Saturday, May 23, 2009

For the Life of the World 5

The Mystery of Love: The Sacraments of Marriage and Ordination

In the course of our study, we have talked about the two sacraments, baptism and the Lord's Supper, that we as Presbyterians are familiar with, but we have addressed the world, the Church, and time as having a sacramental nature in that they are all means of communion with God. I hope that what has come across so far in our discussion of this book is that everything is sacred. There is no part of life or the world that has not been grasped by the love of Jesus Christ. Everything points to Him and finds its fulfillment in Him. The work of redemption that He has done on the cross and in the resurrection and in His ongoing presence in the Church as a result of that work, is the returning of the whole of creation to the purpose for which God created it, to be for us a means of communion with God. In this sense, everything is sacramental.

There is also the sense, though, that sacraments relate specifically and directly to the Lord's death and resurrection and that in them, that this central event to our faith is signified and that the benefits of the cross and the empty tomb are somehow conferred to us through the sharing and receiving of those signs. Protestants have traditionally limited what they termed sacraments to baptism and the Lord's Supper because it is only in these two rites of the Church that Christ's death and resurrection are directly shown forth and in which we directly receive Christ and share in the benefits of His Passion. This is why we don't recognize the other five things, penance, confirmation, marriage, ordination, and the anointing of the sick, as sacraments the way that Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox do.

To put this difference in perspective, though, Protestants do not deny that these things are important and most perform all of these rites as proper actions of the Church. I think we can even affirm that God is at work in these things when we do them. Also, if we have learned anything by interacting with the liturgical tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy in this study, it is that, for the Church, everything finds its meaning and fulfillment in Christ's death and resurrection and in the Kingdom that His Passion has ushered in. In the sense, then, that everything the Church does ultimately points to Christ and to His Kingdom, we can seek the wisdom of the Orthodox tradition on how marriage and vocation are caught up in the great mystery of Christ and his work in the world.

First, I want us to define what marriage is. What's marriage? Man and woman; commitment; sex; raising a family. What is the "religious" significance of marriage? Divine sanction for sex; spiritual help for the couple; blessing for procreating children. Is marriage simply the concern of those directly involved in it, simply an earthly concern, or, does marriage have cosmic, universal, redemptive significance? Let's look at the last paragraph of 82.

Here is the whole point. As long as we visualize marriage as the concern of those alone who are being married, as something that happens to them and not to the whole Church, and, therefore, to the world itself, we shall never understand the truly sacramental meaning of marriage: the great mystery to which St. Paul refers when he says, "But I speak concerning the mystery of Christ and the Church." We must understand that the real theme, "content" and object of this sacrament is not "family," but love.

What do you all think? I just want to throw a few little niblets out. As far as redemptive significance goes, Martin Luther described marriage "as a perfect school of sanctification." Luther advanced further in holiness in his marriage to Katherine Von Bora than he ever did as a bachelor monk. Also, let's consider the Reformed covenantal focus on the family. In our tradition, the family has been described as a "little church" for the training of children in the faith. In fact, there's the idea that by virtue of being born to Christian parents, we are automatically part of the covenant community. That's why we practice infant baptism and affirm that grace is already working in the infant children of believers. We also see that marriage doesn't just involve a man and a woman and their children but that marriages and families are important for the health and life of the whole Church, that they are almost foundational to the Church and that they are really an extension of the life of the Church into the world. It makes sense that if we’re going to affirm that everything refers to Christ and his Kingdom, this must certainly start in our homes. This points to what Schmemann says about the focus of marriage not being about "family" but about love. Marriage is not just about erotic love and family is not just about familial love; Christian agape love is the focus in marriage. That's why marriage is sacramental. It refers us to and catches us up in the love Jesus has for us and that we are called to have for him and for one another.

Let's look at the words of St. Paul that Schmemann quoted a moment ago. Ephesians 5:21-33:

21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the Church, the body of which He is the Savior. 24Just as the Church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. 25Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her, 26in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27so as to present the Church to Himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the Church, 30because we are members of His body. 31‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ 32This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the Church. 33Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.

Needless to say, this passage is a flashpoint when it comes to the roles of women in the home and in the Church. I must confess, as one who is an egalitarian when it comes to gender roles but who is also rather conservative when it comes to the nature of Scripture, this passage gives me trouble. There's part of me that strongly objects to the words of this passage that men are over their wives and so that women should submit to their husbands. Yet, at the same time, I realize that this is Scripture. God inspired this passage, so we can't ignore it. It's valuable and God gave it to us to teach us something important. Nevertheless, we must handle it with care because it has been used and is still used today to justify the oppression of women.

