Introducing the Orthodox Church: Its Faith and Life. 3
By   Anthony M. Coniaris
We Are the Church Of the Early Fathers
"This here town has been mighty good to me," boomed the guest of honor at a reception honoring his fifty years of service to the community". When I first arrived here, I was an inexperienced tenderfoot with only one suit on my back and all my worldly possessions wrapped in a red bandana over my shoulder. Today I own the bank, the newspaper, the two hotels, nine oil wells and the TV station!"
Later an impressed visitor asked, "Would you tell us just what was in that red bandana when you arrived here fifty years ago?"
"Let's see now",  mused the guest of honor. "If I recall rightly, I was carrying over $400,000 in cash and $750,000 in negotiable securities".
This describes the Orthodox immigrant arriving in America years ago. What was in his bandana was far more precious than cash and securities. It was the Pearl of Great Price: our Lord Jesus and the heritage of a living faith going all the way back to the apostles.
Some time ago a father wanted his 14-year-old son to see Omaha Beach. He wanted him to see where once he had stood between life and death. Then he had been a lieutenant colonel with the Rangers in the United States Army. As he and his boy stood on the naked beach of France, everything became vivid in his mind. He recalled the scaling of the walls; he experienced again the fierce combat; he remembered the horrors of war. Everything he touched – a rotting piece of rope, an iron hook, a rusty chain, a broken tree – came back to life. It stood for something. Like the warriors of Joshua's time, he wanted to say to his son, "Remember what your father did".
As the Lutheran Church says, "Remember Martin Luther." As the Methodist Church says, "Remember John Wesley." As the Presbyterian Church says, "Remember John Calvin," so the Orthodox Church has always said, "Remember the Church Fathers. Remember the ancient, undivided, apostolic Church and do not depart from its catholic faith."
The Orthodox Church is often called the Church of the Fathers because she maintains a living connection with the early Church Fathers. We are not a Church that was instituted a few years ago, or even a few centuries ago. The early Fathers are part of our church history. In fact, our Church came to be called Orthodox, meaning true faith, because of the great emphasis the early Fathers of the Greek Church placed upon preserving the true faith of Christ. As Orthodox Christians, we have inherited all the experience of 19 centuries of Christian living and thinking and believing and witnessing and dying. We have behind us millions of be living men and women of every tribe and tongue, witnessing to the truth of the Gospel, often dying for it in order to hand it down to us.
That is why when we Orthodox Christians pick up the Bible to read it, we do not act as if these 19 centuries of church history did not exist. We read the Bible and we gain a better understanding of it because we consider how the Holy Spirit has guided the Church Fathers in the past to interpret Scripture. This is what we mean by Sacred Tradition. We do not mean, as Fr. Florovsky emphasizes, the traditions of men or a slavish attachment to the past. By Sacred Tradition we mean A LIVING CONNECTION WITH THE ENTIRE PAST EXPERIENCE OF THE CHURCH, nineteen centuries of it during which the Holy Spirit has been protecting and defining and proclaiming the truth of Christ through the Church.
There is a great sense of community in the Orthodox Church. Orthodox Christians never pray alone. We pray together with all the saints who have passed on. We pray not as individuals, but as members of the body of Christ, i.e., the Church. We pray with the Theotokos, the apostles, the angels, the martyrs and the saints of all ages. They are present at every liturgy as depicted in the iconography of our Church. Around the figure of Christ in the dome are gathered the angels, apostles, saints and martyrs on the walls. All these constitute the Church Triumphant in heaven. Then we, the congregation, on the ground-floor of the Church, represent the Church Militant on earth. Thus around the figure of Christ in the dome is gathered for every liturgy the entire Church, both that in heaven and that on earth.
Dr. Howard Rome, psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic, said once that when he sits with a patient in a room, he considers that he is not alone with the patient. Behind the patient, he says, stand like a Greek chorus, all the people with whom the patient has ever lived. They are all in the room with him, for they have left their indelible mark on this patient's personality either for good or ill.
The Orthodox Church reminds us that we do not stand alone. Behind us stands a cloud of witnesses. Behind us, for example, stand the 318 Church Fathers who came to the First Ecumenical Council. They came, bearing the scars of martyrdom, some with one eye and some with one arm. Some without legs and some with disfigured faces. They came with twisted and paralyzed limbs. They came from all over the Empire to bear witness with their whole personality to the truth they believed: that Jesus Christ is Lord.
These martyrs stand behind us. And behind them stand others: Peter and James and Stephen and Ignatius and Polycarp and Paul and Athanasius and Chrysostom – a whole army of noble martyrs who rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for the name of Christ.
In criticizing Paul Tillich's view of Christology (the study of who Christ is) Fr. George Tavard writes", ... I believe in the existence of objective criteria in Christological matters. The norm of Christology cannot be the new insights that theologians may reach; it must always be the consistent interpretation of Jesus the Christ that has developed in the Church along the lines set by the orthodox Fathers in the theological controversies of the early centuries of Christianity. Should Tillich's Christology stray from this standard, it must be branded as a betrayal of Christ himself." 1 In other words, the truth of the Orthodox Christian faith can never be based on one person's experience or thought of God, but on that of the whole of redeemed humanity. An Orthodox Christian would never say, "This has to be the truth because I know I had a special revelation from Christ or the Holy Spirit".  That "special revelation" must agree and not depart from the collective Christian experience of the Church as a whole from the apostles down to the present. The Church Fathers are not dead. They still speak to us of their vast experience. We benefit from that experience. We still drink from the wells of their inspiration and wisdom.
