Monday, October 26, 2009
Full participation to receive the fullness of Christ
Just know, that before reading, the parts in boldface are preface. They have no direct bearing to my theme.
I've been living in Kansas City now for almost a month. It has been a period of transition and very humbling. I am, of course, most grateful for my parents agreeing to help me through this difficult time, but I am still disconnected. I spend most of my time at the house where I grew up doing chores like trying to find some employment for the 2010 school year, staying on top of some bills that I have still to pay, but I really spend most of my time doing a lot of reading and research in my field which I haven't been able to do for the past five years. It's been refreshing. However, one thing that has been getting to me is the loss of my home parish, St. Mary in Omaha. I was able to go up there last weekend for the church's ethnic dinner which I agreed to help with long before my sojourn back here to KC. So, I went there for the weekend and it was good to be home. It was good to be present at all the services of the Church, to chant at the chanter's stand. I was home once again.
Here in Kansas City, I've been trying to acclimate myself to the local parish here, St. Basil the Great. It is in the Antiochian archdiocese and they have just completed the exterior of the temple. They have to finish the iconostasis and landscaping as well as some roofing but it's amazing what they have done. THe parish mainly consists of converts but there are some ethnic Arabs and one or two Russians. No Greeks, though, which is disappointing. I've started chanting with them because that's what I do, but it's been hard since these chanters are relatively new and don't have a full grasp of the Byzantine ethos and music, which is fine, since neither do I. But they have developed some really bad habits (harmonizing the ison, not knowing when to chant sticharically as opposed to troparically, etc.) and with time, they will get better. I'm doing my best not to correct them on the spot since I'm only going to be here for a short time, God willing.
But what has really taken me by surprise, and for the good, I think, is the priest of St. Basil, Fr. Elias Issa. Fr. Elias, despite being an Arab, actually has an interesting journey. Born into Orthodoxy, he later apostacized and became an Evangelical. But then he found his way back and with the same zealousness that a lot of cradle orthodox ascribe to converts. This weekend, after Liturgy, he had some announcements to make and I was absolutely floored by what he said. It's not controversial,but in perfect line with Orthodox belief and praxis. But, I know that if Fr. Don, my priest at St. Mary had said this, people would have grumbled and moaned, walked out, even would have cursed at him for saying such a thing. So, what did Fr. Elias say?
He said that parishioners should not present themselves for communion unless they have availed themselves of the full cycle of services and kept not only the communion fast, but also the fasts of Wednesday and Friday. Now, in some jurisdictions, such as ROCOR, that's par for the course. But to talk like that in an Antiochian parish, you will automatically be branded as a hardcore legalist and shunned! No matter, he is absolutely right.
Too many Orthodox think that you should come only to Liturgy on Sundays. Even during Lent! Now does that mean these people will not be saved? Of course not since that is ultimately left up to God. But why wouldn't you take advantage of every opportunity to grow spiritually? These same people who insist that the preparation Fr. Elias expected of them before receiving the Eucharist is legalistic are behaving just as legalistic, thinking that attending the Liturgy is a requirement for their salvation and also that such is the least that they can/should do. Unfortunately, though, the number of people who come to Vespers and/or Orthros is few. The number of people who fast on Wednesday and Friday are few as well. Bodily and spiritual preparation aren't necessary, they will insist. After all God saves by grace doesn't he? Such is a specious argument and it is an argument that I expect to get from Protestants not cradle or convert Orthodox. This just shows you how poorly catechized so many people in the Orthodox world, even in the American Orthodox world, are.
As Americans, we have this sense of rights and entitlement. If a priest were to say to a communicant that he should not receive the Eucharist, what are the chances that the would-be communicant would say that he/she is entitled to it? Pretty good, though I should not make a blanket statement. But, here in the US, we think we're entitled to housing, social security, drug coverage, etc. so it's not so unpredictable that our belief in political entitlements should also be extended to what we think we are spiritually entitled to.
Before communing, in the Great Horologion and also in the HTM prayer book, there are some didactic verses to be read before the actual communion prayers that Orthodox should take to heart. They read:
When thou, O Man, are about to eat the Master's Body,
Draw nigh with fear, lest thou be seared: It is fire.
And as one is in the line to receive the Body and Blood, he should pray these words of Symeon the Translator:
Behold, I approach Divine Communion;
O Maker, burn me not as I partake,
For Fire art Thou which burneth the unworthy.
But purify Thou me of every stain.
Tremble, O man, as thou beholdest the deifying Blood,
For it is a burning coal consuming the unworthy.
The Body of God both deifieth and nourisheth me;
It deifieth the spirit and wondrously nourisheth the mind.
The Body and Blood of our Lord is fire. When Isaiah beheld the Seraphim and received the communion in the form of the hot coal, he realized that and could only say: "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Sabaoth, Heaven and Earth are filled with Thy Glory." We, of course, say those words in the Anaphora of the Liturgy calling to mind the dread awe of our Lord as Isaiah himself beheld it.
If the Lord's Body and Blood is fire, then how else can we be prepared to not be burned unless through prayer and fasting, cleansing ourselves spiritually so that there is no kindling of the passions left in us to burn? Of course, not everyone can do that, no matter how hard he gives himself over to such spiritual discipline. But with no preparation at all, with no humbling of oneself, with no effort, why partake in the first place? We pray in the pre-communion prayers that God "account me worthy to receive without condemnation Thy divine, glorious, immaculate and life-creating Mysteries, not unto punishment, nor unto an increase in sins, but unto purification and sanctification and as an earnest of the life and kingdom to come, as a rampart and help, and for the overturning of adversaries, and for the blotting out of my transgressions" [The Sixth Prayer of St. John the Damascene, HTM Horologion, p. 800]. Other prayers of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great have similar thoughts.
Preparation takes time. We never, ever, just enter into the presence of God. We don't just walk into a church and say, "I'm in God's presence." It takes time for that to happen. Why? Because we are sinful creatures. For those who want to radically shorten the service, get in and out in 45 minutes, if that, they are ignorant of this very fact.
Now, how is Fr. Elias going to enforce this? Is he going to have a checklist of everyone present for Vespers on Saturday night and Orthros on Sunday morning? Is he going to call people at home on Wednesdays and Fridays and ask about their menus? I'm sure not. People will probably continue to do what they have done simply because change is difficult, even when the truth is presented clearly to them and because it will take extra time from them doing what they want to do. But Fr. Elias does have a responsibility in this. When my godfather, Fr. Aaron Warwick was ordained a priest and celebrating the Liturgy, Bishop BASIL put into his hads, the lamb that was to be consecrated and Aaron was told, on no uncertain terms, that when he comes before the dread Judgment Seat of Christ, he will have to make answer to Christ the Judge that he did not commune the unworthy or in any way defile the sacrament. Now, I don't know about him, but if I were being ordained and if I were told exactly that, I'm sure my hands would tremble to the point that I would drop the lamb right then and there, overcome with fear of our Lord. So, when Fr. Elias said these words, and it was his third warning according to how he prefaced his comments, he was not enforcing some arcane law; he was doing what he was ORDAINED to do.
The Holy Mysteries are incomprehensible to us. They cannot fit neatly into any prearranged category nor adapted to fit a brand new one. Aristotle says that everthing known is knowable. Not for the Christian. The Christian faith (and I'm not talking about the creed or beliefs, but the actual workings of faith) is one that is revealed. If you were to strip Christianity, basic mere Christianity, of what has been revealed, all you would have left is a residue that would be no more than morality with a tincture of theism.
How does such faith come about, asks our Lord? He answers: By prayer and fasting. Now, everyone must do according to his giftings and his inherent abilities. I'm not saying, nor any Orthodox for that matter, that sick people should refrain from food and drink to receive the sacrament. But without the effort, what is to be gained? We are not puppets.
We must prepare. We must avail ourselves of the opportunities given us. Can we make every Vespers? No. I know I haven't been able to. But when we start to look upon the Eucharist as something we are entitled to instead of fire which consumes the unworthy, the threat of which can start to vanish with our prayers and fasting, then why shouldn't we do it? The legalists' answer of "I don't want to" is sheer ego.