Most Ancient of All Mysteries: the Great Omophor

One thing I came to love about Orthodox church life very early on in my journey into it is the way in which elements of liturgical life actually mean something. By this, I mean that they are not simply interesting things we do, whose symbolism is an optional extra for people who like That Sort Of Thing™, and which must be explained to them because it is so far removed from their everyday church life, but rather that they are a normal part of the life of the Church.

This is something that I never really experienced in my Anglo-Catholic upbringing. Yes, we did all of the stuff with all of the bells and whistles, and it was splendid, but it was never anything more than a local conceit. We were always well aware that there were those all around us with whom we were in communion and who saw what we did as something odd, peculiar, and a means by which to define us. Indeed, in many cases it was how we defined ourselves. Rather than the way we worshipped being simply the way we worshipped, it was a badge of distinction that we wore self-consciously. This was no fault of our own, to be sure, but simply the natural result of a situation in which what is right and proper is nothing more than a fringe belief, seen by the majority as something to be gauped at - whether enthusiastically, respectfully or disparagingly, the result is the same.

I remember once trying to explain this difference in Another Place. By way of illustration, I referred to the significance of a parish receiving the Holy Chrism from its bishop as a sign of ecclesial union with him. 'But we do the same thing: our oils come from our bishop', came the reply. Well, yes, this is true: Anglicans do have the chrism mass each year on Maundy Thursday, where the bishop blesses the oils and distributes them to the clergy, but this isn't the same. It is only when I came to Orthodoxy that I learnt of the bishop withdrawing the Chrism as a means of removing a priest's parish's privilege of functioning under his jurisdiction. It shows that acting on behalf of, and as an extension of, one's bishop is no mere legal formality, conveyed with the granting of a paper licence, but is rather a sacramental reality, actualised through participation in the sacraments with one's bishop. In the same way, in some cases, it is possible for a man who has undergone an ordination ceremony outside the Church, the form of whose ordination and the tactile succession of which is legitimate, to be truly made a priest through simple concelebration with an Orthodox bishop. I had long subscribed to this understanding of the true sacramental life of the Church but had never experienced it as a lived part of the way the Church operates until I became Orthodox.

The example par excellence of this reality of church life expressed in its worship is quite possibly the omophor. It is simply the eastern name given to the pallium although, while in the west, the pallium later developed a particular meaning and restricted use, the omophor remains part of the insignia of all bishops, (as does the pallium where it is used by Orthodox bishops in the restored western rites). It signifies the bishop's temporal authority as High Priest and shepherd of his flock, so much so that, in common church parlance, a clergyman, parish, or monastery under the jurisdiction of a paticular bishop is said to be "under his omophor". This is simply how we refer to being under a bishop's authority. It is natural and not forced, and nobody thinks twice about it.

The bishop wears the omophor when he presides over the worship of the Church. Like the mitre in the west, which is removed at certain points, the omophor is removed when the bishop, at certain times during the divine services, humbly lays aside his own authority in the face of Christ. So, before the Gospel, the subdeacons divest the bishop of the Great Omophor, and the Gospel procession is led by the third deacon, who carries it aloft, parading it before the people to show that the bishop has laid aside his authority for it is Christ Who now speaks to us in the words of the Gospel. If there is no deacon to read the Gospel and the bishop does this himself, he also removes his mitre. Similarly, at the Great Entrance, the bishop's mitre and omophor are again paraded before the people to show thay they have been removed, for, while not yet the Sacred Body and Blood, the Gifts which are transferred from the place of preparation through the church, to the Holy Table in some way already signify Christ Himself. The photograph to the left shows me holding the great omophor immediately after its removeal at the Trisagion, in preparation for the Gospel procession, (there were enough deacons at this Liturgy so I am not sure why I was called upon to do this, but there we are). You can also see the Gospel procession at 7.05 in this video:



