The Significance of Vespers

“…the recovery by the Church of the true spirit and meaning of the liturgy, as an all-embracing vision of life, including heaven and earth, time and eternity, spirit and matter and as the power of that vision to transform our lives… For, as we have seen, the only real justification of the parish as organization is precisely to make the liturgy, the cult of the Church as complete, as Orthodox, as adequate as possible, and it is the liturgy, therefore, that is the basic criterion of the only real “success” of the parish.

Let the Saturday service – this unique weekly celebration of Christ’s resurrection, this essential “source” of our Christian understanding of time and life, be served week after week in an empty church – then at least the various secular “expressions” and “leaders” of the parish: committees, commissions and boards, may become aware of the simple fact that their claim: “we work for the Church” is an empty claim, for if the “Church” for which they work is not primarily a praying and worshiping Church it is not “church”, whatever their work, effort and enthusiasm. Is it not indeed a tragic paradox: we build ever greater and richer and more beautiful churches and we pray less and less in them?…

All conversations about people being “busy” and “having no time” are no excuses. People were always busy, people always worked, and in the past they were, in fact, much busier and had more obstacles to overcome in order to come to Church. In the last analysis it all depends where the treasure of man is – for there will be his heart. The only difference between the present and the past is – and I have repeated this many times – that in the past a man knew that he had to make an effort, and that today he expects from the Church an effort to adjust herself to him and his “possibilities.”

(Fr. Alexander Schmemann, “Problems of Orthodoxy in the World,” St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, 1965, pp. 188-189)

Let us Lift Up Our Hearts

Let us lift up our hearts.

We lift them up unto the Lord.

(From the Divine Liturgy)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem writing in the 4th Century describes a portion of the Divine Liturgy which is basically the same as we Orthodox are still doing today.

After the priest cries out, “Lift up your hearts.”

For truly that awe-filled hour it is necessary to have our hearts up toward the Lord, and not below with regard to the earth and earthly activities. For this reason the priest exhorts you with authority in that hour to leave behind all everyday cares and household worries and to have your hearts in heaven with the God who is the lover of humanity. Next, you answer, “We have lifted them to the Lord,” having made by this your agreement with him according to what you confessed. But let not such a one enter who with the mouth says, “We have lifted them up to the Lord,” but whose thoughts in the mind are focused on everyday cares. Always, then, keep God in mind! But if, on account of human weakness, you are not able to do this, try to do it especially in that hour. (Lectures on the Christian Sacraments, p. 123)

Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim … now lay aside all earthly cares as we receive the King of All who comes invisibly upborne by the angelic hosts.  (Cherubimic Hymn of the Divine Liturgy)

Prayer: Standing in God’s Presence

The Gospel lesson for the 4th Sunday of Great Lent, Mark 9:17-31, should be a message of hope for many of us.

Often, in the face of tragedy or problems, we feel hopeless, wringing our hands and worriedly asking, “what went wrong?”  and “What should I do?” or “why me?”

We see the disciples in this condition in the Gospel lesson.  A man brought his sick child to the disciples and asked them to heal his son.  But try as they might, the disciples were not able to heal the boy.  Jesus had given the disciples the power to exorcise demons (Mark 3:15), and they had had some success (Mark 6:7-13), but in this case they failed.   Later, away from the prying ears of the crowd, they privately ask Jesus to explain to them why they couldn’t heal the boy but Jesus was able.

Jesus tells them fasting and prayer are the activities needed to remedy the situation.   But note Jesus does not tell them it was their lack of faith that led to their failure.    Rather Jesus reminds them how to consciously stand in God’s presence – through prayer and fasting.

The disciples had in fact on another occasion requested that Jesus teach them to pray (Luke 11:1-4).  Jesus complied to their request and taught them the Lord’s prayer.

The disciples didn’t ever ask – “teach us to do miracles” – nor did they ask “teach us how to pray so that we get everything we want”  NOR even “teach us how to pray so prayer works for us.”

Prayer always puts us in God’s presence.   And being in God’s presence it turns out is the goal of the spiritual life.  The goal is not getting all our prayers answered – we are not trying to turn God into our personal so that He delivers to our doorstep everything we request.

Prayer puts us into God’s presence, and makes God present to us, which makes union with God possible.   We are not just asking for gifts, we are asking to be with the giver of life.   St. Paul says:   “I seek not what is yours but you”  (2 Corinthians 12:14).  That precisely should be our attitude toward God – don’t seek what He can give you, seek God the giver of every good and perfect gift.

There are plenty of things in our lives that come between us and God – our worries, our problems, our temptations, our disbeliefs, our selfishness, our lusts – all of these personal demons.

Prayer and fasting cut through all of those things and put us back in the presence of God.  The goal is to be not only mindful of God but united to God.  We can only begin that journey by prayer and fasting.   We have to lay aside all earthly cares and truly believe that the most important thing is to be in God’s presence.  And that is true whether things are going good or bad, whether we are in a time of prosperity or poverty, whether experiencing a blessing or a curse.   Being in God’s presence is the goal no matter what else is going on around us.  Even if it is the moment of  our death, if we are in God’s presence, we are where we need to be.

