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.”


From Offering to the Great Entrance and Back Again


Fr. Ephrem Lash gave a riveting lecture on the Divine Liturgy entitled “Translating The Liturgy: Was there a Great Entrance at the Last Supper?” (1) In it, he points out vividly that aspects of our liturgical life of offering bread and wine to become the Body and Blood of Christ grew organically from a background that began with the Last Supper, and he shows that this does not mean that each component of the Divine Liturgy today was present even in an embryonic sense at the Last Supper. If we consider the Byzantine liturgy, the Great Entrance is a momentous occasion, so much so that Patriarch Eutychius called for the Cherubic hymn to be sung to counterbalance any notion that the bread and wine carried in the procession were already consecrated before the Anaphora (2). And despite the fact that the Last Supper brought the Eucharist to the world for the first time, it would be anachronistic to believe that there was a Great Entrance at the Last Supper, as the rhetorical question in the lecture title drives home so poignantly. Despite not being as ancient as the Eucharist itself, we will consider the development of the Great Entrance to understand the benefits and potential pitfalls of this practice.

As the liturgy developed in the first centuries of the Church, we read that “[t]he people, both in East and west, brought the bread and wine for the Eucharist.” (3) In the East “they handed in their offerings on the way to the Church, either at a table near the door, or in a small room specially provided near the entrance.” (4) Our understanding of the Eucharist as an offering from our own lives to bring the life of Christ to the Church and the world was clearly connected to this action of the faithful providing the bread and the wine, and to a partial extent this continues to this day with the faithful who prepare Prosphora in Byzantine parishes. As practical considerations brought more specialization to the Church, the place where the bread and wine were kept for the Anaphora changed. First, there was a transition from a table or small room to the Skeuphylakion, a separate building that stored the gifts of bread and wine which would be selected by deacons for the liturgy. Despite having its own building, the liturgy in Constantinople during the time of St. John Chrysostom did not have a Great Entrance as we know it. Wybrew states that “it is reasonably clear that in Chrysostom’s time the gifts were brought in by the deacons from wherever they had been left by the people and that this transfer was effected in a simple manner…accompanied by neither chant nor ceremonial.” (5) Thus, the transfer of the gifts from the Skeuphylakion to the altar began without ceremony, despite the current hymns and rubrics for the Great Entrance.

By 392, however, Theodore of Mopsuestia recounts at length about the awe and wonder of the same basic practice of bringing the gifts to the altar (6). Meditating upon the reality of the offering of Christ, the symbolism of His suffering, death, anointing and burial became integrally part of the Great Entrance. The ceremonialism that was not present in the early 300s emerges later in the century, and became so profound that Patriarchs chided those who held that the bread and wine were already consecrated, the Cherubic hymn was instituted, and the rite of Prothesis at the side altar came to replace the Skeuphylakion (7), which would have its own solemnity and symbolism to provide a context that would make sense of how we treat the gifts as special even prior to their consecration. Taken together, the progression away from simple actions in the earliest centuries of Church History reached a pinnacle of contrast where a rite before the procession was instituted providing symbolism pointing to Christ’s birth, the rite of procession at the Great Entrance was established to consider the suffering, death and Burial of Christ as well as the angelic powers worshipping the life-creating Trinity, ultimately leading to His Resurrection from the dead at the Anaphora and vivifying His people through reception of His Body and Blood at the Holy Eucharist.

On the one hand, we can be grateful to God for this development over the centuries. Hearing the prayers of the Prothesis (if they are audible and intelligible) can provide an excellent context of what is to be celebrated before the liturgy commences. By considering the prayers from this rite that hearken to the birth of Christ, and by seeing the great company of angels and saints surrounding Christ, we are drawn into the mystical realities of heaven, where the praise of God never ceases. In adding particles to the diskos for the faithful departed, our hearts swell with hope and prayers for those we have lost. Tying this together with the same gifts that are then solemnly carried through the nave of the Church and through the Royal doors at the Great Entrance, we are swept into the drama of the Passion, and the words of the Anaphora remind us that after death there is life. And as that life comes to the faithful who partake of it (or are blessed with the words, “Save Your People, O God, and bless Your inheritance”), the reality of Resurrection and life that is beyond the grave is embossed on our souls. In many ways, this experience emphasizes the reality of the life of Christ in the drama of salvation in a way that a liturgy which is not formalized can never do.
On the other hand, the formalization that comes to us through liturgical developments suffers the possibility of missing out on the personal connection to the offering that was seen more clearly in the early practice of the Church. As mentioned above, some parishioners may serve their congregations through preparing prosphora. Nevertheless, the majority of the people do not participate in this reality, and if that is the case there are many faithful who may not connect themselves to that which is offered in the Eucharist. The modern Byzantine rite may point us to Christ, but how do the faithful connect with this reality by seeing themselves in the liturgy?

