“Now He Who … has anointed us is God; Who has also sealed us and given (us) the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts.” 2nd Cor 1: 21 – 22)
It is beautiful to see a wedding. There, in the Church, are two people, who are being joined and made one by the grace of God. This is a great mystery, a mystery that itself echoes the mystery of the unity of the Church and of the Holy Trinity. The sacrament, beautiful in its own right, with a spiritual beauty that comes from within, is surrounded by external beauty – the clothes, the flowers, the music, the decoration of the Church and hall and so on. Indeed it is a beautiful thing to behold. The wedding, however, is but the culmination of a process that can last sometimes many years. That is the process of getting to know one another and growing towards one another by the couple, that we call the engagement. The engagement is a promise to marry, but not yet married. We recognize this in the wedding service itself by celebrating first the betrothal (the promise to marry) which is sealed by the exchange of rings and then afterwards the crowning or the sacrament of marriage itself. It used to be quite common, when it was supported by the culture, to celebrate the betrothal separately from the wedding, at the beginning of the engagement, rather than at the end. Even today this is done occasionally when it is necessary or beneficial for the couple who will later be married. The betrothal is in fact a formal promise to marry and once contracted cannot be broken (except through a Church divorce or annulment).
In modern practice, which mirrors many ancient practices, the engagement is marked by the giving of a ring to the bride. That ring is the security of the groom to keep his promise and to consummate the engagement by a marriage at a future time. Even the service of the betrothal, the promise to marry, is marked by the exchange of rings, each person giving a ring to the other as a security of the promise that they will, when the time is right, enter into the sacrament of matrimony.
Just as the earthly marriage is an image of the heavenly reality of unity of the Church, so also the engagement has a heavenly counterpart. The Apostle today tells us that God Himself has “sealed us and given an earnest of the Spirit in our heart”. All of us who are members of the Body of Christ have been engaged to the heavenly Bridegroom. The Church, of which we are a part, is the Bride of Christ. God, in His infinite love for mankind, gives each of us who are members of the Bride of Christ a “ring” which seals our engagement to Himself. That “ring” is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in us. Celebrated together with the sacrament of Baptism, there is also the sacrament of Chrismation in which the newly baptized is anointed with a specially blessed oil (chrism) by which he is “sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit”. This sacrament, this “seal,” is the mark of God’s promise that one day we will be united with Him completely just as the bride is united with the bridegroom on the day of their marriage.
This engagement, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, is felt by some more acutely than others. There are those who, having been given the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit, consider that they cannot even enter into an earthly marriage, so strong is their awareness of their engagement to the heavenly Bridegroom. These are the monastic saints, those who preserved themselves holy and pure in this life, knowing that their true unity will come only with the heavenly Bridegroom when we enter into the heavenly kingdom. Virgin saints such as Thekla, Katherine, Barbara and John, Basil and Seraphim, to name but a few of the men and women who refused to enter into any earthly marriage, choosing instead to perfect their union with Christ. Others among the saints, however, used their married life as a means by which they perfected this unity with Christ. Those of us who are married constantly work to break down the barriers of self-centeredness, self-will and selfishness which stand between and separate us from our spouse.
In this way we too prepare ourselves for the unity with Christ and the heavenly marriage of which our earthly marriage is but an image.
This engagement to God of which the Apostle speaks is the close relationship that binds us to Christ. We live with the Holy Spirit in us, constantly moving and directing our lives, so that we come closer and closer to God – just as an engaged couple will grow closer together throughout their engagement. We are brought nearer to God through the life of the Church and the Holy Mysteries, the Sacraments. In Baptism we are reborn and given the new life in Christ, in Chrismation we receive the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit, and when we receive Holy Communion, we take the most Holy Body and most Precious Blood of Christ into our own bodies, and are thus mystically joined to Him. We live and breathe the atmosphere of faith, and as we do our kinship with Christ grows, and we feel ever more strongly, His love for us. Even if we momentarily forget this love and stray from the path of our engagement through sin, our loving and merciful Lord is quick to restore us through our True repentance and the sacrament of Confession.
Just as an earthly engagement is filled with moments of great joy, that foretell the joys of the unity of marriage, so also as we live out the period of our engagement to Christ in this earthly life, we experience moments of spiritual joy and bliss that are but a foretaste of heaven. We are the members of the heavenly Bridegroom, and in this life we are being prepared for the moment when the culmination of our growing ever nearer to God, arrives, and we are united with Him and become one with and in Him. That is our motivation in this life to live the Orthodox Christian life, for it is a life of preparation – preparation for the heavenly wedding, the joining of God to us that we might live in union with Him in His heavenly kingdom through eternity.
We are engaged to God – he has promised to unite us with Himself. In earnest of that promise, He has given to us the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit, so that we might adequately prepare ourselves in this life for the great wedding day in heaven when we will be united with Him.
In this life, then let us grow constantly nearer to God, just as an engaged couple grows nearer to one another, looking forward to the fulfillment of God’s promise that we will be united with Him in eternity.
Thank you Fr David