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.


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

2. Orientalium Ecclesiarum, Vatican II 1964. Online source:


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: 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!

A Reflection on the Dormition of the Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary

Glory to Jesus Christ! It is good to be here to celebrate this most special feast. This feast of the Dormition is special for many reasons. Our Byzantine Tradition actually provides the foundation of the historical event that we celebrate in the Universal Church today. When the Church wanted to demonstrate the truth that the Mother of God, after completing the course of her life, was bodily assumed into heaven by God, it was our Byzantine tradition that was used by Pope Pius XII to show this truth. He would quote Eastern Fathers like St. John of Damascus to drive home the point that we believe that after Christ ascended, He would not leave His mother’s body in her grave. No, her falling asleep (which is what Dormition means) was followed with her Body being assumed into heaven. In the Church year which ends at the end of this month, this is the last big feast that we have. We have the tradition of fasting from August 1st until today, which makes one of four fasts that follow the feasts of Pascha, the Nativity, and the Holy First Apostles Peter and Paul. Today is perhaps the peak of our year, as our church year ends this month and a new Byzantine year begins in September. But there is more than the Church year and the joy of this last solemn feast of the Church year. Because the Theotokos’ body was assumed into heaven to be united with her soul, and because the apostles found fragrant flowers in the tomb, we have the joy of having flowers and herbs to be blessed on this joyful day. This is our final feast of the year but from an even more mystical angle, we could say that this feast is the final feast period in all of our life in Christ. This is the feast that testifies to the Completion of salvation history. Let’s take a journey through the icons in our church to see how that is true.

Let’s start up to your left, and what do we see? The fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. What is under the tree? A skull. Death. But who else do we also see in the icon? It’s an image of the Theotokos. This brings our minds to the words of God after the fall. In speaking to the hardships that befell mankind after the sin in the garden, there is a promise of hope. A promise of salvation. In Genesis 3:15 we hear what scholars call the “protoevangelion”, the first Gospel. The first good news to us from God after the ancestral sin was: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” That’s right, in the first book of the Bible we are told that the offspring of Eve will vanquish the head of the serpent. The main icons along the sides of our church are even more clear in telling the continual story of salvation as a long thread. What is the first one that we see? The nativity of the Theotokos, which we celebrate on September 8th, and is just at the beginning of our Byzantine Church year. Let’s continue from there to her Entrance into the Temple, to the Annunciation, to the Visitation of Elizabeth, to the Nativity of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, to His Holy Theophany, and we continue to the account of Christ’s life of ministry that crosses all of the way to the back of our nave and across to the “south side” of the nave as we call it. The icons on this side of the Church brings us closer to the Holy Passion of our Lord with his entry into Jerusalem, and eventual crucifixion (note the skull is here yet again) and resurrection. But that is not the end of the chain of salvation history, and it’s not the end of the icons on the south side of our nave. No, let us continue to see the story of Christ from resurrection to Ascension, we see the story of the Apostles, the splendor of Pentecost, and what do we find at the bottom, at the very end of this chain of history? It is the icon of our feast today. This is such a beautiful story that we see right before our eyes every time we come to worship, which I hope we can grow to appreciate more and more as we grow in our faith which is so deeply linked to things like icons and blessings. After the Feast of Pentecost our eyes move to the icon in the bottom left from my view, as the completion of this chain of events. Christ is truly Risen but at the same time this is the proof that it’s not just his ascension. It’s not just the power of the spirit at Pentecost. No. Our journey through salvation history ends with a woman who is both lying at her tomb, and resting safely in the arms of her son. But now in an almost mirror image of the Icon of the Nativity, she is the little one held in His arms, because her soul is home. She is restored as her body is eventually raised and the angels and Apostles who look on are in awe, because she has fallen asleep. The next time they will come back to the tomb with the Apostle Thomas and there will only be the aroma of flowers, and there will be no body. That is the sign that our salvation is seen most clearly in this special feast. And this is also why in our tradition that we say “O Most Holy Theotokos, Save us.” She is the first one saved by Christ in terms of priority, and like anyone who is filled with love, this salvation is shared to those who cry out to her. We say the words “O most holy Theotokos, save us” to attest to this beautiful chain of redemption that comes to us on this feast. Her Dormition is a sign that when we die united to Christ and His Church, we will have that same salvation which is manifested to her.

