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MANY PEOPLE IN THE WORLD believe in the one God. But so many of them find it impossible to imagine that God has become man in Jesus Christ. The very idea that God could come to earth and suffer all that we suffer in life is incomprehensible to them.

People who balk at the idea of the incarnation often believe in something which may seem more incredible yet. They embrace the teaching that “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

How could human beings like us be in God’s image? We know ourselves and our weaknesses. Surely the author of Genesis knew human nature also. How could this author make such a claim? And how could the Spirit of God, who inspires the Scriptures, speak to us through these words?

Yet we know that all creation reflects something of God who is the Source of its being. It is God’s presence which upholds everything that is, so that in some way everything mirrors its Creator. The great forces of nature – the galaxies and planets, the mountains and oceans – suggest to many the power and majesty of God, “charged with the grandeur of God” in the words of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Others find the wisdom of God evident in the precise arrangement of even the tiniest organism or of the ecosystem. From ancient Greeks to 21st century scientists people have marveled at the “golden ratio” (1.618 or φ), which reflects an order underlying things as diverse as atoms, brainwaves, the graphic arts and music. People of all ages have seen this order as pointing to God who has brought together everything in an otherwise unrivalled precision. Yet in mankind there is something which mirrors God in a way that distinguishes us from the rest of creation.

While the rest of creation reflects God’s wisdom and power, mankind reflects God at the heart of His very being. God is love, we read in the New Testament, and we are the creature that can love and so reflect the love of God. To be human, then, is to be a lover in the image of the One who is love itself.

Seeing God as the Holy Trinity, Christians believe that the relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is at the core of God’s very being. God is a communion of love and this communion is not closed in upon itself but is extended to embrace all creation. In a similar way relationship is at the heart of our being. We are made for communion with one another and most importantly for communion with our Creator, God. Not only are human beings created by God, but we are created in God and for Him. In the broadest sense we are made for worship.


These words introduce the story of our creation in the book of Genesis. Many Church Fathers, like St. Irenaeus, saw in them a distinction between what we already are and what we have the chance to become. From our creation in God’s image we have the innate ability to love. We can know what is good and choose to embrace it. As God’s love is extended freely to His creation, mankind in His image is given the freedom to extend our love or to withhold it.

To be created after God’s likeness means something more. It means that we were created with the fullest possibility of relating to God and to one another already in view. The fully developed human being would be one fully resembling the One who made us.

At mankind’s creation, St Irenaeus wrote, man was a child. Just as infants are born with the potential to develop into adults, mankind was created as a spiritual infant. That he was to develop was clear; the certainty that he would mature fully was not.

The book of Genesis teaches that the relationship of men and women with their Creator was quickly ruptured. Adam and Eve are tempted to become “like God” on their own, despite the warning that they “would surely die” if they did not follow the directions of their Maker. Striking out on their own, they showed a mistrust of God which altered their relationship forever. The image of God in humanity would remain; the likeness was so scarred that it became impossible for men and women to fulfill their potential as God intended. The only One who could perfectly realize human nature was the eternal image of the Father, His only-begotten Son: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, for by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible… All things were created through him and for Him. … For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell” (Colossians 1:15-19).

And so the Word of God, the icon of the Father, would become human to completely fulfill human nature in Himself. As a Sufi poet once wrote, “When God wanted to see His face He sent Jesus to the world.” And because He had become one with us, the Son of God could restore the likeness of God in us as well. Created in God’s image, we could re-embark on the journey of fellowship with God in Christ, our “hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).

Only the Lord Jesus truly reflects for us the love of God. But those who have put on Christ in baptism and who sustain their union with Him will be transformed into “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), sharers in His likeness. This transformation, which the Fathers called theosis (deification), is the goal of our life as Christians; but it is also the journey to that goal. What begins here is meant to be completed in the age to come.

Theosis as a process begins with baptism. We begin allowing the gift of our baptism to impact our life when we make a godly life the main goal of our existence. We try to keep the commandments, to observe the Lord’s precepts on prayer, fasting and almsgiving, and to live the life of the Church. Theosis will grow in us as we become more aware of God’s presence within us and in our life at every moment: an awareness cultivated perhaps by the Jesus Prayer. We discover the meaning of St Gregory of Sinai’s words: “Become what you are. Find Him who is already yours. Listen to Him who never ceases speaking to you. Own Him who already owns you.”

As we begin entrusting our entire life to Christ God, we may understand Christ’s words, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” (Matthew 5:48) in terms of what we do: “If I am accomplishing all this, I am becoming perfect in God’s sight.” A deeper sign that we are growing in the journey of theosis is when we seek to become more like Jesus the Servant. As St Paul urged, “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, who – though he was in the form of God – did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness and found in human appearance, He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).

As Christ’s attitudes of humility, obedience and mutual service become more ingrained in us, we reflect ever more the life of God. Our love for others and for all creation grows as we reflect the mind of Christ in us. We become what we are: people who live by God’s divine life in us and partake in His divine nature.


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Article from: Eparchy of Newton Website

The Epistle to the Hebrews presents an expansive vista depicting the history of our salvation: the manifestations of God to the Old Testament prophets, the incarnation of Christ and His all-sufficient self-offering. It concludes this anamnesis of God’s faithful love to us with the following injunction:

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another …” (Hebrews 10:25)

Our response to God’s fidelity, then, is to be faithful to Him by being steadfast in our belief and to be faithful to one another by supporting each another in the Christian life. And this faithfulness to God and to one another is described as centered in the regular “meeting together” or synaxis of the Christian community: what we call the Divine Liturgy.

In looking for a way to express our call to be faithful to God and one another through the Divine Liturgy, we turned to one of our hierarchs, Archbishop Joseph Raya, who through his translations of the liturgical texts has placed his stamp on so many Byzantine churches in the English-speaking world. In The Eyes of the Gospel, published almost twenty years ago, Archbishop Joseph had woven a number of reflections on various of the prayers and movements of the Divine Liturgy. Archbishop Joseph has graciously allowed us to rearrange and reproduce his meditations in a new format. We trust that, in breaking the bread of his thought, as we do the Eucharistic bread, we have not rent it asunder.

To highlight the connection of the Church’s Liturgy with models of Biblical prayer, we have interspersed within this book a number of Scriptural texts to which the Liturgy refers or which it echoes. To emphasize the continuity of our Liturgy today with that of the Eastern Churches over the centuries, we have also included passages from some historic commentaries on or references to the Liturgy, for our celebration each Sunday resonates with the worship of thousands of years.

We hope that this work will serve more than one purpose: first of all it can provide those of us who regularly attend the Liturgy with a new appreciation of the mystery we celebrate. But if we are truly committed to be faithful to one another, this reflection can also be a means of encouraging one another: an avenue for us to lead others to participate in the Liturgy themselves.
This monograph was originally published in connection with the 1991 convention of the Melkite Greek Catholic Diocese of Newton.

Justin, one of the first apologists of the Christian faith, himself born shortly after the Apostles, gives an account of his faith and of the practice of the Christians of his time. He describes in detail the celebration of the Eucharist as it was conducted, and claims that these details are what the Lord Himself ordered His disciples to follow.

The account of the Liturgy described by Justin witnesses to the details of the Sacred Supper of the Lord and harmonizes with the details of the Breaking of the Bread by the Apostles. It is this same Liturgy of the first Christians that Clement of Rome describes and which the Church kept faithfully and transmitted in all its integrity. It is from this Liturgy that the Byzantine Liturgy derives and has its origin.

The ancients called this gathering of the faithful synaxis, a convention: a community that looks to eternity. Worshipping together in community, the faithful experience more readily both their unity in Christ and the power of the Spirit. They learn how to open and abandon themselves to the revelation of God, to experience Him, and thus be able to witness to their religious experience.

All the celebrations of the mysteries of heaven take on a special quality of joy and beauty in which one longs to participate. No one is merely a spectator or a pupil: every one is engaged in an action. Everyone is in readiness, calling on and waiting for the coming of tile Lord, who is coming, yet always present. They gather to receive the saving power of God and to rejoice in His goodness and glory
In these public functions there is constant motion and personal participation. Every act, gesture and movement of the body has its meaning. People sway with their bodies, move their hands, raise and lower their eyes, bow their heads. Their voices rise and fall in heartfelt supplication. Every person performing a bodily gesture in the celebration points to a spiritual reality and acclaims it.

People in prayer see the saints around them, wrapped in their icons with a mantle of eternity; candles flickering in a thousand hues of light; incense whirling in a warm atmosphere; music swelling from every corner of the assembled congregation; vestments of multicolors and designs which sway and shine. The deacons move around between the people and the celebrant. In the middle of the sanctuary stands the Bishop, image of Christ, presiding over the celebration.

The priests do not stay at the altar. They and their retinue of assistants come out of the sanctuary and walk in the midst of the congregation: first, perhaps, to incense, then to carry the Gospel book, finally to transfer the oblations or to receive them in a solemn procession, where angels mingle with us to carry the King of all and welcome His coming among them. They go around the church to sprinkle the people with perfume, to shower the congregation now with flowers, now with a smile, and yet another time with encouragement and a blessing.

It is not possible to understand Eastern Christianity by only reading or talking about it. It is necessary to experience its life, its actuality, by being present at its celebrations. The organic and completely self-evident center of Eastern Christianity is in its celebrations. “Come and see!”

“I shall enter into Your dwelling place; before Your holy temple I shall bow in fear of You.” (Psalm 5:7)

The sanctuary and the altar have been, throughout the spiritual development of the Church, gradually hidden and separated not by an ecclesiastical, bureaucratic mandate but by the Christian sense of the sacred, by a real sense of the awesomeness of the mystery of God. St. John Chrysostom and all the Fathers constantly call the altar the “terrifying table”, and the mystery of the altar “terrifying mysteries,” “the terrifying sacrifice of the body and blood of Christ to which we have to approach with fear and trembling.” This is sacred terror and not fear of the unknown. It is a mystic trembling in the presence of heaven: “Take off your shoes,” said God, “for the place where you stand is holy” (cf Exodus 3:5).

The more secularized we become, the more our vision of the sacred and the holy becomes blurry, and even blinded. The closing of doors and curtains is not setting apart the clergy as if in a special class, shutting off the People of God from participation. It is rather a forceful revelation that there is a mystery, and that we cannot see or experience this mystery by physical contact. No human eyes or physical sight can penetrate or comprehend it. Only love and the surge of the soul on the wings of faith can meet the Lord and God of all.

‘The sticharion of the priest is fashioned after the robe of Aaron, the one going all the way down to his feet (Exodus 28:33).

‘Moreover it has the appearance of fire, according to the Prophet who says: ‘He makes His angels spirits and His ministers a flames of fire ‘” (Psalm 103:4; Hebrews 1:7), St. Germanos of Constantinople, Historia Ecclesiastica, 14 (C. 725 AD)

In the ancient Church only the baptized, the initiated and those instructed in the faith were allowed to bring their offerings to the altar. Bread and wine symbolize and represent those who are united to Christ and made one with Him in baptism. As the many grains of wheat and the many grapes have to be crushed to become a new form of life-giving element which is bread and wine, so also the baptized are grafted onto Christ and voluntarily surrendered and given to Him to be one with Him. With Christ who is our Bread we become new life, life divine.

