Marriage as an Icon
of the Trinity:
In every beloved there is an encounter with the one and only Beloved, just as in every divine name the totality of Names is found again… 
God creates all people, men and women. He creates out of love, for a specific purpose, making our destiny eternal life with Him. This destiny is called divinization, and it means that we are created to experience life within the Trinitarian communion of persons. What exactly this divinization consists in we do not know, for it is a mystery known only by God in Himself. Our participation in the life of the Trinity will not make us sharers in this mystery in the same way each of the Persons in the Godhead shares in it. But God has, in a very real way, entered into the mystery of our humanity, so that we may enter into the mystery that is His communio personarum. St. Athanasius said, “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” By this he did not mean that we will become divine ourselves, but that through His incarnation in Jesus Christ, God has invited us into His life.
Every human person is made in God’s image, that is, in the image of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each person who is baptized actually enters into the life of the Trinity in a unique way, and takes his first steps on the path toward divinization – a path only to be realized in its fullness in the eschaton.
When two baptized persons are joined in marriage, they enter into the mystery of the Trinity together, and live out the universal call to holiness in a new, unique way. In their union, they become icons, or images, of the Trinity. Iconography is a powerful symbol for the presence of God among us, and icons are integral to the life and worship of Eastern Christians (both Orthodox and Catholic). To say that married persons are icons of the Trinity carries enormous theological weight. It is literally to say that the sacramental union of husband and wife manifests (or should manifest) the presence of God Himself in the world. The force of this statement is underscored in the Ritual of Marriage in the Eastern Church.  It is also seen within the theology of iconography. The icon does not simply portray a moment from Scripture or the likeness of a saint, nor is it simply meant to be a “picture of God.” Rather, the icon makes manifest, in a mysterious way, the presence of whomever it portrays.
In this paper we will look at what it means to say that the married couple is an icon of the Trinity, and how they, in flesh and blood, make real the presence of God through their sacramental bond. We will discuss how the icon, in wood and paint, also makes real the presence of God in the world. Specifically, we will examine St. Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Holy Trinity, The Hospitality of Abraham, which is a profound symbol of Trinitarian love, and draws the beholder into Their communio personarum. By looking at the theology of iconography and its application to Rublev’s icon, and the symbolism of a specific moment in the marriage ritual (the Dance of Isaiah), we will see how the Trinity permeates art and life in profound and powerful ways that draw us toward It, and into Its very life.
The Mystery of Holy Matrimony According to
The Eastern Church
O Holy God, You formed man out of the dust of the earth. You fashioned a woman from his rib and joined her to him as a helpmate; for it pleased Your great generosity that man should not be alone upon earth. Now, O Master, stretch forth Your hand from Your holy dwelling place and join these Your servants N. and N.; for You alone join the wife to her husband. Unite them in one mind and flesh, granting them fruitfulness and rewarding them with good children. 
The celebration of the Holy Mysteries (sacraments) in the Eastern Church differs from their celebration in the Western Church, most specifically in terms of ritual. The Mysteries of Holy Eucharist and Matrimony differ also in matter and form from their Western counterparts. For example, the Eucharistic bread (prosphora) is leavened, symbolizing the risen Lord who is alive, just as the yeast in the leavening is “alive.” Bread and wine – Body and Blood – are distributed together from a chalice with a golden spoon, and a small amount of warm water is added to the chalice, symbolizing the warmth of the “living Blood” of Christ being received. As he pours the water into the chalice, the priest says, “The warmth of the Holy Spirit.”  In the Eastern tradition, symbol is central to worship and sacramental life.
Marriage according to the Eastern tradition is a symbolic “calling out of the world” for the couple, an “ordination” into a new state in life. It is a channel of grace for the spouses, and a way toward salvation. Indeed,
The marriage rite in the Eastern Church differs from that of the Western in ritual as well as in form. While in the West, either a priest or deacon may officiate at a wedding, in the East a marriage is only valid when the priestly blessing is conferred. 