We owe a great debt to the Church Fathers. Where would we be without the liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great? the beautiful Kontakia of Romanos the Melodist? the precise definitions of Orthodoxy by St. John of Damascus? the glorious Nicene Creed? the exquisitely magnificent hymns written by monks and fathers in the early monasteries where prayer was a way life? the inspiring Jesus Prayer? the definitions of Christ and the Trinity as formulated by the Ecumenical Councils? the sublime icons? How many others have labored in our behalf that we could come to this hour as Orthodox Christians? All that we have, all that we are, the great treasure of our faith has been bought with enormous price. We are not our own. We were bought with a price none can repay. We are debtors living on great gifts from the past.
Hopefully, what Edward R. Murrow once said of Britain's heroic stand against Nazi tyranny may be said of us: "Unconsciously they dug deep into their history and felt that Drake, Raleigh, Cromwell, and all the rest were looking down at them and they were obliged to look worthy in the eyes of their ancestors".
The Orthodox Church honors the Fathers not because they are witnesses of antiquity, or of a very ancient faith. She honors them because they are witnesses of the true faith, witnesses of the truth of Christ. This is the faith the apostles received from Christ and passed on to us (I Cor. 11:23). The Church Fathers are witnesses and guarantors of that complete and unaltered truth given to us by Christ and the Holy Spirit. Thus, behind Basil and Chrysostom, John the Baptist and John the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa and Symeon the New Theologian – behind them all – stands Jesus the Christ and His saving truth. We are not saved by the Church Fathers, but we are indebted to them because they are the earthen vessels who bring to us the great treasure which is Christ.
There is a great danger involved in possessing a rich tradition as we Orthodox Christians do. One of the dangers was pointed out by the historian Gibbon who describes some of the degeneration of Christianity under the Greek scholars of the 10th century, who handled the literature and spoke the language of the spiritual but knew not the life: "They held in their lifeless hands the riches of their fathers without inheriting the spirit which had created and imparted that sacred patrimony. They read; they praised; they compiled; but their languid souls seemed alike incapable of thought and action." Admittedly, Gibbon was for the most part ignorant of and prejudiced against the Eastern Church. Nonetheless he pointed out a real danger for those who have inherited a rich patrimony.
Another danger is that our theology become merely a theology of repetition. While referring to the fathers is a method of maintaining continuity with the faith of the early Church, the practice can undermine and restrict the theological vigor of Orthodox theology. We are not just pulled by the past; we are also pulled by the future. There has to be a balance between the two. The pull of the past can be so strong as to neutralize the pull to the future. We must be open to the old without being closed to the new. The future is more than just clinging to the past. Fr. Florovsky wrote, "It is a dangerous habit just to handle 'quotations' from the Fathers… outside of the total structure of faith, in which only they are truly alive. 'To follow the Fathers' does not mean simply to quote their sentences. It means to acquire their mind, their phenomena".
Another danger of inheriting the rich tradition of the Fathers is pointed out by Professor von Campenhausen: "The Fathers had become so holy that in the end they could no longer beget any sons who were their equal in vitality… Imprisoned in their own territorial and cultural confines, their Church rested upon its own perfection. It trusted in an unchanging and indestructible continuity with the apostles and Fathers of the past whose achievements it admired so much that it failed to observe the changing nature of the problems which faced theology. It preserved their intellectual inheritance without doing anything to renew it".
Another way of stating this would be to say that we live by clipping coupons. Our fathers and grandfathers amassed the capital. Boasting about how much they had on deposit, we live on the interest without adding to the capital. But when the capital is used up, the coupons are useless. We have to keep adding to the capital.
We have two kinds of possessions – the things we inherit and the things we achieve. A rich inheritance can often make us complacent and prevent us from achieving.
Preserving the treasures of the past is important. But Orthodox Christianity is not just a past greatness. The Church Fathers have established the foundations. It is up to us to keep building on those foundations.
When the 1964 Olympic Games opened in Tokyo, the Olympic Flame was brought by plane from Olympia, Greece, the site of the first Olympics in 776 B.C. From the plane the burning torch was carried by relays of runners, who passed the flame from one to the next until it reached the site of the games. It linked the Olympic Games in Tokyo with their source in the past.
As Christians we are all "torch bearers." We have received the light of life from its source in God. The torch was handed to us by a great line of believers stretching back to Christ himself – apostles, martyrs, saints. It is our privilege and duty to pass it on to others.
Einstein said once, "A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other men, living and dead. I must exert myself in order to give in the measure as I have received and am still receiving." Think of those 318 Church Fathers – many of them blinded and crippled for their faith – meeting in Nicea in 325 A.D. to pass on to us the lighted torch of Christ. Think of what they suffered to place the torch in our hands today.
Violinist Jascha Heifetz has virtually retired from the concert stage to devote his talents to teaching. Explaining why he did this, he said, "I should like to pass on what I know to my pupils. To be an artist is like being entrusted with something precious for a brief time. It is the duty of an artist to hand it on, like those Greek runners who passed on the lighted torch, one to another."
We are all entrusted for a brief time with something precious – the Lord Jesus Christ "in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" and, as the Gospel says, "whom to know is life eternal." We are entrusted with the apostolic faith. This is the lighted torch we are to pass on to our children and to our friends who do not know Christ.
A spectator told of watching the 1948 Olympic Games in London. A relay race was on. The French team had started well. But as the torch was being passed to the third runner he dropped it. The accident put the team out of the running. The runner threw himself on the ground, flung his hands to his head in a gesture of despair and openly wept. His emotional outburst continued as he was led from the area.
To take defeat so tearfully might seem a bit unsportsmanlike. But one should remember how many persons were involved in that runner's failure. There were his watching compatriots, whose hopes were dashed. There were the teammates who had run before him and whose work was ruined by his blunder. And then there were the runners who were to come after but who never got the chance to run because of the accident.
The whole spectacle made that spectator realize how much life was like a relay race. In the race of life, no one starts from scratch. Others have run the race before us. Still others wait to run the race after us. If we fail to pass on the lighted torch they have given us, we fail not only them but we also deprive countless others in the future of the light of Christ.