From the material offerings of bread and wine of the faithful, the deacons and, later in history, the priests selected what was necessary for the sacrifice and used the rest for their subsistence or the subsistence of the poor. The simple ceremony of offering, receiving, selecting and distributing the bread and wine, which is the human part of the covenant, was made at a special place called prothesis or proskomedia (table of oblation). This ceremony became more elaborate later and developed into a short story and a condensed drama of the whole eucharistic sacrifice.

Among all the loaves offered there is one called prosphora, representing Christ and stamped with a seal bearing His name: “Jesus Christ the Victor,” IC XC NIKA. When this seal is cut it is called “the Lamb”, the Lamb of God who represents here all humanity.

The priest lifts up the prosphora and signs it three times with the lance that pierced the side of the Lord on Calvary. He cuts the seal marked with Christ’s name, saying: “As a sheep He was led to the slaughter. And as a spotless lamb before the shearers, He did not open his mouth. In His lowliness His judgement was taken away. And who shall describe His generation?”
The priest, thrusting the lance into the right side of the bread, lifts out the lamb, saying: “For His life was taken away from the earth.” He turns it face down and pierces it on the side stamped “Jesus,” saying: “One of the soldiers pierced His side with a lance.”

Wine is then poured into the chalice with some drops of water. The memory of Calvary becomes alive again, and the priest declares, “…and at once there came forth blood and water and he who saw it bore witness, and his witness is true.”

Another special piece is cut “in honor and memory of our most highly blessed and glorious Lady the Mother of God” and is placed at the right of the Lamb, for indeed, “at Your right stood the queen in an embroidered mantle of gold.” Angels, prophets and saints, people living and people dead are also represented and arranged in rows around the Lamb on His throne.

The priest puts a star on the oblation and declares that a “Star came and stood where the Child was.” He declares the faith of the assembly in the Incarnation of the Son of God and in His appearance in human flesh. Here is Bethlehem!

Even the covering of the oblation becomes an occasion for the glorification of God and for our identification with Him: “The Lord is king, He has clothed Himself with splendor; the Lord has put on might and has girded Himself! Your glory, O Christ, has covered the heavens, and the earth is full of Your praise.”

“We offer You incense, Christ our God, for an odor of spiritual fragrance: receive if on Your altar in heaven, and send down on us in return the grace of Your all-holy Spirit. ” (Service of the Prothesis)
Through this ceremony we see the eternal sacrifice of the Son of God on the altar of heaven reproduced in the here and now. It is already a vision, a Theophany of God. The physical elements of bread and wine are filled with the Invisible. Our faith, love and prayer meet the Lord, who is present and ready for His mission of salvation by which He seals His covenant with God and with His people:

“That our God who loves mankind, having received them on His holy altar in heaven as a fragrance, may send down upon us in return His divine grace and the Holy Spirit as His gift…” (Divine Liturgy).

The “Sacrifice” is already present. We already call the elements of the Divine Liturgy of Christ “sacrifice of Christ,” “our sacrifice,” “sacrifice of the people.” Christ was alone in His suffering and offering on the cross. Now the people of God are present on Calvary and they have the occasion to ratify and accept the sacrifice as their own. The point is that we become co-offerers with Christ by our obedient self-giving; we offer to God the totality of our lives, of ourselves, and of the world in which we live. The sacrifice of Christ has been offered and accepted. Now we make it our own and we call it a “sacrifice of praise,” because in it we recognize already the goodness and generosity of God.

“Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit “

Every prayer, as every act of the Christian, is ordained ultimately, not only to his own fulfillment in the “vision of God” in heaven, but also to the transformation and consummation of all things in Christ. In Christ all that is, is full of possibilities for beauty, truth, community and justice. And the Christian is vowed to draw out all these possibilities into the realities of this world. All of reality invites him to respond to goodness with goodness of his own. The swayings and sounds and whispers of nature and of man are a continual prayer that brings God to man. The Christian hears within his soul these cries and sighs and longing, and he brings them in an upward movement of praise and glory to God.

This vision of the praying Christian is most explicitly clarified in the Litany of Peace, which opens all Byzantine public prayers and some Western liturgies also. In this litany the Christian gathers within himself the public servants: authorities both religious and civil; cities, country places and all those who live in them, the travelers by sea, land and air; the sick and those who suffer and those forgotten brothers who are in prisons. The Christian lives deeply in touch with all the troubles of the world and feels the pain of human life intensely. He brings all the earth and whatever it contains to God for His mercy, and dedicates himself for its healing and welfare.

When Christ ascended the cross, He succeeded in spreading over the whole world more of Himself, more of love and salvation than there will ever be of death, hatred, self-centeredness and sin. The mercy of God is the life-giving perpetuation of the divine energy of the Redeemer’s love, an outpouring of love and goodness that sanctifies and divinizes. The mercy of God is not a condescension, a paternalism on the part of God, a “crumb that falls form the Master’s table.” The mercy of God is God Himself in His transforming presence. It is He, the Bread broken for all, generously given and completely surrendered. The cry of “Lord, have mercy,” therefore, invokes the divine presence on the whole of creation, upon mankind and matter, upon the whole world thought of as gathered in the one embrace of Christ.

Many are the needs. Many, therefore, are the cries for mercy. The rhythm of the intentions and the repetition of the “Lord, have mercy” is the manifestation of the all-embracing concern of Christ and of the Christian’s heart. It teaches the individual and the community their true relation with the world and with all mankind as it makes them go beyond themselves to embrace the whole world, all mankind and every circumstance, and carry them in their prayer and in their daily life.

This litany of intentions is the vibrant acclamation of the Christian that everything and everyone belongs to God’s kingdom, where saint and sinner, believer and unbeliever are at home, and where all share in the peace of God. It proclaims the universality of the embrace of Christ which the Christian makes his own. The praying Christian realizes here that he is the brother of all and responsible for all. This is the kingdom of God!

“The antiphons of the Liturgy are the prophets’ predictions which foretold the coming of the Son of God… that is, they reveal His incarnation which we proclaim again, having embraced knowledge of it through those who have become servants, eyewitnesses and attendants of the Word.” St. Germanos of Constantinople, Historia Ecclesiastica, 23 (c 725 AD)

In the antiphons Christians witness to the goodness of the Lord and shout their own hopes and joys at the sight of Christ’s action of salvation. Historically speaking, the antiphons were popular demonstrations and processions through the streets and winding roads of a given locality, from church to church, leading to the main Church where the celebration had to take place. These processions were meant to gather on their way the “good and the sinners, inviting every one, believer and unbeliever, to the wedding-feast of the King” (Matt 22:8).

The word antiphon means a refrain to a reading or to a rhetorical declamation often repeated during the course of a procession. Antiphons are devised to provoke in people enthusiasm, and joy, and to help them see the goodness of God who hears the immense desire of humanity. Humanity sighs and longs for the coming of the Savior, and God bends toward the earth, sending His Son to be incarnate. Salvation is then seen as present and already working among us. These street demonstrations, as they are worked out in the antiphons, end in a peaceful and nerve-relaxing hymn which sings the presence of the Son among men:

Only-begotten Son and Word of God, immortal as You are!
You condescended for our salvation
to take flesh of the holy Mother of God and ever-Virgin Mary,
and without undergoing change, You became man.
You were crucified, O Christ God,
and crushed Death by Your death.
You are One of the Holy Trinity,
equal in glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit:
save us.

Once we have seen that the promises of God and the expectations of His people have been fulfilled, we understand that the wedding-feast is open to all and in full progress. An excited air runs through the congregation: the Bridegroom is now coming! We prepare to receive Him.

The ministers form a great procession with lighted candles, covered with a cloud of incense. The bejeweled Holy Gospel book, which is the symbol and sign of Jesus Christ Himself, is carried high on the head of the celebrant or the deacon.

” here the gospeller, as he holds the golden Gospel, passes along; and the surging crowd strives to touch the sacred book with their lips and hands,while moving waves of people break around.” (Paul the Silentiary, c. 550 AD)

The whole assembly rises to honor the coming of the Lord, using singing, imagination and all the human emotions. Everyone bows profoundly at the passage of Christ, adoring Him really present in His book of life. By bowing and by many signs of the cross, everyone proclaims his or her readiness to hear his voice and heed the lessons of His love. The Gospel Book is thus brought with solemnity and majesty into the midst of the congregation and finally to the sanctuary.

” the priest, standing in front of the altar, raises the Gospel Book and shows it to the people, thus symbolizing the manifestation of the Lord, when He began to appear to the multitudes. For the Gospel represents Christ in the same way that the books of the Old Testament are called the Prophets ( They have Moses and the Prophets,’ Lk 16:29) ” Nicholas Cabasilas, Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, 20 (c.1350 AD)

After the entrance of the Gospel Book and its enthronement on the altar, the throne of God as it were, the people go on with their merry celebration of the saints or of an event in the life of Christ, remembering again a phase of the deeds and goodness of God. Christians assemble to celebrate the saints also. Heroes and benefactors of humanity, the saints have surrendered themselves to God and to their brothers and sisters. They become pure transparencies for God’s action, and thus they are to us extended radiances of the incarnation.

“After He who was foretold had appeared and made Himself manifest, no one could pay attention to the words of the Prophets. Therefore after the showing of the Gospels, the prophetic texts cease and we sing something from the New Testament: we praise the all-holy Theotokos or the other saints, and we glorify Christ Himself for coming to dwell among us.” Nicholas Cabasilas, Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, 20

Christians are the associates of angels in their service before God. We enter into this association when we proclaim with them the holiness of the divine Trinity. At this point in the Liturgy indeed, at the beginning of every prayer we affirm this association as we chant the Trisagion:

“Holy is God:” the Father, who is origin, source and point of return of all creation;
“Holy the Mighty One:” the Son. He is mighty because He conquered evil and death and wrought salvation and resurrection. “He is mighty, because through Him the Father was revealed to us and the Holy Spirit came to this world” (vespers of Pentecost).
“Holy the Immortal One:” the Holy Spirit, who is life and life-giving, whom nothing no evil, no sin, no amount of gravity of sin can ever kill or wipe out from the soul of the Christian.

“The Fathers originally received from the angels the Holy, holy, holy’ and from David the remainder, where he glorified God in Trinity, saying, My soul thirsted for God, the mighty One, the living One’ (Ps 41:3), and rightly and most appropriately composed the Trisagion Hymn. As a mark of petition they added again from David the have mercy on us’.” St Simeon of Thessalonike, Treatise on Prayer 24 (c. 1425 AD)

The assembly that reads the Word of God is the human race in miniature. In fact, such an assembly represents the whole human race. When it reads the Word of God and recalls His deeds of the past, it proclaims also His present action and care.

