THE WAY – CHAPTER 4
(An Introduction to the Orthodox Faith)
by Protopresbyter George D. Metallinos
Professor Emeritus of the Athens University
“FROM WATER AND SPIRIT” – (The Theology of Holy Baptism)
1. The major interpreter of the Divine Liturgy, Saint John Kavasilas (14th century) links the existence of the Church to Her sacraments. “The Church is denoted (revealed) by the sacraments” he underlines, implying chiefly with this the par excellence sacrament of the Church: the Divine Eucharist. There can be no ecclesiastic reality without sacraments; in other words, possibilities for partaking of uncreated Divine Grace and at the same time, the means for experiencing its Spiritual character. The Church is demarcated, revealed, manifested and realized in Her sacraments and more especially, in the Divine Eucharist. According to the same theologian,: “This is the road that the Lord carved out when coming to us, and this is the gate that He opened up when entering the world, which, when returning to the Father, He did not wish to close, but by Him and through it, does He contact the people […] For these are the things by which we live in Him, and move, and are…” (Acts 17:28) (PG 150, 304, 501-524).
The Church “exists and is continually shaped in the sacraments and through the sacraments”. Her boundaries are designated, at local levels, only in compliance with the sacramental life of the ecclesiastic body. “Those living outside the sacramental life are outside the body of Christ”. Outside of this way of existence, Satan and his powers dominate. (Fr. John Romanides)
Each sacrament is a possibility for becoming incorporated into the ecclesiastic body; into the divine-human reality of the Church, and for the transformation of the “contra-natural” way of our fallen existence to the “natural” life and existence that renders Man receptive of Divine Grace. It is within the sacraments that the nature of the faithful is “made new”, it is renovated and deified. Besides, according to Saint Makarios, “It is for this reason that our Lord came; so that he might change the nature of and renovate and reconstruct this living being, which was destroyed by passions on account of the Fall […] and He came to forge into new people, once and for all, all those who believe in Him.”
2. The first sacrament in this process of rebirth, but also the beginning and the prerequisite of all the others, is the holy Baptism, “the first of His gifts” (PG 155, 185). The theology of the Baptism is extensively expounded by he holy Fathers, from the so-called Apostolic ones to the Major Fathers of the 4th and 5th centuries, and pursuant to them, up to Saint Nicholas Kavasilas and Saint Simeon of Thessaloniki († 1429). This teaching was summarized by Saint Basil the Great, who defined the two basic purposes and the dynamics of the Baptism: (a) to abolish “the body of sin, so that it may never again bear fruits of death” and (b) provide for the baptized to “live in the Spirit and bear fruits in sanctification” (Galatians 5:22). This is the spiritual birth or rebirth of man, which takes place, according to the word of Christ to Nicodemus, “by water and Spirit” (John 3:5). According to the same Father, “the water provides a representation of death, receiving the body into it as though in burial, while the Spirit inserts life-giving force into it, thus renovating souls, from the deadness of sin to the commencement of life from the beginning.” (PG 32, 129 and PG 31, 429-433). This is also touched on by Saint Gregory of Nyssa: “If one is not born –it is said- out of water and Spirit, he is not able to enter the kingdom of God (=the communion and partaking of Grace). Why were the two –he continues- and not just the Spirit, considered sufficient for the completion (fulfillment) of the Baptism?” To this question, he replies: “Man is complex, not simple, as we can accurately observe, and it was on account of this two-fold and joint status that he was allocated the related and similar medications for therapy: for the visible body, palpable water, and for the invisible soul, the invisible Spirit, which is invoked in faith, and comes inexplicably.” (PG 46, 581B) Faith, of course, in the Patristic linguistic code, is not a simple intellectual admission thereof, given that even “the demons believe (sic) and shudder” (James 2:19), but the opening of one’s heart to Grace, and Man’s self-abandonment in God’s Love.
Baptism, with the Grace provided by the Holy Spirit, sets in motion the Christian’s entire spiritual course towards salvation. “If you do not become joined to the simulation of His death, how can you become a communicant of the Resurrection? asks Saint Basil the Great.” Given that “Baptism is a force towards the resurrection” (PG 31, 428A ). And according to Saint Simeon of Thessaloniki, the baptized “comes forth, to cast off the pollution of sin and faithlessness (=the absence of spiritual relations with God), and to become new in whole, and to don te form of the new Adam”. (PG 155, 216B) Rebirth is when Man becomes “of the same form” as Christ (see Romans 8:29), by donning the “image of the celestial” (1 Corinthians 15:49).
The supernatural results of the Baptism are pointed out by Saint Gregory of Nyssa: “Baptism, therefore, is the cleansing of sins, the remission of delinquencies, the cause of renovation and rebirth; ‘Rebirth’ must be understood as a meaning that is seen noetically, and not by the eyes […] He that is spotted overall by sins and worn out by evil occupations, we, through a royal grace, bring him back to the irresponsible state of an infant” (PG 46, 580D) in other words, back to the innocence of a baby. Patristic theologizing persists on the regenerative work of baptism. The blessed Chrysostom thus poses the question: “If baptism ‘pardons all of our sins’, why isn’t it called ‘the bath of sin pardoning’ and instead is called ‘the bath of regeneration’?” To which he replies: “It is called thus, because ‘it does not simply cleanse us of our misdemeanors, but instead (per John 3:7): it re-creates and re-composes us, not shaping us out of earth once again […], but (re)creating us out of another element: the nature of water” (PG 49, 227), hence the reason for referring to a re-generation, a re-creation; in other words, a new and a once-again creation. Which is exactly the significance of the Paulian expression “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17), which presupposes the union of Man with Christ: “if one is in Christ, (he is/has become) a new creation”.
The Christ-centered character of Baptism is therefore very obvious. This is pointed out by Symeon of Thessaloniki: “The Logos of God firstly acted philanthropically within Himself (=implying the Sacraments), so that, by being the commencement of all good things, all of us might receive from Him as though from a spring of His. For this is also why He was incarnated; so that we might join ourselves to Him and be sanctified by Him, because He, the Logos of God who created us from the beginning, He once again shall re-create us, with the condescension of the Father and the collaboration of the Holy Spirit”. (PG 155, 181A) The Christological basis leads to the triadological dimension. The stations of Christ’s redemptive opus act redemptively on Man. Just as the Incarnation of the Logos of God potentially re-creates the deteriorated image of Man, thus likewise –according to Saint Gregory Palamas- the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan prepares for our own baptism, with all its salvific benefits. “It is for this reason that He Himself simulated this by being baptized before us – He, who is also the physician of our souls, the savior of our spirits, Who has taken away the sins of the world – that is, Christ, Whom we are celebrating today. Because along with Him, He permeates the water with the grace of the Holy Spirit, which He has drawn from above, for those who are pursuantly baptized the way He was, by being immerged in the water, where He will be in Himself, and, enveloped by His Spirit, will secretly be joined to them, repleting all logical spirits with the cleansing and enlightening grace.” To recap, therefore, “….having received (the sacrament of) Baptism in emulation of our Lord and Teacher and Leader, we do not bury ourselves in the soil (=the way He was buried after His death); instead, by going to the element that is related to the soil –the water- we immerse ourselves therein, the way that our Savior immersed Himself in the earth, and by doing this three times, we depict on ourselves the third-day grace of the Resurrection…” (PG 46, 585 AB ) This Patristic excerpt is a memorandum of the baptismal act of Orthodoxy/Church; that is, our co-burial with Christ in the element of water (with a triple immersion, as mentioned in the troparion “….co-entombed with You, through Baptism…”; repeated in Romans 6:4), and our partaking in His Resurrection, with the triple emergence from the element of water.
3. Baptism simultaneously has a direct ecclesiastic reference. Through it, the “saved ones” (Romans 6:3-5, Acts 2:27) become “one with Christ” (Romans 6:3), attaining the potential to partake of the life in Christ – the ecclesiastic manner of existence – which leads to the renovation of deteriorated nature. In practice, this means they are introduced into a new way of life – one that can preserve the rejuvenating grace – which cannot otherwise occur magically and automatically. This is possible, however, wherever the Church’s way of life has been preserved (for example, in the orthodox monastic commune, or, in the similarly functioning Parishes in the world) and not in the superficial-conventional parish reality to which worship has been limited – or perhaps limited – while the rest of one’s life is surrendered to the world (secularization). Association with the Parish, as well as the structure itself of the Parish, both usually function within a religious framework, and in this context, Christianity can be perceived as a religion, its sacraments as the “ritual magic” and the clergymen as the “witch-doctor of the tribe” – community! However, in the life of the Church, nothing is without presuppositions.
To confine ourselves to Baptism, we should point out that in the New Testament, this Sacrament is linked to sacrifice and martyrdom (Mark 10:39, Luke 12:50), but also to death (Romans 6:4, Cols.2:12). These events of course do not have a metaphorical-symbolic meaning, but are understood literally. Baptism is the actual entry into a life of martyrdom and sacrifice. In Patristic Tradition (Dionysios Areopagite, Cappadocians, Maximus) one finds references to the stage of those “undergoing cleansing”, which refers to one’s preparation for “enlightenment” (baptism) and the period of catechesis. As proved by the “exorcisms” that are nowadays attached to the Sacrament of Baptism, the stage of “Catechesis” constituted the “initiation” of the new Christian into the spiritual labor that will free him from “the snare of Satan, through the cleansing of his heart from every selfishness and egocentricity that obscures the mind and distorts the candidate’s perception regarding the true union in the Church” Besides, the preparatory stage for baptism is referred to as a “rite” (μυσταγωγία), which means a gradual initiation into the mysteries of the Church. The relevant ecclesiastic act has been recorded in the 7th Canon of the 2nd Ecumenical Synod (381). From the first day of his attendance in Church, one would be called a “Christian”, and, as a catechumen, from the second day, he would be acknowledged as being one of the “faithful”. However, this stage had to be followed by death “in the waters” of baptism, in order to enter into the life of the corpus of the Church, of “selfless love, within the Sacraments”. These are expressed in the Benediction cited on the “first day”, in which benediction the course of the faithful is clearly described:
“Upon Your name, o Lord, the God of Truth, and of Your only-begotten Son and of Your Holy Spirit, I place my hand upon your servant (……..), who has been made worthy of seeking refuge in Your holy name and of being protected under the shelter of Your wings. Take away from him that ancient deception and replete him with faith and hope and love in You, so that he will know that You alone are God, the true God, and Your Only-begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit. Grant him for all his days to walk the path of Your commandments and to safeguard whatever is to Your liking. Write him in Your book of life and add him to the flock of Your inheritance…”. This means: entering upon the commencement of his new life.
4. The mystery of the “in Christ” new existence is ministered and annotated by the entire officiating (ritual) of the Baptism; the incorporation of the “Catechesis” together with the “Exorcisms” in the Service of the Sacrament somewhat diminishes their place in the pre-baptismal act of the Church. However, the course towards Baptism is linked to the procedure –as mentioned- of freeing Man from the power of the Devil, thus rendering possible his accession into the “in Christ” communion. “The way, by which Man is freed of the devil, is a difficult one and demands a lengthy stage of prayer, fasting and studentship in the teachings of Christ and of the Prophets.” (Fr. John Romanides) A realistic verification of the ancient Church’s practice is possible nowadays, in the life of a communal Monastery, in which, despite the imperfections of the persons, the liturgical declaration “ourselves and each other and our entire life let us appose to Christ the Lord” continues to apply – a declaration that from the beginning has comprised the purpose of ecclesiastic monasticism.
The reinstatement of the faithful’s partaking of the life “in Christ” is made possible by the cleansing of fallen Creation, which “grieves and sighs together” with him in its simultaneous fall with Man (Romans 8:22). Given that Man “is a part of creation, his communion with God can be restored, only through Creation. Man and Creation are saved together. It is for this reason that the water of Baptism must be exorcised and cleansed of demonic powers prior to one’s entry into Baptism.” Besides, the immersion in the water renders Baptism a true “likeness” of the faithful’s death “in Christ”. (Romans 6:5). The “water” becomes the image of the new life (Romans 6:4); the new “in Christ” reality. According to Dionysios Areopagite, baptism is a “ritual of theogenesis” – that is, a person’s rebirth in God. Furthermore, Saint Gregory of Nyssa also speaks of a “birth” at this point: “This birth is gestated through faith; through the rebirth of baptism it is led to the light; its “wet-nurse” becomes the Church.” (PG 46, 604) Baptism is, precisely, a immersion into the life of the Church, who “grafts into Her body, into Her divine-human nature, a new human person; She incorporates it into the oneness of the life and the personal communion of the Saints.” With Baptism and Man’s true partaking of the new, “in Christ” life, the faithful is inoculated into the ethos and the manner of existence of the ecclesiastic corpus. Because Baptism is, precisely, not the end, but the beginning of a course, which reaches its apex with the perfection of the faithful – that is, his deification – which is the complete and fulfilled incorporation in the body of Christ. This is what is expressed by a benediction of the Service: “Disrobe him of the oldness, and renovate him in the eternal life, and replete him with the power of Your Holy Spirit, for union with Your Christ, so that he is no longer a child of a body, but a child of Your Rule.”
5. Precedent to the Baptismal Service benedictions are: the “Canons of the Holy Apostles and divine Fathers” (Apostles 47th, 49th, 50th; 7th of the 2nd Ecum.Council, Laodicea 48th; Neocaesaria 6th, Timoth.Alex. 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 6th and 111th Carthage), who, in response to heretic provocations, determined the true Baptism of the Church (triple immersion and emersion) and its ecclesiological prerequisites, rejecting all the heretic cacodoxies that had been linked to it. Orthodoxy, wherever it may exist, reverently persists in the immersion of a person; in other words, the true and literal baptism (Greek: baptise=to dip, to plunge). The contemporary baptismal font, which is the continuation of the ancient baptistery, functions as the “womb” of re-creation: “…just as the womb is to the embryo, so the water is to the faithful; he is shaped and fashioned within the water…”(Saint John Chrysostom, PG 59, 153). “The triple immersion into and emersion from the water of the Baptism is not a tutorial model or an allegory; it is a perceptible experience of an actual event. With Baptism, the human existence ceases to be the result of a biological necessity. Contrary to natural birth, which comprises a biological unit that is subject to natural data, Baptism re-erects the existence, into a freedom from natural necessity; into a personal otherness which exists only as an ecclesiological hypostasis of communion and a loving association.”
