:8-9)
Love and marriage
Consequently, there is an entire realm of love and marriage that only the Church believes and teaches. The Church sees marriage as two becoming “one flesh” (մի մարմին), a true, holy union where a husband lives for his wife and the wife lives for her husband in the same way that Jesus lived for us, died for us, and lives for us today (see Ephesians 5:21). Listen to how Jesus addresses the question of divorce in this Gospel narrative by holding us to his original plan at creation by restating Genesis (2:24):
Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?
In contrast to other traditions, in the Armenian Church, as well as other Eastern Christian traditions, marriage does not create a contract between a husband and wife, but a new entity, a new human being, no longer two bodies, but one. Just as we share in the life of Christ in a true and mystical way, in some measure, through the power of God, the husband and wife share the life of each other.
But what does it mean that the “two become one flesh?” To be sure, this is not a metaphorical or poetic way of expressing “true love.” (n.b. Orthodox Christianity doesn’t exist in the abstract, but in the particular. Faith, i.e. faithfulness, like love, is not just a matter of the mind or the heart, it is a concrete way of life expressed through good works. How could it be otherwise?)
The language of the Church is that of union, the essence of salvation in Christ. St. Athanasius, the fourth-century Church Father, in his theological treatise On the Incarnation wrote what has become his famous words: “God became man so that man could become God.” Rather than being what may sound confusing or even heretical, the words of St. Athanasius refer to our true participation, or communion (sharing, unity, co-union) in the life of Jesus Christ. The reason Jesus came to us in flesh and blood was to bring us into a life of holy communion for which we were originally created. So, in some real way, through the life and sacraments of the Church, we enter into and share the divine life, essence, and existence of Christ.
What does any of this theology have to do with marriage?
Well, one of the clearest images of the communion we have with Christ is that of marriage between a man and a woman. In fact, Jesus is the only precedent we have for the a paradox of mutual subordination to which Christian marriage is called. The Son of God “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:7) The “Only-begotten Son and Word of God and Being immortal, who deigned to take body through the holy Mother of God and Ever-Virgin,” as we sing in Badarak (p. 11), entered into the dirt and grime of our lives, washed the feet of his disciples, and touched the diseased, the outcasts of society. Not out of selfish motive or gain, but out of pure, divine love, to invite us and bring us into eternity, his Kingdom.
The mission that Christ has with us, to bring us into his Kingdom, into eternal life – here, now, after death – is the same for a husband and wife. When that becomes the foundation of a marriage, there is no longer room for exploitation, power plays, domination, subjugation, demands, giving orders, receiving orders, or gratuitous obedience and submission. The two must subordinate themselves to one another without, however, being subjugated to the other, and without sacrificing their own identity and individuality. They become one flesh. And like Christ, the man and a woman having taken up the Cross as the key to their new life of mutual loving service, the husband and wife, through Christian marriage, become agents in the healing of a broken world, and uniquely experience, as intimately as any human being can, the reality and the ecstasy of Holy Communion with God. That is true love.
Also, St. Paul makes reference to this kind of union in his letter to the Ephesians which is wisely read at every Armenian wedding service. He explains the mystery of two becoming one flesh as referring to Christ and the Church. So what is so “mysterious” about the marriage of a man and a woman? Again, marital union is an image or icon of Christ’s communion and marriage to his bride, the Church. In other words, marriage is nothing less than a reflection of God’s love for his people, a force that is so potent that its end result is unity, oneness. This is precisely why sexual union is not something that we should pervert and wield for our own pleasure, but is a mystical and holy act, a marital privilege.
Still…who can comprehend all of this? What fraction of our faithful know this? For most people doesn’t this sound too theological and deep? Perhaps. The first response is that marriage is theological. It is not something superficial, the idea which is killing marriage in the first place. At the very least what we need to take away from the above is that marriage is much, much more than two people saying yes to one another out of romantic love and common interests, a companion with whom to grow old, as essential and wonderful as those reasons are. Marriage is about the Church; it’s about God; it’s about living a life of holiness in the context of sacrificial, conjugal love.
How does this apply to parish life?
Do we see our own community as the bride of Christ or do we settle for much less? Are we a loose gathering of people with something more or less in common, perhaps how we particularly define what it means to be “Armenian,” or are we a divine family with a shared belief, the Body of Christ bonded in the love that Jesus has for us? Do we show that same love for one another? Do our marriages and relationships reflect that which Tertullian, the third-century Church Father wrote on what communion looks like between two believers?
What kind of yoke is that of two believers who share one hope, one desire, one discipline, one service? They enjoy kinship in spirit and in flesh. They are mutual servants with no discrepancy of interests. Truly they are “two in one flesh.” Where the flesh is one, the spirit is one as well. Together they pray, together bow down, together perform their fasts, mutually teaching, mutually entreating, mutually upholding. In the Church of God they hold an equal place. They stand equally at the banquet of God, equally in crises, equally facing persecutions, and equally in refreshments. Neither hides anything from the other. Neither neglects the other. Neither is troublesome to the other.
The Precedent for Marriage
Marriage is Holy Communion, which means that Holy Communion is not just something placed on our tongue during Badarak, rather Holy Communion is the essence of the Gospel: “Emmanuel, God with us.” (Matthew 1:23) And if God is truly with us, then we, those who belong to the Church, the family of God, become one with one another as the Body of Christ. So, when we celebrate the crowning of a man and a woman, we celebrate Christ’s marriage to the Church.