“Before the Gospel, the deacon comes with the censer in his hand to fill the church with sweet fragrance for the reception of the Lord, reminding us by this censing of the spiritual cleansing of our souls with which we should attend to the fragrant words of the Gospel.” Nikolai Gogol, Meditations on the Divine Liturgy (19th Century)… it got about that He was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the door, and He was preaching the word to them.” (Mark 2:1-2)

The whole life of Christ, all His teaching, even His smallest gestures, are aimed at saving mankind from tyrannies and changing the water of this life into the wine of the feast. The Gospel is like the charter of this freedom and dignity. The words of Christ, taken one by one or collectively are a stirring experience of life, allowing man to go into life and live it fully. Christ’s voice reaches an ecstasy beyond and above any voice ever heard on earth. The tone of His voice is a bearer of that sublime message that we are on our way to another, lovelier world, tinted with unimaginable wonders, alive with ultimate music and bursting with radiance and joy. We are going to a “banquet”, a “wedding” and a “kingdom”. Only those who go beyond appearances, and contact the reality of persons and of things, are allowed into that kingdom. God, man, creation, Christ and His entire life are so many reasons and subjects for wonder and joy that enable us to enter into that kingdom. Each one is a poem and a miracle of beauty that makes us sing in glory, awe and joy. Each celebration designed to make our life a celebration.

The story of the life and deeds of Christ is called Gospel, good news, because it is precisely news of life. The message of the Gospel penetrates to the heart and sweeps away sin and ugliness. It is always new because it is fraught with wonder. We Christians do not read, we proclaim the Gospel. Those who are gifted musicians and singers chant its words, its texts and its message. The Ancients always insisted, with a profound sense of wisdom, on the way the voice should be modulated, the way the words of the Gospel should be pronounced, and how the whole meaning should be brought out. Whether elaborate or simple, the proclamation of the Gospel has this one function: to convey the poetry of the text and the feeling of glory and joy of being in the presence of God.

Easterners call the Gospel the second incarnation. Whereas in the first the Son of God became Son of man, in the second incarnation in the Gospel the Word of God became word of man. He became a Book! For this reason the Gospel is always bound in silver or gold or precious materials. He is always on our altars, as it were God on His throne. The Gospel is carried in procession, borne aloft on our heads, incensed and kissed with reverence and devotion.

Saint John Chrysostom says, “When emperors of this world speak, we all shout with one voice and one heart, Glory to you, lord.’ But when the Lord Jesus speaks in His Gospel, our enthusiasm grows stronger and louder and we repeat it twice, Glory to You, O Lord, glory to You!’” Our enthusiasm becomes love and we repeat the cry twice, once before the proclamation of the Gospel and once when the proclamation has ended.

“After the reading of the Gospel, the deacon urges to congregation to prayer. The priest in the sanctuary prays in a low voice that the prayers of the faithful may be acceptable to God.
“And what prayer could be more fitting for all, after the Gospel, than one for those who keep the Gospel, who imitate the goodness and generosity of Christ, the shepherds of the people and those who govern the state. These, if they are faithful to the precepts of the Gospel, as the Apostle says: Achieve after Christ that which is lacking in Christ’ (Col 1:24), in governing His flock as He would wish. Such, too, are the founders and heads of religious houses and churches, the teachers of virtue and all those who in any way contribute to the common good of the Church and of religion; they have a place here and are entitled to the prayers of all.” Nicholas Cabasilas, Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, 23

After the readings have been proclaimed and the special celebration of the day has put the Christian in the realm of God, the official and solemn transfer of the oblations to the altar takes place. A stir of anticipation runs through the whole congregation. Seized by the awareness of what is going to happen, everyone falls into a humble, yet confident, change of heart. Ministers and faithful express sorrow for their sins and the sins of the world:

Again and many times we fall down before You
and pray You in Your goodness and love for mankind to regard our supplications
and cleanse our souls and bodies from all defilement of flesh and spirit,
and grant that we may stand without guilt or condemnation before Your holy altar.
And upon these also who pray with us,
O God, bestow increase of life and faith and spiritual insight.
Give them ever to minister to You in fear and love,
to share without guilt or condemnation in Your holy mysteries
and to be made worthy of Your heavenly kingdom (Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom).

Purification of all sins is effected. The faithful know that they are forgiven and sanctified. Now they can face their Redeemer and God, unite with Him and feel their complete oneness with Him. They realize that they “mystically represent the cherubim,” consequently they “put aside all worldly care and sing the thrice holy hymn to the King of the universe who is coming escorted by all the angelic hosts.”

Let all mortal flesh be silent; let us stand in fear and trembling,
having no other thought but the thought of the Lord.
For behold, the King of kings and Lord of lords is coming to be sacrificed
and to be given as food to the faithful.
He is escorted by hosts of archangels and by all the principalities and dominions.
He is indeed escorted by the many-eyed cherubim
and by the six-winged seraphim covering their faces, all chanting:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. (Liturgy of St. James)

The sign and seal of the love of God is the love of neighbor. After having obtained forgiveness from God and making our peace with Him, we now ask forgiveness from each other.” “Everyone present confesses and proclaims his unity with Christ, the Lover of mankind: “I will love You, Lord, my strength. The Lord is my fortress, me refuge and my deliverance!”

Because of the love of the Lord who fills us with His peace and joy, we overflow with love. And because we know that Christ has forgiven us, we feel the urgent desire to forgive others and to be at peace with them. Each member of the assembly enthusiastically embraces his neighbor and gives the kiss of Christ, saying: “Christ is in our midst.” And the other answers, “He is and always will be.”

What a marvelous reality! Christians cannot hide or forget their all-embracing love. The Church, to be the Church of Christ, has to be first the revelation of that divine love which God poured into our hearts. Without this love, nothing is valid in the Church. The kiss of Christ is the dynamic sign wherein Christians express their love for each other before they share the one bread. Christ is our real love and life and our forgiveness. We share Him with others. Breaking the bread of Christ becomes a little vacuous without the breaking open of ourselves. It is Christ who unites us to one another and through one another to God.

“If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23 24)

“The veil, that is the aer, stands for the stone with which Joseph closed the tomb, which the guard of Pilate also sealed.

“He approaches the stone of the tomb, the angel clad in white, raising the veil and indicating by his gesture the third day resurrection ” St Germanos of Constantinople, Historia Ecclesiastica 41, 42

Once the brotherly love of forgiving is secure, the whole assembly bursts into singing the glory of the Trinity, by singing the Creed. This was composed in the year 325 at Nicaea on the occasion of that Council. It fixed in human words the content of faith and its proclamation.

In reciting the Creed we plunge into life, the life of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God the Creator is an artist, a worker, an inventor and maker of things and producer of life. Since God is a worker-artist, all of His creation is good. The Son is a savior and a lover. “For us men and for our salvation” He lived, died, resurrected, ascended and will come back again. The Holy Spirit is life and Giver of life and eternal joy.

Christians who proclaim in the Creed their acceptance of life in God, Father-Son-Holy Spirit, enter into the realm of creation, into the Kingdom of heaven, and become ready to respond to God’s excellence and love in the accomplishment of the mysteries soon to become reality on the altar. Within the reality expressed by the Creed, we find ourselves living and moving in an infinite and unmeasured Being who is Father and tenderness, who is Son and Lover, who is Spirit and Life-giver. It is the glory of the Christian to declare that all this was planned and executed by God, not for God’s sake, but “for us men and for our salvation.” We were redeemed, not because of our success or our mature years, but because of our troubles and perils and God’s greater love for us. In this we find rebirth in death, resurrection and life eternal. We are ready to go deeper into the realities of God and become “eucharistic.”
“Through Him let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God…” (Hebrews 13:15)

The offerings of bread and wine are now “lifted up” from the earthly place to the divine and holy altar of God in heaven, thereby uniting the two. In this action of lifting up, the whole creation finds its way to God who pours out on it the same love He has for His Son. Salvation is thus made present and real. The Church also becomes real. She is seen to be what she really is, “the Bride of Christ,” pure and undefiled.

The anaphora or lifting-up remembers and expresses in its reality a double movement, one of descent and one of ascent. In the first movement, God descends upon man and creation to “lift them up” and make them sharers in His divine life. This movement is called “a mercy of peace”. The mercy of God is the gift of God, His self-revelation and self-giving. The second movement is a movement of ascent. Man is taken up to God to offer Him praise and thanks. This movement of ascent is called “sacrifice of praise.”

Thanks and praise: this is the answer of man to the gift of God, his awareness and recognition of God’s goodness. The tremendous mystery of the power, condescension and infinite love of God in “descending” and “lifting up” is enacted on the altar in these two successive and dynamic movements by which creation and man are deified. This mystery will culminate in the final and decisive union of the Creator with His creature in Holy Communion.

Let us stand well!
Let us stand in awe!
Let us be attentive!

Heaven and earth listen! God is pouring Himself down upon us! We adore in a great hush. We plunge into the abyss of concentration and the rapture of a mystic vision. We shut out all noises. We collect ourselves and all our faculties to breathe praise and adore. The voices are hushed, and chanting ceases. The shortness of answers gives time to listen only. All attention is centered on the marvelous happening.

At this point the amazement of the priest seeks and strains to make others hear what he hears. He hears the remote and strange sound of angels singing: “Holy! Holy! Holy!” He sees the Holy Trinity at work, pouring down on him all the goodness and love that Infinity itself contains. He becomes a whirl of admiration and praise:

It is truly fitting and right and worthy of the immensity of Your holiness that we praise You, sing to You, bless You, adore You, give thanks to You,
glorify You who alone are truly God;…
How could anyone tell Your might and sing the praises You deserve,
or describe all Your marvels in all places and times?
… O Master of all, You are eternal invisible, beyond understanding:
beyond description the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the great God and Savior, the Object of our hope…
[Jesus Christ] is the image of Your goodness, the Seal who bears Your perfect likeness, revealing You, His Father, through Himself He is the living Word,
the true God, the Wisdom, the Life, the Sanctification, the true Light …
By Him the Holy Spirit was made manifest, the Spirit of truth, the Gift of adoption,
the foretaste of the future inheritance, the First-fruit of eternal good, the life-giving Power, the Fountain of sanctification.
Empowered by Him, every rational and intelligent creature sings eternally to Your glory,
for all are Your servants. It is You the angels archangels, thrones, dominions praise
and glorify … they cry one to the other with tireless voices and perpetual praise … (Liturgy of St. Basil)

This “eucharist” or thanksgiving is the expression of life in God and the only true relationship between man and God. It is what really “makes possible” all that will follow.

The breadth of perspective of the true meaning of God’s intention and of His relation to creation is present here. The Father planned from all eternity and made this world and man and placed them in space and time. The Son embodied them in His own divine person in the incarnation and saved them by His offering or sacrifice. The Holy Spirit renews this salvation and divinization by His descent at the epiclisis, just as He did by His descent at Pentecost. All these divine historical actions become actual and alive before our very eyes. The world of faith takes shape, and the eternal mystery of God becomes reality in time.

Once again Christians share in the life of angels and declare that we are sharing in their function and playing their role. We recognize that we are not only associates of angels, but much more: we take their place on earth as ministers before the altar:

“We thank You for this liturgy which You are pleased to accept from our hands,
even though there stand before You
thousands of angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim,
six-winged and many-eyed singing, proclaiming,
shouting the hymn of victory and saying:
Holy! Holy! Holy Lord of hosts!
Heaven and earth are filled with Your glory.
Hosanna in the highest!”

