Before our wedding, my husband and I decided to read through the Catechism’s treatment of the sacrament of marriage. Though the entire chapter was deeply moving, we were particularly taken by a quote which now hangs framed on our living room wall:
[Young husbands should say to their wives] I have taken you in my arms, and I love you, and I prefer you to my life itself. For the present life is nothing, and my most ardent dream is to spend it with you in such a way that we may be assured of not being separated in the life reserved for us…. I place your love above all things, and nothing would be more bitter or painful to me than to be of a different mind than you.
We were surprised to find that the poetic advice was attributed to a 4th century monk, priest and Bishop – St. John Chrysostom.
St. John was born in 344 in the city of Antioch. He was raised by his virtuous young mother, Anthusa, who was widowed at a young age. St. John began his education under the tutelage of pagan orator, Libanius, but through the study of the Scriptures, heard the call to a monastic vocation. St. John lived as a mountain anchorite for six years before illness forced him to return to the city. After twenty years of pastoral service in Antioch, St. John was called to Constantinople where he was consecrated Bishop in 398. St. John’s episcopal tenure was fraught with difficulty and suffering. The saintly Bishop despised the opulence of the imperial court and his impassioned homilies on charity, justice, and chastity irritated his wealthy congregants. His most outspoken opponents – Theophilus, archbishop of Alexandria, and Empress Euxodia – eventually had St. John banished from Constantinople and he died in exile in 407.
Though he began his religious life with the ascetic silence of an anchorite, St. John quickly earned the nickname “golden tongue” for his energetic sermons. One of his greatest contributions to the Church is a series of homilies on marriage and family life which my husband and I discovered through our reading of the Catechism.
St. John’s earliest works focus on consecrated virginity, but his years of pastoral experience in Antioch made him a great defender of the sacrament of marriage. His homilies address dangerous trends in the early Church which threatened to undermine the sanctity of marriage. He denounced as heretical the view that sex is an evil necessary only for procreation with poignant words about the Trinitarian and ecclesiastical significance of married love. He taught that married couples who lived their vocation to the fullest would “rival the holiest monks” in their perfection. Additionally, St. John sternly warned his congregants to purge their marriages and homes of worldly excesses and live lives of simplicity and charity.
St. John’s fourth century teachings on marriage and family life are remarkably relevant to today. Consider, for instance, what the “golden tongue” has to say about weddings and receptions:
“When you prepare for a wedding, don’t run to your neighbors’ houses borrowing extra mirrors, or spend endless hours worrying about dresses. A wedding is not a pageant or theatrical performance…Let there be no drunkenness at the banquets and suppers, but an abundance of spiritual joy. Think of the many good things that will result from weddings like this!”
One can only imagine what he would have to say about the exorbitant wedding industry of the 21st century.
The wedding should set the tone for the marriage, St. John explains. The Christian couple should invite Christ to be their guest and trust that the Divine visitor will work in their lives a greater miracle than he did at Cana.
St. John’s marriage theology is based on the Pauline epistles. In his exploration of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, St. John distinguishes between the roles of husband and wife:
Paul has already laid the foundations of marital love, and has assigned to husband and wife each his proper place: to the husband one of leader and provider, and to the wife one of submission.
St. John’s treatment of wifely submission and obedience is short. He reminds the couple that in the home, as with the Church, it is necessary to have one authority for peace to reign. A wife should gladly put herself at the service of her husband because they are one body. Lest she resent her role, St. John reminds her:
If you think that the wife is the loser because she is told to fear her husband, remember that the principal duty of love is assigned to the husband and you will see that it is her gain.
Then, the “golden tongue” turns his attention to husbands:
You have heard how important obedience is…now listen to what he [St. Paul] requires from you…You have seen the amount of obedience necessary; now hear about the amount of love necessary.
Modern Christian writers devote whole books to the subject of submission, but St. John takes a different approach. In his estimation, where loves reigns supreme, all else will fall into place. So, he exhorts the husband to, “Be responsible for the same providential care of her, as Christ is for the Church. And even if it becomes necessary for you to give your life for her, yes, and even to endure and undergo suffering of any kind, do not refuse,” for, “There is no influence more powerful than the bond of love, especially for husband and wife.”
A husband and wife who love each other well, who strive for oneness in heart and mind, will see the outpouring of their unity bear fruit in children. Again, St. John emphasizes the primacy of love in the family, saying: “When we teach our children to be good, to be gentle, to be forgiving (all these are attributes of God), to be generous, to love their fellow men, to regard this present age as nothing, we instill virtue in their souls and reveal the image of God in them.”
St. John’s homilies show that the challenges faced by the contemporary family are much the same as they were in the early Church. Because the family is the Church in miniature and the most perfect image of God’s love on earth, it will always draw the devil’s attention. Satan hates marriage, because as St. John observes, “the love of husband and wife is the force that welds society together.”
As the Synod on Marriage and Family life approaches let us pray, through the intercession of St. John Chrysostom, for a deeper understanding of the sacrament of matrimony and the courage to embrace the authentic freedom offered from Christ through a living-out of the married vocation.