I would argue that a balanced approach of understanding what Christ did for us and understanding what we do to unite ourselves to Christ and His Church in the liturgy is the key to the most ideal perspective. We must be able to see that we are part of the offering to God, and at the same time we must grasp how Christ offers Himself through our offerings to God. In so doing, we plumb the depths of the mystery of our salvation more clearly than an either/or perspective. Instead, we will see Christ’s priestly ministry and outstretched arms that seek to save us, and at the same time we will appreciate that our own efforts are part of the synergistic movement towards life everlasting. In so doing, we grasp the fullness of salvation and see the drama of its unfolding in our day to day lives. Glory to Jesus Christ!

Works Cited
1. Lash, Fr. Ephrem https://vimeo.com/32297264
2. Wybrew, Hugh. The Orthodox Liturgy, SVS Press 1990, page 82
3. Wybrew, page 20
4. Wybrew, page 20
5. Wybrew, page 52
6. Wybrew, page 53
7. Wybrew pp. 54, 55, 84, 109, 110, 154, 155-7

The Mystical View of the Scriptures in the Akathist to the Theotokos

The richness of the Byzantine liturgical life of prayer has overwhelmed many, particularly those of us who are tasked with leading singing the multitude of services and musical tones that undergird it. The principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi dictates that the prayer life of the Byzantine faithful will also influence perspective and faith in the Scriptures. From a Biblical perspective, there is a deeper foundation beyond the musical complexity of the Byzantine rite that can be a blessing to anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see. This Biblical foundation is so central and yet so often overlooked that at many times one may spend a great deal of time ignorant of its depths and splendor. By reflecting upon some of the Biblical references in the Akathist hymn, I argue that the Bible is deeply foundational to the mystical perspective which pervades Byzantine spirituality.



The Akathist hymn to the Theotokos is attributed to St. Romanos the Melodist, who is said to have composed it in the 6th century. This hymn leads those who pray it through the life of the Mother of God and the prophetic foreshadowing of her life from the Annunciation to the Birth of Christ. Why does this matter in terms of Scriptural interpretation? As we shall see, the mystical viewpoint of the Byzantine Christian Tradition comes to life in this hymn. Parallels between the Old and New Testaments are made in ways that seem shocking to the perspective that literal Biblical fulfillment is the height of good exegesis. Instead, the perspective of Old Testament fulfillment and interpretation is centered upon mystical foreshadowing that is larger than the strict message of a given text. For the purpose of this essay, we will reflect on the sixth Kontakion and Ikos, which are below (online source: http://www.orthodoxa.org/GB/orthodoxy/spirituality/AkathistMotherGodGB.htm) .

Kontakion 6 Having become God-bearing heralds, the Magi returned to Babylon. Fulfilling Your prophecy, and having preached You as the Christ to all, they left Herod as a trifler, who knew not how to chant: Alleluia.
Ikos 6 Having shed the light of truth in Egypt, You expelled the darkness of falsehood; and unable to bear Your strength, O Saviour, her idols fell; and they that were set free from them cried to the Theotokos: Rejoice, Uplifting of men. Rejoice, Downfall of demons. Rejoice, you who trampled upon the delusion of error. Rejoice, you who censured the deceit of the idols. Rejoice, Sea which drowned the symbolic Pharaoh. Rejoice, Rock which refreshed those thirsting for life. Rejoice, Pillar of fire, guiding those in darkness. Rejoice, Protection of the world, more spacious than a cloud. Rejoice, Nourishment, successor to manna. Rejoice, Minister of holy joy. Rejoice, Land of promise. Rejoice, you from whom flows milk and honey. Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride.

