For most Orthodox Christians living outside traditionally Orthodox countries, the reality of church life is the mission church. These are small communities, perhaps as small as a dozen or so people, some with full-time priests and some without, with shaky finances and a skeleton staff.
For me this took some getting used to I have always been a big city boy. Church was always this enormous, powerful institution with hundreds or thousands of people. The nice thing about being in a large church is that you got to pick what to invest yourself in. There are all sort of groups, classes, ministries, and other activities, and you can just choose whatever you are passionate about.
Life in a small church is very different. Literally four months after I was charismated, my church ended up in need of a chanter. Either I had to do it, or we would have no music at all for our vespers and matins services. The trouble is, I had the shallowest understanding of Byzantine chant, to the point that I did not know what the eight tones are. But with the blessing of the priest, I became the chanter for our tiny church, and quite possibly the worst chanter in all of Orthodoxy! Thankfully, a few months after, someone a lot more competent came along to take over./
But this is the reality of life in a small church. You want an outreach to the poor? Then raise the money. You want there to be food after service? Then cook and bake. You want the church grounds to look nice? Then mow and plant. If you do not do something, it just does not get done. There is no one else who can step up if you do not serve.
There is a stressful, anxious, and draining side to this sort of church life. But it has been incredibly rewarding as well. You learn a lot about obedience, about self-sacrifice, about trusting in others and trusting in God. When your church has a large congregation and a lot of resources, your individual contribution becomes less crucial, so church involvement can become more about self-satisfaction than servanthood. In a small church, strapped for resources, it doesn’t matter what you are passionate in, or where your comfort zone is. If something needs to get done we have to do your best, and trust and hope that God in his mercy can make something of our meager efforts.
Pentecost is the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit, seven weeks after Easter. Pentecost Sunday is a very important feast in Orthodoxy, and one of the longest services of the year. In one sense, Pentecost marks the beginning of the New Testament church. The Holy Spirit entering the followers of Jesus Christ enabled them to continue his work in the world.
One theme God often works in such a way that requires our participation. In the creation, Adam participates by naming the animals. In the Exodus, God’s plan to free Israel involves Moses, Aaron and Joshua. And in the New Testament, Jesus does not save the world without our involvement, but rather sends the Holy Spirit to enable us to finish what he started.
One interesting feature of the Pentecost icon is this strange figure in the middle surrounded by blackness. He represents “Cosmos”: the world shrouded in darkness. Upon receiving the Holy Spirit, the followers of Christ were to set forth into the cosmos and make right all that is broken. This Holy Spirit is a gift not just for our benefit, but for us to bless the whole world.
When tragedy strikes, it is a natural response for people to ask “where is God?”. Why isn’t God intervening when terrible things happen? Pentecost gives us a rather difficult answer. One reason that God does not appear to act in this world is that we Christians have, in our weakness, not been faithful to the charge given us. Lord have mercy!
After the feast, we have a time of fasting, known as the “Fast of the Apostles”. This fast represents our preparation where, upon receiving the Holy Spirit we set forth into the world to continue Jesus’ work of healing and redemption. This Pentecost, may we be reminded of how God does remarkable things through unremarkable people. As goes the Troparion hymn for the day:
Blessed art You O Christ Our God / You have revealed the fishermen as most wise / By sending down upon them the Holy Spirit / Through them You drew the world into Your net / O Lover of Man, Glory to You!
During Holy Eucharist, there is a red cloth that we use to make sure none of the bread or wine spills to the ground when it is administered. It looks something like this:
I had the privilege once of helping my priest when he was cleaning the communion cloths. It was quite an experience! First of all, the priest had to wash it himself and by hand, despite the fact that we had a washing machine and dryer at church. Secondly, I had to dig a large hole in the church courtyard where we would pour the soap water after he was done washing, because it was improper for water that had touched the body and blood of Christ to go down the drain.
These traditions may seem to the outsider to be strange and archaic, and all the effort we put in may seem to be a big waste of time. But I appreciated the great degree of reverence that Orthodox practice confers on things that are sacred, even in the washing of communion cloths when nobody is watching. This is a big contrast to churches I have been to in the past, where I have seen breadcrumbs from communion littering the church floor, and being stepped on by the congregation!