The death of the former person and the rebirth of the faithful is, thus, not a mere “moral” event, but a “sacramental” and “liturgical” one, because the one who dies and is resurrected “in Christ” is reborn spiritually within the body of the Lord and receives the seal of eternal life, by donning Christ. This is the eschatological aspect of the sacrament. Baptism –for the one being baptized- is a “pre-engraving” and a “prelude” of the eschatological life of the heavenly kingdom. That is why it is referred to as the “first resurrection”: because it is the power that leads “to the final resurrection”.
The observation is correct, that during the entire Service of the Baptism, no mention is made regarding the forgiveness of any ancestral guilt. In the “exorcisms” also, no reference is made to the “catechumen’s” personal sins. Liturgically, the sacrament is not bound to any sense of “legal” absolution of sins. The Service itself revolves around everything that pertains to the induction of the one baptized into the communion of the Church – his release from “slavery to the devil” will lead him to his entrance into “the heavenly kingdom” and his “coupling” with “a radiant angel, who will deliver him from every scheming of the opposing one” (Fr. John Romanides). The prayer of the ecclesiastic body at this point is: “….and make him(her) a logical sheep of your Christ’s holy flock; a precious member of your Church; a sanctified vessel; a son(daughter) of light and inheritor of your kingdom”, the ultimate goal being the partaking of the uncreated kingdom and glory of the Triadic Divinity (“…so that by living according to your commandments and keeping the seal unbroken and the robe unpolluted, he/she will be bestowed the blessedness of the Saints (=deification), in Your Kingdom.”
6. A significant aspect of the Sacrament is the “Anadochos” (=godparent, sponsor). A theological expounding of the subject is provided by Saint Simeon of Thessaloniki (PG, 155, 213f), where he details the function of the godparent. One note at the end of the ritual of the Sacrament is extremely noteworthy: “…after which, he (the officiator) places it (the infant) by the doors of the sanctum. Thus, after having thrice prostrated himself, the Godparent receives it in his arms and exits from there”, having thus “re-accepted” the new member of the Church. In this way, the mission of the godparent is expressed in practice. According to Saint Simeon, the godparent is the (baptized child’s) “guarantor in Christ”, “that it will preserve everything of the Faith and live in the Christian manner”. It also gives the godparent his/her ecclesiastic identity: “where one should be careful to make pious godparents and almost teachers of the faith”. Let us remember here the case of political marriages and the (rightful) refusal of many of our Bishops to allow the politically married person to perform the duties of godparent, because, as a denier of a Sacrament of the Church, he is rendered “guilty of everything” (James 2:10). Saint Simeon even defines the dysfunctions that are noted: “But to me, it sounds –he says- extremely inappropriate and heavy. Because some invite persecutors and slanderers of the faith, atheists and heretics, (woe!) to be godparents of their children, as if for something human, and they violate the sacrament; these not only enlighten the children; rather, they lead them into darkness!”
It is in this context that the matter of infant baptism arises, thus causing untimely discussions. Infant baptism – which was already known in the ancient Church (see for example I Corinthians 1:16) – prevailed because the infant is open to Grace, but also for a most powerful anthropological reason: The absolute need for infant baptism springs from the fact that “children are born under the power of the devil on account of the powerlessness of nature, of body and of soul, which are governed by death and deterioration that are inherited from their parents, and also because of their union with fallen creation and everything dependent on it.” Needless to say, of course, that respect for the spirit of the Church demands that infant baptism apply in cases of pious parents and godparents, who keep alive their association with the ecclesiastic body, just as no-one dares to baptize children of non-Christians, since they will not have the opportunity for Christian upbringing.
7. Besides, it must be underlined that one is baptized, not in the sense of a conventional entry into the ecclesiastic community and the acquisition of certain “legal” rights, but for one’s securing his partaking of Grace that is transmitted through the sacrament, which opens the way to “in Christ” perfection (Matthew 5:48, Ephesians 5:1), expressed by selfless love (Romans 14:7, I Corinthians 10:24, 13:1e, Galatians 5:13; 6:1 etc.). Basil the Great links Baptism – under strictly ecclesiastic prerequisites – with holy-patristic enlightenment, which leads – again under prerequisites – to theosis/deification: “..for the unbaptized shall not be enlightened. And without light, neither can the eye see its own, nor will the soul be able to tolerate the sight of God”. (PG 31, 428A )
Furthermore, with Baptism the door opens for the faithful to enter the “in Christ” communion with the other members of the Lord’s Body. As fr. Alex. Schmemann observes: “It is with Baptism and through Baptism […] that we encounter the first and fundamental significance of the Church”. Through Baptism, the entrance of the neophyte into a certain community is achieved – the Church, as a body in which he will incessantly battle for the final victory over the devil and sin; for his authentic incorporation into the community of “God’s children” (John 1:12).
Consequently, Baptism becomes the entrance to the life of a specific local community, and not to a general – universal – notion of Christianity. Furthermore, it is only natural for all these things to have disappeared in our day, with the activity that distinguishes the members of the Church. Essentially, the idea of the local Church-Parish is disappearing, especially when “churchgoing” is directed by other motives, not ecclesiastic ones (i.e., the search for priests or cantors with good voices, choirs and the suchlike), for the personal “enjoyment” of the Liturgy. But this is where the words of the Chrysostom apply: “The Church is not a theatre, to listen to it for our pleasure”! (PG 49, 58). At Baptism however, as already mentioned, that which must die is “our self-centeredness and our self-sufficiency”, in order to make communion with the other members possible. Individuality is the inevitable outcome of the Fall, as well as the mortifying of selflessness, which is sacrificed to the instinctive search for self-gratification and bliss. Hence, Baptism – under the proper presuppositions – leads to Man’s “churchification” and “ecclesiasticism”; in other words, to the transformation of his individuality into an ecclesiastic existence. But this is not something self-understood and without prerequisites. Everything in the Church is the fruit of collaboration with Divine Grace. And this requires predisposition and struggle on the part of Man. There can be no automation in the Church, since Divine Grace does not abolish human freedom as a potential choice, either to accept or to reject (see John 5:6).
8. This becomes especially perceptible in the case where the one freed from the power of the devil needs to remain within the limits of his “in Christ” freedom (Hebrew 6:4). “For, having died as sinners through divine baptism – observes Saint Gregory Palamas – we are obliged to live virtuously for God, so that even the lord of darkness, when he comes seeking, shall not find anything in us that is to his liking. And just as Christ, having risen from the dead, “death no longer conquers Him”, so must we, after our resurrection from the downfall of sin through divine baptism, must strive to no longer hold on to sin”. This is described even more intensely by Saint Gregory of Nyssa, in expressing the same conscience and act: “For this reason, and even after the acquisition of the status of adoption, the devil conspires even more fiercely, envying with a malignant eye whenever he sees the beauty of a newly-made man hurrying towards the heavenly city – from whence he had lapsed – arousing fiery temptations within us with the intent to sully the second decoration, just as he had with the former world. But whenever we sense his attacks, it behoves us to say to ourselves the apostolic saying: “whomsoever of us are baptized in Christ, are baptized unto His death’. If therefore we become conformant to His death, most assuredly will sin be dead inside us, having been destroyed by the spear of baptism, just as that fornicator was, by the zealot Fineas..” (PG 46, 597)
The above signify that according to the conscience and the experience of the Saints, “baptism itself does not secure salvation, but rather, it introduces and leads Man to the beginning of the path that leads to the life in Chris and therefore to salvation in Christ”. According to John the Chrysostom, Man’s continuous partaking of the vivifying energy of the Holy Spirit is not a “once-only” guaranteed thing that is guaranteed by baptism. “Let us therefore not be encouraged to believe that we have once and for all become members of the Body of Christ” (PG 60, 23). Life in Christ demands a constant spiritual struggle, in order to make possible the activation of the Grace acquired through Baptism. But also according to saint Gregory Palamas, “……even though the Lord has revived us through holy baptism, and sealed us through the grace of the Holy Spirit for the day of redemption, while still having a mortal and impassioned body, and having cast out the cause that filled the treasuries of our soul with evil, yet He allows external offensives, so that the reborn person (……..), when living charitably and in repentance, disdaining the pleasures of life and suffering the afflictions and being exercised by the attacks of the opposing one, will prepare himself for the reception of incorruptibility.” (PG 151, 213B) This is the way that the great hesychast defines the course of the faithful after Baptism, as a course leading towards incorruptibility (=deification): as a constant struggle against the devil and sin.
This is why catechism after Baptism was instituted from the very first centuries, along with the sacrament of repentance as a second kind of baptism, which would serve as a toning of the faithful’s spiritual struggle so that he might remain receptive of Divine Grace. As saint Gregory Palamas teaches: “Which is why, after holy Baptism, deeds of contrition are required; in the absence of which, the reason for one’s promise to God is not only non-beneficial, but also condemns man.” (see Peter II, 2:21). And he continues: “For God is living and true, and He asks from us true promises and a living faith, not a dead one; otherwise, without works, it is a dead faith.” (see James 2:18)
9. In this context, it becomes necessary to mention that the linking of Baptism and the Divine Eucharist is not self-understood, if it lacks a spiritual continuity. The oft-said statement that a prerequisite for participation in the Divine Eucharist is that one must be baptized a Christian denotes that the person has entered into the life – the manner of existence – of the Church and that he is engaged in a spiritual struggle in order to remain receptive of Grace. This means that the one entering the ecclesiastic body through Baptism is simultaneously ‘enlisted’ in a permanent and incessant struggle for repentance, in order to remain within the body (to be “one with the body”).
Christianity means a way of life different to the worldly one (John 17:9-19). “Faithful” means to be crucified “along with one’s passions and desires” and having become “of Christ” (Galatians 5:24). He lives “in the Spirit” and therefore “is aligned (behaves accordingly) to the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). The “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25) is the Spirit’s presence being revealed in the heart that has been cleansed of its passions. Catharsis is what one strives for in his spiritual struggle, so that Man may remain open to Divine Grace.
A pure example of this course – but also a historical model – of authentic ecclesiastic living is provided by monastic living. The monastic coenobium, within its Patristic boundaries, is the authentic manner of ecclesiastic existence and the permanent standard for the secular Parish. Already by the 4th century, at the beginning of the course and the development of organized monastic living, the blessed Chrysostom made the following, most important observation: “Thus do the inhabitants of monasteries live nowadays (=at the end of the 4th century!), as did the faithful (=of Jerusalem) then (in the 1st century). (PG 60, 98) Monasticism appeared as a continuation of the genuine ecclesiastic way of life, when the dangers of secularization had begun to loom threateningly. The familiar expression found in ecclesiastic history, that the desert is “turning into a city” means precisely that; i.e., that the city has been transferred to the remote desert, away from the others, in order to facilitate the “in Christ” way of life – for the completion of Baptism with their course towards deification. Monastic repentance – the second baptism – is the renewal of the Baptism. Monks remain the “light of the people”, as a permanent model of eccliasticity.
That is why we, the others, as members of our parishes, forever orient our gaze towards the coenobitic monastery – the parish of the desert – having it as a steadfast indicator of our course and our way of life that can preserve the gifts of the Baptism, and the course towards deification.
Page created: 23-8-2010.
Last update: 23-8-2010.
(An Introduction to the Orthodox Faith)
by Protopresbyter fr. George D. Metallinos
Professor Emeritus of the Athens University
1. Christian Worship
Ever since its founding on the Day of the Pentecost, Christianity (as the Church of Christ), was expressed not only as a teaching but also as worship, which held a centremost place in its life. Worship proved to be not only the means by which the Church expressed Her most profound self, but also the “par excellence” means that shaped the faith and Her life overall. Without being limited to worship alone, the life of the Church is transformed overall into a worship of the Triune God, Who is Her absolute centre and its head.
Ecclesiastic worship is comprehended in Christ only, in Whom God is made known (John 1:18). Faith in Christ as our God and Saviour is precedent to worship of Him. Christ is the One Who differentiates the Christian faith from every other worship. The Christ-centred character of ecclesiastic worship differentiated it radically, not only from the Gentile faith, but also from the Jewish one. (see Hebrews, chapter 9). Whatever Gentile or Jewish ritualistic elements the Church may have assumed, are only secondary in importance and peripheral, and they do not affect Her worship.
An essential element of Christian worship is the esoteric one, i.e., the thanksgiving and glorification of God for His gifts, from the heart. That is why Christian worship was founded on what God did for Man and not what Man can do to please God and placate Him. It is not intended as a religious ritual, but it is through it, that we have the manifestation of the Church as the “Body of Christ”. The sole, true officiator of the Church is Jesus Christ (Hebrews 8:2), Who, by His Person, introduced into History a different kind of priesthood. The terms “priest”, “sacrifice”, “priesthood” in the Epistle to Hebrews – the first liturgical text of the Church – are linked exclusively to Christ, the only authentic High Priest, Who offered and still offers the perfect sacrifice – Himself. His sacrifice in the worship of the Church is bloodless and spiritual, and Christ is, after all, the “offerer and the offered and the recipient” of the sacrifice. It is not the priests of the Church who perform the sacrifice (as is the case in the various religions of the world); priests merely “lend” their hands to Christ, so that He may perform everything (Chrysostom). All of the faithful – with their Baptism and their Chrism – partake of Christ’s priesthood, inasmuch as they “present their bodies as a living sacrifice – a holy one, which is pleasing to God.” (Romans 12:1)
The Worship of the Church constitutes a revelation of the triple mystery of life: the mystery of God, the mystery of Man and the mystery of Creation, as well as the association between the three. In Orthodox Worship, one experiences the “new Era” that “assaulted” History with the Incarnation of the Logos of God, and one is now also equipped with the potential for victory over sin, over deterioration and death. Human existence overall places itself under Christ’s authority and it glorifies the Triune God, the way He is glorified by the angelic Powers in the heavens. (Isaiah 6:1)
In Christian worship, a two-fold movement takes place: Man’s towards God (Who receives our thanksgiving and glorification) and God’s towards Man (who is sanctified by Divine Grace). This is a dialogue between the Creator and His creation; a meeting between Man and “the True One” (John I, 5:20); an offering by an existence to its source, according to the words of the Liturgy: «Ourselves and each other and all of our life let us submit unto Christ the Lord”. The faithful offers thanks to God for his salvation and for God’s continuous gifts, which are “more bounteous than what we asked for”. Man offers God “bread and wine” and he receives “Body and Blood of Christ” in return; he offers up incense, and receives uncreated Grace. The Church’s worship is not offered to God because He is in need of it; this worship is actually a necessity for Man, who receives far more (and far more important things) than whatever he may have to offer.