As we surge on the wings of our dignity, we join in the vision of Isaiah to sing the hymn of heaven, “Holy! Holy! Holy!” The world to come is already here present in the “Fullness of Your glory.” Christians reach the apex of their glory when they go beyond the horizon of the prophets and visionaries to look at the Trinity and melt into the divine Persons with an ineffable movement of joy. We address ourselves first to the Father:

“Holy are You and all-holy
You and Your only-begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit.
Holy are You and all-holy and magnificent is Your glory!
You so loved Your world as to give it Your Son,
that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life. “
(Liturgy of St John Chrysostom)

Then we recall the memory of the Son:

“When He had come and fulfilled all that was appointed Him to do for our sake,
on the night He was delivered up or rather, delivered Himself up for the life of the world
He took bread, and gave it to His holy disciples and apostles and said,
Take, eat; this is my body which is broken for you for the remission of sins.’”
With the same simplicity and realism,
He took the cup of wine and said,
“Drink of this, all of you. This is my blood of the new testament,
which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins.”

After having heard the voice of the Lord declaring the bread to be His body and the wine to be His blood, the Christian never asks “how.” It is simply the body and blood, the real and total Christ, just as when He walked around the lake and as He is now in His resurrection. The Christian has the mystical knowledge and a paradoxical grasp of the inconceivable. In an intuitive, primordial and simple approach, he knows beyond the process of the intellect. The Fathers say that the Christian “hopes for what exists already” and remembers what is to come in the immediate, because he drinks at the Source of the living water.

“Remembering, therefore, this precept of salvation
[ Do this in anamnesis remembrance of me.”]
and everything that was done for our sake:
the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day,
the ascension into heaven, the enthronement at the right hand [of the Father],
the second and glorious coming again, ”

This is the anamnesis, the memorial, which makes present and manifest here and now the divine events of the life of Christ. The Christian remembrance or memorial is not simply a recalling to mind of an event which existed once upon a time. Recalling the mysteries or events of the life of Christ who is risen, alive, always present, always active, makes them present with the same effectiveness and strength as when they were enacted by Christ. The ministers around the altar and the assembly of the baptized are now all wrapped in adoration. The deacon crosses his hands, the right stretching over the left to take up the diskos which lays on the left, the left hand stretching under the right to take up the chalice which is at the right.

He elevates both in gesture towards the east, then towards the west, the north and the south, thus planting Christ in the four corners of the universe, or rather gathering the universe in these four movements to offer it in Christ and with Christ to the Father, as the priest says:

“We offer You Your own from what is Your own,
in all and for the sake of all.”

What a simplicity in the grandeur and nobility of this gesture! The whole history of salvation, the whole revelation of God’s love, the whole meaning of Christianity is here made manifest. The whole value and the very meaning of life is given to the Father. The Father recognizes the whole creation in His Son and pours upon the whole universe the same love He has for His Son. “In this offering,” says Cyril of Jerusalem, “we bring to the presence of God the Father heaven, earth, oceans, sun, moon and the entire creation ” and we break out in praise and thanks:

“We praise You,
we bless You,
we give thanks to You, O our God.”

Until now we have marveled at the works of God and praised Him for His deeds of salvation. The Father “out of nothing brought us into being, and when we had fallen He raised us up again ” (anaphora). The Son declared matter to be His body and blood, and suffered and died and rose to make us one with Him. Now we fall on our knees, begging for the descent of the Holy Spirit: “We ask and pray and entreat: send down Your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts here offered.”

It is another awesome and most astounding action of God for us. The Holy Spirit comes to fill us and to fill the oblations of bread and wine with His own eternal being and presence by acting personally and creatively. Bread and wine and the baptized all receive Him and are possessed by Him. The wonderful event of Pentecost is now renewed and is indeed most real! “Our God, who loves mankind, having received these gifts on His holy altar, sends down upon us His divine grace and the Holy Spirit “

Now, anyone partaking of this Bread and Wine will receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit who is “cleansing of the soul, remission of sins.” The body and blood of Christ will also confer the “communion,” the fellowship of oneness with the Holy Spirit Himself, who becomes also “Fullness of the kingdom of heaven, intimate confidence of the Father,” who sees only His Son present and who will not judge juridically or condemn, but save.

The Spirit of God “becomes closer to me than my own breath” (Gregory of Nazianzus) and “more intimate than my own intimacy” (Augustine). By this descent of the Holy Spirit upon the bread and wine, anyone eating the body or drinking the blood of Christ receives the divine uncreated energies in all their majesty and holiness. Sins are forgiven and life is given. The Trinity Father, Son and Holy Spirit takes hold of us, divinizing us. Theosis is realized!

Ministers at the altar and all the assembly of worshippers fall down on their faces, saying: “Amen! Amen! Amen!”

“After the spiritual sacrifice, the unbloody worship, has been accomplished in this Victim that is offered in propitiation, we call on God for peace in all the Churches, for tranquility in the world, for the emperors, for the armies and the allies, for the ill and the afflicted. In brief, for all those in need of help, we all pray and offer this sacrifice.

“We then remember all those who have fallen asleep: first, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles and martyrs, that through their prayers and intercession God would accept our petitions; then for our fathers who have fallen asleep in holiness, for the bishops, and, in short, for all those who have already fallen asleep. For we are convinced that our prayers, which rise up for them in the presence of the holy and venerable Victim, are most profitable to their souls.” St Cyril of Jerusalem, Fifth Mystagogical Catechesis, 23:8,9 (c 375 AD)

“Lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the Lord!” (Psalm 133:2)

The word “Father” on the lips of those who believe the message of Christ adds power and dignity and heightens their already sublime role in creation. The early Church found the “Our Father” a devastating and frightening prayer. No one can utter such words unless he has overcome all inner unrest, all selfishness and all provincialism. At one point of history, the words of the “Our Father” were not revealed to neophytes until they were ready to be baptized and receive the body and blood of Christ.

We are commanded to say to this Abba, “Thy kingdom come!” which means, “take over, be the only one who inspires, directs and rules my life.” We say it with mixed emotions but with daring. “Kingdom of God” means justice, peace and love. It is not simply a question of personal salvation or fulfillment, but the establishment of a new order of things. Those in the kingdom give to whomever asks, treat everyone as real children of God, forgive without question, resist evil.

The kingdom is characterized, therefore, by healing, forgiveness, sharing, reconciliation: all of which are acts a “family” shares and enjoys. God is a Father, Abba. The person who says the “Our Father” comprehends that he or she is united with everyone and that all are equal in the eyes of God, in whom they all find peace and salvation. They all belong to the kingdom: they are brothers and sisters.
Whoever says the “Our Father” must say it aloud, because it is “Our.” “Our” is a word of the community. Every member of the community must hear it. We say it also with our arms open to the heavens, the “Shamaim”: to “the everywhere.” It is in the “everywhere,” indeed, that the Abba resides and dwells.
“The priest takes the Bread of Life and, showing it to the people, summons those who are worthy to receive it fittingly: Holy things to the holy!’ The faithful are called saints’ because of the holy thing of which they partake: because of Him whose body and blood they receive.

“The priest breaks the Holy Bread, saying, Broken and distributed is the Lamb of God: broken and not dismembered, always eaten and never expended, but making holy those who receive it.’”
“Since this warm water is not only water, but shares the nature of fire, it signifies the Holy Spirit, who is sometimes represented by water, and who came down upon the apostles in the form of fire. This point in the Liturgy represents that moment in time, for the Holy Spirit came down after all things pertaining to Christ had been accomplished, In the same way, when the holy offerings have attained their ultimate perfection, this water is added.” Nicholas Cabasilas, Commentary on the Liturgy, 36, 37

“Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: Behold, this has touched your lips, will remove your transgressions and wash away your sins” (Isaiah 6:6-7).

By uniting to our human nature, Christ made our flesh a part of His divine person. When we unite to Him in the Eucharist, His divine energies penetrate to the very essence of our being and transfigure us into the light of the divinity. Theodore of Cyr wrote: “By eating the flesh of the Bridegroom and drinking His blood, we enter into the chamber of the nuptial unity.”
In receiving the divine, the Christian becomes a flame of divinity. In accepting the “Gift,” he reflects the radiance of divine glory, Here he finds his real self, the dignity and grandeur of His humanity, which is shot through and through with divinity.

“… each one goes up, not to the priest, but to the fiery Seraph, preparing himself with open lips to receive from the holy spoon the fiery coal of the body and blood of the Lord, who will burn away all his sins like thorns.” Nikolai Gogol, Meditations on the Divine Liturgy

“We have seen the true Light,
we have received the heavenly Spirit…”

Having become one flesh, one soul and one heart with Christ, the communicant bursts into a hymn of glory and joy, the joy and glory of being and of existing. His feet are, indeed, on the ground, but his chin is uplifted and his head stretches to the highest heaven. All his senses are awake and vibrant to the presence of Christ.

“O You, who graciously give Your flesh to me as food, consuming the unworthy: consume me not, O my Creator, but rather pass through all the parts of my body, into all my joints, my heart, my soul. … Ever shelter, guard and keep me in Your love. Chasten me, purify me and control all my passions. Adorn me, teach me and enlighten me always. Show me how to be a tabernacle of Your Holy Spirit and in no wise the dwelling place of sin…. “O my Christ and my God, make me, Your child to he a child of light: for You alone are the sanctification and the splendor of my whole being…” (Prayer of Simeon Metaphrastes)

this is life in the Holy Trinity, a perichoreisis, a dance, a playful twirl, an allegro con grazia, which whirls with the elegance of a waltz. Once the Christian has received Christ and realized the real meaning of his life, he is filled with emotion and motion and power. Even when he feels within himself a whole atmosphere of tears, he is underneath it all a smile. He has discovered the rhythm and movement about and within himself. He might be going through uncertainty, but he always emerges in a dazzling march towards the Light who is Christ. In Holy Communion he reaches an enthralling verve and a breathtaking, dramatic climax. These are really the heroic affirmations of the life force, which is in Christ and which from Christ flows into him. The finale for him is always the eyes of the Gospel illumined with all the glory and beauty of God, who is a never-ending feast and a supreme celebration.

“The priest brings out to the people the prosphoras or altar bread from which the portions were cut out and removed, and thus is retained the great and ancient pattern of the Agape or love-feast, which was observed by the Christians of primitive times. Therefore, everyone who receives a prosphora ought to take it as bread from the feast at which Christ, the Creator of the world, has Himself spoken with His people, and one ought to consume it reverently, thinking of oneself as surrounded by all men as one’s dearest and most tender brothers.

“And, as was the custom in the early Church, one ought to eat the prosphora before all other foods or take it home to one’s family or send it to the sick or the poor or to those who have not been able to attend the Liturgy.” Nicolai Gogol, Meditations on the Divine Liturgy

For an introductory overview of the liturgical life of the Byzantine Churches, see:

Life and Worship: the Mystery of Christ Among Us. McKees Rocks, Pa: God With Us Publications, 1986.

For another reflective look at the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, consult:
Archbishop Paul of Finland, Feast of Faith. Translated by Esther Williams. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988.

