Participation I—Liturgical Life

Purification, Illumination, Deification: Orthodox Spirituality

Fr. Stephen Rogers is the priest at St. Ignatius Orthodox Church in Franklin, TN. He gave a series of 9 talks at the parish on Orthodox Spirituality concentrating on Purification, Illumination, and Deification.

March 2014



Tonight we continue our conversations or our discussions on the process of purification, and as we closed last week made the comment [that] up until last week the various components of that purification that we’ve discussed focused on the ascetical aspect of our faith, of that inward, personal purification process that comes through the various things that we’ve talked about thus far: the renunciation of the world, repentance, obedience, the grace that comes from the proper reading of Scripture and from the Jesus prayer.

Tonight I want to shift our focus a little bit more, although by no means do we leave the realm of the personal, for our God is a personal God, and every interaction we have with him is intimately personal, but our discussions take on a communal and a corporate nature tonight as well, as we discuss in general terms the liturgical life of the Church. The intent of our discussion tonight is not to delve into the detail of the rubric of liturgy, but rather the overarching intent of our liturgical life as it relates to the process of purification, of removing the barriers within us, that would allow us to grow in the image and likeness of God.

We’re now less than a week away from experiencing a turning point in history. We’re just a few days away from a moment in time in which everything changes, and it is such a momentous even that, wrapped with wonder, the angelic choir proclaims, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” And in just a few short days, the mystery which was hidden from everlasting, that was unknown by the angels—that familiar Scripture and that familiar hymn that we sing: The mystery which was hidden from everlasting, that even the angels didn’t know about will be revealed. That’s what our little St. Nicholas play was about, of all the little angels buzzing in heaven, knowing something big is about to happen. We don’t know what it is, but the heavenly host is stirring.

So right now the heavenly host are stirring, because in just a few days that great mystery is revealed. In just a few days, in a tiny cave in Bethlehem, God becomes man. And on the Nativity of our Lord, the human and the divine were united as a little Child, and communion between man and God was restored. And the Child that lay, seemingly helpless, as an infant in that manger, was the very God that held together time and space, and, upon taking on a physical nature, time and space were changed forever.

In one of his Christmas homilies, St. Gregory Nazianzen proclaims:

I, too, will proclaim the greatness of this day. The immaterial becomes material. The Word is made flesh. The invisible makes itself seen. The intangible can be touched. The Timeless has a beginning. The Son of God becomes the Son of man: Jesus Christ, always the same, yesterday, today, and forever.

This is the solemnity that we are celebrating today: the arrival of God among us, so that we might go to God, or, more precisely, return to him. This whole idea of restoration, of return, of the very subject that we’ve been talking about: of being restored to communion with God so that we might fulfill our purpose as human beings, that through the Incarnation of God, the image is restored, that we might grow in all eternity toward the likeness.

And so when that mystery which was hidden from everlasting was revealed, and the angelic choir proclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill among men,” time and space were changed forever. And we can rightly say, within the context of our subject matter and our discussions, that the ultimate act of purification of our humanity took place in the Incarnation, when our flesh was united to the divinity of God.

And divinity and humanity were joined together, and it’s no wonder that the angels cried, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” There’s no doubt from that proclamation that the angels were in complete awe of the benevolent love of God, that he would be so condescending in his love toward fallen mankind that he would take on our flesh, and equally in awe they had to hold man, that was the object of this love and that was the recipient of this love that would bring peace and goodwill. The angels proclaimed the presence of God among men. Can you imagine what it must have been like to be there? Can you imagine what it must be like to hear that angelic proclamation? Can you imagine what it must have been like to be one of the shepherds, experiencing the glory of the manifestation of the heavenly host? What would you do to be a part of that? What would you do to experience that? I can tell you exactly what to do. Tomorrow at 6:30, you drive down Peytonsville Road, and come to Liturgy at St. Ignatius Antiochian Orthodox Church.

For tomorrow night at 6:30 the angels in heaven will gather around this altar, and the Liturgy will commence with the priest proclaiming, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” And tomorrow night, in that Divine Liturgy, the same God who became incarnate and was laid in a manger will become incarnate and be laid on that altar. In the words of St. Gregory, in our very presence, the immaterial will become material. In our very presence, the Word will become flesh. Amongst us the invisible will become visible. “Take, eat. This is my Body.” And the intangible will be touched. And God will be among us. The priest will cry, “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” and the kingdom of God will be present.

