Dealing with Scripture and Tradition (and things in between)

I will never forget when I had first read through the Bible in its entirety as a high schooler. My stepfather (who was not a Christian) asked me, “Well, are you done now that you’ve read that book?” As a fundamentalist evangelical Christian, this was unthinkable. The Word of God is living and powerful (Hebrews 4:12), it is a lamp unto my feet (Psalm 118/9:105), and I was sure that God would speak to me and guide me more and more clearly the more that I devoted myself to reading the Bible. There was so much truth to discover in the Holy Scriptures. That is why I was dismayed when I heard about Catholics and Orthodox and their traditions. It was as if that clear message from the Bible was obscured by the “traditions of men” (Col 2:8), something which Our Lord Himself decried again and again in talking to the Pharisees (Mar 7:9). However, I grew to learn that this was something that I now believe to be a false distinction. Instead of pitting tradition, the Church, icons, and the like as the enemies of the Scriptures, I came to see the Scriptures and tradition as threads woven from the same loom. God was working through history and His people to bring salvation and the truth to the world through these various and harmonious truths. But how did this journey of faith come about for me?

To think about this more clearly, let’s state the obvious: Catholics and fundamentalists do not agree on everything. We disagree on many points about salvation, the saints, how we should pray, how the church should be organized, and more. Much of this disagreement arises precisely through the fact that Tradition is a strong influence on Catholics, and Martin Luther and others decried this appeal to Tradition against the Bible. After the Protestant Reformation, both sides of this divide have accused one another of heresy. Both feel that they are on the right side of history, and that the Word of God is their ally to demonstrate this. We may feel that we are at an impasse when such strong words of opposition are spoken. But is that truly the case?

If we are honest with ourselves and each other, we must confess that even Catholics and fundamentalists do not agree on everything among themselves. Recently, there was a synod in Rome discussing the Catholic Church’s pastoral approach to issues surrounding the family, and it is clear that some parties disagreed with one another, which is nothing new in Church history. On the fundamentalist side, there are also disagreements about how we should live our lives in union with God, which is one reason why there are so many denominations even within the group of Christians who are fundamentalists. Depending on how strictly we define ourselves, there may be more or less diversity and agreement in how we understand our faith in God, but suffice to say we have flavors of both Catholics and fundamentalists. Let’s dig deeper to particular Christian communities and consider that even within a specific congregation, we have our pastors and we are commanded by Scripture to submit to them (Heb 13:17). And yet, as we journey through our faith we will come to see ourselves disagreeing with one another as congregants, and with our leadership. We can submit to someone of course, and yet disagree with that person. But the Scriptures give us an even higher calling. The Apostle Paul urges us to be of one mind and judgment (1 Cor 1:10). In the case of Catholic Christians, Tradition influences our understanding of the truths of the Bible and all of life. Part of that Tradition includes the belief in the Divine Inspiration of Scripture. The Papal Encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu opens with these words: “Inspired by the Divine Spirit, the Sacred Writers composed those books, which God, in His paternal charity towards the human race, deigned to bestow on them in order ‘to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice: that the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.’ This heaven-sent treasure Holy Church considers as the most precious source of doctrine on faith and morals.”

In the case of fundamentalist Christians, the Bible itself is the final court of appeal both to life and to understanding the Bible’s meaning. Scripture interprets Scripture, through the whole context of the Bible. This can only be possible if we hold to what is known as the perspicuity of Scripture. When Martin Luther objected to some Catholic practices, he felt that his ultimate court of appeal was the Bible. We could argue about which principle of understanding the faith is better in that it is more Scriptural, more consistent, more logical, and the like. There is much to be said in that area, but I would like us to focus on the idea of agreement.

In my journey of faith, my first strong disagreement over Biblical interpretation was the nature of the rapture. When I presented my first pastor with my disagreement over how to understand the passages used to advocate for a pretribulational premillenialist perspective, I will never forget his response to me. “Jonathan, just ask yourself. Did Paul teach a ‘pretrib’ view? If he did, then we have to hold to this perspective.” I was stunned because my whole point in challenging this perspective was from within the framework of asking asking the same questions: What did Paul really think? What did the Bible as a collection teach with regard to eschatology? I knew in my heart of hearts that I had searched the Scriptures to see what was true, just as the Bereans had done (Acts 17:11), and yet I was no longer won over by the arguments that the Bible taught pretrib eschatology. This experience was amplified and repeated on multiple occasions in my own life, and in reaching beyond the small community in my childhood town I came to realize that Christians who hold to the Bible alone do not come to the same conclusion on a multitude of topics.

Let’s shift gears and consider a different example, where I’ve experienced discord in a Catholic context. As Catholics we do not hold to the Bible alone as our guide for the truth. With St. Paul, we consider the Church to be the pillar and ground of Truth (1 Tim 3:15). The Church has given many things held in common by Protestants and Catholics, such as the most basic Creeds which come to us from the earliest councils, the Canon of Scripture (with some Old Testament books not fully agreed on), basic calendar understandings surrounding Christmas and Easter, and more. But of course there are additional things taught by the Church’s Tradition not held to by Protestants. Nevertheless, if I am fully honest I must also include the fact that the Tradition must be interpreted. One poignant area of difference that is worth considering is the issue of married Priests. In the East, this was upheld by and large, with Eastern Catholics living outside of the East being a key exception. This difference of whether men called to the priesthood should live as celibates was so dividing in the U.S. that thousands of Eastern Catholics left communion with Rome when told that they could not have married priests. Agreement is not guaranteed for those who hold to the Bible alone, or to those who hold to a Tradition which includes the Bible.

Thus, the issue is not that one of us (the Catholic) has a guide that leads us to perfect unity and the other (the Protestant) is doomed to disagree. This is something that some apologists have arguably exploded in trying to draw some Protestants to the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. But if we step back, we realize that as people on a journey of faith, hope, love, and truth, we are all at different places. We open our hearts to those whom we trust, and respond to God’s call to grow on this journey towards perfection in Christ. When a Catholic or Orthodox Christian trusts Tradition, we not only trust our pastor, we trust Councils and decrees that come from the same group of Christians who gave us the Bible. When an Evangelical Christian trusts the Bible, they likewise trusting their pastor and their pastor’s interpretation of the Bible. We could doubt each other and in cynicism (or sincerity) accuse one another of being heretics on the road to damnation. The Catholic Church’s calling to unity in documents such as Lumen Gentium won my heart and mind over. When they broached the topic of agreement and union, the description of the world was complicated and that description matched my own experience of my life in Christ perfectly.

In closing, the journey to Biblical truth can be oversimplified, but if we do so we miss the goodwill of many. The Catholic recognition of spiritual life outside the confines of Her visible communion speaks to the complexity of life. Tradition is part of the framework of historic Christian faith, and if we see that as part of our interpretive grid, we will not see it as a foreign intruder. Instead, Tradition is a guide to uphold and magnify the Holy Scriptures that fundamentalists and Catholics alike extol.

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(Part of) What we think about when we think about the Holy Trinity

“Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us.”-The Trisagion

The Holy Trinity is upheld as a central Christian doctrine by Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox alike. At the same time, the Byzantine Tradition has a distinct manner of prayer not seen so often by Western Christians such as Roman Catholics and Protestants, and this is exemplified by the Trisagion Prayer quoted above. When we think of the Holy Trinity in the prayer life of Byzantine Christians, references to the Trinity predominate, and we may ask why that is the case. Is it just to reinforce the dogma of the Trinity, or is there a spiritual message which speaks to our hearts? As we shall see, the latter is more often true. In reflecting upon this, we can not only understand why the Byzantine spiritual traditions have this characteristic, we can also find a message worth meditating upon and practicing in our life of prayer that we are all called to as Christians.

Let’s start by thinking about the sign of the cross. Western and Eastern Christians alike use this gesture to unite ourselves physically to the historic event which wrought our salvation, and while this is most clearly linked to the second Person of the Holy Trinity, the sign of the cross tends to come to us in the liturgy when the Trinity is named. Thus, in the Latin Rite it is said at the beginning and end of Mass, when we hear the words “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”. Additionally, this action is done by many at the absolution and at the Holy Gospel, where words of life, healing and forgiveness take us to the same cross. In the Byzantine Tradition, the sign of the cross comes to us even more frequently in the Divine Liturgy, but there is a similar spiritual source and inspiration. Beyond personal preferences or recollections during the liturgy that lead to making the sign the cross, we make the sign of the cross as a community when we are especially penitential (e.g., at the pre-communion prayers as we say ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner…” and ‘Remember me, O Lord…”) and when we sing or hear “Father, and Son and Holy Spirit”. But there are other occasions when the Persons of the Trinity are not explicitly mentioned, and yet the Trinity can be seen. Sometimes this is a simple fact that a prayer is repeated three times, which points us to the ‘Threeness’ of the Trinity. For example, we make the sign of the cross each of the three times that we sing ‘Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Glory to you, O God!”, and there is both a triplicate nature to those three acclamations, just as there are three Alleluias in each acclamation. Here, we see oneness in the three Persons of the Trinity because we praise each Person of the Trinity with the same words. Another prayer with a different message would be the Trisagion, where the one Holy God (Father), Holy and Mighty (Son), Holy and Immortal (Spirit) is called upon in what could simply be three dimensions of who God is, but is actually a reflection of the three Persons of the Trinity. The Father is not solely God, nor is the Son the only Mighty one, and the Spirit is not the only Immortal Person of the Trinity. But we emphasize these dimensions of divinity and may arguably see that the three persons of the Trinity manifest the words God, mighty, and immortal in their own ways and emphases. God the Father is Father for the Trinity and all of creation. Thus, as the “head” of the Godhead we see God uniquely in the Father. The Son is the one who conquers (IC XC NIKA means “Jesus Christ conquers”) sin and death. The Holy Spirit is the one who dwells within us and brings life to the world. So while we profess that each of the three Persons of the Trinity are God, mighty, and immortal, we see the Trinity’s complexity and uniqueness in the sequence of prayers known as the Trisagion. The way that we pray as Byzantine Christians makes both explicit and implicit references to the Trinity on many occasions and in many ways. These references point us to the oneness and Threeness and bring this truth to life, when we reflect upon our prayers.

Let’s step back to an even more basic consideration with regard to an explicit reference to the Trinity. When we pray the words “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”, do we meditate upon the singularity of the word “name”? This comes to us directly from the Bible, where Christ utters the same words in the context of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19). There are three persons who have one name! The Byzantine response to this mystery of the Holy Trinity is that we should revel in this mystery that can be seen on so many levels. What does this cause us to do for our spiritual life? I would like to consider two consequences of this view of the Trinity.

