The Prayer of Manasseh

This is the 5th post in this blog series meditating on Psalm 51.  The previous post is David the Image of Repentance.

The 51st Psalm presents us with a particular vision of repentance which I believe is reflected in the Liturgy of the Orthodox Church.  This understanding of repentance does not demand that we think of ourselves as vile, worthless worms wallowing in the mire.   Nor does it envision us as being angels in the flesh.  Rather it views us as being human – created in God’s image and likeness, created to have dominion over creation, created to be united to divinity and share in the divine love and life.  We are created to be the temple in which God dwells on earth.   Yet, we also have free will which means we are not automatons who are programmed to do what God wants.  Rather, we have to choose to do God’s will if we want.  We are conscious beings who can realize our willful disobedience to God as well as our mistakes.

Psalm 51 as a prayer of repentance shows us to acknowledge our sins and errors, to “man up” as it were and own our behavior, admitting to God when we are wrong.  We have the example in Adam and Eve of what not to do when we sin (Genesis 3).   For they failed to admit to their wrong doing and tried to place blame outside of themselves.   King David, on the other hand, shows himself to be every bit the sinner that Adam was, yet he places himself before God, the merciful judge, and trusts himself to whatever God decides.   David does not despair, deny God or his sinfulness, engage in self-pity, think everything is inconsequential, become nihilistic, or spiral out of control.   Instead, David despite his personal failings continues to recognize the Lordship of God.  David sees his own behavior as of limited value and consequence, still occurring within the confines of God’s universe.  So though he is God’s chosen king, he recognizes his choices are not always right and he still has to answer to the Lord.  Repentance consists of understanding this right relationship with God, with creation and the rest of humanity.  Repentance is a course correction, right-sizing, recalculation, re-evaluation, self-examination in which one recognizefs God’s rightful lordship and one’s own servant role even if one is emperor.  In praying Psalm 51, we are recognizing our need for God to be God and to do everything in our life that we need God to do for us to be rightfully human.

There is another prayer of repentance in Orthodoxy that is similar in content and structure to Psalm 51 which can be found in many Orthodox prayer books and in the compline service.   It is a prayer of repentance of the King of Judah Manasseh mentioned in 2 Chronicles 33 which describes an incident in the 7th Century BC.  “During his distress, Manasseh made peace with the Lord his God, truly submitting himself to the God of his ancestors.  He prayed, and God was moved by his request. God listened to Manasseh’s prayer and restored him to his rule in Jerusalem. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was the true God” (vs 12-13).  As with King David’s sin and Psalm 51, repentance for Manasseh yields a restored and right relationship with God.  The focus is not on Manasseh’s remorse and regret but on his submitting to the Lordship of God.  However, scholars think the prayer itself comes from the 2nd Century BC since it is not found in the ancient Jewish texts.   The prayer begins:

Lord Almighty, God of our ancestors, God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their righteous children, you made heaven and earth with all their beauty.  You set limits for the sea by speaking your command.  You closed the bottomless pit, and sealed it by your powerful and glorious name.  All things fear you and tremble in your presence, because no one can endure the brightness of your glory.  No one can resist the fury of your threat against sinners. But your promised mercies are beyond measure and imagination, because you are the highest, Lord, kind, patient, and merciful, and you feel sorry over human troubles.  You, Lord, according to your gentle grace, promised forgiveness to those who are sorry for their sins.  In your great mercy, you allowed sinners to turn from their sins and find salvation.

As with many Orthodox liturgical prayers, the opening of Manasseh’s prayer speaks only of God and all that God has done or is doing.  The purpose of this opening is to establish the Lordship of God – it tells us to whom we are praying and why we recognize this God as our Lord.  Then the prayer continues:

Therefore, Lord, God of those who do what is right, you didn’t offer Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who didn’t sin against you, a chance to change their hearts and lives.  But you offer me, the sinner, the chance to change my heart and life, because my sins outnumbered the grains of sand by the sea.  My sins are many, Lord; they are many. I am not worthy to look up, to gaze into heaven because of my many sins.  Now, Lord, I suffer justly. I deserve the troubles I encounter. Already I’m caught in a trap.   I’m held down by iron chains so that I can’t lift up my head because of my sins.  There’s no relief for me, because I made you angry, doing wrong in front of your face, setting up false gods and committing offenses.