Significant in effecting the sacrament in the Eastern marriage rite is the crowning of the couple. The priest places a crown  on the bride’s head, and one on the groom’s, invoking the Holy Trinity in doing so. The significance of the crowns themselves is threefold: they are crowns of royalty, martyrdom, and of the Kingdom of God. The crowns place certain responsibilities on the spouses, and call them to a new life with each other that is not centered on self, but places each at the service of the other, and together, at the service of Christ.
The marriage rite of the Eastern Church, through the use of symbols and ancient ritual, becomes a call to the spouses into a kind of “nuptial priesthood.” This priesthood entails a responsibility and a duty of the spouses to manifest God in the world through the very witness of their marriage, and in the raising of children. The priestly blessing effects this call because it is an epiclesis – a calling down of the Holy Spirit upon the couple, sealing their bond, and infusing it with His love and grace.
The Theology of the Icon
Out of love for Him you should make, therefore, an icon of Him who became man for our sakes, and through His icon you should bring Him to mind and worship Him, elevating your intellect through it to the venerable body of the Saviour, that is set on the right hand of the Father in heaven.
St. Gregory Palamas 
St. Gregory’s words speak so eloquently of the purpose of the icon, reminding us that it is written in love to call our intellect and senses “out of ourselves,’ and raise our body, mind and spirit heavenward. We speak of the icon being written, not painted, because iconography is no mere genre of art. Rather, to write an icon is to make the Word of God present, analogous to God’s presence in Scripture. St. John Damascene explicates this when he says, “For just as words edify the ear, so also the image stimulates the eye. What the book is to the literate, the image is to the illiterate. Just as words speak to the ear, so the image speaks to the sight; it brings us understanding.”  The icon is not, however, merely educative. It is not only a “story” in pictures, but it manifests the presence of the one portrayed. This is done through the mysterious action of the Holy Spirit.
The spirituality of the Eastern Church is keenly focused around the Trinity. The doxology (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is an important part of prayer and liturgy. The Sign of the Cross is made every time the Trinity is mentioned – a sign of belief, reverence, and affirmation of the Trinitarian God. The action of the Holy Spirit in the liturgy and in the conferring of the Mysteries is emphasized more strongly in the East than in the tradition of West.  The pneumatalogical emphasis is important to our discussion of icons, because the Holy Spirit plays an important role in the iconographer’s work.
Icons escape the classification of “graven images” forbidden in the Old Testament because of the most important event in human history: the Incarnation. By the power of the Holy Spirit, through the cooperation of Mary, God became man. Because God condescended to us and clothed Himself in our flesh, we can create images that give honor and glory to Him. Icons may portray angels and saints. But the mysterious, ineffable and hidden God can only be portrayed in the Incarnate icon of God, that is, Jesus Christ. “No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father's side, has revealed him.” (Jn 1:18) , therefore, no image of the Father can be produced. The Holy Spirit is sometimes portrayed in icons (especially in the Theophany and Transfiguration icons) in the form of a dove, or (in the icon of Pentecost) as tongues of fire, but this is only because Scripture describes the Spirit in these terms. Since, as Saint Paul tells us, Jesus alone “is the image of the invisible God,” (Col 1:15), icon writers may portray Him.
The icon is not simply a piece of art, a representation of a person or an event. Nor is it the actual event itself, or the person himself. Rather, the icon is a copy of the prototype. It mediates a reality not graspable in our limited humanity – a transfigured reality. The true iconographer may not portray his subject with the absolute freedom of an artist. He must abide by canons governing the media used and the subject matter it is permissible to depict. But by submitting to the canons, the iconographer actually experiences the true freedom of responding in love to the beckoning of the Holy Spirit, who gives him the means to portray Truth in the icon. The iconographer therefore prepares himself spiritually through prayer and fasting, and he is a partner with the Holy Spirit in writing the icon.
Thus the act of icon writing is not merely artistry, nor is it done to win personal recognition.  The act of writing an icon is an act of worship.
A comprehensive study of the symbolism of the icon – the colors, the use of light, etc. – is beyond the scope of this paper. Our discussion of Rublev’s Trinity will look at the symbolic elements of the icon, and show how this representation of a scene from the Old Testament in wood and paint mediates, in a mysterious way, the reality of the Trinitarian communio personarum.