First, we are called to pause and see God in all of life. When God is not viewed as the Father, we do not have a loving leader who brings us guidance. When God is not viewed as the Son, we do not have a condescending love who rescues us from our deepest distress. And when God is not viewed as Spirit, we lack that transcendent love who is “everywhere present and filling all things”. Each of these aspects come to us in the Trisagion, however. The word “Holy” unites the three Persons of the Trinity into the one holy Godhead of the undivided Trinity. And yet the words God, Mighty, and Immortal distinguishes them. As complex beings, we yearn for a King who is mighty and life giving. Dwelling upon God who is enthroned on high, God who is saving us by death, trampling death, and the God who is everywhere present meets every need of our own complexities. We will see God in tragedy because He is a King who will judge the world to make things right. We will see God in sin because He has ultimately conquered it. We will see God at all times and in all places and all people because He abides in all places.

Secondly, meditation upon the Trinity will bring us to realize that mystery is everywhere. So often our analytical approach to life robs us of the fullness of truth in life. As just one example of many, consider church governance and structure and the Nicene Creed, which calls the Church “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic”. In the Byzantine Tradition, we often hear of the Church described in both a singular and a plural sense. One example would be the standard Ambon prayer which states, “Preserve the fullness of your Church…Grant peace to your world, to your churches…” For many, the idea that the Church could be one flies against the diversity and disagreements of history. We are not all uniform, nor should we be. But if we see uniqueness and yet absolute unity in the Trinity, this will not be so unsurprising. For others, the idea that the Church include an element of “many-ness” is unattractive or confusing, particularly among some who want a monolithic hierarch, or among Protestants who think that they are the only ones who interpret the Bible correctly. Particularly for many Eastern Christians, this complexity is somewhat second nature. We think of our own particular Church’s history, and we not only commemorate other leaders but we understand that our roots are complex. Bishops coming into and falling out of communion with others is a vivid experience, and our diversity of liturgical practices, musical styles highlights that while there is much in common even among Byzantine Christians, there are many unique features within Byzantine Christianity, and yet we can still see the oneness of our faith. Worshipping the undivided Trinity calls us to have that vision of seeing oneness and “many-ness” at the same time, and gives us a more nuanced view than a simple either/or mindset. This issue of complexity can be extended to questions of science and faith, mercy and judgment, celibacy and marriage, lay people and clerics, masculinity and femininity, and so much more. In each case, worshipping the Trinity is the answer because we are drawn towards mystery and away from an either/or mentality.

In conclusion, the Byzantine manner of prayer calls our attention to the Trinity not because this is a strict dogma, nor is it a way of bringing confusion. Instead, this is our grid of understanding God in His deepest mysterious being, and it is our path to best understand ourselves, our neighbors and the world at large. By delving deep into the spirituality of the Byzantine Churches, we are brought to the threshold of a complex reality that makes sense of most difficult issues that we face, and provides hope for our future where these problems are conquered by the God who is Holy, Mighty and Immortal. Glory to Jesus Christ!

Post-Marriage Formation based on Amoris Laetitia and Byzantine Spirituality

The theological understanding of marriage in the Catholic Tradition is based upon the Scriptures and the Church’s understanding of the revelation that comes to us through the same Scriptures. From the outset, the first references to the union of Adam and Eve speak clearly to the unitive nature of marriage, whereby a man and a woman form a new entity through the union that is ultimately found in marriage. In Genesis 2:18 we read, “The LORD God said: It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suited to him.” Beyond producing a helper to fill shortcomings, verse 24 speaks of this union by stating, “a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.” One can read of this unity or oneness of body from a purely physical or sexual sense, but many have taken these words to mean an even deeper union between the two as one flesh. Nevertheless, the unitive is ordinarily linked to the procreative aspects of marriage, which resonates with the words of Genesis 1:27-28a. There we read: “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and God said to them: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.” While this text shows that being human links us to the image of God and that mankind incorporates maleness and femaleness, our identity as men and women united in marriage usually brings about fruitfulness that is seen in the procreative aspect of marriage. Even when this is not the case, there is a fruitfulness that transcends the two.

As the Scriptures were written throughout the centuries, we come to the last book of the New Testament which paints a deeper picture than what can be seen in the first chapters of Genesis. In the Revelation or Apocalypse of St. John the Theologian, our understanding is expanded even further than the unitive and procreative dimensions of marriage. Chapter 19 of Revelation makes it clear that there is also a marriage between the Lamb of God and His bride, which speaks of the mystical union of God with His holy Church. This apocalyptic vision is complemented by the basic teachings of St. Paul the Apostle in the fifth chapter of his letter to the Ephesians. There we see mystically that Christ is akin to the husband, laying his life down for his bride. Conversely, the Church is seen to mirror the wife, who loves and follows the lead of her husband as He dies for her and nurtures her. In short, there is a unitive, procreative, and mystical meaning of marriage that can be seen in the Scriptures.

After the Scriptures were written, collected and canonized, the Catholic Church has affirmed all three of these images that come to us in the Scriptural portrayal of marriage to varying degrees. If we turn to the most recent authoritative document on marriage, Amoris Laetitia (the Joy of Love) written by the current Holy Father Francis, Pope of Rome, we will find an even deeper profession of what marriage is, and to what it speaks. In the introductory section, paragraph 11 states the following:

“The couple that loves and begets life is a true, living icon – not an idol like those of stone or gold prohibited by the Decalogue – capable of revealing God the Creator and Saviour. For this reason, fruitful love becomes a symbol of God’s inner life (cf. Gen 1:28; 9:7; 17:2-5, 16; 28:3;

35:11; 48:3-4). This is why the Genesis account, following the “priestly tradition”, is interwoven with various genealogical accounts (cf. 4:17-22; 25-26; 5; 10; 11:10-32; 25:1-4, 12-17, 19-26; 36). The ability of human couples to beget life is the path along which the history of salvation progresses. Seen this way, the couple’s fruitful relationship becomes an image for understanding and describing the mystery of God himself, for in the Christian vision of the Trinity, God is contemplated as Father, Son and Spirit of love. The triune God is a communion of love, and the family is its living reflection. Saint John Paul II shed light on this when he said, “Our God in his deepest mystery is not solitude, but a family, for he has within himself fatherhood, sonship and the essence of the family, which is love. That love, in the divine family, is the Holy Spirit”. The family is thus not unrelated to God’s very being. This Trinitarian dimension finds expression in the theology of Saint Paul, who relates the couple to the “mystery” of the union of Christ and the Church (cf. Eph 5:21-33).” Amoris Laetitia, 11

Here our understanding of marriage is going further than the words of Scriptures. While it takes an eye of faith to perceive the union of Christ with the Church in marriage, it can be argued that it takes an even deeper level of understanding to see that marriage is a reflection of the Holy Trinity, of God Himself. And yet, that is the clear profession of Amoris Laetitia above! As Byzantine Christians in particular the word icon is evocative. We see icons in our Churches and may ask whether we as husbands and wives are the best icons of the Trinity in our marriages. This raises many questions about where we stand as 21st century Christians. Do we see our marriage as intrinsically fruitful? Is the love of each Person of the Holy Trinity for one another something that is hard to see in marriage and family life, due to the high rates of discord, divorce, discontent and more? If so, there may be something lacking in our living out the holy mystery of marriage. But there may be a way to grow in grace and love for each other and for God Himself.

As Byzantine Christians, we can also ask whether there might be something that we can see and learn from the Church so that we can journey to accept this high calling to see marriage as mirroring God Himself. By reflecting on Amoris Laetitia and Byzantine spirituality as seen in the liturgical celebration of marriage, we can come closer to seeing what we are called to in marriage. In doing so, I would argue that paragraph 11 of Amoris Laetitia is not a “pie in the sky” dream, but as we meditate more upon what we pray and do in the liturgy, our self-perception will grow more and more. The Church is well-served to reflect and produce a formation which extends beyond the beautiful wedding day to the rest of our lives. Examining the liturgy we can have an eternal perspective which was there all along at our wedding day, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Amoris Laetitia is a complex weaving of reflections, exegesis, hearkening to past exhortations and tradition in a very conversational approach, all of which can be beneficial for understanding love more deeply. For the purpose of this essay, we will focus upon just one section of chapter six, which is entitled “Some Pastoral Perspectives”. Paragraph 213 states the following:

213. In their preparation for marriage, the couple should be encouraged to make the liturgical celebration a profound personal experience and to appreciate the meaning of each of its signs. In the case of two baptized persons, the commitment expressed by the words of consent and the bodily union that consummates the marriage can only be seen as signs of the covenantal love and union between the incarnate Son of God and his Church. In the baptized, words and signs become an eloquent language of faith. The body, created with a God-given meaning, “becomes the language of the ministers of the sacrament, aware that in the conjugal pact there is expressed and realized the mystery that has its origin in God himself ”.

These words and the immediate context drive home the importance of hearing what is prayed and performed through the acts of the liturgy surrounding the holy mystery of marriage (or crowning), because so often marriage is carried out in a harried manner that keeps us from appreciating what is said and done on that special day. Here we are called to make the liturgical celebration a profound personal experience and to appreciate the meaning behind it. The Latin phrase ‘lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi’ can be translated “the law of praying is the law of believing and the law of living”. If this maxim is true about our general view of prayer, it must also certainly apply specifically to the prayers and liturgical acts of the mystery of crowning, making them so important for us to meditate upon. The text and order of the liturgy quoted below is taken from the Crowning in Marriage pamphlet from Byzantine Seminary Press, the first edition being from 1971. When there are key distinctions from the words or structure of Orthodox marriage services, those will be noted. By studying the Byzantine rubrics for the mystery of crowning, what laws of prayer, belief and living will come to us?

Unlike the Western approach to celebrating a wedding, the Byzantine order of the mystery of crowning does not begin with the bride walking to meet her future husband in front of the altar. Architecturally, the Byzantine parish in the Ruthenian tradition has a tetrapod at the front of the nave, before the elevated Ambon which leads to the iconostasis. There we normally observe the icon for the feast or perhaps the baptismal font, if there is to be a celebration of the holy mysteries of initiation. On the day of the celebration of the mystery of crowning, the couple that is to be joined in marriage are in the narthex of the church, and there they are met by the priest (or bishop) who is to celebrate the liturgy. Man and wife walk side by side to the tetrapod from the narthex while Psalm 127 is sung as equals who are willingly beginning a journey together. The Psalm is brief but powerful, stating:

Blessed are all who fear the Lord, who walk in his ways. You shall eat of your hand’s labor: blessed are you, and it shall be well with you. Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the recesses of your house. Your sons, like olive shoots around your table. Behold, in this way shall be blessed the man who fears the Lord. May the Lord bless you out of Sion; and may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life. May you see your children’s children. Peace upon Israel.