Just a few things. Notice how most of the instruction in this passage is directed toward husbands loving their wives and giving themselves up for their wives. Also, though some ideas in this passage may seem barbaric to us today, this passage as a whole is really quite progressive in its historical context. Men are called to love their wives as themselves, as their own bodies. I think this is a step up in a society where a man had the power of life and death over his wife and all the members of his household. What we’re after, though, is how marriage refers to Christ and the Church and is itself caught up in the mystery of Christ. What stands out to you? What is the relationship of the husband and wife? What happens to a man and woman when they get married? "'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.' This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the Church." If the husband and wife are one flesh, then, what is the relation between Christ and the Church? We are one flesh with Christ. The union of the husband and wife is an earthly reflection of our heavenly union with Christ. "Marital love has its roots, its depth and real fulfillment in the great mystery of Christ and his Church."

To show us the implications of all this, Schmemann takes a surprising step but I think it's a good one. The first thing he does in Chapter 5 to roll out this grand Christian vision of marriage is to turn to the Orthodox teaching on Mary. Out of our great Protestant fear of mariolatry, we have neglected, to our great diminishment, to do sufficient reflection on the meaning of her life and mission and what that means for all of us. Schmemann says that the great paradox of Mary as Virgin and Mother is important in understanding her significance.

We'll deal first with Mary as Mother. The reason she is called blessed, according to Schmemann, is that she accepted to be the humanity of God, "to give her body and blood—that is, her whole life—to be the body and blood of the Son of God." He also says that she fulfilled the womanhood of creation by offering her whole self to God as both fully acceptance and fully response. What he has in view here is the biological reality of woman as mother. He makes me a little uncomfortable in how he describes this because it's almost as if he is implying that women ought to be passive, to be like little children waiting for the guidance of their husbands. In fact, at one point in this chapter, he says that Eve messed up precisely because she took the initiative. By such a statement, it's quite apparent that Schmemann is no feminist and that the tradition he represents holds to a rather patriarchical understanding of men and women's roles. But, to be fair, this is two-sided for Schmemann; woman as mother is acted upon by the man, in some sense, as she waits for the male proposal and then accepts it, but she is also active because only she can give life to the man's proposal and fulfill it as life by conceiving and giving birth. This is what he means by Mary's obedience to God being both fully acceptance and fully response to God.

Now, Schmemann doesn't just talk about the differences between men and women, how Mary is the example for women, but he also talks about the equality of men and women, how Mary is the example for all of us in fulfilling the womanhood of creation. He talks about this on 85.

She stands for all of us, because only when we accept, respond in love and obedience—only when we except the essential womanhood of creation—do we become ourselves true men and women; only then can we indeed transcend our limitations as "males" and "females." For man can only truly be man—that is, the king of creation, the priest and minister of God creativity and initiative—only when he does not posit himself as the "owner" of creation and submits himself—in obedience and love—to its nature as the bride of God, in response and acceptance. And woman ceases to be just a "female" when, totally and unconditionally accepting the life of the Other as her own life, giving herself totally to the Other, she becomes the very expression, the very fruit, the very joy, the very beauty, the very gift of our response to God.

That's all very poetic and very beautifully said, but Is it insulting or diminishing of women to refer to the womanhood of creation in contrast to the manhood of the priest, or, to think of Mary the Woman as human in contrast to her Spouse, the Holy Spirit, and her holy Child, both of whom are Divine?

And now for the other side of that equation, we consider Mary as Virgin. Schmemann makes it clear that we are not to think of Mary's virginity exclusively in terms of the absence of sex. The Orthodox do believe that Mary is the ever-Virgin Mother of God, but the key thing about her virginity is that it represents the "totality of her self-giving to God" and the quality of her love. The ultimate meaning of virginity is not absence of sex but "wholeness, totality, and fulfillment." In this world, sex is the ultimate fulfillment of love, but Mary set it aside for something better, the fulfillment of being the Spouse of the Holy Spirit, the Mother of God, the fulfillment of this world and, through Her Son, the birth of the world fully restored and fulfilled. Schmemann describes her as "the goal and the fulfillment of the whole history of salvation, of the history of love and obedience, of response and expectation. She is the true daughter of the Old Testament, its last and most beautiful flower."