Remember Satan does not tremble because the church has wonderful fellowship hours, or at church dinners, nor at church fund raisers, nor at church schedules.

But Satan is crushed by humble, heart felt prayer – by our standing in God’s presence, by our submitting our lives to God’s will.

As we move into these last two weeks of Great Lent, make Christ Jesus the center of your life so that you always follow Him and you keep Him near you.

One last thing to remember, in ancient Israel, King Hezekiah when he launched his reforms to restore proper religion told the Levites:  “My sons, do not now be negligent, for the LORD has chosen you to stand in his presence, to minister to him, and to be his ministers and burn incense to him.”   (2 Chronicles 29:11)

The task the priests of Israel were chosen for was to stand in God’s presence!  Now we come to the New Testament where the priesthood has been expanded to all believers.  The Apostle Peter tells us:

Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  (1 Peter 2:4-5)

Now it is the task of each of us and all of us – not just the priests – to stand in God’s presence and to offer spiritual sacrifices.   We all are to “liturgize” together to the glory of God.  We are to make God present in every moment of our lives.

The Purpose of the Liturgy

“This gets more to the heart of things,” said Father. “What does each of us do? Only we can answer that for ourselves. Doesn’t Christ say, ‘Where your treasure is, there also is your heart’? If you remain passive or a spectator, you never experience the inspiration and challenge of liturgy. You remain locked within yourself. You rate the liturgy like a TV show and grade it on the basis of how it entertains–without it ever entering your mind that the purpose of liturgy is not entertainment.”

Father’s voice grew passionate. “Liturgy truly is ‘work’ in the sense that it requires us to move outside ourselves, to prepare, study, attend, sing, and listen together in faith and love. When liturgy is celebrated correctly and with care by everyone involved, its beauty and majesty does nourish and inspire us. These become the very vehicles that enable us to meet the mystery of God, giving us the strength to live life well and deal creatively with its problems. Only then does this ‘work’ bring us to Christ. Let’s face it: Liturgy is also about energy and belief, life and death. It’s not about comfort, amusement, entertainment, and distraction. Christian liturgy is about dying, leaving behind the old self and becoming a new person, so that we may life more fully, more abundantly.”

(The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, pp. 227-228)

The Liturgy of Theology

Archimandrite Aimilianos said in a talk:

“In speaking of the Holy Apostles and the Fathers of the Church, we return to the story of creation, for the Holy Fathers are true images of God.  All that they said and did was according to the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26).

And they celebrate the liturgy of theology in the company of all creation, for together with them

the heavens declare the glory of God (Ps 18:1);

Hubble Telescope Photo
Hubble Telescope Photo

the rivers lift up their voices (Ps 92:4);

Ohio River at Cincinnati

the mountains rejoice (Ps 97:8) and skip like lambs at the presence of the Lord (Ps 113:6).

Deeps calls unto deep (Ps 42:7) and

night proclaims knowledge to night (Ps 18:3);

San Francisco

the morning stars sing together and shout for joy (Job 38:7),

indeed there are no tongues or voices in which the praise of God is not heard (Ps 18:4),

so that even the very stones cry out: Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord! (cf Lk 19:38-40).”


Transformed by the Liturgy

“We must always remember that the Liturgy is an infinite creation. Every Liturgy is unique and is performed by Christ Himself. It is an act of revelation surpassing description, embracing the whole creation: heaven and earth, Angels and men, the living and the departed. Christ offered Himself once for all in the eternal power of the Holy Spirit and His Holy Sacrifice remains unto eternity to sanctify all who partake of it, for it is sealed in His divine blood which He shed for the life of the world. The Divine Liturgy is an eternal expression of Christ’s ‘greater love’. It is a workshop of love, a heart of love, man’s union and communion with the Savior and the other members of the Body. Man thus becomes an active member of the communion of Divine love, hearing the word of God, invoking His holy Name and partaking of the Body and Blood of the Lord.” (Archimandrite Zacharias, Remember Thy First Love, pp 213-214)


Worship and Relationship

Hear the word of the LORD,
You children of Israel,
For the LORD brings a charge against the inhabitants of the land:
“There is no truth or mercy
Or knowledge of God in the land.   (Hosea 4:1)

For I desire mercy and not sacrifice,
And the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.   (Hosea 6:6)

Commenting on Hosea 6:6,  biblical scholar Fr. Eugen J. Pentiuc writes:

This eternal will of Yahweh is revealed in v. 6.

‘For I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’

Note that ‘mercy’ is followed by ‘knowledge of God’ as in 4:1. Both virtues reflect the will or the delight of God in promoting a profound relationship with Israel. Yahweh is the Lord, and in this quality, he sets the moral standards and principles pertaining to the covenantal relationship with Israel. Yahweh does not reject worship as a whole but he criticizes the way Israel perceives it. Instead of a means to enter the relationship with God and to foster community ties, the worship becomes gradually a goal in itself (cf. Am 5:21ff.; Mic 6:6ff.).