As Amoris Laetitia notes in paragraph 8, this Psalm (listed as 128 due to the difference in numbering between Greek and Hebrew translations of the Old Testament) is used in both Jewish and Christian wedding liturgies. While it may not be used in every Roman Catholic wedding today, it is a sine qua non for a Byzantine wedding. Furthermore, in paragraphs 14-30 of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis provides many reflections on what this Psalm teaches us about marriage, the family, and life itself. For the purpose of this essay, let us note that this Psalm notes the blessings to those who follow the Lord. Fruitfulness is seen in the labor of a husband’s hands, the wife being like a fruitful vine, sons who are like olive shoots, and ultimately hope is expressed that those joined today may one day see their children’s children. This exemplifies that while two people are the focus of a wedding in one sense, in another sense their blessing is anything but individualistic. The blessings that come are borne out of having children who we hope may one day have children themselves. Further, far from focusing on what is a relatively youthful day for the new couple, that the two joined today are blessed with the prospect of one day seeing their children’s children transports us as those who pray to a day when they are quite a bit older. The last phrase of Psalm 127 speaks of peace for all of Israel, showing that the blessing of the whole people of God extends through the union that comes to us today. Individualism melts away in a context that extends to the whole world. Marriage is not focused on the peaks of the wedding day, but instead this psalm takes us to an older age where our own commitments are repeated in a generation yet to come, who themselves have children. So often our vision is clouded by this, with many in this generation hoping that they never have children. Or there are others whose dedication is not ever linked to lasting beyond a few years. The vision of the procession to the tetrapod is far beyond the day of the wedding, and seeks to see unity and fruitfulness that lasts so much longer than what we typically see in our day and age. As we look to this Psalm and read it in its entirety, do we see more clearly how the divine life is mirrored by marriage? The mystery of the Trinity speaks to a selflessness and giving that is ultimately life giving. In viewing the ideal of what marriage is through praying Psalm 127, we see the strong parallels between the Trinity as life-giving, and the procession of the couple from the narthex to the nave as pointing us to that same life-giving blessing. Thus, the words of Amoris Laetitia in paragraph 11 become less daunting and more beautiful as we meditate upon the liturgy of the Church.

Once the couple have arrived at the tetrapod, the priest then inquires of each to confirm that they have come freely and without reservation to take the other as husband and wife, according to the mind of the Church. After each in their turn respond by saying, “I have”, the celebrant responds with the blessing that begins each Divine Liturgy in the Byzantine Tradition: “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and forever.” Two important lessons emerge from this dialogue between celebrant and those to be wed. First, we see that marriage is a journey that is begun in a way where our intentions are scrutinized. We may come to marriage in a manner that is not fully free, or perhaps some have come to marriage with reservations, or perhaps they have come in with a perspective that is not according to the mind of the Church. By saying, “I have”, we are testifying to what is most needed for a blessed marriage. If we are not free or if we have reservations in making this commitment, our hearts will not be completely dedicated to the journey that begins. On the other hand, we may be completely devoted to the idea of marriage that we have in our minds, but if that idea in our mind is not according to the mind of the Church, we will not know how to follow the journey in the direction that the Church has laid out for us. If we look back to our own wedding day and see that we may have said “I have” in a manner that did not profoundly understand this, perhaps it may explain why we are struggling to see marriage as something that we have embraced freely, without reservations, and according to the mind of the Church. There are many ways that this could be the case. If we look to the Psalm just before, marriage is a lifelong commitment with openness to children that drives us. If we are not blessed with children, do we see the opportunities for adoption or spiritual parenting? Do we spend the time to help each other as married couples? Is walking in all of the ways of the Lord what we are seeking after? If not, we have made a testimony that is not ours, when we say the simple words “I have”. If we acknowledge this vision of how one should come to this holy mystery and see our shortcomings, we should not despair but seek to orient our hearts and minds more in accord with the testimony that we give when say those two simple words.

After the blessing that begins the Divine Liturgy, the standard litany of peace that is in the liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil is prayed. What is important to note is that there are six petitions that are added in the context of a celebration of holy crowning. They ask for mercy on behalf of the people who are joined in the common life of marriage, that their marriage be as blessed as the marriage in Cana, that they may live a chaste life and be given devoted children, that they may rejoice in their children, being rewarded with a life above reproach, and that their and our petitions may be granted. Just reflecting upon the six litanies above could provide deep reflecting for post-marriage formation, allowing us to see the family as an icon of the Trinity. We see again as in Psalm 127 that blessing comes to us when we live according to the love of God, living a fruitful life that is blessed with children who follow in our footsteps. How do we respond to this when we may see a lack of holiness in our own lives or in the lives of our children? When children are not the cause of our joy because of their wandering from us and from the Church, do we give up praying? When we are frustrated by our children through no fault of their own but due to our own weaknesses, what can we do but ask for more mercy? Or in the case of those struggling with fertility issues, do we still see God’s blessings in our lives? As said about the high call of saying that we have entered into marriage freely, without reservations, and according to the mind of the Church, when we hear these litanies we see what our ideal is and we journey towards it. We do not despair, nor do we become complacent. Instead, we are pointed to the icon and ideal of who God is, and what families can be.

After the litany of peace, the celebrant offers a lengthy prayer that is rich in theology and an image of what marriage is. In praying to God, we are taken through all of salvation history, from God as creator to Adam and Eve, to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, Joseph and Asenath, and to the end of the Old Testament era with Zachary and Elizabeth. From there we are transported to the New Testament with a reflection on the ever-virgin Mary and the conception of Christ in her womb. These words echo with the feeling that we are participating in something that is so much greater than ourselves, as we see ourselves united in the common life that is seen throughout the Scriptures. From there the prayer shifts focus to consider how Christ Himself blessed weddings while on earth, in taking part in blessing the marriage at Cana with both wine and His presence. All of these blessings and examples point us to the fact that God desires lawful marriage and that the procreation of children stems from it. Prayers for blessings which again point to a holy life, the blessing of children, a blessed life with all temporal blessings, and salvation itself make it clear that we come to God asking for His blessings in every dimension of the life that is beginning in this crowning liturgy. This lengthy prayer is followed with one smaller prayer that recounts God creating Adam from the dust of the earth and Eve from the rib of Adam, and entreats the Lord to also join these two together. It reminds us that we may not have been formed in such an extraordinary manner as what is described in Genesis. Nevertheless, the presence of the Holy Trinity is critical for our own union, fruitfulness and faithfulness.

With both of these prayers, we can see that our wedding day integrates us into a deeper reality of union with God and all of those before us who have begun this journey. We are going towards our heavenly destiny by living a special vocation on earth that so many others have taken. Do the names of the Old Testament saints fly by our ears as those who are simply saints? Or do we instead have the Scriptures so deeply close to our hearts that we realize that the life that we are called to is not only a high calling, but it is one that others have failed to live out perfectly? Byzantine spirituality is deep in its call for us to realize that we have fallen short, not in a way to make us feel guilt but to spur us on to endlessly grow in the good, as St. Gregory of Nyssa describes perfection. With that in mind, do we realize that Abraham and Sarah both agreed for him to have a concubine when they were named Abram and Sarai, because they were doubting whether they could have biological children of their own? Do we also realize that Isaac acted deceitfully towards his brother Esau, or that Jacob and his father-in-law Laban had serious conflicts? If we knew the Scriptures that underlie these prayers a bit better, they can speak to us where we are as those who are still growing in the good. Do we worry that we are not “good enough” to live the blessed life? If so, perhaps we need a bit more knowledge of how the saints of old were people who were open to God and His ways, and yet they fell short. Their hearts sought God, albeit imperfectly. If we approach our life as married people with the same self-awareness, we can avoid despair and apathy while endlessly growing in the good.

The next sections of the mystery of crowning service booklet are possibly the most unique to the Byzantine Catholic expression of this holy mystery. First, the bestowal of rings is added in brackets. This is done so because properly speaking rings would be bestowed in a separate service, and this is how some rubrics guide the faithful. The next section is an exchange of marriage vows. While these are not formally part of the Byzantine tradition, they are still implied through the profession mentioned above, where the mind of the Church would include a devotion until death, faithfulness, and a life of love and respect. Thus, if they are said there is no dilution of Byzantine Spirituality, but it could be argued that they could be passed over to be even more faithful to our Orthodox tradition. With regard to the bestowal of rings, one key element to consider is the wording of the priest who is the one who places the rings on the bride’s and groom’s fingers. He prays, “The servant of God, (name), is espoused to the servant of God, (name), in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” As in the mysteries of initiation, we do not hear “I baptize” but “the servant of God is baptized”, we hear in this exchange that servants of God are espoused to one another. This passivity takes our eyes off of the celebrant and reminds us that the true giver of the life creating mysteries of the Church is God Himself. Again, our hearts turn to God to see Him in our lives so that we can journey with Him behind us, not our own strivings or the strivings of our pastor.

From these prayers we come to the crowning, where the priest blesses them with the words of Scripture, “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” This putting asunder includes those from without the union and those in the union; if only we could live this out in the midst of rampant separation, divorce and discord. To think of the union that is brought through Christ, the most particularly Byzantine section of the crowning liturgy is where its name derives. The husband and bride are crowned with the words, “The servant of God, (name), is crowned in marriage for the servant of God, (name), in name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” Again, the sacramental mysteries come to us with passive language to point us that God is crowning them. They are crowned for one another, meaning their kingship and queenship is something that brings authority, dignity and dominion. But this authority, dignity and dominion is not some titular designation. Instead, husband and wife are King and Queen of their household, which is the domestic Church. We can return to Amoris Laetitia and think that a husband and wife fall so short of the Holy Trinity, and in a sense this is right. But in another sense, our law of praying is an exaltation of these two individuals to show that they are in one sense not subservient to some system, to each other, or anyone else. There is a real sense in which the authority that they receive is given for each other and for the goodness of their domain. The home is a sanctuary that they must watch over in love and holiness, and yet this care taking is not stewardship. They are truly royalty who are united to each other to love and care for their family. Like God Himself, though, this royalty is divine and based on love and self-sacrifice. So in that sense there is a call to give one’s life as King or Queen. When we see our husband or wife as someone assuming the crown or not worthy of it, that assumption may be true with regard to their shortcomings. But from a deeply mystical perspective, husband and wife are king and queen who are given to a family that is being formed through the union wrought about in this holy mystery, and the worthiness is through the grace and love of God who crowns them.

Given their royal dignity, the readings follow with the Prokeimenon which focuses on the crowns and honor they have received. Unlike the Latin Rite today, there is only one Epistle and Gospel reading for the wedding liturgy. The epistle is Ephesians 5:20-33, which includes the mystical perspective that we see a deep mystery in marriage, as it points us to what Christ has done for the Church. In the Gospel (John 2:1-11), the earlier prayers about Cana are repeated in that we hear what Christ and His mother did by blessing them with their presence at this holy event. We are reminded that even though we do not physically see Christ and His mother at our weddings as they did at Cana, we welcome them in a very real way both with mystical eyes, and with sacramental eyes that call upon Christ to come to the couple and to the world.

The litany of fervent supplication follows with a special prayer that again points us to Cana and asks for a ripe old age of those joined in marriage today, beseeching God to grant them to follow Christ. Just after this comes the Our Father and then comes a ceremony which is omitted in the booklet but is true to our Byzantine tradition, the common cup. Hearkening to the Jewish roots of Christianity, the newly united King and Queen share wine which is not Eucharistic but is blessed in nature. They receive a cup of blessed wine to signify their union, which is even deeper than the unity candles and the like of our day and age. Because of the importance of receiving Holy Communion, the Catholic tradition often replaces the common cup with a Eucharistic service that could be given to just the couple or to the congregation. There are multiple permutations but ultimately this shows that unity is given by the Church to the couple who live in the life of the holy undivided Trinity. Again, when we see that the high calling to be an icon of the Holy Trinity is provided by the Church and by God Himself who unites men and women in marriage.

