|Material prepared by Fr. Philaret Littlefield for inclusion in the St. George (Milwaukee) Melkite Sunday Bulletin
Since pagan times, the civil year has begun on january 1st, the month named for the pagan god Janus whose idol had two faces – one looking backward and one looking forward.
St. Constantine the Great, the first Roman Emperor to embrace the True Faith freed the Church from persecutions, and permitted Christians throughout the Empire to worship openly after hundreds of years of relentless persecution. This declaration and subsequent important decrees (indictions) were made on September 1st. Hence, the Church in the East chose this day as the beginning of the liturgical year.
In the early days of the Church and the Christian Roman Empire, major decisions and policies were announced on this day. In our Church, in parishes and in monasteries, major announcements and new beginnings are customarily made on September 1st – e.g. new pastoral and finance councils.
The New Year in the Latin Church is always on the first Sunday of Advent (the Christmas Fast).
Our Church’s teaching is the same as that of the whole Catholic Church throughout the world: that faithful Christians may not make use of any artificial means of contraception. Those who would like to “plan” their children’s birth are advised to use the natural methods. Natural Family Planning works with the body’s own cycles, at times this requires some discipline and self-denial, but it helps the couple to deepen their mutual love. It is not fool-proof, and that’s part of its value for Christians: that all acts of love between husband and wife are open to the gift of Life, both in the conception of a child and in the life-giving relationship of the spouses.
It is true that women are forbidden from entering the Holy Place, but the restriction is NOT based on gender. In fact, no lay person of either sex is permitted to enter the Holy Place. Only ordained clergy may enter through the iconostasis and only to perform the sacred duties of their office.
There are two exceptions: in parishes where there are no ordained subdeacons, lay men and boys are appointed by the pastor to serve as subdeacons. These are the men we call “altar servers.” And the vestments they wear – called sticharion – is one of the vestments worn by subdeacons, deacons, priests, and bishops.
The other exception is that in monasteries of women, Nuns may be chosen to enter beyond the iconostasis to assist the clergy at divine services. However, since they are not acting as subdeacons, they do not wear any vestment, only their black monastic habits.
This rule is not meant to restrict people or “keep people oput.” Rather, it is to stress the holiness of the house of the Lord, especially the Holy of Holies which we also call the “altar,” and to show awesome reverence for the presence of Christ. Bishops, priests and deacons recite special prayers before entering the Holy Place, and venerate the icons of Christ and the Theotokos with a deep bow (metanoia reverence) and a reverent kiss before entering to perform the Divine Liturgy and other services.
The angels – more properly called Heavenly Powers – are bodiless spirits of heaven sent by God to serve as guardians and guides to individual human beings, communities, whole societies. In heaven the choirs of angels continually participate in the heavenly Liturgy, surrounding the throne of God and singing the Thrice Holy Hymn.
St. Denis the Areopagyte lists nine choirs of Heavenly Powers, based on the Prophecy of Isaiah: the Seraphim, the Cherubim, the Thrones, the Dominations, the Virtues , the Powers, the Principalities, the Archangels, and the Angels. Each of these classifications of angels is properly called a choir. The highest set of three choirs (Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones) make up the first hierarchy. This hierarchy is held to surround the throne of God. The second hierarchy consists of the choirs of Dominations, Virtues, and Powers. The third hierarchy (Principalities, Archangels and Angels are believed to be in charge of the material world’s development and evolution.
During the singing of the Cherubic Hymn the servers and clergy from a procession which is called the Great Entrance. The procession starts at the prothesis (altar of preparation) where the gifts of bread and wine have been prepared and covered. The servers, carrying the censer, the holy cross, and the ripidia lead the clergy, who carry the sacred gifts of bread and wine from the altar into the midst of the church.
This carrying of the gifts calls to mind the Lord Jesus on His way to Jerusalem, to offer Himself up for the life of the world.
During the procession the priest prays for the hierarchy of the Church who are the successors of the Apostles – eye-witnesses of the Lord’s death and resurrection. The priest may also pray for special intentions, for example, for those who offered the gifts for this particular Divine Liturgy, for those who are in special need of prayer, etc. Finally, he blesses the faithful with the gifts and prays that the “Lord God remember all of you in His kingdom . . . ” This is the prayer of the repentant thief who was privileged to be crucified with Our Lord. We who are sinners, like the thief, but who turn to Our Lord in His saving Passion, hope to hear the words which Christ spoke to the thief: “This day you will be with Me in paradise.” The Divine Liturgy is the Passion and Death of Christ brought into our own time and made present to us.
The solemnity of the Great Entrance, as with all the ceremonies of our Liturgy, serves to remind us that we are this day in Paradise an the Church is become “heaven on earth.”
