Christian marriage was forged in a world of gods and kings. In such a world, gender and marriage were what we might call epiphenomenal, meaning that they were microcosms reflective of a larger macrocosmic order. In the ancient Greek world, as we find it represented in Hesiod’s Theogony, the Earth-goddess Gaia represented a female cosmic principle that is the source of the male principle (Ouranos). From the very construction of the world, biological reproduction was associated with the same gender distinctions embedded in the universe.
Because the masculine was associated with power and order, this gendered cosmos gave rise to marriage ceremonies that ritualized the domination of the man over the woman. In ancient Rome, the marriage ceremony re-enacted the story of the rape of the Sabine women. When it was found that among the original settlers of the city were without wives, they invited the neighboring Sabine tribes to join in festivities and horse races. At some point in the feast, the Romans killed off the Sabine men and married their daughters the following morning. It was this act of ‘assimilating the world into Rome’ that was re-enacted at every Roman marriage, where the groom was armed with a sword and the bride was weaponless.
In stark contrast to the ancient Greek and Roman world, Christian cosmology centers on Christ the Logos. Christ has born our sins upon the cross, he has risen into newness of life unto God, shattering the tripartite tyranny of sin, death, and the devil, and thus incorporates the totality of the cosmos into his transformative life, death, and resurrection. And it is to this cosmic redemption that Christian marriage bears witness. In holy matrimony, we witness a living testimony that Christ is risen and that our creation is being transformed even now into a heavenly communion of infinite love and delight.
Thus the basic frame of reference that constitutes a distinctively Christian vision of marriage is the image of the coming of the Kingdom of God as a wedding feast (Matt 22:2-12; 25:10; Luke 12:36). In John’s gospel, this eschatological vision is portrayed beautifully in the marriage feast at Cana and the turning of the water into wine where, in Alexander Pope’s words, “the conscious water saw its Master and blushed.” The text itself describes the relationship between the water and its Master in terms of the manifestation of the glory, the doxa, of Christ (John 2:11). Throughout his gospel, John appears enamored with this theme of the glory of Christ. He begins his gospel with the proclamation, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh; we have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14). The Greek term that we translate ‘Word’ is logos. In the Greco-Roman world, the Logos is that in which the whole cosmos coheres, the quintessence in which the four cosmic elements of earth, air, fire, and water, are harmoniously bound together. In stark contrast to the Greco-Roman world, however, John tells us that this Logos is in fact a person, the eternal Son of God, who does the unimaginable: he becomes flesh and reveals his glory by dwelling among us.
It is this glory, the glory of the Logos in whom the whole of the cosmos coheres, that is revealed at Cana. It is this glory that Christ himself asks the Father to reveal to all those who follow the way of Jesus. In his high priestly prayer of chapter 17, Jesus asks the Father to reveal to us the glory that the Father has given eternally to the Son, that we might see the Son with the very vision by which God the Father sees the Son; to see and savor Christ through God’s own eyes.
These three themes of Logos, marriage, and glory converge in John’s depiction of the future return of the resurrected Christ as a cosmic marriage. In Revelation 19, John celebrates the renewal of creation, the recalibration of the totality of the cosmos around Christ the Logos, with the words: “Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready… Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.”
And so, as it turns out, the Miracle at Cana is but a foretaste of the cosmic marriage between heaven and earth yet to come. It is therefore no coincidence that John begins the narrative of the wedding at Cana by placing it ‘On the third day’ (2:1); this is the day of resurrection, and thus the culmination of the whole of biblical history, from creation to communion, from garden to city, from water to wine. As we read in Revelation, marriage is a foretaste of resurrection life, the coming together of heaven and earth in a grand cosmic banquet, where every square inch of the cosmos will be completely rid of evil.
Man & Woman = Christ & His Church
From its origination, the place of this grand cosmic marital vision was the Christian church. In his description of marriage in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul sees the man and woman embodying the two archetypes of this redemptive cosmic order: the man represents Christ, the woman represents the church, their union embodying the cosmic union of heaven and earth (Eph 5:22-33; Gen 1:1, 26-28). As Patristic scholar John Meyendorff has observed, this vision of marriage was the guiding principle throughout the Byzantine and Latin churches. Originally, the principle served as the basis for the church’s certification and legitimation of various aspects of Roman marriages, which took place in the civic sphere as opposed to the ecclesiastical. But as was already evident with Tertullian in the second-century, this certification and legitimation had a significant shaping influence on the complexion of Roman marriage practices. For example, because there are only two archetypes involved, Christ and his church, marriage had to be monogamous; divorce was frowned upon, and remarriage discouraged. Moreover, the biblical injunctions required that marriages involved a mutuality of faith between the spouses. Canon 14 of the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) forbade the marriage of a Christian to a non-Christian. And as evident at the Council of Trullo (AD 692), the church forged disciplinary procedures for the violation of these obligations that were without civil parallel.
It was during this time that gender roles were recalibrated around Christian norms. The Church promoted love as the central characteristic of marriage, and required that husbands be as faithful to their marriages as wives. The practice of husbands having relations with concubines, which was widely accepted in the Greco-Roman world, was redefined successfully by the church as adultery. Indeed, Christianity always had a particular affinity towards women, in stark contrast to the rather lowly status afforded to women in the ancient world. Women were prominent among the first followers of Jesus, and the first witnesses to his resurrection. Through the influence of the church, the fifth-century legal Code of Theodosius II (AD 401-450) redefined divorce law decidedly in the favor of women. Women were now allowed to reclaim their dowries and their husband’s betrothal gifts if abandoned by their husbands, and were allowed to remarry.
And children transfigured during this period of time as well. In contrast to the rampant abortion in the Greco-Roman world, the church considered children to be human. Because Christ came into the world as a baby, infancy was seen as sacred in the eyes of God. Indeed, the child was understood as the embodiment of the love shared by husband and wife, with every family transforming into an image of the Trinity. And ancient medical theory notwithstanding, the sanctity of the child extended to the moment of conception, commemorated every March 25th in the Feast of the Annunciation of Gabriel to Mary. And hence, the Church has promoted unwaveringly the sanctity of human life.
Though anticipated by the Armenian liturgy of marriage in the fourth-century, it was not until the ninth-century, through a declaration by Emperor Leo VI (AD 886-912), that all marriages were required to be sanctioned by the church. It was then that we see a transference of location for the marriage ceremony. Up to this point, the clergy would often come to the home of the spouses to conduct a formal marriage blessing; but now, after Leo’s edict, the couples were coming to the church. In fact, marriages had often taken place during the worship service proper on Sunday mornings, after the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. But with Leo’s directive, the volume of marriages required a separate ceremony. With the advent of the Gregorian Revolution in the eleventh-century West, the family was inseparable from the church, not only in the development of the sacramental nature of marriage, but also in terms of the church’s jurisdiction over laws of inheritance and property law.
So what is the take away from this aerial view?
As we can see, the whole conception of gender, love, and children bound up in the marital relationship are redefined in accordance with a distinctively Christian redemptive cosmology. Christian cosmology centers on Christ the Logos, who has born our sins upon the cross, risen into newness of life unto God, and thus incorporates the totality of the cosmos into his transformative life, death, and resurrection. And it is to this cosmic redemption that Christian marriage bears witness. In holy matrimony, we witness a living testimony that Christ is risen and that our creation is being transformed even now into a heavenly communion of infinite love and delight.
For a fuller treatment of the church’s vision of marriage, particularly in the context of the rise of so-called same-sex marriage, download the free eBook: A Match Made in Heaven: A Step-by-Step Guide on How to Win the Battle over Marriage.