Tag Archive - Orthodoxy

The Harrowing of Hell

The funeral bier still occupies the center of the room, but the body of Christ has been removed. He is in the tomb. And death begins to be undone. We read Old Testament passages about Jonah in the belly of the fish and the three Hebrew children in the fiery furnace. Pictures of death. Pictures of life after. We are reminded that those of us who have been baptized into Christ have been united with him in his death and will most certainly be united with him in his resurrection.

We begin to sing “Arise, O God, judge thou the earth…” and several things happen all at once. The priest scatters bay leaves and rose petals among the congregants. Children beat sticks against the backs of the chairs to symbolize the harrowing of Hell. And little girls exchange the purple cloths of lent for the white of Pascha. Almost there. Almost.

We begin our preparation for the Eucharist with this hymn…

Let all mortal flesh keep silence and in fear and trembling stand,
pondering nothing earthly minded.
For the King of kings and the Lord of lords
cometh forth to be slain and given as food to the faithful.
Before him go the ranks of angels,
with all the principalities and powers,
the Cherubim many-eyed and the six-winged Seraphim
covering their faces and chanting their hymn:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Then the priest and deacons set about the work of preparing and consecrating the Eucharist. On the funeral bier. The deep significance of this defies description. To receive the Body and Blood from the very funeral bier on which we have lately carried him is almost unbearable. And extraordinarily beautiful.

Near the end of the service, the priest blesses baskets of bread and wine assembled on the ambo. And we share them with one another afterward. A sweet time of communion and fortification for the last part of our journey toward Resurrection which will commence in the evening.

Lament

lament

You can’t miss the funeral bier. It rests in the center of the temple. Opulently decorated with flowers, it is the resting place for the body of Christ. For now. A tapestry depicting the sleeping Christ represents His body. Mourners gather, and as darkness begins to press in at the windows, we sing songs of adoration and lament.

O my sweet Lord Jesus,
My Salvation, my Light:
How art thou now by a grave and its darkness hid?
How unspeakable the mystery of thy love.

We hear his mother as she hymns the One to whom she gave birth…

Ah, my precious Springtime!
Ah, my Son beloved.
Ah, whither fades thy beauty?

Light more dear than seeing,
O my son most precious,
How in a grave dost hide thee?

As we sing of the myrrh bearing women who brought spices to the tomb at dawn, the priest sprinkles the bier and the mourners with rose water and little girls scatter baskets of rose petals. The scent of it all is heady. And fitting.

As thunder pounds and lightning flashes outside, we begin to sing the trisagion hymn in a setting used only for funerals. It is slow and deep and the very tones themselves speak of anguish. As we sing, bearers shoulder the bier and carry it out of doors and around the church followed by all the mourners. When they come back inside, they lift the bier high and all of us walk under it as we reenter, most of us reaching a hand up to touch it as we pass. It is a solemn and wondrous moment.

funeralbier

Truly, we grieve, but not as those who have no hope. Laced all through the service are rumblings. Intimations of resurrection. None more dramatic than the reading of Ezekiel 37:1-14 in which God instructs Ezekiel to prophesy to the dry bones bringing them back to life. It does not hurt that Dan who delivers this passage to us inhales the words and marvelously vivifies them. My eyes leak, my heart pounds, and I believe that the dry, dead places in me can live again.

Before we leave, we are reminded that Jesus foretold that he would live again. We go out feeling spent, but hopeful. In a few hours we will return and follow Christ as He descends into Hades for the Harrowing of Hell.

For the Healing of Soul and Body

healing

I can’t stop staring at my hands. At the crosses of oil traced on them by the priest. Words from the evening come flooding upon me in fragments.

From the seven epistle readings…

There confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power…If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal…Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, love never ends…Brethren, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

From the seven Gospel passages…

That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out spirits without a word, and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”…”Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.'”

