In May 2018, the program Orthodoxie on France-Culture Radio was on the theme of Marriage from an Orthodox Perspective.
And after this excerpt in which Father John Meyendorff was speaking about the different perspectives on marriage, and in particular about the evolution between Old Testament and New Testament norms, here is a passage from his book focusing precisely on this change of perspective. This excerpt comes immediately after a passage in which the author insists on the uniqueness of the Christian marriage in opposition to the concubinage sometimes allowed in the Old Testament, in order to ensure the continuity of the race or to follow the institution of the levirate, according to which a man was obliged to secure a posterity for his deceased brother by marrying his widow.
Here is then what Father John says after that:
“Christ’s teaching prohibiting divorce reflects, more positively, the nature of Christian marriage. It is expressed in direct opposition to the Jewish Deuteronomy, which allowed divorce (Matthew 5:32; 19:9; Mark 10:11; Luke 16:18). The very fact that Christian marriage is indissoluble excludes all utilitarian interpretations. The union between husband and wife is an end in itself; it is an eternal union between two unique and eternal personalities which cannot be broken by such concerns as “posterity” (the justification for concubinage) or family solidarity (the basis for the “levirate”).
Indissolubility, however, is not a requirement which is legally absolute. The famous exception mentioned by Matthew (“save for the cause of fornication”-5: 32) is there to remind us that the law of the Kingdom of God is never legally compelling, that it presupposes free human response, and that therefore the gift of Christian marriage needs to be accepted, freely lived, but can eventually be rejected by man. In general, the Gospel never reduces the mystery of human freedom to legal precepts. It offers man the only gift worthy of the “image of God” -“impossible” perfection. “Be perfect, as your Father is perfect.” Christ’s requirement of absolute monogamy also appeared as an impossibility to Christ’s auditors (Matthew 19:10). In fact, love is beyond the categories of the possible and of the impossible. It is a “perfect gift,” known only through experience. It is obviously incompatible with adultery. In case of adultery, the gift is refused, and marriage does not exist. What occurs then is not only legal “divorce,” but a tragedy of misused freedom, i.e., of sin.
When he speaks of widowhood, St. Paul presupposes that marriage is not broken by death, for “love never fails” (Cor. 13:8). In general, Paul’s attitude towards marriage is clearly distinct from the Jewish rabbinic view in that -especially in I Corinthians- he gives such strong preference to celibacy over marriage. Only in Ephesians is this negative view corrected by the doctrine of marriage as a reflection of the union between Christ and the Church -a doctrine which became the basis of the entire theology of marriage as found in Orthodox tradition.
However, on one issue -the remarriage of widowers- Paul’s view, as it is expressed in I Corinthians, is strictly upheld by the canonical and sacramental tradition of the Church: “If they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn” (I Corinthians 7: 9). Second marriage -either of a widower or of a divorcee- is only tolerated as better than “burning.” Until the tenth century, it was not blessed in church and, even today, it remains an obstacle for entering the clergy. Our contemporary rite for blessing second marriages also shows clearly that it is admitted only by condescension. In any case, Scripture and Tradition agree that faithfulness of the widower or the widow to his or her deceased partner is more than an “ideal”; it is a Christian norm. Christian marriage is not only an earthly sexual union, but an eternal bond which will continue when our bodies will be “spiritual” and when Christ will be “all in all.”
These three examples clearly show that in the New Testament a totally new concept of marriage is being introduced; it is directly dependent upon the “Good News” of the Resurrection which was brought by Christ. A Christian is called-already in this world-to experience new life, to become a citizen of the Kingdom; and he can do so in marriage. But then marriage ceases to be either a simple satisfaction of temporary natural urges, or a means for securing an illusory survival through posterity. It is a unique union of two beings in love, two beings who can transcend their own humanity and thus be united not only “with each other,” but also “in Christ.”
It should be noted that Father John, who was among other things a wonderful historian of the church, explains in a simple but fairly systematic way the evolution of the rite of marriage which was gradually separated from the celebration of the Eucharist, a service that itself also evolved throughout the centuries. This progressive separation appeared as early as the 4th century, with a more solemn coronation rite, at the time still accomplished during the Eucharist. Later in the 9th century, St Theodore the Studite wrote in one of his letters that the coronation was accompanied by a prayer read by the bishop or the priest in front of all the faithful during the Sunday liturgy. But this rite was not yet considered obligatory for the validity of the marriage.
The decisive step was made in the 10th century with a law by Emperor Leo VI, who expressed his regret at the fact that so far, legislation was considering the adoption of a child and marriage as merely civil acts. The same text declares that these acts, when accomplished by free citizens, will henceforth be accompanied by a religious ceremony. Otherwise the marriage will not be recognized as such, but as illegitimate concubinage. It is at this same period that we see the beginning of a rite of coronation as a separate service, distinct from the Eucharistic celebration.
It is obvious that the reality of today’s world, in which religious marriage is no longer a legal obligation, but based on the free choice of the spouses, allows the return to a common celebration of these two sacraments.
As a conclusion, let’s listen to Father John, as he calls for this return in his book:
“In our time the connection between marriage and the Eucharist must -and can easily be- restored again. What better way does the Church have to show to its children the true sacramental meaning of the act they are accomplishing?”
Source in French: