Archbishop Lazar on the significance of the Orthodox crowning ceremony

Video

This is the first part of a two-part video recording from a truly holy and erudite man (retired Archbishop Lazar, founding abbot of All Saints Monastery in British Columbia) on the deep theological and liturgical significance of the crowning ceremony to marriage and salvation in Orthodox Christianity.

At the height of the ceremony, the bride and bridegroom are crowned and communed together as equal partners in a mystical union joining them forever in shared devotion and loving self-sacrifice to each other. The husband is an icon or type of Christ, the eternal Bridegroom who cherishes and honors the Church more than Himself (Ephesians 5:25), and the wife is an icon or type of the holy Church, the eternal, loving Bride of Christ.

Vladyka Lazar explains that the Western Christian tradition of the father of the bride walking his daughter down the aisle to meet her waiting groom is historically absent from Orthodoxy. The handing over of the bride by her father to her new husband recalls the ancient pre-Christian Roman and Greek patriarchal practice whereby fathers symbolically transferred their power and authority (potestas and auctoritas) as paterfamilias over their daughters to the husband, who then automatically assumed her into his authority and family, effectively erasing her independent legal existence.

Orthodox couple waiting for priest to arrive

A Russian Orthodox couple waiting for the priest to arrive.

Since in Orthodoxy, by contrast, bride and groom come to the altar as equal partners, they walk there together after first making their vows and exchanging rings at the entrance to the temple. Then, with the priest or bishop presiding, they are mystically joined together by the grace and power of God during the Liturgy, a mystical transformation which recognizes the close bond of love they already share.

Unlike in Western Christian ceremonies when the couple is considered married from the moment when the presiding clergyman pronounces them as such following the exchange of vows, there is no set moment in the Orthodox crowning ceremony when the couple is considered automatically joined in marriage.

Their crowning three times by the celebrant, who exchanges the crowns between their heads, symbolizes their mystical union and their equality in partnership before God as king and queen of a new ‘little church’, a new family. The traditional Byzantine bridal crowns, called stefania, explain the etymology of the name Stephen.

Orthodox wedding crowning

The priest crowns the couple, moving the crowns over their heads three times while intoning the doxology, before setting them on their heads. From this point, the husband, an icon of Christ, is mystically transformed as king over the family, and the wife, an icon of the Church, as queen over the family.

The couple can be considered married by the time they first commune together of the holy Mystery of the Eucharist as husband and wife and walk around the altar, on which rests the chalice, patens, and the Holy Gospel, to the solemn hymn of witnesses. This walk symbolizes both a religious procession of pious faith by the married couple, now a holy unit, and is the moment from which they take their first steps together in their new union.

After their crowning, the husband and wife take their first steps in a procession three times around the altar, reverencing the holy Cross and the Gospel book.

After their crowning, the husband and wife take their first steps in a procession three times around the altar, reverencing the holy Cross and the Gospel book.

From the moment they approach the altar, they are already considered bound to each other in sight of man, and once they commune and walk together after their crowning, this mystically binds them in the eyes of God.

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Wisdom on prayer from St Ambrose of Optina

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Wisdom on prayer from St Ambrose of Optina

-St. Ambrose of Optina (lived 1812-1891) was a clairvoyant Russian monk and staretz (elder) whom thousands of pilgrims came to for pastoral and spiritual advice. Beginning in 1860, he served as the igumen, or spiritual superior, of the renowned Optina Monastery for over thirty years until his death. In 1884 he founded the Shamordino convent, where he pursued a policy of allowing all women to stay who sought spiritual discernment and refuge at the monastery, even the blind and the deaf. He was named in honor of St Ambrose, (lived c. 330-397), venerated by both East and West, a fourth century Doctor of the Church and archbishop of Milan. He profoundly inspired Fyodor Dostoevsky, who based his character Fr. Zossima in “Brothers Karamazov” off the holy monk.

Realizing our life in Christ

We are called to love every person as a child of God made in His very image

If anyone professes that man is created in the very image of God, for men are all “children of the Most High” (Psalm 81:6 LXX), then it follows logically that the essential purpose of man’s life here, his very being, is to unceasingly worship His Creator through all his actions, by his words, and in his very demeanor, countenance and spirit.