In the words of St. John Chrysostom, speaking of the Liturgy:

On high, the armies of angels are giving praise. Here below, the Church takes up after them with the same doxology. Above us the angels of fire make the thrice-holy hymn resound magnificently. Here below is raised the echo of their hymn. The festival of heaven’s citizens is united with that of the earth in a single thanksgiving, a single upsurge of happiness, a single chorus of joy.

He really earned that title, “Golden-mouth,” didn’t he?

In the Liturgy, the priest prays on behalf of us all:

And we give thanks unto thee for this ministry, which thou dost vouchsafe to receive from our hands, even though there stand about thee thousands of archangels, ten thousands of angels, the cherubim and the seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed, soaring aloft, borne on their wings, singing the triumphal hymn, shouting, proclaiming, and saying—

What? Right here.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord of Sabaoth! Heaven and earth are full of thy glory. Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord!

Inscribed right above our altar is the angelic proclamation that we join in, that God makes possible through his Incarnation.

And in the course of that Liturgy, we will be in Bethlehem, we will be at Golgotha, we will be at the empty tomb, and we will be in the upper room.

In a homily on 1 Corinthians, St. John Chrysostom proclaims: “The magi adored this body lying in a manger. It is not now lying in a crib that I see thee, but upon an altar.”

In the Divine Liturgy we are united and one with the Church of the past, to which St. Paul proclaimed, “But ye have come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, a heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, a festal assembly of Church, the Church of the firstborn, who are registered in heaven.” And just as that Church that Paul was addressing, to the Hebrews, experienced the tangible manifestation of the heavenly Jerusalem in their midst, as they were joined with myriads of angels in a festal assembly, so, too, are we, and we are joined with them. Paul goes on to tell the Hebrews that we are receiving an unshakable kingdom. He says, “Let us be grateful.”

In the Divine Liturgy, we are united not just to the Church of the temporal past, but of the eternal future. We tend to read this verse as a projection of something that is going to happen in the future, and indeed it will! But it also happens every time we assemble together in the Liturgy. And that’s from the book of Revelation.

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, and the city, the heavenly New Jerusalem, I saw coming down from heaven from God, and having been prepared as a bride, adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice out of the throne saying, “Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and he shall tabernacle with them.

What does that mean? He’s going to pitch his tent here.

And they themselves will be his people, and God shall be with them. And God shall wipe away from them every tear.

And the mystical reality of the Divine Liturgy in our liturgical life is that vision of St. John is not simply a vision of the second coming of Christ, but it is a vision and a description of the coming of Christ that makes itself present and manifest among us each time we assemble as the Church in the heavenly Jerusalem.

Be here tomorrow night. Tell your friends. Wow.

As we’ve said many times before over the years, at the initiation of the Liturgy, the deacon will say to the priest, “It is time for the Lord to act. Father, give the blessing.” And with that blessing, the Holy Spirit changes regular time into sanctified time, earthly space into heavenly space, sinful individuals into the communal body of Christ. And just as that Holy Spirit descends upon the bread and wine and makes it the body of blood, just as the Holy Spirit descends upon water and makes it the fount of new birth, just as the Holy Spirit descends upon oil and makes it holy unction, a source of healing, so, too, that same Holy Spirit descends upon time and space and sanctifies it and makes it holy. And when we cry out, “Blessed is the kingdom,” we are no longer residents of this earth.

Within that divine assembly, within that manifestation of our Savior, within the tangible presence of Christ, all the aspects of our purification that we have discussed up to this point are made manifest. For within the Divine Liturgy we are presented with the opportunity to renounce the world. We are presented with the opportunity to repent. We are presented with the opportunity to be obedient. We are presented with the opportunity to receive the grace of sanctified Scripture. We have the opportunity to pray. All aspects of our purification are manifested and made available and at work in the Divine Liturgy and in our liturgical life in general.

Back in the beginning we talked about renunciation of the world. What we said: that those of us in parish life, that that renunciation involves a change of perspective, a turning from seeing the world as a thing in and of itself, but rather seeing the world and the things in it as a means of communion with God. And, brothers and sisters, that change in perspective begins with our perspective of time. “It is time for the Lord to act.”