A similar explanation may be found in Theodoret of Cyrus:

‘For I do not require sacrifices, I accept these sacrifices, condescending to the weakness of your mind. But I demand these two things: good will toward me, and love for your neighbor.’

Instead of cultivating the ‘knowledge of God’ and ‘mercy,’ Israel is more interested in bringing sacrifices (or sacrificial meals) and burnt offerings.” (Long-Suffering Love: A Commentary on Hosea with Patristic Annotations, p 99)

Every generation of Orthodox Christians has to also consider the words of the Lord.  We place emphasis on exacting and proper liturgy and rules of fasting, yet they are never to become ends in themselves.  Right worship and exacting piety, which we believe are important to the spiritual life, can never displace or preempt mercy and the knowledge of God in our spiritual lives.  Piety, asceticism and liturgy are to form our hearts so that we can have a proper relationship with God and neighbor.   If we come to see them as the goal of the spiritual life, we can lose the right relationship we are to have in loving God and loving neighbor.


Commemorations: The Reality of Faith

“Biblical scholarship has long taught us that the essential meaning of biblical remembrance (anamnesis) has to do with making present the reality of the saving events in the context of communal prayer and worship. In antiquity the ritual acts among Jews and Christians were not taken as merely figurative, a modern notion, but rather they were seen as bearing divine powers and having decisive consequences according to the words of Saint Paul.

Just as the preaching of the word of God carries intrinsic power and transformative impact on receptive hearers, so also, and indeed more so, the ritual acts of Baptism and the Eucharist, in the context of the Church’s living faith and the power of the Holy Spirit, make present the saving reality and blessings of the death and resurrection of the Lord.

Surely the Apostle Paul did not view the Lord’s Supper as merely metaphorical in 1 Cor. 11, any more than he viewed Baptism as figurative in Rom. 6. The Gospel of John which declares that true worship is ‘in spirit and truth’ (Jn. 4:24) also contains references to Baptism and the Eucharist as determining one’s entry into the kingdom (Jn. 3:5) and one’s sharing in the divine life of the Incarnate Lord (Jn. 6:52-58). Seen from this perspective, the Orthodox Eucharist is not only a proclamation but also an actualization of the good news of Christ and his saving work.” (Theodore G. Stylianopoulos, The Way of Christ: Gospel, Spiritual Life and Renewal in Orthodoxy, pps. 36-37)

“Unto Ages of Ages”

TempleThe final exclamation which concludes many Orthodox liturgical prayers is “…unto ages of ages. Amen.”  We get so used to hearing that phrase that we probably don’t even consider where it comes from and why it is in our prayers.  David Instone-Brewer in his book TRADITIONS OF THE RABBIS FROM THE ERA OF THE NEW TESTAMENT examines many aspects of Jewish practice from the time of Christ and he points out that a feud had emerged between Sadducees and Pharisees about how properly to conclude a blessing in the Temple.  There apparently were different practices for ending a Temple prayer:  “Amen” was one traditional ending but also at one time the response was “Blessed be the name of his glorious kingdom forever.”  The Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife and so interpreted “forever” to mean until this age ended, since there is only this age but nothing beyond this age.  The Pharisees then changed the ending of the prayer to “for ever and ever” (= “unto ages of ages”) because then it referred to both this age and the age to come (which the Sadducees didn’t believe  in).  It was an effort to force the Sadducees to have to pray for the age to come.

Christianity which follows the beliefs of the Pharisees regarding the afterlife, the resurrection and the world to come kept the phrase “unto ages of ages. Amen” as part of their prayer to affirm belief in the afterlife and the Kingdom which is to come.   The split between the Pharisees and the Sadducees is mentioned in Acts 23:6-9 where St. Paul, himself a Pharisee, takes advantage of the disagreement to turn the two Jewish sects against each other (see also Matthew 22:23-33).  The phrase “unto ages of ages” occurs in the New Testament in Matthew 6:13 (in some ancient Greek manuscripts), Romans 1:25 and Galatians 1:5, Ephesians 3:21, 1 Timothy 1:17, Hebrews 13:21, 1 Peter 4:11 and frequently in the book of Revelation just to name some occurrences.

Worshiping in Beauty and Symbol

“Thus in our prayer we use words not just literally but beautifully; through poetic imagery – even if the texts are in rhythmic prose rather than rhymed stanzas – we endow the words with a new dimension of meaning.

We worship, moreover, not through words only but in a wide variety of other ways: through music, through the splendor of the priestly vestments,

through the color and lines of the holy icons, through the articulation of sacred space in the design of the church building,

through symbolic gestures such as the sign of the cross, the offering of incense, or the lighting of a candle,

and through the employment of all great ‘archetypes,’ of all the basic constituents of human life, such as water, wine and bread, fire and oil.”    (Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Inner Kingdom, pg. 63)

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