For a study of the historic development of the structure and understanding of the Liturgy, look at:
Hugh Wybrew, The Orthodox Liturgy. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1900.

For those interested in the historic commentaries cited in the text, the following are available in English:
Nicholas Cabasilas, A Commentary on the Divine Liturgy. Translated by J.M. Hussey and P.A. McNulty. Introduction by R.M. French. London: SPCK, 1960.
Nikolai Gogol, Meditations on the Divine Liturgy. Translated by L. Alexieff. Edited by Archimandrite Lazarus. Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1952.
St. Germanos of Constantinople, Historia Ecclesiastica. Translated by Daniel Sheerin, with icons by Rev. Mark Melone. Fairfax, Va: Damascene Foundation, 1984.
St. Maximus the Confessor, The Church, the Liturgy and the Soul of Man. Translated by Dom Julian Stead, osb. Still River, Ma: St. Bede’s Publications, 1982.
St. Symeon of Thessalonike, Treatise on Prayer. Translated by H.L.N. Simmons. Brookline, Ma: Hellenic College Press, 1984.

Praying for our Departed Loved Ones

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Praying for our Departed Loved Ones

Understanding the Memorial Service in the Eastern Church

Webster, 2005


At no matter what age of life we die, we always see death as a distortion of our existence. Death portrays a horrible tragedy because it is the fruit of evil in the world. We were not created to die. When Almighty God created the first man and woman in his own image and likeness, he meant for all humanity to live for eternity with Him. Since God has no end, He desired for His beloved creation to dwell in His infinite love forever. This is why, deep within each of us, we all sense an innate desire for life!

From this perspective, death is fearful, and something we despise. And yet, although we can see death as the greatest evil, St. Paul counsels us “not to mourn as those who do not have hope.” He advises us to never despair over the dead, because “if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.” (1 Thess 4:14)

Here is the essence of our Christian faith and the Good News we proclaim week after week. “Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by His own death, and granting life to those in the tombs!”

For all of us who have believed in Christ and walked with Him in the newness of life here and now, death becomes but a doorway into a fuller union with Him. This is why St. Paul could say, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Phil 1:21) The Apostle Paul goes on to say, “If we have been united [through baptism] in the likeness of Christ’s death, we also shall be [united] in the likeness of His resurrection. (Rom 6:4-5)

Today, I want to talk about the topic of death because I want to relate it to the Memorial Services we do so often at the end of our Sunday Divine Liturgies. We all have loved ones who have passed away, and as a Church we never forget them. At each Divine Liturgy, I remember all the faithful who have died and passed on. On their anniversaries, like the 40 day memorial that we offer today for Kosta Magaritidis, or the 17 year anniversary, which we also offer today for Kosma Hadjoclou, we remember the departed, and pray for them.

Why? What is the purpose of our memorial service and why do we pray for the dead?

To answer this question, I first want us to understand clearly how we, as Eastern Christians, view death itself. Then, I will explain why we remember the dead continuously, and pray for them.

Although death is the culmination of evil in our world, for Christians our faith in Jesus Christ transforms death. For one who is united to our Lord here on earth, death is no longer a fearful and tragic conclusion of one’s life. It is but an entranceway into a new beginning!

I remember a story my parents told me about their first travel abroad. My father and mother had only been married for half a year, and my mother was several months pregnant, when both got on a boat heading towards Greece, so that my father could study at the University of Athens. Both my parents remember vividly the scene of their farewell, as they leaned on the rail of the ship waving goodbye to tearful family and friends. Many mixed emotions passed through their  minds as the ship slowly sailed away, and the figures of their loved ones got smaller and smaller in the horizon. During the long journey which followed, my parents became anxious about their separation from family, their pregnancy, and their new life in Athens.

When they arrived at the port of Piraeus many days later, however, their anxieties and concerns were washed away as other relatives and family friends lovingly waited to receive them in their new country.

Death itself may seem like an uncertain, even fearful journey, and yet as Christians we know who awaits us on the other side. Our Lord Jesus Christ is there, lovingly waiting, with His arms outstretched, ready to embrace us in deeper union with Himself, and welcome us into our eternal home.

As Christians, we can face death with hope, knowing that our loving, all merciful and compassionate Lord awaits us! Divine love is greater than death. St. Paul even dares to say, “Death has been swallowed up in victory!” The victory of divine love.

Well, this same love is central to understanding the role of the Memorial Service in the Eastern Church. We remember and pray for the dead because of God’s divine love for us, and our sacred love for one another. As the famous French writer and Catholic reformer Leon Bloy once wrote, “To say to a person ‘I love you’ is tantamount to saying ‘you shall never die.’”

We express our love to our departed ones through our prayers to reaffirm that those who have died are not dead to us, nor to God. Our love for one another continues even after death. Metropolitan Anthony Bloom so beautifully explains, “A person bereaved must learn never to speak of the love relationship that existed before in the past tense. One should never say ‘We loved one another.’ We should always say ‘We love each other.’ If we allow our love to become a thing of the past, we have to recognize that we do not believe in the continuing life of the person that died.”

St. Paul teaches, “Love never ends.” The Church understands well this precept, and therefore, continues to pray for the dead always. Since love never ends, our prayers never end; our communion with the departed never end; our union with them through Christ never ends.

Our prayers for the dead reveal in a most beautiful way our understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ both here on earth and in heaven. We are one Church, which includes those struggling here on earth, together with those who now live in fuller union with God in paradise. Just as we pray for one another here on earth, we also pray for those who have departed. The Body of Christ is not just the members who we see each week in Church. The Church is also the saints who we see in the icons, and the beloved faithful who have died and live in Christ. That is why before each Divine Liturgy, when I am preparing the bread which will be used for Holy Communion, I offer prayers for each one of you by name, as well offer prayers for the names of many who have died. There is no separation in our prayers for the living and the dead. Divine love unites us all together, as one Church.

So we hold Memorial Services and pray for the dead because we love!

Now, I know some people will say, “OK, I understand we pray for the dead because our love for them never ends, but do our prayers actually help those who have died?”

Sincere prayer unites us to God, and when we pray for others, we believe our prayers can help others in their own union towards their Creator.

Fr. Thomas Fitzgerald, a professor at Holy Cross Theological School, writes, “Death alters but does not destroy the bond of love and faith which exists among all the members of the Church. Easterny believes that through our prayers, those “who have fallen asleep in the faith and the hope of the Resurrection” continue to have opportunity to grow closer to God. Therefore, the Church prays constantly for her members who have died in Christ. We place our trust in the love of God and the power of mutual love and forgiveness. We pray that God will forgive the sins of the faithful departed, and that He will receive them into the company of Saints in the heavenly Kingdom.”

Of course, some who have died have not lived a righteous life of faith and love in Christ Jesus. Even for such as these, we still pray with hope. We know that God’s unfathomable mercy and love is immeasurably greater than any sin or shortcoming of a person, no matter how evil. Therefore, by turning to this ocean of love in prayer, we believe as Eastern Christians that our prayers in some way, and this way may be a part of the mystery of God, our prayers bring in some way comfort and benefit to the person we pray for!

Love compels us to pray for one another, with hope and with faith. And death can never stop this!

As a symbol of this hope we have for the dead, it is traditional for the family to bring a bowl of boiled wheat [kuyta] to the Church for the Memorial Service [or bread with fruit]. This wheat, known as kollyva in Greek, reminds us of the words of our Lord Jesus Christ spoke, “Unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” (Jn 12:24)

Death is not the end, and our Memorial Service concretely proclaims this fact!


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When he writes to the Ephesians, St. Paul praises God who “has bestowed on us in Christ every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realm” (Ephesians 1:3). Not only has Christ ascended in glory: “Both with and in Christ Jesus He raised us up and gave us a place in the heavenly realm” (Ephesians 2:6). We have become citizens of paradise, fellow heirs with the saints, people who live the divine life and share in the nature of God!

It is the Eastern Churches’ awareness of this truth which has been responsible for the formation of their ‘ethos’ or style of Christian living. Ours is an ‘other-worldly’ Church — stressing the holiness of God, our role as worshippers at His throne, our fellowship with the saints, and the like — because we know we belong, not to this world, but to the heavenly realm. This sense is most felt in our church buildings where we see the Church as heaven on earth and in our belief that our Church’s chief ‘business’ on earth is the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. Some see this as ‘irrelevant’, but if Paul’s teaching is true, our commitment to the heavenly realm is simply a case of knowing where our true home is.

It is not only in our liturgical life that we live in the heavenly realm. It affects our daily life as well. We live in two worlds, as it were. One we share with every other member of the human race. The other, the heavenly realm, is ours because of our union with God in Christ: and our daily life is means to reflect this share we have in God’s kingdom. This is why religious expression in Eastern Christianity is part and parcel of our everyday behavior.

We look to the heavenly realm in the standards we are called to live by, the standards of the gospel, for we believe in and direct our lives by realities unseen in this world:
“Since you have been raised up on company with Christ, set your heart on what pertains to higher realms where Christ is seated at God’s right hand. Be intent on things above rather than on things of earth” (Colossians 3:1, 2).

The world around us often cannot understand the standards of the gospel; more often the gospel standards are directly opposed to the wisdom of the world. The society in which we live sees the meaning of life in terms of success, prosperity, possessions and earthly pleasures. The believer cherishes his share in the divine nature far above these other realities, and this affects the way he acts, the decisions he makes, the priorities he sets for his life.

Because God has given us a place in the heavenly realm, we are in continual contact with beings whom the world around us does not even know exist: the Holy Trinity, the Theotokos, the saints and heavenly powers. The communication we call prayer is our natural mode of conversation with the Lord whose life we share and with those of every age who are our fellow partakers in this life. Prayer, and continual prayer in particular, are a hallmark of our commitment to the heavenly realm.

In prayer we rise to the throne of God who has given us access to Himself. We also attempt to take the lifestyle of heaven and bring it ‘down’ to reorient our daily activities. Fasting is one such practice. It stands out in contrast to the ways of the world around us, especially in a culture such as ours that endorses continual consumption. When we put aside food, entertainment, pleasure in the spirit of fasting we are saying to the world, “We are not from here.” When we fast we recognize that life is not simply to be found in the enjoyment of material creation, but in the relationship we have with its Creator.

Closely linked to fasting is almsgiving, another denial of the way of this world. Our society promotes consumerism. It says, “Build up for yourselves treasures on earth.” We say, with St. Paul, that material goods are given us not only to satisfy our own needs, but for the doing of good. We say, as Christ did, that our kingdom is not ultimately of this world and imitate His love for mankind by the way we use the resources He has given us.

Finally, while our place is in the heavenly realm, we do not have full possession of it yet. And, so we find ourselves each day engaged in an unseen warfare, “not against human forces but against the principalities and powers, the rulers of this world of darkness” (Ephesians 6:12). Many of our Church’s daily prayers are invocations asking for help and protection against the powers of evil. We recognize that there is more to the world in which we live than what is visible on the physical level.

Living, then, as citizens of the heavenly realm, we surround ourselves at all times with means of access to that kingdom. Icons are found in our homes, like churches, and we gather there for prayer. We bring the values of that realm to bear in our domestic affairs as well. There we fast and we extend hospitality in Christ’s name, deepening our experience of our true homeland. We try to live every day in an atmosphere of the kingdom, to continually remind ourselves that our baptism has made us actual coheirs with Christ of all that the Father has promised.