Worship is ecclesiastic, when it preserves its supernatural and spiritual character and when it liberates Man, thence leading him into the perfect knowledge (“cognition”) of God (Ephesians 4:13, Revelation 4:10, 5:6, etc.); however, its purpose is not to bring heaven down to earth, but to elevate Man and the world, towards the heavens. It gives Man (and Creation overall) the potential to become “baptized” (to die and be resurrected) within Divine Grace.
2. Liturgical Order and Historical Evolution
Ecclesiastic worship has its own order, i.e., the sum of ritual formalities that govern it. “Typikon” (Ritual) is the name of the special liturgical manual which provides the outline and the structure of the Church’s worship, according to how the holy Fathers had formulated it over the centuries. With its established “order” and liturgical unity, the Orthodox conscience was preserved successfully – despite all the circumstantial readjustments and local particularities, i.e., the natural flow of events that were observed in the past – thus enriching the liturgical act, also fending off various cacodoxies and confronting the various heresies. However, the development of ecclesiastic worship took place organically, with an inner order and consistency, without its unity being disrupted. New elements resemble the branches of a tree, which may spread out but still allow for its unimpeded growth. So it is with Orthodoxy, where the Slav-speaking Churches observe the order of the “Holy Monastery of Jerusalem” (of Saint Savvas), while the Hellenic-speaking ones are based –mainly- on the order of the Great Church of Christ (in Constantinople), of the Holy Studite Monastery. This difference in the order observed does not disrupt the unity of Orthodox worship. The liturgical structure is specific, and is common to all Orthodox Churches, as one can discern in an inter-Orthodox Divine Liturgy.
Various liturgical forms had already appeared, as early as ancient Christian times (the “Eastern” form: Alexandrian, Antiochian or Syrian and Byzantine; the “Western” form: African, Roman, Paleo-Hispanic or Mozarabian, Ambrosian, Paleo-Gallic, Celtic, etc.). The expulsion of all the heresies that had arisen during the Church’s historical course had also contributed towards the appearance of local differences, but in a spirit of freedom. This is why the various liturgical forms are useful for discovering and verifying the liturgical evolution of the local Churches, as well as their interaction within the framework of the unity of the Orthodox Faith.
One landmark in the evolution of ecclesiastic worship was the era of Constantine the Great, with the inauguration of Constantinople-New Rome (in 330 A.D.) which opened up new, cosmogonic perspectives. The development of every area of ecclesiastic life (=the work of the holy Fathers) had an organic continuance, without this meaning in the slightest a “falling away from primeval Christianity”. The post-313 victory over idolatry gave birth to a universal feeling and theology of “victory” and triumph, which permeated even the very structures of worship. Its development went hand-in-hand with the Synodic formulation of the Triadic Dogma, the cultivation of theological letters, the organizing of monasticism, the erecting of a multitude of temples etc. With a slow but steady pace, the particularities of worship were minimized and ecumenical forms appeared, based on a stable and unchanging core, which assimilated and united all local particularities. The fruits of these developments are the varying architectural forms of temples, the development of liturgical cycles (daily, weekly, annual), the addition of new feast-days and services. These developments are chronologically classified as follows: the 4th and 5th centuries are discerned for the vast liturgical flourishing and the profound changes in worship; in the 6th and 7th centuries, the various forms are stabilized; in the 8th and 9th centuries, the final, “Byzantine form”, is established, which, after the 14th and 15th centuries (Hesychasm, Symeon of Thessaloniki), led to the liturgical order that continues to apply to this day.
The “Byzantine form” of Ecclesiastic Worship was reached through Monasticism, which comprises the authentic continuation of the ecclesiastic community and the permanent safeguarding of the purity and the witness of ecclesiastic living. Throughout the ages, it was Monasticism that preserved the eschatological conscience, by fending off secularization. This is why its impact on the Church’s course has proven to be not only definitive, but also beneficial.
Monasticism incorporated worship into its ascetic labors, putting a special emphasis on prayer and, through the “Prayer”, turned its entire life into worship. Monasticism cultivated and enriched the liturgical act, by offering the Church Her liturgical “order” and practically all of Her hymnographical, musical and artistic wealth.
Following Monasticism’s victory and the end of the Iconomachy issue (9th century), the monastic “form” was passed on to the secular dioceses as well, and this “form” was to eventually prevail throughout the Orthodox Church. The monasteries cultivated the main structural elements of Orthodox worship; also its hymnography (poetry) and its music, and it is in them, that the truth is preserved to this day – that worship is not just “something” in the life of Orthodoxy, but that it is the center and the source of renovation and sanctification of every aspect of our life.
3. The worshipping community
The Orthodox Church manifests Herself historically as a worshipping community. Even heterodox such as Erich Seeberg (a major Protestant theologian) have called Her “the religion of worship on the ground of Christianity”. During worship, the faithful partakes of his Church’s way of existence, which is referred to as “a feast of the first-born”, “a house of celebrants” who are “eternally jubilating” in an eschatological foretasting of the heavenly kingdom. The Church’s worship was, from the very beginning, a community act; it was an act of the local Church, and not of the faithful as individuals. During worship, the individual becomes a member of the “community in Christ” (in which he enters with his Baptism) and then partakes of the life of a specific, local community, and not some universal and generalized notion of Christianity. In worship, the ecclesiastic body becomes evident with its local assembly. Even “private” prayer is understood Orthodoxically as something within the ecclesiastic community – as an extension if it. The Divine Eucharist in particular is the Mystery of the Church as a body, and is also the scope of the liturgical act.
The Church’s worship unites the faithful, across Time, with all the Saints and the foregone faithful, contemporaneously with the brethren who are presently living “in Christ”. The Church is thus proven in Her worship as “one flock, comprised of people and angels, and one kingdom” (Saint John the Chrysostom). This unity of the Church, with Christ at the center as Her Head, is portrayed during the “withdrawal” of the “Precious Gifts”, when the distribution of Holy Communion is completed. The Officiator “withdraws” (collects) inside the Holy Chalice the “Lamb Christ” (of Whom both clergy and laity have just partaken), the “portion” dedicated to the Theotokos, the Angels and all the Saints, and the portion for the living and the deceased – this rite normally being performed by the head officiator, the Bishop, who comprises the visible center of the Sacrament (the invisible center being Christ). Thus, the “personal” Body of Christ is joined in a “discernible and indivisible” manner to His “communal” (collective) Body – His faithful. Inside the Holy Chalice is “assembled” the community of Faithful, together with Christ and one another. Christ is thus manifested as the absolute center and the Head of the Church; the Church as the Body of Christ, and the faithful – both living and deceased – as members of that Body.
4. “Churchifying” the means
During worship, the Church transforms the elements of this century into realities of the heavenly kingdom, thus giving a new meaning to their function and their point of reference. One of these elements is: (a) the place. The Church’s worship quickly disengaged itself from the Judean Temple and the Synagogue. The Divine Eucharist was initially performed in private quarters – “in the household” (κατ’ οίκον) – and a congregation of the faithful was called “the household church”. Having developed in a Hellenistic environment, the Church assumed the Hellenic term “ecclesia” (=the summoned ones), which was now used to likewise refer to the congregating of the public (the people), but with Christ now as its centre and its Head. The term for “temple” (ecclesia) was originally assigned to mean the congregating of the faithful in Christ (John 4:21). Stephen the Deacon would proclaim that: “the Lord on high does not reside in handmade temples” (Acts 7:48). After 313 A.D., the temple would acquire a special meaning “Christianically” also.
The Temple, as the sacred place of a congregation, was linked to the notion of “heaven on earth”, since the Church’s liturgy is an “ascension” of the faithful to the hyper-celestial Altar. This is what is expressed by a hymn that says: “while standing in the temple of Your glory, in heaven do we think we stand”.
There is a special service dedicated to the consecration of a Temple (The Consecration Service), which expresses the Church’s theology regarding the Temple. The Saints throughout the ages have never ceased to preserve Stephen’s awareness; for example, according to the blessed Chrysostom (†407): “Christ with His coming cleansed all the universe; every place became a place of prayer…”. In other words, the temple may facilitate congregating, but the congregation never loses sight of its celestial perspective.
In a “Byzantine” temple, the icon of the Pantocrator (=the “all-governing”) Christ that is positioned inside the central dome, gives the faithful the feeling of being under the paternal supervision of God. One thus becomes aware of certain liturgical contrasts: below-above, earth-heaven, secular-Saintly, death-life, endo-cosmic – exo-cosmic, etc. Through the eyes of the Saints – the “theumens” (=those who have attained theosis) – we too can see the uncreated Light of the celestial kingdom, during the liturgy of our Church. During the “inauguration” of a Temple, fragments of holy relics are embedded inside the holy Altar, so that the Church’s worship will forever be referred to the uncreated Divine Grace, which is resident in the relics of the Saints. Thus, all the sacraments and sanctifying acts of the Church have their foundations in the Grace of God, without being dependent on the moral cleanliness of the officiator. Everything linked to the function of the temple is “consecrated” and sanctified: the holy vessels, the holy vestments, the liturgical books, the icons, all of them being rendered “channels” of Divine Grace.
(b) In the Church’s worship, Time is also given a new meaning. The Church’s new perception of Time is confined to the boundaries of Christian soteriology. Time is “churchified”, with the transcending of its “cyclical” self (in Hellenism) and its “linear” self (in Judaism). “Salvation” in the Christian sense is not an escape from Time and the world; it is a victory over the fiendishness and the evil of this world, and the sin dwelling inside it (John 17:15). History and Time are not abolished; they are innovated.
The Church’s liturgical Time does not lose its linearity, because it has a beginning and an end – the “fulfilment of Time” (Galatians 6:4), which was realized with the incarnation of the God Logos. Time was given a beginning by God during Creation, and its “end” is Christ, Who gives a soteriological significance to every moment of Time (“Behold, now is a welcome Time; behold, now is a day of salvation” (Corinthians II, 6:2). With the incarnation of the Logos of God, History now heads towards Eschatological Times, because the “End” (Eschaton) is Christ, after Whose incarnation “nothing new” is expected historically, except only the fulfilment of the “end”, with His Second Coming. In worship, Christ is “the One Who will Return”; He is “Emmanuel”, He is “God amongst us” (Matthew 1:23).
Liturgical Time also has a vertical dimension, since Christ and His uncreated Kingdom come “from above”, thus showing us our eternal destination (“let us lift up our hearts”). The Church’s liturgical time is experienced as the continuous presence of salvation. In the Church’s worship, all three temporal dimensions (Past-Present-Future) are contracted into one, perpetual “Present” of the Divine Presence. This is why we have so many references to the Present in our liturgical language: “Christ is born today…”, “today Christ is baptized in the Jordan…”, “today is Christ suspended on a piece of wood…”. This is not an ordinary, historical remembrance. Liturgically speaking, “remembrance” does not imply any intellectual recall or historical repetition, because the events that are linked to our salvation took place “once”; soteriologically, however, they also apply “for all eternity”. During worship, these events are extended spiritually and are rendered events of the Present, so that every generation of faithful may partake equally of the redemptive Grace that exudes from them. Our worship does not aspire to provoking a Platonic sort of nostalgia, but to generating an awareness of our extending into the Future – into the kingdom of God.
Thus, the worshipping Church re-constitutes the dimensions of Time, incorporating them into the eternal “now” of the Divine Presence. The remembrance of the Past becomes a memory “in Christ”, and the hope for the Future a hope “in Christ”. The Future acquires a hypostasis, just like the “life of the aeon to come” (Hebrews 11:1), when the faithful has reached Sainthood – the union with uncreated divine Grace. Liturgically, we refer to a remembrance of the Future, since everything moves in that direction. Every moment of Time is transformed into a “time” (καιρός) for Salvation. A par excellence “time” is a Feast day, a liturgical “remembrance” of God’s gifts and His philanthropy. A Feast day is an expression of Man’s nostalgia for the eternal, as substantiated in the Saints and the soteriological events being commemorated. The Feasts of the Church are linked, not to some myth (as is the case in idolatrous sacraments), but to actual, historical persons and events. Already by the 1st century, the Feast of Sunday was established as the first day of Creation’s restoration, i.e. the Day of the Resurrection. The Divine Eucharist is the culmination of the Church’s celebration, and every day is an ecclesiastic Feast day, inasmuch as the Divine Liturgy can be performed therein.
(c) Furthermore, ecclesiastic worship also ministers to the mystery of the Logos, in all its aspects. The ecclesiastic and liturgical logos is expressed as benediction-prayer; as the recital of Scriptures; as hymn-singing; as sermons; as the divine Eucharist (the “breaking of bread” – Acts 2:42). These are but different aspects of the same mystery. In each one of these liturgical expressions, it is the same Logos of God being offered, in a special way each time. The Logos of God summons the members of His Body, so that He can dwell inside it. Without the divine Logos, the sacrament is perceived as a magical medium; without the sacrament, the Logos is transformed into a fleshless dogmatism or a religious ideology.