Manasseh’s prayer, more than Psalm 51, accepts the notion that “I” being a sinner am unworthy of my title of being human.  It acknowledges that sin is very powerful in this world, and that “I” have not resisted its power.   This prayer more openly accepts that since God is the Lord, “I” deserve judgment and all that is happening around me is related to or effected by my sin.  Whereas Psalm 51 only speaks of the mercy of God, Manasseh sees God’s anger and accepts it as a just reaction to his behavior.

 Now I bow down before you from deep within my heart, begging for your kindness.  I have sinned, Lord, I have sinned, and I know the laws I’ve broken.
I’m praying, begging you:
Forgive me, Lord, forgive me. Don’t destroy me along with my sins. Don’t keep my bad deeds in your memory forever. Don’t sentence me to the earth’s depths, for you, Lord, are the God of those who turn from their sins.  In me you’ll show how kind you are.  Although I’m not worthy, you’ll save me according to your great mercy.  I will praise you continuously all the days of my life, because all of heaven’s forces praise you, and the glory is yours forever and always. Amen.

The conclusion of Manasseh’s prayer is more in line with Psalm 51, though expressing things more in the negative.  Manasseh tells God what he needs God to do: forgive me, don’t destroy me (but do destroy my sins!), don’t remember my sins forever, don’t condemn me.  Manasseh has hope that God will show kindness and save him.  His response, like David’s, will be to praise God.  Repentance leads to praise not just to self-denigration.  If one repents one spends the remaining time of one’s life giving glory and praise to God.  Repentance leads us to the Liturgy where we give thanks to God and praise God for all the blessings God’s bestows upon us.  This is true repentance – not remorse and regret, but thanksgiving and praise of God.

St. Maximos the Confessor expresses this same truth:

 “Every genuine confession humbles the soul. When it takes the form of thanksgiving, it teaches the soul that it has been delivered by the grace of God. When it takes the form of self-accusation, it teaches the soul that it is guilty of crimes through its own deliberate indolence.  Confession takes two forms. According to the one, we give thanks for blessings received; according to the other, we bring to light and examine what we have done wrong. We use the term confession both for the grateful appreciation of the blessings we have received through divine favor, and for the admission of the evil actions of which we are guilty. Both forms produce humility. For he who thanks God for blessings and he who examines himself for his offences are both humbled. The first judges himself unworthy of what he has been given; the second implores forgiveness for his sins.”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 18272-80)

Next:  What does God Ask of Us?

Repentance: Telling God What to Do

42177591130_2aaca87ebdThis is the second post in his blog series exploring Psalm 51.  The first post is Repentance: Being Washed By God.

In Orthodoxy when we think about repentance, probably the Psalm that comes most to mind is Psalm 51, which is prayed in many of our services, especially those with a penitential theme.  When we think about repentance, we think about the things that are required of us – to change, metanoia, compunction, conscience, morality, tears, confessing sins, judging one’s self, contrition, self-reproach, remorse, self-denial, bearing the fruit of repentance, returning to the father, begging mercy, self-blame, self-examination, humbling one’s self, promising never to repeat the sin.

Yet when we read Psalm 51, we see repentance in a different way, for this Psalm, like many Orthodox prayers, is not about us, but about God.   Most of Psalm 51 tells God what to do rather than focusing on what I am now going to do to show that I have truly repented.   We are indeed telling God what to do – and specifically what we need God to do for us.  Theophan Whitfield says in the Jewish Masoretic Text of Psalm 51, “it is possible to find further evidence that the psalmist is not simply pleading for mercy, he is actually arguing for mercy.”    (“Hearing Psalm 51: Masoretic Hebrew vs. LXX Greek”, FESTSCHRIFT IN HONOR OF PROFESSOR PAUL NADIM TARAZI, p 43)

As the prayer “Lord, have mercy” is a command to God, not woefully and helplessly begging a reprieve from an abusive tyrant, but rather telling God what to do for us, so too Psalm 51 is our giving direction to God as to the things we need from God.  As other Orthodox writers have noted, we spend a lot of time in our prayers and liturgical services telling God to be God:  Be Yourself, God!   You are love, You are merciful, You are forgiving, You are kind, You are tenderhearted, You are compassionate.  So be Yourself and do divine love, mercy, kindness, forgiveness, and compassion for us.  In Psalm 51 we acknowledge we need God to be God and we are telling God to be God because we are suffering in this world -the world of the Fall in which we are alienated from God often by circumstances not of our making and/or under God’s judgment for things we actually did and/or because we have forgotten God or disobeyed God whether knowingly or because of ignorance.