I think I appreciate this reverence a lot more because I grew up in a monarchy. My mother told me this story once when a brother of the Sultan was admitted to the hospital she was working at. They had to obtain new yellow bed-sheets just for him (yellow is the color of royalty in Malaysia), and these bed-sheets had to be burned after he was discharged, so no commoner would use them and suffer the tulah. In Malay culture, the tulah is a deadly curse said to come upon someone who handles royal things improperly.
Due reverence to sacred things is deeply ingrained in both the old and new testaments, and in the tradition of the church. Two stories come to mind. First, is the story of the anointing of Jesus in John 12:1-8
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him.Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected,“Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.”He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
Second, is the story of Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6 3b-7:
Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cartwith the ark of God on it, and Ahio was walking in front of it.David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord, with castanets, harps, lyres, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals.
When they came to the threshing floor of Nakon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled.The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God.
Merely for touching the Covenant Box to prevent its falling to the ground, Uzzah was struck dead by God. Avoid His anger at such presumption, O my soul, by showing true honor to holy things.
I have noticed that friends who grew up in America tend to struggle greatly with these two passages. For one unused to the idea of reverence, it seems that Judas is right, and that the expensive perfume is better used to feed the poor, and Jesus’ statement you will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me seems awfully callous. Similarly, Uzzah’s fate seems incredibly unfair, and God’s punishment in this instance seems very arbitrary.
I understand the modern arguments against monarchy. Republics are built on the idea that all people are created equal, and that leaders should be subject to the people and answer to them, rather than the other way round. Trouble arises however when people try to apply these ideas not to kings of flesh and blood, but to the divine. You are not equal to God, and he is not accountable to you the way that a Prime Minister or a Member of Parliament is.
I am grateful for the many small Orthodox practices that remind me constantly of this reverence. We bow frequently in services, we treat icons of Christ and the saints with incredible care, and we treasure all sacred things, whether they come in the form of holy water, holy oil, or even the communion cloth. This is an important reminder that when we worship we are before a being far greater than we are, that we are a finite thing facing unbounded greatness. The things of God are beyond our comprehension, and since we cannot understand how the grace of God operates in the sacred things, we should treat them with care.
But with this caution, comes hope. For if the divine is greater than we are, so far beyond our comprehension, then surely the intractable problems of our lives and in our world, unsolvable in our human limitations are not beyond God’s saving work. We have the courage to press on, even when it seems to us that all hope is lost, trusting in the limitless God to overcome our limitations
The first Eastern Orthodox service I have ever attended occurs again tonight. On the evening of Good Friday, we commemorate the burial of Jesus’ body (we commemorate the crucifixion itself earlier in the day). The service includes hymns about the crucifixion, and burial of Jesus, and about Joseph of Arimathea, the man who claimed Jesus’ body from Pilate and whose tomb Jesus is buried in.
The highlight of the service is the procession around the church, we carry a bier, a flowery arrangement which is meant to represent Jesus’ body or coffin.
I would describe the procession as “hauntingly beautiful”. The bier is at the head, with the choir and the rest of the congregation trailing behind. During the procession, we sing the Trisagion, one of the most commonly used prayers in the Orthodox liturgy. It simply goes,
Holy God, Holy mighty, Holy immortal have mercy on us!
This prayer is sang at almost every Orthodox service, but usually set to upbeat music. For the funeral procession, we switch to singing these words in slow, sad music. Listen to it here!
I like that this procession makes us feel like we are mourning the death of Jesus with his first followers. Orthodox Christians believe that it is not possible to know God merely through intellectual understanding, but rather that divine revelation includes the participatory and experiential as well.
Thus our Good Friday does not just include theology of the crucifixion and of atonement (although there is a great deal of that in the services too). It also places us with the first Christians on the day of Jesus’ burial, and we get to feel a bit of that sadness, anxiety and longing they must have felt, as the executioner’s cross ended the man we hoped would heal our infirmities, rescue us from bondage, relieve our pains.