The act of burning incense itself is highly symbolic: a ritual of welcoming the Godhead into our midst, thus recognizing “what the eye has not seen nor ear heard.” The way in which the priest (or deacon) performs the incensations also has a rich meaning.
When incensing the whole church, he begins at the altar and , with the censer, makes a sign of the cross. He then incenses the Holy Table, which is the Throne of God among men, and the icons in the holy place. Each time the priest (or deacon) censes an icon, holy object, or person, the censer is swung straight up in the middle, then once to the right and once to the left, thus blessing in the form of a cross. Once outside of the altar, the holy doors are incensed. Then the priest immediately turns around and censes towards the door of the church. This is a symbolic censing of the Cosmos – the whole universe receiving the blessing of God Incarnate coming into it in space and time. Just as the icons are places in a particular order on the iconsostatis, so they are incense in the particular order: first the icon of Christ Our Lord, then that of the Virgin Theotokos, and so on. Finally, the assembled faithful are blessed with the incense, as we recognize in the Church the living Body of Christ, and in each human being, the image of the Divine. Before returning to the altar, the priest again incenses the icons of Christ and the Mother of God, then the Holy Table, and the clergy and servers inside the sanctuary.
Before the priest begins the preparation of the gifts of bread and wine, he bows three times and says “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” With each bow. This also occurs before he takes up the Gospel Book for the Little Entrance. He makes the same three bows and prays before taking the chalice and diskos for the Great Entrance, again before reciting the prayers of the epiclesis when he calls upon the Holy Spirit to change the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, and again before picking up the chalice for Holy Communion.
In essence, the priest is recalling his own sinful status – his lowliness and unworthiness to perform such tremendous actions which even the angels are not permitted to perform. He is asking God’s forgiveness and strength to enable him to perform the sacred duties which God has called him and for sh9ihc God has equipped him, in spite of the priest’s own sinfulness. He recalls the sacred words spoken by our Savior “With man, this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.
Just before the “great Entrance” during which the clergy carry the gifts of bread and wine to the Holy Altar, the choir sings the Cherubic Hymn, while the priest incenses the altar, the iconostasis and the faithful. In our Liturgy the use of incense is a special reminder of the presence of God in our midst.
At this point in the Liturgy, having welcomed the Lord into our midst in the proclaiming and hearing of His Holy Gospel, the incensation and the solemn and reverent singing of the Cherubic Hymn serves to call us to an even deeper reverence. We recall that the Angels of God are present in countless numbers before His throne in heaven – and on earth. The Cherubic hymn reminds us of the awesome presence of God, the accompanying armies of angels who are worshipping here and now with us, and the tremendous Mystery that is unfolding in our midst: the sacrifice of bread and wine changed into the very Body and Blood of Christ.
“Let us lay aside all earthly cares.” In other words, we are called now to our utmost concentration and respect, ignoring all of our other concerns, thinking only of our sweetest Lord Who is coming into our midst, and soon to enter into our body and soul. In the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
A litany is a form of prayer using short petitions and a response. In the Divine Liturgy there are at least seven Litanies: the Litany of Peace at the beginnings of the Divine Liturgy, the “Little Litanies” after the singing of the antiphons, the Ecumenic Litany before the Great Entrance, The Aetesis Litany after Holy Communion.
If there are adults preparing for Baptism, a special “Litany of the Catechumens” is added.
And when the3re is a special commemoration for the dead, such as a 40-day memorial, the Litany of the Dead is added.
The petitions of each litany are sung by a deacon or priest and the people sing the response (usually “Lord have mercy” or “Grant this, O Lord.”) In the Roman Mass this corresponds to the “Prayer of the Faithful” where the deacon, priest or reader offers the petitions for various needs.
Often there is a call for us to re-commit ourselves: “Let us commend ourselves . . . to Christ our God.”
Each litany concludes with a prayer – sometimes recited silently by the priest – ending with the words “Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and always and forever and ever”, to which we respond “Amen.”
Several times during the Liturgy, particularly before the readings of the Holy Scripture, at the Anaphora, and at the Elevation the priest (or deacon) exclaims “Let us be attentive!” Knowing our fallen human nature, and the many temptations around us, and the devil’s desire to distract us from pure prayer and due respect to God and His worship, the clergy dutifully call us back to a spirit of prayer and proper participation in our holy work: the Divine Liturgy.
Throughout our Liturgy we pray “for peace . . . peace from on high” and frequently the priest turns to us with the words of Christ: “Peace to all!” because peace, the absence of distraction and temptation are necessary conditions for true prayer and worship.