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When we understand this nature of Psalm 51, we come to understand how it reflects the prayers of the Liturgy and how the Liturgy really is praying this Psalm.  The Liturgy is our experience of the Kingdom of God – on earth as it is in heaven.  It is our experience of being the lost sheep hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd and following Him.  As such, it is the Good Shepherd who does the things necessary to restore us to God’s flock – He is the one who seeks us, forgives us, heals us, cleanses us, teaches us, wipes away our tears, and brings us to our heavenly Father interceding for us that we might be forever in God’s presence.

In Psalm 51, “I” tell God to:

Have mercy on me
blot out my transgressions.  Wash me 
cleanse me from my sin!
teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop
wash me thoroughly from my iniquity
Fill me with joy and gladness;
let the bones which you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart
put a new and right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence
take not your holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
uphold me with a willing spirit.
Deliver me from blood-guiltiness,
open my lips
Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem

39062344981_6d64786e1bThe way the Psalm is written I don’t ask God to do these things for me, I tell God to do these things for me.

What is listed above is all the things we tell God to do in this one Psalm which is supposedly about repentance.  It is not God who is repenting, but it is God who does all the work of the Good Shepherd to bring the lost sheep safely home, to heal the wounds, and to wipe away our sins.  We are commanding God to do all the things necessary for our salvation.  The same imperative attitude is found in the Divine Liturgy where in our prayers we repeatedly tell God what to do for us.  Just pay attention at any divine liturgy, especially to the priestly prayers and see how many things we tell God to do for us.

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Conversely, just think about “me” in this Psalm –  Have mercy on me, wash me, cleanse me, teach me, purge me, fill me, create in me, put a new and right spirit within me, cast me not, take not your holy Spirit from me, restore to me, uphold me, deliver me.  Quite the laundry list we give to God!  And “me” turns out to be the subject upon which God acts.   In this Psalm, repentance means submitting oneself to God’s saving actions.  Repentance is not so much something I do, but more is my commanding God what to and, therefore,  accepting what God does both to and  for me to restore me, make me whole and safely bring me back to the flock.  In the words of St John the Forerunner, “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30).  That is the real nature of repentance – not everything I must do, but realizing how much I need from God to correct me.  Psalm 51 is my agreeing to submit myself to everything God does by God’s own nature.  God has a lot of work to do to make us into the human beings He wants us to be.

Repentance as is turns out is not so much what I do for myself, but my inviting God into my life, allowing God to be Lord in my life.  What does God want to do with me?  Remove all obstacles to salvation, restore me to the right relationship with God, and to unite Himself to me, to fulfill what God intends for humanity in the incarnation:  God becomes human so that we humans might become god.  It is only in this exchange that we become fully human.  Psalm 51 really is the pot telling the Potter, “You created us humans in your image and likeness, but I have distorted and misshapen that image, so now resume your artistry and craft me into the beautiful and good creation which you intended every human being to be.”

Next: Psalm 51: What Do “I” Do?

Worthily Partaking of Communion

St. Cyril of Alexandria  considers what the Lord Jesus teaches us in John 6:56 – “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”  He writes:

6219061154_d4264b409d_mNow if we really yearn for eternal life, if we long to have the provider of immortality within ourselves, let us not abstain from the Eucharist like some of the more negligent, nor let us provide the devil in the depths of his cunning with a trap and a snare for us in the form of a pernicious kind of reverence. “Yes, indeed,” someone might say, “But it is written, ‘Any one who eats of the bread and drinks of the cup unworthily, eats and drinks judgment upon himself’ [1 Cor 11:29]. I have examined myself and I see that I am not worthy.” But then when will you be worthy? . . . Make up your mind, then, to lead a more devout life in conformity with the law, and so partake of the Eucharist in the conviction that it dispels not only death but even the diseases that are in us [1 Cor 11:30].”  (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 4998-5003)

Fr Vassilios Papavassiliou comments:

