As a priest, I’ve officiated at hundreds of weddings, but Friday I attended my first Nigerian wedding.
If you remember the scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, when the conservative, understated parents of the WASPy groom first meet the bride’s big, boisterous Greek family, you know how I felt walking into the banquet hall.
The music is pulsing. Nigerian women all bedecked in heavily beaded green gowns with Gele head ties swirling above, men in purple dashikis with Fila caps on their heads. A Nigerian minister offers an opening prayer, but this rollicking ritual is conducted by the “aunties,” the elder women. Whole extended families make an entrance and are introduced, one by one. The Groom doesn’t just walk in, he dances in, surrounded by his men. The Bride and her ladies, hidden behind green feathered fans, swirl and glide into the hall. I am mesmerized.
The dancing Bride is led by the elder women in search of her Groom. They weave and bob like a conga line throughout the hall until she finds him. Together they kneel before their parents, who lay on hands and offer prayers of deep blessing, then kneel before elders, brothers and sisters, some so close they scoot on knees from one to the next.
Tomorrow is the Episcopal service where I will be presiding, and for a moment I want a ceremony like this. We will all walk in—no dancing from place to place—and we will say many words, beautiful words. We will stand, stately. No one will walk on knees for a mother’s blessing. The congregation will sit in straight rows, and no one will move. Our liturgy has a beauty of its own, I know, but I’m feeling what Krister Stendahl called “holy envy”—when we experience another faith tradition and wish ours had a similar practice. Doesn’t mean we ditch our faith. It just means we recognize that all traditions are limited, ours included, and that we have much to receive from those who seem so unlike us.
When Saturday arrived, the familiar liturgy was more beautiful than I remembered, the vows more powerful, the string quartet more stirring. Having run its course, holy envy now gave way to quiet gratitude for old treasures long taken for granted.