This is an excerpt from a Raising Saints podcast episode posted in June, 2014.
I attended a beautiful wedding. Our friend, Jessica, who grew up in our Sunday School and headed off to study in Boston at Hellenic College, met and has now married Scott, a seminarian from Holy Cross. They are fresh-faced and joyful, a happy and loving couple, and should God will it, they’ll be excellent parents. Scott will be a priest one of these days, and our Jessica will be his presvytera — so His Eminence, from Scott’s home Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Detroit, joined us for the festivities.
I love the Orthodox wedding ceremony, though I didn’t always feel that way. I didn’t grow up in the church, so of course, I grew up with more American-style weddings. The one thing I felt a wedding really needed was the “I do”. Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife? I do! This performative language, these words that speak a new reality into existence, were to me the essence of the wedding. When two people vowed, when they declared ‘I do’ they made themselves married before God and man.
There’s no ‘I do’ in an Orthodox wedding.
Our weddings are so different from standard American weddings, that we offer a program explaining the service to the guests. We don’t just list our wedding party and offer you a pretty picture, we have to explain the betrothal and the exchange of crowns and the dance of Isaiah, and tell you what you’re seeing. We have to translate the service, even when it’s in English.
Orthodox never say, “I do.” We don’t need that, because while our weddings do certainly require your consent, we don’t kid ourselves that we can DO anything. We don’t marry each other, really — God marries us. He transforms us, from two people into one flesh.
Our service isn’t about expressing who you were when you arrived today – a cute couple with a sweet and unique history and a favorite song – but is focused on who you are about to become.
The couple wears crowns, representing their new places as King and Queen of their new family, but also representing the Crowns of Martyrdom, as they die to themselves and give their lives for one another. During the dance of Isaiah, we sing hymns that call out to the holy martyrs — our wedding service is all about martyrdom and yet, notably, it’s also about fruitfulness. We pray several times for babies, for the couple to have many children and to live to see their children’s children. It’s a strange combination at first glance – it’s about death, and it’s about new life. It’s odd to say they’re one and the same, that being fruitful and multiplying, co-creating life with God, is in fact, volunteering for martyrdom.
Met. Nicholas of Detroit stood before Jessica and Scott, as their whole future lay out in front of them, and he said something like, ‘Beautiful Jessica, you have been the center of the universe — but now, Scott is the center.’ And of course, he said the same to Scott — that his life must be all about Jessica, that like Christ lays down His life for the Church, Scott must be ready to lay down his life for his wife. Marriage is about dying to yourself, about no longer pleasing yourself, but instead focusing on the needs of the other, your spouse. Ideally, if both the husband and the wife are putting each other’s needs first, then both people will have their needs met..
That kind of sacrificial love attracts God’s grace, and we pray that His grace will make the marriage fruitful, in so many ways. The fruitfulness comes after the martrydom, the dying.
We walked out of that grace-filled service, and into a beautiful reception. I found myself sitting with a couple in the next stage, just a few years further down the road than Scott and Jessica. This young married couple had just passed the newlywed stage and was now pregnant with their first child. Knowing I have five daughters, and forgiving the fact that my children are the wildest children in our parish, John kindly asked me for my best parenting advice.
I warned John that I give terrible advice. My parenting path has been fraught with trouble. I have children with birth defects and babies whose livers fail; my son died during an innocent afternoon nap. My advice is terrifying. So we talked instead about how critical it is to raise children in the Church, to help them dedicate their entire hearts to God. I told him about how I meet people who say that they ‘just want their kids to be happy’ and that it drives me crazy. We can’t control whether life is easy and happy — and in fact, we shouldn’t try to control that. We should raise our kids to hold Christ in their hearts, so that whatever life throws at them — whether they lose their job or they lose a leg, whether their children get sick or their house burns down — whatever terrible things come their way, they have peace and joy in their hearts, because they are filled with the Holy Spirit. Healthy, happy, who knows? Life is hard. Let’s raise them to brace for that, to hold onto God and His Saints, so that they always have safe harbor in the storms that will come.
John was funny — he said something I would have said at that same time in my life.
He’s lead a pretty easy life. He was blessed with good parents and a good education, he’s pretty healthy and he’s got a good job. We both knew that feeling: life’s been comparatively easy for me. Other people see tragedy and trouble, abusive parents or cancer or challenges, and we’ve just sailed along so far. Funny enough, it can be a little bit troubling, it can make you feel ill-prepared to teach a child how to weather real storms.
