Tonight I get to surprise my wife with a Valentine’s Day dinner, thanks to a gracious friend who was willing to watch our kids. I recently learned that Valentine’s Day, this day of love, is actually the second most popular day for marriage proposals. For many years our culture has told us that, to find true love, we need to find someone that makes us happy and fulfills our lives. Then the culture further distorted the definition of love, saying we must test our compatibility, living together before making the lifetime commitment of marriage. Throughout all of this, divorce rates climbed. Now the culture has gone further to say that to be happy, we shouldn’t allow the historical restraints of marriage to prevent us from finding anyone to whom we are attracted who will give us what we want most: “To be loved.” Yet people are still unsatisfied and end their marriages with broken hearts and lives. This reality causes many people to wonder today, “Should we even bother with marriage if love is not working?”
As Christians we believe marriage is a beautiful thing. This union was given by God from the beginning of time and blessed by Christ with His first miracle at the wedding of Cana. If it is both given and blessed by God, then marriage itself cannot be the problem.
One of the limitations of the English language is its inability to be specific. Take the word “love” for example. With the same word that we use to say “I love my spouse,” we also say “I love pizza.” There are different forms of love that we don’t have terms for in English. Our culture today has an increasingly exclusive focus on a physical form of love, or, “eros,” as defined in the Greek language. But, there is a greater love.
In the 15th chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus tells His disciples to, “love one another.” In the original Greek we find that He uses the word, “agape,” which means an unconditional, sacrificial love. This is emphasized when He says immediately afterward that there is no greater love than to lay one’s life down for another. “Agape,” is this greater, more perfect love that God models for us.
This is also the term for love used throughout the wedding service in the Orthodox Church. In the verses that are read from Ephesians 5:20-33 during the service and in the prayers prayed over the couple, the word “love” is used repeatedly, yet always written as, “agape” – sacrificial love. If you were married in a church, your wedding service likely used this implied form of, “agape,” love too.
Another beautiful element of a wedding in the Orthodox Church is the Crowning Service, when the man and woman have crowns placed on their heads. These are not only crowns of glory, but crowns of martyrdom. They represent the willingness of each person to die to themselves for the other, to sacrifice their own self-interest for the other’s salvation. If the couple puts each other first, they naturally find love and joy as a result, but even more importantly, will become more like God – the very purpose of marriage.
If you ask those who remain happily married for many years, you won’t hear that “eros,” or even seeking “to be loved,” was their primary focus. You will hear about a mutual willingness to serve each other – agape.
In the Ephesians reading referenced above, Saint Paul claims that Christ’s marriage to the Church should serve as our example. Seeing as how this marriage is now approaching 2,000 years, it seems obvious that the words of Christ are true: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.”
Father Joel is the Priest at Annunciation Orthodox Christian Church [www.annunciationoca.org] in St. James. Easy to spot around town, the black robe (cassock) that Fr. Joel wears is the uniform of Orthodox clergy, which helps to remind him and you of God’s presence and love. Father Joel and his wife Presvytera Tessi moved here in 2014. They have been blessed with seven children, and feel increasingly grateful to call Phelps County “home!”