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If anyone truly and sincerely claims this divine inheritance, through which we are called to “be perfect even as [our] Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), summoned to be “imitators of God as beloved children” (Ephesians 5:1), and exhorted to become “heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17), then he or she would naturally seek to conform the entirety of their life, the whole of their inner heart and the depths of their noetic mind, to glorify and praise God in all ways and at every moment.

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Even the etymology of the word by which we have been known to the world since the first days after Christ ascended to heaven, ‘Christians’, from the Greek Χριστιανών, means ‘little anointed ones’. How then can a Christian, a little Christ, thus truly be a disciple of the Lord, much less aspire to mystical union with Him through participation in the divine energies, if he or she does not live, show and even breathe Christ in all they do, from the depths of their being? How can we be Christians, how can our lives be a “Christ-like fragrance rising up to God” (2 Corinthians 2:15 NLT) if we do not truly love all those around us?

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The simple answer is the logical one. If the very essence of the Christian life is to worship and glorify the boundless and ineffable grace, mercy and majesty of God, if the core calling for all humanity is to worship Christ the Savior by loving and honoring His image present in each of His children – even the lowliest or ugliest or rudest person – then any person who does not understand this simplest of the Lord’s commandments (John 13:34, Matthew 22:37-40, Deuteronomy 6:5) cannot, in truth, be numbered among His anointed ones (Matthew 25:34-46).

Our highest calling as Christians is to do as St Paul wrote to the Ephesians in Asia Minor, walking “in love, as Christ also has loved us, and has given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling fragrance.” (Ephesians 5:1-2, KJV). Among all those who lovingly honor Christ’s commandments, we know that the Lord “abideth in him, and he in Him. And in this we know that He abideth in us, by the Spirit which He hath given us.” (1 John 3:24, Douay-Rheims version).

Certainly, the idea of conforming one’s actions, one’s approach to living and thinking, and even the eye of one’s noetic heart to live chiefly to glorify God runs completely contrary to what “the world” values today, especially in its prevailing secular outlooks of modernism and relativism, which challenge and question the very concept and existence of objective Truth.

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This is why the true heart of the Christian Gospel appears as foolishness to those who live and think and have their being in and of the world, outside of a yearning for God (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). Indeed, St. John the Theologian, beloved apostle of the Lord, reminds us that our love, if truly selfless, is something the world not only often fails to understand, but indeed, because it is selfless, is something the world often despises:

“Wonder not, brethren, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not, abideth in death.” (1 John 3:13-14, Douay-Rheims version).

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Yet if we truly hold to the faith we have received (Jude 1:3, 1 Corinthians 15:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 1 Corinthians 11:2), living out the essential message of the Holy Scriptures and the universal witness of the ancient and holy Fathers and Mothers of the Church, if we rest assured in the vast reservoir of wisdom handed down through centuries of martyrs, confessors, evangelists, teachers and pastors of the revealed Truth, how natural and joyous it is to be a Christian, to take upon ourselves the mantle of Christ crucified for love of the world, even a love it does not want or understand!

“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20, KJV)

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What a fathomless blessing it is to participate in the divine energies, the very manifestations and grace of God active in the world, indeed, in all who are open to it, through the invisible power and action of the Holy Spirit. It is by our participation in the energies of God that we are motivated, strengthened, and beckoned forth to show the world that we are truly little Christs by our selfless and genuine love for all His children. This love, fired by faith, is the spring, the catalyst in our souls, for our transformation in Christ, our divinization:

“A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.” (John 13:34-35, Douay-Rheims version).

For just as we remember St. Paul’s admonition that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-26), so too do we recall that works done without a loving spirit of real devotion to the other lack the spirit and grace of God. For any works lacking in love is are not true examples of loving kindness by which we truly desire to serve, selflessly, as little Christs unto our brothers and sisters:

“If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1 John 4:20, King James Version).

Mother Teresa with baby

St John Chrysostom on the necessity of Christian love, a shining lamp to the world

“There is nothing colder than a Christian who is not concerned about the salvation of others . . . . Do not say, ‘I cannot help others’: for if you are truly a Christian it is impossible not to help others.

