Byzantine Christianity with its elaborate liturgical life uses an array of majestic symbols in order to elevate the human Spirit and Mind to a place beyond the daily living of life, and all the routines and cares of this world. Liturgy, in the Byzantine East, is not only about communal prayer and the communication of the Gospel message; but in addition, Liturgy intends to immerse the Faithful into an experience designed to give a glimpse of the ethereal. The Faithful should be open to, and seek to obtain an experiential knowledge of God by way of participating in the Divine Liturgy.
A distinct self-limitation is also inherent within the experience of the Byzantine Liturgical formula, because of the profuse usage of symbol. Any visitor to a foreign land in which a language unknown to that visitor is spoken, is fully aware that a breakdown in communication detracts from the experience of living in that country. Due to the importance and power of the frequent use of symbolism in Byzantine Christianity, Byzantine Christians must therefore seek a deliberate understanding of the symbols used in the Liturgy in order to climb the Divine Ladder of their Faith.
To illustrate this argument, let us take as one example, the Holy Mystery of Crowning; a Mystery that the majority of Byzantine Christians will experience liturgically in their lives, either as witnesses, or perhaps also as a betrothed – a Mystery whose liturgical symbols are too often misunderstood or totally ignored, due mainly to the witnesses or betrothed not being fully cognizant of the spiritual drama taking place, a failure to understand the many symbols used to underpin the Liturgy; a liturgical illiteracy of sorts.
Where to begin?
One of the great criticisms of the Holy Mystery of Crowning in the Byzantine Rite, by those in the West who witness the Liturgy, is often made about the very commencement of the Liturgy of the Crowning – the claim being that the Entrance is less ‘romantic’ than the Western tradition where the bride enters the Church accompanied by her father walking arm in arm down the aisle to the tune of Felix Mendelsohn. This criticism is at times also made by members of the Byzantine Rite who seek to incorporate the Tradition of the West into the Byzantine Crowning Liturgy. In contrast to the Western Tradition, the bride in the Byzantine Rite is seen to ‘merely’ walk to the Church door – where arriving at the threshold of the Church, she is met at the door, by her groom and the celebrant. The Byzantine Rite bride enters alone. But is this truly less romantic, less poignant? There is a symbolic meaning to this entrance. Historically, in the West, the daughter was the property of her father, from birth, until the father ‘gave her away’, to another man, whose property she would then become. Hence in the West, the father leads the daughter to her future husband. In the Byzantine East, although the daily life of a woman may not have been any better than her Western counterpart; in the eyes of the Byzantine Liturgy, she was equal to her groom, and as such she came into the Church, ‘unaided’ and ‘unowned’ as his equal. The bride comes to the Church, in the Eastern tradition as the female lover seeks the object of her affection in The Song of Songs – not as a serf, not as a minion, nor accompanied by her parent, but as a woman seeking the life-long embrace and love of the man she has chosen to wed, and who has chosen to wed her. (cf. The Song of Songs, 3: 1-4). As the bride walks into the Church – every witness present understands that before them is a woman embarking freely, independently, on one of life’s great journeys – and one of the Church’s greatest Mysteries. She is a woman in love – she desires her groom – she stands firmly – she stands alone – until her hand is joined to his. The bride may indeed be nervous, and may indeed wish to recline on her father’s arm, but as per Byzantine Tradition, the love and determination in her heart should see her enter the Church independently, to take up her new status, as a new, freely chosen, interdependent creation.
Historically, in the West, the daughter was the property of her father, from birth, until the father ‘gave her away’, to another man, whose property she would then become.
The rings in the Byzantine Rite hold the self-same value in the East as they do in the West – but with a number of clarifications. The rings are placed on the ring-finger of the right hand rather than on the left-hand as in the West. The reason for this is that the right-hand is the symbol of Christ, seated at the right hand of the Father – and it is therefore the hand by which every Christian commends their life to God through the Signing of the Cross. Therefore in the Byzantine Rite, each time a spouse crosses themselves in prayer, they in fact recommit their vows to their partner in matrimony; their matrimonial promise is therefore integrated into their daily prayer life. In the West, the practice is that the ring is placed on the ring-finger of the left-hand – the rationale being that pagan tradition believed that through this finger ran a nerve directly to the lover’s heart.
