The Liturgy as a Community Effort: Preparation Needed to Receive the Gift of Grace

The Divine Liturgy is the primary corporate or shared experience for Orthodox Christians.  The Liturgy is viewed as the Sacrament of Sacraments (N. Arseniev, Mysticism and the Eastern Church, chapter 4).   In this celebration the goal of the Christian Life is realized: union with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through the reception of His Body and Blood.        

Within the Liturgy the Kingdom of God is present in the midst of the faithful; or rather they ascend spiritually in worship to the Throne of the Most-High, and the Divine Mysteries are received, “for the forgiveness of sins, for enlightenment, for the healing of soul and body, and for purification and sanctification” (Preparatory Prayers). 

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (4th Century) in his Fourth Catechetical Lecture (Sermon), states that as worshippers approach the Chalice, and partake of Christ, His Body and Blood are diffused through our members; thus, it is that, according to the blessed St. Peter we become, “partakers of the Divine Nature:”” (Lectures on the Christian Sacraments, SVS Press, p. 68).    

Similarly, in a Pre-Communion Prayer attributed to St. John Chrysostom (4th – 5th Centuries) one reads: “…Let the fiery coal of Thy most pure Body and Thy most precious Blood bring me sanctification, enlightenment and strengthening of my lowly soul and body…I pray Thee, O Master, for Thou alone art holy, sanctify my soul and body, my mind and heart, my muscles and bones.  Renew me entirely…”        

Because of the Liturgy’s divine and transforming character, its proper celebration requires preparation on the part of the faithful.  Sacred tradition, following the teaching of the Apostle Paul, requires proper discernment from one approaching the Chalice, as both a precaution, and as the means by which a proper foundation for growth can be laid: “Not unto judgment, nor unto condemnation be my partaking of Thy Holy Mysteries…”  (Prayer of St. John Chrysostom; 1 Corinthians 11:23-32).  In the language of The Parable of the Sower, one cannot expect to enjoy the fruits of Liturgy, as it were, without a deliberate effort to till the soil of the heart, making it fertile, making it fit for the reception of Divine Grace.

Practically speaking there is no mystery to this preparation. Tradition simply likens the tilling of the soil of the heart to the Church’s spiritual and ascetic disciplines.  These include such fundamentals as fasting, daily prayer, regular Confession, prayerful reading of Scripture, a desire to repent (i.e., “change” in light of revealed Truth), participation in services such as Vespers or Vigil that anticipate the Eucharist, and an effort to live throughout the week according to the precepts of the Gospel. 

The Liturgy itself even contains its own preparation for the reception of Holy Communion. It comprises the first half of the service, commonly referred to as the Liturgy of the Word, or the Liturgy of the Catechumens.  In his Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, St. Nicholas Cabasilas (14th century) highlights the importance of everything that precedes the Anaphora (the Lifting Up and Consecration of the Gifts) as a preparation for receiving Holy Communion. 

As a preparation for, and contribution to (the Eucharist), we have prayers, psalms and readings from Holy Scripture; in short, all the sacred acts…which are said and done before and after the consecration of the elements (bread and wine)... 

“…Since in order to obtain the effects of the Divine Mysteries we must approach them in a state of grace and properly prepared, it was necessary that these preparations should find a place in the order of the Sacred Rite … They purify us and make us able fittingly to receive and preserve holiness, and to remain possessed of it…”  (A Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, SVS Press, pp. 25-26).

St. Nicholas’s words remind us of the importance of being present in Church on Sunday, for the opening exclamation, “Blessed is the Kingdom…”

Additionally, as Orthodox Christians prepare for the Eucharist, it helps greatly to anticipate the Liturgy as a community event.  It is not simply prayer, but is a shared experience, a work of God’s people in which everyone takes part: those present physically, as well as the Saints, “who have gone to their rest before us.”  Thus – on the part of the faithful – the Liturgy is an offering of love, strengthened by a common desire to be taught by Christ, to be led by the Spirit, to render praise in the company of others, and to be reconciled to one’s fellow man. 

The Liturgy, by its very nature as a corporate act, places responsibility on the faithful for other members during the service itself.  This responsibility is carried out partially through one’s advance preparations for the Eucharist, as well as through one’s attentive and timely participation in the service.  Spiritually speaking, the stronger a Christian is personally, and the more focused he is during Liturgy, this enhances greatly the common offering to God within the Eucharist.  A person fulfills his “obligation of love” for the neighbor – to a degree – by setting a righteous example during the service, and by becoming a powerful link in the communion of prayer exercised throughout the Church. 

Responsibilities during the Eucharist extend additionally to the entire world and to everyone in it. Within the Liturgy the faithful pray not merely for themselves, their loved ones and the surrounding communities, but for everything, and “for all mankind…” “Thine Own of Thine Own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all, and for all…” With this in mind as well, Orthodox Christians are asked to remain focused and alert in the Church’s common prayer, thereby fulfilling their “obligation of love” for the neighbor and for all of creation, as powerfully as is humanly possible.       

Most Orthodox Christians know from experience that there is nothing more inspirational, more joyful, than a Church full of people truly engaged in their service to the Lord, and in their prayers for their fellow man.  One only has to think of this shared experience on Pascha Night.  The hope would be that each and every time a member or visitor comes to the Orthodox Church that this joy will be their experience:  an experience that is the result of Grace and Divine Love on the part of the Creator, and the result – on our part – of love and forethought,

Excerpts on Prayer

Archimandrite Sophrony (Elder Sophrony was born in Russia in 1896.  He was a priest, a monk, a disciple of St. Silouan of Athos, and was himself a spiritual guide to many. Sophrony fell asleep in the Lord on July 11, 1993. The following brief excerpts are from a book, “On Prayer,” published by St. Vladimir Seminary Press.  “On Prayer” contains writings by the Elder, and was originally published in Russian following Sophrony’s repose.)