Natural objects have properties that cannot be denied; the same is true of what I have just said, because it is the nature of a Christian to act in that way. Do not offend God by deception. If you said that the sun cannot shine, you would be committing an offense against God and making a liar of Him.

It is easier for the sinner to shine or give warmth than for a Christian to cease to give light: it is easier for that to happen than for light to become darkness.

Do not say that that is impossible: what is impossible is the contrary . . . If we behave in the correct way, everything else will follow as a natural consequence.

The light of Christians cannot be hidden, a lamp shining so brightly cannot be hidden.’

-St. John Chrysostom (347-407), archbishop and Patriarch of Constantinople

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The Eastern Orthodox and Eastern-rite Catholic Churches venerate St John as one of the Three Holy Hierarchs, while in the Roman Catholic Church he is revered as a great Doctor of the Church. During his tumultuous tenure as Patriarch of Constantinople, he ran afoul of the Empress Eudoxia after criticizing her for her vanity, haughtiness and indifference to the plight of the city’s poor. He offended the imperial capital’s wealthy political elites by turning over their lavish gifts to him to the poor and exhorting them to repent of their dissolute lifestyles. Extremely eloquent and persuasive as a preacher, he earned his epithet meaning “the golden mouthed” from his numerous homilies and his masterful writings as a practiced ascetic and theologian. He is the principal author of the Divine Liturgy which bears his name. The Liturgy of St John Chrysostom is the most widely used liturgical form in the world today following the Novus Ordo ‘ordinary form’ of the Roman Catholic Mass, and among both Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics, this Byzantine liturgical form is the most widely celebrated.

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A future President’s eyewitness account of an Orthodox baptism in Russia

This is a wonderful article from Orthodox History describing then-U.S. Minister to Russia John Quincy Adams’ reaction to an Orthodox baptism which took place in his Saint Petersburg parlour in January 1811. The timing of this event is also remarkable given its close proximity to French Emperor Napoleon I’s invasion of Russia the following year.
 
As was typical of Adams, his account of the baptism ceremony is methodical in detail. He also evidently heartily approved of ordinary Russians’ devotion to the ascetic fasts, which he believed would be medically, physically and spiritually beneficial for Americans to imitate (if not for the theological reasons which he does not seem to have understood or considered important). 
 
Adams was noticeably biased in his perception that Russians’ physical expressions of piety in church revealed what he considered to be their “superstitious” nature, but this is not surprising given his Unitarian upbringing (services completely lacking religious images, iconography, or physical bows or prostrations done in reverence to God or veneration of the holiness of the saints).

John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) was one of the most distinguished public servants,diplomats and political and intellectual figures in American history. The eldest son of the second President John Adams (1735-1826, President 1797-1801) and First Lady Abigail Adams (1744-1817), Quincy Adams served as the sixth U.S. President from 1825-1829. Prior to assuming the Presidency, Adams served in the second Washington administration as U.S. Minister to the Netherlands (1794-97), a role filled by his father during the Revolutionary War, and during his father’s term as President the younger Adams served as U.S. Minister to Prussia (1797-1801). Following his father’s losing 1800 bid to Thomas Jefferson for reelection, John Quincy Adams represented Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate from 1803-1808. During James Madison’s presidency, Adams served as the first accredited U.S. Minister to Russia (1809-1814), reporting on Napoleon’s doomed invasion. His charming British-born wife Louisa Catherine Adams became a major diplomatic asset to the United States as a favorite of Tsar Alexander I. After his commission ended, Adams again followed in his father’s footsteps as U.S Minister to the British Court of St James (1814-17), where George III was still king (in name) as he had been since 1760. In the Monroe administration, Adams worked closely with the fifth President as his Secretary of State. Following Adams’ own defeat to Andrew Jackson for reelection in 1828, he served from 1831 until his death in the House of Representatives in February 1848 as a committed opponent of states’ claims to nullification and the expansion of slavery.