St. Symeon the New Theologian regarded as the most dangerous heresy the notion that the Church no longer possesses the same fullness of the charismata as it did in ancient times. The same gifts are assured to those who today, as yesterday, seek them in humility and self-surrender. To have Church Fathers is a permanent dimension of the Church.
We Orthodox have a great past, a great tradition. We are proud of this. But we must not live in the past. Where are our John Chrysostoms today? our Basils? our Gregories? our new Athanasius, John of Damascus? We have the apostolic doctrine. We have the apostolic succession. But we can have, too, the apostolic power of the Holy Spirit to produce new and powerful witnesses for the Lord today, new Church Fathers – not carbon copies of the old but originals as they were. For God is always more interested in producing originals than carbon copies.
The Orthodox Church is not a museum of the first thousand years of Christianity. We must not succumb to the temptation that the Fathers have said everything and that all we have to do is to repeat them verbatim. Father Florovsky has reminded us that the notion of "father" is not limited to the period called "Patristic".  St. Gregory of Palamas, for example, was a "Church Father" in the fourteenth century. To repeat, to have Church Fathers is a permanent dimension of the Church. The Fathers beget us in the faith that we in turn might become fathers, that is, free creators under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit who empowered and guided the early Fathers.
The Old Testament describes the great watering places which the patriarch Abraham planned and provided at strategic places in Palestine. When the Philistines pillaged the land, these wells were despoiled and filled. Isaac, Abraham's son, made it his business to re-open the well-springs of his father.
We must re-open the wells dug by the Church Fathers not only to receive refreshment from them but also to examine and see what were the qualities that made them great. Let us examine some of these qualities.
St. Basil wrote, "As our body cannot live without breathing, so our soul cannot keep alive without knowing the Creator; for the ignorance of God is the death of the soul".  What made the Church Fathers such great and fervent witnesses of Christ was that for them to know God was the supreme privilege and task of life.
The Apostle John writes, "And this is life eternal, that they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent" (John 17:3). The supreme blessing of the human soul is that it can know God. The supreme tragedy is that often it does not want to know Him, being distracted by the things of this world.
The Catechism tells us that we were born for nothing else. We live for no other purpose than to know, love, and serve God on earth, and to enjoy Him for all eternity.
We read in Jeremiah 9:23-24, "Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices kindness, justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these I delight, says the Lord." our Gregories? our new Athanasius, John of Damascus? We have the apostolic doctrine. We have the apostolic succession. But we can have, too, the apostolic power of the Holy Spirit to produce new and powerful witnesses for the Lord today, new Church Fathers – not carbon copies of the old but originals as they were. For God is always more interested in producing originals than carbon copies.
The Orthodox Church is not a museum of the first thousand years of Christianity. We must not succumb to the temptation that the Fathers have said everything and that all we have to do is to repeat them verbatim. Father Florovsky has reminded us that the notion of "father" is not limited to the period called "Patristic." St. Gregory of Palamas, for example, was a "Church Father" in the fourteenth century. To repeat, to have Church Fathers is a permanent dimension of the Church. The Fathers beget us in the faith that we in turn might become fathers, that is, free creators under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit who empowered and guided the early Fathers.
The Old Testament describes the great watering places which the patriarch Abraham planned and provided at strategic places in Palestine. When the Philistines pillaged the land, these wells were despoiled and filled. Isaac, Abraham's son, made it his business to re-open the well-springs of his father.
We must re-open the wells dug by the Church Fathers not only to receive refreshment from them but also to examine and see what were the qualities that made them great. Let us examine some of these qualities.
St. Basil wrote, "As our body cannot live without breathing, so our soul cannot keep alive without knowing the Creator; for the ignorance of God is the death of the soul".  What made the Church Fathers such great and fervent witnesses of Christ was that for them to know God was the supreme privilege and task of life.
The Apostle John writes, "And this is life eternal, that they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent" (John 17:3). The supreme blessing of the human soul is that it can know God. The supreme tragedy is that often it does not want to know Him, being distracted by the things of this world.
The Catechism tells us that we were born for nothing else. We live for no other purpose than to know, love, and serve God on earth, and to enjoy Him for all eternity.
We read in Jeremiah 9:23-24, "Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices kindness, justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these I delight, says the Lord."
The purpose of all Christian preaching and teaching is to get to know God. By this we mean not just to get to know about Him, but to get to know Him. There is a world of difference between knowing about someone and really knowing him.
When the Bible talks about knowing God, it does not mean knowing certain ideas about  Him, but knowing Him personally. The word know in Hebrew means knowledge that comes from a close, intimate relationship. "This is eternal life that they may know Thee and Jesus Christ Whom Thou hast sent". "Know Thee", not "about Thee". Knowing about God or Christ does not save, does not give eternal life. Knowing Christ does.
The essence of Christianity is a direct personal encounter between two persons – ourselves and God. Man is called to establish an intimate, deeply personal I -Thou relationship with God.
Getting to know someone is difficult – very difficult – unless the other person chooses to open up and reveal himself to us. God has already done this in Christ. He has opened Himself up. This is why we Christians believe that it is impossible to know God apart from Christ. "No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known" (John 1:18). Only He who is in the bosom of the Father – in the closest possible relationship to Him – can make God known. This is why St. Paul said, "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified".  It is only by Christ that we can come to know God not as a distant, remote, unapproachable deity, but as a Friend who loves and cares personally and intimately.
We come to know God by spending time with Him in prayer every day, in divine worship every Sunday, and by reading His personal letter to us – the Holy Bible. One cannot really know a person if one is not willing to spend time with him. The Church Fathers spent much time with Jesus. They knew Him personally.
The Church Fathers not only knew God personally, they also experienced His presence and power in their lives.
"Of the three ways of acquiring knowledge," said Roger Bacon, "authority, reasoning, experience, only the last (experience) is effective."