Prayer as Communion and Life:

Through prayer we enter into communion with Him that was before all worlds.  Or, to put it in another way, the life of the Self-existing God flows into us through the channel of prayer…(p. 9).

Prayer assuredly revives in us the divine breath which God breathed into Adam’s nostrils and by virtue of which Adam “became a living soul.” (Genesis 2:7).  Our spirit, regenerated by prayer, begins to marvel at the sublime mystery of being.  The mind is filled with wonder…And we echo the Psalmist’s praise of the wondrous works of the Lord.  We apprehend the meaning of Christ’s words, “I am come that (men) might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10). (p. 10).

True prayer to the true God is contact with the Divine Spirit which prays in us.  The Spirit gives us to know God.  The Spirit draws our spirit to contemplation of eternity…(p. 12).

God Honors Man’s Freewill:

The life-giving Divine Spirit visits us when we continue humbly, open to Him.  He does not violate our freedom…He envelops us with His tender warmth. He approaches us so softly that at first, we may not notice Him. We must not expect God to force His way in, without our consent.  Far from it.  He respects man, submits to Him.  His love is humble – He loves us not condescendingly but tenderly, as a mother ached over her sick baby.  When we open our heart to Him we have an irresistible feeling that He is our “kin,” and the soul melts in worship. (p. 14).

God does not violate our freedom.  He will not force Himself into our heart if we are not disposed to open the door to Him.  “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock:  if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him.” (Rev. 3:20).  And the wider we open our hearts, the more abundantly does the Uncreated Light flood into our inner world. (p. 66).

Difficulty and Fluctuations in Prayer:

St. John Climacus (St. John of the Ladder) says that it is possible to familiarize oneself with every form of science, of art, and every profession, and practice it without any special effort.  But no one has ever been able to pray without toil – particularly if it is a case of the concentrated prayer of the mind in the heart…(p. 67).

Time after time we experience an eager upsurge towards God, followed repeatedly by a falling away from His Light…(p. 9).  The struggle for prayer is not an easy one.  The spirit fluctuates – sometimes prayer flows in us like a mighty river, sometimes the heart dries up.  But every reduction in our prayer-strength must be as brief as possible…(p. 12).

This world contains no source of energy for prayer. If I eat well, so that my body may be strong, my flesh will rebel against prayer. If I mortify the flesh by excessive fasting, for a while abstinence favors prayer, but soon the body grows faint and refuses to follow the spirit.  If I associate with good people, I may find moral satisfaction and acquire new psychological or intellectual experience, but only very rarely will I be stimulated to prayer, in depth.  If I have a talent for science or the arts, my success will give rise to vanity and I shall not be able to find the deep heart (Ps. 64:6), the place of spiritual prayer.  If I am materially well-off and busy wielding the power associated with riches or with satisfying my aesthetic or intellectual desire, my soul does not rise up to God as we know Him through Christ. If I renounce all that I have and go into the desert, even there the opposition of the cosmic energies will paralyze my prayer.  And so on, ad infinitum…(p. 11).

Like grace coming down from on High the act of prayer is too much for our earthly nature and so our mortal body, incapable of rising into the spiritual sphere, resists.  The intellect resists because it is incapable of containing infinity, is shaken by doubts and rejects everything that exceeds its understanding.  The social environment in which I live is antagonistic to prayer – it has (its own) organized life with other aims diametrically opposed to prayer:  hostile spirits cannot endure prayer.  But prayer alone can restore the created world from its fall, overcoming its stagnation and inertia, by means of a mighty effort of our spirit to follow Christ’s commandments. (p. 12).

Prayer for the Neighbor:

Christ’s love inspires compassionate prayer for all men – prayer in which soul and body take part together.  Grieving over the sins of one’s fellow (man) in prayer of this kind links us with the redeeming passion of the Lord…Our Heavenly Father “favors” us when we grieve over our brothers who stumble.  In the spirit of the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves we are bound to have pity one for one another; we must establish a kind of mutual responsibility to link us all together before the face of God our Creator. (p. 19).

Historic Visit to Azle, Texas by Archbishop Alexander of the Orthodox Church in America: Tuesday, Sept. 19

Pastoral Visit:

Archbishop ALEXANDERWe are pleased to announce that on Tuesday evening, September 19, His Eminence the Most Reverend Alexander, Archbishop of Dallas and the South, Orthodox Church in America, will make a pastoral visit to the new OCA Mission of Archangel Gabriel in Azle, Texas. The tentative schedule is as follows: 6:30 pm Greeting of the Archbishop; 7:00 pm Vespers followed by an open reception and meeting of His Eminence with mission members.

Archangel Gabriel is a sister mission to St. Barbara Orthodox Church in Ft. Worth. Members have been worshipping in a beautifully renovated rental space since the start of the year at 1157 S.E. Parkway (Jacksboro Highway). The chapel will comfortably hold over 60 people and there is plenty of parking in the evening and on weekends.

We invite interested people to join us for this historic first “official visit” of an Orthodox Hierarch to the city of Azle. Driving directions and contact information may be found on our Archangel Gabriel Mission page.

Further Information Concerning Archbishop Alexander:

(Much of the following may be found on oca.org). Elected by the Holy Synod of Bishops on Tuesday, March 26, 2016 at its Spring Session, Archbishop Alexander succeeds His Eminence, the late Archbishop Dmitri, as only the second ruling Bishop of the Diocese since its establishment in 1978.