Right now, in the very season we find ourselves, we are called to renunciate the world. We are called to see ourselves driving to Jerusalem, not to the shopping mall. We are being called to remember that our desire is the Babe wrapped in swaddling cloth, not the toy wrapped in gift paper. And in our pursuit of purification, in our desire to have those sinful inclinations and distractions removed within us that prevent us from progressing toward the likeness of God, we must never lose sight of the sanctifying power of time transformed, of our liturgical life in the Church. And we need to fervently participate in that liturgical life that purifies us and preserves us.

A book written back over 150 years ago by an author named Thomas Smith… and he was writing about the Orthodox Church in the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish empire: a Church that had been oppressed and subjected to periodic persecution by the Ottomans for a century. He wrote a book called An Account of the Greek Church, and this is a quote from that book.

Aside from the providence of God, I ascribe the preservation of Christianity among them to the strict and religious observation of the festivals and fasts of the Church. These festivals and fasts are certainly the chief preservative of religion in those Eastern countries against the poison of Mahometan superstition, that is, Islam.

He didn’t have to be as politically correct as we have to be.

For children and those of the most ordinary capacities [people like me], know the meaning of these holy solemnities, at which time they flock to the church in great companies, and thereby retain the memory of our blessed Savior’s birth, his dying upon the Cross, his Resurrection, his Ascension, and they keep the constant profession of their acknowledgment of the necessary and fundamental points of their faith. And while they celebrate the sufferings and martyrdom of the apostles of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and other great saints who laid down their life for his name…

In other words, when they celebrate saints’ days.

...it enables them, with patience, to endure all the torments and cruelties of their heathen persecutors. They take courage from such glorious examples, and are enabled to endure with less trouble and regret the miseries and hardships they struggle daily with.

For those under the yoke of Islam, for those under the yoke of Communism, for those of us under the yoke of secularism, the liturgical life of the Church is what transforms time, what brings joy to misery, and what brings communion with God in the midst of persecution by men.

In another book, called The Waters of Marah by an author named Peter Hammond, he wrote the following. These are non-Orthodox people looking at the liturgical life of the Church.

Nobody who has lived and worshiped among Greek Christians for any length of time has not in some measure experienced the extraordinary hold which the recurring cycle of Church liturgy has upon the piety of the common people. Nobody who has kept Great Lent with the Greek Church, who has shared in the fast which hangs so heavy upon the whole nation for forty days, who have stood for long hours as one of an innumerable multitude, who crowd into tiny Byzantine churches and overflow into the streets, while they hear the familiar pattern of God’s salvation towards mankind, a salvation that is presented in songs, in prophecies, in readings from the Gospel, in the matchless poetry of the hymnody.

Who has known the desolation of Holy and Great Friday, when every bell in Greece tolls its lament, and the body of the Savior lies shrouded in flowers in all the village churches throughout the land? Who has been present at the kindling of the new fire—“Come, take ye light…”—who has been present at the kindling of that fire, and tasted of the joy of a world released from the bondage of sin and death? None can have lived through all of this and have realized that, for the Greek Christians, the Gospel is inseparably linked with the liturgy that is unfolded week by week in the parish church. Not only for the Greeks, but throughout all of Orthodox Christendom, the liturgy has remained at the very heart of the Church’s life.

How can that liturgy have this power? How can our liturgical life have so much sway? Because it transforms time itself into something holy.

The Orthodox theologian, Sergius Bulgakov, writes:

The life of the Church in these services makes actual for us the mystery of the Incarnation. Our Lord continues to live in the Church, in the same form in which he was manifested once on earth and exists forever. And it is given to the Church to make living these sacred memories, so that we should be their new witnesses and participate in them.

And so the priest prays, when elevating the Gifts:

Having therefore this saving commandment and all those things which have come to pass for us: the cross, the grave, the third-day resurrection, the ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand, and the second and glorious coming…

And the reality of that cross, the reality of that grave, the reality of that resurrection, the reality of that ascension, the reality of our humanity seated at the right hand of God, and the immanence of the second and glorious coming are made manifest to us every time we assemble in the New Jerusalem.