Vespers: The Prayer of Sunset

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When I was a young boy—during the War years—we faithfully observed a little ritual in our home, not from a sense of piety, but to aid the war effort. We would not put on the lights until five o’clock, “when it got dark.” In my child’s mind this quickly became associated with the end of the day and the change of pace it brought. It became the signal for my mother to begin preparing supper, and it meant my father would soon be home from work.

Long before electricity, the lighting of the household lamps heralded the evening. In the Book of Exodus, chapter thirty, it is reported that God commanded Moses to see to it that seven lamps were lit in the Tabernacle between sunset and nightfall:

“…Aaron must burn fragrant incense each morning when he trims the lamps and between sunset and nightfall when he puts them back…

“You are to make these offerings of incense before the Lord without fail from one generation to the next.”

Early Christians, continuing a practice already long established among the pagans, would bless the evening light with a short prayer of praise. Soon they began to augment this very simple rite with a hymn and other prayers. But even when a regular routine of prayer was organized in the church building, the blessing of the evening light remained the pivot on which all the other ceremonial gestures revolved.

These early Christians made Psalm 140 their evening prayer, because of the phrase “Let the lifting of my hands be like an evening sacrifice.” Even to this day, the recitation of Psalm 140 is an integral part of vespers, the evening service of prayer. The other phrase of the opening verses, “Let my prayer rise like incense before You…” probably urged them to restore the lapsed rite of burning fragrant spices. The first Christians had disdained the use of incense because it was so intimately connected with pagan rituals, but as the acute danger of idolatry began to subside, the study of Scripture moved them to restore the use of incense as an act of worship, since it is written in Exodus that this oblation is a “perpetual ordinance.”


Today the Horologion, the book of official daily prayers for use in Church, preserves these elements. In the course of time, other elements were added, notably a portion of Scripture, especially on those days when one would expect the whole body of the faithful to assemble, such as the greater feasts or special fast days. Other psalms were also added, some read quietly for the congregation to reflect upon and others chanted by the cantor with the people singing a refrain (prokimenon). To prepare everyone for the service, an introductory psalm was added at the very beginning. Today that is Psalm 103, which speaks of the rhythm of the day: man going out to work in the morning and returning in the evening. And to express the intercessions of the entire community, a set of petitions was added at the end, in which the deacon led the people in prayer for their various needs. Originally there was only one such litany and it was found toward the end of the service. Today this set of petitions has been divided up and there are now at least three litanies in vespers.

Yet more important than the structure or the historical evolution of the service is the spiritual message it conveys. The coming of physical darkness reminds us that the influence of darkness is ever ready to engulf us, and only the light that is Christ can reveal its tricks and expose its frauds. Christ is—and must always be—the light in our lives.

The Scripture itself teaches us the meaning of the incense. It reports in the sixteenth chapter of the Book of Numbers that a plague broke out among the Jews when they grumbled against the Lord. Aaron, the high priest, took a censer and “performed the rite of atonement over them and the plague was checked.” The incense also reminds us of the pillar of fire, seen as a column of cloud by day, which was the mysterious vehicle of God’s presence while the Israelites were wandering in the desert. It is also said that the incense represents the Holy Spirit who, as the Book of Genesis relates, was hovering over the void at the beginning of creation, ready to bring forth life.


Perhaps we cannot always attend these evening prayers in church, but there is no reason why we cannot observe our ancient traditions at home. Before the holy icons we ought to have an oil lamp or a candle burning. Each evening this lamp could be lit with the whole family present, perhaps before or after dinner. The family could recite the first verses of Psalm 140, perhaps sing the evening hymn, O Joyful Light, or use some other suitable prayers. A grain or two of incense might be offered. Small burners and proper size charcoals for this purpose are usually available in shops that serve the religious or domestic needs of our people. The sweet fragrance in the air might serve to remind the whole family of the presence of God, and to promote peace and tranquility in the household.

Article from the Eparchy of Newton (Eastern Catholic Church)

The Sign of the Cross ✚

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We make the Sign of the Cross by touching:

1. Our Head,

2. Then our Heart,

3. Then our RIGHT Shoulder

4. And then our Left Shoulder.

Then we make a bow. (We generally always make a bow when crossing ourselves.)

The entire gesture is called a “Reverence”.

We touch the Right Shoulder first (i.e. before the left) in order to symbolise Christ, Who sits at the Right Hand of God. This is the most ancient manner of making the Sign of the Cross, a practice not only used by Byzantine Christians, but also preserved by Church which has retained the most primitive and original liturgical rites – the Great Apostolic Assyrian Church of the East (which uses the Chaldean rite).

We make the Sign of the Cross with the right hand held thusly:

1. The first three fingers together (symbolizing the Oneness of the 3 Persons of the All-Holy Trinity

2. The remaining two fingers are tucked down into the palm.

These 2 remaining fingers represent the 2 Natures of the Christ [Divine and Human]. The placing of these 2 fingers down into the palm symbolises the descent of the Word into our world, i.e. the Holy Incarnation.

Source: St. Elias Ukrainian Catholic Church

Setting Up an Icon Corner

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The altar is to a church what an Icon Corner is to a home. The home is our domestic Church. The mother and father are the head of the church, with the children as their congregation.

“The mystery of marriage consecrates the domestic church. (It is interesting to note that the same hymns are sung at a wedding as the bride and groom circle the sacramental table, as at an ordination when the priest-to-be is led around the holy table). A wedding is an ordination for service in the domestic Church. Husband and wife are called to a unique sharing in Christ’s priesthood by their holy crowning. Their home is their Church.” (Pg. 70 He Dwells In Our Midst.)

The parents have an important role to play in leading their church. Their responsibility is to bring themselves and their children closer to God. They are able to accomplish this by learning more about Him and living life as He would choose. It is also their job to bless their children. They are to encourage their children to pray, fast, read about God and the history of His people. They are the first catechists to their children.

The children also have important roles in the domestic Church. They should learn all the lessons that their parents teach them. They can read the scripture passages, light the candles, prepare and participate in the family prayer time. The domestic Church is the basic building block of the larger Church. It is the desire of the larger Church to strengthen the domestic Church because this is its foundation.

What is in an Icon Corner?

The icon corner is a reminder of who we are and serves to provide us with a place to pray. We are children of God. Just as we have photo albums full of family members we should also have pictures of our God and the saints to remind us who we are and who we are to become. The icon corner also provides a place where the family can come together to pray. The family that prays together, stays together.

 Each icon corner will be set up to reflect the family and their needs. An icon corner can be made up of a single icon or it could include any number of other items: additional icons, a cross, a bible, a candle or lamp, holy water, holy oil, rushnyk, parents’ wedding crowns, (symbol of the marriage commitment), prayer book, incense, prayer beads, etc.

Icons: Every icon corner will be different in the kinds and number of icons present. It would be appropriate to have an icon of Jesus Christ or of the Mother of God or both. Patron saints of each member of the family may be added. Icons of special feast days or any other icon that has significance to the family may be added.

We do not pray to or honor the icon itself. We look through the icon, like looking through a window. We pray to the person that is represented. Icons are not life like. They do not show the present reality of humanity, rather they depict the reality of the person having been changed by sharing in God’s divine nature.

Shelf: The shelf has a practical purpose. It is where we place the other items. It is the altar of our domestic church.

The Cross: The cross is the symbol of the resurrection. It is the sign of the victory over sin and death.

 Bible: This is the Word of God. It should be left open on the shelf to let the Word of God pour out. It is important not just to leave the Bible in the corner. We should take it and read it. This is our opportunity to get to know our God better.

 Candle or Lamp: The candle shows us that God is the light of the world. The candle can be lit all the time or just during the time of prayer. It is interesting to watch how the flame of the candle plays with the lighting on the icons.

Holy Water: This is the water that is blessed at the Feast of Jordan. The water can be drunk or sprinkled during time of illness or whenever blessings are needed.

 Holy Oil: The Holy Oil may also be used for an anointing during time of illness or when blessings are needed.

 Rushnyk: There maybe a rushnyk (an embroidered cloth) draped over the icon or cross. This is to show the honor and respect that we place on the icon. This could be the rushnyk that was used for the parents’ wedding. The rushnyk should be taken off during Lent.

 Parents’ Wedding Crowns: The crowns are a symbol of the consecration of the parents at their wedding. This is only possible when the crowns were woven from myrtle as part of the wedding preparations. If there are no wedding crowns, include some other symbol of the wedding.

 Prayer Books: There should also be prayer books that the family uses during their prayer times.

 Incense: Just as we use incense in church, we could also have incense present in the domestic Church. We ask that our prayers rise like incense to our God.

 Prayer Beads: A set of chotky (Jesus prayer beads) or a rosary.


Where do we put an Icon Corner?

Traditionally the icon corner is placed in a corner, hence the name. Ideally it is placed on the East wall, for the same reason our Churches usually face East, anticipating the second coming of Christ. The best room for the icon corner will depend on the family. You may want it in the kitchen, where the family gathers to eat. It may be in the living room or family room, where the family enjoys each other’s company. The icon corner should be part of a family area.
How do we pray with an Icon Corner?

As with every new form of prayer we need guidance to get started. To begin, simply gather at the icon corner to say the usual morning and evening prayers. As we become accustomed to praying in this location the prayers will develop into something that will uniquely suit the family. Scripture readings, petitions, thanksgiving, hymns, traditional and spontaneous prayers could all be included.

Having just established an icon corner in the home, invite the parish priest to bless not only your home but also to bless the family Icon Corner. He may also have some additional prayer suggestions.




Resource List:
There are a number of books that are available on icon corners and praying with icons:

  • Jim Forest, Praying with Icons, Orbis Books,
    Maryknoll, New York, 1997.
    T. Lozynsky (editor), He Dwells In Our Midst –
  • Reflections on Eastern Christianity, St. Sophia
    Religious Association, 1988.
  • Henri J. M. Nouwen, Behold the Beauty of the
    Lord – Praying with Icons. Ave Maria Press, Notre
    Dame, Indiana, 1987
  • Myroslaw Tataryn, How to Pray with Icons – An
    Introduction. Novalis, St. Paul University, Ottawa,
    Canada, 1998
  • A Guide for the Domestic Church. Diocese of
    Newton, Office of Educations Services, West
    Newton, MA., 1986


Download this article: Introduction to Family Icon Corners (PDF)






Praying With Icons

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extract from Praying With Icons by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Book, 1997; revised 2008; endnotes and illustrations have been removed:

He is the image [Greek: ikon] of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
Col 1:15

That … which we have heard and seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands … we proclaim also to you.
1 John 1:1-3

Christianity is the revelation not only of the Word of God but also the Image of God.
— Leonid Ouspensky

We are the only creatures that make visual records of the things that matter to us. When we meet friends or relatives after a time apart, we not only tell what has happened since our last meeting, we also share photos. At home, similar photos are on display in photo albums and on computer screens.

