This past weekend I had the privilege of attending my friend Katie’s wedding at an Antiochian Orthodox church on the South Side of Chicago. Unlike probably most of the people on the bride’s side of the church, I have attended Orthodox (and Byzantine Catholic) liturgies in the past, and one of my good friends is Antiochian Orthodox (we took a Mariology class together at Notre Dame and shenanigans ensued). But this was my first Orthodox-of-any-kind wedding, and I was incredibly excited about witnessing a liturgy most people recognize only from My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
People complain about those Roman Catholic papists with their elaborate churches and decorations and gold everywhere but let me tell you, we ain’t got nothin’ on the Orthodox.
As soon as you walk in, you see JESUS, surrounded by his saints. In this particular church the icons on the walls of the nave depict scenes from the life of Christ, while the iconostasis has both saints and scenes from the life of Christ:
The saints are even standing amidst the congregation in the back of the church:
And so, with all the apostles and holy men and women looking on, Katie came down the aisle to stand next to Adam, where they both assented that they had come freely to marry the person standing next to them and then received the blessings of the Church as they began their marriage.
The whole liturgy was lovely, with some of the prayers and chants being done in Arabic (I think—the groom’s side is Palestinian, I believe), and bonus Easter tropes due to the season, and what impressed me most was the sense of the deep, deep roots the liturgy had, not only in Christian history but in the divine life itself. One of the first prayers calls upon God to bless the newlyweds as he blessed Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Anna and Joachim, and Elizabeth and Zechariah (the whole liturgy has a huge emphasis on the inextricable ties between marriage and family; another post!); the other prayers constantly evoke God’s promises from throughout salvation history. Paul’s writings on marriage as “a great mystery” in Ephesians and the Miracle at Cana are built into the liturgy itself, both referencing the mysterious, miraculous nature of the wedded union and God’s role in transforming it.
Mystery plays a big role in Orthodox theology (another post?), and thus there’s near-continual chanting and praying (the choral/congregational chants being used to “buoy up” the main prayer, like harmonies supporting a melody) as well as the constant repetition of themes and gestures (crossing oneself at every mention of the Holy Trinity, for example). It’s not quite trance-inducing, but falling into the echoes and patterns—soaking everything up—goodness I’m sure I’m not doing a good job of explaining it if you’ve never experienced it, but—well, when I was taught how to chant (Western-style), one of the main lessons was to think of chant as breathing: pause long enough to inhale, and treat the music as your exhalation, following the pattern of your breath.
“Well that’s just how singing works, Jo,” you might say. Well, yes, but more than that. When I was young and prone to not always listening to the entire homily, our pastor told a story enough times that even I caught the gist of it, that of monks praying what’s commonly called the “Jesus Prayer.” I remember very clearly the way he described it, how the monks would breathe in, Jesus, Son of the Living God, and breathe out, have mercy on me, a sinner, the prayer as constant a repetition as breath, making even that most ordinary and necessary of actions into a reminder of the source of their life and their salvation, their joy and their need for transformation. And anyone who’s ever meditated or even just heard a list of “way to reduce stress” knows that the first step is the breath, is concentrating on each individual breath and nothing else. Inhale, and take it all in; exhale, and live it out.
So as the constant repetition leads you to ponder more deeply just what it is that’s being proclaimed (and how beautiful is it, to be called “handmaid” and “servant,” to be reminded that you are God’s chosen first and foremost as you enter into being wife and husband), the chants and the gestures take you along with them, insinuating themselves into your being—opening you to an awareness of heaven-on-earth, and nowhere in the wedding liturgy was this more clear to me than during the procession around the altar.
Four happy people—two exceptionally happy people—and a priest traipsing in a circle as indecipherable-to-me chanting is what happens in the video, for all practical intents and purposes. But we’re not here for practicality; the priest said again and again this isn’t just a procession, it is a dance; it is the dance that mirrors the dancing in heaven as the saints and angels rejoice that husband and wife have chosen to submit themselves to God’s will and open themselves to the transformative power of His love in their lives. And the palpable joy—the icons of all the saints witnessing, the bells on the thurible jingling while outside the church’s bells ring in what was to me a perfect moment of the echoes of heaven and earth—
I’ve been reading the autobiography of St. Therese de Liseux (another post), and she talks of how sharing the story of Mary’s healing smile with her cousin inevitably diminished some of her own joy, because it’s impossible to explain transcendence without diminishing it—but that doesn’t stop us from trying, and while the experience may not translate well to y’all reading along here, I thought I would—well, try. It is safe in my heart to be pondered.
So thank you, Katie, for having such a beautiful wedding, and for allowing me the opportunity to view my own marriage in a new light (and my own wedding with none-too-little envy at yours—those were sweet crowns) (which of course just begs for the pointing out of the worldly irony of that statement, when the crowns are not just those of king and queen but also those of the martyrs, who gave everything of themselves for the sake of the kingdom). It was beautiful and inspiring and holy, and it is my hope and prayer that your marriage will be the same.