The Orthodox marriage rite mentions the hope for offspring several times and asks that the couple “be made glad with the sight of sons and daughters.” The marriage rite is even jokingly referred to as the “Orthodox fertility rite.” Case in point: My non-Orthodox friends who attended my wedding some twenty years ago were taken aback by the many references to procreation.
But there’s a reason for these references—the Church’s deep love for the human person and the sacredness it places on all humanity. In a tradition that sees each person as made in the image and likeness of God—endowed with his or her own unique presence in the world— babies are most welcome.
Orthodox marriages are expected to be open to children—barring mental or physical restraints on childbearing. Although, it’s important to note that as much as a truly realized Orthodox marriage ought to be open to children, the Orthodox tradition recognizes that children, even when desired and sought after in love, do not always come. The Church has continuously understood that marriages without children are not sacramentally diminished in the least.
Hopefully, children are cherished in their family at home and in their greater parish family. Children are not just rosy-cheeked, adorable additions; they offer opportunities for self-sacrificial love on the part of the parents. Self-sacrifice within marriage is symbolized by the crowning segment of the marriage ceremony.
The priest places the crowns, often made of flowers, on the couples’ heads and then leads them around in a circle three times—their first steps as husband and wife. As this ceremonial walk concludes, the priest recites, “Accept their crowns in Your Kingdom unsoiled and undefiled; and preserve them without offense to the ages of ages,” referring in part to Christ’s crown of thorns and the crowns the early Christian martyrs were forced to wear.
The crowns remind the couple and all those present of their commitment to each other; they now live to serve the other person. Now, it can be rightly said that all Christians live to serve each other, but there is something exceptional within the marriage partnership that means these two human beings are now called in mutual service. When children enter the marriage, the opportunities for this sort of service and martyrdom increase, because now both parents live to serve their children.
And by “parents serving their children,” I don’t mean parents allowing their children to wield tyrannical control over the family, demanding ice cream for dinner and so on. Instead, I mean evoking a sense of the sacrifice that comes with bearing and raising children. Parenting a child means constantly evaluating and setting aside one’s own passions in order to care for and love that child. To parent a child means to be aware of his or her needs and place them over one’s own in a manner that is loving and not authoritarian. This is an ascetical labor. It can be joyful, and it is always full of grace, but it is a path of self-denial nonetheless.
This path of self-denial is part of the larger theological picture of marriage, and especially integrated into considerations of divorce and remarriage. Although the sacramental bond of marriage is incredibly significant, the care and safety of the children in a family should always trump that of the adults. We must strive to care for and serve our children, lest we cause any of them to stumble (Matt. 18:6), as Christ admonished us.
Explanations of the theological meaning of marriage in the Orthodox Church often focus exclusively on the couple themselves, but marriage creates the foundation for a family that will likely include children. And, if it does, then the question of what is best for those most vulnerable among us, our children, achieves a natural prominence. We achieve this when we always take care, as Christ did, to let the little children ‘come unto us’ (Matthew 19:14).