Scripturally, our Old Testament readings, apostolic reading and Gospel passage speak in harmony to this same fact. The readings from Genesis tell us that the Theotokos is the ladder from heaven that allows heaven and earth to meet. She is also the unopened door leading into the holy temple of God. She is full of the wisdom of God, who is in His presence listening to His words and keeping his commandments, which is the highest blessing of all. Perhaps even more striking is our reading from the letter of the Holy Apostle Paul to the Philippians. Here he speaks of how Christ humbles Himself in becoming Man, and that in this same humility it allows him to come to the Cross, but that God the Father exalts him so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. When I hear the words of Christ on the Cross and being exalted, I tend to think of Pascha as opposed to some Marian feast. Did the Church make a typo in pointing us to these words from St. Paul on this Feast, which is also the Apostolic reading for the Birth of the Theotokos? I argue NO, this is very intentional to think of Christ’s humility and exaltation on this feast. There is a genius here, for if Christ is to be humbled and live, he would have to come down to earth from the ladder, this door to heaven, who is His mother. And if he were to be risen from the dead but she were to live a normal course of life and not be with him in paradise in body AND soul, he would be of all sons the most sad.

Liturgically, our last day of the Church year speaks to this same fact. August 31st commemorates the deposition of the cincture of the Holy Theotokos. We remember the clothing that the Theotokos wore because there are no claims to having relics of the body of the Virgin Mary’s body, unlike many saints. That’s right, there are no remains of the Theotokos’ body on earth claimed from the over 2000 years of Church history, so don’t let the date of the dogma deceive you. The Dormition has been upheld throughout the centuries because of the importance of this feast. More importantly, this demonstrates that God’s love for her is a sign of love for us. But what about you and me? Will we fall asleep in the Lord and be assumed? Is that true of the graves that we visit, that the bodies have been assumed into heaven? After all, we should be visiting the faithful departed, praying for them both in Church particularly at anniversaries and on all souls Saturday’s. Is this beautiful promise only for the select few who are assumed? No, because we know that their souls will dwell among the good, as the prokeimenon for the faithful departed tells us. We also know that at the final resurrection, all of us will be integrally human, with our souls and bodies united just as is the case in this feast. This feast attests to the words of Christ who said that if one believes in Him, that person will not die. The Theotokos shows us that these words are not speaking of our physical hearts stopping to beat. This tragically befalls all of us, but in stark contrast to this tragedy we have the reality of life in Christ. We have the firm conviction that Christ trampled death by death. One of the most beautiful ways to see this is not just with special callings like that of Elijah who passed over physical death. No, the most beautiful way to see the victory of Christ over death is to see the story of His Mother. Her life on earth ended not as a bow of defeat, but as an affirmation and entrance into the eternal life of the presence of Her Son who trampled death. Her son, holding his Mother in his arms, calls us all to our destiny. He invites us to a deeper faith in His call to salvation by showing us that He loved His mother so deeply that He welcomed her to that life in the kingdom that he inaugurated.

So let us take this occasion of the Feast of the Dormition to see how deeply Christ loves us. He loved us enough to suffer crucifixion and to let His all pure mother pass from this earthly life, because this fleeting existence pales in comparison to the divine light of union with the Holy life-creating Trinity that never ends. May we journey ever more deeply into it so that we may one day be held by Him as we see Him with His Mother in this occasion of her Falling asleep in the Lord. She intercedes for the whole Church and so let us say together with these words, “O Most Holy Theotokos, Save Us.”

The Harmony between Orthodoxy and Orthopraxis in Chrysostom’s Anaphora

The Christian world is often cast in terms of divide and distinction. There are those who would argue that the apostolic churches emphasize the power of sacramental mysteries to bring salvation as opposed to Protestant congregations and their greater focus upon an individual’s faith in God for eternal life. In this paradigm, a person’s reception of something external to them is considered to be critical for salvation in the Catholic and Orthodox churches, whereas an internal act of faith is preeminent in the Protestant view. Does this make the Catholic and Orthodox perspective one that leaves out our own personal and internal life of faith and instead focuses on a sort of magical view where the external sacramental life is all that is needed for salvation? Some would say so. After all, if Catholics and Orthodox receive “life-creating mysteries”, there is a sense of passivity that enters into our spirituality if these mysteries are in and of themselves able to make life in our hearts with no regard to the faith in our hearts. In this essay we will reflect on this by exploring the way that the theology of the apostolic churches embraces both an external or passive reception of salvation, as well as an internal or active embrace of the faith.


