Concerning “Eternal” Marriage

Orthodox wedding - the crowning of the couple
Orthodox wedding – the crowning of the couple

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have received several inquiries about the Orthodox understanding of marriage, especially with respect to “eternal” marriage. I am grateful for Isaiah’s help with this important question. Robert

By Fr. Isaiah Gillette

Is marriage forever? Well, yes… and no.

In penning a few thoughts about the Orthodox understanding of marriage, and how it does and does not carry over into the Kingdom of Heaven, I found the single best source for scriptural and patristic teaching to be a recently-published book by Archpriest Josiah Trenham: Marriage and Virginity According to St. John Chrysostom, especially Chapter Six, “Celestial Bodies and the Union of Souls: Life in the Eschaton.”

St. John Chrysostom (A.D. 347-407), the “Golden Mouth,” is recognized by the Orthodox Church as the foremost of the Fathers of the Church, and its greatest homilist. His preaching and teaching were always pastoral, directly concerned with the salvation of his hearers. Fr. Josiah Trenham has distilled St. John’s teaching on the subject from his many homilies, especially on St. Paul’s teaching on the Resurrection in First Corinthians, as well as Chrysostom’s essay On Virginity, and his Letter to a Young Widow (see bibliography).

To properly understand marriage, one must develop a proper anthropology: What is a human being? St. John’s anthropology was both protological  and eschatological, i.e. it took into account God’s purpose in the creation of man, and His redemptive purpose from our resurrection and restoration in the Kingdom. Chrysostom found and expounded the deep connection between the creation of the world and its resurrection, and a deep Christian conviction of the resurrection of the body in particular. The Transfiguration of Christ (Mt. 17:1-8; Mk. 9:2-8; Lk. 9:28-36) serves as a prefiguring of our resurrection. Chrysostom uses the well-known patristic analogy of a sword thrust into a fire: the iron, while retaining its own properties, is interpenetrated by the heat of the fire. As iron, it cuts; but it also burns like fire. Likewise, in the Transfiguration, Christ’s human nature is shown to be interpenetrated by His divine nature. In His human nature, Christ eats, sleeps, and mourns for Lazarus. In His divine nature, He walks on water and raises the dead.

 

Continuity and Discontinuity

In Christ’s resurrection, He guarantees and models our resurrection. In understanding the state of resurrected humanity in the Kingdom of God, and how that relates to marriage, it is helpful to think in terms of continuity and discontinuity.

On the one hand, there is an essential continuity between our earthly, mortal bodies, and our bodies after the resurrection, just as there is between Christ’s body before and after His resurrection. The scars from the nails and spear were still visible. The body that died on the cross was the same body that was raised. Our human nature remains human nature, even after the attributes are changed (vs. a strictly Gnostic conception of purely spiritual bodies, with no continuity with the mortal ones).

On the other hand, the risen Christ passed through locked doors on the day of His resurrection. This is the discontinuity side. What is sown perishable is raised imperishable; the mortal puts on immortality. “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:44). So the goal is “neither escape from the body nor satisfaction of the body, but spiritualization of the body” (Trenham, p. 245, emphasis by the author).

If you have stayed with me so far, here is the application of a biblical anthropology and theology of the resurrection, for marriage: there is continuity and discontinuity.

When the Lord spoke to the Sadducees about marriage in heaven (Mt. 22:23-33), He made it clear that “in the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage.” That is, the earthly purposes of marriage, to suppress man’s licentiousness and to procreate, are irrelevant in the Kingdom. All the earthly concerns of a married couple: sexual intercourse, birth-giving, possessions, etc., are part of the “form of this world” which is passing away. “They are like the angels in of God heaven” (Mt. 22:30).

But there is one aspect of marriage that is eternal: “Love never ends” (1 Cor. 13:8). St. John Chrysostom reminds us that married Christians are known to be such in the Judgment and in the Kingdom. We will recognize and delight in our spouses and in our children. We will be restored, not to marriage, but to something better, a union of souls, rather than bodies, a union that begins in marriage and reaches a far more sublime condition (cf. Chrysostom’s Letter to a Young Widow).

This is why the Orthodox Church discourages (but does not prohibit) re-marriage after the death of a spouse. A second or third wedding ceremony (no fourth is allowed) has a somewhat penitential character, recognizing human weakness. St. John urged the young widow to whom he wrote to remain faithful to her husband (the title “husband” is used even after his death), in order to keep alive their bond of love, and eventually to be re-united with him. The Orthodox Church forbids re-marriage to widowed clergy, as a way of upholding this ideal.

 

Till Death Do Us Part?