The Hospitality of Abraham
The LORD appeared to Abraham by the terebinth of Mamre, as he sat in the entrance of his tent, while the day was growing hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing nearby.
Genesis 18: 1-2
St. Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity is considered by many to be a masterpiece of artistry, and, above all, the quintessential representation of the Trinity, the closest possible for a mortal man in a fallen world. Rublev wrote the icon ca. 1411, and it has become the standard by which icon writers since that time approach their work.
The scene represented in the icon comes from Genesis 18: 1-15. Three mysterious strangers visit Abraham, and he hastily orders his servants to prepare a meal for them, and he treats the three with great reverence. The guests are described simply as three men, but when Abraham addresses them, they respond in unison (the author of Genesis writes “they said”). Curiously, at times only one of the men addresses Abraham, and when he does he is named as the LORD. The LORD appeared to Abraham, but when he looks out of his tent to see who is there, he sees three men. The author makes no mention of Abraham being frightened by this apparition, or questioning the unity of the three in speech, and the obvious priority of the one. The text says that the LORD appeared, but it does not clearly state that Abraham knew God Himself was visiting him. In any event, Abraham, willing servant that he had been since he first encountered the one true God, whether he knew his visitors to be God or merely His messengers, offers the men the finest hospitality.
For many scholars, this scene is a foreshadowing of the revelation of the Trinitarian God that will come with Christ’s Incarnation. The three men visiting Abraham are viewed as being God-Yahweh, God’s Word, and God’s Spirit: in other words, the Holy Trinity. Such a reading of this scene can only be made through the lens of the Incarnation, and Christ’s revelation of the Father and Holy Spirit, both in what He said, and what He did (the manifestation of the Trinity at Christ’s baptism, and in His Transfiguration on Mount Tabor.) Similarly, St. Andrei Rublev could only portray this scene iconographically because of the Incarnation of Christ, who is the perfect icon of the Father.
Rublev’s icon enters the scene when the three men are sitting at table, a cup placed before them. Here is where the symbolism of the icon takes over from the Scriptural text, or, rather, where it transcends the text. The identity of each figure is in some dispute among scholars, but a widely accepted interpretation – and the one we will adopt for this paper – is that the figures are seated in their doxological order: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
All three figures portrayed in the icon have a few things in common. Each one holds a rod, “half shepherd’s crook and half scepter ,” symbolizing the equality among the three. Each one wears a cloak of blue, the color symbolic of divinity in iconographic language. And the face of each is exactly the same, perhaps another sign of the oneness in the distinction of the three. The figure seated to the right of the icon is the Holy Spirit. He wears a cloak of green over the blue of His divinity, symbolizing life and regeneration. The action of the Holy Spirit transfigures and transforms, and it is through Him that we are invited to experience new life, especially through the Holy Mysteries of Baptism, Chrismation (Confirmation), Eucharist, and Marriage. The Spirit’s head is inclined toward the middle figure and draws our eyes there as well. As he does in the life of Christ in the New Testament, the Spirit is pointing us toward the Word, revealing to the beholder of the icon who He is.
The central figure is Christ, the Word and Son of God. With the blue of divinity He also wears a cloak of reddish purple, a symbol of royal priesthood. Christ is royalty – the King – and He is Priest, the One who condescends to His creation and becomes part of it. Christ is the High Priest, the One in whose place every earthly priest who celebrates the Liturgy stands. With His two fingers, formed to spell the Greek letters Chi-Rho, an abbreviation of the word Christ, the Son blesses the cup at the center of the table. The cup He blesses, as one of the visitors, is the calf Abraham ordered to be slaughtered and prepared. In the symbolic language of the icon, however, the cup contains the sacrificial Lamb, a foreshadowing of His sacrifice on the cross. His blessing shows his acceptance of this sacrifice, as does the inclination of His head and its gaze toward the figure to His left – the Father.
