It’s festival season at the moment! Whether you’re Christian or Jewish, there’s plenty going on. (Sorry if I’m unaware of other religious festivals that may be coinciding!)
talking about Easter and Passover. The two are connected, of course. They both
last quite a while and the Last Supper was a Passover meal. Both
religions include eggs in their festivities (a symbol of Spring).
appearances, I wasn’t really intending to talk about the festivals themselves.
But I did want to have a religious slant to my blog at such a time.
A big question
People often ask me about my religious beliefs. How can I offer mixed-faith ceremonies? Even if I believe in either of the two religions, what about the other one(s)? And, as I’m not ordained, surely I can’t legitimately conduct such ceremonies?
Valid questions, and ones I have had to think hard about.
A small answer!
Let me take the last point first. I do not see that being a lay person prevents me from uttering holy words. I always tell my clients at the outset that I am not ordained and make no pretence about it. Moreover, even if I do not necessarily believe all the tenets of a particular religion, I feel happy enough to say the words. The words must not offend me, of course. I approve of a lot of Buddhist philosophy, so, though no Buddhist myself, would be happy to read appropriate texts.
When I was asked to do my first pagan ceremony (half a dozen years ago), my first reaction was “no!”. I had no intention of biting the head off a chicken, or whatever!
However, when I looked into it, I realised that paganism is nothing like that. It’s nature-centred and many of the prayers are really beautiful. I accepted the invitation. In fact, I greatly enjoyed the ceremony, and was so glad I had agreed to take it on.
So that’s my answer to those questions. I don’t feel I’m being a hypocrite by reading words that I may not fully endorse. They are still valuable and valid. I’m not forcing myself to say words that upset me. I’m not misleading anybody into believing that they are booking a full-blown priest (or whatever). Moreover, I’m increasing my knowledge and understanding of other cultures, and that has got to be for the good.
remorse, let me sincerely wish you a very happy Easter or Passover!
People regularly ask me “what’s a handfasting?”
I think my favourite one was at Old Sarum in 2014, and describing the events may give a flavour of the ceremony and thus answer the question.
The setting was spectacular. We were allocated a lovely rectangular grassy spot in the Castle ruins, overlooking, as well as a flooded plain, the ruins of the old cathedral.
Having an outdoor ceremony the last weekend of January on an exposed hilltop with the winter we’d been having might be said to be tempting providence. I had to drive through heavy rain for a couple of hours the evening before to get to Wiltshire, so I feared the worst. Then my arrival home after the ceremony coincided with thunder, lightning and hailstones! So what about the intervening spell?
Miraculously, it was dry – in fact, the sun came out for quite a time – and unseasonably warm. I did eventually get cold, as I was up there early, to set up the space, and the wedding party arrived half an hour late, but to spend two hours, as I did, up there without ill effects from the weather was quite remarkable. I did have a close encounter with a hawk (wondering if it was a vulture, preparing to feast on my frozen body!).
The ceremony was part-pagan, part-Jewish, which is original, if nothing else! The rituals included representatives of the four elements blessing the couple, the handfasting itself, the bride walking round the groom seven times and the breaking of a glass underfoot.
In a little more detail regarding the actual handfasting, we started by charging the circle. Then we summoned the elements of nature, with representatives of the four directions blessing the couple. We then called upon the God and Goddess, to connect the couple with the divinity within themselves. We next blessed the couple with divine qualities.
Taking symbolic (empty) cups and exchanging them, the couple repeated this Celtic handfasting vow together:
“You cannot possess me, for I belong to myself.
But while we both wish it, I give you that which is mine to give.
You cannot command me, for I am a free person.
I pledge to you that it will be your eyes into which I smile every morning.
I pledge to you my living and my dying, each equally in your care.
I shall be a shield for your back, and you for mine.
I shall not slander you, nor you me.
I shall honour you above all others, and when we quarrel, we shall do so in private and tell no strangers our grievances.
This is my wedding vow to you.
This is the marriage of equals.”
Rather beautiful, wouldn’t you agree?
