In week of wonders, Melkite wedding was one of the best

The bride and groom wear crowns at a Melkite Catholic wedding in Jordan. (CNS/Mark Pattison)

The bride and groom wear crowns at a Melkite Catholic wedding in Jordan. (CNS/Mark Pattison)

By Mark Pattison

ADER, Jordan — Melkite Catholic Father Boulos Paul, we were told, was too busy to accommodate an audience of about a dozen writers and bloggers on religion. He is, after all, the pastor of two parishes, one in Karak and another, smaller parish of about 50 families — about 300 people total — in the smaller town of Ader.

But we were offered a chance to go to a wedding at the church in Ader. Would that be OK?

Are you kidding?

We got to the church a good half-hour before the scheduled 6 p.m. wedding ceremony was to begin. The church was decked out in wedding finery, but absolutely empty.

Outside, we chatted with one of the parish elders, Michael Bagain, who returned to Ader two years ago after spending the previous 35 years in and around Chicago, where his children still live.

Bagain said Ader is home to three Christian “tribes.” The Melkites are all named Bagain, the Latin-rite Catholics are all named Hijazeen, and the Orthodox are all named Madanat. So the nuptials were between Mr. and Ms. Bagain, Michael Bagain confirmed.

By this time, the groom and his best man had arrived. There was the typical nervous pacing and frowning into a smartphone one might see prior to an American wedding.

The bride’s family arrived, dressed in stylish clothes appropriate for a wedding. And here we were, Americans, who got only a couple hours’ notice of this blessed event and were wearing jeans and sneakers. What must the others be thinking?

Soon the courtyard in front of the church filled, and everyone took their places for the grand procession.

A pre-wedding ritual: firing a gun before the ceremony. (CNS/Mark Pattison)

A pre-wedding ritual: firing a gun before the ceremony. (CNS/Mark Pattison)

The women led a song with rhythmic hand-clapping; even the bride took part. A couple of the women ululated during the song. Soon afterward, one man took out a pistol, held it straight in the air and fired five shots. Nobody in the courtyard flinched. Well, none of the Melkites, that is.

Slowly, the wedding principals and the guests began surging through the narrow doors of St. Georges Melkite Church. With all of the excitement apparently over on the outside, it was time to go inside and find a seat.

Once a wedding chant by a small men’s chorus ended, Father Paul spoke to the assembly in Arabic, then switched to English to repeat some of the highlights for his temporary flock. He concluded his remarks by announcing: “I know you want to take pictures. If you want to take pictures, you can move closer.”

The bridge and groom clasped hands and held them aloft. (CNS/Mark Pattison)

The bridge and groom clasped hands and held them aloft. (CNS/Mark Pattison)

That was my cue. Under the dictum of “don’t ask permission first, ask forgiveness later,” I made my way to the back of the sanctuary, where there was lots of singing. Nearly everything, including Father Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel — the only Scripture reading that I could tell was being proclaimed — was sung or chanted. I fought to hold my position in the sanctuary amid the priest, the choir, two cantors, three flower girls, one ring bearer, five women whose purpose there I could not ever quite ascertain, a couple of videographers hired to record the happy occasion, and some light stands.

There was no homily in this Melkite ceremony. There also were no vows in the style we in the Latin-rite church have come to expect. But Father Paul moved closer to the couple and had them hold their clasped hands aloft for quite some time.

Next, he gave them each a crown — the bride already was wearing a tiara. The bride and groom exchanged crowns, then exchanged them again.

After that, Father Paul led the wedding party in a counterclockwise procession around the altar of the crowded sanctuary. I had no idea what any of this meant, but it was exhilarating to witness.

The priest leads the wedding party around the sactuary. (CNS/Mark Pattison)

The priest leads the wedding party around the sactuary. (CNS/Mark Pattison)

A couple of days after the fact, we get an explanation for some of what we saw. The hand-clapping song and the ululating were typical pre-wedding rituals in the region. The hand-raising is also customary in the Eastern church. The crowns were a reminder of the biblical mandate to go forth and multiply. The gun was a more recent tradition.

After a churchwide recitation of a prayer I gathered must be the Our Father, Father Paul took a clear, small, glass cup filled with wine and gave it to the bride, groom and their attendants to drink. There was more ululating, and the men’s chorus was changing.

There probably was not much more to this ceremony — we were told that a Melkite wedding generally runs 40 to 50 minutes — but we get the sign from the tour leaders that it was time for us to go. Mr. and Mrs. Bagain have a whole life yet to lead as husband and wife, but we American interlopers had a two-hour trek to get to a hotel on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea.

In a week filled with wonders, the intimacy and immediacy of this moment may rank as the best.

– – –

I will continue to blog from time to time about things I encountered on my Jordan journey. Also, look me up on Twitter at @MeMarkPattison for Jordan-related tweets with the hashtag #holyjordan.

%d bloggers like this: