‘On marriage and family life‘ is a small book which is a collection of Saint John Chrysostom’s (349-407AD) Homilies on marriage. It contains a basic introduction to John’s life and the Theology and Ethics behind Christian marriage. This introduction is evidently American, and written by someone who still hasn’t fully escaped the post-Enlightenment culture of American Protestantism, as she seems to struggle to get passed modern assumptions when talking about John’s view of marriage as old fashioned and ‘sexist’. For example, the idea that Christian women were submissive because they were part of a Pagan household, thus the Christian tradition of women being submissive in Christian marriage is a remnant of Pagan households. She also emphasises equality of women to men in Christian marriage, which while true, has to be put alongside the traditional Christian view that men and women are different, and not naturally equal, but only by becoming one flesh can they be equals within the marriage through marriage. Thus men and women are not equals, except as members of the Church and as married members of said Church. While a reading of the introduction is useful if you want a quick introduction into John Chrysostom and the history of marriage within the Church, it can also be overlooked in order to get to John’s own words, which as an early Church Father are an authority, unlike the introduction.
The first homily is homily 19, which is on 1 Corinthians 7. John talks about Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and discusses the points made within it. He expands on Paul’s idea that Virginity is a high ideal and a virtue, but this doesn’t mean that Marriage is not its own form of high ideal and virtue. By becoming one flesh and owning each other’s body, we become selfless in our care for the other, which trains us for children and being a part of Christ’s Church. He also claims that Marriage is not a sin, and sex within marriage fails to defile the bed. In this sense Marriage is the proper unification and act of sexual passion, and it is better that a man on fire with sexual passion marries and loves a woman, than sleeps around or drowns in his passion and destroys himself and those around him. He also discusses how the husband and wife must be submissive to each other, but he of course emphasises submission for the wife, and sexual control for the husband, as those are the most common downfalls for those genders. John then moves onto an interesting thing to think about: when a member of a Marriage commits adultery, they don’t just defile themselves, but the partner, for if that betrayed partner sleeps with the adulterer, they are being defiled by the sin within the Marriage, thus the only logical conclusion is forgiveness or divorce. He ends this homily with a statement about slavery being rather irrelevant, because a Christian is free and saved in a way that slavery cannot touch. He sees this as a good way of showing the power of Christ’s salvation, that even a slave can be virtuous and unaffected by his slavery, for in his soul he is free.
The second homily is homily 20, which is on Ephesians 5:22-33. In this homily John speaks about the unification of men and women under marriage. Men were created first, and women from man, thus we are one flesh, literally in the sense that women come from man (the rib, Christ the Son and God the Father) and men come from women (childbirth), but also because under marriage we as husband and wife become one flesh as we were in the perfect state before our natural harmony was disturbed by the events of Genesis. Marriage is a state of Eden, and thus divine: we are united under one flesh, as God, the Son and the Holy Spirit are united in one essence while remaining distinct. Just as all three are distinct as essence, husband and wife are distinct, yet one flesh in essence. This unified state of one flesh is a harmony which we were created for. Men were created needing a companion, and women are created in a way that they are not self-sufficient and independent. We need each other by virtue of our nature, and unifying that nature is a holy and natural order which God set in place for this universe. A wife obeying her husband is a form of obeying God and fulfilling her Christian duty which God put forth at the beginning of our creation. While a husband must treat his wife how Christ treated his Church: with loyalty, and allowing her to be there by her own free-will, and not by fear. Christ loved the Church even when it was desolate, barren, bruised and battered, and lived in darkness. He loved the Church as if it was in the bloom of youth, and was as virtuous as it was young and fertile. A good husband will love his wife as Christ loved his Church, while a good wife will love her husband as she loves Christ. We are members of Christ’s flesh and bone by being members of the Church: his bride. Just as we are members of each other’s flesh and bone by being united with the sacrament of marriage under God. John finishes off this homily by concentrating on the husband pushing the idea of humility in order to perfect the wife, and to keep her away from materialistic pleasure and thus keep her virtuous and concentrating on what matters. He discusses how money does not matter and shouldn’t be worried about, nor if the money is the husband’s or the wife’s, as when married we are on flesh, and such things as worrying about each other’s money shouldn’t happen, because we should manage and act like one united and complete person. Nothing in life is to be feared, except offending God. In marriage there is no mine or yours.
