I just got married, again: this time in the Russian Orthodox Church, and I got baptized too. I also got a new name. My name is now “Roman”.
The Russian Orthodox Church is a lot different than what you are familiar with if you are a Protestant in America. It is a very old religion, older even than Catholicism. It began early and has existed apart from main stream western religion since about 330 A.D.
It was founded and nurtured by Roman citizens who were commanded to become Christian and who carried over a lot of their old attitudes to the new religion. At the time, the official religions of Rome were the old pagan religions which were based on appeasing and bribing the gods to do good stuff for you. Worshiping Pan didn’t mean that you had a warm and fuzzy relationship with the little god; it meant that if you paid him off with the proper ritual and sacrifice that he would get you a girl friend. Most old religions were like that.
Some of those attitudes leaked through to the new Orthodox Christianity. Russian Orthodox people have a much stronger belief in the actual power of icons, amulets, holy waters, and ritual than do the later Protestants. Some of my relatives believe that holy water has mystical powers and will cure stomach aches if you rub it on your belly and say a prayer. Wearing a cross makes you lucky and protects you from the Devil. Icons are a major part of the religion and are treated as if they had real power. They often believe that dirt from places important to one or another saint has curative or holy powers.
My Protestant and agnostic friends would, of course, think that’s silly. They only believe in lucky charms, Saint Christopher medals, rabbit’s feet and other “modern” things.
The most common icon these days is a laminated card about the size of a playing card with the picture of a saint on it, and it is not unusual to get into a cab and see that the driver has glued icons of saints across the dash from window to window, and there are plenty of icons to choose from because there are about 15,000 saints recognized by the Orthodox Church. No one knows exactly how many, because there is no central committee or process to oversee sainthoods.
This leads to a rich and complex church. Icons and statues are everywhere. Crosses and pictures of saints are sold in the lobby and worn or carried by about everyone. There is whole wall of icons behind the altar and art everywhere. The richness of the standard Russian altar makes the Catholics look like poor cousins.
The churches themselves, like the early Catholic churches, are patterned after the public buildings of Rome and Constantinople. The worship area is cross shaped with high domes and vaults. Aside from the onion skin tops, they look like the Roman baths that still survive in Rome, and they tend to be impressive even in a small town like Prochlodney.
Unfortunately, while the church is full of gold, icons, painting, artwork, candles, and lecterns, it is not full of chairs. Apparently the God of the Orthodox Church likes to see that you will suffer a bit to worship him, so everyone stands during the two hour services.
The rituals are also old, and impressive.
The baptism took place in an impressive room with an altar, enough icons to cover a circus tent, and a set of steps going down into the floor to, well, nowhere. The steps were there so that the priest could reach my head to pour the oil on it.
When I was a young man, I was baptized in the Baptist church. It was pretty quick. The minister asked if I loved Christ, and when I said “Yes”, he dunked me in a pool of water. Orthodox does a bigger ceremony.
Before the ceremony, I had to pick a new name. By tradition, it is supposed to be a name associated with a saint whose birthday is on or near my baptism date. Fortunately, there are LOTS of saints, so you get a nice selection of new names. As a history buff, I chose the name “Roman”, but I might have chosen differently if I had known that he was a famous religious musical poet. He’s the saint of singers. However, my wife says that now when she prays for me, she uses the name “Roman” so God will remember me by the name that I was introduced with.
The ceremony took about half an hour, with Father Andre bravely trying to conduct the ceremony with my wife as a translator. Orthodox parishioners must love walking in circles, because we circled the baptismal font (as a kid we called it the Holy Bird Bath) several times, before I descended the stairs to nowhere and got anointed and renamed.
No matter what religion you are, you cannot complain about the beauty of the marriage ceremony in the Orthodox Church. I won’t bore you men with the details, but this church feels that one day in their lives, a man should be a king and woman a queen. As you walk around the altar holding your candles in golden candlesticks, you each wear a golden crown. It’s nice.
We did skip one of the traditions. The bride and groom stand on a cloth about the size of end table cover. On the traditional cloth, the end where the groom stands has embroidered letters that promise the man will love his wife as he loves his lord. On the place where the bride stands, the words promise that she will obey her husband as she would Christ.
We used a plain cloth. As much as I love my wife, “Obey” is not concept that comes easy to her, and I was afraid that a lie that big would bring a lightning bolt down from heaven. She does try to be Christian wife, and I am glad that I married her, but “obey” is not easy for her.
I wonder if the baptism and the marriage mean that she is now Mrs. Rodger Roman Olsen.