Another contemporary Greek theologian, George Mantzaridis, in an essay entitled, “The Divine Liturgy and the World,” says:

The body of Christ surpasses time and space and joins all the Church’s members in the triadic, the triune communion, in which all things are present and live in the Lord within the body of Christ, namely, the Church. In the Church there is neither lost time nor lost people. Whatever God did in the past for the salvation of the world exists always as present and can be made accessible to each person. Distance of time and place are annihilated, and all things become present in Christ. Just as Christ as the Lord of glory is beyond time and space, so, too, whatever belongs to his body and whatever relates to it also surpasses time and place and is preserved eternally present.

In the liturgical life of the Church, we exist not in a world that is a thing in and of itself, but as a world permeated with the incarnate God. He is present, he is now, he is today. In our liturgical life, time and eternity intersect.

Quoting Fr. Alexander Schmemann of blessed memory, from his book, Liturgy and Life:

For someone for whom worship is a living experience, the frequently used word, “today,” is not merely a rhetorical figure of speech. For it is indeed the proper function of liturgy that in it and through it everything that Christ accomplished once always returns to life, is made present again, actualized, in its relation to us and our salvation.

So once again I say to you: It is not rhetoric, it is not poetry, it is not metaphor when every great feast of the Church, the hymnody is permeated with the word “today”: Today Christ is hung upon the Tree. Today let us go to Bethlehem. Today let us ascend Mount Tabor. Today has salvation come unto the world… Today, now, present, tangible, manifest, real.

A historian once said that if we want to understand a culture and its history, a good place to start is to look at its calendar. He said: Look at the holidays they celebrate, and you’ll understand what they’re all about. And that’s true. Look our country, the United States. Look at our holidays: Thanksgiving, Independence Day, Veterans Day. Look at our holidays, and you learn a lot about the United States and the beliefs upon which it was founded. In the same way, the calendar of the Church reveals our culture and our emphasis.

Author Frank Heiler says:

The Orthodox Church’s year is a sermon on the mystery of divine love, and this sermon is preached in words more powerful and more sublime than could come from the mouth of any preacher.

That reminds me of the story of the atheist who was berating a Christian and saying, “We don’t believe in all those celebrations and all those holidays. We don’t celebrate Christmas and Easter and Good Friday and all those superstitious religious holidays.” And the Christian said, “Well, obviously you observe April 1.” Think about it.

The Church’s liturgical life reveals our heart and our focus. And our participation in that liturgical life reveals our heart and our focus. And do you really wish to experience the purification of God’s grace, then check what days you have highlighted on your calendar. Sincere participation in the liturgical life of the Church is our retreat into the desert, our renunciation of the world, our acknowledgment that our citizenship is not in this world, but in another.

As a quick aside, I want us to think about another aspect of changing our perspective of the world, and that is the act of blessing things. We bless lots of things, don’t we? Interwoven throughout the liturgical life of the Church is the act of blessing. We bless grapes at Transfiguration. We bless candles at the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. We bless palm fronds on Palm Sunday. We bless homes during Epiphany. We bless gardens at Mid-Pentecost. Every liturgical item used in the church is blessed. I have a book back here that’s 200 pages long that has blessings for: napkins, chalices, patens, vestments, altar cloths, spoons, oil, incense, icon stands, chanter’s stands, candle boxes. Anything and everything we use in the church, there is a specific prayer to bless it. Why do we do this? I mean, the logical assumption is that we ask God to bless them so that something good will come from them. We ask him to bless our homes, that they will be protected; or bless our gardens, so that they would be fruitful; or bless our beehives so that they would produce. And, yes, I have a blessing prayer for beehives. We’ll use it one day, won’t we? [Laughter]

Some of you know this—quick little aside—but years ago, when doing a house blessing at the McCollums, right here. You know, McCollums usually have a few head of cattle, or did—I don’t know if they do now or not, but they had a few head of cattle on the property—and, yes, there is a prayer for the blessing of livestock. So in the midst of blessing their home, we went out to the field, and I prayed the prayer of the blessing of livestock. There’s a line in the prayer that says, “May this flock increase a hundredfold.” And Mark McCollum, in his typical dry wit, stopped me and said, “Father, could we tone the prayer down just a little bit?” [Laughter]

We certainly seek God’s blessing, but there’s more to the act of blessing than just hoping something good will come out of it. When we bless things, we set them apart. They are no longer simply things of the world. They’re made part of the kingdom. They become sacred. They become more than the thing in and of itself. We seek God’s blessing on things, that those things would be transformed, that they would be purified, that they would return to their original use and intent. Again, quoting Fr. Alexander Schmemann of blessed memory:

God blesses everything he creates, and in biblical language, this means that he makes all of creation the sign and the means of his presence, of his wisdom, of his love and revelation.