Walt Whitman was listening one night to an astronomer lecturing on the stars. The hall was stuffy, the lecture dull, and the charts even more dull, until, says Whitman, "I could no longer bear it. I rose and wandered out into the night and looked up at the stars themselves. I was overcome with breathless wonder."
There are people today who do the same with their religion. They stay inside poring over the charts and diagrams, memorizing the number of sacraments, concentrating on the mere mechanism of faith. They will not walk outside to see the stars for themselves. They need to proceed from theory to experience, from knowledge about God, which is abstract, to knowledge of God in Christ, which is personal.
For example, every Easter churches are filled to overflowing. If the Easter crowds really believed in the resurrection of Jesus, really believed it, the church would not be half-empty on the Sunday following Easter. It would be bursting at the seams. The resurrection is real, but people need to experience it in their own lives. They need to experience the power of Christ to resurrect them from their own dead hopes, dead dreams, dead lives, from the deadness of sin, to a new life, a life of glory and peace and hope and joy in the Lord.
God cannot be fully expressed. In fact, a God fully defined is no God, but He can be experienced. He expressed Himself once in the Person of Jesus. The purpose of that expression was that He might be experienced in the lives of His people as Emmanuel – God with us.
St. Macarius states that Christians do, and even must, experience consciously the presence of the Spirit in their hearts. His definition of the Christian faith as a personal experience of God was adopted by St. Symeon the New Theologian and other great saints of our Church.
The great appeal of the so-called "charismatics" is that they satisfy the need for man to experience God. The appeal to the intellect is not enough. The heart, too, has needs of which the intellect is unaware. God can be known intellectually, but He becomes real when He is experienced personally.
No one can ever prove to you that Christ is the Son of God. You've got to find out for yourself. It's like love—you can only love by experience, not by reading about it in a book.
That is why the call of God in the Bible is: "Come and see!" When Andrew found Christ, he said to his brother Simon, "I have found the Messiah, the Christ. I do not ask you to take it on my word. I ask that you come and see for yourself." After the Samaritan woman found Christ at the well, she ran to her people and said, "Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?" That night when they came back, they said to her, "Now we believe, not because you told us: for we have seen and heard Him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Savior of the world!"
Faith is an experience of God, a living relationship of love with Him, in, with, and through His Son, Jesus. Listen to the Apostle John: "That which . . . we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands . . . (this) we proclaim to you" (I John 1:1-3). Our Orthodox Christian faith is based on the Bible and on Sacred Tradition, but let us not forget that the Bible and Tradition become real when we experience God's presence and power and love personally in our lives. "We have seen ... we have heard ... we have touched." We have experienced!
Being an Orthodox Christian is far more than being able to produce a baptismal certificate; it is a personal experience of the Risen Christ, living and reigning in our lives. It is inner peace and freedom, a new sense of direction and purpose in our lives.
We can have experience long before we have explanation. In fact, experience always comes before understanding. Without the experience first, we have nothing to reflect on but abstractions and theories. All of man's attempts to describe beauty are nothing compared to seeing and smelling a beautiful rose. As Orthodox Christians we believe in the Holy Trinity, i.e., that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But first, man experienced God as Father. He experienced God as Son in Jesus. He experienced God as Holy Spirit on Pentecost. After the experience came the explanation that we call Holy Trinity. If we separate the experience from the explanation we are talking of empty abstractions. "One thing I know," said the blind man who had been healed by Jesus, "that whereas I was blind, now I see." The experience changed his life. The experience led to faith – a faith that was unshakable as it was real.
How do we gain this personal experience of God that we have been talking about? How did the apostles gain it? It came to them on the day of Pentecost. Jesus commanded them "not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which he said, you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit… you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:4-5,8).
When the Holy Spirit came on Pentecost, He brought a new and powerful experience of God's presence and power in their lives. They were never the same again. The experience of God in their lives through the presence of the Holy Spirit was powerful and personal.
"I know him in whom I have believed," said Paul. I know. "I am persuaded that nothing shall separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus." "I know that all things work together for good, to make men Christ-like, when the heart loves God." "I know that if the earthly tent we live in is dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens…
"I know," Here is a faith that was born not of argument or discussion but in the inner experience of living by faith and prayer, obedience and love in the Holy Spirit.
It is not enough that the Christian believe that Jesus Christ or the Holy Trinity live in him, said St. Symeon. That presence must be operative in a way that is consciously experienced. We should be aware of that divine life moving and operating in us just as a pregnant woman is aware that new life stirs within her.
What people want to hear is not God"s lawyers presenting logical arguments for His existence but God's witnesses sharing from personal experience what God has done for them. And this is what the early Christians were: witnesses, martyres. As someone said of the early Christians: "God? They knew Him! Miracles? They themselves were miracles! Resurrection? They had gone through it! Heaven? They were living in it! Hell? They had escaped it! Reconciliation? They rejoiced in it! Eternal Life? They possessed it!"
Pentecost was the day on which the apostles experienced God's powerful presence in their lives through the Holy Spirit. Through prayer every day can be Pentecost.
A great deal of our Orthodox Christian faith is made up of memories. Memories of Christ. Memories of the apostles. Memories of the Fathers. But memories are museum pieces unless they come alive in us today to fill us with the love, the power and the presence of God. The One Who makes these memories come alive is the Holy Spirit. He is the power of God in action in our lives, the Great Awakener of faith and love, the One Who arouses our memories. As Jesus said, "... the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you" (John 14:26).
That is why the Fathers of the Church keep telling us that the whole purpose of the Christian life is nothing more than the receiving of the Holy Spirit. In the words of St. Seraphim of Sarov: "Prayer, fasting, vigils and all other Christian acts, however good they may be in themselves, certainly do not constitute the aim of our Christian life: they are but the indispensable means of attaining that aim. For the true aim of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, vigils, prayer and almsgiving, and other good works done in the name of Christ, they are only the means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God. . . Prayer is always possible for everyone, rich or poor, noble and simple, strong and weak, healthy and suffering, righteous and sinful. Great is the power of prayer; most of all does it bring the Spirit of God and easiest of all is it to exercise."