First, let us note that the kontakion provides the context of the rejoicing in the subsequent Ikos. In the midst of the narrative of the Annunciation and Nativity, we reflect in the 6th section upon the Magi departing from Bethlehem in a new direction. Instead of going back towards Herod, they perceive his unbelief and journey to Egypt. The Ikos too then focuses on Egypt and speaks to the Mother of God in the light of her being the Mother, as well as in relation to the people of the Old Testament. While it is true that she sojourned there with the young infant Jesus and His foster father Joseph, the words relating her to Egypt and salvation in general shed light on the Byzantine view of Scripture.

After describing the Theotokos in general terms indicating that she brings light and salvation ultimately through her Son, the Ikos places her into the contexts of the Exodus of Moses and His people from Egypt. This key section of the Ikos proclaims that Mary is a great variety of salvific events and supernatural things from the Exodus account. In sum, she is called the sea that drowned the symbolic Pharaoh (Exodus 14:28), the Rock which brought forth water (Exodus 17:6), the pillar of fire which guides those in darkness (Exodus 13:21), the protection of the world that is symbolized by the cloud (Exodus 13:21), the successor to manna (Exodus 16:4), the minister who brought joy (here the connection is somewhat unclear to Exodus, likely Moses and/or Aaron), and lastly the Promised Land that flowed with milk and honey (Exodus 3:17).

There is so much that can be said about this mystical perspective on the book of Exodus given to us in the Akathist. We are given explicit terms such as “symbolic Pharaoh” and “successor to manna” which look beyond the times of Moses and his people to consider how the Old Testament is fulfilled through Christ and His Mother. At the same time we hear about terms such as the rock and the pillar in unqualified terms as though Christ and His Mother were present in Egypt during the times of Moses; this is less difficult to consider with Christ as the Eternal God, as compared to His Mother. What is this hymn teaching us through its own “lex orandi”? From these titles given to the Mother of God, we see that the nature of Old Testament fulfillment in the New Testament is not linear. We do not look at the Exodus event and attempt to find multiple means of protection and salvation in the Akathist’s rejoicing. In other words, John the Baptist is not the Sea, Mary is not the rock, Joseph is not the pillar, Jesus is not the manna, and heaven is not the Promised Land, in this narrative at least. Instead, we are praying to and focused on one person in all of the imagery, and the Theotokos is seen as the entire bridge from Egypt to the Promised Land for the people of God led by Moses, with all of the distinct aspects of each title that she receives in her Motherhood of Christ and His Body, the Church.

In terms of the first title, she is the one who defends and even destroys the Pharaoh who attacks us. As a rock flowing with water, successor to manna, land flowing with milk and honey, she is the one who nourishes us. As a pillar of fire by night and cloud by day, she is our guide and shelter who takes us through our wanderings and journeys towards the Promised Land. As a minister, she leads and instructs us, as did Moses and Aaron (and their successors). And as Promised Land itself, she is our home.

This vision painted by just one of the Ikoi in the Akathist gives us a sense that as we read the Scriptures, we encounter salvation in a multifaceted sense. We do not look for one to one correspondence between Old and New Testaments, nor do we necessarily need to consider all things typology. Instead, we can be wise and see parallels between Old and New Testaments as we pray. And when we read the stories from the Old Testament which may seem difficult to compare to our life in Christ, we can pause and be silent if we have not been given eyes to see by the liturgical tradition which nourishes us, or through prayer and beseeching the Holy Spirit.
In conclusion, the greatness of the Byzantine Tradition is that its complexity offers the one who prays with it a wealth of inspiration. Taking the Akathist as one example, we can approach the Bible with a mystical eye that sees hidden treasures that are brought forth as we think about how the Old and New Testaments compare to one another. We can see Christ and His Mother in so many aspects of the salvation of Israel, and thus in our own salvation. Space cannot allow us to also consider other aspects where these comparisons are made in the rest of the Akathist hymn, or the ways that the lectionary’s readings for Vespers paints a similar picture between the Old and New Testaments, or the way in which Psalms are chosen for Feasts, Vespers, Matins, the Hours, and the like. In each of these, the point is reinforced: the Bible is applicable to all of our life, and we only need to enter into this wealth of beauty with eyes of faith to grasp it.

