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
Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Third Sunday following Transfiguration), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:
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?
The highest ideals that our secular world has for marriage are love and equality. That’s not bad, but it’s only the beginning. 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” (մարմին մի), 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.
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24)
The language of the Church, the essence of salvation through Christ, is that of union. 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?
One of the clearest images of the communion we have with Christ is that of marriage between a man and a woman. Listen to how Jesus addresses the question of divorce in this Gospel narrative by holding us to his original plan at creation:
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’?
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.” Far from being an abstract description (Orthodox Christianity does not live in the abstract, but in the concrete) to “become one flesh” is actual “true love” in that it is really and tangibly lived. 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 way, in some measure, through the power of God, the husband and wife share the life of each other.
St. Paul makes reference to this kind of union in his letter to the Ephesians from which we 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? 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.
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! Or, we are celebrating the love between the couple insofar as it proclaims the salvation of the Church, the Body of Christ. 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 through the Church. He 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.
Unfortunately, in a fractured world not every situation tends toward peace and unity, and so divorce is still rampant in society, even in our 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. 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)
Out of love, God came to reunite humanity with himself by means of the Cross. This is why the couple being crowned with the Cross 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.
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 our parish community lift up the holiness of marriage, cultivate and model it among our youth? How can we better understand our communion, our oneness with God, as the Church, through the sacrament of crowning? 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?”