The Father’s divinity (the blue tunic) is cloaked in a color that is light and almost transparent, yet opaque as well, symbolizing the ineffable, hidden nature of the Creator and Lord of all. In one hand He holds the rod, and with the other He blesses, as if to show that He is pleased with the Son’s acceptance of His mission. His gaze is turned toward the other two, but His head is not inclined – rather, Son and Spirit incline their heads toward Him, acknowledging the One who is Their Origin and Source. But the icon is not strictly meant to be a portrayal of the monarchy of the Father. The positioning of each figure, with Son and Spirit inclining their heads toward the Father, and He directing his gaze back to them, indicates a circular motion, a motion into which the beholder of the icon is mysteriously drawn. Henri Nouwen further indicates how the beholder is drawn in by his description of the gesture of the Spirit toward the small rectangle at the base of the table: “We must give all our attention to that open space because it is the place to which the Spirit points and where we become included in the divine circle…this rectangular space speaks about the narrow road leading to the house of God.” 
There is so much happening within this circular movement of the icon: initiation by the Father, and receptivity of the Son and Spirit; giving and receiving; loving and being loved. An eternal circle, never-ending gift, never-ending love, never turned in on itself, but always reaching outside of itself to the Other. Rublev beautifully portrays this eternal love and giftedness, but he also ensures that the viewer receives his invitation to participate in the communion shared by the Three. The icon shows the Divine taxis of Father as Source; the Spirit as the one who prepares the way for the Son’s mission and, at the same time, is intimately tied to Him; and the Son, deferring in everything to the will of the Father, accepting the sacrifice He must make, and accomplishing all through the Holy Spirit. Through a portrayal of the economic Trinity, we catch a glimpse of God in Himself through the circle of love we ourselves are drawn into by gazing upon the icon. The Trinity Itself is mystically present in a way beyond our understanding, yet even as our gaze moves from one figure to the next, and back again, we know that we have transcended time and space and entered into another realm. This realm takes us beyond our intellect, beyond trying to “figure out” who these mysterious men are and why they affect us as they do. All we can do is to look at each of Their faces and rest in the peace of Their gaze.
The Dance of Isaiah
Rejoice, O Isaiah! * The Virgin was with Child and bore a Son, * Emmanuel. * He is God and
Man, Orient is His name. * By extolling Him we also praise the Virgin. 
Just as Rublev’s icon draws the beholder in to the circular motion of the exchange of love among the hypostases in the Trinity, the so-called “Dance of Isaiah” symbolically draws the spouses into that circle as they begin their lives together. The Dance of Isaiah is led by the priest and is a triple procession around the tetrapod, a table on which the Gospel book is placed, a symbol signifying that the Word is at the center of their lives together. The hymn that is chanted invokes Isaiah’s prophecy of the Savior, a child to be born of a Virgin for the salvation of all (cf. Isaiah 7:14). The prophesy of Isaiah speaks of “God with us” – Emmanuel. God is with the new spouses from now on, because they have invited Him into their marriage by receiving the priestly blessing.
The mention of the prophecy also reminds us of the miraculous way in which the Word – the true icon of God - took flesh from a virgin. “The Incarnation reaches into the very depths of human existence, making the whole of human life an epiphany of the eternal.”  Just as it is because of the Incarnation that icons may be written, so the husband and wife can be icons by conceiving Christ in their hearts. Finally, the prophecy is a reminder of fruitfulness – the fruitfulness of Mary as a result of the agency of the Holy Spirit, and the fruitfulness of the spouses as a result of their cooperation with God. “This circular procession, a solemn ‘dance of joy,’ is an image of life in Christ.” 
Icon in the Body, Icon in Paint
O Mother of God, through you in the incarnation, the indescribable Word became describable, for through the divine goodness the Word spoken from eternity became an Image. May we who believe in salvation clothe ourselves with the same Image both in word and deed.