Immediately after the Little Entrance of the Divine Liturgy the choir or cantor sings certain hymns called “troparion” and “kondakion.” These are short hymns that present the theme of the day. On Sundays the troparia are hymns praising the Resurrection. There are eight resurrectional troparia corresponding to the eight modes of Greek chant used in our church.
There are also troparia and kondakia for each day of the calendar year. These are special hymns asking the saints of the day to intercede for the people of God. Or, on major feast days, the troparia extol the mystery celebrated on that particular feast. During the Divine Liturgy we generally add the troparia in honor of the patron saint of our church. On Sundays the final kondakion (also called the Theotokion or “hymn to the Mother of God”) begins with the words “O Never-Failing Protectress of Christians. . . ” Many of the troparia are very familiar to us. For example, the troparion to the holy cross “O Lord, save Your People.”, the troparion of Easter “Christ is risen from the dead,” the kondakion of the dead “O Christ God, with the saints grant rest,”
Originally the kondakia were lengthy poetic hymns, often dramatic with dialogues between Our Lord, Our Lady, etc. and sung in parts, many of them composed by Saint Romanos, who is called the “Melodist.” The modern kondakia usually consist of single stanzas or verses from these lengthier hymns.
Some scholars believe that the troparia derive from the Greek (Byzantine) traditions, while the kondakia derive from the Syriac (Antiochene) tradition.
The Trisagion (Greek, meaning “Thrice Holy”) is a Christian hymn of very ancient origin. It is recited at the beginning of every service in our tire, and, the tie exception of some major feast days (e.g. Easter, Theophany, Holy Cross) is sung during every Divine Liturgy.
The words “Holy God, Holy mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us” are a call to the Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It servers as a sort of transition from the entrance rite of the Liturgy to the Liturgy of the Word itself, the readings.
This hymn is sung very solemnly and calls upon the faithful to realize the actual presence of our God in our midst, particularly in the proclamation of His Word. Each time the hymn is repeated, we are supposed to reverently make the sing of the cross and bow deeply.
During a pontifical Liturgy – when the Bishop celebrates – a beautiful ceremony occurs during the singing of this hymn: the bishop, holding two candlesticks called the trikerion (symbolizing the Trinity) and the dikerion (symbolizing the two natures of Christ – divine and human), blesses the assembled Church, asking God to “nurture this vineyard” which He has planted by His own hand.
The Trisagion is an important part of all Eastern Liturgies. In the West it is sung during the Presanctified Eucharist on Good Friday, and during certain popular devotions such as the “Divine Mercy Devotion.”
At the time of the Little Entrance the doors of the sanctuary are opened and a solemn procession takes place with the cross, ripidia (liturgical fans representing the cherubim), candles, and censer carried by servers, and the Gospel Book carried by the deacon or priest. The Gospel Book, the Word of God, is a symbol representing the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. Ordinarily it is enthroned on the holy altar. During the Little Entrance, Christ symbolically comes into the assembly as when on earth He began to undertake His public ministry, bringing Good News, healing the sick, casting our demons, and revealing God through Himself.
During the Little Entrance the third antiphon is sung (“Oh Son of God, who are risen from the dead, save us who sing to You: Alleluia!” or the Beatitudes.
As the Gospel Book passes through the church it is customary to turn towards it, to bow deeply and make the sign of the cross recognizing Christ in our midst.
When the Gospel is brought before the holy doors of the altar the bishop (or priest) calls the community to worship and “bow down before Christ.” Than all the clergy and the servers solemnly enter the holy place to perform their various ministries.
The antiphons of the Divine Liturgy are psalms chanted by readers, with verses repeated by the faithful. Originally in Constantinople and elsewhere these were sung at the entrance of the church building until the clergy arrived with the Gospel Book (the origin of the “Little Entrance”) at which point everyone went inside.
The first antiphon is always the same “Through the prayers of the Mother of God, O Savior save us” – but the psalm verses vary. The second antiphon varies on feast days. The usual Sunday antiphon is “O Son of God, who are risen from the dead, save us who sing to you: Alleluia.” The third antiphon consists of psalm verses with the Troparion of the feast as a refrain. Often the Beatitudes are sung in place of the third antiphon. On weekdays, the refrain is “O Son of God, Whom we admire in Your saints, save us who sing to You: Alleluia.”
In addition to the antiphons themselves, there are special prayers recited silently by the priest during the singing of the antiphons. Sometimes these are recited out loud. In some churches only one or tow antiphons are sung.
The proper attitude of a follower of Jesus Christ is clearly written on every page of the New Testament: To be a servant to one another. As fallen human beings we have a desire for others to treat us with respect, honor, deference. Jesus taught us by His own sublime example, that this is wrong. He taught us that in His Kingdom the one who considers himself least is the greatest! As St. Basil the Great wrote: “Though He was in the bosom of His God and Father since before the beginning of time, He emptied Himself and took the form of a servant.”
