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AGAIN, again

In case you’re interested, the current issue of AGAIN just came out (Winter 2009), and my article “Prepare for Joy: An Orthodox Christian Look at Being Engaged” is included amongst its pages. Alas, the Conciliar Press website continues to show Summer 2008 as the latest issue, so I have nothing to which I might link, but what I at least think I can do is post the draft I initially submitted. It was changed enough in the editorial process that I think I can do that without it being a problem for anybody, and if you have the issue sitting in front of you, you might get a peek behind the curtain of how it works – things which are suggested, changes that are made, additions which are inserted, bits taken out, and so on.

I hope it’s of interest; it’s something I haven’t seen discussed very much, and to be frank, many of the premarital materials the various jurisdictions publish are awful. Not that this is intended to be a definitive resource, but hopefully it at least can get a conversation started.

Matthew, my godson, was at my house one evening, lamenting some issues he and Erin, his significant other of two years, along with whom he had just been baptized into the Orthodox Christian faith, were having. The two of them had started talking about marriage within a few months of beginning their relationship, and Matthew, by this point, had bought the engagement ring a year previous — but the step of actually getting engaged had not yet been taken.

“We’re reaching the point where it feels awkward to be still introducing each other as ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend,'” he sighed to me as my wife Megan and I were doing dishes.

I had wondered when they would start feeling this way. I simply looked at him and said, “Yes.”

“Which, I suppose, means I need to get my act in gear and propose sometime soon.”

“Yes,” I said, having thought exactly this for months.

Matthew’s face brightened a bit. “I suppose I could do it tonight…”

“Yes.”

“In fact,” he said, now beaming with the possibilities, “I could do it right now!”

“Yes.”

Off he went, taking two of our crystal champagne flutes on his way out. An hour and a half later, we were admiring the ring now in its proper place on Erin’s hand and toasting them; they’re set to be crowned unto each other late summer of 2009.

So — now what? Okay, have a fun year, guys. Enjoy the planning and anticipation, but don’t enjoy the anticipation too much, if you know what I mean. Other than that — see you at the service.

Surely there’s more that we can tell Matthew and Erin than that??? Megan and I discovered for ourselves when we were engaged that there’s definitely a lot of advice out there of varying quality — but what does Orthodox Christianity have to tell a newly-baptized and newly-engaged young couple which will be substantively different from what they would find in a secular self-help book, and which will be uniquely Orthodox?

The trouble is that engagement itself doesn’t fit neatly into a particular category from an Orthodox Christian standpoint. Yes, it is true that the betrothal service used to be the Church’s formal acknowledgment of an engagement and was served well in advance of the order of crowning itself. Still, Fr. John Meyendorff’s Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1975) emphasizes that engagement as it is known today cannot be understood as the same as betrothal; betrothal “is the marriage contract as the Church understands it [for it] involves not only the bridal pair, but God Himself” (Meyendorff, 33, emphasis mine). Meyendorff notes that that in Byzantine society, a betrothal could only be broken by divorce — thus, “lacking only the ultimate sacramental fulfilment”, the betrothal service came to be celebrated with the crowning, rather than in advance.

So what can we say about this modern in-between state of engagement, clearly more than dating or courtship but still less than betrothal, that will be useful and practical for those moving through this particular harbor?

Fr. Peter A. Chamberas’ excellent book, This Is A Great Mystery: Christian Marriage in the Orthodox Church (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Metropolis of Boston, 2003) encourages engagement to be treated as a time for “substantive preparation” so that the couple not “miss altogether the awesome day of their visitation by the grace of God” (Chamberas, 8). By the time the wedding itself comes about, he writes, the couple’s “heart and mind must already be transformed and committed to the real nature and ultimate purpose of Christian Marriage, seeking fullness of life and salvation in God.” In other words, the primary purpose of engagement, as neither-here-nor-there as it may seem from a sacramental standpoint, is to prepare the man and woman for one of the ways through which they will be working out their salvation with fear and trembling. That’s a lot more than just picking out flowers and a cake, isn’t it?

Fine — but what does that mean, exactly?

The text of the betrothal and crowning services provides helpful illumination on this point; they are, as Fr. Chamberas eloquently describes, “the primary and most appropriate educational resource for informing and preparing the spouses for their married life as active members of the Church” (ibid., 22). Fr. Meyendorff agrees, exhorting “all couples intending to get married [to] make a point of reading the entire service carefully in advance…for the sake of conscious and prayerful participation” (Meyendorff, 35-6).