Kontakion for the Sunday of Orthodoxy 
Humans are very sensual beings, meaning that we comprehend the world around us through our senses: what we see and here, taste, touch and smell. Since God has created us He also communicates Himself to us in ways we can understand, ways that incorporate all of our senses. The incarnation of the Word is God’s ultimate communication of Himself to us, and by becoming one of us, He meets us on terms we can understand. He shows us how we are to image God – how we are to be icons.
Rublev’s icon of The Hospitality of Abraham – our analysis of which merely scratched the surface of interpretation – gives us so much on which to meditate. In this study, we focus on how Rublev’s Trinity calls to mind the married couple’s command to be icons of the Trinity as well. What is the relationship between Rublev’s icon and a husband and wife? How can we compare a moment in the marriage ritual with a picture whose subject matter is (seemingly) unrelated to matrimony? We can make this correlation because the Incarnate Word, the icon of the Father, has deified our flesh, and called us to holiness in communion with each other (for we are the body of Christ) and with the Trinity.
We have said that Rublev’s icon shows us something of the economic Trinity by the positioning of the figures and their gestures. The Son, the central figure, accepts the cup of sacrifice, and the Spirit lays His hand on the table, as if to signify that He will be with the Son throughout His mission. Indeed, it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that the Incarnation takes place. The Father blesses the Son for His acceptance of this saving work that will invite His creation – all of humankind – to participate in Their communion. Their love is not self-enclosed, but reaches beyond Itself, and this is the model for the love of all human persons.
The Son and Spirit incline their heads toward the Father, who is the Source. Yet they do not dissolve into each other, or into Him. Each is a subject – a hypostasis – and yet they are One. In an analogous way, we can speak of the husband as the source in the marriage relationship – he is the initiator and the head. The husband is the “head” of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church. The husband gives the gift of himself to the wife, which she receives in love and reciprocates, thereby the two become one. “However, this analogy [Christ and the Church and the one flesh union of husband and wife] does not blur the individuality of the subjects: that of the husband and that of the wife, that is, the essential bi-subjectivity which is at the basis of the image of ‘one single body’.”  Of course, any analogy between the Creator of all and His creation is just that, and the dissimilarity between the two is ever greater. But our contemplation of Rublev’s icon enables us to catch a glimpse of what it means to image the Trinity in perfect giftedness and love.
The symbolism in the Dance of Isaiah allows us perhaps even more clearly to see the correlation between the spouses as icons and Rublev’s icon of the Trinity. With the triple procession, the spouses are symbolically drawn into the Trinitarian perichoresis – the “circle dance.” Together, they enter into the life of the Trinity, and they are called to image the Trinity together as one. Similarly, the viewer of Rublev’s icon is drawn into a deeper communion with God by contemplating it. He gazes upon the serene faces of Father, Son and Spirit, and his eye is inexorably drawn into the circular motion that is Their “circle dance,” the never-ending circle of love.
At Your baptism in the Jordan, O Lord, worship of the Trinity was revealed, for the Father’s voice bore witness to You, calling You his “Beloved Son,” and the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of these words. O Christ God, who appeared and enlightened the world, glory be to You! 
Troparion for the Feast of Theophany
Just as the iconographer submits to the will of God (found in the canons for writing icons) and freely collaborates with the Holy Spirit, the married couple must freely submit to each other, and ultimately to Christ as their head. The iconographer writes the icon for the glory of the Father, and he allows the Holy Spirit to speak the Truth through his work: he cooperates freely. Similarly, the spouses are not free to “live as they please,” but must submit to “living for the other,” thus “speaking the Truth” in their union as living icons.
Rublev’s icon is not a sacrament – as marriage is – but it is a sacramental that manifests God’s presence in a unique and very real way. The icon of the Trinity is a theophany, and the marriage itself is called to become a theophany as well. One is an image of the Trinity in wood and paint, mysteriously making present what is portrayed in it. The other is an image in flesh and blood, also making present what is portrayed in each person’s body – the man and the woman -and in their union. The “circle of love” is eternally manifested in the Trinity, and it must be manifested in the married life as well. In the ineffable, mysterious and glorious God there is perfect love. Because His image in His finite and weak creatures is merely tarnished and not destroyed, a glimmer of that perfect love can still be found with them. God created men and women to be in union with Him forever. His only begotten Son, by the power of His Holy Spirit, clothed Himself in feeble flesh so that, one day, all of creation might be caught up with Him in the fluid motion of love in the circle dance.
