Last week, Fr. Deacon Pawel shared at our weekly clergy meeting the story of a Church that was celebrating its 105th anniversary. At the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy the priest announced that this was the last liturgy in that Church, the parish would be closed due to lack of membership. Over 100 years ago the founders of the Church walked through the doors of the Church he said, but later he reminded them, “you closed those doors behind you with other people locked out.”
Now they faced the reality that the Church had just a few members left. It is part of human nature to simply take care of one’s own, to talk to our friends, to reach out to those with whom we feel more comfortable or attracted to. But a Church is a community and a specific type of community. The Church is the Body of Christ on Earth and it includes all, it excludes none. In fact if there is a preference it is for those whom the world considers unattractive and uninteresting, yet even in our own parish here in Toronto, I’m reminded how we find people excluded, sitting by themselves often Sunday after Sunday ignored.
Recently, guests told me that this is what struck them about our parish, groups that are clearly comfortable with each other but also people who clearly do not belong anywhere. If the Agape meal is the liturgy after the Liturgy, if it is the experience among us that because we have received the Heavenly Food all is changed, then the Agape meal needs to reflect this change even in our social relationships.
We’re very careful not to break the fast with food but are we as careful to live these new relationships in Christ where the least among us is loved, welcomed or at least included in our conversation?
I’ve just recently been reminded how Baba who has recently gone to be with the Lord, how she would draw people in, literally call them to be part of our parish. Without her outreach some of these people would have slipped away and been lost to themselves and the Church.
Asceticism is a struggle to love, to live in a way that is reflective of what we have become, of what we have received in Communion. It begins right at the dismissal when the priest says “Let us go forth in peace…” and as we set the tables for the Agape meal. The meal of Love.
I remember a few years ago being at an Agape in France, everyone around us broke the fast in groups, Wine, Sausages, Cheeses were shared. Only our group that was made up of visibly poor people ate old stale bread, boiled potatoes and eggs that we brought. No one talked to us, no one offered us any food. The singing at the divine liturgy was amazing. The liturgical discussions that followed the liturgy were truly out of this world, the service was deeply theological, but I will never forget the coldness that followed.
It is natural for relationships to be erotic. I like you, You like me, that’s the kind of thing. But the meal after the liturgy is intentionally called the Agape meal because that is where we are challenged to live what we have experienced in the Liturgy. The real test for any Orthodox parish including our own is how we embrace the least among us. This Lent, let us be Zealous in the Asceticism of the Open Door, as we are in keeping the fasting rules at each Agape.