Eros: the Sun Comes Forth as a Bridegroom
This summer I attended my brother's wedding in the pristine setting of Big Sur, California. He asked me to be his best man. The past three years we had forged precious fraternal bonds connecting all the way from Los Angeles to Thessaloniki, from the city of angels to the city of St Demetrius. These bonds were strengthened by two journeys we embarked on together in Greece, during which I hosted him in Thessaloniki and we explored Mt Athos, Athens, and the island of Milos with its entrancing lunar landscapes.
Before entering Big Sur we spent the night at a campsite under starlight. I experienced the misfortune of losing my glasses while swimming amidst the buffeting waves of the Pacific. I had to take photos to be able to see anything in detail. Even though I couldn’t get a distinct view of the constellations above, I enjoyed my brother’s company in the brightly starlit campground as he helped me find my way in my half-blind state. This set my mind to pondering the cosmos and how we connect with it via light and sight, not to mention human guidance when our vision is impaired.
My brother and his wife go on frequent trips to national parks, reveling in a world charged with God’s grandeur and sometimes even learning nature poetry by heart. So it was interesting that he specifically requested that I sing his favorite Johnny Cash song, “Flesh and Blood”, where the Man in Black sings:
“Mother nature’s quite the lady, but you’re the one I need
Flesh and blood need flesh and blood, and you’re the one I need”
Even in Eden, nature, for all its grandeur, was not the ultimate reality. Nature is a stage set, not just for the generation, decay, and symbiotic proliferation of countless species, but for the world’s final act: the perfection of the communion of love. Adam was given all of the trees, the fruits, the gift of naming the animals, of searching to the depths of nature; but nowhere could he find a suitable ‘helper’. God’s judgment was that “It is not good for man to be alone.” Then when He fashioned Eve out of the side of Adam, who lay slumbering in an “ecstasy,” upon seeing her he exulted, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” (Gen 2:21-23).
Marriage too, when reduced to a merely natural form, is nothing unique or special. It is not exclusive to Christianity, but is universal to every culture for the perpetuation of the human race. The way one Greek priest puts it: “Marriage, by nature, is like water. It is essential, but is nothing extraordinary. However, at the wedding at Cana we see Christ take this water and turn it into wine.” Christ is the one who makes marriage extraordinary. He turns it into a sacrament, a ‘mystery’, making it the beginning of his ministry in the Gospel of John and designating it as a sign of His coming Kingdom. The heavenly Jerusalem shall descend as a ‘bride adorned for her husband’ (Rev. 21). In the New Testament, instead of the waters streaming out of Eden we see the wine flowing in Cana, and instead of a garden we have a whole city adorned with the light and glory of the Creator.
My brother and his wife’s marriage in the Edenic setting of Big Sur on the western shore, at ‘the edge of the world’ as he called it, brought to mind our need to develop and expand Paradise from east to west. Genesis does not say that the entire earth prior to the fall was Paradise. Paradise was a garden, with boundaries that set it apart. It was planted in a corner of the world, “in Eden, in the east” (Gen 2:8). However, its purpose was to be cultivated and expanded. Adam and Eve were told to “till the garden” (2:15) and to “be fruitful and multiply” (1:28). We often think of the commandment of God in the garden in negative terms, “Do not eat”; but this was simply another way to guide Adam and Eve toward the fulfillment of the initial positive commandment to “fill the earth” (1:28). Eros is none other than this productive love. I might be so bold as to say that there was no sexuality before the fall, but there was eros, with all its ecstatic and generative qualities.
Eden was just the beginning, like the sunrise in the east. Just as the sun has to traverse the sky to bring light and life to the whole world, so too Eden was meant to spread across the earth. It was to be a circle of love that expanded to glorify God, drive out the serpent, and embrace creation. But this depended on the trajectory of the first marriage, that of Adam and Eve. If Adam had taken the blame upon himself, instead of shifting it onto Eve and God, perhaps history would have taken a different course.
The Psalmist says that each morning the sun “comes forth as a bridegroom out of his chamber, he will rejoice as a giant to run his course” (Ps. 18:6). This psalm shows how the Hebrew Bible anticipates by many centuries the Greek philosophical conception that envisions the world as a cosmos animated by logos and eros. It also furnishes us with a compelling cosmic paradigm for marriage. Marriage, like Eden and like the sunshine, is about filling the world with light and life, and then crowning each day’s labor by humbly laying your life down, like the setting sun.
To illuminate this last point, we can gain insight from the Modern Greek word for ‘sunset’: iliovasílema (ηλιοβασίλεμα). This word literally denotes the “royal triumph of the sun.” As Fr. Evangelos Papanikolaou remarks, “Only Greeks who had become Christian could come up with such an idea: that the sun shows all its majesty not when it rises, but when it sets.” For that is just how Christ the King showed his glory, when he laid down His life for us.
Let us now turn to consider the depth of St Paul’s exhortation to husbands: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). Men, when they enter into the arena and adventure of marriage, are called to lay down their lives as Jesus laid down His own. It is no less than a martyrdom, and is honored as such with crowns.
Let the groom be like the sun of Psalm 18 by facing his daily toil with joy and vigor “like a giant” setting out to run a race, and then surrender to his wife. Firmness and meekness are what make the Christian gentleman. Forgiveness is what rekindles marriage every day and every year, even after the harshest of winters. “Let not the sun go down on your anger” (Eph. 4:26). Rather, let the sun’s setting remind you of Christ’s forgiveness from the cross. The husband and wife who reconcile in this way will be personally lifted up by Christ into a new and glorious morning, like Adam and Eve in the Icon of the Harrowing of Hades.
In this way man and woman enter into the joy of a cosmic dance. The husband dances with his wife. Together they dance with the priest and with the whole Church. It is a dance that unites the past with the future, the dead with the living. It is the dance of Isaiah, in celebration of the unwedded bride who would bring Christ into the world so many centuries later: a dance that unites the living with those yet unborn. Thus the married couple’s new life together is calibrated to the rhythm of the sun, with as fervent a resolve to rise again after every setback, and with hope as unquenchable as the heat thereof.
Coming Full Circle
The Orthodox wedding ceremony is a rich profusion of Scriptural blessings. Of particular interest to us is all the circular imagery: the rings, the crowns, the dance. These circles of course express the perpetual bond of commitment, as we see in non-Orthodox wedding vows also, but what seems to be emphasized in Orthodoxy is that the circle is not closed, but is like a cup that is overflowing. The water is welling up into wine. The prayers of the ceremony unapologetically heap blessings for the couple’s fertility. The priests and koumbaroi dance with the Bride and Groom during a hymn that sings of a Virgin birth. What we have here is not just an icon of eros, but of the whole circle of love. Mysterion essentially means “initiation”, and Marriage as a mystery signals the married couple’s deeper initiation into the life of Christ. It is an entrance into an unconditional agape for the whole body of the Church, into the storge of family life, supported by the philia of those who stand as witnesses to this union before God.
We thank you for joining us on this journey through some of the stations of this circle. Our goal is to discover the ‘many paths’ within the Church that lead to salvation, as St Gregory the Theologian exhorts us to do. The many words of love in Greek, and the virtues they express, are just so many paths for deepening our communion with each other and with God. Above all, may these forays into the wisdom of Scripture and the Fathers orient us to Jesus Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, “who gives life to the whole circle of the virtues, which are gently commingled and blended with each other by the law of Love and Order.”