The Scriptural readings – with the Book of Psalms first – is the offering of the recorded Holy-Spiritual experience of the Prophets and the Apostles, which presupposes the revelation of God (=the Logos of God) within the heart of His Saints. Both the Old and the New Testaments are recited during the ecclesiastic gathering, based on an “order” that was determined by our Holy Fathers. The entire ecclesiastic assembly participates in the liturgical recital of the Scripture: the Apostolic tract is read by one of the laity, while the Gospel tract is read by the Deacon and the sermon is delivered by the Bishop or the Presbyter (Elder). The Scripture is recited ecclesiastically; not in the usual prosaic or artistic, theatrical manner, but in a “verbodal” (spoken-singing) manner, or in other words, half-chanted. This testifies that the Holy Bible is not just any man-written book; it is God’s perpetual message through His Saints, during the congregation of His faithful. In the Church, the Gospel is sacred and is bestowed special honour; it is placed atop the holy Altar, it is honoured with prostrations, it is incensed, and the people are blessed with it. The priests’ “entry” into the Sanctum with the Gospel is a declaration of the resurrected Christ’s presence among us. The sermon, as the interpretation and the consolidation of the Scriptural word, renders the Scriptural message a contemporary one to the liturgical congregation. The liturgical sermon focuses not on “how the gospel events happened”, but “where they lead us”. The Holy Bible is interpreted by the Church in the Church, in direct association with Christ and the Saints, because it is only with the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit that it can be comprehended and interpreted.
However, the liturgical logos-word is also articulated as the congregation’s response to God, in the form of benedictions and hymns; “Euchography” and “Hymnography” are not only the heart of ecclesiastic worship; they are also Byzantium/Romania’s most significant literary creation. The hymnals’ poetic form provides immense potential, inasmuch as it is the most effective medium for the ritual requirements of the ecclesiastic body, which experiences and confesses its faith “by weaving words (logos) out of melody, for the Logos”. The Church’s hymnography becomes Her “unsilencable voice”, which confesses Her faith in a continuous and blessed song of Orthodoxy.
(d) In ecclesiastic worship, Art is also “churchified”, in all its forms. The only art form that the Church did not accept was sculpture, because of its obviously terrestrial character. In worship, art becomes a theological language, ministering to the Eucharist experience of divine-human communion. Liturgical art has beauty, order, rhythm, melody… however, these elements are rendered functional-beneficial, in the service of the body. The aesthetics of liturgical art are spiritual and do not aspire to impress, given that they are not directed at the physical senses, since this art form strives to reveal “the divine and uncreated beauty of Christ’s virtues”. This is why products of ecclesiastic art are known to be miracle-working (for example the holy Icons); it is because they too partake of the uncreated divine glory (Grace), thus proving their participation in the Uncreated. Ecclesiastic worship’s art is so “beauteous”, that it in fact fulfils its spiritual purpose: the ministering to the faith. This is why it is Orthodoxy’s steadfast requirement, that liturgical art preserve its “sameness in essence” with the dogma, with the faith that it ministers to: so that the uninterrupted fulfilment of its spiritual mission may be attained.
There is a difference between ecclesiastic-liturgical art and religious art. The former portrays the event of Salvation, the way it historically took place, as well as the collective acceptance of it by the ecclesiastic body. Religious art, on the other hand, is an expression of the artist’s personal approach to the mystery. That is why it is not liturgical. A certain correlation to this would be a comparison between “demotic” (colloquial) poetry and its classical form. As in everything else in worship, the stamp of the monastic world – the more traditional part of the ecclesiastic community – is also very apparent in all the creations of ecclesiastic art.
5. Liturgical theology
Faith – not only as the ecclesiastic conscience and one’s fidelity to the Saviour Christ but as a teaching also – is a fundamental and inviolable prerequisite of ecclesiastic worship. It is the motive power of the worshipping faithful, expressed by external acts and moves that constitute its ritual. Worship materializes faith and renders it a group event, while it simultaneously preserves and augments it, thus helping one to delve deeper into it.
Orthodox worship is Trinity-centred in its topics and its structure. Its strength and its hope spring from the Triadic God. The Church liturgically offers up “glory to the Father, and the Son, and to the Holy Spirit”.
The Eucharist “anaphora” is addressed to God the Father. The Son is also the recipient of the offered sacrifice, given that He is “of the same essence” and co-enthroned with the Father, and He is the central axis of that sacrifice as well. He is “the offerer and the offered and the One Who receives and is distributed” during the Divine Eucharist. Ecclesiastic worship is the continuation of Christ’s redemptive work, and it incorporates the Mystery of Divine Providence. Christ is the “ecclesiast” (“churchifier”) Who gathers us unto His Body and the faithful are the “churchified” who participate in His worship and are recipients of His glory. Those who receive Holy Communion “worthily” (Corinthians II, 3:16) prove to be a temple of Christ, and the mystery of Faith is officiated inside their hearts.
But ecclesiastic worship is just as equally Spirit-centred, because the Holy Spirit is also present during worship, the way that the luminous mist was present when it “overshadowed” the Disciples and the entire Mount during the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:5). Orthodoxy’s true worship is the Holy Spirit’s prayer-rousing energy inside the heart of the faithful, as is the case with the Saints, who are the true worshippers of God because they participate in the celestial worship. The entireness of worship is the work of the Holy Spirit, Who “holds together the entire establishment of the Church”. The prayer: “Thou Heavenly King, the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth….” is the one that inducts us into every Service.
In divine worship, a “communion with the Holy Spirit” takes place. Everything is governed by the sanctifying power of the Paraclete. At the peak moment of the Sacrament, we beseech the Holy Spirit to “come upon us” (the officiators) and upon the “holy gifts” (the bread and the wine), but also upon “all of the people”, and to perform the “spiritual sacrifice”, by transforming the offered gifts into Body and Blood of Christ and uniting all the participants into one body.
The Church’s worship stands out for its “traditionality”. This is the most dynamic carrier of ecclesiastic tradition. “Tradition” in the Church is the perpetuation of the Christian way of existence; it is life in the Holy Spirit, which can lead to the Church’s true purpose: Man’s theosis and the sanctification of Creation. The truly faithful one will persist in those elements that comprise the genuine ecclesiastic stance. That is what Faith is basically all about: for one to remain faithful and unswerving towards the will of God and the Tradition of the Saints. The criterion for the genuineness of ecclesiastic worship is its degree of “traditionality”. This also contributes towards the unity of local churches, both contemporaneously and across time.
The liturgical texts provide the liturgical theology, which constitutes a primordial expression of the ecclesiastic dogma. That is why worship becomes “a school for piety” that teaches the faith, with the support of the media of art, and especially iconography – that “most eloquent book” of the Church, as Saint John the Damascene had said. Orthodox worship throughout the ages has shaped the mentality of the faithful, as one can see from certain church-loving personalities such as the Russian author Feodor Dostoevsky or the Greek author Alexandros Papadiamantis. A person’s association with worship is an indicator of his ecclesiastic demeanour.
It therefore stands to reason that one can speak of an Orthodox and a non-Orthodox worship, because the Orthodox element underlying worship is not composed of faceless structures; it is the faith that these structures materialize. Ever since ancient times, one’s confession of faith was linked directly to worship. Worship remains the sermon of truth throughout the ages, as personified by the Saints and the “remembrance” of the redemptive events found in the Old and the New Testaments. However, beyond being the sermon of faith, ecclesiastic worship also contributes towards its own defence, by fending off heretic fallacies. It is already a known fact that ecclesiastic theology is usually formulated as a response to heretic provocations. This is evidenced by the feast-days and the special church services dedicated to Holy Fathers and Ecumenical Synods. Vespers and Matins provide us with the theology of every single feast-day, in lieu of a theological arsenal for the faithful. The pious faithful becomes, for all intents and purposes, a theologian of the Church.
6. The Liturgy
The Divine Liturgy is the centre of ecclesiastic worship in whole, culminating in the Divine Eucharist, the centre of Orthodox life, experience and conscience. According to fr. Al. Schmemann, a major liturgiologist of our time, “the Divine Liturgy can be regarded as a journey or a course that eventually leads us to our final destination, during which course every stage is equally important.” This course begins, from the moment that the faithful leave their homes to go to the liturgical assembly. The assembling of the body is the first and fundamental act that introduces the faithful into the new world that God instituted in History, i.e., the Church. The faithful assemble inside the temple, in order to participate in the Liturgy, along with all of the Saints and their brethren in Christ – both the living and the departed. This act culminates in the “Minor Entrance”, during which all of the assembly, along with the Bishop, journey towards the celestial sacrificial altar.
One cannot be perceived a Christian, outside the liturgical assembly. In times of persecutions, the Christians placed themselves in great danger in order to participate in the assemblies of the local communities. The expression “I belong to the Church” means: I participate in Her liturgical assemblies; because it is through them, that the “here and now” of the ecclesiastic body manifests itself. It is the synagogé (=the gathering together) of the people of God – in which even the catechumens and the repentant also participate to a certain extent – and not just an “elite” of chosen ones. The faithful constantly deposit their sinfulness before the Divine Love, so that it may be transformed, through repentance, into sanctity. That is why the Holy Fathers recommend frequent participation in the liturgical assemblies; because that is how “the powers of Satan are undone ….. in the congruence of the faith” (Saint Ignatius the ‘God-bearer’, †107).
In the first part of the Liturgy, up to the end of the Scriptural recitations, it was the custom for the catechumens to also participate, which is why it was called the “Liturgy of the Catechumens”. The remaining part is called the “Liturgy of the Faithful”, and it contains the Sacrament of the Divine Eucharist, whose main characteristic is the sacrifice. The Eucharist is a “theophany” (a “manifestation” of God), and as such, it transforms all of Creation into a theophany. With the Divine Eucharist, the Church offers Her “bloodless” sacrifice. The faithful offer God’s gifts (Thine own, of Thine own, do we offer Thee), confessing their unworthiness and their spiritual poverty ( “….. for we have done nothing good on earth …..”). The only reciprocation to God’s gifts that we can offer is to consciously subject ourselves to Divine Love.
The Divine Eucharist is not a prayer or a ritual like other services. It is the mystery of Christ’s actual presence in the midst of His praying Church. It is firstly Christ’s Eucharist (=thanksgiving), then it becomes ours also, because, without ceasing to be “co-seated on high with the Father”, Christ is also simultaneously “here below, invisibly, with us”. According to Saint John the Chrysostom, “Whensoever (the faithful) receives Holy Communion with a clean conscience, he is performing Pascha (Easter) … There is nothing more in the Sacrament performed for Pascha, than in the Sacrament now being performed”. By partaking of Christ’s “humanity” (=human nature), which is distinctly and indivisibly joined to His Godhood, the faithful receives inside him all of Christ and becomes joined to Him in this way.
In the Divine Eucharist, the ecclesiastic body experiences a perpetuated Pentecost. Pentecost, Eucharist and Synod in the life of the Church are all linked to the actual presence of Christ in the Holy Spirit. This is what our liturgical language also expresses; we speak of “spiritual mysteries”, “spiritual sacrifice”, “worship in the spirit”, “spiritual table”, “spiritual body”, “spiritual food and drink”, etc. Everything becomes spiritual during the Divine Liturgy, not in the sense of a certain idealizing or immaterializing on our part, but on account of the presence of the Holy Spirit therein.
Above all, however, the Divine Eucharist becomes the sacrament of unification of the Church. Those participating in it become “ONE” in Christ (Galatians 3:28), through the unity of their hearts (“in one voice and one heart ….”). That is what the Apostle Paul teaches in his Epistle I to Corinthians (10:15-17). The one ecclesiastic body relates therein to the Eucharist bread: “For we, the many, are one bread, one body”. This is why it is such a contradiction, when all of the faithful do not receive Holy Communion, even though all of them have heard the Eucharist-thanksgiving prayers in preparation of Holy Communion…
Holy Communion transmits Christ’s life into each member, so that it may live in Christ, together with all the other members. Saint Simeon the New Theologian sees this union with Christ as a lifting of Man’s solitude: “For the one participating in the divine and deifying graces is in no way alone, but with You, my Christ, the three-sunned light, which lights the entire world …” . With Holy Communion, the individuals become members of the Lord’s Body and thereafter, individual survival “mutates” into a communion of life. Ever since the first centuries, the very existence of the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified (Gifts) verifies the need to participate in the Divine Eucharist. Naturally, none of the above occurs through any kind of automation, but only when the participants live the life of an ecclesiastic corpus. That is why “he who eats and drinks unworthily, is eating and drinking of a damnation unto himself” (Corinthians I, 11:29).
During the Divine Liturgy, the Church is literally lifted to the heavens, partaking of the death, the Resurrection and the Ascension of Christ and living Her own “ascension” into the heavenly realm. “And You did not cease doing everything, until You led us all to heaven and granted us Your kingdom to come …”, we confess during the Liturgy. The Liturgy becomes the Paschal gathering of all those who encounter the Lord and enter His kingdom. We do not move along Platonic forms, by seeking perfection in a certain “beginning”, but we seek it in the eschatological, in the fulfillment of that which is evolving within Time, through to the final outcome of the existence of the faithful-to-Christ person. The worship of the Church is thus directed by the historical past of Divine Providence, to the confirmed-in-Christ future. During the Divine Liturgy, even Christ’s Second Coming is referred to as an event of the past!! “Remembering this, Thy saving commandment and all that has been done for us: the Cross, the Grave, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the Enthronement at the right hand and Thy Second and Glorious Coming…” is what we confess, prior to the sanctification of the Precious Gifts.