It’s a trait that seems to reach very nearly to Adam and Eve. The prehistoric paintings found in the Chauvet Cave in Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, France, made about 28,000 BC, are among the witnesses to this dimension of being human.

It is not surprising that those who saw Christ took pains to recall what he looked like.

“I have seen a great many portraits of the Savior, and of Peter and Paul, which have been preserved up to our time,” Eusebius recorded in his History of the Church early in the fourth century. While visiting Caesarea Philippi in Galilee, he also noted seeing a centuries-old bronze statue of the Savior outside the house of the woman who had been cured of incessant bleeding by Christ. Eusebius’s witness is all the more compelling as he was one of those who regarded religious images as belonging more to the pagan world than to the Church.

The first icon, according to ancient accounts, was made when King Abgar of Osroene, dying of leprosy, sent a message begging Jesus to visit him in Edessa, a city in what is now Turkey, and cure him. Hurrying toward Jerusalem and his crucifixion, Christ instead sent King Abgar a healing gift. He pressed his face against a linen cloth, making the square of fabric bear the image of his face. The miraculous icon remained in Edessa until the tenth century, when it was brought to Constantinople. Then, after the city was sacked by the Crusaders in 1204, it disappeared. We know it only through copies. Known as “Not Made by Human Hands” or the “Holy Face,” versions of the icon have often been reproduced down to our own day.

In the western Church, a similar story is associated with the name of Veronica, one of the women who comforted Jesus as he was bearing the cross. She offered him a cloth to wipe the blood and sweat from his face and afterward found she had received a miraculous image. In Jerusalem, a building along the Via Dolorosa associated with Veronica is today home to a community of the Little Sisters of Jesus who, appropriately, support themselves by selling icon prints mounted on olive wood.

The Evangelist and physician Luke is regarded as the first person to paint an icon. Saint Luke is credited with three icons of Mary, in one case using the wood of the table where Christ’s mother and Saint John ate their meals.

The best known is “Our Lady of Tenderness” in which the face of the child Jesus is pressing his face against his mother’s. It was given in 1155 to the recently baptized Church in Russia by Patriarch of Constantinople; because it was kept in the cathedral in Vladimir, it came to came to be known as the Vladimir Mother of God.

Another, the “Hodigitria,” meaning “She Who Shows the Way,” has a more formal arrangement, showing Mary presenting her young son to the viewer.

Finally Luke is credited with painting an icon of Mary in prayer, with outstretched arms, an image sometimes seen in Orthodox churches in the sanctuary above the altar. The placing of the icon near the altar serves as a reminder that Mary became the bridge linking heaven and earth.

Ancient icons often bear layer upon layer of paint, as later iconographers renewed by overpainting work that had become too darkened by candle smoke or too damaged with the passage of time. It is only since the beginning of the twentieth century that icon restorers found safe ways to remove overpainting and reveal the original icon. Perhaps at the foundation level of one or another ancient icon are brush strokes that were made by the hand of Saint Luke. Or perhaps not. Nearly all ancient icons were destroyed during times of persecution in the first three centuries of the Christian era or during the iconoclastic periods in the eighth and ninth centuries, while many others have been lost to fires, earthquakes and vandalism. What can be said with confidence is that icons have come down to us that faithfully bear witness to the work of iconographers of the early generations of the Church.

Even though most early icons have been lost or destroyed, it is surprising how many Christian images from the early Church have survived, most notably in the Roman catacombs and burial houses, but also in many other places, from Asia Minor to Spain. Mainly these are wall paintings — simple and sober images, made with few brush strokes and a narrow range of colors, with such subjects as Christ carrying a lamb, the three young men praising God from within a furnace, the raising of Lazarus, the ark of Noah, the eucharistic meal, and such symbols as fish, lamb and peacock. The catacombs bear witness that, from the Church’s early days, wherever Christians prayed, they sought to create a visual environment that reminded them of the Kingdom of God and helped them to pray.

Many early icons of a more developed style survive in Rome, though they are chiefly mosaics and have a monumental aspect, a type of public Christian art that only became possible in the fourth century, after the age of persecution ended.

In one of Rome’s earliest major churches, Santa Maria Maggiore, there are mosaics from the fifth century, but, as they are high up on the walls, the average visitor will need binoculars to see the detail. One mosaic shows Abraham and Sarah with their three angelic guests — an event Christian theologians came to recognize as an early revelation of the Holy Trinity. The large and vivid mosaic icons above and behind the altar, however, are easy to see and deeply moving; at the center Christ is shown crowning his mother.

Among other Roman churches that contain impressive examples of iconography from the first millennium of Christianity are Saints Cosmas and Damian, Saint John Lateran, Santa Sabina, Santa Costanza, San Clemente, Santa Prassede, Santa Agnese fuori le Mura, Santa Maria in Trastevere, and San Paolo fuori le Mura.

The most significant collection of early icons to survive into our time is at the desert monastery of Saint Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai deep inside the Sinai desert. Here we find icon portraits of Christ and the apostle Peter, both dated by art historians as having been made in the sixth century. Both have an almost photographic realism. The style has much in common with Roman and Egyptian portraiture of classical times. These are probably similar to the images mentioned by Eusebius.

Whether or not any original icons from the apostolic age have survived, one is impressed to see how, generation after generation, devout iconographers have sought to make faithful copies of earlier icons, a process that continues to the present day. Thus images of Christ and the leading apostles are recognizable from century to century despite occasional changes in style. We know, for example, that Peter had thick curly hair while Paul was bald. One of the earliest images to survive, a bronze medallion of Saints Peter and Paul, both seen in profile, was made in the second or third century; it is now part of the collection of the Vatican Museum in Rome.

Most important, the memory of Christ’s face is preserved: a man in early middle age, with brown eyes, a piercing gaze, straight dark brown hair reaching down to his shoulders, a short beard, olive skin, and regular features of the Semitic type.

Just as in our own time there is controversy about icons, so was there dispute in the early Church. Early opponents of icons included Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Minucius Felix and Lactancius. Eusebius was not alone in fearing that the art of the pagan world carried with it the spirit of the pagan world, while others objected on the basis of Old Testament restrictions of imagery. Christianity was, after all, born in a world in which many artists were employed doing religious, political and secular work. Idolatry was a normal part of pagan religious life. Thus we find that in the early centuries, in the many areas of controversy among Christians, there was division on questions of religious art and its place in spiritual life. It is instructive to notice that some of those who were reluctant to accept that Christ was God incarnate were also resistant to icons.

At the heart of all theological disputes, from that time into our own day, is the burning question: Who is Jesus Christ?

Some argued that Jesus was simply a man of such exemplary goodness that he was adopted by God as a son. Going further with this idea, others believed God so overwhelmed Jesus the Galilean that his manhood was gradually absorbed into divinity. Then there were those who argued that Jesus merely appeared to be a person of human flesh, but he was in reality pure spirit. Because the flesh is subject to passions, illness and decay, they argued that God could never become incarnate. Those who held this belief rejected Jesus’s death on the cross — a being of pure spirit is deathless — and thus also rejected the resurrection. A being who couldn’t die had no need of being raised from death.

The orthodox Christian answer — that in the womb of Mary the Second Person of the Holy Trinity became a human being, thus Jesus was both true God and true man — was both too simple and too radical for many people. How could the all-powerful God clothe divinity in that which can suffer pain, death and corruption?

Discussion of this issue and its implications constituted the center point for the Church’s seven Ecumenical Councils held during the first eight centuries of the Christian era. Though we find the Orthodox teaching already expressed in the creed of the first Council, held in Nicea near Constantinople in 325, still it took centuries for the Church to shake off the influence of heresies which, in a variety of ways, denied the Incarnation. In fact, these ancient arguments continue with renewed vigor in our own day.

Each church assembly which affirmed the icon was reaffirming the Incarnation. For example the Quinisext Council in Trullo, in 692, while condemning “deceitful paintings that corrupt the intelligence by exciting shameful pleasures,” recognized the icon as a mirror of grace and truth. “In order to expose to the sight of all what is perfect,” the Council declared, “even with the help of painting, we decide that henceforth Christ our God must be presented in his human form…”

The argument over icons reached its boiling point in the eighth and ninth centuries at the time when Islam was rapidly spreading in areas that had formerly been Christian. In 725 the Emperor Leo III, ignoring the opposition of both Patriarch Germanus of Constantinople and Pope Gregory II in Rome, ordered the removal of icons from the churches and their destruction. Perhaps he hoped his order would help stop the spread of Islam, which firmly opposed images in places of worship. Many iconographers from the Byzantine world fled to Italy, finding protection from the Pope. It was a period in which many who upheld orthodox belief suffered loss of property, imprisonment, beatings, and even mutilation.

Some iconoclasts argued that images of Christ, representing as they did his physical appearance, diminished his divinity by revealing only his humanity. It may be that one beneficial consequence of the iconoclastic movement was that makers of icons searched for better ways to represent in paint the hidden, spiritual reality rather than merely the physical aspects of the person represented.

There had been, of course, many earlier defenders of icons, among them Saint Basil the Great in the fourth century, who taught the basic principle that icons are devotional images serving not as ends in themselves but as bridges. He introduced an important verbal clarification. Icons were not adored — God alone is adored — but rather venerated. Even the veneration offered to an icon is given not to the materials that form or support the image, but rather to its living prototype. To kiss an icon of Christ is to send a kiss to Christ himself.

It was a distinction also made in the fourth century by Saint Augustine, bishop of Hippo in North Africa. As he wrote in City of God:

For this is the worship which is due to the Deity; and to express this worship in a single word, as there does not occur to me any Latin term sufficiently exact, I shall avail myself … of a Greek word. Latreia, whenever it occurs in Scripture, is rendered by the word “service.” But that service which is due to men, and in reference to which the apostle [Paul] writes that servants must be subject to their own masters [Eph. 6:5], is usually designated by another word in Greek [douleia], whereas the service which is paid to God alone by worship is always, or almost always, called latreia…

In the age of iconoclasm, the theologian who best defended the use of icons in Christian life was Saint John of Damascus (676-749), a monk and poet kept safe from the power of the iconoclastic emperor through ironic circumstances — his monastery, Mar Saba, in the desert southeast of Jerusalem, was in an area under Islamic rule, thus out of reach of imperial edicts. Here he wrote his essay “On the Divine Images” in which he reasoned:

If we made an image of the invisible God, we would certainly be in error … but we do not do anything of the kind; we do not err, in fact, if we make the image of God incarnate who appeared on earth in the flesh, who in his ineffable goodness, lived with men and assumed the nature, the volume, the form, and the color of the flesh…

Saint John also responded to the arguments of those who regarded Old Testament prohibitions of religious imagery as also applying to the Church:

Since the invisible One became visible by taking on flesh, you can fashion the image of him whom you saw. Since he who has neither body nor form nor quantity nor quality, who goes beyond all grandeur by the excellence of his nature, he, being of divine nature, took on the condition of a slave and reduced himself to quantity and quality by clothing himself in human features. Therefore, paint on wood and present for contemplation him who desired to become visible.