Cutting the Psalms short…

In the Byzantine prayer life, our divine liturgy normally first sings the Scriptures through what are known as Antiphonal or Typical Psalms. Depending on the tradition, one may prevail over the other (and this of course depends on the time of year etc.), but regardless there is a genius to the songs that we sing, both in terms of the connection it gives to the Old Testament, and with regard to the specific Old Testament passages chosen (not to mention our lectionary of New Testament readings!).

In our day and age of hustle and bustle, sometimes these prayers are cut short. It is sometimes thought that the faithful cannot endure a long service, and truly there was a time when what we sing in the nave was done as a procession of sorts, which covered much more than what happened at the final destination where the divine Eucharist was celebrated. The “stational” nature of the liturgy has been described by many, but at the end of the day the psalm verses were intermingled with refrains, and this is particularly true of the antiphons.

As one on the Gregorian Calendar, my thoughts have turned to a recent set of antiphons particular to the feast of the season. For the Ascension (and in its post-festive days), the first antiphon is,

“All you peoples clap your hands, shout to God with cries of gladness.”

after which we repeat the refrain “Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Savior save us.”

and then we sing

“Glory to the Father…”

with the same refrain,

“Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Savior save us.”

In older times/fuller services, this would not be the extent of the antiphon. The first verse of the Psalm would extend further into the Psalm. One could ask whether this was a lengthening that is merely quantitatively longer, but I think if we look more closely we will see some unique qualities of the liturgy and the liturgical calendar, which are arguably somewhat compromised through the current practice which we have of shortening the antiphons.


To see this clearly, let’s look at the first antiphon as it is printed in an older liturgy book. There we find:

All you peoples, clap your hands; shout to God with cries of gladness.

Through the prayers of the Mother of God, O Savior, save us.

For the Lord, the Most High, we must fear; Great King over all the earth.

Through the prayers of the Mother…

He subdues people under us, and nations under our feet.

Through the prayers of the Mother…

God ascends amid shouts of joy; the Lord ascends amid sounds of trumpets.

Through the prayers of the Mother…

Glory be: Now and ever:

Through the prayers of the Mother…

(emphasis added)

The psalm which begins with claps and shouts of joy is allowed to blossom into a prophecy of the Ascension itself. The refrain of the prayers of the Theotokos is allowed to echo more loudly in our ears as well.

Thus, there are times when the first verse of an antiphonal psalm may not be the clearest testimony of the grandeur of a feast. Thus, we may ask whether we are losing something qualitative in such a shortening of the antiphonal songs. Immediately we must note two key points, however, which do not make this a clear cut matter.

First, the original antiphons almost certainly sung all the verses of the whole psalm. So while some other jurisdictions may sing all four verses found in our own particular Church’s older liturgical books, the older historic practice was to sing all verse of the psalm selected for a service.

Second, the key psalms relating to a feast find their way into the service on multiple occasions. Clearly, “God ascends amid shouts of joy…” is perhaps the most clear Old Testament testimony to the Ascension of our Lord. As such, it finds its way into the Psalm verses of this Feast’s Entrance Hymn, Alleluia verses, and Communion Hymn verses.

In that sense, we have not lost the emphasis on the feast.

Nevertheless, we can ask whether our increase in technology and power has illogically left us less able to fully celebrate our salvation through Christ and His Church. To the extent that we have cut things short to only have more free time, we have lost a wonderful treasure. In that regard, I note the enthronement homily of my own Church’s Metropolitan, Metropolitan William (Skurla).

“As we look to the future, I have been asked by the media and people what is the most immediate problem for our Church. My answer is that we need to present Jesus Christ and His Gospel teachings in a way which touches the lives of our people. In the same way, our beautiful Divine Liturgy has been translated to the language of the people living in many different countries. We need a method of teaching the faith which opens their minds to a deeper dimension of spiritual life. God has not changed, but just within the lifespan of my generation, the world has radically changed. Some changes have been good, but many have undercut the pillars of the family and the Church. The cool things we have received from technology have chilled and dulled our ability to see God.”

