My Big Fat _____ Wedding

By Fr. Andrew Jarmus
Director of Missions, Education and Communications
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Although I haven’t seen it yet, I’ve heard enough about it to figure out that “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” is a movie worth seeing if you’re a North American from an ethnic Orthodox family. Although the movie deals with a Greek Orthodox wedding, any of us in the other Orthodox Christians jurisdiction on this continent could fill in the blank: Ukrainian, Serbian, Russian, Romanian…

Regardless of where we come from, the idea’s the same: when you’re an Orthodox Christian marrying a non-Orthodox/non-ethnic, be prepared to take him or her on the ride of their life. After 10 years of service in the priesthood of our UOCC, I’ve seen it time and time again. The wide-eyed non-Orthodox/non-ethnic bride or groom and their dyed-in-the-wool North American family and friends try to figure out exactly what to do with all of the pomp and circumstance that go along with our wedding rites and customs. Most people are quite taken by the whole thing, and in the end say that they have never seen anything so beautiful. Some find the whole thing so foreign to what they know that they really don’t know what to think.

I’ve often said (only half joking) that when faced with the choice of serving at a wedding or a funeral, I’ll take the funeral almost every time. There are far less “special interest groups” lobbying to have things their way. After all, how many people get lost in thought planning for that special day when friends and family gather together to say their last farewell to us? Weddings, though, are another story all together. There’s a whole industry out there focussed on telling us exactly what colours, sounds, shapes, flavours, textures will make our wedding the social event of the season. All of this looks great on the glossy pages of a magazine, but sometimes it flies right in the face of what we in the Church would call meaningful (or tasteful).

Is this such a big deal, though? Is it something that your average Ukrainian Orthodox young adult has to think about? Consider this. In the late 1990’s the Greek Orthodox Church in the U.S.A. did a study on mixed marriages in their archdiocese. The results found that over 75% of weddings done in Greek Orthodox parishes in the States were between someone of Greek Orthodox descent and someone of non-Greek/non-Orthodox descent. I once spoke with the priest who did this survey and he told me that if you also factor in Greek Orthodox people who chose to get married outside of the Church, the statistic reaches the 90% mark.

That’s the Greeks and that’s America. What about us Ukrainians here in Canada? We have not done any formal studies on the subject of mixed marriages (though perhaps we should… any aspiring sociology majors out there looking for a Masters project?). My guess is that just by talking with your local Ukrainian Orthodox priest, you will find a similar trend. When I was in parish ministry in Edmonton, I averaged around 10 weddings a year. The most Ukrainian-Orthodox-to-Ukrainian-Orthodox weddings that I remember doing in any given year was three – in other words, 30%. Check in with any given parish priest in our Church and he’ll probably tell you something similar.

With those kind of odds, it’s likely that most members of our Church who plan on getting married will find themselves planning their own “big fat mixed-background wedding”. What do we do about this? We can’t drop all our Ukrainian Orthodox singles into a big box, keeping them away from “outsiders”. This has already been tried with the reverse results of what was hoped for; the more the older generations said “Stick to you own kind!”, the more the younger generations ventured outside of their community.

The issue is not to marry “your own kind” or an “outsider”. The real question is how strongly we feel about our Faith. If my Ukrainian Orthodox identity is just something that I wear from time to time (Christmas, Easter, Baba’s 90th), then it is likely that I will “archive” it for the sake of keeping peace in my new home. If I truly cherish my Church – if I really believe that it gives me something that I cannot get anywhere else – then I will stand on the principle that my Faith and I are a package deal.

Now, this not just an issue of personal conviction, though. When someone opts out of their home Church for someone else’s faith, or no faith at all, this is cannot be automatically be viewed as the sign of a lack of real conviction. The other issue is whether or not the parish community in which they grew up creates an atmosphere engendering a sense of love, loyalty (and even pride) for the community. Likewise, does the community let the person’s fiance(e) know they are welcomed and that there is a place for him/her there?

More often than not, people do not stray away from parishes “on their own power” as much as they are pushed out by pettiness, arrogance, hypocrisy, bigotry, etc. Every time one of our kids chooses to get married somewhere else, we need to ask ourselves, not only “What’s the matter with him/her”, but “What does this say about us?”

Our hope, and the goal of our efforts, should be that all of the “Big Fat Orthodox Weddings” we see are just the start of those couples’ life in the parish. They come to the parish to celebration the joyous day of their marriage. Let’s create community’s where these families will feel drawn to sharing all of their life experiences, both joys and sorrows – a spiritual home in which all of life’s ups and downs can be lived in the company of compassionate brothers and sisters in the faith, and where all things are filled with the life-giving Light of Christ.