Specifically, we will consider the anaphora of St. John Chrysostom, the primary Eucharistic prayer of the Byzantine Rite. Not only is it most often used in the Byzantine Tradition, the Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom is a wonderful image of divine theology, and it exemplifies how our connection to salvation incorporates the reality of salvation as something received and yet truly incorporated by the faithful. By viewing our entire existence and salvation being brought about by God the Father, seeing thanksgiving (Eucharist) in all of life, meditating upon how Christ has saved us in a manner that leaves nothing undone, and professing that our complete transformation is rooted in our complete sacramental participation in the life of the Holy Spirit who comes to us in the mystical supper, we will find a balance between the primacy of God as Savior and the importance of personal adherence to the faith.

Existence and salvation accomplished by God the Father
In the Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom, we begin with the admonition to stand aright, in awe, and attentively so that we may offer it in peace. We are blessed with the Pauline phrase from 2 Corinthians which states, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” These words are not merely a Scriptural quotation, they are a powerful way to prepare our hearts and ensure that our theology and practice of the faith is full of the grace that is needed for what is to come. This dialogue is also a two way street, as the faithful respond by saying “And with your spirit.” Once grace is bestowed and received, the celebrant continues to guide our prayer by chanting, “Let us lift up our hearts”. Our hearts and minds must be engaged if we are most true to the words of the anaphora and so the faithful respond, “We lift them up to the Lord.” The last admonition is perhaps the most important, as the celebrant intones, “Let us give thanks to the Lord” and the faithful reply by singing, “It is proper and just.” Why is this so crucial to the offering that we make? Eucharistia is the Greek word for thanksgiving, and as such we must give thanks to the Lord for a proper celebration of the Eucharist.
If we step back, it should be clear that all of the blessing and prayers enjoining us to be ready to offer our thanksgiving to receive the body and blood is in keeping with the theological understanding that as Catholics and Orthodox receive the life of God through the Eucharist, and that we must consider whether we are in such a state to be deemed worthy to receive. What this entails is a subject of much debate and is not the focus of the essay. But what is important is that while we profess that it is proper and just to give thanks to the Lord, we do not stop at simply preparing to receive communion as an external sacramental mystery. The celebrant’s prayer takes us further to consider exactly why we should give thanks to the Lord. The Anaphora continues by confessing who God the Father is as we pray to Him. We profess His ineffability, inconceivability, invisibility and incomprehensibility, and these sublime attributes are then placed in the context of what his creation of all things means in terms of mankind. The celebrant prays, “You brought us out of non existence into being, and again raised us up when we had fallen, and left nothing undone until you brought us to heaven and gave us your kingdom to come.” In hearing the words of the Anaphora, we tend to focus on who God the Father is, when the prayer uses lofty terms such as ineffability, incomprehensibility and the like. The proclamation of why we should thank God for His greatness of being casts our gaze to the external magnificence and wonder of who God is and that can cause us to long to receive Him in the Eucharist. Furthermore, the description of God’s relationship to humanity should also be meditated upon in addition to our focus on God. Before commemorating the saving passion of His Son, this prayer has a powerful focus on the reality that God has accomplished all for salvation. In those words that are about what He has done for us and in us, we acknowledge that our very existence is through God who raises us up when we have fallen. This raising from sin, bringing to heaven, giving us the kingdom to come is all accomplished by God. All of these acclamations take our own contributions and they are set aside, while the salvific love of God comes into focus. Nevertheless, these are the prayers of Christians who focus upon salvation as an ongoing journey that is received through sacramental mysteries.