“Bishop Alexander [Golitzin] was born in Burbank, CA in 1948 and was raised at Saint Innocent Church, Tarzana, CA. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of California at Berkeley and a Master of Divinity degree from Saint Vladimir’s Seminary. He spent seven years pursuing doctoral studies at Oxford University in England under His Eminence, Metropolitan Kallistos [Ware]. During this time, he also spent two years in Greece, including one year at Simonos Petras Monastery on Mount Athos.

“After receiving his D.Phil. in 1980, Bishop Alexander returned to the US. He was ordained to the diaconate in January 1982 and to the priesthood two years later. In 1986, he was tonsured to monastic orders. He served OCA missions in northern California and headed the Diocese of the West’s mission committee.

“In 1989, he accepted a position with the Theology Department at Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI, a position that he left at the end of April 2012. While teaching at Marquette, he had been attached to Saints Cyril and Methodius Church, Milwaukee, WI. For 22 years, he preached, taught and served at Saints Cyril and Methodius Church, and witnessed to the Gospel and to Orthodox Christian theology at Marquette University. He helped attract a dozen Orthodox Christian students to doctoral work in theology at Marquette.

“In June 2010, the Bulgarian Diocese initiated a search for a candidate to succeed His Eminence, Archbishop Kirill [Yonchev], who reposed in the Lord in 2007. In October 2011, the Holy Synod of Bishops elected Archimandrite Alexander as Bishop of Toledo and the Bulgarian Diocese. He was consecrated to the episcopacy as Bishop of Toledo and the Bulgarian Diocese during a Hierarchical Divine Liturgy at Saint George Cathedral, Rossford, OH on May 5, 2012… During the 2017 Spring Session of the Holy Synod, he was elevated to the rank of Archbishop.”

Christ’s Glory and the Glory to Which Man Is Called 


On Sunday, August 6, the Orthodox Church celebrates the Transfiguration of Christ. This key event of our Lord’s Ministry is recorded by the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke. All three describe the Transfiguration as taking place on a mountain, Mount Tabor by tradition. The mountain was a most appropriate setting since our Lord frequently went up onto a mountain to pray. St. Luke relates that the Transfiguration began with prayer:

“Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white.” (Luke 9: 28-29)

Within Christian tradition biblical ascents and encounters with God upon the mountains, or any efforts recorded in Scripture to follow the divine will, are often viewed allegorically (symbolically) as signs of man’s spiritual struggle, his movement toward the Creator. Mountains are further associated with divine revelation, God’s presence. We only need to remember Moses’ vision on Mount Horeb (or Sinai) of the burning bush, at which time he was called by God to free the Israelites, and the divine name was revealed, “I am Who I am…” We can also recall Moses receiving the Commandments on Mount Sinai, and Elijah’s encounter with God on Mount Horeb.

Liturgical hymns, as well as Old Testament readings appointed for the feast, recall these specific episodes from Exodus and 1 Kings. In the New Testament, however, on Tabor a greater experience is conferred, prefigured by prior events. So, whereas the Law was given to the Jews on tablets of stone, the chief disciples beheld the divinity of the One Who is the fulfillment of the Law and prophets. Whereas Moses received a written word and was told that he could not see the face of God, the Lord’s glory was revealed to the apostles in the face of the Living Word, Jesus of Nazareth. And whereas God was found in “the still, small voice” heard by Elijah, so His divine glory is found in those who are humble and still of heart, unassuming with regard to worldly glory, in imitation of the Incarnate, Transfigured Christ.

The exalted vision of Christ’s divinity on Tabor, indicating also the glory to which man is called; the connection between Tabor and God’s prior appearances to Moses and Elijah; and the Tabor experience as preparation for the apostles to behold the Lord’s crucifixion; these themes make up the focus of the Church’s worship on Transfiguration. As one example from Vespers:

He, Who of old, spoke through symbols to Moses on Mount Sinai saying: “I am Who I am,”
Was transfigured today upon Mount Tabor before the Disciples.
In His own Person He showed them the nature of mankind
Arrayed in the original beauty of the Image.
Calling Moses and Elijah to be witnesses of this surpassing grace,
He made them partakers of the gladness,
Foretelling His death on the Cross and His saving Resurrection.

(1st Aposticha verse)

The Evangelists indicate with one accord, that only Peter, James and John were privy to Christ’s glorious revelation. They were part of the inner circle of disciples. The fact that they were chosen to be witnesses of this sight teaches us – at least symbolically – that, “the privilege of contemplating God, and of entering into the joy of the Transfiguration is reserved for those who have followed the Master, long and faithfully…” (Anthony Bloom).

The writers of the Gospel describe the vision on the mountain as including Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah. The two Old Testament figures represent respectively the dead and the living of whom Christ is Lord, as well as the Law and prophets, of which Christ is the fulfillment. The fact that Moses and Elijah were witnesses to Christ’s Transfiguration influenced the Church’s use of readings from Exodus and 1 Kings.

On Tabor, the Father bore witness to His Son, and the Spirit was also revealed, indicated by the bright cloud overshadowing those present. Transfiguration therefore is looked upon as a great Theophany, similar to our Lord’s baptism, at which time the Holy Trinity was made manifest. The Transfiguration is a revelation of Christ’s glory as God, but as mentioned, a sign (a promise) of the glory for which man was created, and to which he is called through the Incarnate Lord.

And then, all three of the Synoptic Gospels tell us that immediately prior to the Transfiguration, Jesus said, “Verily, verily I say unto thee, that there are some standing here who will not taste of death until they see the Kingdom of God come with power.” Generally, the Church affirms that the Transfiguration is a fulfillment of that prophecy.