Cassian JohnAs St. John Cassian put it, and which is a good note to end on, We must not avoid communion because we deem ourselves to be sinful. We must approach it more often for the healing of the soul and the purification of the spirit, but with such humility and faith that considering ourselves unworthy … we should more greatly desire the medicine of our wounds. Otherwise it is impossible to receive communion once a year, as certain people do … considering the sanctification of heavenly Mysteries as available only to saints. It is better to think that by giving us grace, the sacrament makes us pure and holy. Such people manifest more pride than humility … for when they receive, they think themselves as worthy. It is much better if, in humility of heart, knowing that we are never worthy of the Holy Mysteries we would receive them every Sunday for the healing of our diseases, rather than, blinded by pride, think that after one year we become worthy of receiving them.”   (Journey to the Kingdom: An Insider’s Look at the Liturgy, Kindle Loc. 854-62)

The Eucharist: Power to Make Divine

Writing in the 2nd Century, St Justin Martyr (d. 165AD) describes the Liturgy with which he was familiar.  We can see in his description of the Liturgy common elements with how the Liturgy is still being celebrated today in the Orthodox Church.  He also emphasizes at the beginning that in the Liturgy the Christians are praying for everyone in the world, not just for Christians.  Christianity saw itself as a light to the world, not a light for Christians only.  They were the salt of the earth, not to be kept isolated and pure in a salt shaker, but being part of the world – the entirety of which Christ came to save.

We pray in common, for ourselves and for everyone…to attain to the knowledge of truth and grace…to keep the commandments…When the prayers are over we give one another the kiss of peace. Next, bread and a cup of wine mixed with water are brought to the president of the assembly of the brethren. He takes them, praises and glorifies the Father of the universe in the name of the Son and the Holy Spirit, then he utters a long eucharistic prayer as a thanksgiving for having been judged worthy of these blessings.

When he has finished the intercessions and the eucharistic prayer all the people present exclaim Amen. Amen is the Hebrew word meaning “So be it”. When the president has finished the thanksgiving and all the people have responded, the ministers whom we call deacons distribute the consecrated bread and wine to all who are present and they take some to those who are absent.

(from Olivier Clement’s The Roots of Christian Mysticism, p. 107)

Holy Communion and the Forgiveness of Sins

“It is important to realize how significant this was for Jesus and his contemporaries. For the oriental, table-fellowship was a guarantee of peace, trust, brotherhood; it meant in a very real sense a sharing of one’s life. Thus, table-fellowship with tax collectors and sinners was Jesus’ way of proclaiming God’s salvation and assurance of forgiveness, even for those debarred from the cult. This was why his religious contemporaries were scandalized by the freedom of Jesus’ associations (Mark 2.16; Luke 15.2) – the pious could have table-fellowship only with the righteous.

But Jesus’ table-fellowship was marked by openness, not by exclusiveness. That is to say, Jesus’ fellowship meals were invitations to grace, not cultic rituals for an inner group which marked them off from their fellows …”

(James G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, p. 176-177)

There is no Christian: There are Christians

Cyprian appropriately commented:

‘Before all things the teacher of peace and the master of unity would not have prayer to be made singly and individually, as for one who prays to pray for himself alone. For we say not “My Father, which art in heaven,” nor “Give me this day my daily bread,” nor does each one ask that only his own debt should be forgiven him; nor does he request for himself alone that he may not be led into temptation, and delivered from evil. Our prayer is public and common; and when we pray, we pray not for one, but for the whole people, because we the whole people are one.’ 

...Prayer is not efficacious unless the members of the community are reconciled to each other. One thinks in this connection of Matt. 5:21-26, where the religious act of sacrifice is to be put off until one is reconciled to a brother or sister. The “kiss of peace” in the traditional liturgies, a sign of reconciliation preceding communion, has been a traditional expression of this idea that religious acts without concord with others are done in vain (cf. Cyril of Jerusalem). One recalls Didache 14.2: ‘But let not anyone having a dispute with a fellow be allowed to join you (in the assembly) until they are reconciled, so that your sacrifice not be defiled.’”

(from Dale C. Allision, The Sermon on the Mount, p. 118)

The Liturgy: Another Love One Another

Bill interjected, “I don’t go to church to relate with others, I go to receive the sacrament. Receiving Christ feeds my prayer life, makes me feel closer to him. It helps me to keep up my devotions throughout the week.”

“I think part of the reason you say this, Bill, is that you’re missing a crucial dimension of what the eucharist is about,” Father answered. “The Liturgy is not a ‘me and Jesus’ phenomenon. The eucharist ushers in the kingdom of God and makes us its citizens. Here we willingly enter into a relationship with God and with each other through the command of Christ and his mediation. This transcends and supersedes every separation and division – a challenge for us all, for Christ says, ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ Isn’t it remarkable that we come mostly truly who we are by giving ourselves entirely to others! That’s the only way we can become most fully ourselves. The sacraments feed our union and make it visible in the assembly where we partake of them.