It may also be surprising to read that these actions of salvation that we acknowledge God as having accomplished include bringing us to heaven and giving us the Kingdom to come are actually placed in the past tense! We do not hear that we will be brought to heaven and receive the kingdom to come one day at our deaths, or perhaps at the Second Coming of Christ. We hear that God has done this. When so much in our life may seem incomplete and our destiny may feel far away, we are reminded that union with the Eternal God who will make all things right provides an objective reality where all has been accomplished for us by the One who is beyond the constraints of time itself. In praying to God the Father, we profess our faith in a manner that would ward off any sense of earning His favor through the sacraments. This prayer also dispels the notion that our salvation is something that puts us into a fixed state of “being saved”, for we hear that He has raised us up again when we had fallen. The mystery of redemption finds its beginning and end in the loving kindness of God who has accomplished all for us, and as such our focus is external, on the eternal God who has brought about our salvation.

Thanksgiving for all things

As the anaphora continues prior to the Sanctus, the proper response to the salvation described above is thanksgiving. Accordingly, we again thank God in our act of Eucharistia. The celebrant prays, “For all this we thank you, and your only-begotten Son, and your Holy Spirit, for all that we know and that we do not know, for the manifest and hidden benefits bestowed on us. We also thank you for this liturgy which you are pleased to accept from our hands even though there stand before you thousands of angels…”
We not only thank God for our creation and salvation in the Eucharist, we give thanks to God for everything as we pray the Anaphora. We thank Him for the Divine Liturgy itself, which He accepts from us. God could have ordained that the choirs of angelic powers would be the ones who offer the highest worship to God, and yet this prayer emphasizes that His pleasure is seen in accepting our sacrifice in the Anaphora, even though the angels stand before Him singing the thrice holy hymn. God thus accounts us humans worthy to celebrate the Holy Eucharist on this earth and this pleasure emphasizes that he accepts the offering from our unclean hands not in a manner of pagan placating. Instead, the dialogue is one of thanksgiving, love and pleasure.

With all this borne in mind, our hearts are called to a thanksgiving that is unbounded, when we pray that we thank God for all the things that we know and for all those things that we do not know. There is so much that we know which could arouse doubt in our lives, limiting our thanksgiving to only those certain aspects of life for which we have decided are worth thanking God. There are also so many things that we do not know which could likewise kindle fear or despair and quench our thanksgiving to not include all things. But if and when we exclaim that we thank God for everything both known and unknown, our heart is opened in all facets of our being to God entering our lives and even our view of the world itself. Therefore, we invite God to come to us via the mystery of the Eucharist so that we may have thanksgiving both in our hearts and to show thanksgiving through our gratitude for all things. Our focus then is, in a sense, external on God whom we are thanking for His acceptance and love that we can see in all things. In another sense, our focus is also internal in that we are the ones making thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving for the economy of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Eucharist

As the Anaphora continues after the Sanctus, there are more acclamations of the holiness of God the celebrant prays to Christ, “You so loved your world that you gave your only-begotten Son so that everyone who believes in him should not perish, but have life everlasting. He came and fulfilled the whole divine plan on our behalf.” The anaphora brings our hearts to thank God the Father for the work of Christ with these words as well as the words of institution which follow. The spirituality of the Anaphora is focused on Christ, who could be viewed as the Savior who brought us our salvation. Our salvation is seen to be part of the whole divine plan which we receive as having been completely fulfilled on our behalf. No sense of lack is seen as these words are prayed. Are these words in keeping with the view that Catholics and Orthodox “work their own way” to salvation? This charge could be made, but only if we are not fully listening to the prayers!
After the words of institution which recount Christ at the Last Supper, the anamnesis follows. There we remember the sacred command and all that has come to pass in our behalf, and because we are praying to the Eternal God for whom all things are Eternally present, it even includes the second coming in glory, an event in the future! This remembrance reaches its apex when celebrant and faithful pray “Offering You, Your own, from Your own. Always and everywhere. We praise you, we bless you, we thank you O lord, and we pray to You our God.” The voice of this language has shifted from the external work of the Trinity saving us to the internal perspective of our own offering, praise, blessing, thanksgiving, and prayer. Our focus shifts on our own call to make an offering that is united to the external offering of God. While this offering is in keeping with the general depiction of how Catholics and Orthodox view the divine mysteries, the previous context of the Anaphora where we reflect on God as the one who accomplishes our salvation may shed light to balance one’s perspective on salvation as both external and internal.