Might our eyes be more open to the Gospel when we hear the genius of our liturgy with fuller harmony? Might the refrains that were written so long ago be the key to reinvigorate the deadness of our hearts?

Through the prayers of Our Holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ Our God, have mercy on us!


Keeping dead languages alive – a mystical reflection on ‘liturgical language’

In a previous post considering the history and spirituality of Eastern Christians in the United States, I pointed out that our churches rightly embraced the local American culture in that they translated our liturgical services into English. This progress of moving to the vernacular might lead some to assume that older languages such as Church Slavonic would be better left discarded. Or at least, one may feel that when we continue singing songs in the languages without knowing what the words mean, this practice has little meaning or spiritual value. It is clear that there may be great nostalgic value to singing in old languages that were sung by relatives who were immigrants from the Old Country. One may remember one’s childhood if one were raised in our churches in the bygone days when its founding members were not native English speakers. But does that mean that later generations without this experience (and converts, for that matter!) have nothing spiritually benefiting in singing in the old languages such as Slavonic?
In this present reflection, I would like to focus on a mystical angle to the use of ‘dead languages’. To start, I should say at the outset that singing words is not a magic formula or spell. Thus, no matter what language one sings, connecting to the meaning is ultimately key. On the flip side, everyone knows that one can lose focus even if one is singing words in their mother tongue. One can sing words that one understands with no understanding at all. But it must be admitted that as one sings in a language like Church Slavonic, understanding the basic meaning of the songs (though not necessarily grasping the fine tunings of its grammar and lexicon)  is of critical importance. If one thinks that “Preter Pivij” or “O kto kto” are about the Resurrection, for example, one would be missing great meaning in not knowing what these songs are really about . Of course, most of the time today our parishes that use Slavonic in songs also sing the song with English verses/refrains, and that is one important qualification which can help one grasp what is being said during the Slavonic sections of a song. There are certainly other qualifications that could be made from a linguistic perspective, but again this misses the current point of consideration.
Instead, there is a more transcendent approach that one can take which is the goal for this reflection. Let’s imagine that it is no special feast on a particular day, there is a song being sung in a “dead language”, and you have no idea what the words mean. Is there nothing to be gained from such an experience, spiritually speaking? Are these songs only beneficial to older people in our day and age?
This is where I think that the mystical perspective is so critical . My own affinity towards singing in Slavonic comes from no childhood experiences or stories from my “Baba”. But when I sing in this old language, I do experience a closeness with older people who are so old that I cannot see them with my earthly eyes. Mystically, however, I see the faithful who are now in the presence of God, who sung these same melodies-and these same words!-while they once lived on earth hundreds of years ago. I feel the mystical communion of the saints when my own Mother Tongue, which is not rich in the tradition of the Christian East, sings these hymns in a “dead” language. But when I sing, albeit feebly, in this more ancient tongue with even a little bit of understanding, the far off saints of yore are closer to me as we share the same language. Just as icons are visible windows into heaven, there is a sense in which singing in an old language is an auditory icon which represents the time-transcending nature of our church. It is a profession that our faith is so much more than what we may profess today, and how we profess it. By singing in languages such as Church Slavonic, we have the opportunity to profess linguistically that we are one with those faithful Christian of all ages.
In closing, to pray and sing in an ancient language is something which may be viewed as unnecessary if we have those words translated into English. However, if we look through a mystical lens we can see that we might be missing a special closeness to those who have gone before us, when we share in their language.  In so doing, we can grow in love and communion with our spiritual ancestors, and see a broader perspective than just the here and now. As we grow to be faithful to our American 21st century identity as Eastern Christians, may we simultaneously grow in a deep love of our past. This will, I believe, give us our most bright future.

The Catholic Catechism: Breathing with Both Lungs

There are many wounds to our unity as Christians, and this is even true among those who are in full and visible communion with each other. I’ve mentioned instances of this in the past, but do not consider dwelling on our weaknesses to be any sort of strength. In this post, I’d like to consider one small way in which we as Western and Eastern Christians are succeeding in loving each other through understanding one another, in a way that many may have overlooked.

I was reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church to help prepare myself to teach a Sunday School class, when a wonderful observation came my way.