What is a servant? A servant is someone who is concerned about the needs of others rather than his on needs and who seeks not to receive respect but to give it to others. The paradox is that in this self-emptying (which we call metanoia) that we receive the highest possible honor: the Imitation of Christ our Savior!”
The Gifts of the Holy Spirit are permanent qualities which each Christian receives at the time of our Baptism. They are a sharing in the Divine Life and they enable us to be docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit. They are seven in number: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord. Wisdom is the ability to make the best use of all that we have learned. Understanding enables us to think and to learn. Counsel is the ability to let our life be directed according to God’s inspiration. Fortitude is a firm courage that enables us to live truly Christian life in the face of ridicule and persecution. Knowledge is the ability to clearly perceive God’s truth. Piety is devotion to the duties and obligations of our religion. Fear-of-the-Lord or “holy awe” is a profound respect and reverence for God, for holy people including the saints and those especially consecrated to God (clergy, monks and nuns), and holy things.
In the Byzantine Churches, each weekday has a special remembrance: Monday is dedicated to the Holy Angels; Tuesday we honor St. John the Baptist – the greatest man ever born, according to Our Lord!; Wednesday we remember the sufferings and death of Our Lord, who was sold on Wednesday for 30 pieces of silver; Thursday we commemorate the Holy Apostles, and St. Nicholas – a special patron saint of Byzantine Catholics; Friday is dedicated to the holy and life-giving cross of the Lord; and Saturdays are especially set aside to honor our blessed Lady, the Mother of God, and also to remember all the beloved dead, since Our Lord remained in the tomb on this day.
40 Day Memorial for the Dead
In the Eastern Church it is customary to remember our departed brothers and sisters in a special way on the fortieth day after their death. We recall that after Christ our Savior rose from the dead, destroying death and conquering Hades, He appeared on many occasions to His disciples, especially to “the eleven,” i.e. the holy Apostles. And on the fortieth day He called them to the holy mountain, commissioned them to Baptize all nations, and to forgive sins through the Sacrament of Confession. Then, before their very eyes, He was taken up bodily into heaven where He is “enthroned at the right had of the Father.”
His last words to us were: “Behold, I am with you always – even to the end of the ages.”
Recalling His glorious Resurrection and the fulfillment of His promise to remain with us through the Holy Church, the same Church calls us, after forty days, to put off mourning. At the end of the Divine Liturgy, the priest leads the faithful in prayers for the forgiveness of the sins of the departed servant(s) of God, and asks the Lord to admit his or her soul into the heavenly mansions.
A special dish called kolyva (in Arabic “ameh”) is blessed in remembrance of the departed, to be shared by the faithful in his or her memory. This dish is made of whole wheat berries, boiled, sweetened with honey, flavored with rose ware and spices, and decorated richly. The wheat serves as a reminder of the Good News of Christ our God regarding death – that “unless the grain die and fall to the ground, it will not bring forth new life.” The rose water reminds us that Christ taught that the flowers of the field are arrayed more beautifully than the mightiest king – yet we, His little ones, are more precious than they. The sweetness reminds us of the delights of heaven awaiting all those who follow the narrow way and live the life of a faithful Christian in this world.
Our Church tradition is replete with many such customs. If we do not understand them they easily become superstitious practices, or social occasions. Understanding them, they become for us a rich treasury from which we draw strength and knowledge to deepen our commitment to Christ and His Church, our only salvation.
The Divine Liturgy, the Holy Eucharist, is the central act of Christian worship. It is an intimate act of the sublime love of God for His creation. Many of the Fathers of the Church likened the Eucharistic celebration and the Holy Communion of the faithful with the Divine Body and Blood of Christ to the purest nuptial love.
Just as holy matrimony involves intimate union, and excludes all others, save the bride and groom, so this Mystical Marriage Feast of the Bridegroom (Christ) and His Bride (the Church) is an exclusive act of perfect love.
Thus, those who are not united to the Church cannot be admitted to this most sublime and intimate act of love. In the early Church, those who were not members of the community – whether unbelievers, public sinners, lapsed Catholics, etc. — were required to leave the church after the Liturgy of the Word. The next part of the Liturgy is called the “Liturgy of the Faithful,” that is, the celebration that belongs properly to those who have united themselves to Christ and His Church in Baptism and Chrismation and who continue to live the life of Faith.
Even among the Faithful, those who are aware of serious sins, or who have been absent from the weekly celebration of the Holy Liturgy, or who have not prepared for Communion by prayer and fasting, may not approach the Sacred Mysteries until they have been reconciled through Confession.