Saint Anthony the Great on guardian angels

“. . . When you are alone you should know that there is present with you the angel whom God has appointed for each man. . . This angel, who is sleepless and cannot be deceived, is always present with you; he sees all things and is not hindered by darkness. You should know, too, that with him is God, who is in every place; for there is no place and nothing material in which God is not, since He is greater than all things and holds all men in His hand.

–St. Anthony the Great (Anthony of Egypt, lived 251-356).

The ocean of God’s mercy

“We should often, if not daily, examine our souls, and repent of the sins that we find there.” – St Mark the Ascetic

“Let none fear death, for the death of the Saviour has set us free!” – St John Chrysostom

When compared to God’s love for us, our many sins are but rain drops disappearing into the infinite ocean of His mercy.

In baptism, we enter the Christian life through water, as the waves of faith and God’s grace wash over us, embracing us in the sea of His eternal love, pulling us on the tide of our mortal life toward the promise of eternal life with Him.

When we repent, our turning away from sinful paths often manifests physically in the shedding of heartfelt tears as the soul is pierced by the love of her Creator. Just as the ocean of God’s mercy envelops and blots out all our sins, so too are our tear drops of repentance washed away through the cleansing pool of His grace in genuine confession, by which, in obedience to the grace and direction of the Holy Spirit, we may continually be renewed, strengthened, transformed and made righteous anew.

In Christ, the sunrise is a metaphor for both birth, one’s physical entry into this world to begin this transitory life, and for the crowning sun of entry into eternal life through the body’s physical death. Likewise, the sunset heralds both the declining years of one’s human life, and the hopeful approach of life eternal beyond the ‘night’ of the grave.

When, at the end of this transitory life, we have shed countless tears, some of bitterness or despair, many more of repentance, humility and joy, we will then more fully discern the depth of God’s infinite grace and mercy for us. When we have been transformed through God’s grace and our ever-deepening faith, when we have poured out oceans of love for our Creator and all His creation, we feel called to return to His infinite, loving embrace. With radiant faces, joyous hearts, and illumined souls, those made righteous by grace, in faith, fall once more into this infinite ocean, entering unto eternal life as peacefully as gentle raindrops falling into the sea.

“As a handful of sand is thrown into the ocean, so are the sins of all flesh as compared with the mind of God. Just as a strongly flowing fountain is not blocked up by a handful of earth, so the compassion of the Creator is not overcome by the sins of His creatures. Someone who bears a grudge while he prays is like a person who sows in the sea and expects to reap a harvest.”
St. Isaac the Syrian (d. c. 700)

In Christ is our hope, our joy, our life- in this world and the next- and our very salvation- mystical and personal union with Him by the grace and power of His Holy Spirit!

“Praise ye the Lord from the Heavens”

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This beautiful Communion chant, sung during the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, is taken from Psalm 148:1 (“Praise ye the Lord from the heavens; praise Him in the highest. Alleluia”). The chant is sung here by the Vocal School Choir of the historic Novodevichy (“New Maidens”) Convent in Moscow.

This lovely video, uploaded to YouTube on October 16, 2012 by Mr. Nigel Fowler Sutton, features beautiful photo images of this ancient convent where, for centuries, beginning with its founding in 1524, many of the Grand Duchy of Moscow’s noblewomen lived out their days in prayerful contemplation, attending divine services and composing many beautiful choral pieces.

One famous nun at the convent, committed against her will by her vengeful half-brother Tsar Pyotr I (known to the West as Peter I “the Great”), was Princess Sophia Alekseyevna Romanova (1657-1704). Unique as the only woman to rule Russia as Regent in the time before Peter I’s great reforms, Sophia’s regency as the power behind the throne from 1682-89 outraged conservative Muscovite boyars (nobles) and Church leaders at a time when most Russian noblewomen lived secluded in the upper chambers of their homes.

Factions of nobles eventually conspired with her brooding teenage half-brother Peter to restore the young Tsar to his full powers. When the streltsy, the armed guards of the Palace, heard of the Tsar’s plan to disband their corps in favor of a modern, Western-style imperial regiment, they attempted to rise in the Princess’ name. After crushing the streltsy revolt, Peter I had hundreds of them publicly executed, hanging some of their bodies outside his horrified sister’s convent window. She never again conspired against her half-brother’s rule.