Saint Theodore the Studite (758-826), another defender of icons in the time of iconoclasm, links Gospel and icon with the senses of hearing and seeing:

Imprint Christ onto your heart, where he already dwells. Whether you read about him the Gospels, or behold him in an icon, may he inspire your thoughts, as you come to know him twofold through the twofold experience of your senses. Thus you will see through your eyes what you have learned through the words you have heard. He who in this way hears and sees will fill his entire being with the praise of God.

The first iconoclastic period lasted until 780. Seven years later, at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the bishops rose in defense of the icon. The Council affirmed that it is not the icon itself which is venerated but the prototype whose image is represented in the icon. Iconoclasm was condemned.

Nonetheless, a second iconoclastic period, less severe than the first, was initiated by Emperor Leo V in 813. Orthodox resistance included an impressive act of civil disobedience — an icon-bearing procession in Constantinople by a thousand monks. With the death of the Emperor Theophilus in 842, imperial objections to icons ended. In 843, Theodora, widow of the former Emperor, convened a Council which reaffirmed the teaching of the Seven Ecumenical Councils and confirmed the place of the icon in Christian life. Henceforth the first Sunday of Great Lent was set aside to celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy, a custom maintained to the present day in the Orthodox world when the faithful bring at least one of their home icons to the church. A text sung on the Sunday of Orthodoxy declares:

The indefinable Word of the Father made Himself definable, having taken flesh of thee, O Mother of God, and having refashioned the soiled image of man to its former estate, has suffused it with Divine beauty. Confessing salvation, we show it forth in deed and word.

If in Byzantium the encounter with Islam initially had a devastating effect on icons, further north the Tartar invasion and occupation of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was to have a disruptive impact on every aspect of religious life among the Russian people, themselves latecomers to Christianity, their conversion having begun in Kiev at the end of the tenth century.

Very little iconography of the first few centuries of Christian culture in Russia survives. The early center of Christianity, Kiev, was almost entirely destroyed during the Mongol invasion in 1240. As a consequence, Russian culture was driven north. But from the late fourteenth to the mid-sixteenth centuries, iconography was to reach heights in Russia that many regard as unparalleled before or since.

The most renowned figure of the period is Saint Andrei Rublev, first noted in 1405 while working in a cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin as a student of the master iconographer Theophanes the Greek. In 1425 Saint Andrei painted the Old Testament Holy Trinity icon, widely regarded as the highest achievement in iconographic art.

Saint Andrei’s other masterpieces include the Savior of Zvenigorod, remarkable for the profound sense of love and mercy communicated in Christ’s face.

For generations Russia was a paradise of iconographic art characterized by simplicity of line, vivid, harmonious colors, grace of gesture, an amazing freshness and transparency. But in the mid-sixteenth century one begins to notice signs of decay. Complexity of design begins to take the place of simplicity, while colors become duller and darker. Russian art historians attribute the change, at least in part, to the influence of prints imported from the west. By the seventeenth century artistic decay was well advanced.

“Decline was the result of a deep spiritual crisis, a secularization of religious consciousness,” writes the iconographer and scholar Leonid Ouspensky, “thanks to which, despite the vigorous opposition of the Church [which ordered the destruction of icons influenced by the artistic methods of the Renaissance], there began the penetration not merely of separate elements but of the very principles of religious art.”

Czar Peter the Great (1672-1725) played a major role in speeding the process of the secularization of religious art. He avidly promoted imitation of all things western in every field, including church architecture and iconography, a process carried further by his successors. By the middle of the eighteenth century only a few painted icons in the traditional way, nor was their work welcomed in many local churches. Traditional iconography was replaced by third-rate imitation of second-rate western religious painting — “caricatures of icons,” as Bishop Ignaty Brianchaninov, a nineteenth century Russian prelate, remarked.

Peter the Great also abolished the office of Patriarch of Moscow. Afterward the Russian Orthodox Church was treated as a department of government. State control lasted until the abdication of the Czar Nicholas II in 1917 — and then came the Bolshevik Revolution and a period of persecution such as Christianity hadn’t experienced since Nero and Diocletian. Not only were countless icons destroyed, but millions of Orthodox believers perished as well.

It was not only in Russia that iconographers were influenced by western approaches to religious art. Similar influences were at work in other Orthodox countries. As a result, today one finds in many Orthodox churches, no matter in which country, an odd mixture of classic iconography and much that, at best, can be appreciated for its sincerity and, at worst, dismissed as suitable only for the basement.

An important event in the renewal of iconography occurred in Russia in 1904. This was the year that a commission was created to restore Rublev’s Old Testament Holy Trinity icon. As was the case with many other old icons, over time the smoke of candles had been absorbed by the varnish, gradually hiding the image beneath the varnish. As no method then existed for removing the varnish without harming the image, the cure for blackened images was the repainting of icons. Thus a similar image was painted over the older one. Some cases, ancient icons bear several layers of paint. A more permanent solution was to place an oklad over the icon: a relief image in metal — silver or gold — that covered everything but the faces and hands. In 1904, the restoration commission carefully removed the oklad that covered the Holy Trinity icon. Then began the slow and painstaking removal of the layers of overpainting that masked Rublev’s work. It took years, but what their effort finally revealed has ever since amazed those who have been privileged to stand in front of the actual icon. The uncovering of the icon was a momentous event, doing much to inspire the return to classic iconography — and the restoration of a great many other old icons.

Thanks largely to the recovery of many ancient icons, the past century has witnessed a startling re-birth of appreciation of classic iconography. Today one finds good reproductions of iconographic masterpieces, not only in churches but in homes and even in offices. But it is not only a matter of reproductions. Increasingly iconographers are being trained in traditional methods and in the spiritual life that sustains iconography. The result is that good hand-painted icons are more often found not only in churches but in private homes.

We Worship God: Who? What? When? Where? & Why?

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Why worship? The true nature of man is revealed in the action of worship. Of all creatures of God, only you and I are able to reflect of God’s creation and wonder why all this exists Certainly, God who made it all did not feel compelled to create. He created to manifest His love for us. He created you and me to hear of that great love for us manifested to us especially in His Son, Jesus Christ, and to say thank you.

How do we say thank you? “On the night when Jesus was betrayed, He took bread and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘This is My Body which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same way also the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My Blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me. For as often as you eat this food and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He come” (1 Cor 11:23-26).

Of all that God did for us the greatest is to give us a share in His divine life as the result of His death and resurrection. This sharing in the divine life has as its consequence the forgiveness of sins, the abolition of death and the beginning of a process that will culminate in our partaking in the Divine Nature by adoption (2 Peter 1:4). The whole thanksgiving for this process is called the Divine Liturgy or the Eucharist, a Greek word which means thanksgiving. During this service, God is glorified and thanked and we are changed and divinized, proceeding from glory to glory (2 Cor 3:18) by participating in the Body and Blood of Christ our God.

What that screen before the altar? The screen or iconostasis reminds us that there is more of God’s glory that is yet to be revealed. What we see is just a hint of a deeper revelation which is to come (1 Cor 13:12).

Why those pictures? The pictures are called icons, a Greek word that means image. Icons tell us that the unseen God who revealed Himself in the Old Testament is now revealed Himself through His Son, Jesus Christ, who is the image of the Father (John 14:8,9; 2 Cor 4:4).

They also tell us that Christ was a man like us in all things except sin. He healed and restored our human nature and made it able to share in God’s Divine Nature. We honour these icons with candles and incense. This honour given is not to wood or paint, but to the person depicted. People are honoured with incense because we are sharers in the Divine Nature.

Why do people constantly cross themselves? We love the cross of Christ. It is the power of God for us who are saved (1 Cor 1:18) and our glory (Gal 6: 14). We cross ourselves whenever we hear the names of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or whenever the Holy Gospels or the gifts of bread and wine are carried by us in procession.

We cross ourselves in the ancient way formerly used by both the east and the west. The thumb, index and middle fingers are joined tightly together to remind us that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one God, and we touch our forehead, breast, right shoulder and left shoulder.

Why do you sing everything? Singing is heightened speech. We use everyday speech for ordinary things, but we use special heightened speech to glorify God. Jesus and the apostles sang a hymn at the last supper they shared before His crucifixion (Matthew 26:30).

Why do you sing so many litanies? God wants us to praise Him and proclaim our belief that all things come from Him (Phil 4:6). We add our response, Lord have mercy, to the prayer offered as our assent to what is being asked. Some people cross themselves to intensify their assent to the prayer being offered.

Why does the priest turn his back to the people? He really doesn’t turn his back but, with us, faces east, and, as our leader, he offers praise to God. The east is where paradise, our ancestral homeland was located. Light arises in the east and Christ will come again and shine forth as lightening shines from east to west (Mat. 24:27). In our prayer we do not face any city or person, but we face God alone expecting His great mercy.

Why do you always stand? Our worship is dynamic. It is the worship of a people who are on their way to heaven. We are not passive spectators, or people being instructed, but rather, we are active participants in the worship of God. Ideally, chairs are for the aged, the mum and the pregnant. Kneeling is reserved for weekdays and ought not be done on Sunday.

Who can receive the Holy Eucharist (Communion)? Only those who are baptized and chrismated into the Catholic or Orthodox Church, and are not impeded by unrepented and unconfessed sins, and have prepared themselves by fasting from the previous night may approach the Holy Eucharist. Sharing the Holy Eucharist is the sign of church unity already accomplished. (Orthodox members should approach the priest before Divine Liturgy to discuss Communion.) We long for the day when all will be one. “There is one body, one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all (Eph. 4:4).

How do you receive Holy Eucharist? You approach the priest and make a reverence (a bow from the waist accompanied by the sign of the cross), and with your hands crossed upon your breast, you tilt your head back, and open your mouth without extending your tongue. You do not say “Amen;” but after having received the Eucharist, step aside, make another reverence (as above), and return to your place.

What is the bread given at the end of the Divine Liturgy? The blessed bread or antidoron is what remains from the preparation of the Holy Eucharist. It is not the Body of Christ, but is still blessed and therefore given to those who participate or it is brought to shut-ins. Some people keep it in their homes and eat a small portion daily before breakfast as a blessing and a reminder of their participation in the Divine Liturgy.

We come forward to receive the antidoron and extend our hands right palm crossed over the left. We kiss the hand of the priest who places the antidoron into our hands.

Why is the Divine Liturgy so long? For those who are new to our church, and as yet unfamiliar with its worship, things may seem confusing and lengthy. The Divine Liturgy is our entry into the joy of the Lord; for us, time and space are no more and we are in the eternal now of God’s presence. When we are in our Father’s house, we are where we ought to be. We are safe and secure in His loving presence partaking of His holiness.

As we stand in the midst of the divine milieu and breathe the sacred atmosphere of God’s presence, we can say with St. Peter the apostle, “Lord it is good for us to be here (Matthew 17:4). When we approach worship as joy rather than as an obligation, time spent with God is never really long enough.

What do you do after the Divine Liturgy? Since we have been to the mountain top and seen the glory of God revealed to us in the splendour of His holiness, we descend with the vision of that splendour fixed deeply in our minds and hearts.

We descend to a world that does not know God or His Son, Jesus Christ; a world disfigured by sin. We return bringing the healing and wholeness that only Christ can give. Our lives are changed and we translate into life what we have experienced in Liturgy.