This rule is not based on excluding people from God’s love. Rather it is based on the Church’s insistence that we, the faithful, take this love that has been lavished upon us with a spirit of humility, solemnity, deep prayer. The deacon (or priest) proclaims when bringing the Sacred Gifts to the faithful, “Approach with the fear of God, with faith and with love.”
We express this “fear of God” by making a serious and reverent preparation each time we receive the Body and Blood of Christ.
We approach “with faith,” meaning that we truly believe in this Mystical Supper according to the Scriptures and the ongoing, ancient teaching of the Church; that this is the True Body and Blood of Christ – NOT as some Christians falsely believe, a mere symbolic rite or “memorial.”
We approach “with love” meaning that we recognize the Body of Christ in His One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and we approach not only as individuals invited to partake, but also as members of one another and of Christ.
The Divine Liturgy is the celebration of the Unity that exists between God and Man in His Christ and in His Church – the very salvation and re-creation of the world! The lack of unity that does exist among people- especially fellow-Christians – cannot be remedied by pretending that it does not exist; or worse! – by pretending that the Eucharist is less than the Perfect Sacrifice and Mystical Supper.
The Sacrament of Confession
The Sacrament of Confession is a holy Mystery which gives us ready and sure access to God’s forgiveness, to spiritual healing and reconciliati0on. Before his Ascension into heaven, our Savior gave the Apostles the authority to “bind and to loose” in His Name, “Whose sins you will forgive, they are gorgiven and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.”
The priest receives a share in this apostolic authority from the bishop. Jesus told His Apostles” “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” This eternal Presence of Christ in the Church through His Apostles and their successors is mercifully apparent in this Sacrament.
Though in Baptism in sins our cleansed and we receive a new life in Christ, we are still subject to the world, the flesh, and the devil. The disorder of the fallen world in which we live affects us every moment. Our own flesh, i.e. our human nature, wars against the spirit. And the devil and his angels are unrelenting in their desire for our spiritual ruin. Thus even the most virtuous and spiritual people sin each and every day.
By confession the Lord had given us the opportunity to engage in this spiritual warfare with the assurance of victory. In Confession we approach Christ before His holy icon, with His priest at our side – not as a judge, but as a fellow sinner, a companion in Faith- and we pour out our hearts before Him, acknowledging our weakness, our sinfulness, our fallibility and woundedness. It is called Confession because it is an act of Faith. By publicly acknowledging our sinfulness, and only revealing our hearts and souls to Christ, we are professing our faith in Christ – Who has assured us of forgiveness and of His own companionship as we walk our spiritual journey.
Confession should be a frequent practice. Many of the Fathers recommend that we approach this sacrament each time we receive Holy Communion, as a preparation, recalling the words of our Lord: “If you remember that you have sinned against your brother, leave your gift at the altar, and go and be reconciled.” Many spiritual directors recommend confessing our sins every other week. Many of the greatest saints approached this sacrament even more frequently.
As a minimum the Church, since early times, had required that every Christian approach this sacrament at least once a year, during Great Lent or Pascha.
The Bishop of an eparchy (or diocese) is the head of the Church. As Saint Ignatius of Antioch stated in the First century: Where the Bishop is – there is the Catholic Church. This means that each local Church embodies the universal Church. The Bishop is the successor of the Apostles in our midst, appointed by God to head the Church as its high priest. Thus, the Bishop is the representative of Christ in our midst and, as such, fulfills the three-fold ministry of Christ: Prophet, Priest, & King.
The Bishop’s prophetic role is that of Teacher, proclaiming the Gospel to the People of God and applying it to the needs of our community and of our world.
His priestly role is that of high priest for our Church: presiding over the Eucharist and the Holy Mysteries through the pastors and priests ordained and appointed by him as custodians of the Sacred Mysteries. His kingly role is that of Christ the King: ruling not by dominion, but by service. He is the “servant of the servants of God.”
When the Bishop is in our midst, the Church is truly a family with its head and Father. This is illustrated dramatically in the celebration of the pontifical Divine Liturgy (next Sunday) as the Bishop in the full vestments of the priesthood, celebrates, serves and teaches the flock, asking God to bless “this vineyard” which His right hand has planted.
It is customary to greet the Bishop by asking for his blessing and kissing his hand. This human hand is the instrument of God’s blessing, the bearer of Good News, the hand that is laid upon the heads of those God has called to serve as deacons & priests, the hand that offers to us the spotless Body and precious Blood of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. It is also customary to address him as “Sayedna” which means Master, or Teacher.