As the Church celebrates this event in Jesus’ life – marking its significance as both a revelation of divine glory, and of man’s destiny in Christ – Christians would do well to reflect upon the fact that Peter, James and John were prepared by our Lord for this experience. They were among the first of the chosen apostles; they were with Jesus from the beginning; they witnessed miracles and heard our Lord’s teachings; they saw how Jesus interacted and dealt with people; and in addition, they were familiar with the Law and the prophets.

All of that would have meant little, however, had they not been receptive to guidance and instruction. Their steadfast endurance led to the experience of greater realities, including the vision on Tabor. So it is with members of the Church. Orthodox Christians believe in a God Who at each moment is intimately involved with His creation, engaged in human affairs. It behooves each person to remember the tangible preparation for a higher way of life that Jesus gave to His disciples, and then to realize that He does the same with His followers in every generation. With each personal encounter, each situation, each moment of both faith and doubt, Christ is present strengthening and fashioning His people into recognizable icons of Himself.

More specifically the Church calls people to ascetic efforts as preparation for their own encounters with God experienced in daily life, as well as through prayer and the liturgical life of the Church. Striving toward inner purity (repentance) is requisite for those who desire to approach the Lord. Commenting on the Israelites drawing near to Mount Sinai (Exodus 19), and God’s insistence on preparation for such an approach, St. Gregory of Nyssa likens the Jews’ external efforts (i.e. sexual abstinence and the washing of clothes) to the need for a clean heart, a virtuous life on the part of those who desire to come close to God.

…The man who would approach the contemplation of truth must cleanse himself and remove all impurity from both soul and body, so as to be completely stainless and pure in both. Our exterior behavior must correspond to the inner state of our soul, that we might be pure for Him Who sees the interior. Hence by the divine command, before climbing the mountain we must wash our garments; and here clothing is a symbol for the external virtuousness of our lives…When this has been done…the soul begins its ascent to higher truth…

(From Glory to Glory, St. Vladimir Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY., 2001, pages 97, 98).

And finally, as St. Innocent of Alaska specifically taught – while distinguishing inner from outer Crosses – our Lord calls His disciples to bear everything with faith and love, as He Himself bore it all for the sins of the world. If Christians can affirm, if they can recognize the benefit of faithful endurance, indeed the glory of the Cross, then they will be worthy to see also the glory of Tabor, the light and life of the Kingdom of God.

Transfiguration: August 6

Christ’s Glory and the Glory to Which Man Is Called Fr. Basil Zebrun

On Sunday, August 6, the Orthodox Church celebrates the Transfiguration of Christ. This key event of our Lord’s Ministry is recorded by the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke. All three describe the Transfiguration as taking place on a mountain, Mount Tabor by tradition. The mountain was a most appropriate setting since our Lord frequently went up onto a mountain to pray. St. Luke relates that the Transfiguration began with prayer:

“Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white.” (Luke 9: 28-29)

Within Christian tradition biblical ascents and encounters with God upon the mountains, or any efforts recorded in Scripture to follow the divine will, are often viewed allegorically (symbolically) as signs of man’s spiritual struggle, his movement toward the Creator. Mountains are further associated with divine revelation, God’s presence. We only need to remember Moses’ vision on Mount Horeb (or Sinai) of the burning bush, at which time he was called by God to free the Israelites, and the divine name was revealed, “I am Who I am…” We can also recall Moses receiving the Commandments on Mount Sinai, and Elijah’s encounter with God on Mount Horeb.

Liturgical hymns, as well as Old Testament readings appointed for the feast, recall these specific episodes from Exodus and 1 Kings. In the New Testament, however, on Tabor a greater experience is conferred, prefigured by prior events. So, whereas the Law was given to the Jews on tablets of stone, the chief disciples beheld the divinity of the One Who is the fulfillment of the Law and prophets. Whereas Moses received a written word and was told that he could not see the face of God, the Lord’s glory was revealed to the apostles in the face of the Living Word, Jesus of Nazareth. And whereas God was found in “the still, small voice” heard by Elijah, so His divine glory is found in those who are humble and still of heart, unassuming with regard to worldly glory, in imitation of the Incarnate, Transfigured Christ.

The exalted vision of Christ’s divinity on Tabor, indicating also the glory to which man is called; the connection between Tabor and God’s prior appearances to Moses and Elijah; and the Tabor experience as preparation for the apostles to behold the Lord’s crucifixion; these themes make up the focus of the Church’s worship on Transfiguration. As one example from Vespers:

He, Who of old, spoke through symbols to Moses on Mount Sinai saying: “I am Who I am,” Was transfigured today upon Mount Tabor before the Disciples. In His own Person He showed them the nature of mankind Arrayed in the original beauty of the Image. Calling Moses and Elijah to be witnesses of this surpassing grace, He made them partakers of the gladness, Foretelling His death on the Cross and His saving Resurrection.

(1st Aposticha verse)

The Evangelists indicate with one accord, that only Peter, James and John were privy to Christ’s glorious revelation. They were part of the inner circle of disciples. The fact that they were chosen to be witnesses of this sight teaches us – at least symbolically – that, “the privilege of contemplating God, and of entering into the joy of the Transfiguration is reserved for those who have followed the Master, long and faithfully…” (Anthony Bloom).

The writers of the Gospel describe the vision on the mountain as including Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah. The two Old Testament figures represent respectively the dead and the living of whom Christ is Lord, as well as the Law and prophets, of which Christ is the fulfillment. The fact that Moses and Elijah were witnesses to Christ’s Transfiguration influenced the Church’s use of readings from Exodus and 1 Kings.