In other words, when we celebrate a wedding in the Armenian Church we are not only, not even first and foremost, celebrating the love between the couple, but celebrating our salvation, it is a celebration of the Church! In other words, we are celebrating the love between the couple insofar as it proclaims the salvation of the Church, the Body of Christ. (This is why, in the Armenian Church, husbands and wives are strictly married in a consecrated church and not on a beach, as beautiful and romantic as that may be.) The signature hymn of the Armenian sacrament of Crowning beautifully proclaims the mystery of marriage as the same mystery of our salvation:
Oorakh ler soorp yegeghetsee, kanzee Kreesdos arkayn yergneets aysor busagyats uzkez khacheevun yoorov.
Rejoice, holy church! Because Christ the King of Heaven has today crowned you with his Cross.
The whole church rejoices, not just because the marriage between a man and a woman anticipates happiness and children, but because marriage is a celebration of God doing his work and salvation in the world. When two become one in Christ through marriage, it is God at work renewing, restoring, and healing the world, reconciling creation through the Church. God involves us in the salvation of the world in various ways, including marriage. Again, the union of a husband and wife, lived rightly and in union with Christ is an instrument of salvation! That is the precedent for marriage in a culture that discourages it.
But sometimes marriage doesn’t work
Unfortunately, in a fractured world not every situation tends toward peace and unity, and so divorce is still rampant in society, even in the Church, but according to the words of Jesus, it is not a part of God’s original plan. In the Gospel reading, Jesus makes it clear that divorce was granted by Moses because of our hardheartedness, because of our inability to stay aligned with God’s will, our Creator’s intention and plan to renew, restore, and heal creation, to bring together that which has been divided, to bring peace.
Once again, as we place marriage between and man a woman as the mirror image of Christ and the Church, we begin to understand why unity is not to be broken. Once we are united, covenanted with the Church, with Christ, through baptism, we are not to be divided from his Body. We can’t remove the Holy Muron with which we have been anointed. Likewise, once a married couple engage in a united, covenantal, sexual relationship, the two who became one are not to be divided.
Indeed, the Church does not judge or condemn those who have gone through a divorce, but should always demonstrate Christian love and pastoral sensitivity. And for all of the marriages that have ended in tragedy, there are many beautiful examples of those who, under stress, with prayer, celebrate the one flesh in Christ as God promised and encourages in this Gospel narrative.
The only precedent we have for true love is not the latest celebrity “power couple” or counterfeit versions of love peddled through the media, but the example of Jesus Christ, who out of pure, sacrificial love took on
The form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:7-8)
Marriage is martyrdom (and romantic)
Out of love, God came to reunite humanity with himself by means of the Cross, by humbly wearing a crown of thorns, that crown being a victory over the enemy of evil, suffering, and death. This victory was won through love – sacrifice and martyrdom. This is why the couple being crowned, with the Cross hovering over their heads, is central to the wedding ceremony. The Cross of Jesus Christ – martyrdom – is the only model we have for understanding and achieving a true Christian marriage. This is why the Church, traditionally, has always “crowned” her martyrs. Martyrdom is the ultimate expression of sacrificial love, and something to which all Christians, and uniquely, married Christians are called.
Sure, the crowns used in the sacrament of the crowning resemble those of a king and queen, but be sure they do not recall the fantastical, fanciful, royal life we are so commonly exposed to in books and movies. It does, however, recall the royal life in the Kingdom of God, with Christ as King, as Victor. Through marriage, a couple shares in Christ’s victory of martyrdom whenever they demonstrate sacrificial love, putting the other first, subjugating to the other for the sake of the Gospel. Sacrifice is painful, but it is how God demonstrated love, defined it for us. The Kingdom of God is marked with suffering, the Cross stands at the center with Christ as King wearing his crown of thorns. And so the love required between a husband and wife is no less than what Jesus described and demonstrated:
Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)
The meaning of marriage, all that was said above, does not mean that romance in marriage should be absent or is unimportant. The Church is not trying to spoil the enchantment and passion between two people in love and wanting to dedicate their lives to one another. Rather the “true romance” between a husband and wife is the laying down of one life for the other for the sake of the Kingdom of God, for the salvation and healing of the other, to invite the other into eternity. Marriage is less about the fleeting romantic feelings, and precisely about becoming holy.
Marriage, just like any of the Sacraments of the Church (Holy Orders, Holy Communion, Burial, Baptism), is a unique and holy opportunity, a path to become perfected and complete in God, to find salvation in him. When a husband and wife, the king and queen, create a holy space for the Kingdom of God to thrive, a home in which the other is elevated, matured, and made holy through self-sacrifice and martyrdom, Christian marriage becomes a journey to eternal life.
How do we apply this?
How do we as individuals, as a parish community, or as a global Church divorce ourselves from God’s love, from his desire for us to be holy, preferring instead our own selfish desires that we sometimes confuse as “love?” Who or what has become our model for marriage? Do we view marriage as the world tells us we should, or as the Church teaches? How can we, as the Armenian Church, better understand our communion, our oneness with God through the sacrament of crowning? How can our parish community lift up the holiness of marriage, cultivate and model it among our youth?
Perhaps we can begin by rediscovering the importance and role of family in God’s plan of salvation for us, and the home as a holy space, as a kingdom with Jesus Christ reigning supreme. Trusting Jesus Christ at the center, seeking God’s Kingdom first in a marriage, in a family, in a home only leads to true love, sacred order, and holiness.