For, you see, I had read the entire Catechism as a Presbyterian inquirer into the Catholic Faith. I had understood its claims propositionally, but its soul and its grit escaped my sight in those days, when wrestling with truth so often took precedence over a heart of prayer and embracing the Truth as my Lord and God. But in reading the Catechism as one who has now embraced the Apostolic Faith, I was overjoyed to read this section:

732 On that day, the Holy Trinity is fully revealed. Since that day, the Kingdom announced by Christ has been open to those who believe in him: in the humility of the flesh and in faith, they already share in the communion of the Holy Trinity. By his coming, which never ceases, the Holy Spirit causes the world to enter into the “last days,” the time of the Church, the Kingdom already inherited though not yet consummated.

We have seen the true Light, we have received the heavenly Spirit, we have found the true faith: we adore the indivisible Trinity, who has saved us.

Those of us who are Eastern Christians will immediately recognize the italicized text quite well-we sing it after most Divine Liturgies, just after receiving the Eternal God through the Divine Eucharist. But to see a pan-Catholic Catechism quoting from our life of prayer almost nonchalantly, this was marvelous to consider. It is as if the authors of the Catechism were saying, “We want you to understand the importance of what we’re quoting, so please learn the Byzantine Liturgy, and feel its truth as we quote it to you.” It is a call to breathe with both lungs!

To such a proposition I can only say, “Thank You.” And I also would hope that we who know these words as part of our own soul would reach out to share its beauty and truth with all who have ears to hear.

We are Objects of Veneration (Reflections on Incense)

Living in the U.S., many of us who have come to the fullness of the Apostolic Faith have done so through leaving Protestantism. The veneration of the Angels and Saints (particularly the Mother of God) is surely one of the biggest stumbling blocks that keeps many people from seeing the beauty of Christian history and tradition.

Recently, as I was talking with one of my sons about the Divine Liturgy, my heart was opened to the reality that something more scandalous than the veneration of martyrs and apostles occurs as we pray.

In preparation for the liturgy, the priest (or deacon, if there is one present) carries incense and processes throughout the Church building, swinging the censer to acknowledge our profession that the building is not just any room. Starting with the altar and moving to various icons, we witness the testimony that the holy altar, the icons, and the whole area is set apart for a sacrifice of praise. With the icons, in particular, we venerate those depicted in them, thanking God for their union with Him, hoping that we too will one day stand with the choirs of angels in the Kingdom to come.

But after the procession ends in front of the iconostasis, something shocking happens. It should shock us, at least.

For it is at that point that the censer’s next “target” is us, the laypeople in the nave.

We are objects of veneration!

In our busyness and weakness, the Orthodox Catholic faith does not shy away from professing that we are bearers of the image and likeness of God. I’d like to offer two reflections on this reality, as they have blessed me over the past few days.

First, the idea that the veneration of saints who are in heaven is an unfitting robbery of the Glory of God, and a lack of recognition for our own dignity as humans is completely missing the reverence that we receive from the Church. Far from making a dichotomy between the “real saints” and those of us who are hypocritical and flawed, the fact that we too are venerated should unite us with those in heaven, not set us in opposition. We should see our common call to holiness and thank God for His love and compassion towards us. We should not feel as though the altar and the clergy are separate from us, for we all receive the same veneration.

Second, if you think of the same concept from the converse perspective, it becomes clear that we have sold ourselves short far too often. We have to ask these questions: Do we venerate each other inside and outside of Church? Do we consider our fellow parishioners to be just as worthy of awe and respect as a myrrh-streaming icon? What about ourselves? Do we only see our flaws, and not our divine destiny?

St. Seraphim of Sarov understood this reality, and lived it in such a beautifully deep way. We can read on his wikipedia biography (and elsewhere):

As extraordinarily harsh as Seraphim often was to himself, he was kind and gentle toward others — always greeting his guests with a prostration, a kiss, and exclaiming “Christ is risen!”, and calling everyone “My joy.”

The prostrations made by St. Seraphim are a testimony to the fact that we are all objects of veneration. Through his prayers, may we grow to understand this reality more deeply, and live it out.

Holy Father Seraphim, pray to God for us!