On Tabor, the Father bore witness to His Son, and the Spirit was also revealed, indicated by the bright cloud overshadowing those present. Transfiguration therefore is looked upon as a great Theophany, similar to our Lord’s baptism, at which time the Holy Trinity was made manifest. The Transfiguration is a revelation of Christ’s glory as God, but as mentioned, a sign (a promise) of the glory for which man was created, and to which he is called through the Incarnate Lord.

And then, all three of the Synoptic Gospels tell us that immediately prior to the Transfiguration, Jesus said, “Verily, verily I say unto thee, that there are some standing here who will not taste of death until they see the Kingdom of God come with power.” Generally, the Church affirms that the Transfiguration is a fulfillment of that prophecy.

As the Church celebrates this event in Jesus’ life – marking its significance as both a revelation of divine glory, and of man’s destiny in Christ – Christians would do well to reflect upon the fact that Peter, James and John were prepared by our Lord for this experience. They were among the first of the chosen apostles; they were with Jesus from the beginning; they witnessed miracles and heard our Lord’s teachings; they saw how Jesus interacted and dealt with people; and in addition, they were familiar with the Law and the prophets.

All of that would have meant little, however, had they not been receptive to guidance and instruction. Their steadfast endurance led to the experience of greater realities, including the vision on Tabor. So it is with members of the Church. Orthodox Christians believe in a God Who at each moment is intimately involved with His creation, engaged in human affairs. It behooves each person to remember the tangible preparation for a higher way of life that Jesus gave to His disciples, and then to realize that He does the same with His followers in every generation. With each personal encounter, each situation, each moment of both faith and doubt, Christ is present strengthening and fashioning His people into recognizable icons of Himself.

More specifically the Church calls people to ascetic efforts as preparation for their own encounters with God experienced in daily life, as well as through prayer and the liturgical life of the Church. Striving toward inner purity (repentance) is requisite for those who desire to approach the Lord. Commenting on the Israelites drawing near to Mount Sinai (Exodus 19), and God’s insistence on preparation for such an approach, St. Gregory of Nyssa likens the Jews’ external efforts (i.e. sexual abstinence and the washing of clothes) to the need for a clean heart, a virtuous life on the part of those who desire to come close to God.

…The man who would approach the contemplation of truth must cleanse himself and remove all impurity from both soul and body, so as to be completely stainless and pure in both. Our exterior behavior must correspond to the inner state of our soul, that we might be pure for Him Who sees the interior. Hence by the divine command, before climbing the mountain we must wash our garments; and here clothing is a symbol for the external virtuousness of our lives…When this has been done…the soul begins its ascent to higher truth…

(From Glory to Glory, St. Vladimir Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY., 2001, pages 97, 98).

And finally, as St. Innocent of Alaska specifically taught – while distinguishing inner from outer Crosses – our Lord calls His disciples to bear everything with faith and love, as He Himself bore it all for the sins of the world. If Christians can affirm, if they can recognize the benefit of faithful endurance, indeed the glory of the Cross, then they will be worthy to see also the glory of Tabor, the light and life of the Kingdom of God.

The Land of the Free

by Fr. Lawrence Farley From my happy home north of the forty-ninth parallel, I look southwards with appreciation for the American vision of freedom. The American national anthem says it well: its star-spangled flag waves over the land of the free and the home of the brave. Anyone that has labored under political tyranny, whether in Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, or other regimes that took draconian steps to curtail the freedom of its citizens, can easily appreciate the American vision as well.

Certainly all the disciples of Jesus Christ can appreciate and love freedom. In a sense, the Gospel is all about freedom—so much so that certain books about the life of St. Paul highlight this aspect of the Gospel. Books bearing the title, “Paul, Apostle of Liberty” (by Richard Longenecker), or “Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free” (by F.F. Bruce) testify to this centrality of freedom in the life of the Christian. St. Paul himself writes that this freedom is both the goal of the Christian life, and also the proof that the Spirit is at work. In Galatians 5:1 he says, “For freedom Christ has set us free”, and in 2 Cor. 3:17 he affirms, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Any preacher of this Gospel will cry out, “Let freedom ring!” The Church might even be described as “the land of the free.”

Freedom, however, is not simply a political reality. It is a spiritual one as well. Moreover, the spiritual aspect of freedom transcends and transforms the political aspect. Take, for example, St. Paul’s teaching about slavery in 1 Cor 7:20-22.  In this passage St. Paul urges his readers not to worry about the state they found themselves in when they were baptized—including the state of slavery. None of these external things mattered ultimately. If they were circumcised, that didn’t matter. If they were uncircumcised, that also didn’t matter. And if they were slaves (as many of them were), that didn’t matter either. Slavery, for St. Paul, was primarily a matter of the heart, a spiritual condition, and whether or not one was externally a slave was largely irrelevant to one’s spiritual progress and inner life. If one was externally a slave, one was still a freedman of the Lord. If one was externally free, one was still the slave of Christ. Concepts of external slavery or freedom thus had been radically relativized. What really and eternally mattered was whether or not was one a Christian—whether or not there was freedom in the inner heart. The outer condition would one day pass away. Only the internal condition would abide eternally.

