I had a great day… I really, really did. Today was the culmination of a nearly 3/4 of a year process. Eight months ago, I began pre-marital counseling with a young couple who found their way to my door. To be honest, I didn’t know how things were going to turn out when I first met them. Based on the groom’s first call to me, I didn’t think I would be able to assist them and their plans.
I remember that first phone conversation. He told me that he just wanted a minister and a church to get married in for the sake of the bride’s parents, and that they wanted the “real” wedding at another venue a few days later. When I pressed him on the issue and asked him what the difference between a wedding in the church and the “real” wedding was, he hesitated, finally replying that the church wedding was just for show. I replied that if they really didn’t want to be married in a church, why bother pretending? I also told him that I didn’t think I could help them.
His bride called a couple of weeks later and talked with me. She didn’t reference her fiance in the call and asked if I were available. She explained things a little differently, but in the end, yes, all she wanted the church for was to appease her parents. I told her I didn’t know if I could help her, but I was willing to meet. When we met, no reference was made to the groom’s first call, but I recognized his voice. I didn’t say anything and let the conversation progress.
I’m glad I did, and I am also glad that God helped me overcome my initial judgment of them. We had some great conversations over the course of eight months, and I discovered much about them. I learned of her deep roots in the Syrian Orthodox Church, and his lack of roots in the Christian faith. They had both struggled with big questions and were unsure of the answers. In the end, however, he was baptized as an adult, and despite their uncertainties, they both confessed a faith in Christ.
That faith probably has more questions than answers, and uncertainties abound. Yet, in the end, they kept meeting with me, and they were willing to listen to what constitutes a Christian marriage. In the end, maybe that’s all we can ask for in a culture that is undergoing rapid secularization. If we are willing to walk the extra mile (Matthew 5:41) with those struggling with the uncertainties of our day, we might find that along the way we are given unique opportunities to encounter the presence of Christ hidden from our assumptions about how “faith” ought to be.
For the grace to take the first step in that extra mile, I give thanks to God for it was in that journey that I was allowed to meet Christ in a new and mysterious way this afternoon. Despite the bride’s disconnection with the Syrian Orthodoxy of her youth, she invited two Syrian Orthodox priests to participate in the ceremony. I was to officiate, but at a critical point in the ceremony, the priests came forward and performed what they called the “Crowning Ceremony,” of the “Blessing of the Crowns.”
Maybe like me you are largely unfamiliar with Syrian Orthodoxy, but it has roots in the most ancient branches of the church, ultimately claiming ties with the church in Antioch and the Apostles Paul and Peter. Their Syriac language is also ancient, and is a branch of Aramaic, with their Syriac alphabet derived from the Aramaic alphabet. In short, their language is the closest to what Jesus and his disciples likely spoke two millennia ago. They hymns and rites of the Syrian Orthodox church are equally as ancient.
As I stood during the ceremony and watched the crowning portion of the service take place, I was overwhelmed. Simply put, it was beautiful, and the sung phrases hung in the air with a power that is really hard to describe. The best that I can say is that listening to these timeworn hymns sung in an ancient tongue, one comes face to face with a mysterious “otherness” that certainly suggests cultural and linguistic separation, but also promises unity for we share fellowship in Christ Jesus. You can get a flavor of this by watching this brief video clip:
Again, I give thanks for being given a part in what was certainly a unique wedding. Yet, the blessing of discovery didn’t stop there. Both priests were very friendly towards me, and we spoke at several points today as we prepared for the ceremony. Yet, as they were making their way out of the church at the end of the ceremony, they asked me to pray for them and to pray for the Syrian Orthodox Church. I said I would, but asked them what I should pray for specifically. They briefly related to me that the Syrian Orthodox church in Syria is being hunted to extinction due to the war and persecution by Islamic extremists. Upon returning home, I began a little bit of my own research. If you are interested, this short documentary gives a broad outline of what is going on:
A little later after the conversation with the priests, I spoke with the bride’s father, a humble electrician who came to this country decades ago. I asked him about his Syrian heritage and the state of the country and his Christian brothers and sisters. The first thing I was struck by was how eager he was to tell his story. Evidently, he didn’t get the opportunity often. Most, he said, assumed he was Muslim when they found out he was from Syria. At the chance to actually tell his own story and the story of his people, out poured a rich history lesson on topics from how Arabic really takes its roots from Syrian Aramaic, and no matter how much Muslims insist that the Quran came from heaven in Arabic, even they must go back to his Syrian Aramaic to understand its true meaning.
In short, this humble man shared a part of who he was, what his faith meant to him, and the struggles he dealt with and thought about on a regular basis. I gained a brother in Christ. I was given the opportunity of fellowship with a branch of the church and with Christian brothers and sisters of which I was largely ignorant. I was humbled by their deep and rich history, and also given a new prayer burden for those undergoing persecution.
Yes, today was a great day. The opportunity for this great day of God’s making all began with me humbly learning to say “Yes” when asked to serve others in the name of Christ. I think there is a abiding lesson here for believers and the church the world over, regardless of our sectarian distinctions and insistence of particular theologies and practices. For a moment in little Maywood, NJ, the miracle of Pentecost was repeated in our church wherein each of us understood what was really being communicated, the meaning of which far transcended any particular tongue. Glory be to God, Amen!