Perhaps the highest point of the Byzantine liturgical experience is the procession around the tetrapod and then through the nave of the Church. The husband and wife are still crowned, at this point the epitrachelion (stole) of the priest is wrapped around both of their hands, and the priest leads the couple united in marriage in procession around the tetrapod three times. At this time, two troparia and an irmos are sung. There we sing:

“O Lord, O Lord, look down from heaven and see, and visit this vineyard, and perfect this vine which your right hand had planted. O holy martyrs, you have suffered courageously, and received your reward; pray to the Lord our God, to have mercy on our souls. Glory be to You, O Christ our God; glory to the Apostles; joy to the Martyrs who proclaimed the consubstantial Trinity.

Rejoice, O Isaiah! The Virgin was with Child and bore a Son, Emmanuel. He is God and Man. Orient is his name. By extolling Him we also praise the Virgin.”

As Husband and Wife process through the Church, the words of the troparia and irmos speak to our hearts. We magnify God for blessing His vineyard with a new vine planted by His right hand. We see that husband and wife are crowned royalty and yet martyrs and apostles who bear witness, sending the message to the world that is their dominion, beseeching God that their new domestic Church which will usually grow through the ordinary course of biology and openness to life. Of course, even with couples unable to bear physical offspring, their dignity remains and their fatherhood and motherhood can be seen, just as it is with the religious who have taken vows of celibacy. We praise Isaiah for prophesying the life that comes to the world through the Virgin who bears her son Emmanuel. All of these reflections point us to the magnitude of the event of marriage, but if we have been to other services as Byzantine Christians our hearts will open even further. These troparia and this irmos come to us outside of the wedding service and are sung at every ordination to major holy orders. We see that husband and wife are like priests for their new domestic Church because they will serve and sacrifice to make their family a beautiful place of blessing and life. As we dwell upon these words, do we even hesitate to impart upon them the title of “icon of the Trinity”? Or did the words there brought to us by Amoris Laetitia sparkle with three-dimensional beauty and clarity? Arguably, the significance of the event is so deep that we wonder who is worthy of these words prayed over our heads. We should answer in return by saying that no one is worthy and yet all are worthy, through the grace and love of the Holy Trinity who we image through the liturgy.

As the apex of the mystery of Crowning is reached, the crowns are removed and the priest prays for their individual exaltations that mirror Abraham and Rebekah, again showing that what is brought about through this wedding is so much deeper than the union of two people. The perennial truth of man and woman brought together to bring a new domestic church into existence is mirrored by the deep reality born on this day. In the rubrics of our Mystery of Crowning booklet, the next part of the liturgy is holy communion. Again, this is sometimes replaced by the common cup, but ultimately we see the two united in a broader reality which is the life of the Holy Trinity, of whom they become a living icon. The more this is impressed upon our hearts the easier it is to embrace the words of Amoris Laetitia paragraph 11. After communion there are blessings from the priest who again points us back to the wedding at Cana where Christ showed his love for this mystery of the Church, and lastly there is a dismissal. All of these prayers bring us to not fear the deep call from God to a union that reflects the beauty of the Holy Trinity. Instead, we embrace our calling and join our hearts to try to more and more reflect the goodness of God.

Overall, these meditations on the wedding liturgy bring so us much to consider from a conceptual standpoint, but we could read more deeply into chapter 6 of Amoris Laetitia to learn about what the Church can provide for post-marriage formation. If we read paragraphs 214-222, we could learn how to grow to have older couples mentoring younger couples. If we read paragraphs 223-230, we could learn more about what God do from a day to day perspective and on special occasions such as anniversaries and other less frequent events like baptisms and other weddings which serve as opportunities to renew one’s own commitment to journey through the life of the Church. All of these post-marriage formational opportunities are so critical to help families move forward in the grace and life of Christ, but for the purpose of brevity it is hoped that these meditations upon the Byzantine liturgical service of the Mystery of Crowning will call many to realize the beauty to which we are called, so that we can ascend to the beauty to which we are ultimately destined. Glory to Jesus Christ!

“The couple that loves and begets life is a true, living icon – not an idol like those of stone or gold prohibited by the Decalogue – capable of revealing God the Creator and Saviour. For this reason, fruitful love becomes a symbol of God’s inner life (cf. Gen 1:28; 9:7; 17:2-5, 16; 28:3;35:11; 48:3-4). This is why the Genesis account, following the “priestly tradition”, is interwoven with various genealogical accounts (cf. 4:17-22; 25-26; 5; 10; 11:10-32; 25:1-4, 12-17, 19-26; 36). The ability of human couples to beget life is the path along which the history of salvation progresses. Seen this way, the couple’s fruitful relationship becomes an image for understanding and describing the mystery of God himself, for in the Christian vision of the Trinity, God is contemplated as Father, Son and Spirit of love. The triune God is a communion of love, and the family is its living reflection. Saint John Paul II shed light on this when he said, “Our God in his deepest mystery is not solitude, but a family, for he has within himself fatherhood, sonship and the essence of the family, which is love. That love, in the divine family, is the Holy Spirit”. The family is thus not unrelated to God’s very being. This Trinitarian dimension finds expression in the theology of Saint Paul, who relates the couple to the “mystery” of the union of Christ and the Church (cf. Eph 5:21-33).” Amoris Laetitia, 11

The Seven Prayers of Healing as a Journey from Imperfection to Perfection

In the Byzantine Rite, the fullness of its prayer tradition can come across to outsiders (and even insiders) as repetitive or even ostentatious. One example of this would relate to the sacramental mystery of healing, also known as the anointing of the sick. In this service there are multiple biblical readings, hymns, and prayers. Specifically, there is a grouping of seven priestly prayers which upon first glance might appear to be redundant. In fact, many books compiled on the rite of the anointing of the sick (e.g., the Euchologion from the Byzantine Seminary Press) omit the majority of these prayers and instead focus on one prayer. In a brief survey of the different liturgical books in the Byzantine Catholic Seminary’s library, it appeared that only one book actually had all seven prayers, which is the text referred to throughout this essay. Is this common removal of the seven prayers in the other books a sort of boiling down of the “fluff” that has been done to provide us with the essentials of spirituality? Is the enumeration of prayers into seven merely a way to add on to the refrain of the many things which are grouped into sevens? That may appear to be the case upon first glance. After all, the Scriptural basis for this holy mystery seems very plainly described. In the letter of St. James we are told very plainly that for those who are sick they should be anointed with oil, prayed for by the elders of the Church, and that they will receive forgiveness of sins and healing if God wills (James 5:14-15). Thus, one could think that multiplying a service into seven distinct prayers is a Byzantine exaggeration of what is good and beneficial for the Church. However, as we will see, the seven prayers of the priests who celebrate the holy mystery of anointing together (as the rubrics prescribe a specific priest to take one prayer each) offer unique messages that are a beautiful image of a journey from darkness, brokenness and imperfection to light, healing and perfection.

In the seven priestly prayers of the anointing of the sick, there is a common strain asking for God’s blessing to descend upon the oil through the priest to bring about healing for the one that is receiving this holy mystery. Again, this common structure could make someone feel that what is being celebrated is redundant when one prays seven times. However, as we examine the prayers in more detail and compare them to each other, special imagery emerges in each prayer. Thus, the purpose underlying the seven priestly prayers is more than providing a numerological symbolism of completeness, though that may also be part of the substrate of the structure. Instead, the different prayers have different emphases which take us on a journey from darkness to light and from brokenness to a fundamental healing.

Beginning with the first priestly prayer, we are taken as (one might expect) to the beginning. Just as creation in Genesis begins in darkness and formlessness and in the first words of Scripture we hear God declare “Let there be light”, the first priestly prayer begins the journey with the one seeking healing and acknowledges their darkness. Because of this, the priestly prayer focuses upon the light that comes from Christ, which can overcome the darkness. The priest prays of how God is the one who gives light even to the fallen, and that our life itself comes out of darkness and death’s shadow. When we were in bondage, he cried out to us to come forth and from our darkness we are told to uncover our eyes. This light from Christ ultimately illumines our very hearts, showing that the anointing that we are to receive is fundamentally about spiritual healing and if God wills includes a physical healing. Again and again light is the predominant emphasis of this first prayer.

The first priestly prayer provides the tone that is so important for those who are suffering in sickness. In many ways, the theme which repeats the most in this prayer is that of darkness because we come to Christ for healing in a state of darkness. Confessing that we find our illness in a state of darkness and uncertainty is important. For so often, we come to God with a fear of admitting how unsure we really are. By praying about our darkness and doubt, we strip our souls bare so that our cries to God are without pretense, admitting that this darkness and doubt can be so real to our hearts. Our cries ask God to restore us to our lost estate from our first parents, Adam and Eve. The prayer closes beseeching God not merely that darkness would be gone (for after all, darkness has no real existence), but that we would be radiant with the light of Christ. But how could this even be possible? This is where the second prayer becomes so important and so helpful in our journey towards healing.

In the second priestly prayer, the emphasis moves away from a focus on darkness to describe the journey of healing that one desires to take. It is a desire to cry out to God to have him restore our lost estate. By beginning with an exaltation of the majesty of God, and by contrasting that with an acknowledgement of our own falls, we continue to respond not with despair but with a confession that Christ has come to reconcile us. He became a created human being like one of us in order to be able to call sinners to repentance. This repentance is fundamentally about restoring that lost estate. The examples of his loving restoration are then shown by quoting from his parables and his actions which exemplified this, as can be seen in parables such as the lost sheep or lost coin, or in his acceptance of the sinful woman who anointed him, or through his promises that we should arise and sin no more and know that there is joy over one sinner who repents. Establishing this reality of a call to restoration and a never ending love, the priest then turns to those for whom he prays and states that this reality with such biblical precedent is open in that moment. The restoration that can be ours and which has such a strong foundation provided by this prayer is what we then seek. We seek God’s lost presence to be restored, and that that presence might be the source of our forgiveness. In many ways the vast majority of this second prayer (apart from the introduction) is really focused on terms such as healing, because we need to be reminded that this holy mystery will happen on a spiritual plane of healing even if our physical ailments are not taken away. Like the first prayer’s orienting us to see that this sacramental mystery can bring us light from our darkness, our union that was lost can be restored here, and that may be even more important than whether we are eventually healed in this life, or not.

