Marriage in the Eucharistic Life

By Rev. Ian MacKinnon


“Marriage was instituted in paradise.” The Gospel reads, “have you not read that at the beginning God made them male and female…” (Mt. 19:4). Thus marriage “goes back to before the Fall. . . and neither the Fall nor time have touched its sacred reality.” The prayers of the liturgy of marriage are clearly mindful of this origin; they connect the marriage in Eden with the marriage about to be sanctified:

Blessed are Thou, O Lord our God, priest of mystical and undefiled marriage… the same master who in the beginning didst make man and establish him as a king over creation and didst say: It is not good that man should be alone. Let us make a helper fit for him. . . For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh; what therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder. Do Thou now also, O Master. . . send down Thy heavenly grace upon these Thy servants. . .

God then, and not man, is the creator of marriage, and when two enter into it, they enter into a union already prepared for them from the beginning. In truth, marriage “allows one to live something of paradise on earth.” Through the sacrament, man and wife are given to participate “in the highest reality of the Spirit.”


If the nuptial mystery is invested with such power, why are people so easily seduced away from the heart of marriage? Subtly and gradually a married couple can lose the sacramental vision of mutuality. In its place comes an inevitable tendency towards divisive, calculating behavior. “Consciously and/or unconsciously” a couple agrees “to know each other only so far.” In truth they begin to develop “a secret life apart from each other.” This separation has been referred to as “silent divorce.” In silent divorce the ability to share on the level of the heart is lost. Husband and wife spend more time apart. Deep concerns are left unexpressed. Spiritually and emotionally, the two begin to lose track of each other. In these circumstances, children suffer too. Unable to see their parents engaged in everyday exchanges of affection and sharing, they sense the lack of wholeness in family life. Later in their own married lives, they have no basis for the genuine giving and receiving of love. Instead, the expression of caring, becomes something which is postured in order to obtain what the self wants. Here, there is no realization that “whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Lk. 17:33).


Many things mitigate against marriage. Our “secular culture is a culture of multiplicity.” Within its life, “there is no true dominant authority or ideology. . .” Marriages in turn, tend to reflect this multiplicity, and while some couples are capable of clinging to historical values such as fidelity, active concern for children, and occupational responsibility, many find over time that even these ideals are eroded. By what? We want to say materialism. But a materialism far more insidious that comes from having too many things. In truth, materialism “is a way of seeing which virulently controls and determines our thinking. . . [it is] an apprehension of life which accords reality solely to that which the five senses can detect. . . Such thinking omits nearly everything which Christians value. Things such as love are relegated to a degree of lesser reality—love can’t be seen. . . . Men in the world may give lip service to hope, desire, loyalty, honesty, truth, philosophy, principles, ideals, and faith, while in actuality they trust only those things which can be seen and managed…”

Many families are entangled in this kind of materialism. The attitude of trust in “things seen” makes people particularly vulnerable to the therapeutic ideal of self-esteem which is taught as a normative approach to development in most schools in America. Here, “psychology has persuaded all too many people to accept the lie that we need a good self-image.” Again, this “image” is based on the visible, how I act, the pride I feel about my visible accomplishments. Having determined to build up the image of the self, one must inevitably strive “to live up to it, to make sure others see and reward it; we must defend it, build and rebuild, etc. But a Christian’s identity is a gift, something God builds in us, not having to be seen, rewarded or defined.” In the Christian life, it has always been known that a true sense of being comes not from building the self up, but from dying to the self in Christ. This is the precise image of baptism. A Christian approaches life’s struggles from the view of St. Paul: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).


In light of all that is popularly written about self image and the nature of human need, it is refreshing to read Verna Harrison’s reflection on the teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa.

“...St. Gregory of Nyssa… says that the divine image in the human person is a sharing in all of God’s attributes, and this includes incomprehensibility. In other words, just as God is an unfathomable mystery, and beyond whatever we can know of Him there is more that we cannot fathom, the same is true about every human being we encounter. The better we come to know someone, the more we recognize the presence of an elusive mystery at the heart of his or her being. A unique personhood is there which cannot be fully explained yet can be known to a greater and greater extent.

