Love, Marriage and Sexuality

Martyr John of Vlachia, Romania

Martyr John of Vlachia, Romania

My beloved spiritual children in Our Risen Lord and Our Only True God and Savior Jesus Christ,

Orthodox Theological Perspective for a New Millennium
By Father John Chryssavgis Professor of theology in Holy Cross School of theology

Love, marriage, and sexuality concern everyone, because love is a vocation for everyone. As Christians, we believe that the entire creation was made through love. The source and end of all things is love, because the source and end of all things is God, and "God is love" (1 John 4:8, 16). Saint John Chrysostom describes the All-embracing love of the Incarnate God in a homily on the Gospel of Saint Matthew.

"I am a father for you (says Christ) and a brother, a bridegroom and a home, a nurse and a dressing, a root and a cornerstone. Whatever you want, I am for you. My desire is that you have no need whatsoever. I shall serve you; for I came not to be served, but to serve. I am a friend and a member and a head, a brother and a sister and a mother. I am everything for you. Just stay in communion with Me. I have been poor for you and a wanderer for you, on the Cross and in the tomb for you."

"...From a human perspective, there is no singular way of understanding the concept of love. It conveys a host of meanings and moods from "making love" which may imply a loveless physical act, to the profound commitment of an elderly couple; from selfish motives, to selfless giving; from the softness of a child holding its parents' hands, to the intimacy of two friends holding hands. Human beings are made to love and to look at one another. The experience of love is heaven and life; the absence of love is hell and death. Saint Macarius of Egypt believed that hell resembles being bound, back to back with another person, unable for all eternity to face that person. Love shatters the chains of loneliness; it tears down the walls of selfishness. Love is a profound strength, a spiritual energy. We are never more powerful than when through love we are vulnerable. Love casts out fear; it is stronger than death. To say to someone: "I love you!" is to make a metaphysical statement; it is like saying: "You will never die!"

Appreciating this intensity of love, the Church Holy Fathers dare to compare it with eros or passion. Saint Dionysius the Areopagite describes God as a "manic lover" Who is zealously protective of His creation. Love is so powerful, that one genuine expression of love reveals an openness that transfigures the whole world. To gaze into another person's eyes with love is to see the soul of the entire world, it is to see the very image of God.

This kind of love is a gift from God. Yet at the same time, it requires cultivation and hard work. Love takes time and skill, responsibility and respect, it is act of extending myself to nurture another, all the time. On the evening of life, we will be judged only on love. This love is more than mere feelings. It is a decision and a commitment. If you want to love, you must create it and not wait for your spouse to offer it. In love and marriage, God provides us with a wonderful opportunity of being reborn, of maturing. "This is indeed a great mystery" (Ephesians 5:32). Life is the great mystery - to be lived, and lived in abundance. And if we work on love, if we cultivate love, if we let down our guard of mistrust, if we struggle to relate, then we shall gradually notice that the whole world changes and that the whole world is beautiful! In reality, of course, it is we who shall have changed; it is we who see the same things with different eyes.

Christian authors have from the earliest of times been uncomfortable with physical or sexual love. Somehow, physical love is considered a debased form of love. Certain authors affirm that celibacy is a superior to love in marriage; others propose that the sole purpose of physical love is procreation. Physical or sexual love has been tainted, regarded as impure. They are seen as contaminating and shaming; people are riddled with fear and guilt. Sexuality is viewed as an expression that connects us to the lower forms of life, identified with lustful desires and animal instincts...

"...Saint Paul made it clear, however, that in becoming one flesh (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:16), man and woman symbolize the union between Christ and the church. In any case, Christ never identified sin with the body, but with what is committed in the heart (cf. Saint Matthew 15:18-19). For Christians, "the flesh is the hinge of salvation" (Tertullian). How unfortunate, then, it is that Christianity--as the religion of the body and the flesh, as the religion of incarnation has left a permanent scar on the human body.

