Worship and You:
What is holy? I do not mean simply what is holiness—although that topic is deep enough—but rather, who and what in the world around us is holy? We certainly think of the saints whose icons hang around us, reminding us of their profoundly holy lives. We might also think of church property as ”holy ground”—the Theotokos said this about Mt. Athos. But have you ever thought of yourself as holy? In the Divine Liturgy we learn that we are, and we learn far more as well.
After reciting the Lord’s Prayer the priest and people again wish each other peace, and the priest then tells the people to bow our heads to the Lord; we respond, “To Thee, O Lord.” While this is certainly a gesture of our submission to God—St. Nicholas Cabasilas says we bow our heads both because we are creatures standing before our Creator, and because Christ’s sacrifice both purchased us and resulted in our adoption—it is also an opportunity for us to be blessed. The priest holds his hand out over the people in a gesture of blessing and, thanking God for creating us, asks that God will bless “all of us for good, according to the individual need of each.” It is appropriate that this follows the Lord’s Prayer: after asking God both that His will be done and that He provide for us, we then receive a blessing for our travel away from the church, as well as for healing any sickness we may experience.
The priest asks God to sanctify and cleanse him as he prepares for Holy Communion, and then says something utterly amazing: “The Holy things for the holy!” The “Holy things” are the Body and Blood of Christ, but who are the holy people to whom these are given? We who receive Christ’s Body and Blood are holy! St. Germanus of Constantinople says (quoting St. Maximus the Confessor) that the Holy Eucharist “makes those who worthily participate similar to the original good by grace, making them in no way deficient, inasmuch as it is accessible and possible for men, so that they too may be able to be and to be called gods by adoption through grace, because the whole of God is theirs, and nothing in them is devoid of His presence.”
At the same time, however, we must remember two things. First, not just anyone is truly holy; as the Didache says, “If any one is holy, let him come; if any one is not holy, let him repent.” Our lives should be the fulfillment of the moment when we bowed heads to God—if we do not live in obedience to God’s will, then we are not holy (see more about this below in “Carry It Into Your Life”). Directly related to this is the fact that only “One is Holy. One is the Lord Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen;” only Christ is truly and fully holy, and we can only be holy by remaining in communion with Him.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem sums up the situation like this: “Holy are the gifts presented, having received the visitation of the Holy Spirit; holy are you also, having been deemed worthy of the Holy Spirit; the holy things therefore correspond to the holy persons. Then you say, ‘One is Holy, One is the Lord, Jesus Christ.’ For One is truly holy, by nature holy; we too are holy, but not by nature, only by participation, and discipline, and prayer.”
We’ve now reached the pinnacle of the Divine Liturgy; we eagerly anticipate receiving our Lord in Holy Communion, and burst forth in a joyful hymn of praise (taken from Psalm 148:1 (OSB)). Traditionally, before the clergy commune the priest makes a powerful statement of faith—in many churches today the people also make this statement (in some churches, doing so after proclaiming Psalm 117:26 (OSB)—see below). Just as we did when reciting the Nicene Creed, we again use the singular “I believe” in this statement: before receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord, each of us must personally acknowledge and proclaim our reliance upon Him.
St. Symeon the New Theologian gives us this moving summary of this prayer, “How can I, the unworthy one, enter the radiance of the saints…But, O Lord, purify the stains of my soul and save me, for You are the Lover of mankind. Master, Lover of mankind, Lord Jesus Christ my God, may these holy things not be for my condemnation, for I am unworthy. May they be for me a cleansing, sanctification of both soul and body and for assurance of the life and kingdom to come: for it is good for me to cling to God and to place my hope of salvation in the Lord.”
The deacon or priest emphasizes the importance of our faith in Christ when he says, “In the fear of God, and with faith, draw near!” We once again are called to fear God (remember St. Maximus the Confessor’s words on the fear of God in the last episode), and told that we can only receive Holy Communion when we do so faithfully. We respond with another powerful statement of faith, first stating the words of Psalm 117:26 ((OSB), also cried by the crowd as Christ entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday), and celebrate that God has revealed Himself to us.
