On Sunday, I attended the wedding of a wonderful young couple I’ve known most of their lives. (Weddings in the Orthodox Church are usually held on Sundays, rather than Saturdays, so that the newlyweds will not be tempted to begin their married life by skipping church.) While I’ve had the joy of performing the marriage ceremony, this time as I stood among the friends and well-wishers, a single sentence stood out to me.
In the translation of the ceremony used on Sunday, the priest prayed: “Fill their houses with wheat, wine, and oil, and with every good thing, so that they may give in turn to those in need.” The wording in the Greek Orthodox version is shorter but essentially the same.
This brief petition to God on the couple’s behalf – which reveals the Orthodox Church’s disposition toward private charity – has wide-reaching implications about our personal obligation to others, the importance of micro- and macroeconomic wealth creation, the proper level at which philanthropy should be undertaken, even the purpose of marriage.
The one-sentence entreaty is part of a longer prayer that exuberantly asks God to bless the married couple in every way, from providing their tangible needs and assuring the birth of many children to granting their home abiding affection and inter-generational tranquility. The next prayer then asks God to bless them as He blessed numerous married couples in the Bible. Included in this list are Sts. Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Virgin Mary – and their lives are most telling about the Church’s view of prosperity.
Wealth and charity are essential parts of their hagiography. “They lived devoutly and quietly,” despite being grieved at being childless well into old age. “And of all their income they spent one-third on themselves, distributed one-third to the poor, and gave the other third to the Temple.” That far exceeded the 10 percent tithe God required in the Pentateuch. Because of the couple’s generosity, God continually blessed them with greater harvests and, through them, the poor whom they assisted. In time, He also gave them a single, but most exceptional, child – and Grandchild.
The Orthodox Church, more than most, is guided by the axiom, “Lex orandi, lex credendi”: As we pray, so we believe. These petitions establish care for the poor at the individual level – not merely via the church or private philanthropy, much less through an impersonal and bureaucratically hidebound government. Giving to the needy is presented as an expected part of the betrothed couple’s life after the two become one flesh.
The Scripture read at the marriage ceremony emphasizes the ways in which the married couple mystically represents Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:22-32). The commandment embedded in the prayer, that the couple personally provide for those in need, is another way they manifest the presence of Christ in the world.
“God is perfect. He is faultless,” Elder Thaddeus, a contemporary monastic, once said. “And so, when Divine love becomes manifest in us in the fullness of grace, we radiate this love.” Jesus, Who is called “the Philanthropos” in the Eastern tradition, hears the cries of the poor and provides exceedingly abundantly beyond anything we can ask or think. So, too, Christians are to hear (Proverbs 21:13) and provide (James 2:14-18).
But to provide, they must first produce. Perhaps this is why the Eastern Church lists indolence as a spiritual, as well as temporal, malady. St. Philaret of Moscow wrote in his Longer Catechism that one of the sins subsumed by the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Steal” is “eating the bread of idleness.” This sin includes those who do not work diligently and through sloth “steal … that profit which society … should have had of their labor.”
Thankfully, the significance of maximizing wealth generation to help the poor is hardly restricted to the Byzantine Church. It was eloquently proclaimed by the founder of the Methodist Church. John Wesley – who was deeply influenced by, and even translated, the Greek Fathers into English – instructed his flock, “Having first gained all you can, and secondly saved all you can, then give all you can.” (This is often shortened to the formula: “Earn all you can; save all you can; give all you can.”)
Christians must consequently be intensely interested in how people of faith can generate resources to provide for those unable to provide for themselves. The fact that certain U.S. states have higher GDPs than many EU nations – and are wealthier yet when the cost of living is calculated – should be instructive to Christians on both sides of the Atlantic.
The wedding rite has far more significant ends than economic or social commentary. But I’m grateful for its message that conveying God’s love to the world requires the marriage of wisdom and intention.
(Photo credit: Laurits Tuxen’s depiction of the wedding of Tsar Nicholas II and Alexandra. Public domain.)