It is the Holy Spirit Who not only makes the memories of Christ come alive but also helps us experience the presence and power of God in our lives so that we speak not about Christ but for Christ as Christians who know Him personally as the Church Fathers did.
For the Church Fathers, life with God was the pearl of great price; to possess it they gladly sold all and followed Jesus. Modern man does not recognize the claim of these spiritual ventures that summon all our reserves and strength and endurance in a quest for the Eternal One. We readily grant that the dedicated soldier, the arctic explorer, the artist in the South Seas, the pioneer in space research, the scientist in his laboratory, shall endure unmeasured self-denial, shall risk everything – even life itself – for his own satisfaction or for the enrichment of mankind. Only God is not deemed worthy of such sacrifice.
The dispelling of this error is one of the major messages of the Church Fathers. They gladly forsook all to follow Christ. For example, when St. Anthony was twenty, his parents died, leaving their land and wealth to him. One day in church he heard the priest read Christ's command to the rich young ruler: "One thing you lack; go, sell all, and give to the poor." He felt that the word was addressed to him, and he obeyed. Leaving behind all his possessions, he began not long after, the hermit life in desert solitude which was to continue for about eighty years. He died when more than a hundred years old. By that time thousands had followed his example. He himself had been the counselor of bishops and emperors. His friend, the great St. Athanasius, wrote his biography. It was soon translated and brought to the West where it became an important link in the conversion of St. Augustine.
The example of the Fathers in forsaking all for the Pearl of Great Price – Jesus – points the way for us today. No one deserves the total commitment God deserves. The modern "Christian" who gives his all for his business or profession, neglecting his family and his church – and, in the end, losing both his family and his soul – needs to hear the message of the Fathers.
The Monastic tradition and literature emphasized greatly the necessity of having an elder. St. Cassian (5th Century) says that it is foolish for someone to think that it is not necessary to have a teacher for the spiritual profession, since for every worldly profession we need one. Not only novices but also experienced monks were expected to follow obediently the advice of Elders, and not to become lawgivers unto themselves. The Elder, who was looked upon as God's instrument, was regarded as the only means by which one could reach the advanced stage of spiritual life (hesychia or quietness). An Elder could never be replaced by books, since his task was not simply to lecture but to know and analyze the inmost thoughts and acts of his disciples. The foremost requirement for the Elder was that he should be full of love for his disciples, to the extent that he should be ready and willing to die for them.
The concept of the importance of an Elder in the religious life of monks tells us something about the importance of priests, church school teachers, and the laity in general in the nurture of Christians today – young and old. The Christian faith is not only taught; it is – even more so – caught from someone who incarnates the love of Christ. When Augustine, for example, wrote about the person who was most instrumental in converting him to Christianity, Bishop Ambrose of Milan, he said, "That man of God received me as a father and showed me kindness. I began to love him, at first not as a teacher of truth, but as a person who was kind to me". Who can estimate the value of an Elder (any priest, monk, or lay person) who radiates the love and kindness of Christ?
The Church Fathers can never be understood without prayer. It was the source of their wisdom and power. In addition to prayer as a means of receiving the Holy Spirit, there was the Jesus Prayer whereby in the words of St. Chrysostom, "He (the Christian) should always live with the name of the Lord Jesus so that the heart swallows the Lord and the Lord the heart, and the two become one."
TM (Transcendental Meditation) urges people to meditate quietly on a meaningless word called the mantra. The mantra for the Orthodox Christian is not a meaningless or secret word. It is the Jesus Prayer. "Lord Jesus, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner." Here is the prayer that unites us to Christ. Here is the prayer through which, if mastered, Jesus actually prays in us. The heart of the prayer is the name "Jesus" – Who is our salvation: "You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). The other part of the Jesus Prayer: "have mercy on me a sinner," expresses the bridging of the gulf between the righteousness of God and fallen man. It speaks not only of sin but of its forgiveness: the union of God and man through God's loving mercy in Christ Jesus our Savior.
As Fr. Kallistos Ware writes, "To mention a name prayerfully is to make it come alive. To invoke the name of Jesus with faith is to make Jesus effectively present with us. In the New Testament, devils are cast out in the name of Jesus, for the Name is power."
Prayer was the animating life-blood of the Church Fathers. Can it not be so for us today?
Another animating force of the Church Fathers was their love of books. Foremost among them, of course, was the Bible, great parts of which were often memorized. St. Isaac of Nineveh writes, "A true spirituality is drawn from the bottomless treasure of the Scriptures." Even during meal-time there were readings for the monks, providing them with food for the soul. The whole man was being fed. In some monasteries, where poverty was applied in the strictest sense, an allowance was made for books. A Syrian canon for nuns forbad visitors to give anything for the monastery except a book. When monks had read all the books they possessed, they usually borrowed more books from other monks. In the life of St. Daniel, the Stylite, (409-493), we read:
"For it is a custom in monasteries that many different books should be laid in front of the sanctuary and whichever book a brother wants he takes and reads".
The monastic libraries did not contain only religious books, but many different kinds. Especially during the Byzantine period, they were repositories of the ancient knowledge to which many had access. Men who had a love for learning found monasteries to be the best places in which to fulfill their scholastic instincts, and they were always welcome by the monks.
St. Pachomius, the first monastic legislator, laid down rules protecting books and libraries. He wrote, "If someone takes a book and he does not take heed of it, but disdains it, let him make fifty prostrations." Voobus notes another interesting monastic canon which provides for the care of books:
"Everyone who takes a codex to read or to collate and does not return it, or damages the copy, anathema will strike him, the leprosy of Gehazi on his soul and body, and the fate of Judas the traitor."