From the prayers…

O Master who lovest mankind…hearken to us, thine unworthy servants, and wheresoever we bring this oil in thy great Name, do thou send down thy gift of healing, and the remission of sins, and heal thy servants in the plentitude of thy mercy…We beseech thee, our God, that thou wilt direct thy mercy upon this oil and upon those who are anointed therewith in thy Name, that it may be to them for the healing of soul and body, for the cleansing and removal of every passion, and of every infirmity and wound, and every defilement of the flesh and spirit…For as is thy majesty, so also is thy mercy, and unto thee we ascribe glory…

I watch as my brothers and sisters come forward. As the Gospel book is placed on each person’s head. My godson who lives with a chronic illness, a friend who just lost a baby, older members who lean heavy into a cane. Yes Lord, Mercy. With the words of the epistles still washing over me, I am most especially aware of my own need for the healing of soul. I know I am not alone in this. Who can know the stories each of us carries inside us as we come forward, palms open, expectant?

As the priest paints the cross onto my forehead and each of my hands he prays,

The blessing of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ: for the healing of the soul and body of the servant of God, Kassiani (my saint name), always now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

And all of this.

The Mercy, the love for my dear brothers and sisters, our deep need to be made clean.

All in two painted crosses of oil on my hands.

*All quotes from the Lenten Triodian, service of Holy Unction.

Behold…The Bridegroom

I behold Thy Bridal Chamber richly adorned, O my Savior.
But I have no wedding garment to worthily enter.
Make radiant the garment of my soul,
O Giver of Life and save me.

It is, for me, one of the loveliest, most poignant services of the whole church year. Bridegroom Matins. And the Church is kind enough to give it to us on three evenings of Holy Week. My story is all tangled up in here. And I sometimes feel like God and I are curled up in an armchair looking through an old photo album as He gently whispers, Remember…..

On the third evening we ponder the stories of Judas the traitor and the fallen woman.

I am the arrogant Judas, frustrated that God does not act as I think He should. Willing to take matters into my own hands. Faithless. Disloyal. Greedy. As much as I abhor his choice, it is a choice with which I am all too familiar.

I am also the fallen woman. Desperate. Without resource. Without hope. Standing outside the bridal chamber, filthy and unclothed. So broken that I would risk humiliation to pour myself out at the feet of One…the only One…who can save me.

Why is one saved and the other hopelessly lost?

When the sinful woman was offering her spice, the sinful disciple was making a bargain with the transgressors of the law. The one rejoiced in pouring out the spice so great in price, while the other hastened to sell the Priceless One. The one knew the Master, the other was separated from the Lord. She was freed and Judas became a slave to the enemy. Indifference is evil, but great is repentance

Ah for the wretchedness of Judas! For, seeing the adulteress kiss the traces of His feet, he was thinking with deceit of the kiss of betrayal. She loosed her braids, and he was bound with wrath, offering instead of spice, rotted evil; for envy knoweth not how to honor anything which is good

I belong here. In the Bridal Chamber. Not because I have done the right thing. Not because I have proved myself worthy. But because I have thrown myself upon His mercy. Because He has clothed me in His own righteousness, of His good pleasure.

Near the close of the service is sung the Troparion of Kassiani. She is my patron saint, and it is this hymn, in part, that wed my soul to hers. She has given most exquisite expression to the groaning of my soul.

O Lord God, the woman who had fallen into many sins,
having perceived Thy divinity received the rank of ointment-bearer,
offering Thee spices before Thy burial wailing and crying:
“Woe is me, for the love of adultery and sin hath given me a dark and lightless night;
accept the fountains of my tears O Thou Who drawest the waters of the sea by the clouds
incline Thou to the sigh of my heart
O Thou Who didst bend the heavens by Thine inapprehensible condescension;
I will kiss Thy pure feet and I will wipe them with my tresses.
I will kiss Thy feet Whose tread when it fell on the ears of Eve in Paradise dismayed her so that she did hide herself because of fear.
Who then shall examine the multitude of my sin and the depth of Thy judgment?
Wherefore, O my Saviour and the Deliverer of my soul
turn not away from Thy handmaiden
O Thou of boundless mercy”.