After the exchange of vows, we witnessed the handfasting(or binding of wrists) itself, followed by drinking from (what was not an empty!) loving cup, before a concluding blessing.
I’m delighted to say that it was a very special ceremony for all concerned – and I’m looking forward to my next one.
I am beginning to learn that it doesn’t really pay to hide one’s light under a bushel.
People think of me as a civil celebrant, but I am also a linguist. Apart from a decent command of my native language, I have a degree in French and Russian, speak fluent German, read Hebrew and get by in Czech and Italian.
Being the sort of businessman that I am, it never occurred to me until recently that that might be an asset to my current profession! But now I know differently.
One of my present assignments is working on a wedding service for a couple from mixed cultures: he is British, but she is Russian. There will be a few guests coming over from Magnetogorsk, so I suggested welcoming them in their native language. Wow! This idea has gone down a treat!
Well, when you think about it, it makes sense. Of course, I’ll have to work out how best to market this asset, as the language bit may appeal to quite a number of couples. Indeed, maybe this would lead to a few ‘gigs’ abroad, which would be very exciting!
The Hebrew side proved very useful last August when I conducted a Jewish wedding. No, I am not a rabbi; in fact, the couple’s rabbi was among the guests and (I’m relieved to say!) he professed himself very happy with my service.
Photos: Philippa Gedge Photography
In case you’re a bit baffled, let me explain that the groom was marrying a non-Jewess, who, though a regular synagogue-attendee, had no desire to convert, so the rabbi couldn’t conduct the ceremony. I was therefore approached to put together and lead the ceremony.
In the event, I led a (slightly creative) service, containing some elements I had suggested and some the couple had included.
As that bushel has now been removed, I’d like to conclude with the testimonial I received from the couple for that wedding:
“Michael Gordon conducted a Jewish religious wedding ceremony for us immediately following our civil wedding ceremony. Michael was very receptive to our input and the whole process was smooth and pleasant. On our wedding day, Michael impressed everyone with his delivery, warmth, good humour and professionalism. We had many comments afterwards from our guests saying how impressed they were with Michael and how they felt a part of the ceremony (something that was important for us and which Michael helped us to achieve).
“Michael is happy to tailor a ceremony to meet a couple’s particular requirements. His knowledge of Hebrew is both impressive and authentic. We would certainly recommend Michael to any couple who want to add a spiritual or religious element to their wedding celebrations without necessarily having something formal in a church or synagogue.”
A Muslim marrying a Jewess – that doesn’t happen every day!
Tempting as it is to devote this blog to a discussion of inter-racial or inter-religious harmony, that’s not really my subject, wonderful as it might be.
Mixed marriages are more up my professional street, though.
Be that as it may, I was delighted to contribute (in a tiny way) to this utopian ideal by conducting a wedding blessing very recently at a mixed marriage. It was, indeed, the union of Muslim and Jewess.
Neither one of the couple was religious, in fact. The Muslim wanted no part in any religious ceremony (although he did agree to participate in our blessing, as long as he didn’t have to say anything); the Jewess agreed to it mostly to satisfy her parents.
I had worked with M.’s mother (although M. was given the opportunity to ask for amendments etc.) to create a suitable blessing ceremony. Essentially, it would consist of a number of blessings in English (a few in Hebrew), the traditional “Seven Blessings” in both languages, and some wine. Thus, a mix of traditional and modern.
On the day, I sought out the groom, who, not unreasonably, was a bit nervous about the whole event, and put him at ease. We had a chat, and I told him what was going to happen, and that he didn’t need to worry about anything.
After the legal marriage (which took place in the same hall), I took over. I threw in a couple of impromptu little jokes at the start, so the couple could feel more comfortable, and made a few guests smile with my introductory remarks.
I then went through the blessings, as agreed, but what was nice was how the groom visibly relaxed – even to the extent of cracking a joke himself when it came to the wine!
The blessing ceremony only lasted 10 minutes, at most, but it was obviously appreciated and I felt very pleased, though humble too, because of the role I had been able to play in the union of two lovely people of potentially clashing cultures.
May they be a beacon for others – and may they find true happiness!