Many of us still don’t understand that this worship is more than just ‘me and Jesus’; after all, no one can ‘muster up’ the eucharist alone; it’s interpersonal, ‘we together’ who are shown how expansive the mystery of Christ is. Again, it’s beyond anything we could achieve alone.”

(The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, p. 233)

The World and I

For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.   (Ephesians 6:12)

For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.   (2 Corinthians 10:3-6)

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The Gospels as well as the entire Bible gives recognition at times to a spiritual warfare of cosmic dimensions which is ongoing within the created universe.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became incarnate and entered into the world exactly to engage in this warfare on our behalf.  Oftentimes in our daily lives we are not aware of the ongoing spiritual warfare, though some people, monks for example are consciously engaged in the warfare on a daily basis.

That Christ came into the world to enter into the fray on our behalf is obvious in today’s Gospel lesson:

And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?”

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Now a herd of many swine was feeding at some distance from them. And the demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of swine.” And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the swine; and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and perished in the waters. The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, and what had happened to the demoniacs. And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood.  And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city.  (Matthew 8:28-9:1)

The Gospel lesson shows Christ active in the world, not enthroned in the comfort and safety of heaven, and not just piously praying in the temple.  It is a lesson about Christ engaging evil face to face in a desolate place where most humans have decided not to go.  Christ is God’s presence and power in the world casting out the forces of Satan from the lives of two rather unsavory men.

Whether we think in these terms or not, we ourselves come to church in order to personally experience that presence of the Kingdom in our lives, to commit ourselves to the Kingdom of God and to show our own rejection of all that is evil.  Our presence at the Liturgy is not withdrawal from the world, nor fleeing the real presence of evil in the world, but rather adding ourselves to the spiritual war against Satan.  Throughout the Liturgy we are praying for and about the world and all that is in the world.    We unite ourselves to Christ in order to defeat Satan in our own lives so that we can be what Christ expects of us:

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men. You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:13-14)

In the Gospel, it is obvious that Christ does not just talk to those who are holy, sinless, without problems.  He engages everyone in the world, even those possessed by Satan.

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Compared to life in Biblical times, we have many modern advantages that help relieve suffering, pain and sickness.  The medical progress and social welfare  we experience are a direct result of Christian efforts to help the needy and to relieve suffering.  The impetus was the mercy and care that Christianity advocated for the poor and needy.  It was the Christians who established hospices and hospitals and famine relief and care for orphans and widows throughout the Roman Empire.  That was the seed for the development of medical science and social concern for those in need.   This was a real response to the evil they could see everywhere and which most people simply tried to avoid.

War of the Worlds 2It is interesting that science fiction often portrays the earth being invaded by an alien army which attempts to destroy life on earth or tries to turn everyone into inhuman possessions of the aliens.  Science fiction really is just borrowing the narrative of the Gospel.  Science fiction turns Satan into an alien invader, but the story is the same.  The world is at risk and we need to repel the invasion.  The Scriptures tell us the alien invader is Satan  and Christ came into the world to drive back this alien invasion and to overcome the spreading corruption of the Evil One.  That is what Christ does in the Gospels, and whether we see it or not, it is what we are doing in the Church through the exorcism at Baptism and in our becoming the Body of Christ.

Throughout the Gospel Christ is present in the world seeking lost sheep, injured lambs, the sick and the possessed.  Christ freely went even to places and people who had forsaken God.    We attend the Liturgy to make Christ present in our lives, because we agree and believe that there is real evil in the world and we want it defeated.  We unite ourselves to Christ to expel evil from our lives.  We receive the Body and Blood of Christ to strengthen ourselves in the spiritual warfare so that we can go back into the world to defeat evil and witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  We accept the risk of what spiritual warfare means – including martyrdom.   Our task is not simply to come to the church to receive Christ and be united to Him.  Our task is to go back into the world to get Christ out of the Church and into the entire world, to claim our lives for God and be God’s servants daily so that evil is crushed because we are oriented to God.  We don’t need to orient ourselves toward evil to defeat it, we defeat evil by completing orienting our lives, our hearts and minds to God.  If we keep our eyes and hearts on Christ, Satan and evil are automatically defeated.