“May He who is going to His voluntary passion for our salvation, Christ our true God, have mercy on us and save us forasmuch as He is good and loveth mankind.”

*All unattributed quotes from the Lenten Triodion, Bridegroom Matins service. Hear the hymn of Kassiani HERE.

Early Will I Seek You

mistymorning

The sun climbs as I make my way through a world shrouded in mist. Sometimes I can see individual droplets dancing in the air on their lazy meander back to the sky. I pass an untended lot where bag shaped webs hang from last years dried grass. They capture bits of mist and sunlight and glow like lanterns on a summer evening.

I traverse this early morning wonderland to receive the Body and Blood. During this week of Passion, the Church gives us the gift of daily liturgy. We gather before work, before a day with children, errands, meetings, responsibility, to consider the cross. On this first morning, Jesus tenderly prepares His disciples for His coming death and for the suffering that awaits each of them. In the service, this is interwoven with the story of the Hebrew captivity under Pharaoh and Satan’s request to have his way with Job.

In the midst of all this, we pray. For the peace of the world, for forgiveness, for illumination. We are reminded that the voluntary Passion of Christ will “raise us who are dead in sin; for He is good and loves mankind.” Then, we are nourished with the Eucharist. The “medicine of immortality” St. John Chrysostom called it. And as I carry this mystical treasure about in me all day I cannot help but remember what it cost. And I am changed by it.

Flannery O’Connor and her mother began every day with liturgy. She carried the Body and Blood with her as she returned home to write. And I wonder how much that living quality, that indefinable something that makes her works breathe and meddle and transform, has to do with the fact that she housed that extraordinary gift inside her as she wrote.

morning

O God, you are my God: early will I seek you. My soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water. I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and glory. Because your love is better than life, my lips shall praise you.
~Psalm 63:1-3

Of Paradox and Palms…

hosanna

Lent is perpetual paradox. The church is dressed in somber purple. We are a people of longing. Yet, we meet on Sundays to celebrate Resurrection. The Resurrection that has been, that is, that is not yet. In between, we lament, we fast, we wait.

This weekend the church was all dressed up in gold again. We commemorated the raising of Lazarus and the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem. After this morning’s service, we formed a corridor out of doors with candles and palms, and as the priest moved among us with the icon of the feast we cried out, “Hosanna! Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord!” We were Jerusalem receiving our King. We were all joy.

Tonight, we prayed the poignant and lovely Bridegroom Matins service. The purple is back. The hymns are somber. The coming days will be dark.

Palm Sunday has been melancholy for me for some time. Mostly, I blame it on the flannel graphs. When my children were little, I told them Bible stories using flannel graph pictures. A sweet remnant from my own childhood. It always troubled me that I was expected to use the same crowd of people who shout “Hosanna” to later shout “Crucify”. Truth is, they were the same people. And He knew it. Even as He moved among them, even as He received their adoration, He knew.

And I want to be angry at them. For breaking His heart.

Til I remember.

I am them.

I receive Christ with gladness. I adore Him. I long for Him with all that I am. Until I don’t. Until I become arrogant. Again. And seek my own way. And though I do not call out for His physical death, I close the gate against Him and behave, in that moment, as though He were dead.

Lord have mercy.

Tonight, in my head, songs of the triumphant King riding into Jerusalem on a colt mingle with songs of the suffering Bridegroom who gives Himself for the beloved. And my heart is restless as the paradox that was Lent spills over into Holy Week…

 

Collision…

annun

It is an unforeseen serendipity, really. In Orthodox practice, there are intersecting cycles of worship. Some are fixed and some float according to where Easter falls (and it falls really late for eastern Christians this year: May 5th). But, somewhere in this seemingly random whirl of rubrics and such, two observations collided this year. The Sunday of Orthodoxy and the Annunciation. And I can’t stop thinking about this.