This was not simply the approach of St. Paul. The apostle here simply echoed the teaching of his Lord. In John 8:31f, we read that Christ spoke to those who outwardly had become His disciples and who had given Him a hearing, and He told them that the truth would set them free. They took this very badly (perhaps because they were smarting under the Roman yoke, and yearned for liberty from such external slavery and tyranny), and they said, “We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in slavery to anyone.” Christ responded that they were indeed slaves even so. He said, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not continue in the house for ever; the son continues for ever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

Here we learn that true freedom depends ultimately not upon the political reality in which one finds oneself, but rather upon the state of one’s heart. Rome, or Nazi Germany, or Soviet Russia might oppress and enslave the body. If Christ has liberated us from the power of sin, we remain free nonetheless. The opposite is also true: if Christ has not liberated us from sin, then we remain slaves, whether or not we enjoy political freedom. True freedom therefore depends not upon one’s external condition, but upon the inner condition of the heart.

This truth presents a challenge to America, Canada, and to the political west, for it poses the question, “Are we truly free?” Enjoying unencumbered and free elections, enjoying the liberty to protest the decisions of one’s government, and enjoying the freedom of the Press to write according to conscience and desire, these are all good things. But they do not constitute the essence of freedom. True freedom is not political, but spiritual, and it consists first and foremost in freedom from the chains of sin. In many ways, we in the west are not free from these chains.

Consider the spiritual state of the west as a whole: we are the most affluent of nations, consuming far more per capita of the world’s resources than anyone else, and suggestions that we curb our rate of consumption often produce indignation—a clear sign that we are slaves to our appetites. The west consumes most of the pornography produced—a multi-million-dollar industry. At home, we slaughter our unborn at a horrific rate, and jealously guard this practice as if it were a human right. Drug addiction and the crime associated with it flourish and grow unchecked. Our streets are violent places, and this violence continues to escalate. Even our schools suffer violence, and children go there carrying weapons. The west might be the home of the brave, but as a culture we still wear the chains of sin, and chains are no less real for being invisible. As a culture, we have departed from God, and have found that this departure does not produce inner liberation but slavery.

This is hardly surprising, for only Jesus can give real freedom. Only Jesus can free us from bondage and guilt and the power of sin. Only Jesus can break the chains of addiction and selfishness. If those in America and the west remain bound by these fetters, they do not live in the land of free. True liberty only comes with the righteousness and the spiritual power bestowed by Christ. He alone makes us dwell in the land of the free. Let freedom ring. Let all people everywhere run to Christ our liberator. He alone can strike off our chains, and bestow the glorious liberty of the children of God.

 

(Fr. Lawrence Farley, converted to Orthodoxy in 1985 and then studied at St. Tikhon’s Seminary in South Canaan, Pennsylvania.  After ordination he traveled to Surrey, B.C. to begin a new mission under the OCA, St. Herman of Alaska Church.  Fr. Lawrence is the author of a number of books concerned with Orthodox Christianity and is a regular contributor to the OCA website.)

“All My Angels Praised Me!”

(The Bodiless Powers of Heaven according to Tradition)

by Archpriest Steven Kostoff

Recently, I was speaking with one of our parish’s Church School teachers about the nature of angels and how we convey this to our children. One of our first tasks, I believe, is to overcome the caricature that has developed over the centuries over the appearance and role of angels. (Do adults also need to be liberated from this same caricature?)

That caricature imagines angels to be puffy and fluffy “cherubs” that are basically rosy-cheeked floating babies. Cupid-like, they carry bows and arrows that appear harmless enough. They are often naked, but at times they appear to be covered in what can only be described as a celestial diaper. How these Hallmark card fantasies, based on Renaissance and Baroque-era deviations from the sacred and profound iconography of the earlier centuries both West and East, can be associated with the “Lord of Sabaoth” and the celestial hierarchy of angels that surround the throne of God with their unceasing chant of “Holy, Holy, Holy!” is something of an unfortunate mystery.

The Scriptures and the Holy Fathers only describe powerful celestial beings that serve God and fulfill His will for the well-being of the human race and our salvation. Angels are not eternal or immortal by nature. They are creatures, coming forth from the creative Word of God perfected by His Spirit. Saint Basil the Great teaches that angels were created before the visible world, based on Job 38:7 – “When the Stars were made, all my angels praised me with a loud voice.” These genderless beings are described by Saint Gregory the Theologian as “a second light, an effusion or participation in God, in the primal light.” And whenever a human being is visited by an angel and receives this heavenly messenger’s revelation, his or her first impulse is to bow down and worship this celestial visitor as a divine being! Warm and fuzzy feelings with any impulse toward cuddling and kissing are hardly implied in the biblical texts. Actually, our use of the term “angel” – based on the Greek angelos or “messenger”—is a generic term used to describe all of the many kinds of heavenly hosts described and named in the Scriptures. In fact, this celestial hierarchy, according to Saint Dionysios the Areopagite, is comprised of a triad of ranks, three angelic orders in each rank. The names are scriptural, but the triads have been conceived of by Saint Dionysios:

  • First Rank: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones
  • Second Rank: Authorities, Dominions, Powers
  • Third Rank: Principalities, Angels, Archangels

This structuring of the celestial hierarchy has had an enormous influence on the angelology of the Church.

Actually, Saint John Chrysostom tells us that even these names and “classes” do not exhaust the heavenly ranks of angelic beings. “There are innumerable other kinds and an unimaginable multitude of classes, for which no words can be adequate to express,” he writes. “From this we see that there are certain names which will be known then, but are now unknown.”

With his great ability to summarize and synthesize the Church’s living Tradition, Saint John of Damascus (+749) gives us this description of what an angel actually is in his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. “An angel, then, is a noetical essence, perpetually in motion, with a free will, incorporeal, subject to God, having obtained by grace an immortal nature. The Creator alone knows the form and limitation of its essence.”

