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 cart with 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.
This incident is mentioned in the Great Canon of Saint Andrew, a prominent prayer in the Orthodox Lenten liturgy
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