The third priestly prayer continues to expand the horizons of what healing and salvation in Christ means. In many ways, we can hear in the first two prayers that our darkness and our separation can be healed, but the immensity of this task may feel overwhelming particularly when our need is great. And so there is a strong sense in which the third prayer of healing has an emphasis upon the priest calling upon God in heaven to come down and be the one who saves us. Just as the Eucharistic prayer may lack a depth if it did not call down upon the Holy Spirit to transform the gifts into the body and blood of Christ, the third prayer is an epiklesis of sorts whereby we cry out to the only one really able to bring about what we are seeking in this holy mystery. For example, in the third prayer we confess that it is God who brings the healing. His chastisement is not ultimately about mortification but is in line with his role as the divine physician. In confessing that he is the one who heals and cleanses, we are open to the reality that this difficult task is something that only he can accomplish. This is where our insistence on help from above becomes not only logical but something that we deeply desire. The priest prays for the action of God to be sent from heaven, that he would touch, check, and soothe us. Conversely, the prayer asks God Himself to banish the illnesses that hurt us. The priest asks God to be the physician, to raise us and to restore us. This sequence of verbs demonstrates to our hearts that all needed actions will come to us from God who is on high but yet condescends down to us. As such, when the layout of transformation from darkness to light and from separation to union becomes daunting after the first two prayers, the third prayer flows seamlessly to remind us that the God who is all powerful is the one underlying and bringing about the process of healing that may seem too far beyond our reach.

In the fourth prayer, Christ becomes even closer to our hearts and minds. Not only is he the power who brings us salvation and healing as we heard in the third prayer, he himself is shown to be present in the priest who prays as the mystery of anointing develops further in this new prayer. Furthermore, the presence of healing in oil is something which stands out in this portion of the prayers in this service. As the prayer opens, the joining of the priest who prays to Christ deepens. The priest acknowledges that what is happening in the service is something he has received from the Apostles, which is beautiful gift that has been passed down through the ages. But it is not mere succession that is argued to make this prayer efficacious. Instead, we ask that Christ would prescribe that the very oil present there for healing. We are linked by receiving this tradition from the Apostles, but that is insufficient. The first clause ends and points out that this oil is for both healing and importantly for the distress that comes from ailment. Again, because this prayer service does not guarantee physical healing, a very important component of spiritual healing is that we would come to treat our infirmities by helping us with the distress that comes with a diagnosis or a prognosis.

From this link to Christ to be the physician who prescribes this oil, we strengthen our dependence on Christ as the prayer continues where the phrase “only physician of souls and bodies” is used. This is arguably our truest profession of who Christ is, and where healing comes from, as all healing ultimately comes from Christ the physician. Thus the prayer spreads to ask for sanctification for everyone, healing and raising up from the bed for those who are afflicted, and then transitions to ask for them to be visited with the loving kindness of God which will lead all present to offer thanksgiving for His visitation of His suffering servants. This thanksgiving transitions to a doxology because once we give thanks, we can give praise, and so we close with that praise because the presence of Christ brings worship for seeing Him come to meet us, particularly those of us who are in need. Thus, Christ’s presence is invoked in both the oil and in this action that the Church celebrates, which is not only true of this sacrament but of all of the holy mysteries of the Church.

As we think of Christ’s presence in the holy mysteries, we can always look around during the celebration of those mysteries and acknowledge that we are humans who make mistakes and fall short of the glory of God. As those praying or those being prayed for, we can look to our own inadequacies and feel disconnected from Christ who is the only physician. However, the fifth prayer flows naturally to keep us from despairing over any limitations that we may have. Like most of the preceding prayers, the introduction to the fifth priestly prayer in the mystery of anointing with holy oil begins with acclamations that affirm that Christ is the one who heals us through his mercy and loving kindness. In many ways these words are speaking to the same heart of healing but they speak here of how deep our Lord condescended to save us, in that he lifted us out of a trash heap and from the status of being beggars. As it continues, however, the account of Christ giving his apostles the ability to receive the Holy Spirit and to thereupon be the vehicle of bringing forgiveness to others, the fact that we call upon our priests to bring healing and forgiveness flows naturally, just as it does in the letter of St. James who tells us to call for the elders of the Church. And yet this prayer evolves further to turn our eyes in a new direction. It is here that the priest prays in the first person to speak of what he needs to be a faithful ministry of reconciliation, forgiveness and healing.

At this stage there are two paragraphs where the priest acknowledges all of his shortcomings and flaws, and as such prays that he would be lifted from his own depths of sin and transgressions, so that he may enter into the Holy of Holies as a faithful priest would do. He asks for himself further that he would be a faithful priest doing as would Christ, bringing healing, reconciliation and salvation to the world. Once that request has been made before the throne of grace, the priest turns to do as he was called to do, and he beseeches the merciful God and Savior to bring forgiveness and healing to the one for whom he prays. He asks for God to hear his prayer and to bring forgiveness and healing, whether voluntary or involuntary, whether deemed curable or incurable. By saying these words the fact that a particular healing may seem impossible to men is contextualized into a world of participation in the priesthood of Christ, and so things which seem overwhelming or insurmountable are actually not so, in Christ. Whether bound by voluntary or involuntary sin, the prayers here seek a universal liberation that comes via the priesthood of Christ in which the priest praying during the sacramental mystery is participating. In keeping with having a share in that priesthood, the words of the priest shift towards an emphasis of supplication that is rooted in the life of Christ. First, the priest points out that Christ Himself healed the mother-in-law of Peter in an act of mercy. Further, the priest says words of supplication which point out the frailty of human nature and the strength of the divine holiness that is so clear in the following words, such that the request which are made before God do not come across as demanding or plaintive. Instead, the humility and desire for mercy becomes the central focus of the prayers that close the fifth prayer of this sacramental mystery. We speak of our own frailties particularly in our youth and ask God who understand that this is the case to be merciful to us, and we praise him at the close for his great mercy. In closing, the fifth prayer continues the journey of beseeching God for his mercy and the boldness to seek healing comes from a union to the priesthood of Christ in which the priest shares, and the boldness to be healed comes from an understanding that we are people in need of great mercy that is being sought in the complexity of this divine service of the Church.

In the sixth priestly prayer of the holy sacramental mystery of forgiveness through the anointing of the sick, we are at a point in our life of prayer where the basis for healing is made very clear on all levels. We have the goodness of love of God who is the only true physician, and as priest and Church the connection to Christ as the only physician is made manifest through that connection. The desire to be healed on the part of the one being prayed for is also lined up as being based upon a humble request for healing and forgiveness. As all components of prayer appear to be complete, there is still the matter of really incorporating an open heart to respond to how it will be that God will respond to our prayer. After all, we may come to this sacramental mystery and have every possible request answered. Or it may seem to the ones praying at that moment that nothing was answered. Usually it is somewhere in between those extremes, but nevertheless the very deep understanding of how God is responding to our prayer is something which requires prayer and deeper understanding. In many ways the sixth prayer of healing brings this to us, as we expand our ostensible basis for coming to God for healing beyond our suffering and meditate upon how it is that this sacramental mystery is a success even when it is “only” a matter of receiving forgiveness and not healing of our infirmities. On a mystical level this is seen to be the most important level of healing, and this prayer takes great strides to teach us of this.

As the sixth prayer opens, the ministry of Christ as the only true Physician unfolds for us. We hear the priest pray thanking God that he is the one who heals, and that he does so by his own stripes which bring healing. As the good shepherd he is the one who sought out all of the broken-hearted, who healed the woman with the flow of blood, who healed the daughter of the possessed Canaanite woman of demon possession, who forgave the two debtors, who brought pardoned the woman found in sin, who healed the paralytic, who justified the publican, and who forgave the thief on the Cross and who Himself suffered and conquered the death on the Cross. The manifold forgiveness of healing and forgiveness becomes even more clearly stated as we remember this great chain of salvation that God wrought for us in Christ. Because of this, the priest’s prayers in this with prayer flow with a confidence and boldness that shines through in the prayers. And yet, if one were to read the petitions in this prayer, we would arguably know very little of the nature of the prayer as being linked to a bodily infirmity that we would be asking to have taken away. Instead, the healing and the infirmities appear to exist on the level of the soul first and foremost. To list these petitions in order, we hear of requests for pardon no matter how we have strayed and been alienated from God. No terminology around disease or suffering can be seen. In the next section, we hear of the priest asking that he would be heard as he implores God to overlook evil and failings, to spare from punishment, and asking instead that those for whom he prays as priest would be turned onto the right paths and to salvation ultimately. Again, there is no indication of a physical infirmity. In many ways these prays in the sixth prayer could be just as applicable in the context of a penance service for the holy mystery of penance.

As the sixth prayer continues, an emphasis on receiving forgiveness of sins is not lost. The next paragraph continues with an emphasis on the biblical promises of God providing salvation for his beloved people, as the priest invokes biblical passages such as Matthew 18 and John 20, which speak of how forgiveness can come to the whole world. Putting our blinders on to the rest of the service, the sixth prayer again can be argued to be pointing us to a ritual that is wholly focused on forgiveness, and as it ends with the doxology, words of how forgiving Christ is permeate the text of the prayer. Why does it not take us to the more immediate suffering of illness and death? I would argue that this prayer shows us here what is most fundamental to our life in Christ, and this sacramental mystery of anointing and healing. Our deepest healing is not to live forever without any pain or suffering. Instead, our deepest reconciliation is one of reconciliation to Christ despite our sins. The sixth prayer reminds us that as we journey to be anointed with oil, what is more fundamental is our life in Christ and our union with God. We may never be delivered from a physical infirmity, but that is no cause for worry or doubt because the forgiveness effected through this holy mystery is far greater than any miraculous raising of someone who is stricken through illness. As such, this beautiful raising of one who is in sin back into a life of forgiveness receives more focus because forgiveness is so much more fundamental to our salvation than healing. If we are also healed of physical weakness, we should praise God for that. But more importantly, if we receive forgiveness we have found our greatest basis for praising him.

In the seventh and last priestly prayer, we close our prayers with a sense of confidence that we will receive both forgiveness and healing. Again, true healing may be best received when it is spiritual and it may be that succumbing to a particular infirmity may be precisely the means by which makes one’s own life a Eucharistic breaking to enter into the new life in Christ. Nevertheless, the greatest reality is one of a relationship between people and their God, and this is what resonates throughout the seventh and final priestly prayer in the mystery of the anointing of the sick. The seventh priestly prayer of this holy mystery begins with a statement that has come to us throughout most of the prayers. But in its tone of conclusion, there is something very peaceful about hearing that God is the one who is the physician of souls and bodies, who desires the death of no sinner, and who is the one that brings the healing that is needed. To establish this, the seventh prayer takes us back to the life of healing that is older than the Incarnation. The priest points out that it is God who gave repentance to sinners in the Old Testament as can be seen with faithful Israelites like King David as well as Gentiles such as the Ninevites. This same repentance and healing is also seen in the New Testament with the words of this prayer as it speaks of the publican, the harlot, the thief on the Cross and even the chief apostles Paul and Peter who persecuted or denied Christ in their own ways. This is true despite the fact that Peter is the one to whom Christ gave a promise to build his Church.