The transformative effects of salvation in our union with God through Theosis

As we continue in prayer after the words of institution and come to the epiklesis, the Holy Spirit is called down to make the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ. From a perspective of our union with God, this is important because these prayers allow us to receive God Himself through the Eucharist as the gifts are changed by the Holy Spirit. However, to see the link between our theology and our life of faith, let us reflect upon a section of the epiklesis that is not so focused upon the transformation of the Eucharist itself but upon the transformation of our lives. Reading this section in an edited form the celebrant prays, “send down your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts lying before us…that for those who partake of them they may bring about a spirit of vigilance, the remission of sins, the communion of your Holy Spirit, the fullness of the heavenly kingdom, and confidence in you, not judgment or condemnation.” Oftentimes, the epiklesis is focused on to exemplify that in Byzantine spirituality, Christ comes to us through thanking the Father, repeating the words of Christ at the Last Supper, and calling down the Holy Spirit to effect the change. This is perhaps more Trinitarian in nature than the Western perspective that the words of institution are the central and essential aspect of transforming the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. This distinction between the Latin Rite Catholic and the Byzantine approach could be used to drive a wedge between East and West, but is that the true focus of the prayer? If we step back and allow the words of the epiklesis that are about us to speak to us, we see something that may be more important than trying to bring chronology to a liturgy (which we have already mentioned is timeless in its remembrance of things past and future) or distinction between Churches. The transformation is also deeply focused upon us as participants in the Eucharistic celebration. The celebrant does pray “make this bread the precious body of your Christ and that which is in this chalice the precious blood of your Christ”, which were omitted in the quotation above. Nevertheless, when we expand our focus to the entire prayer of the epiklesis we can see our own part in being transformed. We hear that the Holy Spirit is sent down upon us and these gifts lying before us because we do not only want there to be transformation of the bread and wine into body and blood. We also want our entire being to be transformed so that we can be united to God Himself. We hear that the Holy Spirit is called down upon us so that we may partake and receive a spirit of vigilance, the remission of sins, the communion of [His] Holy Spirit, the fullness of the heavenly kingdom and confidence in [Him], not judgment or condemnation.
In so many ways, this last part of the Anaphora is a clarion call to demonstrate what the Gospel is with regard to us as recipients of the Divine Eucharist. Our theology of salvation effected by the Trinity and the reality of the Presence of the Trinity in the Eucharistic gifts pours out into our lives so that those lives might be transformed in divine union with the Trinity. In these words, we are being called not to just be prepared to receive the Eucharist and be forgiven. Instead, we are being prepared for what has been called by many “the liturgy after the liturgy”; that is, we are being prepared and transformed so that we can live out our life in union with God. We need a spirit of vigilance to walk wisely in life and live as God would want of His sons and daughters. We need remission of sins to overcome our own weaknesses, failures and guilt. This is the healing of our souls and bodies for which we pray prior to communion, but it is also a basic human experience that we are cleansed and can continue to walk in the light that calls us. We need the communion of the Holy Spirit to have the inspiration and guidance to live our life as He speaks to us in His still small voice, just as He guided the Prophet Elijah and the Church at Pentecost. We receive the fullness of the heavenly kingdom to be true sons and daughters of God who can not only “go to heaven” when we die, but we can live the blessedness to which we are called by Christ in the Beatitudes. For if we are receiving the heavenly kingdom, we will walk in those precepts and practices taught so clearly by Christ in narratives such as the Sermon on the Mount. Lastly, we need confidence in God and not judgment or condemnation, because anything short of this is a life of doubt and guilt. As we make missteps in the life to which we are called, the confidence asked for is the remedy to any judgment or condemnation that we experience. Thus, while the first half of the Anaphora grounds us in the perspective of Christ as our Savior in the Orthodox faith, the ending part of the epiklesis demonstrates that all of our theological points about the Eucharist which are external and received by the faithful find an arguably deeper reality in the Orthopraxis that we are called to not only by the purity of Eucharist, but by the deep prayers of internal transformation that come to us. The importance of an external reception of the transformed bread and wine is deeply linked to the importance of an internal actualization through our own transformation from humanity to divinity.
The most important fact to consider is that God whom we may have referred to above as external is not truly external. After all, He is internalized in the act of Holy Communion! Thus, the whole dichotomy of external versus internal is conquered by the Christian’s experience of receiving Christ in the Holy Eucharist and being transformed by God through it. Perhaps that is the deepest lesson to be learned when we reflect upon salvation as it is celebrated in the Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom. We are not passive, but we are also not acting out our salvation on our own. Instead, the theology and praxis that we see in the Anaphora testify that we are united to the life-creating Trinity, and the most important consequence of our reception of Holy Communion is that we are transformed through this unitive reception. As the Thanksgiving prayer after holy communion of our holy Father Basil the Great states: “Grant that they may bring about the healing of my soul and body; the defeat of every enemy; the enlightenment of the eyes of my heart; the calming of my thoughts and emotions; a faith that cannot be confounded; a love that does not pretend; a wisdom that overflows; the full observance of your commandments; the increase of your divine grace; and citizenship in your kingdom. Being preserved in your holiness by them, I will remember your love at all times. I will live no longer for myself, but of you, my Lord and Benefactor. Thus, having spent my earthly life in the hope of life without end, I will attain eternal rest where the sound of rejoicing never ceases, where the delight of those who gaze upon the beauty of your face cannot be expressed. For you, Christ our God, are our true desire, and the inexpressible joy of those who love you; and all creation glorifies you forever. Amen.”