Because of this, the other person’s needs cannot be fully explained and categorized.

These are important words. For the married, they stimulate the question, “how can we come to know each other on the level of “incomprehensibility,” “unique personhood,” and “mystery?” The Church’s answer has always been clear. It is through the shared life in the Body of Christ, and more particularly, through a shared life in the Eucharist that marriage becomes authentic. In fact, “until the ninth century the Church did not know any rite of marriage separate from the eucharistic Liturgy. After registering their marriage with the civil authorities, the Christian couple partook of the Eucharist, and this communion was—according to Tertullian—the seal of marriage, implying all the Christian responsibilities…”

As with all sacraments, marriage in the Eucharist is not simply a rite of initiation but the giving of a way of life, a mutual path of deification. Practiced seriously, this path yields great blessings. For the couple, this path is a gift, for “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (Jn 6:46). It is a triunion “according to the Lord, and not by human desire.” “I am the bread of life,” says Jesus (Jn. 6:48). “If anyone eats this bread he shall live forever” (Jn. 6:51). Hence, the Orthodox teaching that marriage can be a mutual “passage” into eternal life. In their union “the boundaries between heaven and earth are broken…” and their human decisions and every day interactions “acquire an eternal dimension.”


This vision of Eucharist and eternity should be the foundation for each day, working for the “food that remains unto life eternal…” (Jn. 6:27). The true work of those who marry is that of mutual servanthood, guided by Christ. Love, eternity, caring, fidelity, loyalty. None of these can be accomplished in marriage without a fierce and ever deepening commitment to serve the other. The Christian life demands it. At the heart of our Lord’s ministry is His willingness to take on the “form of a servant” (Phil. 2:7). During the marriage liturgy, the crowns and the hymns of the threefold procession are appeals to the highest form of servanthood—martyrdom.

A Christian couple must come to terms with this teaching of servanthood, or else they will be left to a life of anger and mistrust. When a person finally accepts that his or her orientation has been one of self-glorification, rather than the glorification of God through service to the spouse, it can be a frightening revelation. The person can feel hopeless and under prolonged attack. And yet marriage is precisely the place where such fallenness should be faced. At first the discipline that servanthood requires seems “painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11).

Facing what we are begins with repenting of our sins in the marriage and then forgiving the sins of our spouse. “The one who clings to the misery of an unforgiving spirit will be crippled in the living of life…” This act of forgiveness in marriage may not be mutual at first, but this should not be the source of too much discouragement. St. Paul’s teaching that the unbelieving spouse “is made one with the saints” through the believing spouse is important here (1 Cor. 7:14). Almost all marriage counseling begins because one member of the couple is more determined to save the marriage than the other. It is not easy to forgive adultery, betrayal, or years of insensitivity or selfishness. In fact, humanly speaking such forgiveness is impossible. If a marriage has fallen into “silent divorce,” the extending of forgiveness seems particularly out of place, given the lack of intimacy. The vitality to forgive, much less to love, seems lost. But here, a critical fact of Christian life must be remembered: it is Christ who bestows on us the courage and the inner resource to forgive. “Take Eat, this is my body which is broken for you for the remission of sins. ...” Having been forgiven “through his blood” (Eph. 1:7) we are given the capacity to forgive the other. Not to do so is to invite judgment on ourselves: “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged” (Mt 7:1).

To summarize thus far, we have said that the Eucharistic life of confession and communion enables a couple to restore their marriage through the practice of servanthood. This must be a very concrete servanthood. No pretension, no excuse will do. Of all the complaints heard in marriage counseling, the primary one is, “I feel forgotten and uncared for.” It is clear then, that husband or wife will have to be very conscientious about how they serve the other. If a man seeks to restore his marriage after years of taking his wife for granted, he will have to start caring for her in some very particular ways.

