Thanksgiving and Ascetical Thinking

Every week in Orthodox churches in which the Divine Liturgy is celebrated, we give thanks to God.  Eucharist – the word we use to refer to Communion – is the Greek work for thanksgiving.  Every Liturgy is thus a thanksgiving service.  That is the primary purpose of the Liturgy – it is how we Christians give thanks to God.  We assemble together exactly for the purpose of celebrating our thanksgiving, every week, not just once each year.  For us Orthodox thanksgiving is really a way of life, not a holiday we do one day in November.  Our country’s thanksgiving holiday is just another chance for us to give thanks to God.

A eucharistic ethos means, above all, using natural resources with thankfulness, offering them back to God. Such an attitude is incompatible with wastefulness. Similarly, fasting and other ascetic practices make us recognize even the simplest of foods and other creature comforts as gifts, provided to satisfy our needs. They are not ours to abuse and waste just so long as we can pay for them.

We worship as a community, not as individuals; so a liturgical ethos is also one of sharing. Long before the earth was seen as a whole from space, the Church knew that we stand before God together, and that we hold in common the earthly blessings that He has given to mankind and all creatures. “Not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs,” Saint John Chrysostom reminds us.

This principle, applied to the whole range of natural resources, is particularly relevant because the global environment is squeezed on two sides: by the over-consumption, greed and waste of the affluent, and by the pressing needs of the poor, often forced to deplete the land around them for the sake of food or fuel in short term. (Dr. Elizabeth Theokritoff, “‘Thine Own of Thine Own’ Orthodoxy and Ecology,” Orthodoxy and Ecology Resource Book, p. 15)

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Why Bother to Thank God?

“Let us now ask ourselves why God seeks men’s thanks. Why did He seek of Noah, Moses, Abraham and other of our forefathers that they offer Him sacrifices of thanksgiving (Genesis 8:20-21; 12:7-8; 35:1; Leviticus Ch. 3)?

Why did the Lord Jesus every day give an example to the world of how we must give thanks to God (Matthew 11:25; 14:19; 26:26-7)? Why did the apostles do the same (Acts 2:47; 27:35), commanding all the faithful to give thanks to God in and for all things (Ephesians 5:20; Colossians 3:17)?  Do we find great Isaiah’s words incomprehensible: “I will mention the lovingkindness of the Lord, and the praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord hath bestowed on us, and the great goodness” (Isaiah 63:7)? Or what the gentle Psalmist advises his own soul: “Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits” (Psalm 102/103:2)? Why, then, does God seek men’s thanks? It is out of His endless love for mankind that God seeks that men give Him thanks. The thanks of men will not make God greater, more powerful, more glorious, richer or more alive, but they will make men all of those things.

Man’s gratitude will not add anything to God’s peace and contentment, but it will add greatly to man’s. Thanksgiving to God will in no way change God’s state and being, but it will change these in a grateful man. God has no need of our gratitude, nor are our prayers necessary to Him. But is this same Lord who said: “Your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.” (Matthew 6:8) who at the same time recommended that men ought always to pray, and not to faint (Luke 18:1). God may not feel the need of our prayers, but He nevertheless demands it of us – the thanksgiving that is nothing other than a form of prayer – a prayer of thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving to God raises us mortals out of the corruption of mortality, releases us from that from which we must all at some time be released, whether we will or not, and binds us to God the living and immortal; if we are not bound to Him in this life, then we shall never be in His presence in eternity. Thanksgiving ennobles the thankful and nourishes good works. Thanksgiving inspires benevolence in the world and gives freshness to every virtue.” (St Nikolai Velimirovic, Homilies, p. 300)

Eating the Body of Christ

St. Nicholas Cabasilas was a great liturgical theologian and sacramental thinker of the 14th Century.  He explains to us the difference between daily bread and the Bread of Life.

“Man lives because of food, but not in the same way in this sacred rite. Since natural food is not itself living it does not of itself infuse life into us…But the Bread of Life is himself living, and through him those to whom he imparts himself truly live.

While natural food is changed into him who feeds on it… here it is entirely opposite. The Bread of Life himself changes him who feeds on him and transforms and assimilates him into himself.” (Jean-Claude Larchet, Theology of the Body, p. 54).

Jesus taught: “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.”  (John 6:48-58)

A Prayer of St. John Chrysostom

O Lord, my God, I know that I am not worthy that You should enter into my soul’s habitation because it is desolate and in ruins. You will find no fitting place therein to lay Your head. But as from on high You humbled Yourself and came to us, so now submit to the measure of my lowliness. As You consented to lie in a manger, consent now to come into the manger of my soul and body. As You did not scorn to enter and to dine with sinners in the house of Simon the leper, scorn not to enter into the house of my humble soul, although I, too, am a sinner and leper.

As You did not cast out the sinful woman, a harlot, when she approached to touch You, so have also compassion on me, a sinner, as I approach to touch You. Lord and Master, let the burning fire of Your holy Body and precious Blood be unto me for cleansing, enlightenment and strengthening of my soul and body; for relief of the burden of my many transgressions, protection from all diabolical influence, restraint of my sinful habits and the putting to death.

(My Orthodox Prayer Book, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Kindle Location 1086-1094)

 

The Sweetness of the Sun and the Eucharist

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“The soul climbs up unceasingly.  And the further up it goes, the higher it longs to go.  The ascent kindles its desire, and the food of the Divine Eucharist increases its hunger for mystical contemplation.  St Symeon the New Theologian, who looked upon the beauty of the uncreated light and was nourished on the food of incorruption, uses a unique image:

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‘I do not know which give me greater delight, the sight and enjoyment of the purity of the rays of the Sun, or the drinking and the taste of the wine in my mouth.