If the Church Fathers had such a great love and respect for books, can we today who are called on to carry their torch and pass it on to the coming generations do less?
  "The abbot Macarius said, ‘If we dwell upon the harms that have been wrought on us by men, we amputate from our mind the power of dwelling upon God’ "
"The abbot Mathois said, 'The nearer a man approaches to God, the greater sinner he sees himself to be. For the prophet Isaiah saw God, and said that he was unclean and undone' ''
"Again he (abbot Anthony) said, 'That with our neighbor there is life and death: for if we do good to our brother, we shall do good to God: but if we scandalize our brother, we sin against Christ' "
"A brother asked a certain old man, saying, 'There be two brothers, and one of them is quiet in his cell, and prolongs his fast for six days, and lays much travail upon himself: but the other tends the sick. Whose work is the more acceptable to God?' And the old man answered, 'If that brother who carries his fast for six days were to hang himself up by the nostrils, he could not equal the other, who does service to the sick' ''
" 'Tell me, Father, what is it to hate evil?' And the old man said, He hates evil who hates his own sins, and who blesseth and loveth every one of his brethren' " (p.144).
"They said that a certain old man asked God to let him see the Fathers and he saw them all except Abba Anthony. So he asked his guide, 'Where is Abba Anthony?' He told him in reply that in the place where God is, there Anthony would be".
"Abba Anthony said, 'A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us' ".
A challenge was addressed some years ago to Orthodox Christians by Krister Stendahl of Harvard. He said:
'"The word 'gifts' comes easily to my mind when I think about the Greek Orthodox Church. It must be wonderful to be able to call one's own in a very special manner the Greek Fathers, to participate directly and by oneness of language in the world of the Apostles and the Apostolic Fathers. . .
"Great gifts, indeed, are yours in the Orthodox Church. So great that they may have overwhelmed you and given you the feeling that you can never hope to emulate the greatness of the greats. . . With fear and trembling, I must remind you of the manna in the wilderness. According to the Bible, we know that the manna could not be stored, not even from day to day. Israel had to trust that the gift would be renewed as needed, and those who worked to keep this lavish gift, preserving if for future use, found that is spoiled overnight. That is a word of warning, I think, for anyone who thinks that the gifts of the past, the gift of traditions, can save the Church and feed its people.
"Thus I would love to think that faithfulness to your Orthodox heritage must include a bold recapturing of the fearless and sometimes risky creativity of your great fathers. For their gift was not only their thoughts, but their very style of continuing creative exploration of the faith. I see no valid reason why we should not – by the help of the Spirit – expect your Orthodox theologians to become again the pioneers of theology. To be guardians of the faith is not enough . . . You can do it, and we others are eager for your gift."
As Goethe said, "What you have received from your fathers as an inheritance, you must now gain and develop in order to win it."
Summarizing what we said about the Church Fathers:
1. They help us maintain a living connection with the early Church.
2. They remind us that we do not stand alone. Even today we are part of a great cloud of witnesses and martyrs extending all the way back to Christ.
3. What we believe today is based not on one person's interpretation or experience of God but on that of the whole redeemed community of God's people (Church Fathers) extending back to the apostles of Christ.
4. The Orthodox Church honors the Fathers not as witnesses of antiquity but as preservers of the complete and unaltered truth give us by Christ.
5. The Church Fathers have placed in our hands the flaming torch of the apostolic faith which our generation is to preserve and pass on the succeeding generations.
6. To have Church Fathers is a permanent dimension of the Church. We are called to be Church Fathers and Mothers today begetting others and training them in the true faith of Christ.
7. The qualities that distinguished the Church Fathers were: their personal knowledge of God in Christ; their personal experience of the power and presence of God through the Holy Spirit; their faith in Jesus as the Pearl of Great Price; their great emphasis on love; their prayer life; their love of books, especially the Bible.
8. The inheritance we received from the Fathers cannot be hoarded. In order to be gained, it must be appropriated, developed and shared with the world.
What We Believe About the Church Year
An atheist complained to a friend because Christians had their special holidays, such as Christmas, Easter and the like; and Jews celebrated their holidays such as Passover and Yom Kippur. "But we atheists," he said, "have no recognized national holiday. It's unfair discrimination."
To which his friend replied, "Why don't you celebrate April first?" (April first is Fool's Day in the U.S.A.)
A great historian said once that a good way to start historical analysis is by asking of a particular people what holidays they celebrate on their calendar. If one wishes to understand, for example, the Greek people as over against the Jewish people, one can begin by studying what great events they celebrate on their national calendar every year. These events tell much about a people or a nation. To understand the United States, for example, we have to look first at its calendar and the great events it celebrates such as Thanksgiving Day and the Fourth of July.
In the same way, the religious calendar of the Orthodox Church reflects and expresses the whole history and faith of the Church. In the words of F. Heiler, "Its (the Orthodox Church's) liturgical year is ... a sermon on the mystery of divine love, and this sermon is preached in words more powerful and sublime that any that could come from the mouth of a preacher.'' 1
A baby struggling to liberate itself from the womb reaches a crisis where he, not his mother, has to do the breathing. To encourage the lungs to make this radical adjustment, the physician gives the baby a sharp slap. The slap is the child's chance to live. The Holy Days of our church calendar are our annual sharp slap to keep us from forgetting events that are vital to our salvation and the abundant life that God wants us to have. It is so easy to forget. We become so immersed in our daily preoccupations that we forget our Lord and we begin to live as if He never came. We need constant reminders of His presence. One such reminder is the church calendar.