And Fr. Schmemann goes on to say that the act of blessing, of us blessing God and seeking God’s blessing, it’s not just a religious act, but it’s to be a way of life, a way of purification. God blessed man with the world. He proclaimed it “very good,” and man’s response was to bless God by returning that world to him and using it properly, of living a life of gratitude, and not attempting to keep that world for himself and to himself. Man alone has the capacity to bless God, and, in a real sense, secularism, the worldview that sees the world as a thing in and of itself, is a world in which man no longer seeks to have anything blessed.

So I want you to remember. When you have your home blessed, it’s not simply a prayer for protection and good things to happen in the coming year or bad things to be avoided, but [when] you are praying and blessing your home, it is being set apart. It’s no longer simply an earthly dwelling place. And when you seek the blessing of a priest or a bishop, bear in mind that it’s not simply a nice Orthodox greeting, an exchange of pleasantries. Seeking a blessing from a priest or bishop should not be simply the pursuit that through that blessing something good will happen, but rather that something would be made good, set apart, purified. And when a layperson seeks the blessing of a priest or bishop, he is seeking to be set apart, to be proclaimed as part of the royal priesthood. And the priest or the bishop, in all humility, is exercising his office, exercising the grace of the priesthood, given by God as a great gift to man. So that exchange between lay person and priest, or that exchange between priest and bishop, or deacon and priest—we’re not simply exchanging a greeting, but we’re seeking to be set apart and sanctified. And that is a great gift.

Just as the liturgical life in the Church provides a pathway of purification by renouncing the world, by changing our perspective, it also provides us with a pathway through the act of repentance that we’ve talked about. Christ exhorts us in the Gospel that before we present our offering in the temple, we are to be reconciled with our brother. Remember again the angelic proclamation that begins the Liturgy: “Peace on earth and goodwill toward men.” That is not simply what God is bestowing on us, but what we’re called to bestow upon each other. And after the invocation of the priest, the first call to action in the Liturgy is uttered by the deacon: “In peace, let us pray to the Lord.” Over and over again—or better yet: again and again—we are called to peace, to be at peace. Throughout the Liturgy, we are simultaneously exhorted to be at peace and to cry out for peace: For the peace of the whole world, the good estate of the holy churches of God, and the union of all men.

St. Paul says to the Hebrews: “Pursue peace with all in sanctification, without which no one shall see God.” You hear what he’s saying? There can be no purification, there can be no illumination, outside of peace. And so to pray the Liturgy is an act of repentance, to strive to be at peace, to have good will, to love our brother and sister.

“I believe, O Lord, and I confess that thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.” Right before the Great Entrance, the priest stands before the altar, praying for himself but praying for us all.

Like the prodigal son, I have sinned against thee, O Savior. Receive me as I repent, O Father, and have mercy upon me, O God. With the voice of the publican I cry unto thee. O Christ my Savior, take pity on me as thou hast on him, and have mercy upon me, O God.

In the liturgical ebb and flow of our Church year, the Church points us to seasons of repentance, directs us toward constant confrontation with our own sinfulness and selfishness, and in the radiant light of our liturgical life, our weaknesses are exposed. But in that same radiance, the remedy to that weakness is provided.

We’ve already spoken to the purifying aspect of obedience to the liturgical life of the Church and its rubric. We’ve already spoken to the purifying aspect of Scripture as sacrament in the liturgical setting. “Illumine our hearts, O Master. Account us worthy that we might hear the holy Gospel.” There’s even an act of repentance and obedience and submission in the very hearing of the Gospel. It’s self-evident that the Liturgy is a medium for prayer in all its forms: praise, thanksgiving, worship, petition, repentance.

In our pursuit of purification, in our desire for illumination and the light of Christ, we certainly cannot ignore the individual asceticism which is so necessary, nor can we do without the corporate, communal life of the Church. Each prepares us for the other, and ultimately they are not two things, but one thing. For they both are nurtured by the same thing: God’s grace.

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