We were laughing about that, and about the fact that I felt just like about 11 years ago too. I assured John that the experience of parenting would change things. The stakes are about to increase. With a new baby, even a healthy and sweet one — you’ll be tempted and pushed to your limit. The sleep deprivation and the hormone changes in your loved one are enough to shake things up, but then when that child gets sick, and you have to wonder how serious this will be — even if things turn out well, that worry is significant. It changes you.
If marriage asks you to focus on your spouse instead of yourself, children demand your attention. In fact, if you have enough children, you may forget you have needs at all. Parenting is a brilliant, natural asceticism.
Just as we’d heard in the wedding service, the crowns of martyrdom are inextricably bound up with the call to be fruitful and multiply, for parenting is a fruitful martyrdom, isn’t it? The bountiful new life comes by way of death to the self.
Musing on these miraculous truths, I headed home, to find that while I was out, a good friend of mine had miscarried her sweet child. She had been so excited about this baby, an unplanned addition to her beautiful family. This child was so clearly an unexpected gift from God, a special miracle He had in store for her. Why would He do that? Why would His miracle be so short-lived? What happened?
I have found that it’s more productive to look at it like this: some human beings live 100 years, some live 70 and some live only 5. Some don’t ever get to live at all. If we accept that different people have different lifespans (as we all have different hair colors and personalities), then instead of asking why God sent us a redhead or a firebrand or a child who could not be born, we can focus on being grateful that we helped to create a life, whatever and however that life was.
No matter who the child is or how long the life lasts, every time a child is conceived, it’s a miracle. A woman has co-created life with God; she has participated in the creation of a new person, made in God’s own image. This is sacred and beautiful. Indeed, once she’s given birth, a woman is too holy to be around other people, and Orthodox tradition asks her to stay home with the baby for 40 days as she’s far too holy at that point to be mixing with the masses.
When a child goes directly to live in the Kingdom of heaven, bypassing the struggles and joys that a birth and life in this world offers, it’s no less of a miracle. This child, this person, who would not have existed otherwise, exists and lives eternally because God and his mother and his father gave him life. He has eternal life, not just the transient, temporary physical life that is such a pale stand-in for the true life Christ offers.
Someday, when we gather in the Kingdom, in communion with our families — those who died before we did and those who lived after us — we’ll be there with parents and grandparents who’ve passed on and with our children, all of them together — those who struggled through long lives and short lives, healthy children and sick ones, all of our children there in communion. Surely when that time comes, you won’t be asking why this one was born and that one was not. You’ll gather with all of your children, transfigured in the light of God, and you will simply rejoice at the life God grants us. No child granted eternal life, living in the Kingdom of God, is a tragedy. Christ has trampled down death by death, and upon those in the tombs He has granted life. On the other side of all of this misery, whether or not one was born into this world will not be of concern.
In this world, it matters. In this world, mothers whose children do not grow up to be big and strong, whose babies cannot be rocked to sleep and whose children will never throw tantrums or play in the yard, suffer. There is so much pain in the loss of a child.
But that is the price. After co-creating life with God, sometimes women have to ride out miscarriages, bearing enormous pain and grief. Miscarriage and child loss are crucifixions — not the long slow death to self of regular parenting, but a sudden and enormous cross.
That cross, that pain, is the price of this child’s life. Their life on earth may be short, but they live eternally — and the mother pays a price in her suffering. It’s heroic.
We know that our Lord too was crucified for us, and that He turned that cross, that horrifying and degrading instrument of pain and death, He transformed it into life. We call it the Life-Giving Cross, because through His pain and suffering, He trampled down death by death and granted us eternal life.
Isn’t it miraculous to think that a parent can suffer for their children, can take on all of this grief and misery, and somehow, in doing so, bring that child to eternal life?
So it seems that my weekend had a theme: from the wedding ceremony to the conversation at our table, to my late night talks with my grieving friend, this weekend I was thinking about how answering our Lord’s call to be fruitful and multiply is in fact volunteering for martyrdom.
Whether our children live long, loud lives, calling us away from ourselves, or whether maybe sometimes they don’t, but call us away more suddenly and painfully, parenting is our opportunity to follow Christ’s example, to participate in the creation of life and to sacrifice ourselves in humility and love.