In the early church, an iconoclastic faction arose, a group that contended that to use images of Christ or of the saints in worship amounted to idolatry. It is an opinion that some might support even today. The church council called to consider this ultimately decided that the use of icons is appropriate because since Christ became man in the flesh, it is reasonable to depict Him in images. These images facilitate our worship. This decision is what we celebrate in the “Sunday of Orthodoxy”.

Of course, without the Annunciation there would be no Incarnation and Christ would not have become man. Therefore, the two are already intertwined in theme. But last night, they were intertwined in practice.

In a beautiful vesper service, members of several different Orthodox congregations in the Nashville area converged upon our church. We sang and prayed together. There was singing and commemoration in Greek, Russian, Serbian and English. We processed with icons. We broke bread together afterward. And woven all through this evening was the celebration of the blessed moment when the angel gave the news to Mary that she was to be the sacred vessel that would contain the Son of God.

I cannot tell you what it meant to be in that place. To experience a foretaste of the Kingdom where all tongues and tribes will sing together. To remember the great condescension in which God became like us so that we might one day be like Him. To commemorate the purity and the devotion of Mary, of her willingness to be the handmaiden of the Lord. The very first to welcome Him into her heart. Into her body. Into her life.

This morning we will celebrate liturgy for the Feast of the Annunciation. And we will remember the moment when Christ began His physical movement toward us. To step into our lives. To be God with us. To redeem us so that we might be with Him…

Thanks be to God!

 

annunciation

Lord, You Know

“You carry so much stress in your body!” they both say to me. (The chiropractor/kinesiologist who has been treating my ailing ankle, and the massage therapist who once a month or so tries to untie the knots into which I tie myself.)

My first thought is, “Like I can do anything about that!” But then, I begin to wonder, “What is it, really, that I have to be so stressed about?”

I…am a worrier. I never thought it would happen to me, but it has. And what’s more, I am coming to see this worry as sin.

Hear me out…

I learn my child or my friend is in crisis. I immediately absorb this crisis into myself. My stomach hurts. I can’t sleep. Because I need to fix it! I begin rolling the situation around in my head. What should I say to them? What can be done? Who should I talk to on their behalf? What if they won’t listen? What if they persist in self-destructive behavior? What if someone hurts them? What if they do not understand how serious this is? (Read this faster and faster getting louder with each phrase and you will have some notion of the cacophony in my head.)

Do you have any idea how long I will stew over this before it occurs to me to mention it to God?

And even then, I have to say it just right. I need to present Him with a solution and implore Him to implement my plan. Is this arrogant? Is this foolish?

Truth is, apparently, I trust myself more than I trust God.

Ouch.

Fortunately, He has been good enough over the last few years to provide me with some situations that are completely out of my depth. Slowly…slowly…I am learning a new way to pray.

Lord, You know.

Someone I love is making choices that have potentially devastating consequences. I struggle with what to say and what not to say. I am terrified for him. I have NO answers. So I offer him to God. Every morning. I have stopped telling God what to do. Lord, you know. That is my prayer. Lord, you know how to help him. Lord, your resources are illimitable. Lord, please make haste to help him.

Every time I think of him throughout the day…every time I am tempted to begin scheming about how to fix this…I pray.

Lord, you know.

And in the night when my restless mind presents to me a laundry list of dear ones who are hurting…

Lord, You know.

I am sleeping better than I have in a long time.

But, far more important than that, I am reminded every morning and all throughout the day that God has each of my beloveds under His wing. That the power of heaven is being unleashed on their behalf. And that is worth far more than any “solution” I might come up with.

Does this free me from the responsibilities of being wife, mother or friend? Absolutely not. And I will still serve those I love with all I have. But I am letting go of the arrogant notion that it all depends on me.