The third homily is homily 21, which is on Ephesians 6:1-4. In this homily John concentrates on Children. He notes that when Saint Paul says ‘Obey your parents in the lord‘, what he means is obey them according to the lord. What this means is that you are commanded as children to obey your parents by God, but only in accordance with God. If obeying your parents is not in accordance with the Lord (right by him) then your obedience should not be given. John also points out that the commandments command us to avoid evil, while the command to obey our parents is not about avoiding evil, but doing good. John links the honouring of parents as the first step to helping mankind and being able to be good to our fellow man, without this, John asserts that we are doomed to disrespect man as a whole, and thus turn our faces away from God. God commands the father of the family to bring forth the obedience of his children to the lord, and in so doing he makes them worthy of the lord. How he does this is through his love as a father, just as he makes his wife obedient through the love of his wife, and showing her he is worthy of such obedience. We must as parents and Christians give our children a pattern to imitate, from their earliest years we should raise them with God and Bible study, if we do not do this, we cannot be surprised when our child-rearing results in bitter rewards.
The fourth homily is homily 12, which is on Colossians 4:18. John talks about Paul’s imprisonment and how he considered himself blessed by grace in order to suffer for God. In this sense, even while in prison Paul was free. His chains were mere rags, and he cried for the lord for three years, keeping his faith and showing his true beauty, rather than worldly ‘beauty’. With our Husbands, Wives and Children we must remember the words: ‘Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh’. (Luke 6:21), thus when we pray and weep when they go astray, the lord shall keep us strong and guide us and them. John then moves on using Paul’s use of the term ‘bonds’ to suggest that marriage is not simply a union but a type of Theosis and trial. We were made from one flesh, and thus the man and woman unite as one flesh to create the new flesh, which is the child. That child will grow up and like its parents will be incomplete as one, until united as one flesh in union under marriage, which is how we bring forth life. Through marriage and child-rearing we become one once again, and can begin to understand what we actually are as one, and also understand God as something which can be distinct but never divided. In the same sense that our one flesh cannot be divided even when separated into two genders which unite and become one once again.
The next section is titled ‘Sermon on marriage‘. In this sermon John talks about Paul’s legitimating of marriage by telling us about Christ’s presence at the marriage where he transformed water into wine and celebrated alongside the married couple. The transformation of water into wine symbolises the transformation of the mundane into the rich, but also symbolises what Christ would later do: sacrifice and give his blood for us, so that we may unite as one flesh and partake in God through marriage and the Church. Fornication and adultery are evil, not marriage. Marriage is the legitimate way to procreate and engage in sex, thus such acts of procreation and sex are not evil, nor even sinful, but divinely permitted, encouraged and blessed. There are two purposes within marriage: that of chastity and that of procreation. John explains that while both are important and commanded by God, chastity is the more important part of marriage, which explains why a married couple who have no children are not considered ‘wrong’ or sinful. By chastity we do not mean celibacy, but control of our natural sexual passions. When we have sex within marriage, it is not by uncontrolled passions like a beast, it is not a sudden burst of energy, nor something to be shared outside of the marriage. Thus a married couple can have no children, yet be virtuous and good by virtue of being united under God’s marriage and controlling their passions. When a married man or woman has the desire to share his or her body outside of the marriage, they will do well to remember that their body is not their’s to share. As John says, you should say: ‘”This body is not mine. It belongs to my wife. I do not dare to mistreat it nor to lend it to another woman.” The wife should do the same. Here there is complete equality’. (p.87)
The next and last section is titled ‘How to choose a wife‘. This section is mostly restatements of previous homilies, but also with a few points of advice. For example, John advises that we seek a wife that isn’t rich, as a rich woman is more likely to be unable to deal with poverty and tough times within the marriage. We must not narrow mindedly seek a rich or poor wife however, but a woman who knows how to manage what we have, no matter how little or much that is. A woman who can manage our poverty and our riches can manage a household, and turn poverty into wealth. A poor man married to a good wife, is a rich man.