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I want to say the latter [the taste of the wine], and yet the former [the rays of the sun] attracts me and seems sweeter.  And when I turn to them, then I enjoy still more the sweetness of the taste of the wine.  So the sight [of the rays] does not lead to satiety, nor can I have enough of drinking [that wine].

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For when it seems that I have drunk my fill, then the beauty of the rays sent forth makes me thirst greatly, and again I find myself hungry and thirsty.'”  (Hiermonk Gregorios, THE DIVINE LITURGY, pp 221-222)

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Naming Every Living Creature

“So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field…”  (Genesis 2:19-20)

“And yet man was created for this possession, he was called to it when in paradise God appointed him king of creation, invested him with the authority to give names to “every living creature,” i.e., to know them from within, in their deepest essence.  And thus the knowledge that is restored by this thanksgiving is not knowledge about the world, but of the world, for this thanksgiving is knowledge of God, and by the same token apprehension of the world as God’s world.

It is knowing not only that everything in the world has its cause in God – which, in the end, “knowledge about the world” is also capable of – but also that everything in the world and the world itself is a gift of God’s love, a revelation by God of his very self, summoning us in everything to know God, through everything to be in communion with him, to possess everything as life in him. … and again we witness to the world as a new creation, recreated as the ‘paradise of delight,’ in which everything created by God is called to become our partaking of the divine love, of the divine life.”  (Alexander Schmemann, THE EUCHARIST, p 177)

Pleiades Star Cluster

Today science continues to name created things in this world –  we name new elements, new bacteria and viruses, new species, dinosaurs and other extinct animals, as well as stars and even cosmic events.  We continue to do what God commanded humans to do from the beginning, to name things as a way of understanding and knowing them.  And, thus for those who believe, even science continues to be a means for us to give thanks and glory to God.

Eucharist Means Communion

“As Metropolitan John Zizioulas has recently written:

It is not by accident that the Church has given to the Eucharist the name of ‘communion.’ For in the Eucharist we can find all the dimensions of communion: God communicates himself to us, we enter into communion with him, the participants of the sacrament enter into communion with one another, and creation as a whole enters through man into communion with God. All this takes place in Christ and the Spirit, who brings the last days into history and offers to the world a foretaste of the Kingdom (The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology, p. 181).

Christ is With Us Always

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“I am you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28.20). So it is, Master: Thou art with us throughout all days; we are not a single day without Thee, and we cannot live without Thy presence near us! Thou art with us especially in the Sacrament of Thy Body and Blood. O, how truly and essentially art Thou present in the Holy Mysteries! Thou our Lord in every liturgy takest upon Thyself a vile body similar to ours in every respect save that of sin, and feedest us with Thy life-giving flesh. Through the Sacrament Thou art wholly with us, and Thy Flesh is united to our flesh, whilst Thy Spirit is united to our soul; and we feel this life-giving, most peaceful, most sweet union, we feel that by joining ourselves to Thee in the Holy Eucharist we become one spirit with Thee as it is said: “He that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit.” (St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, pp. 23)

The Holy Eucharist: In Remembrance of Christ

The Holy Eucharist is given by the Lord “in remembrance of me(1 Cor. 11:25). First of all, in sensu realissimo, the Eucharist is the power of the Incarnation, the realized and abiding Divine-humanity, including all the faithful: “we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread” (10:17). The Divine Eucharist is the abiding of Christ in the world, His connection with the world, despite the ascension: “I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20) by the Holy Spirit, sent by Him into the world from the Father: “and I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever…I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you” (John 14:16, 18).  

Communion with the body and blood is therefore not yet all that the Eucharist signifies as the divine “It is finished” (John 19:30), as the sacrificial and abiding Incarnation. It is the sacrament of sacraments, the foundation of all the sacraments, and its accomplishing power is the Pentecost, the coming into the world of the Holy Spirit, who “shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you“ (14:26). “In remembrance of me [anamnesin]” and “to bring…to your remembrance [hypomnesei]” are closely connected, which is expressed in the fact that the “breaking of the bread” appears in the life of the Church only after the Pentecost, as the accomplishment of Divine humanity.

Thus, originally, in the apostolic age, the Divine Eucharist as the basis of all the sacraments was exclusively that which it is as the realization of the body of the Church as the body of Christ. Its essential character was not hierarchical but koinonic. That is, its character was one of sobornost, but this character was replaced as early as the second century by hierarchism, which, of course, did not completely eliminate it, but was capable of obscuring it. How this happened has to be explained by church history.” (Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, pp. 286-287).

The Eucharist: Historical and Divine

“The eucharistic body is that of the historical Jesus as well as that of the risen Christ. It is the body of the child in the crib, the body that endured the suffering on the cross – for bread is ‘broken’, the blood ‘poured out’ – the body that is risen and glorified. The term ‘body’ covers the whole human nature. For God’s human nature since the resurrection and the ascension encompasses the world and secretly transfigures it. However, Jesus’s historical body, while allowing itself in the foolishness of love to be contained in a point of space and a brief moment of time, in reality already contained space and time in itself. For it was not the body of a fallen individual, crushing human nature in order to take possession of it. It was the body of a divine Person assuming that nature, with the whole universe, in order to offer them up. Incarnate, the Logos remained the subject of the logoi, the spiritual essences, of all created beings.

At the same time God-made-man had to accept into himself all our finiteness, our whole condition of separation and death, in order to fill it with his light.

It is this deified humanity, this deified creation, this transfigured bread and wine, this body bathed in glory yet bearing for ever the wounds of the Passion, that the Eucharist communicates to us.” (Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism: Texts from the Patristic Era with Commentary, pp. 108-109)