Another important symbolic difference between the Byzantine Rite and the Roman Rite is that in the Byzantine East, it is the celebrant who places the ring on the fingers of the betrothed. The West emphasizes in the placing of the ring on the fingers by the betrothed pair, one to the other, that the Sacrament is being administered by the bride and groom with the priest as the witness for the Church. In the East, the Mystery of Crowning can only be imparted by God. God has chosen the lovers by Providential act. God is therefore at the core of their love and their life together. Without the priestly celebrant, a Byzantine wedding cannot occur. Moreover in Byzantine Theology, only in the context of God – is marriage given its fullest meaning – for the love between spouses is completely actualized by both bride and groom loving each other in God, not only in the physical sense, but in the spiritual sense as well.
In the West, the practice is that the ring is placed on the ring-finger of the left-hand – the rationale being that pagan tradition believed that through this finger ran a nerve directly to the lover’s heart.
So now we leave the door of the Church in procession. Following the celebrant to the tetrapod, the bride and groom are given lighted candles symbolizing their faithfulness to their baptismal calling. The emphasis now is on the betrothed couple – and their decision to be married; the emphasis is not on the ‘bride’s big day’; for it is not the ‘bride’s day’ – it is the day of the bride and groom; hence they walk together in procession. The theology of the Church is clear here – the ceremony is important, but the ceremony must emphasize the reality of the importance of a partnership of the two. The wedding is the beginning of a marriage; and marriage is a union of two. Oftentimes we hear of the ‘bridezilla’, a modern colloquial term that refers to a bride bullishly intent on making the wedding all about her. In the Byzantine Liturgy, the liturgical structure emphasizes the marriage as a partnership, with the wedding the first symbol of this new partnership. The Ukrainian term for ‘wife’, Дружина (Druzhyna) accentuates this liturgical precept. The term druzhyna translates into: ‘the person who walks beside you’. Your druzhyna does not walk behind as a vassal, nor in front as a dictator – but they are your partner in everything, in the great journey and ‘Mystery’ of life, that God consecrates in marriage.
Let us consider the other symbols embossed within the Liturgy of the Mystery of Crowning. The hands of the couple are tied by the priest in his stole, and the couple are led around the tetrapod three times in what is known as the Dance of Isaiah. The married life thus begins with the first steps taken with Christ, with the priest symbolising Christ. Three times the couple walk around the tetrapod symbolising their journey with the Holy Trinity; a holy binding of the couple, into one spiritual and physical being. Above their heads, their attendants hold crowns, symbolising the regal nature of manhood and womanhood, and the Divine plan of sexuality and family life. The couple are crowned the king and queen of their new home and family. They represent both in a physical and spiritual sense all humanity – male and female, and the potential for family life, in conjugal love, a family if not Graced from their loins, then a family specifically to assist their community, by their service and witness to others. The crowns show that the couple belong to a royal priesthood as symbolized by their hands enveloped in the priest’s stole. When the couple take their vows in the Byzantine East they do so with their bound hands resting on the open Gospels. The vows they both speak are the same, calling on the Holy Trinity as a witness. The couple then drink from the chalice, the Common Cup, each partaking of the cup three times, drinking the contents of the wine to the last drop, a prefigurement not only of the Blood of Christ and sharing in His sacrifice – but also of the bond of marriage shared with fidelity, until the contents of this life are over; consuming equally both life’s joys and sorrows. The Common Cup is only shared by the couple, as only they are partakers of the chaste promise, the vow now made, to one another, and to God, and ever sacred.
The couple are crowned the king and queen of their new home and family. They represent both in a physical and spiritual sense all humanity – male and female, and the potential for family life, in conjugal love, a family if not Graced from their loins, then a family specifically to assist their community, by their service and witness to others.
As the Church is both ancient and new; ancient in the sense that the Liturgy was designed before our era, but new in that we live in the contemporary world; in order to appreciate the full meaning of what the Church celebrates in the Liturgy, we need to come to understand the language She uses through symbolism. For it is only through symbolism that we can ever hope to intellectually grasp some of the Divine Nature of the Hidden God; and it is only through the Liturgy, and the Holy Mysteries thereof, that we can hope to partake of this same God, in a manner so profound, that although we experience His grace, we cannot understand Him completely. For what remains in essence in this world, is a human being gazing at, and being embraced by a Divine and Life-Giving Mystery, and touching the face of God, through the Mysteries He has left us in His Church.
The Mystery of Crowning is the specific phrase used by Byzantine Christians to refer to what is commonly known in Western Catholicism as the Sacrament of Matrimony. The term ‘Sacraments’ are known in the Byzantine East as ‘Mysteries’. The focus in Byzantine Christianity is on a ‘mystery’ that the human person is invited by God to partake in. The use of the term ‘mystery’ emphasizes that the people partaking of the Grace-filled event can in no way fully understand what is occurring, but that they understand that God in His great power and goodness is present, nurturing and guiding those who are gathered.
Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper, Augut 2017.