The liturgical calendar unfolds before us annually the whole life of Christ from His birth to the ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. By bringing into daily focus the great events of the life of Christ, the church year enables the Church to revolve around Him as a satellite around its star. It helps us remember the great events in the history of our salvation and makes them present again mystically so that we may re-live them and participate in them. With the regularity of the yearly cycle, the church calendar reminds us of what God has said and done for us in Christ. The liturgical year is a most effective instrument for the religious education of all, both the literate and the illiterate. It sanctifies time.
Thomas Smith was able to discern the real reason for the survival of the Orthodox Church under centuries of Moslem oppression when he wrote:
"Next to the miraculous and gracious 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. . . This certainly is the chiefest preservative of Religion in those Eastern countries against the poison of the Mahometan superstition. For Children and those of the most ordinary capacities know the meaning of these holy Solemnities, at which times they flock to the Church in great companies, and thereby retain the memory of our Blessed Saviour's Birth, dying upon the Cross, Resurrection, and Ascension, and keep up the constant profession of their acknowledgment of the necessary and fundamental points of Faith, as of the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity, and the like. And while they celebrate the sufferings and martyrdoms of the Apostles of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and other great saints, who laid down their lives most joyfully for His name, and underwent with unwearied and invincible patience all the Torments and Cruelties of their Heathen Persecutors, they take courage from such glorious examples, and are the better enabled to endure with less trouble and regret the miseries and hardships they daily struggle with".
Describing the impact of the liturgical year on the religious experience of the Orthodox Christian, Peter Hammond wrote:
"Nobody who has lived and worshipped amongst Greek Christians for any length of time but has sensed in some measure the extraordinary hold which the recurring cycle of the Church's liturgy has upon the piety of the common people. Nobody who has kept the Great Lent with the Greek Church, who has shared in the fast which lies heavy upon the whole nation for forty days; who has stood for long hours, one of an innumerable multitude who crowd the tiny Byzantine churches of Athens and overflow into the streets, while the familiar pattern of God's saving economy towards man is re-presented in psalm and prophecy, in lections from the Gospel, and the matchless poetry of the cannons; who has known the desolation of the holy and great Friday, when every bell in Greece tolls its lament and the body of the Saviour lies shrouded in flowers in all the village churches throughout the land; who has been present at the kindling of the new fire and tasted of the joy of a world released from the bondage of sin and death—none can have lived through all this and not have realized that for the Greek Christians the Gospel is inseparably linked with the liturgy that is unfolded week by week in his parish church. Not among the Greeks only but throughout Orthodox Christendom the liturgy has remained at the very heart of the Church's life".
The constant use of the word '"today" in the hymns of the Orthodox Church has profound meaning. For example, on Good Friday we sing:
Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung on a Tree.
The King of the angels is decked with a crown of thorns.
He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in false purple.
He who freed Adam in the Jordan accepts buffeting.
The Bridegroom of the Church is affixed to the Cross with nails.
The Son of the Virgin is pierced by a spear.
We venerate Thy passion, O Christ.
Show us also Thy glorious Resurrection.
(From the Ninth Hour of Holy Friday)
On Christmas we sing:
Today He who holds the whole creation in the hollow of His hand
is born of the Virgin.
He whom in essence none can touch is wrapped in swaddling
clothes as a mortal.
He who in the beginning established the heavens lies in a manger.
He who rained down manna on the people in the wilderness is fed on
milk from His Mother's breast.
The Bridegroom of the Church calls unto himself the Magi.
The Son of the Virgin accepts their gifts.
We venerate Thy birth, O Christ.
Show us also Thy divine Epiphany.
(From the Ninth Hour on the Eve of Christmas)
On Epiphany we pray:
Today the grace of the Holy Spirit has descended 
Today the shining stars adorn the universe 
Today the sins of mankind are blotted out 
Today paradise has been opened to mankind
Today have we escaped from darkness 
Today the whole of creation is lighted from on high 
Today the Lord comes to baptism to elevate mankind 
On Easter:
'"Today brings salvation to the world, for Christ has risen as Almighty ..."
On Palm Sunday:
"Today Christ enters the city . . ." etc.
The word today" is an important liturgical word replete with meaning. Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes: "For someone to whom worship is a living experience, the frequently used today is not merely a rhetorical 'figure of speech'. For it is indeed the proper function of liturgy that in 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." 4
Fr. Sergius Bulgakov wrote in the same vein:
"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 which exists forever; and is given to the Church to make living these sacred memories so that we should be their new witnesses and participate in them." 5
Thus, the word "today" is not merely a quaint expression peculiar to Orthodox hymnology. It expresses the essence of liturgical consciousness. For, everything that Christ accomplished once, returns to life eternally. It becomes present mystically in the now moment. It transcends time, joining the past with the present. It places each of us in the sacred acts of history. They become events in our lives. Salvation is aimed at each one of us personally.
Through the events of the liturgical year, then, we actually relive with Christ the great events of His life. Unlike a movie or a play, however, which merely re-enacts the events in the life of a great person, the liturgical year not only re-enacts those events but also places us in each event. An existential encounter takes place between us and Christ in the events of His birth, crucifixion, resurrection, etc. These sacred events are mystically present in the Church here and now. We re-enter each event in such a way that it becomes a unique and refreshingly new act of salvation for us today. Thus, far from being a cold and lifeless representation of the events of the past, the liturgical year is a living and personal encounter with Jesus today. Today He comes to be born in the manger of my soul and yours to bring us new life. Today He offers me His precious Body and Blood for my salvation. Today He hangs on the cross for me. Today He is resurrected and I am resurrected with Him. Today He is transfigured and I am transfigured with Him.
Today He ascends into heaven and I ascend with Him. So it is that the beautiful word today tears down the walls of the past and the future and makes Christ the eternally present One, Who is '"the same yesterday and today and forever" (Hebr. 13:8).
Each year the liturgical calendar relives and makes present again the sacred events of our salvation so that we are there when they happen. The past reaches out and joins the present. The acts of God for His people are not buried in the past. They live in the present. History does not exhaust grace. God is present through the centuries. He never ceases accomplishing the work He has begun.