But as we mourn with these earliest believers, we also get to hope with them. Did he not promise that he would return from the dead after three days? And as the sad, slow Trisagion rings out in the crowd, I can’t help but wonder what an odd thing it is to sing “Holy Immortal” in a funeral.
The Saturday that falls on the week before Easter is dedicated to Lazarus, the man whom Jesus raised from the dead. The account of this miracle is found in John 11.
The commemoration of this miracle occupies such a prominent place in the Lent calendar because of the Orthodox church’s emphasis on the bodily resurrection. We do not believe, as some do, that the soul leaves to an ephemeral existence in the sky. Rather the sick, decaying, dead parts of both our physical and spiritual selves will be renewed and redeemed in the last days. The end of the Christian story is not an escape from a physical world that is doomed to destruction, but rather its restoration, as all the broken things of this planet are made right in the victorious coming of the Kingdom of God.
The story of Lazarus thus serves both as a foreshadowing of Christ’s resurrection, and a promise that we also will be resurrected with Him.
The story of Lazarus occurs prominently in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. In particular, Lazarus is central in a powerful, beautiful scene near the end of the book, when everything is falling apart. The doomed murderer asks the despised prostitute to read the story of Lazarus, and an entire chapter contains just that: she reads the whole of John 11, as he begs and urges her on, overwhelmed by his feelings of guilt, hopelessness, and desperation. And from her tattered Bible she reads it, haltingly at first, but gradually gaining in conviction. And in this, one of the grimmest works in literature, a shining beacon of hope.
The simplicity of that chapter in Crime and Punishment is rather remarkable. Large portions of it are just lifted directly from John 11. For most of the way through the chapter, you are reading a book about Sonia reading a book. But the power of the Lazarus story is such that this scene did not need any elaboration.
Lazarus means that the resurrection of Christ is not an isolated event. We all will be resurrected with him. Therefore we need not live as if our possessions and comfort in this life are the only things that matter. Even if we lose them all, up to the point of losing life and limb, we know that all that we have lost will be restored to us. This gives us the freedom to choose to do the right thing, even when it is costly- as the murderer has to do at the end of Crime and Punishment, in response to that reading of the Lazarus story.
The miracle in Bethany overturned the tragedy of Lazarus’ death. Sonia’s reading of John 11 gave hope to the tragedy of Rodya’s self-destruction. Lazarus promises hope also to our tragedies. The Christian promise is not an escape from tragedy, but a victory over it.
The Great Canon of St Andrew (text here) is a long liturgical prayer that appears twice in the Lenten liturgy. We say the canon in four parts in the first four days of the Lent season, and then the whole thing is celebrated at once on the Thursday of the fifth week.
The great canon is the foremost prayer of repentance in the Lenten season. One distinctive feature of the text is is how so much of it covers passages in the Bible where God’s chosen people have fallen into sin, from the famous stories of Adam and Eve, David and Bathsheba, to obscure ones like that of Lamech. There are also plenty of mentions of St. Mary of Egypt, a saint famous for turning away from her wicked life.
I love this prayer. We get a reminder of how brutally honest the Bible can be about the failures of its greatest heroes, and how futile it is to try to attain moral perfection without Christ. The Great Canon does not allow us to look upon the stumbles of these people and think ourselves superior to them. Rather, in referencing these stories it forces us to confront the wickedness in our own life. Here are some typical lines:
Noah’s son Ham failed to conceal his father’s nakedness, and even dared to look at him in his shame. And you, my soul, in your treatment of your neighbour have imitated him.
Like the arrogant Israelites in the wilderness, you prefer the comforts of Egypt and unclean food to manna, the food sent from heaven.
Solomon was carried away by gratification of his lust. Alas, he who loved Wisdom now makes love to prostitutes and finds himself estranged from God. But in your misery though you have imitated him, O my soul, through your disgraceful love of luxury.
But given that so many people mistakenly think that Lent is about guilt and self-loathing, I will emphasize that the point of this prayer is to lead our heart towards repentance, and the larger theme is one of hope for the desperate who have nowhere else to turn but toward God.