A Patriarch is a bishop who presides over a synod of bishops. Originally there were five patriarchates: one in the west (Rome) and four in the East (Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch & Jerusalem). All were major cities of the Roman Empire, and vibrant centers of Christianity. Each claimed Apostolic origin, and their prestige was heightened by their connection to the Apostle Peter. St. Peter was head of the Church in Antioch (Syria) and, later, in Rome. His brother, St. Andrew, according to tradition had presided in Byzantium (later Constantinople). And the first bishop of Alexandria, St. Mark the Evangelist, was a disciple of St. Peter.
Their prestige was later also heightened by political power, especially in the seats of Imperial Rome and Byzantium (Constantinople).
Just as the Bishop is the representative of Christ, and the head of the Church in a particular location, the Patriarch is the first among the bishops when they gather together to deliberate on matters common to their churches. Our Patriarch, Maximos V, presides over the synod of bishops of the Melkite-Greek Catholic church throughout the world. His title is “Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, of Jerusalem and Alexandria, Thirteenth Apostle and Successor of St. Peter.”
Among themselves, the patriarchs also have an order of precedence, with the Patriarch of Rome (the Pope),being the First, and the Patriarch of Constantinople (the Ecumenical Patriarch) being second, etc.
As the Churches in the East became isolated from the West, and from one another, with the dissolution of the Roman Empire, new patriarchates were established in the major cities, e.g. Moscow, Sofia, Bucharest, and Belgrade. These served to protect and unite the churches in the midst of alien invasion and oppression. Unfortunately, they also contributed to the concept of “ethnic” Churches, separate from one another.
As Catholics, we believe that the Patriarch of the West, the Pope of Rome, is more than simply the head of the Western Church. As successor of St. Peter, he has the added ministry of serving the other patriarchs and bishops in preserving the unity that is an essential characteristic of Christ’s Church throughout the world.
Patriarch Gregory III is one of several Eastern Patriarchs in full communion with Rome. Presently his synod is seeking ways to reunite with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatios, so that our Antiochene Church throughout the world may be one, and united with the Pope of Rome. They are following the teaching of Pope John Paul II that the solution to the reunion of East and West lies in the understanding of the undivided Church of the first millennium.
The church, for us, is the holy presence of God’s Heaven on this earth. While we should feel “at home” in the house of the Lord, we must never give in to a spirit of neglect or forgetfulness. It is the House of God. In it is the Holy of Holies. Upon the throne of the altar is present the true Body and Blood of Christ our Lord, sacrificed for the life of the world. Throughout this temple of God are angels and saints unseen to us, constantly adoring the Triune All-Holy God and interceding for us.
As we sing in the Cherubic Hymn, we “represent the angels” and in our service we are required to “lay aside all earthly cares.” In God’s holy temple we are to show reverence and even awe, witnessing with our bodies’ posture, our actions, and even our dress, to the faith we proclaim: that God Himself is here dwelling “in the midst of men.”
Entering the church we should bow reverently and kiss the holy icons of Our Lord and the Theotokos. Once inside it is not appropriate to converse or to greet one another, except silently. Our focus should be on our role as members of the Body of Christ, saints of His Church, sinners who have been chosen by Christ to share in His Body and Blood, in His own saving work (Divine liturgy).
Before the service begins, we should remain in silent prayer to prepare ourselves for the awesome task before us. During the services it is not proper to leave, unless there is a real need. After service, if we remain in church, we should be in a deep spirit of thanksgiving to God for all His blessings, particularly the blessing of having participated in the holy and awesome Mysteries of Christ.
It is true that we are gathering in church as a family and as friends – but our purpose is to serve God in holiness and in prayer. For this reason we encourage social gathering after the Divine Services, and apart from God’s holy temple (the church proper).
Remember, it is a higher act of charity to concentrate wholly on prayer and worship in the church, fulfilling the First and greatest Commandment. Then, having fulfilled the Commandment to love the Lord with our whole heart and our whole soul and our whole mind, we gather outside or downstairs to socialize.
Before receiving the Sacrament of Baptism, a candidate must undergo a thorough catechesis, i.e. “instruction in the Faith” to prepare for this sacred Mystery. Naturally, in the case of infants, we rely on the faith of their parents and sponsors. It is for this reason that the parents must be active, practicing, committed Catholics. And the sponsors, who represent the community of the faithful, must be exemplary Catholic Christians.
For infants and small children, the Church requires a period of preparation for the parents and sponsors. Even though they are practicing their faith, and are fully members of the Church community, it is important to prepare for so great a Mystery and to clearly understand what they are doing on behalf of their child.
Unfortunately, sometimes the baptism of an infant must be delayed. This is not a penalty. Baptism is the complete immersion of the candidate into the Mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. It is an action of the Church signifying and bringing about a complete and essential transformation of the candidate. With Chrismation and Eucharist the newly-baptized is made a full and active member of the Christian fold. To perform this sacred Mystery as a mere ritual, without expectation that the parents will nurture the divine life, would be a sin of sacrilege.
