Wednesday, October 27, 2010

St. Ignatius of Antioch on Marriage

The discussion that's been going on about marriage and TOB has made me want to learn more about the sacrament of marriage. So I started reading the book What God Has Joined: The Sacramentality of Marriage, by Fr Peter Elliott. At the time it was published (1990, Alba House, NY), he was a member of the Pontifical Council for the Family. The book focuses specifically on marriage as a sacrament. Fr Elliott received his doctorate in Rome from the John Paul Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family.

Chapter 3, "The Quest for the Sign," traces the development of Catholic thought about marriage through the centuries. (In a previous chapter he treated St. Paul's thought on marriage in Ephesians.)

He says that the earliest non-Scriptural reference to marriage comes from St. Ignatius of Antioch, in his Letter to Polycarp St Ignatius wrote his famous letters while on his way to martyrdom in Rome, where he looked forward to giving his life for the Lord: "I am God's wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ." (Letter to the Romans)

His letters were short, but here is what he said about marriage:

"But it becomes both men and women who marry, to form their union with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own lust. Let all things be done to the honor of God."

Before this, he had praised continence and virginity: "If any one can continue in a state of purity, to the honor of Him who is Lord of the flesh, let him so remain without boasting. If he begins to boast, he is undone; and if he reckon himself greater than the bishop, he is ruined." He was writing around 110 A.D., so we can see that esteem for celibacy goes back to the very early church.

Fr Elliott says that though the text is brief, we can see in it some of the seeds of the differences in how marriage was celebrated in the East and the West. In the East, Christians developed marriage rites and rituals, and the blessing of the bishop or priest was seen as essential to it. In the West, instead, people were following the Roman practices of marriage, which saw civil consent as the essential part of the ritual.

This difference is found even today, as the Catholic Catechism notes in no. 1623. In the Latin church, the spouses themselves minister the sacrament to each other (though this should be done in the presence of a priest as witness); while in the Eastern church, the priest or bishop is the minister of the sacrament.

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