With my whole heart, I cried unto the compassionate God,
and He heard me
I know You as a clam haven from the storm of transgressions, O Christ my Saviour. Protect and deliver me from the depths of my innermost sin and despair.
Accepting voluntarily to be nailed to a Tree, You accomplished salvation in the centre of the earth, O Creator. Eden, which had been closed to us is open again, and all of creation, both in heaven and on earth, is saved and worships You.
The Great Canon of St. Andrew is one of the most beautiful parts of the Orthodox Christian liturgy, and an indispensable feature of Lent. It compels us to turn away from judging the misdeeds of others, and to instead grieve deeply for our own brokenness. The canon reveals the hopelessness of our attempts to “fix” ourselves and instead draws us toward renewal in Christ Jesus, for salvation is found in no one else.
One of the most tiresome arguments that I have seen play out in Christian circles is about judging other people’s sins. There are a number of clear prohibitions in the Bible about judging other people’s sins, but often Christians feel compelled to dilute this teaching due to “practical” considerations. We say that it is necessary to “hold people accountable”, or to “affirm God’s moral law”. According to this logic, to not judge people at all is to succumb to “moral relativism”.
Often the conclusion to this argument is that it is appropriate to judge other people’s sin, as long as the judgment is “appropriate”. This has always seemed to me a rather worthless qualifier. After all, everyone who passes judgment on another thinks the judgment is “appropriate”!
A message that comes through loud and clear in the Orthodox lenten season is a prohibition against judging. The services of the Lenten Triodion (the lent liturgy book) begin with the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, which focuses on Luke 18:10-14:
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
We also say this prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian in our morning prayers all throughout Lent. This prayer ends with these powerful line, spoken twice:
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own sins and not to judge my brother.
Every Sunday (even outside of Lent) we read this pre-communion prayer of St. John Chrysostom. It begins as follows:
I believe, O Lord, and I confess that thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who didst come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief…
So every time I participate in the Sunday liturgy I declare myself “the chief of sinners”. Is this literally true? How do I answer that? How can I speculate on the spiritual state of another person? But if St. Paul can call himself the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim 1:15) then so can I.
These liturgical elements hint at the reason why judging is dangerous. In Orthodox Christianity, we think of salvation not just as a moment in the past, but also in the present tense as a process of restoration, of a continual turning away from sin and towards God. The proper response to hearing the Gospel should be a revulsion at our own wickedness, and a desire to repent. What folly it is to look at the word of God and decide instead that it proclaims oneself righteous and condemns other people!
A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, ‘Come, for everyone is waiting for you.’ So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, ‘What is this, Father?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.’ When they heard that they said no more to the brother but forgave him.
There are also several warnings against judgment that affirm James 4:12, “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?” Consider this celebrated story about the desert fathers is that of St. Isaac the Theban:
An angel appeared before Isaac and presented before him the soul of someone who had just died. “Here is the soul of a person you have judged,” said the angel. “Where do you order him to be put, into the Kingdom or into eternal punishment? Since you want to judge the just and the unjust, what do you command for this poor soul?”
Frightened beyond measure, Isaac spent the rest of his life praying with sighs and tears to be forgiven of this sin. He had seen the seriousness of judging another.
What about practical considerations? Are there times when we are compelled to speak out when someone else is doing wrong? St. Macarius, another of these early Christian ascetics has this to say:
Abba Macarius went one day to Abba Pachomius of Tabennisi. Pachomius asked him, ‘When brothers do not submit to the rule, is it right to correct them?’ Abba Macarius said to him, ‘Correct and judge justly those who are subject to you, but judge no one else .
When these acts of correction are necessary, they are the purview of those in the church of spiritual authority. As a layperson, especially as one very new to the Orthodox faith, I can get along fine by not judging.
To end this post, I want to share a conversation I had with a priest in the United States. He was appointed to an “ecclesiastical court”, responsible for dealing with misconduct among clergy in his diocese. This priest is one of the wisest men I know, and yet he said he did everything he could to refuse this appointment. He said to be compelled to judge another person in this way (even in this very important and necessary role) put him in great spiritual peril, because he himself was an unworthy sinner. May all those few who are put in this unfortunate position have this same attitude!