Magic, Mystery, and Marriage

Earlier this month, we were blessed to celebrate the marriage of our elder daughter to a fine, young, Orthodox Christian man. It was a beautiful event, held at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Washington, DC. A few photos are findable on Facebook. Here is a brief homily offered by me to those present: 

Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today — in greater numbers than you might imagine. Besides those you see standing left and right, we also have the groom’s family, direct from Cairo by the miracle of Skype. And we have all of the saints and angels you see here about us. They are all right here with us, in the presence of God, to join this man and this woman together in Holy Matrimony.

Marriage is the first sacrament given to us by God — given to us in the beginning when God created man male and female, intending that the man and the woman would live together as one thereafter. It is thus only fitting that the first act of Christ’s public ministry was to bless the sacrament of marriage by changing water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee, the subject of today’s Gospel reading.

The word sacrament comes from the Latin word sacramentum, meaning a sacred obligation, an oath that binds us to some other person or to some duty. In that sense, what could be more sacramental than marriage? But all sacraments do this: All sacraments bind us together as one, as the Church, and reunite us with God, and so from an early age the word sacramentum has been used to translate the Greek word mysterion for those acts we call sacraments.

Many Orthodox today prefer to speak of mysteries instead of sacraments because of the extra senses the word mystery suggests, both the sense of something not fully understood and the sense of something kept secret, something reserved only for the initiated.

Marriage is both. Marriage is not fully understood — how two can become one. It takes a lifetime together as man and wife to even begin to know how two can live as one. Take my word for it, take the word of anyone here who is married: We are all still learning.

And marriage has its secrets. It has its publish aspect, which we recognize and acknowledge with visible symbols like rings. But it has its private aspect as well, including both joys and sorrows that only the husband and the wife will know because only this man will know what it is like to live with this woman, and only this woman will know what it is like to live with this man, though all of the trials they will face as a couple.

Both the public and the private aspects of marriage will change things. They will change how the couple relate to each other, and they will change how others relate to the couple. This is true of all marriages, whether made here in church or somewhere else. All marriages change things. The difference is that marriages made in church change things with the help of the Holy Spirit. All sacraments do that: All involve the Holy Spirit helping us to change ourselves — that’s their purpose.

It’s not magic. The word magic comes from an Indo-European root that means power or might. In fact, the word might comes from that same root. That’s what magic is about. It’s about using a power not our own, a power from outside ourselves to change things outside ourselves.

Magic is about imposing our will on the world, but Christian mysteries are about conforming our will to the will of God, using our natural powers as human beings, in cooperation with the natural but divine power of the Holy Spirit, to work a change in us, in our hearts and in our minds, because only by first changing ourselves for the better can we possibly hope to change others and the world for the better.

That’s what we are doing here today: We are changing the world by joining this man and this woman together as husband and wife. And we are changing them and us for the better because we are doing so prayerfully, here in church, in the presence of all these witnesses, and in the name of Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

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3 Responses to Magic, Mystery, and Marriage

  1. Lisa Lakeman says:

    Lovely, Brian.

  2. Michael Bauman says:

    When I attended the marriage of my niece several years ago (Orthodox) it was an amazing experience. About half way through the service she went from being a girl to a woman. She grew-up before my eyes and assumed the authority (with a certain fierceness) and grace of being a wife and (soon now) a mother. I’ll never forget it.

    The Orthodox marriage service is unique and special. It dwarfs, IMO, the other Chrisitian services I’ve seen and certainly anything secular. I think we need to be more aware of that difference and that specialness. It is as much a declaration of the acceptance and approval of the community as it is anything to do with the primary human parties.

    My wife’s brother has a spectacularly contentious marriage, though long-lived. I picked up my wife the other day and we started talking about what a wonderful marriage and partnership my wife and I have and how much we enjoy each other. His ideas was that I must be brain-washed and well trained. I quoted him from the betrothal service that I entered into and rejoiced in my marriage with a “free and unconstrained will”. He didn’t get it. So many see marriage as a constant battle between husband and wife for one to gain supremacy over the other.

    I’ve seen so much plan bad stuff written about marriage by Orthodox people that make it out to be a joyless, ascectic podvig worse than any struggle that monastics endure. I’m glad to see this.

    The mystery and holiness of real marriage is something to be cherished, celebrated and protected. We have to do a better job of that, IMO. If we do, it will be a powerful witness in this increasingly dark world. Chastity, humility, fidelity and joy that only God’s grace can bring combine to produce great fruit and fecundity, not only in our children, but in our children’s children gathered like olive-shoots around our table AND a great blessing to all in ways that are unknown at the time but only to be revealed as we live the mystery into which we have been brought. It is truly the transforming energy of sacrament and a sacramental life.

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