With silence, tolerance, and above all by prayer we benefit others in a mystical way…What we are unable to do, His grace will achieve. ~Elder Porphyrios

P.S. I use the following prayer from the Orthodox prayer book every morning to bring before God the names of my family and my very close friends, along with others who I know to be at a point of particular need. They are the words I would pray if I were smarter. I am glad someone wrote them down for me. I offer them to you…

O God, our heavenly Father, who loves mankind and art a most merciful and compassionate God, have mercy upon Your servants (Name those whom you wish to remember) for whom I humbly pray to You to care for and protect. O God, be their guide and guardian in all their endeavors, lead them in the path of Your truth, and draw them nearer to You, so that they may lead a godly and righteous life in Your love as they do Your will in all things. Give them Your grace, and mercy so that they may be patient, hard working, tireless, devout and charitable. Defend them against the assaults of the enemy, and grant them wisdom and strength to resist all temptation and corruption, and direct them in the way of Salvation, through the goodness of Your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, and the prayers of His Holy Mother and the blessed saints. Amen.

Lifted by Angels

I read the whole book in one day. I just could not stop reading. In language potent, precise, and poetic, Joel J. Miller crafts an enthralling narrative supported by impeccable research on a topic that most of us know precious little about.

Miller begins by inoculating us against our sentimental, but erroneous, misconceptions about angels. He paints a picture, “...using the pigments provided by the Scripture, art, services, hymns, and teachings of the ancient Christian church. The image that forms from these sources is, I think, more exciting, more frightening, more humbling, more inspiring, and ultimately more real than our popular conceptions.” Yes! Oh, yes!

The following chapter tells the ominous story of the “light-bearer”, that radiant angel Lucifer who, because of his great arrogance, becomes “ring leader of the apostasy” (Irenaeous of Lyons). He then seeks to use that pride as his primary weapon against humanity. “As Augustine understood it, pride is the source of all sin, and envy flows from it like a fetid stream.”

Chapter three shows us angels interwoven all through the story of Israel. Joel’s masterful storytelling kept me greedily flipping one page after another to see what happens next, even though I mostly know what happens next. A promise to Abraham, courage for Gideon, nourishment for Elijah, and a celestial army to protect Elisha, are only a few of the angelic errands explored. Then the chapter takes a sobering turn as Israel herself becomes arrogant and rebels against God. Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel will all have powerful interactions with angels as God prepares them to speak on His behalf. Angels will also have the regrettable task, at times, of carrying out God’s judgement against His beloved, but recalcitrant people. By the end of the chapter I am crying out with the rebels and exiles for deliverance. As the author tells us, this time God will not send an angel, or even an army of angels, but the Lord of the Angels Himself.

Chapter four wrecks me. “The story of Christ is shot through with angels,” Miller begins. He then threads these divine appearances through the narrative of Christ. When Gabriel begins to speak to Mary of the child she will bear, I am undone. Even now, reading it again for this post, my heart burns with his words. By the time the “skies erupted over the birthplace in Bethlehem” I can hardly breathe. Then he show us the story from the vantage point of Revelation 12 with a woman travailing in birth and a great red dragon who would devour her child, and my heart pounds. We continue to see angels ministering to their Lord at his baptism, his temptation in the wilderness, as he heals and casts out demons, at his crucifixion, and finally his resurrection and ascension.

Angels and ministers of grace, defend us.  ~Shakespeare, Hamlet

Chapter five is a beautiful and illuminating treatment of our guardian angels drawn from Scripture and the teachings of the early church fathers. My favorite passage is this, from the lips of Christ, “See that you do not despise these little ones, for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father.”

Chapter six is an exciting reminder that when we worship we enter into a service that is already underway, joining the angels and the saints who have gone before us who perpetually offer their praise to the Father. We get tastes of this in Isaiah chapter 6, as well as John’s vision in Revelation. Also, God instructed that cherubim be depicted both on the tapestries of the tabernacle as well as the ark of the covenant as symbols of this. The early church followed suit by adorning their places of worship with images of the angels as well as the saints, a practice which continues in many churches today. Included in the chapter is this beautiful version of the cherubic hymn, from the liturgy of St. James, sung as the priests process with the gifts of bread and wine.