Baptism, like all Sacraments, is never a private, family “event.” It is a celebration of the whole Church community. The infant (or adult) is not being initiated into a vague idea of Christianity. She or he is being fully incorporated into a living Faith Community – a parish church.
The role of the sponsors is sometimes confused with ideas that come from popular customs – not necessarily Christian. The sponsor (sometimes called a “god-parent”) is not a surrogate parent or guardian. The sponsor is an active and exemplary member of the Christian community, who is chosen to stand with the Baptized as a partner in faith – someone who will share his or her Christian spiritual life with the newly-baptized. It is for this reason that a sponsor must, obviously be someone who is actively living the life of Faith.
Chrismation is the second Mystery of Initiation. Immediately after Baptism, the candidate is anointed with Holy Chrism – a special mixture of oil and spices consecrated each year on Holy Thursday by the Patriarch for all the Melkite-Greek Catholic Churches throughout the world. It signifies the royal and priestly character bestowed upon all Christians, the healing power of the Holy Spirit who is with us always. In a special way it connects us to the Holy Apostles through our Patriarch, the successor of St. Peter at Antioch, and unites us with our brothers and sisters throughout the world.
As the candidate is anointed the priest says “The Seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Having been reborn into new life in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the Christian, clothed in white as a symbol of his new life and purity, comes before God and the Church, offering himself and all the gifts and potential he has received through God’s mercy. This sacrament seals the newly-baptized in the Faith, and joins him in a mystical way to the whole Church. Thus, he or she becomes a full member of the Body of Christ and takes his place among the faithful.
In the Western Churches this Mystery is called “Confirmation.” During the past hundred years the custom developed in the West, of conferring this sacrament on older children. In more recent years the proper order of conferring Confirmation after Baptism and before the first reception of the Eucharist is being restored in the West.
When an adult of another Christian Confession, who has been validly baptized, converts to our Faith, he or she is generally admitted into the Church by receiving this Sacrament. Members of the Eastern Orthodox Churches who wish to enter into communion with the Catholic Church are received by simply making a profession of Faith, usually during the sacrament of Confession.
The Holy Eucharist is the true Body and Blood of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, present under the forms of bread and wine. The bread and the wine are sacred gifts, prepared by the priest during the prothesis (liturgy of preparation). Following the Liturgy of the Word, they are carried in solemn procession (the Great Entrance) to be placed upon the holy altar, the very throne of God.
The priest offers the gifts of bread and wine on behalf of the faithful, recalls the words of Our Savior on the night on which He was delivered up for the life of the world and then, with fervent prayers (epiclesis), asks God to come down from heaven on the gifts of bread and wine to make the bread the Body of Christ, and the wine the Blood of Christ, changing them by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Once this sacred Mystery has taken place, prayers of petition and thanksgiving (eucharistia in Greek) are offered by the priest and the people. Following the Lord’s Prayer the faithful are invited to approach “with the fear of God, with faith and with love.”
This “fear of God” means tremendous reverence for God’s Mystical Presence and His intimate communion with us. “With faith” means that we truly believe that this IS the Body and Blood of the risen Christ. “With love” means that we are at peace and have been reconciled with our brothers and sisters.
The Eucharist, thus received, forgives us our sins and grants us a special intimacy with the Living Christ. If we are aware of sins which prevent us from God’s grace, or if we have anything against our brothers and sisters, we are obliged to abstain from receiving Holy Communion until we are reconciled through the Sacrament of Confession.
Similarly, we are bound to prepare for receiving the Lord by examining our conscience, praying for forgiveness, and fasting.
We should approach the Eucharist at Holy Communion, with profound reverence and deep gratitude. The proper posture is to cross our hands over our breast, and to bow deeply before the holy chalice before and after receiving Our Lord. We must strive to be conscious of the tremendous Gift that is being offered us, though we are all unworthy sinners.
A portion of the Holy Body and Precious Blood of Christ remain on the altar in a special vessel called artophorion or “tabernacle” Thus, God Himself remains truly, mystically, physically present dwelling in the church at all times.
In awareness of this Mystery, it is proper always to make a sign of reverence when we enter the church, when we pass in front of the holy altar, before we leave the church and even when outside, when we pass in front of a church. Likewise, we should always remain in a spirit of reverence shown by our behavior, the way we dress, keeping a spirit of silence and prayer.
In the early Church, the Christians preserved the Jewish custom of sanctifying the hours of the day with special prayers. Later, the monks of Egypt and Palestine, standardized these prayer services to include selections from the Psalms, prayers appropriate to each of the hours, and various hymns.