This biblical precedent of the goodness and healing of our great God and Savior is then used to ask for the same mercy and forgiveness (note: not healing or deliverance from physical pain) becomes the focus of the prayer. No matter how far they have strayed from God and his commandments, we ask for reconciliation. Again, the weakness of mankind is pointed out to make it clear that the one who is in pain and suffering is not alone in his or her ontological/moral state. When we hear that God alone is without sin, we are taken to consider very similar prayers in the Panachida or funeral prayers where the priest says the same confession for the faithful departed. As we progress towards the final doxology, the priest professes that we were not created to be lost but to follow his commandments, and as such we give Christ glory, honor and worship now and ever and forever. It is only from there that the gospel book is then taken from the head of the one being prayed for. This strong context of healing as more fundamentally forgiveness is lost if we only ask for healing, and it is apparent that the traditional service for the anointing of the sick is more broadly based on healing as reconciliation as opposed to healing as being perpetually healthy from a physical plane.

In conclusion, the diversity of emphases and focus in the seven priestly prayers should dispel any notions that there is redundancy or unnecessary amplification of prayers. Instead, the journey to healing is one that needs to include a light to our own doubt, a clarification to any misunderstandings, and a building up of confidence that Christ Himself will heal us whether that is on a bodily plane or is more deeply tied to forgiveness and spiritual reconciliation. By praying all seven prayers our hearts are taken to understand this in such a beautiful way. For those churches that default to only praying a smaller formula, it may behoove them to consider their “ancestral traditions” as is recommended in the document Orientalium Ecclesiarum from Vatican II. Perhaps that reconsideration will provide the nuance, emphasis, and hope that as we are anointed by priests with holy oil, we will never despair again when we do not have this prayer for healing answered with physical healing. Instead, we will be taken to deeper realities of spiritual union which transcend physical healing, which is so important particularly when this is not what happens in our lives or the lives of our loved ones.

References

1. Kezios, Rev. Spencer T. Sacraments and Services: The Sacraments Narthex Press 1995

2. Orientalium Ecclesiarum, Vatican II 1964. Online source: http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19641121_orientalium-ecclesiarum_en.html

No Stone Unturned: the Divine Office as a Symphony of All-Encompassing Invitation

The Byzantine prayer tradition can be overwhelming, so much so that many despair following any part of it. There is such a richness to it that one can view this tradition as being too full of options. This conundrum is particularly true of our modern day and age, where technology has allowed us to have a nearly endless amount of information at our fingertips. In romance, for example, one’s options are not limited to one’s ancestral village. Social networking can facilitate international matchmaking with nearly effortless execution. However, this abundance of options can lead one to conclude that it is difficult to decide. Marriage, for example, is quite postponed compared to other generations. One factor underlying this is the fact that there are far more potential spouses to consider when this is the case as compared to life in the village. Some social psychologists have referred to this challenge of too many options leading to nothing really being chosen or enjoyed as the “poverty of choice” (e.g., the TED talk of Barry Schwartz found at this link: https://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice). From a liturgical perspective, there is a real concern in which we can look at the Divine office and appreciate the real sense in that there are so many options that no option ever is truly celebrated. This is practically the case with many liturgical calendars of our Byzantine parishes, and poses a very poignant question: How can we escape the poverty of choice that seems to paralyze so many Byzantine Christians where the options overwhelm and lead to fewer celebrations? This reflection will try to make the Byzantine way less ‘Byzantine’ and instead show the divine office to be a symphony of all-encompassing invitation to see God’s love in all things.
How does one look at how we pass through time in this life? There is an emphasis on time as it relates to events like anniversaries, special weeks and months, or how many years have passed since a particular milestone in history. Perhaps we think from a very seasonal perspective. When is it going to be summer? When will winter end? All of these considerations and perspectives are very real, even if one lives in a Mediterranean climate as is the case in Palestine and (thankfully) California. But there is also an emphasis on how one structures one’s day. What kind of routine do you have for each day? Do you start each morning with a hearty breakfast, with prayer, or with both? How will you resolve to make this the best year possible? All of this division and remembering is very human and very complicated. The Divine Office addresses every perspective of how we look at life, if we have the eyes to see it as an invitation to enter into its deep view of the world in the various perspectives that we have towards it. Before describing this symphony, it is important to understand that many people have looked at the Byzantine tradition with confusion, trepidation and even apathy. To understand why it may be overwhelming or confusing is to consider an analogy. If we look to the tradition of prayer as though we had one musical instrument that we wanted to hear in a symphony concert, we would be hearing other instruments and assuming that every other instrument in the symphony was out of place. At first the sounds would be foreign and unexpected. Our instrument may have its time to play a solo and at other times it may play with other instruments. At other times we may not hear our favorite instrument at all. With time, a mix of angles and perspectives comes together akin to a symphony. Over time, the broader symphony would emerge and the role of each instrument could be seen to play a broader role in the orchestra. What are those instruments in the symphony of the divine office? Let us move into understanding the calendar and the offices of the Byzantine Church to then grasp what are these different instruments.
At the heart of the Byzantine view of the year is the moveable calendar. From the broadest perspective, Christ being risen from the dead is the joy and triumph of our life in Christ. The liturgical life of the Church revolves around the Resurrection of Christ via the moveable calendar in that Pascha is the anchor of many other Feasts. Prior to the celebration of Pascha, the pre-Lenten services beginning with the Sunday of Zacchaeus prepare us for the Lenten journey to Pascha. Lent as well, in its penitential and special liturgical observances like the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, along with its accompanying services such as the All-Souls Saturdays, find their way into our calendar via a knowledge of when Pascha will be. The text which instructs our celebration of the divine office in this season is known as the Lention Triodion. The moveable calendar continues in full force at Pascha through the celebration of Pentecost and the feast of All Saints one week later, and is celebrated in the Pentecostarion. These two texts are over 1000 pages of prayers and hymns leading us through these special holy days based on the moveable calendar. Even beyond these seasons of praying these rich books of hymnography, the divine office is still guided by the moveable calendar in two ways. For one, we often refer to Sundays as being a particular number of Sundays after Pentecost. Our weeks are relatively closer or nearer to a feast day which is 7 Sundays after Pascha, and that feast of the Holy Trinity is yet another reference point for our liturgical life in terms of how many Sundays we are from Pentecost. The life of salvation is expressed liturgically through a cyclical rhythm that comes after the Pentecost season via the Octoechos. Instead of simply being in one mode of chant and hymns along the moveable calendar, the Octoechos brings us through the 8 tones of the week that are based on how far we are from Pascha and Pentecost. These 8 tones are based on the moveable calendar where the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost is Tone 1, and the tones continue through Tone 8, and the cycle continues through the 8 tones cyclically. Thus, with the Octoechos the movable calendar is more or less focused on the Resurrection of Christ and the Descent of the Holy Spirit as reference points for the whole year with a cycle through the different lenses and melodies of the 8 tones from the Octoechos. Our heart longs to celebrate these moments of salvation history, and they occur at different times with Pascha being more or less the focal point of understanding where one is on the moveable calendar. Since the council of Nicaea, the Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox dictates when Pascha is. As that is not a fixed day on the calendar, the calendar moves and Pascha is on a different day between most years. What about the calendar where we consider fixed days? That is where the immovable calendar enters into our equation.
The immoveable calendar is a bit more intuitive in the sense that its celebrations are more or less guided simply by what day of the year it is. For example, the Nativity of Our Lord is based on the immovable calendar. The Pre-Feast, Feast, and Post-Feast are calculated in accordance with one’s measurement of when it is December 25th. To rightly understand the liturgical celebration of a saint or feast on the immovable calendar, all that is really needed is a knowledge of the day and month as it relates to the month. Etymologically, the liturgical guide for the immoveable calendar is therefore linked to the Greek word for month. The Menaion encompasses the immoveable calendar celebrations. It guides us through the days of each month to understand which saint or feast is being commemorated on a particular day. In their entirety, this can be 12 volumes of roughly 300 pages each. Each day has its own commemoration which more or less guides us through the immoveable calendar.
It should be immediately noted that in the description above, the phrase “more or less” was used several times. This is because that there are complications intrinsic and extrinsic to celebrating what is in the moveable and immovable calendars. For the moveable calendar, the intrinsic question that is more a matter of Christian unity is answering the question of when the vernal equinox is. Because there is a difference in the calendars after the Gregorian Calendar was introduced, certain full moons in certain years are considered to be pre-vernal equinox to those on the Julian Calendar and post-vernal equinox on the Gregorian Calendar. The whole timing as to when Pascha occurs is called into question when one’s reckoning of when spring begins is inconsistent, throwing the whole moveable calendar out of alignment. Thus we have many Christians who celebrate Pascha on different dates, and if they are Byzantine this will mean that even beyond the Pascha and Pentecost seasons, the “tone of the week” can be celebrated out of unison, making the symphony less consistent.
The intrinsic complications to the immovable calendar come from the question of when December 25th (or any other day) is which is a matter of Christian unity akin to the movable calendar consideration above. Thus we have some Christians celebrating the Nativity on January 7th according to the civil calendar, because the religious calendar has remained Julian. There is even the mixed Julian calendar where movable feasts like Pascha follow the Julian calendar and immovable feasts follow the Gregorian/civil calendar.
However, there is even more to factor in when we consider the immovable calendar. In addition to a saint of a day, there also are prefestive and postfestive days which may overlap with other commemorations in the menaion. This may lead one person to prefer another saint or commemoration over another. At other times, there may be saints whose celebrations are always moved or omitted. One example of this would be January 14th, which is both the leave taking of the feast of the Theophany and is also the commemoration of the Fathers of Sinai and Raitho. Those fathers are subsequently moved to be commemorated on the 13th of January which may seem like a simple solution. However, there is also the matter of the saints of the day on January 13th, which includes the Holy Martyrs Hermylaus and Stratonicus, as well as our venerable father Hilary Bishop of Poitiers. We thus end up having three distinct commemorations on January 13th, one for the saints on the 14th as well as the two already commemorated on the 13th. This is only what one can find in the Byzantine Catholic Typikon. If, however one went to the website of the Orthodox Church in America (as one example), the same structure is found but there are also another 6 saints listed for January 13th! Thus, while the immovable calendar is a bit easier to discern than things like vernal equinoxes, it can become complicated in its own way.
Extrinsically, the two main calendars have challenges to understand when they are integrated and factored together. For example, in 2018 the Gregorian moveable calendar’s second Saturday of Lent falls on February 24. This calls for a commemoration of All Souls on that Saturday. However, the immoveable calendar looks to the day of the year and February 24th commemorates the first and second findings of the head of John the Baptist. What is this Saturday about then? Are both celebrated? This question and inevitable conflict as well as the whole framework of understanding the divine office is answered by the Typikon. In this case, the Typikon guides us to skip over the second All Souls Saturday and focus on the feast of John the Baptist. Thus, the Typikon is our guide to understanding the year. Ultimately, the understanding of the year is an intersection of two yearly calendars, the movable and the immovable calendars. The navigation of this intersection comes to us by following the Typikon.
Another fundamental structure to understanding time is to consider the days of the week. Basic to this is understanding that a week has a seven day structure, and as such the Byzantine tradition honors the week by ascribing particular themes to the days of the week. Sunday is the day of the resurrection, while Monday commemorates the holy bodiless angelic powers. Tuesday remembers John the Baptist, while Wednesday commemorates the Theotokos and the Holy Cross, and Thursday is focused on both the Apostles and Nicholas of Myra. Friday commemorates the Holy Cross and the Sabbath of rest falls on Saturday, fittingly commemorating the faithful departed and all saints. How does this layer of celebration overlap with the yearly celebration? First, the texts from the calendars follow these themes subtly in the texts of the service books. Within Lent, for example, the matins and vespers prayed in the Triodion have their Lenten focus, but the fact that it may be a Tuesday evening (which begins Wednesday liturgically) will often mean that hymns on that evening will speak of the Cross and the Mother of God a bit more than other days such as Monday. Second, as we come to the hours of the day, certain sections use the commemoration of the day of the week, which leads to particular troparia and kontakia to be sung based on the day of the week.
To turn now to the day just as with the year, there are two basic perspectives or offices that follow the structure of the day. In the Roman civil calendar, the day began at the morning with an hour linked to the sunrise. Hence the first service linked to the civil calendar would be the first hour, beginning roughly at 7 a.m.. The third, sixth and ninth hours would follow suit a few hours later, which would correspond to 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m. Bedtime would complete the day with the service of compline. Among monastics, waking up in the middle of night would have a midnight service known as the mesonyktikon. The hours allow for one to pray throughout all the day and evening following the Roman perspective, and yet their origin is monastic in nature.
The other basic perspective to the day is the other strong culture linked to the Christian Church, which is of course found in its roots in the Jewish Faith. As Genesis 1 states in the creation narrative, days are described as being evening and morning. Thus, the cathedral office of daily prayer is comprised chiefly of Vespers in the evening which starts a particular day and then Matins in the morning. As mentioned above, that means that Tuesday evening Vespers (for example) provides the liturgical start to Wednesday. Holy Week offers an interesting topsy-turvy counterexample, but overall the day is both based on the Roman reckoning of its beginning in the morning and the Jewish reckoning of its beginning at sunset. As we discussed the overlap of moveable and immovable calendars, the Typikon would guide us to understand which commemoration to celebrate or omit in a given year. In the case of the daily cycle of vespers, matins and hours, the question of what to celebrate is perhaps more maximalistic. As can be seen in monastic tradition, these services are all prayed because they all have their own angles and perspectives. In vespers and matins, the commemoration of the day is interwoven with hymns and psalms that point us to the evening and morning. There is also the practice of ceaseless prayer from the monastic tradition, and with these cathedral services we have the practice of praying the kathismata, 20 sections of the Psalter that are numbered and sung during vespers and matins. In the hours, there are subtle hints linking us to the day itself, as well as troparia and kontakia which may be for the saint of the day, the saint of the day of the week, or may be the feast that is currently pre-festive, the day of or post-festive. With regard to the hours and themes, the first hour speaks of light coming to us because it is the first prayer of the morning. The third hour focuses on the Holy Spirit who descended on the apostles at the third hour (Acts 2:15), the sixth hour considers the Cross because the Lord was crucified at that time, and the 9th hour draws our attention to our Lord giving up his spirit at that hour (Matthew 27:45).
Overall, the structure of the year, week and day all provide insight as to which books are to be used and which commemorations are to be had. The divine office would flow beginning with Vespers to compline to the first hour, matins, third hour, sixth hour, ninth hour, compline and midnight office, not to mention the Divine Liturgy, Akathists, Molebens, the Paraklesis, the Jesus Prayer and more. With the extra services not listed before there is even more flexibility to pray a particular devotion based on one’s interest or need. To pray just all of the prescribed services is only really seen in the monastic practice. How do the monks choose what to pray? Again, the typikon is the guide to knowing how the movable calendar, immoveable calendar, their associated books are then integrated alongside the weekly commemoration. The last component to consider is the Patron of the parish or community celebrating a given service. This does not speak to the year or the time but does speak to the particularities of a group of faithful, as a particular parish or monastery will have a unique patron who can be commemorated liturgically in various ways.
At this point it is fitting to return to the symphony analogy. The instruments of the symphony or angles to the divine office that have been laid out in this reflection could be summarized as follows: commemoration of the moveable calendar, commemoration of the immovable calendar, commemoration of the day of the week, commemoration of evening or morning (vespers and matins) commemoration of the hour of the day, commemoration of the patron of a parish, and personal devotion (molebens, akathists, Jesus Prayer, etc). Because we operate on so many levels as human beings, the different levels of commemoration are truly like distinct instruments in an orchestra that plays in symphony to speak to us in an all-encompassing way. Therefore, when one hears of the tone of the week and the saint of the day and the commemoration of the parish patron as well as the day of the week, and the hour of the day being remembered, should this be viewed as some kind of overly complex hoop to jump through? Is it all an arbitrary practice of some ancient and irrelevant Byzantines? We would only answer in such a manner when the distinct angles set forth are seen as redundant. If, however, they are all-encompassing reflections upon our spirituality that speak to who we are as humans on different angles, their presence is not only not redundant but necessary, if we have the time to celebrate all of the services that we can choose to celebrate. Breaking down the components as we have done above is precisely a means to establish the uniqueness of each service or perspective of time. Without that, we simply have books to pray through that seem to fall out of the sky, and they offer no uniqueness or speciality that actually speak to the way that the various services can themselves speak to our hearts.
Because of these unique perspectives, it is helpful to return to the psychological concept of the “poverty of choice”. There are quite a few services listed above and understanding which service or services to celebrate as well as the particular way that one would celebrate a service that was chosen can quite easily be challenging. We could easily look at this wealth of options from that perspective and say that the Tradition is quite simply difficult to follow. What is a better way to understand these options that the Byzantine Tradition offers?
I think there are two very important and complementary perspectives that may overcome the poverty of choice and reinvigorate prayer in our Byzantine Catholic Churches. First, we must understand that no stone is left unturned with our calendars and the service books that speak to them. We may at times be completely focused on the saint of the day, the movable calendar, the season of morning, evening, or bedtime. We may seek to pray at various hours of the day. We need, I believe, to come to see the abundance of services not as a burden but as a response to the fact that our hearts may cry out to God with a desire for prayer at any occasion throughout the day. As the “prayer of the hours” said throughout the hours states, “O good God at all times and places, You are worshipped and glorified both on heaven and on earth…” Instead of thinking that there are so many options that we become paralyzed by the poverty of choice, we need to see the divine office as a gracious offering that meets us no matter where we stand in life. Second, we need to realize that this blessing of no stone being left unturned in all-encompassing prayer is something that can be done but is nearly impossible to do regularly if we are not monastics. Just praying the hours, vespers, matins and compline can easily take over five hours a day. Is this feasible for the majority of people? I would argue that that is not normally the case. If, however, the particular emphases of these various services are something that we can understand as part of our symphony of faith and expression of our faith, we can make it a point (with spiritual guidance as well) to focus upon a various service or services in the Byzantine Divine Office. A simple way to see this is to spend time at monasteries for several days. The integration into this symphony comes across not as a task or a duty but is seen as something that can be done if time is dedicated to the Lord in prayer. In thanksgiving to God for the monks and nuns who do this regularly, this fervent celebration of the symphony of faith leaves no stone unturned and also can then invigorate our desire to pray back at our parishes.
As parishes therefore expand beyond just the Divine Liturgy in their liturgical celebration, pastors and leaders of parishes can look to the needs of the faithful and consider a consistent practice of only part of this liturgical symphony to speak to those needs that are seen. By spending time praying a particular liturgical service over several months, the fact that these “instruments” are beautiful means to connect with our life in Christ in the liturgical year, day, or hour can be highlighted. The complexity of a service within itself can also melt away as the familiarity provides a solid background as to what it is we are hearing. If we only hear Paschal Matins once a year, will we understand what is being set before us? If instead we make Matins something that comes more frequently, the beauty of this complex service (whose complexity cannot itself fit into a reflection like this) will become distilled to those who pray it regularly, and the heart of prayer as it is linked to the mind of the holy Fathers and Mothers who lived in monastic obedience may through the Grace of God, come to all who seek to embrace the divine office not as a challenge but as a blessing that is part of the symphony of faith. As we then move to pray not just one service but many, our blessing of how the Byzantine Divine Office speaks to all of life will expand because we will see its connection to more than just the morning or the evening or the week or the year. It will relate to all of our lives as all of our lives are transformed by the beautiful symphony of the Byzantine Divine Office. Glory to Jesus Christ!