Kenosis, Christmas and Christians



Whenever we reflect on Christ and who He is, we knowingly or unknowingly engage in what is formally known as Christology. Fr. Dumitru Staniloae wrote wonderfully on Christology in the third volume of his dogmatic theology series entitled “The Experience of God.” In chapter four of this volume “The Person of Jesus Christ as God and Savior”, just three sentences of Staniloae’s writing make it clear how closely our salvation is tied to a proper understanding of Christology. He writes:

“Christ would not save us were He to manifest Himself as purely divine through the divine nature’s attributes and actions toward us, and as purely human through his human nature’s attributes and actions. In both cases He would not raise His human nature to cooperation for its salvation and ours. Moreover, in both cases He would remain, as God, inaccessible to us, and then the two natures in His Person would remain unknown and ineffective.”

This brief passage succinctly captures what lies behind the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ. As perfect God and perfect Man, our salvation is possible. In contrast, errors in Christology lead to a break between the deep union of theosis (deification) which come to us through Christ’s Incarnation. Thus, focusing on the intersection between Christ’s two Natures united in One Person leads us to consider some critical truths which are the focus of this essay; namely, the kenosis of Christ, His sinlessness, His connection to His Mother, and the implications of these three concepts. By meditating upon who Christ is, we can come closer to seeing what He has done in becoming Man for our salvation.

The second chapter of the Letter to the Philippians arguably contains the most distilled passage on the doctrine of kenosis, or self-emptying, of Christ. In verses five through eleven St. Paul writes:

“Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

In many ways, a more vivid means to see His self-emptying is seen through reading of His life in the Holy Gospels. When we see Him hungry, weeping, wounded, and dying, we tremble to consider how real His humanity is. How can God suffer through all of this? And yet the Byzantine tradition considers the moment of His Passion to be the most apt place to bestow upon Him the title of “the King of Glory”. Kenosis becomes the ability to see the glory of Christ most clearly, because it is precisely at the time of emptying and losing His life that our salvation and union with Him is accomplished.

In the context of Christ’s self-emptying, we understand that He maintains His divinity at every moment. A key way to reinforce that His divinity is present in the midst of Christ’s suffering as man is to meditate upon the key Christological affirmation that Christ remained sinless even during that suffering. The Epistle to the Hebrews makes the importance of Christ’s sinlessness clear when the author states:

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Hebrews 4:14-16

Christ’s complete self-offering is seen through His sinlessness both in terms of what His priestly offering is qualitatively, and through our understanding that He has been through all forms as temptation and yet is without sin. In terms of the perfection of His offering, no aspect of Christ’s personality was withheld from the beautiful union between the human and the divine, and as such His High priestly ministry is not focused merely on His dying on the cross and rising from the grave. Instead, His offering is made perfect because He is the spotless Lamb of God, as 1 Peter 1:19 makes clear. The fullness of human nature is purified because He lived a perfectly pure life that was fully human. Thus, holding to Christ as sinless is not merely a point of dogma, but is critical to bringing about completeness to our salvation.