These hours were recited by monks in their monasteries, and by the Christian faithful in their parish churches.
On the eves of major feast days such as Christmas (December 25th), Theophany (January 6th) and also on Good Friday, the service of the Hours took on an especially solemn character. In the great Cathedral of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople, not only the choirs or monks, the clergy and the faithful, but the Emperor himself came together to recite these prayers and to hear special readings appointed for the particular Feast. This served as a reminder to the Emperor and to the ordinary people, that in the eyes of Christ there is “no rich or poor, no Jew or Greek, no fee man nor slave” as the Apostle says.
For the most part, unfortunately, modern Christians have fallen away from the practice of praying the hours on a daily basis. The Royal Hours on Christmas Eve are an opportunity for the people to gather in prayer, to hear the readings from the Old Testament and the New, and to prepare for the Sacred Mysteries soon to be celebrated.
During the Divine Liturgy there are prayers (usually recited silently by the priest) during which specific needs are mentioned. Prayers are recited for the sick, for benefactors of the church, for the departed, for those who are suffering, etc. Often people will ask the priest to remember someone by name at the holy altar. They usually give a special donation, called a “stipend” which is a gift to the church in remembrance of the departed or on behalf of someone who is living for whom a special commemoration is requested. Sometimes the person requesting a commemoration will offer the bread, wine, incense, etc. which are used during the Divine Liturgy.
When the priest is preparing the bread and wine for the Liturgy during the Prothesis, he places a particle of the holy bread on the diskos in remembrance of each individual commemorated. These particles are placed near the Agnos or “Lamb”, the portion of the holy bread that is to become the Body of Christ.
During the Great Entrance, when these gifts are carried in procession to the holy altar, the priests may make a special prayer on behalf of those he has been asked to remember by name. And,. after the Consecration having remembered all the saints in heaven, he silently remembers those who have died and those who are on earth. At this sacred moment, with the faithful gathered around the Immortal Body and Blood of Christ, it is natural for us to pour out our requests and needs at the very Throne of God.
It is also customary, when requesting a commemoration, to inform the persons to be prayed for — or in the case of the departed, their relatives — that an offering has been made on their behalf. This is a tremendous gift and ought not to be reserved only for those who have died.
It would be very appropriate to ask for a commemoration for someone who has a special need, is celebrating an anniversary, birthday, etc. or simply as a way of expressing our love for them.
The Divine Liturgy is celebrated always for the whole world. As the text of the Liturgy states, “Lord, you know the needs of each one,” By remembering our loved ones specifically, we are reminded of the grace and power of the Sacred Liturgy, and reminding ourselves and those for whom we pray, that it is only through the power of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit that we are saved, blessed, forgiven, and truly united to one another.
The Feast of the Presentation commemorates the Entrance of Our Lord into the temple 40 days after His Nativity. At that time, in fulfillment of the Old Testament Law, Jesus Christ was carried by His Mother and St. Joseph to the temple, where a holy Prophet, Symeon the Just, received the Divine Savior into his arms and presented Him at he Holy of Holies. Liturgically this feast is called “The Encounter” for it was at this event that the Lord God, our Savior Jesus Christ, first “encountered” the people of the Law in the Jewish Sanctuary. St. Symeon had been promised that he would not die before he would behold with his own eyes the Messiah. When he received Out Lord, he joyfully prayed this prayer – which is properly recited whenever we leave the church after services:
“Now you shall dismiss your servant, O Lord, according to Your word in peace because my eyes have seen your Salvation, which you gave prepared before the face of all peoples: a Light of revelation for the gentiles, and the Glory of your people, Israel.”
The primary teacher of the faith, called in Latin, the Magisterium or “Teaching Authority” is the hierarchy, that is, the bishops in union with the Holy Father, the Pope of Rome. The bishop as head of his Church, is the authentic “teaching authority.” And, consequently in each parish, the Pastor is the one designated as the teacher of the faith. In the home, parents have the grave responsibility of seeing to it that their children are raised with an understanding of the Holy Faith. In fact, this is their most serious obligation.
Of course Catholic adults have the serious obligation of educating themselves in accordance with the teaching authority of the Church. We do not have the liberty of trying to “fit” the church’s teaching into our opinions or lifestyles, but we do have the duty of conforming our lives, our opinions, our understanding and our will to the authentic teaching of the Church.
We believe that the Holy Catholic Church has the fullness of truth, having received the whole Tradition (the Scriptures, the Fathers, the Liturgy, the hierarchy) from Christ our God through the Holy Apostles. As adult Christians our yearning for the truth must lead us to the Source of Truth, the Truth Himself, Jesus Christ our God, Who told the Holy Apostles; “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of time.”