Edward Wheat, a medical doctor and a Christian marriage counselor, has written a very useful book on rebuilding marriages. He notes some very specific ways in which members of a couple should serve and bless each other if they hope to save their marriage. Below is a sampling of his remarks:

. . . you have the power to bless your marriage by the words you speak to your partner. You can also bless by learning when to be silent. . . The Lord, Jesus gave us an example we are advised to follow: when He was reviled, he did not revile in return, and when He suffered, He uttered not threats, but kept entrusting himself to His Father in heaven. In the same way. . . we are to live as husbands and wives. The wife in Proverbs 31 receives praise because she opens her mouth in wisdom and the law of kindness is on her tongue. . . You bless by bestowing practical benefits. . . simply by doing kind things for another person. . . This should be a daily part of your marriage. You also bless by showing thankfulness and appreciation. Whatever you can find to appreciate in your partner, make it known verbally. Thank your partner and thank God too. . . Finally, you bless by calling God’s favor down in prayer. How much are you praying for your partner? And on what basis? So things will be easier for you? Or is it prayer for your partner’s good and blessing?

Husbands are commanded in Ephesians 5 to nourish and cherish their wives. This is at least partially accomplished through the giving of verbal praise and encouragement. A wife’s sense of her own beauty depends greatly on what her husband thinks of her. She needs to be nourished emotionally with praise and never diminished by criticism, especially in the areas where she feels most insecure and vulnerable. She needs to be cherished in publish. . . a husband is dependent on the affirmations of his wife, the appreciation she shows for all that he gives her, and her demonstration of respect for his manhood.

Another area of servanthood is that of sharing. In order to share, that part of the self which insists on control, on continuing to have things “my own way” must begin to die. The image of the two becoming “one flesh” is an image of full mutuality, a mutuality which is forged through taking a prayerful interest in the struggles and the challenges of your spouse. Sharing takes time. With a spouse “sharing should touch all areas of life—your time, activities, interests, and concerns, ideas and innermost thoughts. . . family objectives and goals.”


In reviewing the various ways in which couples can serve each other, we can recognize many of the same actions occurring between God and His people during the worship of the Church. Before participating in the Eucharist there is a preparation of prayer and repentance. Likewise, repentance, forgiveness and prayer must occur before either spouse can begin to reconcile in truth. When the priest chants, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” the source of all blessing, God in Three Persons, is valued above all. Likewise, we must value our marriage partner over all other human relationships. In this regard, devotion to our marital partner should be marked by a fierce loyalty. The words of the Liturgy affirm God’s love for man. They are powerful and succinct: “The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” Likewise, in marriage both partners are given the power to bless and restore the other with words of affection and love. The Liturgy is the “shared” experience of the people, the “common work.” Through it, full mutuality among all who worship is given. St. Paul refers to the Eucharist as the “cup of blessing” and that blessing creates a unity between all who partake of this same loaf (1 Cor. 10:17). Likewise, when a married couple partakes of this same loaf their relationship enters into that same unity (Eph. 5:32). In short, all that has been said about marriage—unity, blessing, communion, eternity—finds its parallel and fulfillment in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

A couple must therefore, have confidence in the Eucharistic gift. It is a gift which penetrates their relationship far deeper than any rational consideration. It strengthens the foundation of their marriage on a level which “the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear is filled with hearing” (Ecc. 1:8). It grants to their union an eternal dimension, a heavenly goal; “Receive their crowns into Thy Kingdom…”

It is on this foundation that a couple who is having terrible difficulties must pins its hopes, for only Christ can overcome the evil which has crept into a fallen relationship. Only the gift of His forgiveness and His Body, can restore two into “one flesh” again. Entrusting a broken marriage to the life of the Church may prove a difficult step at first. This is why counsel with the parish priest or a knowledgeable layperson should be readily available. If neither the priest nor a layperson feels capable of providing counsel, referral should be made to a competent Christian counselor, while the parish continues to show genuine concern for the welfare of the family.

Marriage, as we said at the beginning of the paper, “goes back to before the Fall—and neither the Fall nor time have touched its sacred reality.” This is a remarkable claim. It teaches that inherent within the sacrament dwells the power of the Holy Spirit, ready to sustain and encourage husband and wife. Once a couple in their inner life together, starts to sense that this is the sure framework of their marriage, they can again participate in realistic hope. After all, a union was prepared for them from the beginning, and in time they will discover that their lives together rested on a foundation of sacrament and mystery far stronger than they ever knew.

Fr. Ian MacKinnon is the parish priest at the Elevation of the Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Sacramento, California.