A vocations reflection on the 18th Sunday after Pentecost

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Dear Father, Brothers and Sisters, thank you for this opportunity to share a reflection on this 18th Sunday after Pentecost as part of the third year of Diaconal formation. I have one more 2 week trip to Pittsburgh in the program left, but really moments like these are the most important to help see if a life of service to the Church in this manner is something that is meant for me or not. Today I would like to share some thoughts on our Apostolic reading which comes to us from the second letter of the Holy Apostle Paul to the Corinthians. Like the Gospel that was the focus of our homily today, where Christ gave life to the young man who was dead, here Paul speaks to the people of Corinth and to us today of our own call to give to God and to give to the world. Yes, this passage is indeed the source of the phrase “God loves a cheerful giver”. This phrase is beautiful and it is true, it also shows up on things like our tithing envelopes. But I want to allow this whole passage to speak to our hearts and to yes include thoughts on our giving to the Church, but to do so with perhaps a broader view than we tend to have.

Second Corinthians is a letter that is mixed with some timeless truths and some very concrete messages written to the Church in the first century. We have glimpses of a very real situation where new servants of the Church such as Titus are getting a sort of “letter of recommendation” from Paul. In chapter 8, Paul focuses this upon the Church in Macedonia who despite being poor gave according to their means, or perhaps even beyond their means to help the Church in Jerusalem. He shows that this speaks to us of how Christ Himself became poor for our sakes, and that in union to Christ, the concern for the poor and needy is something that flows naturally from our hearts. It’s not a burden for the Macedonians, he argues, and so he trusts that the relatively richer land of Corinth will be like the Macedonians.

Paul also points out that love is not in one direction-no, the people of Corinth are loved by Titus, who Paul has sent on a journey to Corinth with some Macedonians to give of his life to them in preaching, mutual fellowship, and to help the church abroad that was suffering. This takes us to chapter 9. Before the section that was read today in the liturgy, Paul points out that everything he is saying about the Macedonians’ love, Titus’ love, his fellow ministers’ love is something that he is confident is also true of the Corinthians to whom he writes. We are united to Christ and as such Paul has boasted that the Corinthians will do their part and that a promised gift from them can be handed off to Titus who was journeying to help the suffering Church. This is where we have our reading of verses 6-11 of chapter 9. When Paul says “let me say this much”, it’s sort of like a lightning bolt out of the blue when we just heard it at the reading. But in the flow of the whole epistle, his words come as a natural consequence of all of this very concrete work of taking care of those in need.