What has got me to thinking lately about the omophor is that, having served at three hierarchical Divine Liturgies over the past week, I have finally developed some sort of understanding of how the great omophor works. For those who are not familiar with these things, I should explain that the great omophor is the most complicated of all vestments in the Orthodox Church. The mere sight of it strikes fear and dread into the hearts of all but the most experienced and confident of subdeacons. I was trying to explain this to one of our western rite priests yesterday, who didn't at first understand. As it is simply the eastern equivalent to the palliun, he assumed it simply pinned into place as the pallium does. Not so, Father! While the origins are the same, as is the common design, the omophor has developed to be considerably wider than the pallium and, rather than retaining the original material of wool, is usually made of similar lined and embroidered brocade to the rest of the vestments. This means that it is significantly stiffer and heavier, and has to be folded back on itself rather than simply draping, fastened in place with a complex system of buttons and loops, both in places where it fastens to itself and also where it fastens to the vestment immediately beneath it. It is truly the most incomprehensible mystery of Orthodoxy. There are times I wonder whether it would not be easier to follow the custom of many Ukrainain Catholic bishops and go for a modern, simpler form of omophor that requires little fastening and just goes on over the head. However, due to the end being suspended directly in the middle, it flops from side to side as they walk and looks rather less than dignified, plus they tend not to remove it at the appointed times anymore, so I think perhaps we ought to stick with our inherited tradition.

The answer to not knowing how to fasten it seems fairly straightforward, doesn't it? Surely, I simply need to practise, no? No. You see, unless a parish is incredibly wealthy and has cause to possess such things, chances are there is not a spare set of bishop's vestments lying around to provide such opportunities, and I'm afraid the vesting of the bishop is generally considered to be too boring to be included in videos of services. All of this means that the only time many subdeacons are confronted with the great omophor is when they are standing in the middle of a full church, fumbling along to work out how it actually goes onto the bishop, then they don't see it again until the next time.

The truth is that I am not a very good subdeacon. I seldom have the opportunity to serve for my own bishop. I no longer serve with my brother subdeacons in the Sourozh Diocese: I am always confused by the modern customs that they follow, and the loss of the pre-revolutionary customs in which I have been instructed in ROCOR. Because they do not know of these differences, they must think that I am incompetent when I am simply observing the Russian Orthodox Church's liturgical traditions that they have forgotten. The result is that I have much knowledge from books but only occasional experience of actually putting it to use, followed by months before I have such an opportunity again. It is for this reason that I am grateful for having served for my bishop over three consecutive days last weekend. I learnt a number of little things that I didn't know before and had reinforced many of the things that I did know but always seemed to manage to forget. I am also incredibly grateful to Reader Gregory, my new friend and a temporary import from our ROCOR Eastern American Diocese, with a vast amount of experience in serving the role of subdeacon for our bishops. He is a good and gentle teacher and served with me as second subdeacon.

On the first day, I simply looked at the omophor draped over Archbishop Mark's shoulders, looked up at him, and said, with my most pitiful voice, 'Please would you help me?', which he graciously did. By the second day, he let us get on with it, only instructing where he saw me struggling, and by day three, it went on, in the correct order, without any episcopal assistance. I do hope that, slowly, I can learn and get these little things right. Now that I have tackled the great omophor, I feel that I'm ready for just about anything that can be thrown at me. No doubt this feeling will quickly subside when I next get it all wrong.

Let's see how that works out.

2 responses:

Jon Marc said...

Vladica Nathaniel of the ROEA uses a soft, simpler omophorion, but I must confess that it looks both drab and unworthy as it's generally surrounded by much more beautiful, ornate vestments.

Michael said...

Have you seen the pallium worn by the Western Rite folk? They are perhaps the closest to the original form: woollen, white, red/black crosses, soft and not stiffened or lined. This only becomes problematic when the modern broad omophor is made of similar fabric.

That said, provided it is lined and sufficiently stiff, a white omophor with crosses works well with various vestment colours. Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk often wears them.

Oh yes, and use the Greek form of the word on this blog again and I'll come and find you. :-P

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