I hope that even this very brief description of the true nature of the bodiless hosts of heaven – based on the Scriptures and the Fathers – will restore a genuine sense of awe and veneration before these incredible beings that only further amaze us with the creative power, energy and will of God.

(Father Steven Kostoff is the rector of Christ the Savior-Holy Spirit Church, Cincinnati, Ohio. He is also a member of the adjunct faculty of the theology department at Xavier University in Cincinnati, where he has taught various courses on Orthodox theology).

Let God Arise

Archpriest Daniel Kovalak

“If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14).

In God’s “strategic plan” for the life of the world and its salvation, He decisively intervened, in Person, “trampling down death by death.” In the radiant light of Jesus’ glorious resurrection, darkness is overcome, creation is renewed, disappointment and despair no longer have the final word, sorrow is turned to joy and death has lost its sting. There is hope for all because Our God lives!

In his youth, the popular Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis, boastfully declared his belief in no religion, saying they were all myths created by man. Years later, as he considered the implications of Christ’s resurrection, he experienced a heartfelt conversion. In a reflection entitled Surprised by Joy, he wrote, “No word in my vocabulary expressed deeper hatred than the word interference. But Christianity placed at the center what then seemed to me a ‘transcendental Interferer.’ There was no region even in the innermost depth of one’s soul which one could surround with a barbed wire fence and guard with a notice: ‘No Admittance.’ And that was what I wanted; some area, however small, of which I could say to all other beings, ‘This is my business and mine only.’”

Here, Lewis expresses the sentiments of many today which are seldom spoken.  We all want to feel independent, safe and secure in ourselves; to fence ourselves in and say to others and even to God, “Back off! Don’t bother me. Leave me alone.” Indeed, we have the right to say this.

But our crucified and risen Lord—the “Transcendental Interferer”—also has the right to step into our human situations, relationships, circumstances, schedules and plans to pursue us with His divine Love and persistent mercy. As He says to the self-satisfied Church of Laodicea, so He says to us: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (Revelations 3:20).

Are we willing to open the door and invite into every aspect of our lives Him Who is incessantly knocking, knowing full well His Almighty presence will “rock our worlds,” challenge our status quos, and interfere with our personal agendas?

After Our Lord raised His friend Lazarus from the dead, His critics posed a significant question to one other: “What shall we do, for this Man works many signs?” (John 11:47). This is a question with which every generation—indeed every soul—must wrestle. How do we welcome and respond to “this Man;” this “Transcendental Interferer?”

The early Church knew exactly what to do! Not only did they invite the Knocking Christ to fully enter and transform their personal lives, but as the new “Body of Christ,” they proceeded to preach, teach and invite all to do likewise. And their enthusiastic and resolute conviction bore amazing fruit; the Lord multiplied the believers and added to the Church, daily. So persuasive and convincing was the testimony and living witness of the apostles that they were accused of “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

This is the faith we must each rediscover and apply to our busy lives and troubled times—the Paschal faith that rolls away the stones from our self-imposed tombs and shouts with David, “Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered.” This is the faith that responds eagerly and joyously to the incessant knocking of the Transcendental Interferer and opens the door to His Divine Love and persistent mercy.

By His abundant and amazing grace, the Risen Lord is still knocking. He stands ready to fill us with faith, light, hope, forgiveness, mercy and love—to interfere in our lives in wonderful and extraordinary ways—if we but open the door!

“Blessed be the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ! By His great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (1 Peter 1:3-4).

(Archpriest Daniel is rector of Holy Cross Church, Williamsport, PA, a Missionary, an Instructor at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Seminary, and a frequent contributor to many publications).

The Symphony of Lent

Archpriest Daniel Kovalak

Having had the opportunity to sing an operetta with the local symphony orchestra, it’s remarkable to me how wonderfully our Orthodox liturgical progression from Pre-Lent to Lent to Holy Week to Pascha not only presents “the greatest story ever told,” but also resembles the performance of a musical masterpiece.

I recall how at one rehearsal the conductor, abruptly bringing all to full stop, angrily tapped his baton, stomped his foot and shouted, “You’re not following me! The score says lentando!”  Lentando means “to make slow;” slowing down the music’s tempo to create a reflective, contemplative, even solemn mood.  This is especially employed in operas to build and enhance the personality and disposition of characters and to give the audience glimpses into their respective life struggles and inner conflicts that will be brought to bear as the story unfolds.

That’s pretty much “lent,” isn’t it?!  Time to slow down, to adjust the tempo of our daily lives from the hectic pace that consumes us to a more contemplative one that incites inner reflection and self-awareness. It’s a time to earnestly reflect on our character: what makes us tick, what lifts us up and what drags us down.  The mood created by our extra services, their somberness and solemnity, complemented by the readings, hymns, movements, commemorations and participation in confession reveal our desperate need for some serious “lentando” in our lives.

Lentando, however, is not stagnant but dynamic. It lays a foundation upon which to build, paving the way for something to come. In musical terms, it’s normally followed by a variation of “andante calmo,” literally “walking calmly.”  Having manifested traits of the characters by slowing to a reasonable, manageable tempo, the piece now assumes and maintains a pace that allows the story to unfold.

The early weeks of Lent likewise assume we have hit our stride, that our pre-lenten instruction has adequately prepared us to adopt a certain rhythm, especially of prayer and fasting. And whereas Forgiveness Sunday Vespers directs us to “begin the fast with joy,” our now “walking calmly” includes “allegretto” as well—a tinge of joyfulness.

By the third week of Lent, when the precious Cross of Our Lord is planted in our midst, our musical score is marked “poco a poco accelerando”—to accelerate, to pick up the pace little by little, not just for the thrill of speed but because our desired destination is slowly coming into view.