As he begins, Paul makes a simple observation. If we are going to sow sparingly we will reap in the same way. If we sow bountifully we will reap bountifully. Kids: if you plant 1 seed in the ground, do you expect 100 flowers to grow? What about if you planted 10 thousand seeds? Would you get just 1 plant back? I hope not. Paul starts this passage about giving with this deeper but simpler mentality. Already I feel myself pulled to see things in a more mystical way. Think about it: When you give of your time, talent or treasure, do you look at that as something which can be sowed, germinated, grown, and then blossomed into something so much more than what it currently is? Or do you think, instead of praying or helping the poor at a food shelter or whatever it may be, I could be watching TV or hiking or just sleeping in? Once we have the more biblical mindset of what it means to give, Paul’s words take us to our attitude about this mindset when he says that we must give according to our inward decision, and to do so cheerfully and not grudgingly or sadly. So often our decisions are not only not cheerful, they are not inward. In my own Diaconal formation, I will never forget my first discussion with my vocations director. He told me that in our lives we must ask ourselves this question: How can you make your life the greatest gift of yourself possible? That is what a vocation is about, he explained to me. Making an inward decision and not doing something solely based on what I think others expect is a gift of ourselves that will be more natural and suited to the gifts that we have received. We will give from the treasure that we can honestly sow into this world. It will lead us to have a cheerful approach when we genuinely give of our time, talent and treasure. And that’s why Paul then goes to say that God loves a cheerful giver. Why? Our Lord delights in seeing us make the most of our lives, and in seeing us all give to each other as one family, one Body of Christ. This leads to the beautiful and naturally supernatural consequence that we will see the blessings of God multiply so that everyone has an abundance of what is needed, and he quotes the Psalms to prove this. But let’s go back to sowing-Paul continues in verse 10 and points out the way giving works – in a way it is all about searching our hearts about how to be cheerful givers but in another way it’s all from God. For he is the source of the seed that is sown, the bread that is eaten, and he is the one who multiplies all blessings. This why our liberality in giving, our generosity in responding to our vocations, is not only from God, it turns others to give him thanks, glory and worship.

As a beautiful link to this passage, the saint of the day for October 8th on our Byzantine calendar is the Venerable Pentitent Pelagia. Her own vocational story is profound. She was the head of a dance troupe in the 5th century and was known for dressing lavishly, living a lifestyle focused on pleasure. One day when she was in the town of Edessa, the Bishop was preaching a homily, and as she passed by she stopped to listen in. How did the congregation respond when they saw this woman? All of them but one looked away. The Bishop Nonnus who we commemorate on the Saturday of Cheesefare week, he was the one who did not write this woman off. He saw a deeper gift of life than what could be seen currently. He later explained that she took great care to adorn her body in order to appear beautiful in the eyes of men. To his brother bishops he added, “We… take no thought for the adornment of our wretched souls”. She eventually saw that her beauty was fulfilled in union with Christ and became a great and beautiful soul who prayed and gave her life to God and His Church in Jerusalem all the remaining days of her earthly life, and she now prays for us.

What about us? Will we answer God’s call to be enriched with a heart that gives cheerfully? Maybe we need a reminder that our giving is not a transaction at a bank but is indeed planting for a harvest. Scattering abroad and sowing should be our mindset whenever we give. It’s messy—we don’t have a promise that every seed will blossom and bear fruit but it gives life. Will we respond when we see need in the least of our brothers and sisters? In our day and age we have seen so much hurt, so much suffering, so many tragedies. These are all calls for us to consider where we may be able to be the love and healing that this world needs. Will we seek our deepest calling to make our whole lives a gift? Will we see that that is the path to joy and living our vocation? We all have a vocation, whether called to ordination or the religious life, or called to fatherhood or motherhood, called to be an excellent worker, student, son, daughter or friend. Will we answer that calling from within and do so cheerfully? When we can say yes from the depths own hearts and say yes to Christ, we will see the wonder of the life in Christ and we will cause the world to give thanks to God. Glory to Jesus Christ!

A Reflection on the Exaltation of the Precious, Holy, and Life-Giving Cross

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit Amen.

A lot of us love epic war stories. Classic movies like Spartacus or more recent movies like braveheart stir our hearts. Even more recent comic book battles that have been put to the screen can capture our imagination. Some of these are true stories, and one of those battles is directly linked to our feast today.

Over 1700 years ago, there were two armies lined up for battle along a river to the north of the ancient city of Rome. It was a battle that would decide the fate of a kingdom. While at war with a general in a struggle to rule the Roman Empire, another general saw a sign. He had a vision. Inspired by this sign, which happened to be a Christian cross, he eventually vowed that if he would be victorious, he would dedicate himself and his nation to the religion which had followed that same sign. Keep in mind-Christianity was a religion which, up to that time, was not legal. And yet this general felt that he was being called by this sign to follow it, and indeed he was triumphant in battle against his enemies. Eventually he became the emperor of the entire empire, he then legalized the faith just one year later and converted to that faith along with his mother. Today we venerate this man and his mother as saints. You probably know this man and you probably know his story. He is St. Constantine, who we remember with his mother Saint Helen on today’s feast of the Holy, life-giving, and precious cross. While today’s feast is about the cross, the story of today’s feast is not focused on this dramatic imagery of a cross in the sky and winning a battle across a river. That was the just the start of something even more profound and more beautiful than a military victory. It comes through the ages to us from the readings that we have just heard.

Our Gospel passage today is stark. In it we hear the story of the crucifixion taken from the 19th chapter of the Gospel of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian. But the verses that were chosen were like a masterful weaving. We didn’t hear the parts in the chapter that talk about the surrounding characters-the soldiers, the chief priests, and other pieces of the Gospel that were on the outside of the heart of the story. Those verses were selectively taken out to focus on the Cross. By doing this, the Church in her wisdom is lowering the noise around the scene from the “supporting cast” to place our hearts and our eyes on the bloody reality, the tragic reality, of Our Lord’s death on the cross. It ends with our Lord who gave up His spirit. The soldiers pierce his side as blood and water come forth, and the last word from John is that what he described was true. The passage does not continue to take us to the triumph of the resurrection. We don’t hear how it all ends. No, our eyes and hearts are fixed on that violent moment, that reality of total self-offering that our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ made. Does this death sound like victory? Not at all. Not, at least, if we stick to the surface of the story.

But we can see more deeply, beyond the surface, especially when we hear the apostolic reading from the 1st letter of St. Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians. We heard in this letter that “the cross is foolishness and a stumbling stone”. The cross sounds like defeat and suffering. It does not seem like the victory of some great military endeavor that turned the tides of history. But it is something that is a far greater victory than any dramatic story that may make its way to a movie screen, as was done with St. Constantine’s battle. It is called the wisdom and the power of God. The cross brings us life precisely through the death and suffering-this sounds like foolishness until we realize that Christ gives us his life when we are united to God. It is why we sing “Save your people O Lord and bless your inheritance, grant victory to your church over evil and protect your people by your cross.” We preach Christ and Christ crucified, St. Paul says, because of the fact that the Cross is a life giving moment in salvation history that meets us in our own suffering and confusion and unites it to Christ and his victory on the Cross. It did not seem like a victory in any way when one looks at it with human eyes. But again, there was so much more when one looks at it with spiritual eyes. This is precisely what happened at the event that gives us the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.

So what then is the real story of the Exaltation of the Cross? It doesn’t start with a battle near Rome. It starts in a city that was defeated, not in a city of victory. It starts in the humility of the dust of the earth, not the lofty heavens. In Jerusalem, St. Helen led a search to find the same cross from our readings today. The actual cross that was covered in blood. It was covered in sweat and tears. According to Tradition, it was covered underground beneath a pagan temple to Venus which was part of the pagan Roman overthrow of Jerusalem. Maybe the pagan temple was built to erase the memory of Christ? Perhaps, but if so there was a hunger to find it once again. The faithful had heard that there was a temple to Venus and that this was where the crucifixion happened. They began to dig at the site, and in fact they did find multiple crosses. Together with the Patriarch of Jerusalem and others living there, St. Helen sought to determine which cross was the true cross. And that is when they had a brilliant idea. The crosses were placed to touch the body of someone who had died, and upon touching the true cross, he was brought back to life. Later, as the cross was elevated on high and the faithful cried out singing “Lord have mercy”, a dying woman was healed by coming under the shadow of the cross. Even some of those who doubted but witnessed the event came to faith, and the city of Jerusalem rejoiced one September 14th. Together with them, we are rejoicing with them, but let’s learn more about what we celebrate.

We can even learn about this same feast mystically in the Old Testament Scriptures. Two of the three passages from last night’s vespers service can show us this. First, in Exodus chapter 15 we hear the story of the people of Israel coming upon the bitter waters known as Marah. They were journeying, they were tired and thirsty but the water was not drinkable. What did Moses do to cure this bitterness? In Exodus we hear that Moses threw a tree into the water, and the bitterness was changed to sweetness. Now, is there any obvious way that this process of throwing a tree into water would make that bitter water sweet? No. It is a foreshadowing of the fact that the cross can rid us of our own bitterness and lack of ability to bear fruit. The second Vespers reading I would like to share with you is from Proverbs chapter 3 vs. 11-18 and there is a beautiful reflection there. After speaking to us as children and telling us that when we are reproved (that is, when we are disciplined) it’s not because we are neglected or hated. NO, it is because our father loves us, we are told to seek wisdom. In that passage we hear that wisdom is a tree of life to bring life to those who seek her. It might not seem clear why a tree was mentioned if we just picked up the book of Proverbs. But… when we hear that wisdom is a tree of life at this time of the year, that we are loved even when we suffer, we realize the same message. It’s the message that Christ through the cross brings us the tree of life. And where else do we hear this idea of a tree of life? In Genesis and revelation. Eden and heaven bring us a tree that gives life, and our Tradition teaches us that this is the holy cross.

The cross brings us life even though from one angle it only seemed to bring death. So we have the scriptures, our Church calendar, and our liturgical tradition. That may be all on the outside. What about me? What about you? What about this whole world? In many ways we often can only see brokenness and sorrow. We know that things aren’t the way that they should be. Turning to the cross we lift it on high just as they did back in Jerusalem, because we find that our death can turn to life when it is united to Christ. Our bitterness can become sweet. The holy wisdom of Christ becomes a tree of life that we embrace in love. Foolishness becomes our power. If you’re suffering today, ask how you may come to the shadow of the Cross to receive healing. It may seem foolish to admit that your suffering won’t simply disappear when you’re united to the Cross. But there is a wisdom that surpasses our understanding. There is life. There is exaltation.

St. Constantine may have won a battle through a cross in the sky, which allowed him to have one kind victory over enemies. But when St. Constantine and St. Helen went to Jerusalem to find and venerate the true cross at this feast, something even more special happened. The exaltation of the Holy cross celebrates a different kind of victory— and this victory comes about through that suffering from Christ and is linked to our own suffering, and it can bring healing to those who call upon Christ. The one led to a king becoming an emperor, but the other brings life through death. Let us go forth without fear when we see our own crosses by loving the Lord who willingly ascended the cross for us. Let us search out where the Cross can save us in our lives, and lift up the Cross on high as they did in Jerusalem when that cross was found. In doing so, we will be full of the life that comes through death. Glory to Jesus Christ!