In addition to speaking to the quality of His offering, the sinlessness of Christ is important for our salvation through our own perspective as we look to Him for salvation. The weight of our weaknesses and failures could lead us to despair, but it is made crystal clear that Christ’s sinless life is a beacon of hope that we have a high priest who truly sympathizes with us, living His human existence in a blameless manner. In contrast, Docetism represents a Christological misunderstanding whereby Christ only appeared to be man. Were this to be true, His life on earth would not be so deeply intertwined with our temptations and sufferings. He would be perfect because He was God and not truly man. If He were perfect as God but not truly human, this sinlessness would have no bearings on our own struggles because we are humans. The Christological formulations of the Orthodox faith embrace Christ’s true divinity and true human sinlessness so that we can have hope that we can conquer our sin through our union to Christ. The Orthodox view of Christ’s sinlessness therefore makes secure our salvation in terms of what is offered, and what we experience as imperfect people. As Staniloae says, our human nature is raised, His sinlessness shows that He is not inaccessible, but is instead close to our very hearts.

Between Catholic and Orthodox Christians, there is consensus that the Incarnation brings God and Man together not just in terms Jesus Himself. Rather, the Incarnation extends to those whom He has saved. This is seen perhaps the most clearly in the participation and union that His Mother had with Him, though this also extends to all Christians. At the foot of the Cross, Our Lord spoke to His Mother and said of St. John the Theologian, “Woman, behold your Son”, and to St. John Christ says, “Behold your Mother” (John 19:26-27). While the words of the Prophet Simeon were fulfilled as a sword pierced her heart (Luke 2:35), the death and resurrection of Christ showed not only His importance in bringing out salvation, but we can also see His Mother’s role as Mother of Christ’s mystical Body, the Church.

From the Council of Ephesus’ embracing the term Theotokos to state that the Mary is truly the God-bearer, to the Second Council of Nicea stating that icons of Our Lord and the Saints can be venerated precisely because of the Incarnation, the Church’s teachings on Christ can be seen to extend to those whom He has saved. After all, those non-Catholic Christians who deny the veneration of icons would not deny venerating Christ. But perhaps that is the whole shortcoming of their thinking, in that there is an implicit individualism separating us from Christ such that He deserves veneration but the saints do not. In Byzantine spirituality, our journey of theosis is so all-pervasive that the light of Christ shines through Mary and all of the saints, because the union is complete. This incarnational union began at the Annunciation when God became man in the Virgin Mary’s womb, and thus the Mother of God occupies a special place in highlighting that when we see her suffering at the Cross and glorified in heaven, we do not become idolaters. Instead, we profess the totality of the Incarnation and the fact that Christ’s union with us extends to our lives.

The Scriptures make it clear that we participate in the salvation of not only ourselves but of others (e.g., 1 Timothy 4:16). They also make it clear that the One Mediator between God and Man is Christ (1 Timothy 2:5). When St. Paul says that he fills up on what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ (Colossians 1:24), we realize that St. Paul is either contradicting himself, or that the reductionist viewpoint that only Christ is involved in our salvation comes up short. As Staniloae says, Christ’s human nature participates in our salvation. In sharing the same nature, and receiving the divine nature through grace, Mary and all of the faithful participate in our salvation. This is why when the Byzantine Tradition prays we hear words such as the following, which come from the Troparion of the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos: ‘O Theotokos, in giving birth you preserved virginity; and in your falling asleep you did not forsake the world. You are the Mother of Life and have been transferred to life, and through your prayers you deliver our souls from death.”

We do not shrink away from saying that the Mother of God delivers our soul from death, just as the Apostle Paul speaks of filling up on what is lacking in the suffering of Christ. In both cases, the salvific work of Christ is lived out in those united to Him, and that brings salvation through the saints to the world. Through theosis, the divine union with the human comes to the humans who partake of the divine nature, and that divine nature shines through humans like St. Paul and the Virgin Mary in a beautiful mirror image of human nature shining through the fully divine nature in Christ. Therefore, to hold to the incarnation and salvation of Christ we must see the fundamental connection between His kenosis, sinlessness, and the holiness and union that we see between Christ and His Mother. As we grow to see our union of Christ, may we like St. Paul see that our own life is called to kenosis, sinlessness, and theosis so that we may share salvation with all people. Glory to Jesus Christ!