So, I’m officially that age when you go from celebrating birthdays and graduations…to weddings and baptisms. When you plan your vacation days according to your friends’ weddings and, in place of saving money for travel, you start keeping enough on the side for wedding gifts.
If you’re reading this you probably know what I mean.
Now, I really love weddings - especially Orthodox weddings. The church service is beautiful, it’s like a reunion of all your favorite people, AND it’s an opportunity to gather around a table to share in quality time (and delicious food) together. But for many unmarried people in my generation, weddings become an occasion for unwanted questions about our future wedding prospects. Questions come up like “So, when are you getting married?” or “Are you dating anyone?”
What should be an occasion to celebrate love becomes a temptation to worry about the future.
Instead of being present with those around us, we can wonder when we too will check off the next item on our life’s to-do-list. As an Orthodox Christian of that age, I’m more concerned with how we can move beyond worry for a future vocation and learn to discover what our vocation might be for today.
We young unmarried folks often have pressures to get married from both the American and “ethnic” cultural sides. This is especially true for my female Greek and Arab friends. We treat them as if they’re doomed to the inevitability of becoming nuns if they’re not married by 25. (As if that would be the end of the world…) But it’s also true for young men who are involved in Church life and haven’t found the right girl. “You need to find a nifi (bride in Greek) so you can get ordained!”
Then there’s the American culture side of the problem. A recent Washington Post opinion article (you can read it here) discussed the link between the secularization of America and the increase in what the author calls the “spiritualization of love,” which elevates romantic love to an unnatural position. Even describing what Americans are looking for in a potential spouse as a “soul mate” marks a shift in our attitudes. The author quotes a psychotherapist named Esther Perel who says:
"We come to one person, and we basically are asking them to give us what once an entire village used to provide: Give me belonging, give me identity, give me continuity, but give me transcendence and mystery and awe all in one.”
In short, marriage has become an idol to fill up the vacuum left by God and neighbor. We see this today in society’s preoccupation with marriage (or, rather, marriage ceremonies and receptions) and the assumption that chastity, celibacy, and even singleness are the marks of failure.
But what if marriage isn’t for everyone? What if we began to treat marriage like the Church treats marriage: as a unique vocation to which many but not all people are called by God?
This is a good time to discuss vocation. An excellent Orthodox summer institute called CrossRoad frames vocation as “your unique and ongoing response to Christ’s call to love God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.” (Learn more about CrossRoad Institute here) The Church, from its very inception, has balanced an appreciation for both marriage and celibacy; we have honored marriage as blessed by Christ Himself (remember the wedding at Cana!) while also honoring celibacy as a path to holiness (remember Jesus, St John the Baptist and St Paul were single!).
So what’s wrong with people asking “When are you getting married?” Here are three things to consider:
1. The question implies that marriage is simply what happens next. Did you graduate? Check. Go to college? Check. Get a job and work for a few years? Check. Okay, now you have to get married and have 2.5 children. This trivializes marriage, which is a sacrament, a mystery of God’s love shared between a husband and wife – not just another life event against which I measure my life’s success.
2. It suggests that marriage is the ONLY option. This sweeps away the option for discerning monastic life or the possibility of celibacy in the context of being involved in a local church community.
3. It distracts us from the calling to live out our Christian life now, where we live now, with the people we find ourselves face to face with in this moment.
I can only follow Christ right now, in this moment. I cannot love God and neighbor yesterday nor can I do it tomorrow…only right here, right now. I think my generation gets this intrinsically, but it’s an easy thing to forget in the midst of wedding season.
Matthew 6:34 comes to mind: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” In other words, I cannot obsess over tomorrow as if I can control what will happen. Jesus was constantly telling His disciples this – don’t worry, follow Me, trust Me!
Who has God put before you to love with Christ’s love and to see His love in your life? I don’t mean romantically (though it could be) but who has God put in your life? Which friendships is God calling you to cultivate today? These are the things we forget when we are overly concerned about tomorrow and forget to trust in Jesus.
In whatever walk of life you find yourself – regardless of what vocation God is calling you to tomorrow– you have a vocation to love with Christ’s love and to see Him in those around you today.
By Sam Williams
Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.