Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Bits of Tradition

The following are selections from our Church bulletin. Each selection discusses briefly (in 200 words or less) aspects of Orthodox tradition for newcomers, or those seeking a little refresher.

Incensing and Bowing
The offering of incense in worship is as old as human history itself. In Jewish tradition, the offering of incense represented the prayers of those who worshiped Yahweh in the Temple. In Roman culture, the “pinch of incense” that early Christians were pressured into offering the Emperor was to all intents and purposes a declaration of his divinity. At the same time, incense had a non-religious, purely honorary function. Senators and other nobles would have a slave carrying incense before them as they traveled through the streets as a sign of their importance.

In Orthodox Christian worship, the offering of incense is directed at Christ, in the spirit of Temple worship. At the same time, incense recognizes the importance of the “royal priesthood” of the baptized faithful. At various times during the services, the presbyter incenses the people and bows to them, both as an act of worshiping the presence of Christ in them, as well as an act of personally honouring those who are called to be heirs of God’s divine life. In response, it is customary for the people to bow as way of accepting the honour given both to them and to Christ who dwells within them.

The Anaphora
At the heart of the liturgy is a prayer known as the “Anaphora” in which we offer up the gifts of bread and wine, and ask God to return them to us as the Body and Blood of Christ. The Anaphora is a very ancient form, being derived from Jewish blessings. At the Last Supper, our Lord Jesus prayed one of these prayers, and then fulfilled their meaning by declaring the bread and wine to be His Body and Blood, the ultimate expression of His love for humanity on the Cross.

During the Anaphora, the people of God stand up, lay aside all distractions, and focus all of our attention on the words of the prayer, which the priest offers out loud on our behalf. And when the priest asks God to send down His Holy Spirit and make the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, we seal this invocation with a series of loud “amens.” After the final “amen,” we cross ourselves and make a low bow, declaring with our bodies, along with minds and hearts, the profound solemnity of this moment in which God gives Himself to us in the humblest human food and drink.

Receiving the Eucharist
Our reception of the Eucharistic is a profoundly solemn moment in our worship. One of the hymns we sing before liturgy says, “If you intend, O man, to eat the Master’s Body and drink His Blood, approach with fear, for it is fire.” Our baptism and our attitude of repentance makes it possible for us to receive this consuming and unapproachable Fire being burned, but we are urged nevertheless to approach with fear, as well as the boldness, faith and love of God’s own children.

In the spirit of this understanding, we approach the Eucharist reverently, with hands by our sides or folded crosswise over our breast. We receive the Eucharist carefully, either allowing the priest to drop the bread and wine into our mouths, or closing our mouths firmly on the spoon. We then wipe our mouths on the cloth, and if we wish, kiss the chalice. We drink some water and eat some blessed bread to clear our mouths, before returning to our place to stand prayerfully until the priest returns to the altar with the chalice. Finally, it is our custom to thank God in prayer for the Eucharistic miracle in which we have participated once again.

Getting a Blessing
Perhaps the most important legacy of the Orthodox tradition is its challenge to offer up every level of our existence—intellectual and physical—to the One who assumed our whole life in order to raise it up to His own divine life. Our faith is not merely intellectual, something to be grasped with the mind alone. Rather, Orthodoxy embodies the wholeness of the spiritual life.

The wholeness of Orthodox tradition is expressed in our full and joyful celebration of the physical world, beginning with the bread and the wine of our Eucharist and extending into our customs of blessing everything in creation, including our own bodies when we make the sign of the cross.

A significant part of this habit of blessing everything is to greet or say farewell to the priest or bishop by receiving a blessing. Approaching the priest, we lay one hand over the other, palms upward. The priest will then make the sign of the cross over us and lay his hand onto ours. We kiss his hand as a sign of respect for the priestly office. In Canadian contexts, getting a hug after getting a blessing is quickly becoming our local expression of Orthodox tradition.

Great Vespers
According to practice of the Orthodox Church, a new liturgical day begins at sunset. Although the actual time of sunset may vary, 'sunset' is understood to mean around 6:00 p.m. The liturgical marker of sunset is Vespers, referred to as 'Great Vespers' on Saturday evenings. At the centre of Vespers is “Joyful Light,” a hymn dates back to the 2nd century. “Joyful Light” heralds the setting of the physical sun with the rise of the spiritual Sun, Christ Himself, and reminds us that in the passing of earthly time we can anticipate the dawn of eternity. This awareness is no greater than on Saturday evening, which anticipates the day of Christ's resurrection.

On either side of “Joyful Light” Vespers provides us with a rich variety of psalms and hymns. On Saturday night, the hymns focus is on the resurrection and its meaning in our lives. In this way, Great Vespers is fundamental to our preparation for Sunday's divine liturgy and our participation in the Eucharist. Our challenge is to expand and deepen our encounter with the risen Christ, whose Body and Blood we eat and drink, by striving to make Saturday night Vespers a regular habit in our lives.

Lighting a Candle
At the heart of Orthodox tradition is the conviction that the Gospel is accessible to all. The life of the Orthodox Church opens up a multitude of avenues by which any person—regardless of age, gender, ability, or station in life—can praise and give thanks to our loving God, whether it be through a profound theological discourse, an achievement in music or art, or in the simplest act of piety.

For instance, as Orthodox Christians enter the Church temple, it is customary for us to light a candle before the icons, asking the Mother of God and the Saints to pray for us and the Lord Himself to have mercy on us. The lighting of the candle is a declaration of our prayerful faith, our attention, our hope and trust. It is something even the smallest child can do (with the assistance of a parent if necessary), and so reminds us again that, in the end, our faith must be received and lived in simplicity and humility of heart, remembering Jesus' words: “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Mark 10:15 and Luke 18:17)

Parts of the Church temple
In its calendar, the Church offers us a way to infuse time with the power of the Gospel. Similarly, the Orthodox Church temple embodies the ways in which the Gospel sanctifies the three dimensions of space.

The Church's architectural symbolism exists within the basic framework of the building itself, which is divided into three parts:
I. The narthex. Historically, this is porch where the Church gathered during the singing of antiphons before entering the main building. Some Church Fathers have associated the narthex with the human body and the Old Testament phase of salvation history.
II. The nave. This is the central assembly point of the Church, where the laity stand in worship. This area is linked to the soul of the human person, as well as to the New Testament and order of the cosmos.
III. The sanctuary. This area is set aside for the offering of the Eucharist. It is sometimes called “the Holy of Holies” because the Church's offering fulfills the sacrifices of the Jewish temple. The Fathers have also understood this space as representing the spiritual dimension of the human person, as well as the Heavenly Kingdom in the age to come.

Processions
In the Orthodox Church, you will find processions in the Divine Liturgy, Vespers, at weddings, baptisms, funerals, the consecration of a Church temple, and the service of ordination. Processions are held at many major feast days (such as Holy Friday and Pascha), as well as to commemorate significant events in Church history (such as the Triumph of Icons).

Orthodox liturgical processions usually follow a counter-clockwise circular pattern, either once or three times. The purpose of procession is dedicatory: just as Joshua and the people of Israel encircled Jericho to claim the city for God, we also process in order to dedicate whatever we encircle to God. So, for example, newly baptized Christians are led around the baptismal font as a declaration that they are now committed to living out their baptisms into Christ.

At Saint Aidan's, we conduct two mini-processions at every Divine Liturgy—one with the Gospel book and the other with the gifts of bread and wine. During these processions, the clergy and servers encircle the people, who gather (as they are able) at the centre. In this way, we allow ourselves to be dedicated to the offering, both of the Word of God and the bloodless sacrifice of the Eucharist.

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