Marriage as communion: strangers in a strange land

In the previous entry in this series, I discussed the idea in Saint John Chrysostom’s homilies of marriage as freedom, but as freedom paradoxically defined as mutual service. From this idea of freedom-as-mutual-service, which is the idea of the marriage as a miniature church, we can begin to see how the importance of communion arises. The distinction between unity and communion is a subtle one, but it is important to Saint John and important for our purposes. It consists in the analogous Liturgical difference between the Holy Mysteries of Baptism and of the Eucharist. The process by which two bodies become one flesh, so lovingly described by Saint John, the ‘great mystery’ by which a man leaves his family and joins himself to a woman unrelated to him to become one with her, is related to but distinct from the actual struggle which the two of them face together thereafter.

The type of Baptism in Scripture is Moses leading the Hebrews in the crossing of the Red Sea. The Hebrews went into the Red Sea as slaves to the Pharaoh, and they came out the other side in the desert, as free people called to follow God. When Saint John the Forerunner baptised those who came to him in the River Jordan, those who came were forswearing their allegiance to the Roman Empire and to the Herodian client state, and joining together in a new kind of community of political protest, in the deserts across the Jordan. And so, too, in Christian Baptism, we forswear all of our old idolatries, all of our old sins. In Baptism we forswear Satan, we put on the white garment of Christ, we are submerged in the water, and we die to self. We emerge in a desert of another kind: the desert of the Church.

In each case, though, the sundering and then the unitive aspects of baptism – whether we are speaking of the crossing of the Red Sea, of the baptised by Saint John the Forerunner, or of ourselves when we are baptised into the Church – are only the first part of the picture. There remains the common struggle in the wilderness, the wandering in the desert for forty days or for forty years (that is to say, for a complete time). The Hebrews were strengthened and sustained in this struggle by manna from Heaven. The Baptised One was strengthened and sustained in the struggle not by earthly bread but by the word of God. And we who are baptised are strengthened and sustained in our common struggle by the very Body and Blood of Christ, each time we partake in the Eucharist.

In the context of marriage, there is no such obvious Liturgical distinction between the unitive and the communing aspects. However, this is something that Saint John alludes to nonetheless. Marriage is a communion, it is a common and shared struggle between the man and the woman. Man and woman partake of each other as manna, struggle to lift each other up, struggle to raise children together, for a complete time – indeed, for their lives – after they are led out into the desert by the sacrament of the wedding. The one denies himself for the sake of the other, or offers herself in sacrifice for the sake of the other.

Saint John uses several images to illustrate this struggle, this mutual partaking and communion. One he borrows from Greek philosophy, an image which should be familiar to any student of the dialogues of Plato – the image of ‘a storm-tossed ship’ with captain and pilot.1 (Plato’s Socrates uses this analogy in the Republic to refer to the leaders of states.2 So here again we have Saint John Chrysostom making an implicit comparison of the family to a little polis, a state in miniature.) Another he borrows from Paul’s experience in prison3, and he returns repeatedly to Paul’s tears and shackles and squalor the better to exhort married couples to ascēsis and flight from worldly distractions and wealth. A crucial aspect of this struggle, this ascetic communion, consists in childbearing and childrearing. So says Saint John:

The child is born from the union of their seed, so the three are one flesh. Our relationship to Christ is the same; we become one flesh with Him through communion, more truly one with Him than our children are one with us, because this has been His plan from the beginning.4

Chrysostom only ever likens marriage to the Exodus wandering in the desert obliquely in these sermons; he favours more highly the leaving of Abraham from his homeland and his sojourn in Canaan as an illustration of what he means here.5

Steatite carving of St-John Chrysostom. 11th century

Still, this does not obscure the fact that for the golden-tongued homilist, the ideal husband is one who undertakes ascēsis for the sake of his wife; the ideal wife is one who undertakes ascēsis for the sake of her husband. The salvation of the two spouses is bound up together, and it is also bound up together with the salvation of their children.6 He urges newlyweds to invite the poor and homeless to their weddings rather than singers and dancers. As such, St John’s homily on ‘How to Choose a Wife’ concludes with a lengthy anecdote and exegetical discourse on the virtues of Abraham and his servant in their search for a suitable bride for Isaac, and also on the virtues of Rebecca which are shown in the story. In fetching water for Abraham’s servant and his camels, and inviting Abraham’s servant into her family’s house in the proper way, she demonstrates the natural virtues of modesty, obedience and hospitality. And she too leaves, just as Abraham left, her Mesopotamian homeland in order to be joined to a man she does not know.7 Rebecca empties herself for the sake of the one beloved other, and becomes a stranger in the strange land of Canaan. She goes into a very literal desert for the sake of her groom.

Defending marriage as union and defending marriage as freedom, over and against those who say that marriage is either too individualistic or too stifling for modern people, is to some degree necessary. Indeed, that’s where Saint John Chrysostom starts. But the weaknesses of such an approach ought to be apparent. The foes of marriage, on the left and on the right, can all too easily point to the failures and weaknesses of modern marriages: physical and emotional abuse; adultery; divorce; loveless homes; disowned children. All of these things occurred in Saint John’s day as well. The answer to these, is to show marriage ultimately as a form of communion. The images and the scriptural references that Saint John Chrysostom makes in his homilies on marriage all point to this image, this icon of marriage.

Marriage is not ultimately about finding happiness or individualized therapeutic fulfillment for oneself. It is about giving one’s body and blood, labour and understanding, as manna in the desert, for the sake of the one beloved other. It is about imitating Christ at the Last Supper – the Bridegroom breaking His own body and pouring His own blood for His beloved bride – every week, every day, every hour. A marriage that draws near to this icon is the best possible answer to marriage’s critics.

  1. Saint John Chrysostom, ‘Homily 19 on 1 Corinthians 7’, in On Marriage and Family Life, trans. Catharine P Roth and David Anderson, p. 28. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir Seminary Press, 1986.
  2. Plato, The Republic of Plato, Book VI, trans. Allan Bloom, pp. 168-9. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1968.
  3. ‘Homily 12 on Colossians 4:18’, in On Marriage and Family Life, trans. Catharine P Roth and David Anderson, pp. 73-4. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir Seminary Press, 1986.
  4. ‘Homily 20 on Ephesians 5:22-23’, in On Marriage and Family Life, trans. Catharine P Roth and David Anderson, p. 51. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir Seminary Press, 1986.
  5. Saint John Chrysostom, ‘Homily 12 on Colossians 4:18’, in On Marriage and Family Life, trans. Catharine P Roth and David Anderson, pp. 73-4. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir Seminary Press, 1986.
  6. Ibid., pp. 71-2. ‘If a man with unruly children is unworthy to be a bishop, how can he be worthy of the kingdom of heaven? What do you think? If we have an undisciplined wife, or unruly children, shall we not have to render an account for them? Yes, we shall if we cannot offer to God what we owe Him, because we can’t be saved through individual righteousness alone.’
  7. ‘How to Choose a Wife’, in On Marriage and Family Life, trans. Catharine P Roth and David Anderson, pp. 100-13. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir Seminary Press, 1986.

About mfcooper

Matthew Cooper is a fourth-grade teacher at Ascension Catholic School and a parishioner of St Herman's Orthodox Church (OCA) in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He has a master's degree in international relations and has worked as a microfinance advisory intern, an ESL and European history teacher in China, a data analyst and a machine-shop worker. His interests include Russian religious philosophy and modern Arab nationalist thought as well as the material culture and history of Central and East Asia - China in particular.

Culture WarEthicsMarriageSocial Thought

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