Monday, October 27, 2008

A Wedding Homily

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

On behalf of S. and E., it is my privilege to welcome all of you to their wedding and to our home parish of St. Barnabas Orthodox Church! With so many friends and family members joining us today, it’s quite possible that this is the first Eastern Orthodox wedding that some of you have attended. In the front of the service booklet there are explanations of many of the things you see here, but I thought I might take a brief moment to describe the underlying meaning of marriage from our point of view.

Perhaps the first thing you notice about an Orthodox wedding is that it is very traditional. Our couples don’t write their own personalized ceremonies, they are always married in the church by the priest, and they don’t even exchange vows. The point of this is not to stifle individual creativity, but to emphasize that this is a holy sacrament of the Church, which is principally the work of God and not of the couple themselves. What this means is that it is God Himself who brings the man and the woman together and joins them in a sacred and mystical union by His grace.

This is an important distinction, for when difficulties occasionally arise, as they do in all marriages, it is good for the couple to look back upon the sure and certain foundation that God established when He joined them in marriage. At such times they will remember that they began their union by the hand of God, and must continue it with the help of God.

Eastern Orthodoxy further builds upon this idea to define marriage itself as the union brought about by God of a man and a woman for the purpose of their mutual salvation. When we consider the process that needs to take place over the years in the lives of married people, this definition is not so difficult to understand.

In a marriage, God brings together two very different people, each with their own personal mix of sins and individual willfulness. This invariably produces conflict, or what we might affectionately refer to as “marital discord”. This is not in-and-of-itself a bad thing. If it is handled correctly by the couple, such conflict can actually lead to real growth in love, patience, and understanding between the two. For this growth to take place, a fundamental shift in the way we fallen human beings tend to deal with one another must first begin to occur.

In short, there needs to be a move away from an ego-centric existence characterized by the exaggerated love of self, to one centered on Christ and the love of others. Our Lord Jesus pointed the way to this in the commandment He gave for us to love one another as He has loved us, that is to say, with a love that is self-sacrificial and puts the genuine needs of others first. This is the way God loves us, but we broken human beings have to learn this kind of love, for otherwise we tend to put ourselves and our needs (whether real or imagined) far ahead of everyone else, and many times at the expense of those around us.

It’s been said that America is a consumer society and this is true. Unfortunately we are not only consumers of goods and services, but often of people as well. We tend to get into relationships for what we think we can get out of them. We seek companionship, romance, security, fun; we have a whole list of what we feel are our personal needs. And if it should turn out that the other person doesn’t quite meet our exact needs, we may drop them like an empty Starbucks’ cup and move on to someone else.

This self-serving approach to others makes us into the exact opposite of God and His self-giving love. No one can be saved who does not renounce this terrible love of self, to embrace God’s love and the genuine love of others. By learning to give instead of take, to serve instead of being served, a married couple move into the communion of God’s love and reflect the presence of Jesus Christ in their lives. By this they are transformed by grace and find their salvation together. Thus we see that marriage truly can be redemptive for the couple that is committed to this effort.

Another thing that’s a little different about Orthodox weddings is the fact that there is no “until death do we part” bit in our ceremony. This is because we do not see marriage as merely an earthly contract to be terminated when one or the other spouse dies. The marital union begun by God is an eternal union. Though the nature of marriage, like that of our bodies themselves, will be changed when we are raised and glorified in heaven, the union itself will not pass away, but will only be perfected in the kingdom to come.

This is a wonderful thing, and underscores once again the importance of what is happening here today. S. and E. are beginning, not just the journey of a lifetime, but one that will carry them into eternity. The crowns they now wear symbolize not only that they are proclaimed as king and queen of a new family, entrusted by God with the authority to rule their household in faith and love and harmony with Christ, but also prefigure the crowns of glory and honor God will bestow upon them when they fulfill their journey together in the kingdom of heaven.

This is why we take such a traditional and serious approach to marriage in the Orthodox Church. We see it as a gift from God to us fallen people for our salvation, and yet another sign of His merciful love for us.

For this we give all glory +to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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