A couple of notes about the Orthodox wedding ceremony: First, the language of the sacrament does not contain the phrase, ‘Till death us do part. In fact, there are no  vows at all taken by the couple, except to certify that they come to the marriage of their own free will, and have not promised themselves to anyone else. The vows of the Catholic and Protestant West give the marriage a more legal emphasis, rather than the Eastern Church’s emphasis on the blessing of God to effect the union. Second, the climax of an Orthodox wedding ceremony is the crowning, when crowns are placed upon the heads of the bride and groom, signifying the formation of a little outpost of the Kingdom of God in their home, and the crowns of martyrdom, which must be their daily goal, to take up their cross and follow Christ. Near the end of the wedding the crowns are removed with these words: “…receive their crowns into Thy kingdom, preserving them spotless, blameless, and without reproach, unto ages of ages.” On the eighth day of their married life, the couple returns to the Church for a formal removal of the crowns, and again, these words are spoken by the priest:

…preserve their union indissoluble; that they may evermore give thanks unto thine all-holy name, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen. 

Closing Thought

All that is strictly earthly in a marriage will pass away. Love remains.

Fr. Isaiah Gillette

 

Recommended Reading:

Trenham, Josiah B. (2013). Marriage and Virginity According to St. John Chrysostom. Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood.

Writings of St. John Chrysostom:

Homilies on First Corinthians. PG 61. Eng. trans. in NPNF, 1st series, vol 12.

On Virginity. La Virginite (1966). Edited by Herbert Mursurillo and Bernard Grillet. SC 125. Eng. trans.: Sally Rieger Shore (1983). John Chrysostom: On Virginity, Against Remarriage. Studies in Women and Religion 9. New York: Mellen.

To a Young Widow. A une jeune veyvre, Sur Le marriage unique (1968). Edited by Bernard Grillet. SC 138. Eng. trans. in NPNF, 1st series, vol 9.

 Other articles by Fr. Isaiah Gillette

Family Concerns and Converting to Orthodoxy

Called Together

 

birthday-cupcake

 

Our Third Anniversary

Thank you for your support!

 

 

17 comments:

  1. A beautiful presentation on the spirituality of marriage. The only thing that remained unclear is about the crowns:

    At the end of the wedding the crowns are removed, and then it says on the 8th day the couple returns for a “formal” removal of the crowns. Since they are removed at the end of the ceremony, how can they also be removed 8 days later? Did the couple take the crowns home with them, and then return on the 8th day, put them back on their heads for a different kind of ceremony? I also don’t understand the difference between the first removal of the crowns on their heads and the 8 day later “formal” removal. I gather the first removal wasn’t “formal?”

    1. Janis: If I remember correctly (and someone please correct me if I’m wrong), a newly wedded couple would wear their crowns for a week. On the eighth day, a formal ceremony would take place to remove the crowns. In our modern day, the removing of the crowns is lumped together with the rest of the wedding ceremony. I would image some couples and jurisdictions have a ceremony on the eighth day to commemorate this tradition.

  2. This is brilliant! I hope it is published throughout the Orthodox world. Mormons use their “eternal marriage” temples to make many converts. This article would keep many people from deceit.

    1. Christopher,

      Thank you! I’m glad you found the article helpful. Let’s get the good news about Jesus Christ out.

      Robert

  3. Hmm, this is certainly a better explanation than I have heard elsewhere. Previously I was simply told that marriage will continue eternally w/o any real explanation on how this is possible when Christ explicitly says otherwise and that eternal marriage completely undermines His argument.

    Another point is when you said:

    “…there is an essential continuity between our earthly, mortal bodies, and our bodies after the resurrection, just as there is between Christ’s body before and after His resurrection. The scars from the nails and spear were still visible.”

    Does this mean I’m still going to be bald in heaven?! Please say it isn’t so!

    1. David,

      Christ is Risen!

      I believe an important part of the resurrection is restoration and perfection of our souls and bodies. For me this means that someone who died as an infant will be given a mature body at the resurrection and someone who lost a limb will gain a new one. Scripture has positive things to say about our head being covered with hair so I’m confident your hair loss will be reversed at the resurrection. More important is the healing of our souls at the resurrection when we are transformed into Christ’s likeness. But having said that I would suggest that we ought not to be preoccupied about the details of the future resurrection but to commit our lives to following Christ here and now.

      Robert

    2. Well, it’s also useful to note that when Jesus said “they shall neither be married nor given in marriage”, he was answering a question that was directly related to the Book of Tobit (which was considered scripture in Second Temple Judaism), wherein 7 brothers married the same woman in rapid succession and all died before the marriage could be consummated. She was then hooked up with another man by an angel and got married and lived happiy ever after. Since the previous marriages were never consummated they were never complete and binding. That’s why Jesus said something to the effect of “you either haven’t read the scriptures or you haven’t understood them”. The 7 brothers they were referring to were never actually married to the woman, hence the statement that they would be like angels instead of married or given in marriage. He dodged the theological trap they were setting for him by correcting them on the actual story to which they were referring, not by discussing the sacrament of marriage generally. Thus Jesus’s words aren’t a blanket repudiation of married people still being married in the next life, just the 7 brothers of the story. Important to remember but easy to miss if you haven’t read Tobit.