It is not a matter of coming to terms with the body or with sexuality. Rather, it is a matter of recognizing these as crucially bound to the deepest aspects of human nature. Sexuality is not accidental; rather, it is essential to our reality. Sexual and physical love belongs to the mystery of our being. This is not to say that sexuality and spirituality are one and the same. However, there is an intimate correspondence between the two. The denial of one is reflected in the degradation of the other. Without sexuality, there is no beauty; without beauty, there is no soul; and without soul, there is no God. "Male and female [God] created [us]" Genesis 1:26). So we are told immediately after the creation of Adam and Eve in the image and likeness of God. For the Eastern Holy Fathers, without Eve, Adam was incomplete. "Woman is made in full communion with man: sharing every pleasure, every joy, every good, every sorrow, every pain" (Saint Basil the Great), "Sharing Divine Grace itself" (St. Clement of Alexandria). Writing in exactly the same period as Augustine of Hippo, Saint John Chrysostom claims that "sexual love is not human; it is divine in origin."

Now it is difficult for a person to become aware of sexuality (of his or her body) without becoming aware of the sexuality (of bodies) of other people. And so in physical love, in the union of marriage, man and woman offer one another to the image of God in the other person. This is not unlike the encounter that occurs in the event of an icon. There is an art involved in iconography. Similarly, there is an art involved in love. Love is not simply an act; it is art. The purpose of the art of love - as also in iconography - is to transfigure one other, to see each other as the manifestation of the Divine Beloved. If there is a place for icons in the Church, then there is also a place for marriage and sexual love. The body and sexual love resemble an icon that opens up to Divine Beauty and Divine Love: "Blessed is the person who has obtained such love and yearning for God as a mad lover has for his beloved generating fire by fire, eros by eros, passion by passion, desire by desire" (Saint John Climacus)...According to an apocryphal saying of Jesus: "The Kingdom of Heaven is made manifest when two people love." The icon teaches us another means of communication, beyond the written and the spoken word. We are taught not to look at icons, but to look through them. By the same token, we are called to penetrate the surface of the person we love and to reveal the sacred depth within.

In fact the matter of procreation directly relates to this notion of icon. Unless marital love opens the couple up beyond themselves, unless the relationship of the two in marriage reflects the communion of the Trinity, unless the love of the couple extends them in one way of another; a mirror is not an icon, but a reflection of oneself. The couple is called to become an icon of the Church, a "miniature Church." For Saint John Chrysostom, "marriage is a mystical icon of the Church."

"...Every sacrament (Mystery) is a transcendence of division and alienation. In the case of marriage, each person must become conscious of the Divine presence in the other. Both husband and wife must pierce the curtain of distance and falsehood. When this occurs, the marital union is stronger than death, not able to be "put asunder by anyone." In this relationship, the male is never exclusively the active pole, and the female is never exclusively the passive pole. The basis in any sacramental relationship is that man and woman are complementary: there is a mutuality of giving and receiving, a meeting of reciprocity. Neither must look upon the other as a means toward an end, no matter how exalted or spiritual. Neither must use the relationship for any purpose in which the other is not fully and personally involved as an active and cooperating partner and participant.

This means that partners should not seek fulfillment in, or dependence on each other. I cannot hold my spouse responsible for my emptiness. At all times, I need to discover the fulfillment of my emptiness in God: it is God Who makes me know that I am loved; it is God Who empowers me to love another...

"...In order to become a complete sacramental union, the love between man and woman must embrace all aspects of their life - every level and capacity of their being. This includes the physical, the spiritual, the emotional, and the intellectual aspects of human nature. If this does not occur, the relationship remains unconsummated and unfulfilled; it is both unsacred and unsacramental; it becomes both crippling and frustrating...

"...In the final analysis, neither husband nor wife appropriates what the other offers. On the contrary, each offers it back - together with his or her self - to the Source of all Life, to God, Whom each of us comes to see and encounter and love on the other, just as we do in the Divine Liturgy. Man and woman become the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Then sacramental love becomes blessing, conferred by the Creator on two creatures who have turn the same course of their life through whatever obstacles and joys it may have led them. Thus shall they enter at last, transfigured, into the Kingdom of God, to Whom is due all thanks.

[Please note: the above are excerpts from Father's homily and not the entire homily]

[Father John Chryssavgis gave this homily during the Conference on Orthodox youth.]





"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"--Saint John Chrysostom


With sincere agape in Christ's Holy Resurrection,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George