On the Covering of Heads
[Note from Fr Damian: At St John the Evangelist Orthodox Mission, we do not have hard and fast rules about dress and other customs. When it comes to head coverings, many Orthodox Christians of the last couple generations threw off their scarves as a symbol of shedding the image of an immigrant peasant when they arrived in America. Our modern society is greatly impacted by the feminist movement and its sense of ‘liberation’, even for those who consider themselves conservative Christians. Yet in the face of this trend, you will find those who wear scarves anyway. I know of one young Greek lady who, after visiting a conservative Russian Church where she was given a scarf, upon returning to her modern Greek Orthodox parish treasures using it even though no other woman wears one. She discovered that when putting it upon her head, she cut herself off from the ‘social aspect’ of the gathering and created a ‘cocoon of prayer’ that deeply impacted her personal piety. This short article, though not very complete in the presentation of the material, has been included because it introduces the subject from a traditional Orthodox point of view]
But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head. (I Corinthians 11:5).
Orthodox women, according to the words of the holy Apostle Paul, go to God's church with covered heads. For nearly two thousand years now, this custom has been kept by faithful women and has been handed down from generation to generation. It is a custom not only of the local churches, but also of the Universal Church, and, therefore whether we be in a Greek, in a Serbian or Russian church the women in the church have their heads covered. Not long ago, we happened totalk with a woman who had only just been in Russia. On a feast day, she went to church with her head uncovered, and when she came forward to venerate the Cross, the priest refused to give her the Cross. To her protests and excuses, that she had come from abroad, did not know the local customs and thought that it is necessary to cover one's head only for Communion, the priest replied to her that this is no excuse, that it is always necessary to have the head covered in church, and that he could not allow her to kiss the Holy Cross.
Unlike the countries that have been Orthodox for centuries, most women in America do not cover their heads, often for one of the following reasons: scarves are not in style; a kerchief spoils the hairdo; thinking there is no basis for covering the head; pondering why is it necessary for us women to cover the head, but not necessary for men. It comes down to a matter of worldly fashion. If we were to give in to fashion, then our services would last fifteen minutes, we would sit in our churches, there would be a worship band on a stage instead of a Holy Altar, and on and on.
We find the basis for covering the head in Sacred Scripture itself, in the New Testament. The Most Holy Virgin Mary covered her head in the holy temple from her young years. According to tradition, her headcovering in the Jerusalem temple was light blue; therefore, on the feast days of the Theotokos our clergy wear light blue vestments. The Most Holy Theotokos wore a kerchief as a sign of her humility and submissiveness to God's will, which was manifested on the day of the Annunciation.
In wearing a kerchief, the faithful woman recalls the image of her who was vouchsafed to carry the Saviour Himself. If the Most Pure and Most Blessed One herself had a covered head, shall we really consider the imitation of her as an abasement. Every outward action, accompanied by the correct Christian inward disposition, brings benefit to the soul. The Holy Church knows human nature and the effect of symbolism on man perfectly well. The Saviour frequently taught by means of parables and images, so that His teaching would be more understandable and intelligible to the people. And His Church teaches us by means of images and symbolic actions (the sign of the Cross, bows), in order to bring us closer to His Kingdom.
Excerpted from an article in Parish Life, August 1994