With that in mind, there are several observations about engagement one can make from the liturgical texts. In the services themselves, the couple takes no vows, but they are instead merely asked by the priest, “Have you a good, free, and unconstrained will and a firm intention to take unto yourself [as a spouse] this [person] whom you see here before you?” Fr. Chamberas writes, “This mutual, free and sincere agreement for Marriage is…an absolute necessary presupposition for the Sacrament to be performed” (Chamberas, 50), and Fr. Meyendorff sees it as a “useful way of emphasizing their personal commitment and active participation” (Meyendorff, 35). Thus, we might understand engagement as a period of discernment during which the couple prepares to be asked that very question, so that, to quote Fr. Chamberas again, they may offer “their sincere pledge of love and faithfulness…like the bread and wine in the Divine Liturgy, to be blessed and transformed” (Chamberas, 50). There are tools which the Church offers in aid of this process; the place for the couple to start is to begin premarital counseling with the priest who will marry them. These sessions will be, among other things, a source of specific advice regarding how to develop good spiritual habits from the outset, such as praying together, for example.

Given that marriage is a Mystery of the Church, however, this mystical transformation impacts not only the man and the woman being married but the entire community, just as the bread and wine must be distributed to the community of the faithful after being consecrated. This is reflected in the fact that the betrothal service begins with a Great Litany, a liturgical exchange in which the priest asks the assembly for prayers for the couple, and the people (the laos in the Greek Euchologion), the members of the community, affirm these petitions. This suggests that the period of engagement is not just a period of preparation and discernment between the man and woman, but also between the two of them and the community of the Church who will be asked to bless their union. “It is to the Church that the couple has come to be married,” observes Fr. Chamberas, “[and] it is the whole Church that prays [for them]… [T]he engaged couple…are making a mutual pledge before God and the congregation, not only to share their life but also to graft it upon the Tree of Life in the Church” (Chamberas, 51). Fr. John McGuckin, in his book The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture (Blackwell Publishing, 2008), paints the vivid picture of “their mutual love and joy [functioning] to others (as well as themselves) as a living icon of the burning love Christ has for his church” (McGuckin, 311). In the absence of a liturgical means by which the engagement can be recognized, a simple, practical way that the man and woman to be married might begin to engage their community in this way is to ask to be added to the list of those prayed for at the altar. This way, the entire congregation is praying for them week in, week out during the course of their engagement.

Much more can be said about the betrothal service, but I will conclude with the final observation that all of the petitions made on behalf of the man and woman suggest very strongly that the Church believes that they need them. In other words, the engagement may also be seen as preparation for the inevitable tough times to come and learning to work through them. If you think planning the reception seating chart was tough, just wait.

Which brings us to the crowning service. The very use of crowns and related imagery suggest martyrdom; not in the sense of suffering being an unavoidable element of the Christian marriage, but in the sense that within the marriage, as in every other element of the Christian life, the victory in Christ — that for which the martyr’s crown is bestowed — is achieved through humility and death to oneself in seeking to serve Christ in the other person. This is made explicit in the epistle reading — “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:20). Fr. McGuckin points out that what St. Paul is exhorting the husband and wife to do in this oft-misunderstood passage is “to outdo one another in putting their own self at the service of the other” (McGuckin, 311). From this standpoint, the engaged couple needs to prepare themselves to be able to accept the crown with all that it entails. Fr. Chamberas again: “[T]heir crowns must remind them always, not of a mere symbolical ritual, but the very condition which makes their Marriage a Christian Marriage. By being crowned in the name of the Holy Trinity…the couple are challenged to see that real glory and honor are to be found in their joyful self-offering and service to each other” (Chamberas, 75).

A final observation is that the crowning service, in the final prayer before the actual bestowing of crowns, provides the engaged couple with a very clear outline of what is normative in the Christian marriage: “Unite them, O Lord, to have oneness of mind. Crown them in marriage to be one flesh. Grant them the fruit of their bodies and procreation of blessed children. Grant also, O Lord, that their life together may be blameless and without reproach.”

This, ultimately, is what the engaged couple needs to be working towards — oneness of mind. One flesh. Yes, children, if God wills. A life blameless and without reproach. It’s not necessarily a life of material wealth and happiness and unconcerned bliss — but the fruit of the time spent preparing in the frustratingly neither-here-nor-there state that is engagement is, as Fr. Chamberas puts it, “a real expression of their entrance into the Kingdom of God… the beginning of their own familiar kingdom, which is destined to be a small reflection of the true Kingdom” (Chamberas, 75).

What the engaged man and woman must remember is that the Christian life may not always promise happiness — but “the key issue…is the presence of joy,” Fr. McGuckin writes. “And joy is wholly a spiritual phenomenon that cannot be counterfeited” (McGuckin, 317). Christian marriage is not the exercise of two people merely pursuing in parallel individual ease or the ephemera of “being happy,” in other words; such things may happen, but they are to be in the service of mutual joy, which is sacrificial, selfless, and seeking Christ.

So, to Matt, Erin, and all other engaged couples who may be reading this: prepare for saying yes. Prepare your church community and your family to say “Amen.” Prepare for martyrdom. Prepare to be one, to be blameless, to be parents. Prepare to fail at most or all of this at least some of the time (and thus prepare, maybe, to go to confession a little more frequently).

But nonetheless, above all — prepare for joy.

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