To underrate the liturgical congregation is to cloud its eschatological character. Besides, with the proliferation of Eucharist congregations in a multitude of parishes, in chapels, in monasteries, etc. and the absence of the Bishop – the head of the gathering of every local Church – the term “congregation” has lost its true meaning. Only the joyous character of the Liturgy now testifies towards its eschatological atmosphere, to the point where it could even be regarded as inconsistent with fasting. During the period of Great Lent, a period of strict fasting, no Divine Liturgies are performed on weekdays; only the Liturgy of the pre-sanctified Gifts. The Divine Liturgy is not one of the many means of sanctification for the “fortification” of Man; it is the Sacrament of the Church, which transposes the faithful into the future age. Church and Eucharist are inter-embraced.
7. The sanctification of the entire world
The objective of ecclesiastic worship is the sanctification of the entire world. Man’s life is sanctified, but so is the environment that surrounds him. Within the boundaries of worship, Man is projected in Christ as the master and the king of Creation, who is called upon to refer himself, along with Creation, to the Creator – the source of their existence and sanctification.
a) The sanctification of Time: The liturgical year is the transcending “in Christ” of the “calendar year” and the transformation of the calendar into a feast-day almanac. With Her celebrations and Her services, the Church sanctifies and transforms the year of our daily lives, by unifying and orienting it towards the kingdom of God. Liturgically speaking, Time ceases to be a simple, natural framework, inasmuch as it is transformed into a point of reference used for determining the content of worship. This is evidenced by the terminology used: “Matins” (=morning), “Vespers” (=evening), “Midnight”, “Hours”, etc.. From the liturgiological aspect, the organizing of the annual cycle on the basis of time periods (day, week, year), with an analogous organizing of one’s very life, is called the “Liturgy of Time”.
The liturgical year “baptizes” Man’s entire life into the worship of the Church. The repetition of the feast-days every year renews the catechesis of the faithful and it gives a special meaning to the customary (Greek) wishes “and next year, also”, or, “for many more years” – wishes that refer to new opportunities for learning. The liturgical year is linked to the Church’s cycle of feast-days, whose basic structural element is festivity. There is a cycle of “mobile” feast-days with Easter at its centre, and a cycle of “immobile” feast days, with the Epiphany and Christmas at its centre. The periods of the “Triodion” and the “Pentecostarion” belong to the former cycle, having received their names from the respective liturgical books that predominate therein.
The Triodion period is a sectioned one, just as the human body is sectioned: the first four weeks can be regarded as the body’s extremes; the body itself is the Great Lenten period, and the Holy Week of Easter is the head. Hymns, readings and rituals all comprise a spiritual preparation for one’s participation in the Holy Week and the Resurrection. From Easter Day, the period of the Pentecostarion begins. Easter and Pentecost were already feast-days of the pre-Constantine order, and albeit Hebrew in origin, they now had a Christian content. Christ and His Passion are what differentiated the Christian from the Jewish Passover-Pascha, which had now become a symbol of the new life; of the divine kingdom. The coming of the Holy Spirit during the Pentecost inaugurated the new century.
The cycle of immobile feast-days was organized with the day of the Epiphany at its centre (6th January), a date that originally also commemorated the Birth of Christ. The separation of the two celebrations for historical and theological reasons was effected around the middle of the 4th century. With Christmas as basis, the other, feast-days of Christ (Circumcision, Baptism, Reception, Transfiguration) were put in place. But the Theotokos also comprises a “liturgical mystery”. The feast-days relating to the Holy Mother (Birth, Reception, Annunciation, Dormition, etc.) are all linked to the feast-days of Christ, expressing the same mystery. The celebrating of the memory of Saints is an extension of the liturgical honour bestowed on the Theotokos. What seems odd for some people however is that the Church “celebrates” by honouring the memory – that is, the Dormition – of Her children and not their birth. We Orthodox Christians do not celebrate our birthdays; we celebrate on the day of commemoration of the Saint whose name we bear. In Christian terms, a “birthday” is the day of one’s ‘dormition’, i.e., the day that one is born into eternal life. The Saints embody the “common life” and are projected as the leaders of mankind, in its course for making man real. Our nation’s association with the Saints – with the Most Holy Mother at the head – is apparent in the two-fold festivity that is performed in their memory, both inside the temple with the Holy Altar at the centre, and outside the temple, with the secular table at the centre. The book of the lives of Saints is a cherished article for the people, as it is seen as a “hoarding” of the Church’s historical memory and a guideline for the faithful. The course of the faithful is shaped, “along with all the Saints”.
The liturgical organizing of Time in its micro-temporal dimension is analyzed in the weekly cycle of services and the day-to-evening services. The weekly cycle is composed of two parts: the Saturday-Sunday cycle and the five-day cycle. Each day of the week is dedicated to the memory of a certain soteriological event or a certain Saint; Sunday is dedicated to the Resurrection of Christ; Monday to the Angels; Tuesday to Saint John the Baptist; Wednesday and Friday are respectively linked to Judas’ betrayal and Christ’s Crucifixion (which is why these are two days of fasting); on Friday, the Church also commemorates the presence of the Holy Mother by the Cross; Thursday is dedicated to the Apostles and Saint Nicholas; and Saturday is dedicated to the deceased.
The weekly cycle was organized on the basis of Sunday (Greek=Kyriakée), the first celebration –historically- to be set down by the Church. Being directly related to the Lord (Greek=Kyrios) Jesus Christ (Cor.I, 12:3), it represents a confession of faith unto Him. Being also related to the “eighth day”, it was linked to the Divine Eucharist as a permanent and immobile day for its commemoration. The Sunday “day of rest” – which was imposed by Constantine the Great in 324 A.D. – did not relate to the Sabbath, but instead portrayed itself as the transcending of the Sabbath. Sunday is “the first of the Sabbaths (=the first day of every week), the Queen and the Mistress”, we chant. The Sabbath reflects the natural life of the world, whereas Sunday represents the eschatological day of entry into the new aeon.
The day-to-evening services include the following: The 24-hour cycle begins with Vespers (see Genesis 1: “and it became evening, and it became morning….”) and its services coincide with the ancient division of Time (evening, midnight, dawn, third, sixth, ninth hours). The services are: the “Esperinos” (Vespers = of the day’s end) or “Lychnikon” (=of the lamp), the Major and Minor “Apodeipnon” (=after the evening meal); the “Mesonyktikon” (=of midnight); the “Orthros” (=of dawn) – the most extensive and theologically wealthy service – and the “Ores” (=Hours), which are the 1st, the 3rd, the 6th and the 9th, in commemoration of the major moments affecting our salvation (the Crucifixion, the Death of Christ, the descent of the Holy Spirit).
But, while all of ecclesiastic worship was indissolubly interwoven with natural Time, the Divine Liturgy remained beyond Time and its confinements. Thus, it does not belong to the cycle of day-to-evening services, nor are any of the other services regarded as a preparation for it. That is why it can be performed at any time – morning, noon or night – as the par excellence celebration and festivity of the Church.
b) The sanctification of life: The epicenter of the sanctifying function of the Church is Man. From the moment of his birth into this world and his spiritual re-birth in the Church, through to the last moment of his presence in this lifetime, ecclesiastic worship constantly provides Man with opportunities for “ecclesiasm” and continuous rebirth. The catholicity of the spiritual and everyday caring of the Church for Her faithful is evident in the liturgical book “Euchologion” (=Major Book of Prayers). Its very structure and its texts embody the objective of the Church, which is the “full” incorporation of Man in the ecclesiastic body, the struggle for victory over the devil, the demonic powers of the world and sin, and the confronting of everyday problems and needs. The wealth and the variety of benedictions and Services in the “Euchologion” is indicative of the love and the concern of Orthodoxy for the personal and the social life of the faithful; for the cycles of their life, and the more common and mundane labours.
The Church sanctifies Man from the moment of his birth, by giving Her blessing to the new mother and the newborn child, preparing the latter to be eventually received into Her bosom. Besides, the sanctification of the family begins from the Sacrament of Marriage. On the 8th day, the infant receives its name with a special liturgical act, and its personal “otherness” is thus confirmed – something that is afterwards proven by its incorporation in the ecclesiastic body. On the 40th day, the infant is “led to” the temple to be “churchified”, to begin its ecclesiastic life, which corresponds to the commencement of adult catechesis.
After this spiritual preparation, Baptism follows; this is the entry into the body of Christ, which gives Man the possibility of living the life of Christ and constantly receiving His Grace. Infant baptism, familiar since ancient Christian times, can be comprehended only in the cases of pious parents and godparents – in other words, of those with a Christian background – and cannot be imposed by any legislation. Through Baptism, the “neophyte” is inducted into a specific community – the local Church – by participating in the ethos and the way of existence of the Church. The more perfect this induction is, the more consistently will his Christian status evolve.
But the faithful is called upon to augment the gift that he received through his baptism, by orientating his life in a Christ-centered manner. Thus, after “nature” (=soul and body) has died and risen in the baptismal font, the human person is then sanctified through the sacrament of Chrismation, which functions as the personal Pentecost of the faithful, so that through his spiritual labors, he will become a “temple” of God and his life a veritable Liturgy. The sacrament of Repentance (confession) provides the opportunity for a continuous transcending of sin and the transforming of death into life.
Furthermore, the Church blesses the “paths” that the faithful voluntarily choose for their perfection: either marriage (in Christ), or monastic living. Both are “sacraments of love”, with a direct referral to Christ. Marriage, when preserved within the framework of a life in Christ, leads to the transcendence of the flesh and to one’s perfect delivery unto Christ, thenceforth coinciding with monastic ascesis. In this way, the sacrament of marriage reveals the truth of the Church without being used to serve conventional expediencies of everyday living. Wherever marriage is perceived simply as a moralistic adjustment or a “legal transaction”, the “political” marriage is selected, perhaps legalistically, but it is a marriage that is not spiritually “equivalent” to the ecclesiastic one, which is a sacrament of Grace.
Furthermore, ecclesiastic worship provides sanctifying acts for every moment of one’s life. In fact, through them, it proves that it is not a “spiritualist” (abstractly spiritual) affair, or a “religious” affair, because the sanctification it provides also constitutes a proposal for confronting the everyday problems of each person. In one of the Matins Prayers, we ask God to grant man His “terrestrial and celestial gifts”.
There are blessings even for instances in life that seem trite and insignificant, such as (for example) “for a child’s haircut”, “for when a child leaves to learn the sacred texts”, “for ill-natured children”, etc.. Other blessings refer to the intake of food, the various “vocations” and works of the faithful (e.g. travels) as well as “professions”; inter-personal relations are blessed, so that there will be justice, peace and love; God’s Grace is requested for man’s tribulations, for his illnesses, his mental health and his psychosomatic passions. An important place in the worship of the Church is given to death – the cessation of the body’s collaboration with the soul, until the moment of the “common resurrection”. The Church does not overlook this supreme existential event of life; in fact, She stands near the person from the moment that death makes its appearance. She confesses the near-death person and offers him Holy Communion; She inters his body, which has now been delivered to mortification and corruption, sending off the soul to its last journey and beseeching Christ to receive His child, who has abandoned the world with the hope for “eternal life”. The funeral service is one of the tenderest and most touching texts in ecclesiastic worship….
In parallel to the above, the church offers prayers for various moments of public life: serious circumstances and disasters, dangers, malfunctions in public life, both in the micro-society of the village or the town, as well as the macro-community of the homeland and the nation. The relative prayer material refers to national anniversaries, the structures of civil life, education, the armed forces, public health… This incomparable liturgical wealth remains broadly unknown and so we remain ignorant of all those elements that can give meaning to our lives.
c) The sanctification of material creation: Creation, both liturgically and theologically, is the broader territory provided for man’s fulfillment; it is the frame of his everyday life – especially in rural communities, where this is perceived more profoundly. Man’s association with Creation constitutes a special theme of ecclesiastic worship and it unfolds during special services that prove the ecclesiastic acknowledgement of material creation (bread), which was assumed by Christ’s human nature and is constantly transformed into the “flesh” of Christ during the Divine Eucharist.
Our liturgical act blesses and sanctifies water, wine, sustenance, living and working quarters, flora, fauna, natural phenomena (wind, thunder, rain, earthquake, etc.), for the protection, finally, and the salvation of man. During worship, the faithful offers the Creator’s gifts – in lieu of his giving thanks – so that they might be “baptized” in Divine Grace and be returned to the offerers, for their own sanctification and preservation. During the Divine Liturgy, “one could say that a march, a parade of the whole world towards the Holy Altar is taking place” (Prof. John Zizioulas, Metropolitan of Pergamon). This negates every notion of an opposition between the natural and the supernatural, since the creation which is being offered to God (bread and wine) becomes the carrier of the Uncreated (Grace) and sanctifies the participants.
The God-centeredness of existence is inspired by the theology of such texts. Through nature, man is referred to the Creator, comprehending the world as a gift of the Creator, learning to use Creation ‘eucharistically’ (as in the Divine Eucharist) and acquiring the empirical certainty that the issue is not “what does man eat”, but with what presuppositions he eats something, given that sanctified nature co-sanctifies man also. Thus, the faithful learns to become an “officiator” of Creation, in a “cosmic liturgy” that is officiated by the Saints. The Saints, with their imperishable and miracle-working relics, reveal the destination of Creation, which is its sanctification and its incorruptibility. Each faithful is invited to our worship, so that he can be wholly sanctified; so that he might be enabled to co-sanctify Creation along with him, through his association with it.
8. Worship and spiritual life
The course towards theosis (deification) is attained through the induction of one’s whole existence into the body of Christ, with a lifestyle that will allow the uninterrupted collaboration of Man with the Grace of God. The main constituent of this lifestyle is ascesis, as a permanent fight of man. This is what is meant by the words of Christ, that: “the realm of heaven is violable, and violators take it by force” (Matthew 11:12). Ascesis is a continuous course of repentance, by which the faithful recipient of the Grace of God, without which, his existence is deadened. On the contrary, with ascesis, our revolutionary nature is deadened, only to regain its God-centeredness.
However, the ascetic endeavors of the faithful do not have a moralistic character; that is, they do not aspire to improving one’s character and behavior; but to the possibility of participating in the celebration and the rejoicing of the ecclesiastic body. That is why it generates in the faithful a sense of unspoken joy, refuting every artificial (pharisaic) frowning and faked gloom, which are nothing more than a manneristic pietism. Christian ascesis is a voluntary participating in obedience to Christ and the Saints, for the mortification of our personal will and its eventual alignment with the will of Christ (Philip. 2:5).
