By John Meyendorff
Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 44 (1990)
Introduction: In its interpretation of human sexuality, the family and marriage itself, the Christian tradition, which was accepted as a norm in Byzantine society, is marked by internal tensions. On the one hand, it is the heir of the Old Testament, which sees man’s survival in his posterity. Christ’s ancestors are mentioned in the genealogies of Matthew and Luke, and the glorious couples of the Jewish patriarchs are listed in the prayers of the Byzantine service of nuptial “crowning.”
On the other hand, in the New Testament, survival through childbirth ceased to be an end in it-self, as it was in Judaism. A childless woman is no longer cursed, and the Jewish law of the levirate, which required that a man marry the childless widow of a dead brother, to “restore his brother’s seed,” has become meaningless. In a conversation with the Sadducees about the doctrine of the resurrection, Jesus affirms that in the risen life “they do not marry, nor are given in marriage” (Matt. 22:23-32; Mark 12:18-27; Luke 20:27-40). This leads the apostle Paul to discourage his correspon- dents from marrying and starting families: “Time is short, so that from now on, those who have wives should be as though they had none” (1 Cor. 7:29).
Without appreciating this eschatological dimension of Christianity, it is impossible to understand the canonical legislation and the liturgical tradition adopted by the Byzantine Orthodox Church. All Byzantine Christians were offered a choice between celibate asceticism and married life, but in either case they were called to anticipate in their lives the eschatological Kingdom of God. At least this is how the Church interpreted the ideal every Christian was called to seek.