  4. This is all very bad speculation. It actually conflicts with the tenor of Scripture. It is perpetuated within the context of Eastern tradition, and represents a parochial sentiment.

    1. Ashley,

      Thank you for your direct question that I’m sure many are asking today.

      Orthodoxy does not elevate marriage over singleness. Both are valid expressions of Christian discipleship. My understanding is that nowhere does Orthodoxy regard singleness as a second class status in the Church. If you are struggling with being single, I suggest you discuss it with your local priest or a wise spiritual elder.

      Robert

  5. What if you would like to be married but no wants to marry you? In the age to come do single people miss them out on this loving bond? People who die as young children miss out on ever forming a relationship and bond such as a marriage bond? Why would god allow that.

    1. Conney,

      Thank you for raising these important questions. Orthodoxy considers marriage to be both a blessing and a calling to ministry. It does not consider marriage a right, nor the highest form of blessing. In the Orthodox tradition celibate saints are held in high honor. As a matter of fact, the greatest Christian saint, Mary, is known as the Unwedded Bride.” Here is a podcast of the hymn “Rejoice O Unwedded Bride!” If you are struggling with singleness, I strongly encourage you to talk with a local Orthodox priest about the questions you raised here.

      Robert

  6. “All that is strictly earthly in a marriage will pass away. Love remains.”

    With the exception of Sin, why would this be? Given that the New Earth (What we refer to as “Heaven”) will indeed be an earthly, physical experience as well as an otherworldly, spiritual one. I’m assuming this is a reference to Sex? Why would God continue all the good of marriage into the afterlife except one of the greatest of them all? Makes no sense.

    1. Jimmy, sexual intimacy is certainly a wonderful part of marriage. Even at my age, I find it so. However it is not really the best part, IMO. There is a deeper, longer lasting unity that is more important. A simple joy of being with one’s spouse that is the grace of God. That joy can continue to grow and deepen even as the body weakens.

      While sex serves as both an attractant and a bond to one’s spouse and is crucial to becoming one flesh it’s primary function remains procreative.

      Even in a marriage blessed by God sexual sin can enter and distort the marriage. So with marriage in the Orthodox Church, chastity and periods of voluntary mutual fasting for prayer and repentance from sexual intercourse is encouraged(though in this age few are able).

      The real unity in marriage comes from our communion with Jesus Christ-partaking of His Body and Blood. Standing next to my wife in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy have been some of the most wonderful times of sharing love I have ever had.

      Since in the Kingdom of Heaven the natural synergy between men and women will no longer be interfered with by sin and procreation will no longer be necessary physical sex will no longer be necessary.

      That in no way lessens the intimacy with one’s spouse. Indeed, I would speculate that human intimacy through a deep communion with Jesus Christ will be beyond anything we can imagine.

      What we have in a good marriage is but a foretaste of what is to come. A deep and sacramental fortaste, but still a foretaste.

    2. Oh, and by the way, when your wife dies and half of your soul gets ripped out, it is not the sex you miss.

  7. Robert, I am late to this conversation but I hope you see fit to publish my remarks. The article is wonderful but a couple of expansions: a third purpose of marriage is the conjugal synergy of the man and the woman that allow us to fulfill the commandments in Genesis. Not just the procreative one but the equally important “Dress and keep the earth”. The fecundity of marriage is essential to being able to fulfill what God asks of us.

    That synergy is part of the procreative energy that over flows in other ways than having children–even later in life when physical procreation is possible only through miracles.

    Marriage is also a living icon of the union with Jesus Christ. A union that is conjugal in nature (not carnal). That is also why the virgin saints are held in such high esteem as they have the grace of the Divine conjugality without the earthly. In marriage we are asked to go beyond a suppression of licentiousness and work to achieve conjugal chastity. A purifying that allows the sacramental reality of marriage to be realized. Thus the marytrs crowns.

    In the fullness of time the male-female union in marriage will be surplanted by the union with Christ in His Kingdom and yet the unity of the two become one flesh will remain.

    As to remarriages: my wife and I both had spouses who died (two years apart on the same day). I can say that both of them are part of our marriage in an inexplicable manner and our marriage is blessed by God. My Bishop assures me. Yet, there is a certain quality that makes it penitential at the same time. Remarriage is allowed due to the hardness of our hearts.

    Those who are single, pray to the Theotokos. In my case her intercession had a lot to do with me finding a wife–both times. I asked for a Godly woman to share my life with. God in His mercy said yes. But I was also prepared to have my prayer answered in a manner that was less congenial to my will.

    BTW Sal, what I say is a reflection of Scripture in its fullness.

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