Let all mortal flesh be silent and stand with fear and trembling, and meditate nothing earthly within itself: For the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Christ our God, comes forward to be sacrificed and to be given for food to the faithful; and the bands of angels go before him with every power and dominion, the many-eyed cherubim, and the six-winged seraphim, covering their faces and crying aloud the hymn, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

Fittingly, the final chapter looks at angels as our “guides from one world to the next“. The chapter concludes (or nearly so) with this passage that I mean to commit to memory and perhaps recite to myself daily.

“This is the staggering assymetry of God’s goodness. There is more grace than envy, more love than hate, more heaven than hell.”

Lifted by Angels: The Presence and Power of our Heavenly Guides and Guardians is a remarkable book. Compellingly written and replete with good theology about far more than just angels. I commend it to your attention.

*All quotes in the post are from the book. Unattributed quotes, Joel J. Miller.

 

 

Reckless

It was such a desperate thing to do.

Reckless.

Extravagant.

She had probably bought the perfume for her own burial. How many times had she sold her body to earn the money?

I wonder how it felt to walk into the room. I suppose she had grown accustomed to the whispers. “Righteous” people leaning away so that she would not soil them by a brush of her garments. Little children throwing stones.

Where did she find the courage? How did she know He would understand?

It was such a desperate thing to do.

Reckless.

Indignant.

Fed up with forgiveness, peace, grace. Disillusioned.

He condemned the woman for her waste.

Then he sold his friend.

For the price of a slave.

I wonder how it felt to walk into the garden. I suppose he had grown accustomed to feeling important. Necessary. People making way for him. Following his cues.

Did the silver in his pockets suddenly make him feel heavy? And sick? And small?

When the sinful woman was offering her spice, the disciple was making a bargain with the transgressors of the law. The one rejoiced in pouring out the spice so great in price, while the other hastened to sell the Priceless One. The one knew the Master, the other was separated from the Lord. She was freed and Judas became a slave to the enemy. Indifference is evil, but great is repentance. The latter grant to us, O Savior, and redeem us…

Ah for the wretchedness of Judas! For, seeing the adultress kiss the traces of His feet, he was thinking with deceit of the kiss of betrayal. She loosed her braids, and he was bound with wrath, offering instead of spice, rotted evil; for envy knoweth not how to honor anything which is good. Woe to the wretchedness of Judas, and save from it our souls, O God.

I know Judas all too well. I know what it is to be critical and self-righteous, frustrated and confused. To defiantly seek my own way. To be so blinded by my own expectations and demands that I cannot see the gifts before me.

And I know the fallen woman. I know what it is to be broken, desperate, despised, wrecked. I know what it is to fall on my face and wail, “If you reject me, I am without hope! I am lost!” To recognize that the most beautiful parts of me are rubbish unless He makes them clean. Unless He makes me clean.

It is gift to be wrecked.

To be undone.

O Lord God, the woman who had fallen into many sins, having perceived Thy divinity, received the rank of ointment-bearer, offering Thee spices before Thy burial. Wailing and crying: Woe is me, for the love of adultery and sin hath given me a dark and lightless night. Accept the fountains of my tears, O Thou Who drawest the waters of the sea by the clouds. Incline Thou to the sighing of my heart. O Thou Who didst bend the heavens by Thine inapprehensible condescension; I will kiss Thy pure feet and I will wipe them with my tresses. I will kiss Thy feet Whose tread when it fell on the ears of Eve in Paradise dismayed her so that she did hide herself because of fear. Who then shall examine the multitude of my sin and the depth of Thy judgment? Wherefore, O my Savior and the Deliverer of my soul, turn not away from Thy handmaiden. O Thou of boundless mercy.

*All quotes in the post are from the Bridegroom Matins service of the Orthodox Church as sung on Tuesday evening of Holy Week. The passage immediately above is the Hymn of Kassiani. Kassiani was a poet, composer and hymn writer in 9th century Constantinople. She is the saint I received upon entering the Orthodox church. I liked her upon first encountering her, but it is this hymn that indelibly knit my heart to hers.

 

Page 2 of5«12345»