The Sacrament of Love: Marriage & Remarriage in the Orthodox Church

By Frost, Carrie Frederick | Commonweal, February 26, 2016 | Go to article overview

The Sacrament of Love: Marriage & Remarriage in the Orthodox Church


Frost, Carrie Frederick, Commonweal


A Byzantine marriage ring from the fifth century shows a couple in profile in front of a cross: their gazes are locked, their noses nearly touching. On another ring Christ himself stands between the two spouses and joins their hands. Such marriage rings are small but powerful examples of the ancient and enduring Christian esteem for marriage, even in the early church, which often ranked marriage second to consecrated virginity. They show that marriage was already woven deeply into the fabric of Christianity. The fact that each ring is unique--each a singular variation on a few basic themes--is also suggestive. It prefigures the diversity of theological and pastoral approaches to marriage within Orthodox Christianity. There is no one Orthodox Christian theology of marriage. Nor are there many universal rules when it comes to divorce and remarriage.

Of course, this kind of diversity characterizes the Orthodox tradition more generally. As an Orthodox theologian, I am often in the position of answering a seemingly straightforward question with the rather unprofessional, "Well, it depends." For example: "Did the Mother of God experience real human childbirth, with pain?" Well, in the Orthodox context, it depends. According to Irenaeus and Gregory of Nyssa, who cite Isaiah's prophecy, she did not. But, according to Tertullian and the Syriac poet-theologians, she did experience an authentic human childbirth, because her humanity is critical to her son's humanity.

Properly understood, Orthodoxy's theological diversity does not make it capricious or flaky. The solid basis of doctrine affirmed in the ecumenical councils, the dedication to the liturgy, and the continuous theological tradition and presence of the saints all attest to the solidity of Orthodox theology. Orthodoxy's freedom of theological thinking and pastoral care is built on the bedrock of its spirituality. Orthodoxy's pastoral flexibility has a word: economia, which can be roughly defined as a principle of mercy employed when a norm is not met. This concept can be difficult to get a handle on--and not only for those outside Orthodoxy. Different Orthodox theologians have understood it in different ways, and its application to particular cases is not systematic. This is partly because it begins with the recognition that God's grace exceeds even the most comprehensive moral system.

The practices of marriage in the early church are not entirely clear. Most of what is known about them has been pieced together from references to marriage in texts and letters. From those fragments, it can be concluded that in Christianity's first centuries the practice of civil marriage was accepted by Christians East and West--at this time, the church did not legally marry anyone--and that the church found ways to incorporate marriage into Christianity, including ritual action in the context of the liturgy.

After a Christian couple married in a civil ceremony, they came to church and received the Eucharist together. This, in part, brought their marriage into the church--made it Christian. Tertullian attests to this when he writes to his wife that marriage "is arranged by the church, confirmed by the oblation [the Eucharist], sealed by the blessing, and inscribed in heaven by the angels." In the early church, baptism and ordination were also celebrated in the context of the Eucharist, and sanctified by their proximity to it.

In addition to receiving the Eucharist together, newlyweds would also be blessed during the liturgy by a priest or bishop. That blessing was not just a formality. In a letter to Polycarp, Ignatius of Antioch writes: "It is right for men and women who marry to make their union with the consent of the bishop, that their marriage may be for the Lord and not for passion. Let all things be done for the honor of God."

Already there was some divergence between East and West. For example, the fourth-century pope Siricus I dictates that the bride be veiled, and Ambrose refers to the "giving away" of the bride. …

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