The Right Hands of Your Servants Shall be Blessed! Wedding Rings & Orthodoxy
By Subdeacon Nektarios, M.A.
One of the traditions in Holy Orthodoxy that is small (and a personal favorite of mine) but that uniquely differentiates us from those in heterodox confessions is that of wedding rings. During the Service of the Betrothal, the rings of Orthodox Christians are put on the right hand of the couple by the officiating priest or bishop as part of the rite of Betrothal. The Priest takes the bride’s ring, and blesses the groom, making the sign of the Cross over him three times saying,
The servant of God (Name) is betrothed to the handmaid of God (Name) in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. (Thrice) Amen .
The Priest places the Ring on the fourth finger of the groom’s right hand (the right hand being the side of honor and strength). Then the Priest takes the groom’s ring, and blesses the bride, making the sign of the Cross over her, thrice [...]The Priest [then] places the Ring on the fourth finger of the bride’s right hand, and the couple exchange rings. .
The priest then offers another prayer saying,
O Lord our God, who didst accompany the servant of the Patriarch Abraham in to Mesopotamia, when he was sent to espouse a wife for his lord Isaac, and who, by means of the drawing of water, didst reveal to him that he should betroth Rebecca: Do thou, the same Lord, bless also the betrothal of these thy servants, (Name) and (Name), and confirm the word which they have spoken. Establish them in the holy union which is from thee. For thou, in the beginning, didst make them male and female, and by thee is the woman joined unto the man as a helpmeet, and for the procreation of the human race.
Wherefore, O Lord our God, who hast sent forth thy truth upon thine inheritance, and thy covenant unto thy servants our father, even thine elect, from generation to generation; Look thou upon thy servant, (Name), and upon thy handmaid, (Name), and establish their betrothal in faith and in oneness of mind, in truth and in love. For thou, O Lord, hast declared that a pledge should be given and confirmed in all things. By a ring, power was given to Joseph in Egypt; by a ring, Daniel was glorified in the land of Babylon; by a ring, the uprightness of Tamar was revealed; by a ring, our Heavenly Father showed His bounty upon His Son, for He said: Bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry.
By thine own right hand, O Lord, thou didst arm Moses in the Red Sea; by thy true word, the heavens were established and the foundations of the earth were made firm; and the right hands of thy servants also shall be blessed by thy mighty work and by thine upraised arm. And, O Lord our God, do thou now bless this putting on of rings with thy heavenly benediction; and let thine Angel go before them all the days of their life; For thou art He who blesseth and sanctifieth all things, and unto thee do we ascribe glory: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages..
The priest blesses these rings, blesses us with them, he puts them on ourright hand which we in turn make the Sign of the Cross over ourselves. This beautiful tradition within the Mystery of the Marriage rite is one that is often overlooked by many newlywed Orthodox Christian couples, mainly because they are never told about it or its significance. Unfortunately, after the wedding, many Orthodox Christian couples remove the rings that were blessed and placed on their right hand by Christ's priest and place them instead on their left hand to more easily identify with the pagan and secular world around them, instead of leaving them where the Holy Church placed them intentionally. You are probably wondering why I would use the word pagan when referring to Orthodox Christians placing their rings on the left hand. What does paganism have to do with the left hand? That is a good question.
An Orthodox Priest Blessing the Wedding Rings
Since time immemorial people have been told that the reason why most western countries, particularly citizens in the United States wear their wedding rings on the left hand is because of a long standing myth that there is a specific nerve or vein [Vena Amoris] that runs from the left index finger to the heart which sounds: O, So Romantic! However, as you can probably imagine, this is scientifically inaccurate. So where does this Vena Amoris myth actually come from? This myth actually comes out of the Roman pagan Mediterranean world. "The custom of placing the betrothal or wedding ring upon the forth [left] finger seems undoubtedly to owe its origin [...] that a special nerve, or vein, ran directly from this finger to the heart" from a fifth century Roman Pagan named Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius and his writing The Saturnalia 431 A.D. . The Saturnalia is an account of the discussions held at the house of a man named Vettius Agorius Praetextatus during the pagan Roman holiday of Saturnalia which was a Roman festival in honor of the pagan "god" Saturn and was celebrated on December 17th. Macrobius, in this text writes,
As Disarius finished speaking, Avienus took up from the table a ring which had suddenly fallen from the little finger of his right hand, and, when his companions asked why he was not wearing it on the hand and finger on which a ring is usually worn, he showed them his left hand, somewhat swollen from an injury. This gave Horus an opportunity to put another question. Tell me, Disarius, said he, (for the whole structure of the human body comes within the field of a doctor's knowledge and your learning goes even beyond the requirements of your profession), tell me, pray, why is it that by general consent we hold that a ring should be worn on the fourth finger - a finger which actually is called medicinalis - and on the left hand rather than on the other?
A discussion of that very point had come to us from Egypt, replied Disarius, and I was in doubt for a while whether to call it just an idle tale or a true explanation. But later, after turning up some books on anatomy, I discovered the truth: that there is a certain nerve which has its origin in the heart and runs from there to the finger next to the little finger of the left hand, where it ends entwined with the rest of the nerves of that finger; and that this is the reason why it seemed good to men of old to encircle that finger with a ring, as though to honor it with a crown. It is indeed true said Horus, that the belief held by the Egyptians is as you say, Disarius, for I have myself seen their priests (or prophets, as they call them) in a temple go around the statues of the god and on each anoint this finger with a preparation of perfumes. When I asked why they did this, I was told by their chief priest of the nerve to which you have referred and also of the number which that finger serves to indicate .
As we can see from this cursory examination of the historical origins of wearing the Betrothal or Wedding ring on the left hand and the myth that surrounds the Vena Amoris; it originates out of ancient Egyptian and Roman paganism and has been carried into the western world because of the romanticism that has surrounded it for thousands of years. Now, in our secular neo-pagan culture we have adopted this just out of bad habit or to be like everyone else. However, as Orthodox Christians we are called to live as Orthodox Christians, to stand apart from this anti-Orthodox neo-pagan and secular society. Saint Paul in his Epistle to the Romans says, "And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God" (Romans 12:2, KJV). Therefore, know that your right-hand shall be blessed by God and by keeping your ring that you received during the Mystery of Marriage on the hand that Christ and his Church put it and not on the hand that originates out of demonic paganism that now represents our secular and neo-pagan society, and by doing so, you can, "hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle" (2 Thessalonians 2:15, KJV).
. Dr. George Fredrick Kunz, Rings for the Finger: From the Earliest Known Times to the Present, with Full Descriptions of the Origin, Early Making, Materials, the Archaeology, History, for Affection, for Love, for Engagement, for Wedding, Commemorative, Mourning, Etc. (London: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1917), 194.
. Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius, The Saturnalia (London: Columbia University Press, 1969), 498.