Orthodoxy’s piety, however, is liturgical in nature. This is why ascesis is perceived as being supplementary to liturgical life. Ecclesiastic worship is festive in its ethos. Ascesis is the foretasting of joy through partaking of the Church’s festivity, but it is also a preparation of the faithful for their entry into this spiritual celebration. It is the path for one’s return to the “natural condition” (the authenticity of human existence), so that the passage to the “hyper-natural” (where Worship elevates us to) may be made possible. Besides, that which is sought in worship –according to the blessed Chrysostom – is “a sedate soul, an aroused intellect, a humble heart, a strengthened mind, a cleansed conscience”.
The spiritual progress, which the faithful attains through his personal ascesis, is “churchified” during worship; it is incorporated in the body of Christ, and from being a “personal” event, it becomes an ecclesiastic one – in other words, a social one. If individuality does not become “churchified”, it cannot be saved. Outside the body of Christ, not only can there be no salvation, but even the most perfect of virtues remains nothing more than a “woman’s dirty rag” (Isaiah 64:6), in other words, something chokingly filthy. Worship renders the faithful’s life a life “in Christ”. Ascesis provides this possibility, since the person who is governed by his passions cannot truly glorify God. In ascesis, a “cleansed heart” is the objective. (Psalm 50:12), because it is only ‘in a cleansed heart” that man can possibly see God (Matthew 5:8), thus attaining the purpose of his existence.
This is what the resurrectional hymn by Saint John the Damascene expresses: “Let us cleanse ourselves of our senses, and we shall have sight of the inapproachable light of the Resurrection: Christ Himself, ablaze…” Through the Divine Eucharist, worship leads us into theosis (deification), provided however that there is a cleanliness of heart and a transformation of our senses, from physical to spiritual ones. If worship, therefore, is the entrance to the heavenly kingdom, ascesis is the road to the kingdom. Worship defines and reveals the purpose of our existence; ascesis collaborates towards the realization of this purpose.
9. The Liturgy after the Liturgy
Ecclesiastic worship is the “Time-Space” in which the Christian ethos is shaped. During worship, the faithful rediscovers the proper meaning of a moral lifestyle, which cannot be shaped on the basis of a certain juridical relationship with God, but through the metamorphosis and the renovation of Creation and Man, in Christ. The Christian ethos is a liturgical one and it springs from one’s personal relationship with the Lord of the Church, Who offers Himself voluntarily “for the nourishment of the entire world”. This relationship, with its triple reference (Man-God-World) is realized during worship, according to the words of the Apostle Paul: “For, if you have also risen in Christ […] make dead your limbs on earth […] divesting yourselves of the old self […] and putting on the new …” (i.e.: So, if you have been resurrected along with Christ….then deaden everything earthen that is inside you…. rejecting the old person and donning the new one) (Colossians 3:1). This is the continuous “baptism” of the faithful within the new life of the mystery of faith.
In the Church’s worship, a person’s entire life is re-defined, now becoming Christ-centered. “Now everything is filled with light…” The faithful, having been flooded by this light, are invited to become a spiritual river – one that flows from the Holy Altar to irrigate the world salvifically. Ecclesiastic worship thus substantiates that which constitutes the Church’s offer in History. It does not provide any code of moral behavior or a system of moral rules; only a life and a society that can function as “yeast” that will leaven the world with its sanctifying presence, beginning from the micro-society. Participation in worship – if it is genuine – is a participation in the death of self-seeking and individualistic demands and a resurrection into the “in-Christ” reality, which is the purpose of the Church. The eschatological conscience that is inspired by Orthodox worship is oriented towards eschatological behaviors, by transcending the danger of secularization and any other compromises and configurations.
It is therefore understood that any alienation from the liturgical experience will, beyond other things, alter one’s beliefs and decompose one’s life, by transforming the ecclesiastic BEING into various anti-Christian substitutes (moralism, pietism, ritualism, etc.). Besides, we must not forget that the community ethos of Hellenism’s Orthodoxy and the free-spirited stance during the oppressive period of slavery had been shaped within Church worship: the only assembling of the population that never fell into decline. And this is a real blessing, thanks to which, by the Grace of God, in our difficult times, both our People and our Youth are once again finding the path that leads to the Church and Her worship.
At the end of the Divine Liturgy (according to its ancient ending), the Officiator would say to the laity: “Let us go forth in peace”. This was not merely a formal announcement of the ending of a “religious duty”, but a motivational expression to relay the light of divine peace into the darkness of our world. The Church and Her Worship exist for the world – for its salvation. The Liturgy of the Church prepares the exit of the faithful into the world, both for their testimony of the “Grandeurs of God”, as well as for the missionary calling for salvation in Christ. Christ’s sacrifice and His Resurrection, mysteries that are perpetually ever-present and experienced during worship, perpetually irrigate the world in a salvific manner. The faithful are those channels of Divine Grace that lead to the parched land of our societies, through which channels the “Light of Christ” can “shine on everyone” and shed its light on everything!
Page created: 23-8-2010.
Last update: 23-8-2010.
(An Introduction to the Orthodox Faith)
by Protopresbyter fr. George D. Metallinos
Professor Emeritus of the Athens University
THE IMPORTANCE OF HESYCHASM IN THE HISTORY OF ORTHODOXY
Hesychasm* constitutes the quintessence of Orthodox tradition, having related itself to everything that the term “Orthodoxy” embodies and expresses. Orthodoxy outside the Hesychastic tradition is unthinkable and nonexistent. Besides, Hesychasm itself is the “philosopher’s stone” by which one can recognize the genuine Christian image. In the Orthodox tradition, the “divine charismas” are acquired through fasting, vigils and prayer. And it should be clarified, that Hesychasm is understood first of all as the course towards theosis and the experience of theosis, and only secondly, as a (theological) recording of this method of experience. In Christianity (the authentic Christian conscience), we know that textual recordings are basically pursuant to practice and that they comprise descriptions of that practice; they do not however comprise a substitute. Saint Gregory Palamas’ “successors” are not located in academic theology; they can only be found in the continuance of his ascetic lifestyle.
«Hesychasm, as an ascetic therapeutic treatment, was at the core of Orthodoxy, even from the time of the Apostles, and it prevailed throughout the entire Roman kingdom, in the East and in the West» (Fr. John Romanides). This was the responsible verification of one of the most reliable researchers of Hesychasm and of Saint Gregory Palamas, i.e., father John Romanides. In the framework of a tradition that was spiritually uplifted by Hesychasm, it is easy to understand and to interpret the national, social and (even) political history of Romanity (Fr. John Romanides). It is precisely within this framework that one can also properly evaluate the contribution of Saint Gregory Palamas. “Being a continuation of the ancient Fathers”, of the united and indivisible patristic tradition, he “expressed –according to the venerable Geron, father Theocletos Dionysiatis- the eternal spirit of the Orthodox Church, by reviving its experiences, its practices, its teachings and its promises.» He contributed decisively in this way, towards the preservation of the Church’s overall identity.
It is –of course- a fact, that the consequences of the various ideological disputes of the 14th century, both spiritual and social, had visibly weakened the (Eastern Roman) Empire, which was already reduced in size as of the 13th century, leaving it unshielded from the expansionist dispositions of its neighbors, and mainly the Ottomans. In 1354, the Ottoman Turks seized Callipolis, planting themselves firmly on its European side. The Empire was heading towards a predetermined decline, and it did gradually end up a pitiful relic of its former self.
However, while the frequent civil uprisings, the social dissents and the enemy assaults were progressively weakening the Empire, the spiritual powers of the Nation, being perpetually re-baptized in the Hesychast patristic tradition, averted the danger of Romanity (“Byzantium”, see: http://www.romanity.org/ ) being transformed into a Frankish protectorate, at the same time preserving the inexhaustible fountain of mental prowess, stalwartness and spiritual vigor, throughout the prolonged period of slavery. And yet, even after the Latin (1204) and the Ottoman (1453) sieges, the thing affected most of all was only the political aspect of the Nation, not its spirituality. The absolute center of Romanity continued to be those who had attained theosis; they were the ones who could attain theosis «at any point in history, in any situation, whether social or political» (Fr. John Romanides).
The Saints of the period of slavery, and all the sacred relics like those of Saints Gerasimos and Dionysios -especially in the Venetian-occupied regions- are the most powerful reassurances, even according to Eugene Bulgaris, that the spiritual acme of the Nation was not extinguished during its enslavement, nor did anyone succeed in alienating it; not even in those territories that were strongly inclined in this direction, as were the Latin-occupied ones. Hesychast spirituality, with the Holy Mountain at its center, permeated the collective conscience of the Nation, and it deposited here and there the wholesome fruits of its presence, its efficacy and its power. «The Hesychast patristic tradition remained […] the most powerful force of the Nation». «The Hesychast Fathers, according to the Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, were Romans who […] with their efforts had preserved the essence of Romanity. The anti-hesychasts were strangers to Romanity». I fully agree with him, when he asserts that «the Hesychast discourse (he meant during the 14th century) and the victory of the Orthodox Tradition were blessings from God, for the oncoming enslavement of our Nation […]. That Hesychast way of life was what had sustained the Nation, by preserving it with an ethnic and orthodox conscience, and it had also brought forth the martyrs and the confessors of the faith; furthermore, it was that same Hesychast way of life that created the organized communities and associations; it preserved the inner freedom of the soul, and it gave rise to the 1821 Revolution. As verified by researchers, we know that all the heroes of the Revolution were shaped by this Orthodox Roman tradition and were not in the least driven by Western Enlightenment. In the tradition of our Nation, we had our own Enlightenment –the illumination of the Intellect (called “nous”, the `eye of the spiritual heart’) – as declared and described by Saint Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, by General Makryannis (one of the “founding fathers” of the modern Greek state, in 1821) and others.»
We have allowed the voice of the learned Hierarch to be heard, and not a professional historian’s, who nevertheless unreservedly agrees with these observations. Hesychasm, as the existential form of Orthodoxy, shaped the conscience of the Orthodox Nations and their ideology, which were both realized creatively, throughout its historical duration.
The enslaved Orthodox nations survived, thanks to the preservation of the patristic therapeutic method, which, having being preserved in its fullness in the person of the Saints, drew constantly from the collective conscience of the broader basis of the laity, through its collectively accepted (albeit sometimes inadequate) practices. The centrifugal trends continued of course, and were located mainly in the realm of intellect that was influenced by the West. This trend has been contributing towards the gradual estrangement from the Orthodox Tradition, a phenomenon that is reaching its climax in our day, with a steadily widening gap between Patricity and the boom in anti-Patricity observed in the entire spectrum of daily life (for example, the western perception of a “dual” spirituality : monastic and secular).
But it was the persistence in Hesychast tradition that also defined the stances opposite the Christian –but no longer Orthodox– West, as well as opposite ancient Hellenism, or, more specifically, opposite the unsettling phenomena observed in the monistic turn towards antiquity, in the guise of worship of the ancient Greek ideals. By comparing eastern tradition with the western one, it became apparent that the West was not only no longer unanimous with the East, but it had actually become a threat to the very historical existence of the East.
In the 14th century, the first in-depth confrontation between East and West took place, in the field of ecclesiastic-theological tradition. For the first time, the opportunity had presented itself in the East to document the radical differentiation and the lack of coincidence between East and West, in the person of an authentic “western” theologian; a bearer of Augustinian theological tradition and method.
It became evident that in the West, another kind of Christianity had formed, hypostatized as a civilization at the antipodes of the Roman East. The mentality embraced by Barlaam later reached its apex with the English historian, Gibbon (1737-1794), who expressed in a classical manner the West’s perception of the Roman East, and who, together with the rationalist ecclesiastic historian Mosheim (18th century), prepared Adamantios Korais (: one of the “founding fathers” of the modern Greek state, at 1821 ) accordingly, as the patriarch of “Westernizers”.
The inner light of the Hesychasts was, in Gibbon’s opinion, “the product of a capriciousness that is in bad taste; it is the product of an empty stomach and a vacant brain”. To him, Hesychasm was the culmination of “the religious nonsense of the Greeks”. These prejudices, embedded in the European collective conscience through their education, have from that time onwards been shaping the Western stance towards the Orthodox East -and especially towards Hellenism- even up to this day. Consequently, the “astonishment” over the stance of western Leaderships towards Greece and the Balkan countries in general is –among other things- a display of their ignorance of history.
On the other hand, the “Hellenicity” that was embodied in the scholastics of “Byzantium” (=Romanity) such as Nikeforos Gregoras who proclaimed unreservedly that he was a “Hellene”, diametrically differentiated itself from the “Hellenicity” which had been assimilated by the Patristic lifestyle, and it comprised the natural continuation of Hellenic antiquity, except that it was only the Patristic synthesis of “Hellenicity”-Christianity that led to the cultural reality of Romanity.
Hesychasm however had also played an important, unifying role during the culturally disturbed and disintegrated (due to their adventures) Balkans; The Hesychasts moved freely throughout the Orthodox East, from land to land, transcending whichever ethnic differences.
Mention was made by a major theologian, Fr. Halkin, of an “Hesychasm International”; nowadays, when one makes mention of an “Orthodox arc” in the sense of a rampart against Islam, one should not omit to keep Hesychast spirituality in mind, which is the only element that can ensure a genuine unity within the boundaries of the supra-national and hyper-racial Roman unanimity. Our inter-Balkan unity is founded in just that Hesychast tradition.
The unity of our Nation, in its Balkan diffraction, has been threatened, but it had also been broken up at times, by the party of anti-hesychasts, called “Latin-Hellenes” (according to Saint Gregory Palamas) and “Graeco-Latins” (according to Saint Mark of Ephesus), who had aligned themselves with Franko-Latin metaphysics and had continued the spiritual dualism of the “Byzantine” (Eastern Roman) intellect that was embodied programmatically by Psellos and Italos. To the “Westernizing” anti-hesychasts, the fact that the East had no scholastic theology was looked upon as a form of decadence, so they made sure that it was introduced into the life and the education of our Nation.