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The Liturgy in the Church orients our lives toward the Kingdom of God, it helps us always keep our face toward God.  In the Liturgy we are always facing in one direction toward God, with our backs toward Satan because we have left evil behind us.  That is the symbolism of the Liturgy and why we stand and orient ourselves this way in the Liturgy rather than sitting around in circle with the altar at our center.

Our spiritual struggle is not just against our personal sins and passions, it is part of the cosmic warfare against Satan and all evil powers.    This is why it is so difficult to overcome our personal sins and failings.  Our struggle within ourselves immediately puts us into the conflict with Satan and his forces.  When you desire to stop any sin or passion within yourself, lust, greed, anger, lying, etc, you are at once engaged in the spiritual warfare which is raging through the entire world. One difficulty in overcoming our sins, temptations and passions is we are not prepared to engage in the full spiritual warfare against Satan, and we fail to think of ourselves as part of the world or part of a greater whole.  We tend to see our self as isolated and in a lonely struggle and that we just have personal problems, but the reality is we really are part of a bigger war.  Christ came into the world to take on Himself the sin of the world, to directly confront and defeat Satan.  But we have to keep ourselves united to Christ to benefit from His power.  We keep ourselves united to Christ in the Communion of the Saints, in the Church, through confession, communion , prayer, the Liturgy, bible study, in practicing charity and forgiveness.  We learn to love in and through community and that keeps us in the Body of Christ.

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How do we keep Satan from influencing our lives?    A willingness to listen to God’s Word, listening to God’s word, heartfelt prayer, a devout fear of God, true Christian love for God and for one another, a desire to serve God, humility, self-denial, seeking truth, doing God’s will as revealed in the Gospel commandments.

Visions of the Liturgy: Old (Testament) and New (Children)

But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”  (Luke 18:16-17)

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 18:3)

While Jesus taught that we have to become like a child to enter the Kingdom of God, through history theological reflection tended not to see the Kingdom from a child’s point of view.  Theology made ideas of the Kingdom ever more complex.  Even the Liturgy which is to reflect the Kingdom was not understood from the point of view of the child but became increasingly complex with layers of meaning that no child could even see let alone understand.  The Liturgy seems not to have been developed with the child in mind, and today many people do not appreciate children in the Liturgy because they are noisy, distracting, disruptive while they want an experience free of childlike behavior.   And yet we cannot enter that Kingdom unless we become like a child for the Kingdom and the Liturgy which reflects it are not the constructs of theologians, scholars, mystics and the highly educated experts, but are the revelation of and from God for those who can be children.

The late great liturgical scholar Robert Taft summarized the Orthodox Liturgy this way:

“In the cosmic or hierarchical scheme, church and ritual are an image of the present age of the Church, in which divine grace is mediated to those in the world (nave) from the divine abode (sanctuary) and its heavenly worship (the liturgy enacted there), which in turn images forth its future consummation (eschatological), when we shall enter that abode in Glory.  Symeon of Thessalonika (d. 1429), last of the classic Byzantine mystagogues, has synthesized this vision in chapter 131 of his treatise ON THE HOLY TEMPLE:

The church, is the house of God, is an image of the whole world, for God is every where and above everything.   .  .  .  The sanctuary is a symbol of the higher and super-celestial spheres, where the throne of God and his dwelling place are said to be.  it is this throne which the altar represents. … The bishop represents Christ, the church [nave] represents the visible world.  .  .  .

I mention the apostles with the angels, bishops and priests, because there is only one Church, above and below, since God came down and lived among us, doing  what he was sent to do on our behalf.  And it is a work which is one, as is our Lord’s sacrifice, communion, and contemplation.  And it is carried out both above and here below, but with this difference: above it is done without any veils or symbols, butt here it is accomplished through symbols. . . .

In the economic on anamnetic scheme, the sanctuary with its altar is at once: the Holy of Holies of the tabernacle decreed by Moses; the Cenacle of the Last Supper; Golgotha of the crucifixion; and the Holy Sepulchre of the resurrection, from which the sacred gifts of the Risen Lord — His Word and His body and blood — issue forth to illumine the sin-darkened world.     . . .

