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!