We conclude our discussion of Mary by talking about her as the Mother of Christ, the Mother of God, or, Theotokos, in Greek. Schmemann says of her, "And the whole creation rejoices in her because it recognizes through her that the end and fulfillment of all life, of all love is to accept Christ, to give Him life in ourselves." In this sense, I think that a good "high" Protestant mariology must see in Mother Mary the truth about Mother Church, that it is through her that Christ is born in all of us and that it is through her that He continues to be present in His humanity to the world.

Now, we'll turn to a direct look at the marriage ceremony in Eastern Orthodoxy. It's important that we note that the early Christians did not know of a separate marriage ceremony; Christians were simply married by partaking of the Eucharist together. Everything was basically just gathered into the Eucharistic celebration, and in this way, the whole "natural" life of humanity was taken into the Church to be judged, redeemed, and transformed. Of course, this changed over time as we will see.

The Orthodox rite of matrimony consists of two distinct services: the betrothal and the crowning. The betrothal is the reflection in today's Orthodox marriage ceremony of the time when the Church received "civil" authority to perform a rite of marriage, so, it is the Christian form of "natural" marriage. As such, it occurs in the doorway to the church, not inside the church itself. The Orthodox save the betrothal from secularity, though, by referring it to the union of Christ and his Church.

When the rite moves into the church before the crowning, this is the true form of the sacrament. Moving into the church parallels the entrance of marriage into the Church, its inclusion in the Kingdom. Since it is in the context of marriage that humanity continues on, the entrance of marriage into the church is really the movement of this world into the "world to come."

The crowning is next. It has a threefold significance. The first significance of the crowns is that each husband and wife pair is king and queen of creation. Schmemann has a beautiful reflection on how each home is a small kingdom filled with the possibility of fullness. Surprisingly, his icon for this aspect of marriage is not a young couple but an elderly couple. If you get a chance, read that on 89 and 90.

The second significance of the crowns is the glory and honor of the martyr’s crown. Marriage, if it is to truly be Christian marriage, must constantly crucify its own selfishness and self-sufficiency. Marriage is not about self-fulfillment and personal happiness; it must accept the cross in it. Those men who misuse that controversial passage in Ephesians 5 miss this point, that Christian marriage involves sacrifice and deference to the needs of the other from both partners, not just the wife. There are three partners in marriage, the husband, and the wife, and God. Schmemann says that the united loyalty of the two toward God keeps the two in an active unity with each other as well as with God. It is God who calls them to submit to one another in love and thereby practice the agape love that will keep them together and enable their marriage to share in the joy of the Kingdom.

The third and final meaning of the crowns is that they are crowns of the Kingdom, "of that ultimate Reality of which everything in 'this world'—whose fashion passeth away—everything has now become a sacramental sign and anticipation." The new marriage is to be "a growth in that perfected love of which God alone is the end and fullness."

I wish I could spend more time talking about the sacrament of ordination, but the important ideas are the universal priesthood of all believers and vocation. All of us in the Church are priests; we are all called to offer our whole lives and the whole world to God in a sacrifice of love and praise. The priesthood of all Christians and the "official" priesthood in the Orthodox Church exist, in Schmemann's words, "to reveal to each vocation its priestly essence, to make the whole life of all [people] the liturgy of the Kingdom, to reveal the Church as the royal priesthood of the redeemed world." Of course, the Orthodox do have priests in the official sense. The official position of Orthodoxy is that only men can be priests but there are a few Orthodox who advocate the ordination of women. And though Orthodox priests are viewed as being married to the Church, they can also be married to women as well. Schmemann knew what marriage both to the Church and to a woman was from first-hand experience. And though women can't be priests in Orthodoxy, I believe that priests' wives are called upon to take an active role, almost an official role even, in their husbands' ministries.

We conclude with Schmemann's reflection on marriage and ordination at the end of the chapter:

The final point is this: some of us are married and some are not. Some of us are called to be priests and ministers and some are not. But the sacraments of matrimony and priesthood concern all of us, because they concern our life as vocation. The meaning, the essence and the end of all vocation is the mystery of Christ and the Church. It is through the Church that each one of us finds that the vocation of all vocations is to follow Christ in the fullness of His priesthood: in His love for [humanity] and the world, His love for their ultimate fulfillment in the abundant life of the Kingdom.

1 comment:

Dustin said...

Good post! I wish to point out two things.

1 - Marriage in the Orthodox Church is not a contract (as it is in Catholicism), so there is no exchange of vows.

2 - The priesthood of believers and the priesthood of ordained men is not the same thing and it's unfortunate that we even use the same word in English. In Greek, it's two different words: ἱερεύς (priesthood of believers, and O.T. priest) and πρεσβὐτερος (lit. elder, and ordained "priests").