The abandoning of Hesychasm, and the turn towards metaphysical theologizing gradually altered the identity of the Orthodox nations, which, after the founding of the Hellenic State, may have been liberated from “Turkish” slavery, but were not freed of “Frankish” slavery. According to father Romanides, “with the expulsion of the Hesychasts from Neo-Hellenic ideology, and with the prevalence of Koraism, catharsis was replaced by ethics, and enlightenment was replaced by catechesis. Thus, the Hesychast spiritual Fathers were replaced by moralizing organizers of catechist schools, who burdened the young with a system of morals that only a hypocrite can give the impression that it is being implemented. As a result, even the bios of the Saints ended up mostly as a kind of mythology» (Fr. John Romanides). Hesychasm was displaced by metaphysical pondering and dogmatism in the field of theologizing, but also by pietism, in place of lay religiousness. Thus, monasteries began to lose their true therapeutic calling, now being substituted by secular missionary formations and an attempt to further transform them, into activity centers destined for public benefit services.
The publishing of the works of Saint Gregory Palamas under the supervision of a memorable professor, the late Mr. Panagiotis Christou, but also the profoundly traditional approach towards Hesychasm by monks of the Holy Mountain (such as the reverend father Theocletos Dionysiates) as well as by theologians (with father John Romanides at the lead), all contributed towards the re-discovery of the Hesychast tradition; in other words, our patristic foundations.
«Today, more than ever before, we are coming to realize the true worth of the Roman-Hesychast tradition». Contemporary man is seeking to be cured of his psychological and existential problems. The presence however of an “ideologicalized” or “religionized” Orthodoxy rather complicates these problems instead of solving them, thus rendering Orthodoxy a seemingly repulsive and useless thing. The reverend Metropolitan of Nafpaktos and myself saw this for ourselves recently, in the United States. Our Hesychast tradition however, can most assuredly cure “the core of man’s existence”.
In conclusion therefore, and in concurrence with His Eminence the Metropolitan of Nafpaktos: «Hesychasm, as expressed by Saint Gregory Palamas and preserved by the Orthodox Church as “the apple of Her eye”, is truly the life of the contemporary world. » (Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos) and the only means of salvation, or in other words, theosis.
* Hesychasm: The Orthodox method of spiritual living and salvation.
Page created: 23-8-2010.
Last update: 23-8-2010.
(An Introduction to the Orthodox Faith)
by Protopresbyter fr. George D. Metallinos
Professor Emeritus of the Athens University
IN PRAYER AND FASTING – (Worship and Ascesis as the coordinates of Orthodox spiritual living)
1. Spiritual life and ecclesiastic theology
The composition of the Church’s life – in its local and its universal manifestation – has a unique and steadfast objective: to be the members’ path towards theosis (deification); the “thorough” (1 Thess. 5:23) incorporation of the members in the “Body of Christ”, which constitutes Christianity’s absolute purpose and objective. A chance deviation from this objective will automatically signify an altering of the Church (Her human part) and Her lapsing into a secular grouping (committee, society, and the like) and a consequent forfeiting of Her character. Besides, the most essential distortion of Christianity, which radically corrupts its very essence, is to view it as a “Christian” ideology or a system of “truths” (God does not reveal fleshless “truths”-ideas, but reveals Himself as the Self-Truth and the incarnate All-Truth.) that the believer is called upon to accept, in order to shape his life accordingly. If this were the case, one would “learn” Christianity, the way one learns a school lesson. But Christianity is not simply something to be “learnt”; more than anything, it is something that should be “felt”. Christianity is offered as life – as an incorporation into a “new”, “revealed-in-Christ” way of life; the way of life that was introduced into History by the Incarnate Logos of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. The believer is called upon to reach – through a specific course – that point, where he will apply to himself the confession of Apostle Paul: “no longer do I live, for Christ lives within me”. (Galatians 2:20). It is the “morphing” of Christ inside the believer (“so that Christ be formed within you” – Galatians 4:19). Man should become a Christ-divine man through Grace.
This course, which is equivalent to a therapeutic procedure of human existence (“Orthodox Psychotherapy”, by Reverend Hierotheos of Nafpaktos), is precisely what is known as “spiritual life” or “life in the Holy Spirit”. This means participation in the Uncreated Grace offered by the Holy Spirit, which is established within the believer as “the kingdom of the heavens” (heavenly kingdom), and is manifested as a course in the Holy Spirit. Man’s destination is to live inside the light of the Holy Trinity (for him to be a true human and fellow human), loving God and his fellow-man with sincerity, within the bounds of piety and loving selflessness, in accordance with the Apostle’s word: “let us live soberly, and righteously and piously in the present aeon”. (Titus 2:12)
Thus, the word “spiritual” in the linguistic code of the Orthodox Church does not imply the intellectually cultivated person; the intellectual or the wise person in the secular sense, but the wise man according to God (James 3:17) – the one who has become worthy of being a temple of the Holy Spirit, a “Spirit-bearer” (cf. I Corinthians 2:11-16). A truly “spiritual” person is the “theumen” (=the deified one); the Saint. An Orthodox temple is adorned with “hagiography”; it is filled with portrayed figures of Saints, so that there will be a permanent reminder that the objective of every believer is to walk the same path as the Saints, and that the Church is a permanent “workshop for sanctity”. As odd as this may sound nowadays, it signifies: a workshop for producing (creating) Saints and a “spiritual infirmary” (St. John the Chrysostom), a place of spiritual healing. These terms, which reveal the Church’s spiritually-dominated realism, are based on Her historicity – in other words, in Her persistence in the “world” (She is “in the world”, but not “of the world”: John 17:14) – “for the salvation of which” She exists in History.
Ecclesiastic theology and theologizing are the content and the expression of spiritual living. Through theology are expressed the experience of the Holy Spirit’s enlightenment and theosis. Ecclesiastic theology presupposes experience in the Holy Spirit. To speak of God presupposes a knowledge of God (Constantine Papapetros: “The Revelation of God and the Knowledge of Him” and “The essence of theology”). However, the knowledge of God can never be the fruit of contemplative, intellectual, or metaphysical study; only the fruit of a “communion of the Holy Spirit” (Divine Liturgy). According to Saint Gregory the Theologian, theologizing (=‘philosophizing about God”) presupposes a communion with God, which is why it pertains to “those who have examined themselves and have passed on to “theory” (i.e., in “theopty” – the sighting of God), prior to which, they have become cleansed in body and soul, or, have been cleansed to some extent” (Speech 27, 3). It is communion with God that renders a man a theologian; a Saint is a theologian. Theology originating from a “seeing” of God is stated in the Holy Bible as “prophecy”. A prophet (Greek, pro-phetes = he who utters things in the presence of), as the mouthpiece of God towards the people, speaks as one who has “seen” God, which is why he functions as a theologian (Greek, theo-logian = one who speaks of God. On the prerequisites of theologizing, see fr. John Romanides’ “Dogmatics and Symbolic Theology of the Orthodox Catholic Church” and “Roman or Romioi Fathers of the Church”.)
Consequently, spiritual life constitutes the essence of ecclesiasticity, in the form of “Christianity”. It is precisely why the purpose of the Church’s presence in the world is the assumption and the incorporation of mankind overall into the community of God, the “churchification” of the entire world. Because Man’s communion with God – through His Uncreated Grace – constitutes the (eternal) destination of human existence and the only possibility for realizing a true communion of selfless love between people. Inside the Church, as a communion in Christ, Christ’s words are realized: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I, in their midst.” (Matthew, 18:20).
2. The main constituents of spiritual life
These are: faith, ascesis and worship (fr. G.D.Metallinos’ “The theological witness of Ecclesiastic Worship”). Theology expresses the “what” of faith, as a self-revelation of Divine Love and as a daily glorification and confession of the Church as the Body of Christ. Ascesis and Worship constitute the “how” of life in Christ, as fidelity towards the divine calling and the conditions for its realization.
“Salvation in Christ is to restore man back on the path towards perfection and immortality, through communion with the Holy Spirit.” (fr.John S. Romanides, “The Cardinal Sin”) Upon attaining the “communion of the Holy Spirit”, man participates in God’s way of existence and is fulfilled as a “person”, thereafter living the selflessness of the Triadic personal communion. This course is achieved through the incorporation of the entire human existence into the Body of Christ, by rendering it “in Christ”, so that man can become real and be enabled to know God (1 John 5:20), to be united with Him, and himself be deified.
This way of life and existence within the Body of Christ is called “ascesis” (exercise), because that is what the Lord required, when saying: “the kingdom of heaven is violable, and only violators will seize it.” (Matthew 11:12), and it is furthermore confirmed by Saint Paul’s proclamation: “I tame my body and subjugate it, lest, when preaching to others, I prove myself to be a phony.” (1 Corinthians 9:27). Ascesis is the basic constituent of life in Christ and it constitutes a permanent path to repentance, which renders man receptive of Divine Grace. Since man’s objective is to receive the Holy Spirit (“receive ye the Holy Spirit” – John 20:22), it is imperative for man to “open up” to Grace. Through ascesis, nature’s rebelliousness is deadened, so that its authenticity can be restored. The sanctification of human nature was realized, “once and for all”, with Christ’s redemptive work and His assumption of our nature. With ascesis, the specific human person is deified and human nature is prepared for its union to the Uncreated – to Grace.
Ascesis, as a struggle by man as a whole, is – for the Church – the method (Greek, meth-odos = a path in parallel) required for theological knowledge. However, it must be clarified that the ascetic effort of the faithful is not of a moral nature; in other words, it does not aspire to a simple improvement of one’s character and his behaviors, but to a personal participation in the festivity and the joy of the Church, in the “celebration of the firstborn” (Hebr. 12:22). This is why it generates in the believer a feeling of an unspeakable joy – one that negates every (pharisaic) artificial deliberation and pretended dejection, which are nothing more than a feigned devoutness. Christian ascesis is to voluntarily participate in an obedience in Christ and His Saints; to deaden one’s personal will and to eventually identify with the will of Christ (Philippians 2:5) but beyond every legalistic conventionalism and utilitarian purpose: only an awareness of Christianity’s genuineness and the decision to surrender to it. Thus, ascesis leads to a permanent tasting of the divine-human reality, as a “theocentricity” (God-centeredness) and communion with God.
But the piety and the “spirituality” of Orthodoxy are liturgical. Albeit Orthodox life is not confined to the limits of a (formal) worship (D.S.Balanos “Is the Orthodox Greek Church only a community of worship?”)., worship does comprise the heart and the essence of its life. As observed by fr. George Florovsky, “Christianity is a liturgical religion. The Church is, above all, a worshipping community. Worship comes first, (dogmatic) teaching and discipline (ecclesiastic order) follow.” (“Orthodox Worship” in the volume: Themes of Orthodox Theology, p.159.) This means that it is in the “liturgical congregating” of the Church that “the source of life, its very center, are located; it is from here that the new teaching, its sanctifying grace and its manner of administration are found”.
The Church is realized as a worshipping community, since, throughout its lifetime, in its every detail, it is continuously transformed into a worship of God.The participation of the faithful in the ecclesiastic body’s worship reveals its desire “to be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23). During worship, the faithful feels the way a baby feels in its mother’s arms: in his natural space. This is why he chants: “I delighted with those who said to me, ‘we are heading to the house of the Lord’.” (Psalms 122:1)
In any expression of ecclesiastic worship, a twofold movement takes place: man’s movement towards God for the glorification of God, and God’s movement towards man for the sanctification of man. There is no room here of course for the scholastic question of “who makes the first move”, given that Divine Love is in a perpetual movement towards the world, “for He first loved us” (1 John 4:10). Here, again, the words of the Chrysostom apply, that: “the most part – in fact almost everything – is God’s; to us, He has left but a small part”. (Fr. Basil Gontidakis, “Eisodikon. Elements of liturgical experiencing of the mystery of unity within the Orthodox Church”) Ecclesiastic worship is a secret dialogue, between the Creator and His creature; it is a mutual communion between them both.
Its result is an “actual” encounter of God and man, as it takes place “in the true God” (1 John 5:20). And “sacrifice of praise” (Heb. 13:15) to God, an offer of the whole existence to its source according to the liturgical calling: “let us appose ourselves, and each other, and our entire life unto Christ our God”. Thus, worship becomes “the fruit of the lips, giving thanks to His name” (Hebr. 13:14).
Moreover, the theological character of worship is also explicit; not only because the theological (Scriptural and Patristic) word becomes the word of worship, offered to the congregation.
Ecclesiastic worship is a school for reverence, which shapes the ecclesiastic mind (Phil. 2:5), the conscience of the ecclesiastic body. But, apart from that, the worship of the Church itself is a revelation of the triple mystery of life: the mystery of God, the mystery of Man and the mystery of Creation, as well as the relations between them simultaneously; it is a revelation of Man as a member of a human society (Gen. 2:18). That is why it is introduced in the God-given communion, which is defined by the following Eucharist coordinates: “let us lift up our hearts” and “let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”. In Orthodox worship the believer experiences the mystery of the last time (1 Peter 1:5 that has broken into the world with the Incarnation of the Son of God and his victory on devil, sin, death. It is about the new mystery of “new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1), where “there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away” (Rev.21:4). In our worship, our entire existence is placed under Christ’s authority (Matth. 28;18), because “we appose all earthy cares, so that we may receive the King of all” (Divine Liturgy), and we glorify the Triadic God, the way the angelic forces glorify him in Heaven (Isaiah 6:1 ff).