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Goodall, Lawrence D. “The West’s Forgotten Sacrament.” Eastern Churches Journal Vol. 3, No. 2 (Summer 1996); 107-113.
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Nowen, Henri. Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying With Icons. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1987.
Mack, John. Preserve Them, O Lord: A Guide for Orthodox Couples in Developing Marital Unity. Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 1996.
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St. Gregory Palamas. On the Holy Icons. http://www.monachos.net/patristics/palamas_on_icons.shtml
Quenot, Michel. The Icon, Window on the Kingdom. Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1991.
____________. The Resurrection and the Icon. Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1997.
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The Ritual of Marriage. Pittsburgh, PA: Byzantine Seminary Press, 1972.
1. Paul Evdokimov, The Sacrament of Love. p. 110
2. Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. p. 196
3. References to the marriage rite are according to the ritual of the Ruthenian Catholic Church, which uses the Byzantine Rite.
4. The Ritual of Marriage, p 12
5. The symbolism of this action, and its emphasis on the agency of the Holy Spirit will recur in our discussion of iconography.
6. Lawrence D. Goodall, “The West’s Forgotten Sacrament,” Eastern Churches Journal, Vol. 3 No.2, p. 113
7. It is important to note that marital consent is a necessary component for the celebration of the Mystery, as prescribed in the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (see especially Canons 817, 824, 828, and 837.) As in the Latin Church, exceptions to the form are made in the case of grave necessity, but always with the provision that a priest blesses the marriage as soon as possible. (Cf. Canon 832, § 3, which states “If a marriage was celebrated in the presence only of witnesses, the spouses shall not neglect to receive the blessing of the marriage from a priest as soon as possible.”) Unlike in the Latin Church, the marriage rite in the Eastern Churches does not include an exchange of vows. The priest asks each person if he or she has come to the marriage ceremony freely and without reservation to take the other a s husband or wife “according to the mind of the Church.” This declaration of consent is made first, before the ritual can proceed. Once both parties give the consent, the nuptial blessing of the priest is the action that actually effects the sacrament.
8. Applying The Liturgical Prescriptions Of The Code Of Canons Of The Eastern Churches, No. 82 http://www.ewtn.com/library/curia/eastinst.htm#10. Thus, unlike in the Latin Church, it is the priest or hierarch who ministers the sacrament, and not the couple themselves.
9. Every parish has its own set of crowns for the ritual, usually made of metal and inlaid with colored stones. The couple may also choose to have their own crowns made, often garlands of flowers, to preserve in the icon corner of their home, a reminder that they head their own “domestic church.”
10. Goodall p. 113
11. Evdokimov, p. 153
12. On the Holy Icons, http://www.monachos.net/patristics/palamas_on_icons.shtml
13. St. John Damascene, On the Divine Images, No. 17
14. Throughout the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the Holy Spirit is invoked, most prominently in the epiclesis, which is performed after the words of institution in the Byzantine rite.
15. All biblical quotes are from the New American Bible.
16. Michel Quenot, The Resurrection and the Icon p. 53. The “warmth of the Holy Spirit” infuses the icon, just as it infuses the Eucharistic bread and wine that actually become the body and Blood of Christ (Cf. footnote 5 above.)
17. True iconographers do not sign their work as other artists do because the work is not about themselves as artists, but is focused on glorifying God.
18. Quenot, p. 203
19. Henri Nouwen, Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons. p. 24
20. The Ritual of Marriage, p 19
21. Clifford Stevens, “The Trinitarian Roots of the Nuptial Community,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, p. 358.
22. John Mack, Preserve Them, O Lord: A Guide for Orthodox Couples in Developing Marital Unity. p.170
23. The Byzantine Book of Prayer
24. John Paul II, Theology of the Body, p. 316
25. The Byzantine Book of Prayer
This Version: 5th January 2005