In the iconography and liturgy of the church, this twofold vision assumes visible and dynamic form.  From the central dome the image of the Pantocrator dominates the whole scheme, giving unity to the hierarchical and economic themes.  The movement of the hierarchical theme is vertical: ascending from the present, worshiping community assembled in the nave, up through the ranks of the saints, prophets, patriarchs, and apostles, to the Lord in the heavens attended by the angelic choirs.  The economic or ‘salvation-history’ system, extending outwards and upwards from the sanctuary, is united both artistically and theologically with the hierarchical. ”  (THE BYZANTINE RITE: A SHORT HISTORY, pp 69-70)

The Liturgy and the Church are about ranks of bishops, apostles, angels, priests, saints, prophets and patriarchs.   What is missing?  Children.  We cannot enter the Kingdom without them or without being one of them.   We don’t have to have a seminary degree to understand the Liturgy.  We need the eyes of a child.  If the received Tradition forgets that, it has forgotten a key to the Kingdom.  We can do the Liturgy perfectly rubrically correct, according to the Typikon, with every ritual required.   We still need to have the heart of a child to enter the Kingdom.

It also is interesting that the received Tradition turned to and returned to the Old Testament for its liturgical meaning, rites and symbols rather than exploring themes suggested by the Gospel.   In the Old Testament, we understand, everything was in shadows and symbols:  “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities…”  (Hebrews 10:1)   Christ came and revealed the Light opening Paradise to us, opening our hearts and minds and eyes to see clearly no longer in shadows: “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”  (Matthew 4:16)   But now according to Taft’s description it is the nave of the church and the non-clergy who live in the world of symbols (the shadowy world of the Old Testament!).  It is all that the Church permits for the non-clergy.    Behind the icon wall, reserved for the clergy is the Kingdom opened.  The Gospel, however, proclaims that we no longer sit in darkness or in shadows for the Light has come.   There is another effect of this return to the shadows of the Old Testament – the hierarchy serves to further distance the Savior from the people He saved!  It is moving away from Christ who ended all of the dividing walls and opened Paradise to all.

For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.  (Ephesians 2:14-22)

Let Us Lift Up Our Hearts

“But let us return to Psalm 24. ‘To you, oh Lord,’ it says, ‘I lift up my soul; in you, my God, I put my trust.’ Truly, the rest of this psalm, concerned entirely with prayerful trust, may be read simply as commentary on the first verse.

At each service of the Divine Liturgy, going back at least the Apostolic tradition of Saint Hippolytus near the beginning of the third century, when the priest commences the central Eucharistic benediction (corresponding to the Hebrew berakah), he turns to the congregation to exhort them to intensify their prayer: ‘Let let us lift up our hearts!’ (Ano skomen tas kardias is the lovely Greek original.) In the ancient Latin version, this exhortation becomes more succinct: Sursum corda, Hearts up!” A congregation of elevated hearts is the proper context for that great act known simply as ‘The Thanksgiving,’ Eucharistia (the priest’s next line being ‘Let us give thanks to the Lord our God!’).”

(Patrick Henry Reardon, Christ in the Psalms, p. 47)

The lifting up of the hearts is reminiscent of Christ’s words in John 3:3 in which He says we must be “born from above” to see the Kingdom of God.  Although in English this text is often translated “born again“, the Greek uses a root word that is the same in John 3:3 as in the hearts being up.  Literally the Greek text in the Liturgy does not have the word “lift” in it at all, but more simply says:  “let us have the hearts on high.”  In other words, let our hearts be born with this heavenly birth which Christ taught.  The English Bibles, probably under the influence of Protestantism, change the text to speak more about a one time “conversion” (born again) by the Holy Spirit whereas in Orthodoxy it is a constantly renewed life, living not just for this world, but embracing the heavenly/spiritual life in this world in the Church as the hoped for pattern throughout our daily lives.  Our hearts are being transfigured and transformed by the Holy Spirit into being one in and with the Body of Christ.  This transformation in Christ by the Holy Spirit of our hearts is also the ongoing work of the spiritual life outside of the Liturgy.

So in Orthodoxy, a starets, one whose life is visibly transformed by Christ becomes the spiritual father to his disciples.  “In the words of Igor Smolitsch, the great warm heart of a starets revives the shrunken, frozen hearts of those who flock to him; his perfected will reforms and sustains the imperfect wills of those who place themselves under his guidance”  (Iulia De Beausobre, from Russian Letters of Spiritual Direction, p. 7).  The upward call to our hearts is an ongoing transformation that we experience throughout our lives.  In the Liturgy we are reminded that this is to be our daily experience of life itself.