When the music accelerates, it’s taking you somewhere; there’s a “crescendo”—a “growing”—to emphasize an imminent crucial point of the story it seeks to tell. Crescendo is a movement toward a point that prepares the audience to experience and embrace the climax of the story, with voices and orchestra collectively manifesting their individual talents at optimal levels to “bring the story home.” Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus, only to call him to come forth after four days represents, at least to me, a great crescendo!

Each day of Holy Week represents “a symphony within the symphony.”  Like acts of a play, each building upon the one before, they’d be musically-marked “presto;” literally meaning “very fast,” but more appropriately “ready.”  Everything to this point of the symphony has been preparing the audience not merely to passively observe, but “enter into” the story’s summit.  All the variations in tempo, dynamics and mood; the array of sounds produced by combinations of instruments and voices; the musicians fully offering themselves in sacrificial service to achieve the desired end-result—all resources have been brought to bear and now stand ready to deliver “the message;” to the experience of its zenith.

There are many musical terms to be considered in reference to Great and Holy Pascha. My choice would be “vivace”—“vivacious”—joyously unrestrained, enthusiastic, exuberant, lively! That’s a pretty good word to describe our celebration of the glorious resurrection of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! If after progressing through the various stages, movements and elements of the score you arrive at the end and cannot muster some serious “vivace” at the proclamation of “Christ is Risen,” you just haven’t been listening at all.

The world continues its insanity at a frantic pace, with no storyline, truth, morality or particular destination in mind.  So many threatening and horrific events occurring these days are merely the latest, tragic reminders of the frailty and fallenness of the world.  But the symphony of Lent draws us into the premier masterpiece of God’s mission “for the life of the world and its salvation.”

(Archpriest Daniel is rector of Holy Cross Church, Williamsport, PA.)

 

The Lenten Observance

Archbishop Dmitri On Sunday, January 29, Orthodox Christians entered a four-week season of Pre-Lent, to prepare themselves for a spiritually rewarding time of year:  the Great Fast.  In anticipation, we offer the following article from His Eminence Archbishop Dmitri.  The Great Fast begins this year on Sunday evening, February 26.

In the not too distant past, a minister of one of the denominations was quoted as saying:  "Almost no one in my Church observes Lent in the traditional way any longer.  The people simply cannot find a place for fasting and self-denial in their current lifestyles. They are, however, attracted by the idea of a period of intensive sharing and helping others.  This is what we are concentrating on in our Church nowadays.  After all, isn't that what Lent is all about?"

It is unfortunately true that what this minister says reflects a very popular attitude.  There is just no place for Lent in the contemporary way of life, so some Churches have seen fit to adapt themselves to the "realities of modern life," skip the "empty ritual observances," and "make the spring preparation for Easter more meaningful" to their people.  These platitudes dominate many discussions of the purpose of Lent.

Still more unfortunate is the acceptance (sometimes without realizing it) by not a few American Orthodox of these notions.  Perhaps in a country like ours where certain religious and semi-religious ideas fill the air, it is natural for people who do not think things through to be carried along by the trends.  This is especially true when what is offered is less demanding.

No one will question the fact that the Orthodox Christian Lenten observance is difficult.  What is prescribed requires almost a super-human effort -- the dietary changes, the cessation of entertainments, the constant call to self-examination, the reminders of our need to turn away from this world and set our sight on God's Kingdom, the injunction to forgive and love even our enemies.  It has little appeal to a society in which self-indulgence is no longer a sinful departure from God's will for man, but a philosophy of life.  Orthodox people are inescapably members of such a society, and being Orthodox not just in name, but conscientiously, is really a deliberate rejection of most of what that society offers.

What is missing from so many discussions of Lent and what is of primary importance in the Orthodox concept, is the idea of repentance.  In fact, the underlying idea of the Great Fast is exactly that, and the ritual observance is nothing more than a sign of it.  By the way, the term Great Fast is still a better name for the period than Lent.  We use the latter term, however, for ease of discussion, for fear that many of our own people would not know what we are talking about if we used the other one.

Actually, by rejecting traditional Lenten disciplines, what society and some of its obedient churches and churchmen are implicitly rejecting is the very idea of repentance, because repentance means a change of mind, of direction, of one's way of life, of values.  These changes which must come from the heart, arise from a conviction that one does not live as God would have him live.  They would not appeal to a self-satisfied and basically self-righteous society.  And a society which is convinced that it is good and has no sin to be sorry for is just that, self-righteous.

The radical change of diet that is called for,  is a sign of a radical change of lifestyle to which the Christian Faith calls us, even if it means running the risk of being 'odd' to those we work and associate with.  The increase in church attendance (during Lent) is an indication of the Christian's longing to be with God, in His house, and with His people.  The sharing with and the helping of others, an enormously important part of the observance, is not just a response to some humanitarian concerns, but a response to Christ's new commandment to love one another.  All of these characteristics of the Fast are intimately bound together and interdependent.  A mere outward observance of these things without the change of heart that they signify, is useless.

The Church is calling her faithful people once again to the observance of the Great Fast.  Nothing has changed.  Even if someone, moved by a false feeling of compassion for the people, should try to 'lighten the load' and make it easier by reducing the requirements, he is fooling himself and those who follow him. The ideal is still the same -- in this world in which we live -- being in it, yet not of it, as the Lord has characterized His followers.  We shall be invited to come back to God, overcome all obstacles so that the One we see is Jesus, to overcome self-righteousness, to repent of our sins against God and against our fellow man, and to make our lives models of self-giving, sharing, and forgiveness.