Orthodox clerics wear cuffs during the service. This is the smallest element of the Orthodox vestment, but according to tradition all services should be performed by clergy in cuffs. What is the meaning of this item of clothing, what is its history and symbolic meaning?
Cuffs (Greek. ἐπιμανίκια) are wide stripes of dense cloth, often made of silk, brocade or velvet, wrapped around the wrists and pulling the sleeves of the priest’s podriznik. The origin of the cuffs, the history of their liturgical use, and their evolution, like with most of the other elements of vestment, are not fully known yet. The fact is that church writers paid little attention to the divine vestments and their significance, since, first, they did not appear immediately, and secondly, it was only by the end of the first millennium that divine vestments began to acquire symbolic meaning in the eyes of believers.
Basileus’s Gift? Like many other Christian vestments, cuffs might have been borrowed from the everyday clothes of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire. Many mosaics in the ancient churches of Ravenna depict both men and women with special belts on their hands, with which the Romans could, if necessary, tighten the wide edges of their sleeves. In the Christian East, cuffs were not mentioned throughout the first millennium. There is a suggestion that the richly decorated cuffs as an element of liturgical vestments were first presented to the Patriarch of Constantinople by one of the emperors as a special insignia. Subsequently, the cuffs were worn not only by other bishops and priests, but also by senior deacons of the cathedrals, and eventually by all the clerics.
Western Manipulus. In the West, the manipulus (also known as sudarium), was a handkerchief used by clergy who tied it to their left hand to wipe sweat and tears during the divine service. The Western cuffs were first used in Rome and by the end of the 6th century they were already worn by priests and deacons in Ravenna, as evidenced by the correspondence between St. Gregory the Great (†604) and Archbishop John of Ravenna. Soon the manipulus spread throughout Europe; it is worn by the clerics of Gaul and Germany, and is also known in England. It is worn by the clerics of the Archbishopric of Milan, even though Milan had its own special Ambrosian rite historically, much different from that of Rome. Even altar servers used to wear manipulus in the 9th-century Rome. There was a tradition of wearing a manipulus by all monks without exception, including those who did not have a religious rank, on the main patron saint’s day in the famous Cluny Abbey in the 11th and 12th centuries. Later, however, this practice was abolished.
The Bonds of Christ. Cuffs have several layers of symbolic meaning. One of the meanings is the memory of the Savior’s bonds, with which the Lord was bound during interrogations with the high priests and Pilate. During the Liturgy the priest appears as an icon of Christ, and therefore many elements of the vestments are intended to remind both the minister and the faithful of what the Lord endured for our salvation. The designated symbol of the bonds of the Messiah is a special cord, which is looped on the sides of the cuffs, through which the clergyman wraps the cuffs around his wrist and fixes them on the sleeves of the podriznik. Christ’s hands were bound and nailed to the cross during His saving Passion, so that the salvation of the Lord might be said to have been accomplished with bound hands. It is this image of Jesus, who was bound but victorious on the Cross (as the cross embroidered on the back side of the cuffs also testifies), that served as the main inspiration for the symbolism of the cuffs, as the Power of God acting by the hands of the priest. This idea is also embodied in the prayers inspired by the Psalms, which the priest reads as he puts on the cuffs. On his right hand: “Thy right hand, O Lord, is become glorious in power: thy right hand, O Lord, hath dashed in pieces the enemy. And in the greatness of thine excellency thou hast overthrown them that rose up against thee: thou sentest forth thy wrath, which consumed them as stubble” (Exodus 15: 6-7). On his left hand: “Thy hands have made me and fashioned me: give me understanding, that I may learn thy commandments” (Psalm 119:73). While putting on his cuffs, the priest should be aware that all the Sacraments performed by him are performed invisibly by Christ Himself in the Holy Spirit, that his hands are not his own, but the hands of Christ, and that is why the faithful kiss the priest’s blessing hand.
The Good Yoke of Christ. The Western Fathers also explained the meaning of the manipulus with the fetters of Christ. However, based on its original use as a handkerchief for wiping sweat and tears, the manipulus also became associated with the heavy burden of priestly service. The prayer for putting on the manipulus was inspired by Psalm 126: “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves (Vulgate manipulos) with him” (Psalm 126:5-6). Thus, the prayer for putting on the manipulus is, “Let me, O Lord, wear the manipulus of tears and sorrows, so that I may gladly accept the reward for my work.” At present, the manipulus is practically out of use in Western churches, but it remains an obligatory element of the divine vestments in the Orthodox congregations that practise the Western Rite.
Some of the outsiders may ask, “What’s all this about?” However, if we tell the story of anything in the Church with love and knowledge and reveal its mysterious biblical meaning, I am convinced that it can help us to understand and love the Orthodox worship.