It is in this spirit that we can comprehend how asceticism and liturgical life are complementary to each other. Ecclesiastic worship is festive in its nature. Every day is a celebration for the Church – a festivity – because the commemoration of Saints confirms Christ’s victory over the world (John 16:33). Asceticism, furthermore, as a foretaste of the joy of this festivity, induces progress in the entry of the faithful to this festivity of the Church – to its spiritual celebration. It is the preparation for the participation of the whole man in the “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17), which is revealed in worship. It is the path of return to the “per nature” state (κατά φύσιν), a basic prerequisite for the course and the ascent to the “hyper-natural”, to the “hyper-cosmic” state of worship. As indicated by the blessed Chrysostom, “what is sought after here (in worship) is a sedate soul, an alert mind, a solemn heart, a robust mentality, a cleansed conscience; if, having all these, you join God’s chorus, you will be able to stand next to David himself.”
Ascesis, together with the “incessant prayer” (1 Thess. 5:17), humility, impassiveness, fasting, and continuous participation in the act of worship, seeks to transform life into “a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God” (Rom. 12:1); and this, so that life can finally rediscover its original beauty and genuineness and its true meaning. The ascesis of monks, primarily, finds a spiritual oasis in worship, which relaxes their harsh ascetic praxis. Furthermore, that which the faithful becomes charismatically through his ascesis – and mainly with the Divine Eucharist – becomes “churchified”; he becomes incorporated in the Body of Christ, the Church, and the “individual” event becomes a “communal” one – in other words, ecclesiastic. Because only then does it acquire a significance and is sanctified – when “individual” becomes “communal”. Outside Christ’s Body not only is there no salvation, but even the most perfect virtue is “like a woman’s dirty rag” (Is. 64:6).
Worship renders the believer’s entire life into an “in-Christ” life. Ascesis provides the potential to realize that aim, given that the unclean person is hindered by his passions and cannot glorify God properly. Let us remember the hymn of Easter “make us, the devout, glorify You with a cleansed heart”. The “cleansed heart” is the aim in Christian ascesis (cf Psalm 50:12 – “a cleansed heart build within me, o Lord……”). Only with a “cleansed heart” can man see God (Matth. 5:8); that is, to achieve the objective of his ecclesiastical existence. This is precisely what the words of the blessed John of Damascus express in his Paschal canon: “Let us be cleansed of our senses, and we shall see the inaccessible Light of the resurrection of Christ shining brightly.” (Ode a, Troparion 2)
Worship leads to theosis (deification), but only when there is a cleanliness of the heart and of the senses (= the inner prerequisite for worship) (Fr. G.D. Metallinos, as above, p.274), which is, of course, the fruit of Man’s unity with the same source of Man’s sanctification as well as ascetic life and worship: the Holy Trinity’s Grace. Moreover, God Himself, Who provided worship as a potential for sanctification, also appointed ascesis as a perpetual opening for mankind to sanctifying Grace. Consequently, if worship is the entry into the heavenly Kingdom, then ascesis is the way towards this Kingdom. Worship determines and reveals the purpose of our existence; ascesis helps to achieve this purpose.
With ascesis, moreover, as a Christian’s permanent way of life, his entire life is transformed into worship of God “in truth” (John 4:22), because the practicing Christian is wholly transformed into a “temple of God”, in which is officiated the mystery of salvation. But, just as those who prayed with the heart in the Church of Corinth (1 Cor.14), albeit possessing the “incessant prayer” (1 Thess. 5:17) of the Holy Spirit in their heart, they also participated in the congregation of the entire body, thus the one who is perfected in ascesis also participates in the congregation and worship of the body and “churchifies” his charismas. Without one’s communion, on the other hand, with his brothers in Christ, communion with Christ is rendered impossible (1 John 4:20).
Thus, what matters is the fact that ascesis does not function only as a preparatory factor for the believer for his participation in worship, but it also contributes towards the believer’s retaining the Grace that he receives when exiting the temple, and thereafter towards his relationship with God. This is also expounded by Saint Nicholas Kavasilas in a special chapter titled: “what the initiate who has safeguarded the grace derived from the sacraments becomes, through his willingness.” (“On Life in Christ”, Logos 7, PG 150, 625)
Ascesis, finally, contributes towards the projection and the extension of worship into one’s entire life, which is thus transformed into an incessant worship, as a “liturgy after the liturgy”.
3. Monasticism as a liturgical practice
Ecclesiastic monasticism preserves the link between ascesis and worship, by saving the spiritual props of God’s people in their spiritual course. A monk’s life is a genuine study of repentance (“στηλογραφών την ζωήν της μετανοίας”) (Canon 43, 6th Ecumenical Council). Given that repentance is the actual revolution that was introduced “in Christ” to the world, for the perpetual renovation of the world, monasticism preserves Christianity as a permanent (spiritual) revolution within the world, while in parallel it prolongs the spirituality of the first centuries, safeguarding the Church from the danger of secularization by acting as an inhibition for its propagation. Monasticism, in its absolute consistency in the struggle for deification, expresses in every era the “surplus” of Christian ascesis, the path of “excess” (1 Cor. 12:31), which becomes a rule in spiritual life. That is why it was called “the superior way”, “the jewel of the Church” – because, even though all Christians have been invited to “forcefully” receive the Grace of God, monks follow the Lord’s commandment more faithfully, through their more consistent and precise ascesis.
Consequently, all faithful strive for the same objective. Monks, however, fight with a broader spectrum of potentials. Their way is the experiencing of “End Times” (1 John 2:18) – that incessant alertness in expectation of “the coming Lord”. That is why monasticism is the most genuine form of Christian life and the “light” for the strugglers of the world. The incorporation of worship in the spiritual struggle of monks, albeit considered different to the initial view of worship by the Church, turned out to be the greatest blessing for the ecclesiastic body, for it is through monasticism that the link between worship and the “enthusiastic” element were continued, given that monasticism is the historical continuity of Christian martyrdom, in the form of “the martyrdom of conscience”. (Andr. Fytrakis, “Martyrdom and Monastic Living” and Fr. G.D.Metallinos, “The Saint and the Martyr as emulators of the passions of the Lord”)
Already, the apostolic community of Jerusalem presents itself par excellence as a worshipping one. The prayer of the faithful is addressed to God “with one mouth and one heart” (Rom.15:6, 1 Peter 4:1, Revel. 15:4, etc). Monks were to remain faithful to this same tradition of the ancient Church, as the continuers of the “enthusiastic trends” of the ancient Church. Their life was to be shaped as a life of worship, and they themselves would circulate as “corporeal angels” and “liturgical spirits”. A monk, moreover, is not merely (passively) nourished during worship; he actually becomes its communicant and officiator, thus participating in the way of existence of the Church as a body of Christ. With Saint Basil the Great as organizer, the monastic coenobium comprises a miniature of the Church as “a monastic parish”, where everyday life is expressed as a liturgical glorification. Through the coenobium, ecclesiastic worship develops its potential in the field of ascesis. (On the link between monasticism and worship, see the “Ascetic Works” of Saint Basil the Great, PG 31, 520-1428). At the geographical center of the monastic coenobium there is always the “Catholicon” or “Kyriakon”, the central temple for the liturgical congregation of the entire Monastery.
With the appearance of organized ascesis from the 4th century, worship was directly linked to ascesis. (Fr. G.D.Metallinos, “The Theological Witness…….” As above, p. 66) Monks incorporated genuflexion (kneeling) in their worship, borrowed from the imperial custom (of adoration) as an expression of their contrition, their self-accusation and their subjugation to God. Worship thus took on an ascetic character, as a form of perpetual repentance. This spirit is apparent in the words of Abba Pambo, which simultaneously reveal the differentiation from the form of worship by the Christians of the world: “For, monks did not depart to come to this desert, to stand before God and be absent-minded and sing songs and produce (musical) sounds and shake their arms and shift their feet about, but are obliged with much fear and terror, with tears and sighs, to offer their prayers to God with respect and in a solemn and moderate voice.” (W.Christ – W.Paranikas. Anthologia Graeca carminum Christianorum, Lipsiae 1871, XXIX). This text clearly expresses the spirit of monastic ascesis. Even though in later centuries monasticism was to acquire a worship far more embellished than that of the parishes of the world, thus becoming the chief factor of ecclesiastic worship’s development, that spirit will never be lost, which is linked to the entire spiritual elation preserved within it. Monasticism succeeds in rendering life an organic continuation of worship, precisely through ascesis.
A monk’s incorporation in prayer also demands increased participation in worship. A monk is realized during worship. That is why he desires to live in communion with God, like an infant that seeks the maternal embrace. A monk’s participation in worship maintains him in a God-centered communion, but also in communion with his brothers. For the monk, abstaining from worship is a withdrawal from Christ and a severing from the maternal body of Church. It is not, therefore, illogical for hermits-ascetics of every period to receive Holy Communion through monks living in a convent, in order to be able to receive Holy Communion every day, thus participating simultaneously in the ecclesiastic community.
Absolute ascesis, alienated from the worshipping community, cannot be considered ecclesiastically. Saint Basil the Great, major organizer of monasticism in the Church, prioritizes the liturgical praxis in his ascetic works, stressing that “prayers that are not recited in common, lose much of their power” (PG 32, 493B).
This praxis is strictly upheld in the Holy Mountain in our day, where the whole of Orthodoxy is represented. Within one ecclesiastic year, about 50 night-vigil services are held. In certain stricter coenobiums, vigils are held on every Saturday of the two, more extensive fasting periods (Christmas and Easter). A contemporary, well-known monk of the Holy Mountain (Fr. George Kapsanis) provides on this matter an important personal testimony:
“In the worship of the Church a monk surrenders himself with love to God and God surrenders Himself to him. A monk spends many of his hours every day inside the temple, worshipping the beloved Lord. To him, participation in worship is not “compulsory”, but a necessity of his soul, which thirsts for God. In the monasteries of the Holy Mountain, the Divine Liturgy is performed daily and the monks are not in a hurry for the service to finish, regardless how many hours its duration is, because they have nothing better to do than be in communion with the Saviour, the Mother of the Saviour and the friends of the Saviour […] Thus, worship is joy and celebration, the springtime of the soul and a foretasting of Paradise […] The priority that Monasticism gives to the worship of God reminds the Church and the world that if the Divine Liturgy and worship do not become once again the center of our life, our world has no possibility to be united and transformed; to transcend division, imbalance, the void and death, despite the sincere humanitarian systems and improvement programs of the world. Monasticism furthermore reminds us that the Divine Liturgy and worship are not merely “something” in our life, but are the center, the source of renovation and sanctification of all the aspects of our life” («Ευαγγελικός Μοναχισμός» – Evangelical Monasticism, in the periodical “Hossios Gregorios”, 1976, p.68, 70.) This passage is an important testimony on the link between ascesis and worship, as these have been instituted in Orthodoxy throughout the centuries.
However, ascesis has equally left its mark on ecclesiastic worship. Not only the forms but the content, the ideas and the themes of ecclesiastical worship also bear a vivid ascetic character. We will limit ourselves to mention only certain more characteristic examples:
a) The absolute prevalence of the monastic liturgical praxis in the (secular) “world” also, after the end of the Iconoclast period.
b) The notions of “following” Christ; of passion for the sake of Christ; of self-crucifixion – all purely ascetic themes – prevail predominantly in ecclesiastic hymnography.
c) Many feast-days and services are dedicated to ascetics -both men and women- who are presented as models of Orthodox spirituality (Most characteristic instances are the projection of the blessed personages of Saint Maria the Egyptian and Saint John of the Ladder. For the actual verification, see J.Tyciak, “Die Liturgie als Quelle oestlicher Froemmigkeit (Ecclesia Orans, 20) Freiburg 1937.).
d) The ascetic ideal prevails in the weekly liturgical praxis: Tuesday is dedicated to the Theotokos and John the Baptist – summits of ascetic life and guides for those striving in their ascetic labours. Virginity and continence are thus honored, liturgically, in the persons of the Theotokos and the Forerunner.
e) One could add here the reinstatement of the Iconostasis, the long periods of fasting, as well as the attire of the clergy, all of which are the fruits of a lengthy, ascetic-monastic tradition. Even the custom of the Orthodox to participate standing during worship, is ascribed to the influence of the monastic polity (the ascetic stance towards the body and the emulating of the praxis of the Angels during celestial worship, where they worship God standing). (John Foundoulis, “The spirit of divine worship” in “Liturgical Matters – A”, p. 21.)
The inter-embracing of worship and ascesis in the life of the Church is what incarnates the spirit of Orthodoxy, which is the “in pure heart” approach to the Kingdom of Grace. Particularly the participation in the Sacrament of Sacraments, the Divine Eucharist, according to the admission of the patristic conscience, demands the awareness of the faithful and their psychosomatic cleanness (2 Cor. 7:1). Worship (Eucharist) and a “clean life” – in the ascetic sense of the term, not the moralistic one – go together.
4. Monasticism and Theology
The preservation by Monasticism of the authentic link between asceticism and worship is its “power supply” for the development of its perennial potential in expressing ecclesiastic Theology. It is not coincidental that all the true Theologians of the Church (the Fathers) originate from the realm of ascesis and in fact, from its organized version – Monasticism – which is the natural continuity of the Church’s life-tradition. Monasticism preserves in its authentic dimensions the arms of theologizing, and on its wings its spiritual ascents. Consequently, from within the perspective of ecclesiastic ascesis and worship, Monasticism’s intrinsic association to theological Knowledge and its theologizing regarding the ecclesiastic body becomes apparent. That is also the reason why the author by conviction regards the sphere of academic Theology (Universities) merely as a potential to approach and analyze the impressions of the testimonies recorded during the historical course of the Church, but as a prerequisite of ecclesiastic (i.e. primary) theologizing; in other words, as a revelation of divine knowledge. This can be attained, only in the truly Theological School of the Church, in the realm of monastic experience, as established in chapters 12-14 of the 1st Epistle to Corinthians, where mention is made of “spiritual things” (charismas). Only those who are permanent students of this God-taught school of piety – as are the monks – are proven “from above” to be theologians of the Church. (Fr. G.D.Metallinos, “Theological education and ecclesiastic regime”, from “Ecclesia” 1993. p.127).