There is unfortunately not space to discuss Holy Communion in any detail; we can only agree with St. Nicholas that the Holy Eucharist “leads to the very summit of good things. Here also is the final goal of every human endeavor. For in it we obtain God Himself, and God is united with us in the most perfect union, for what attachment can be more complete than to become one spirit with God?” As St. Nectarios of Aegina says, “The Mysterion of the Divine Eucharist that has been handed down by the Lord is the highest of all the Mysteria; it is the most wondrous of all the miracles which the power of God has performed; it is the highest which the wisdom of God has conceived; it is the most precious of all the gifts which the love of God has bestowed upon men.”
What an incredible, transforming blessing! This is why we exultantly sing the stich (a short liturgical hymn) from Pentecost: we’ve seen the true Light, received the heavenly Spirit, found the true Faith, and are saved by the Trinity Whom we worship! God has done—and continues to do—everything we need, and we praise Him (using the words of Psalm 70:8 (OSB)) and ask that He will keep us in His holiness. It is impossible for us to respond to God’s blessing with anything but praise, St. Nicholas says, because “you can see that the gifts which God bestows upon us lead only to praise and thanksgiving…all benefits, material or spiritual, which we call to mind in our intercourse with God are mentioned with a view to thanksgiving.”
We therefore finish the Divine Liturgy in a way similar to how we’ve spent much of it: thanking God for what He has done for us, asking Him to guard and sanctify us—even committing ourselves to each other and God so “that the whole day may be perfect, holy, peaceful, and sinless”—and asking for His peace throughout the world. A prayer said by the priest perfectly states our desire, “O Christ…fill our hearts with joy and gladness always, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”
Notice the final blessing given by the priest at the end of the Liturgy. We pray for hearts filled with joy and gladness, but this is not an individualistic pursuit: it can only be achieved in relationship with all the other members of the Church. This blessing only comes through the prayers of the Theotokos, apostles, St. John Chrysostom, the saints commemorated that day, Ss. Joachim and Anna, and all the saints. The final words of the Divine Liturgy remind us, in the words of Alexei Khomiakov, that “if any one believes, he is in the communion of faith; if he loves, he is in the communion of love; if he prays he is in the communion of prayer…this holy unity is the true life of the Church.”
The words in the statement of faith before Holy Communion can be chilling: “Make me worthy to partake without condemnation of Thy most pure Mysteries,” and “May the communion of Thy holy Mysteries be neither to my judgment, nor to my condemnation.” How can we make sure we are worthy? How can we be holy?
The key is repentance and confession. Repentance literally means “a change of thought” or a “transformation of mind”—more than simply feeling remorse over a sin, it means rejecting the sin and replacing it with virtue.
Self-examination is an essential tool for developing true repentance. Elder Moses of Optina explains how Orthodox self-examination works, “Each day examine yourself…Having tested yourself, arrange to become better the next day, and spend the rest of your life in that manner. In the event that you spent today badly, did not honestly pray to God, did not feel even once contrition in your heart, did not become humble in thought, gave no alms and did no act of charity, but instead did not refrain from anger, from words, from food and drink, or if you sank your mind in unclean thoughts, honestly examine all of this, condemn yourself for it, and firmly resolve that tomorrow you will be more careful to do good and to avoid evil.”
Finally, we grow in holiness by being cleansed of our sins in confession—the Mystery is often called the “second baptism” because, after confessing sins and being forgiven, we are again as innocent and pure as when we were baptized. St. John of Kronstadt describes the work of confession like this, “As soon as you have recognized that (your sins) are an illusion, an absurdity, a madness; as soon as you have resolved to do aright in the future, God cleanses you of them, through his minister and the holy sacraments. Bear in mind that for cleansing your heart from sin, you will get an infinite reward—you will see God.”
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