George Mantzarides writes,
"The body of Christ surpasses time and space and joins all its members in the triadic communion where all things are present and live in the Lord. Within the body of Christ, namely 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 place, so too whatever belongs to his body or whatever relates to it also surpasses time and place and is preserved eternally present".
Important Scriptural truths have been woven into the church calendar. Take, for example, the words of John the Baptist concerning his relationship to Jesus, "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30). The birthday of Jesus was fixed at December 25. This is at the beginning of the winter solstice after which the days grow longer, i.e., Jesus, the Light, has entered the world; He must increase. John the Baptist's birthday, on the other hand, was fixed on June 24 which is at the very beginning of the summer solstice, after which the days grow shorter, i.e., John was not the light; he must decrease. "He (John the Baptist) was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light" (John 1:8).
The liturgical year revolves around the crucified and risen Christ. It has been •said that Easter is the hinge on which the whole church year swings. It is the greatest and most exalted feast, the feast of feasts in the Orthodox Church. In the words of Fr. Schmemann: "The entire worship of the Church is organized around Easter, and therefore the liturgical year . . . becomes a journey, a pilgrimage towards Pascha, the End, which at the same time is the Beginning – the end of all that is "old"; the beginning of the new life, a constant 'passage' from 'this world' into the kindgom already revealed in Christ." 7 It has been said that an Orthodox Christian is one who lives from Easter to Easter.
Dedicated to God, all the days of the year are bathed in the rays of the Risen. Son of God and reflect them to us daily. The liturgical year becomes "a garland of the beauties of the Lord" (Ps. 65:11).
The liturgical year is not so much a collection of special days as much as it is a Christ-centered whole repeatedly reminding us of events in the saving work of Christ.
An eminent Orthodox theologian, Dr. Bratsiotis, writes, "This rich and powerful drama which is played against the suggestive background of Byzantine church architecture has inspired a host of great poets in the Greek East and produced a rich and magnificent hymnography."
In fact, whereas the services of most other Christian churches are contained in one or two volumes, the services of the Orthodox Church are so extended and elaborate that they require a small library of about twenty volumes, comprised of some 5,000 pages in double columns.
These twenty volumes contain the services for the entire Christian year and constitute one of the great treasures of the Orthodox Church.
The liturgical year begins on September 1. Following Easter, which is the pre-eminent festival, come the TWELVE GREAT FEASTS which are divided into two groups, i.e., the Feasts of the Mother of God and the Feasts of our Lord.
The Feasts of the Mother of God are:
1. The Birth of the Theotokos (September 8).
2. The Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple (November 21).
3. The Meeting of Our Lord (February 2).
4. The Annunciation (March 25).
5. The Dormition of the Theotokos (August 15).
The Feasts of Our Lord are:
1. The Exaltation of the Cross (September 14).
2. Christmas (December 25).
3. Theophany (January 6).
4. Palm Sunday (one week before Easter).
5. The Ascension of Our Lord (40 days after Easter).
6. Pentecost (50 days after Easter)..
7. The Transfiguration of Our Lord (August 6).
Easter is not one of the Twelve Great Feasts because it is considered to be the source of all of them.
Because three of the Twelve Great Feasts depend on the date of Easter, they are movable; the remainder are fixed. Benjamin Franklin said once, "All mankind are divided into three classes: those who are immovable; those who are movable; and those who move".  The purpose of all great feasts – movable and fixed – is to move us to greater devotion and commitment to our Lord, to make these sacred events present again so that we might provide our personal response to them. As George Mantzarides writes, "Each one of these feast days is not a mere rememberance, but a liturgical repetition of that day on which the celebrated event actually took place".
In addition to the Twelve Great Feasts (seven of which are feasts of our Saviour and five of the Theotokos), there are also periods of fasting in the liturgical year. Just as Jesus fasted, so did the early Christians. Regarded as a means of disciplining the body and overcoming the passions, fasting is built into the church year. The periods of fasting are:
1. Each Wednesday and Friday, in memory of the betrayal (Wednesday) and crucifixion (Friday) of our Lord, except between Christmas and Epiphany, during Easter week and Pentecost week.
2. The Christmas fast – 40 days, from Nov. 15 to Dec. 24.
3. The Great Fast of Lent which begins seven weeks before Easter.
4. The Fast preceding the Feast of the Holy Apostles on June 30.
5. Two fasts which closely follow each other: the first from August 1 to 6 (before the Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ); the second from August 7 to 15 (before the Feast of the Falling Asleep of the Theotokos).
6. The fasts on the Exaltation of the Cross, the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, and the eve of Epiphay.
Each day of the week has its own memory.
1. The first day of the week is Sunday, which is a "little Easter," commemorating the resurrection of Jesus. We begin each week with the resurrection. As Easter is the center of the year, so Sunday is the center of the week. Thus, a positive mood of victory is established at the very beginning in order to carry us through the entire week. The Christian week begins on the note of the celebration of life. We work all week long in order to get to Sunday. We begin each new week with the remembrance and celebration of the greatest victory this world has ever known.
2. Monday is dedicated to the archangels, angels and the hosts of invisible powers.
3. Tuesday is dedicated to the memory of St. John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets, the first and greatest saint (after the Theotokos), and the greatest man who was ever born of woman (Matt. 11:11).
4. Wednesday is dedicated to the Theotokos and to the passion of Christ. Considered to be the day on which Judas betrayed Jesus, it is a day of fasting.
5. Thursday is dedicated to the apostles and all the Church Fathers.
6. Friday is remembered as the day on which Jesus was crucified. It is a day of fasting.
7. Saturday is dedicated to the holy martyrs and to the faithful who have departed from this world. It is the day on which Christ resurrected Lazarus. It is also the day on which Christ the Lord lay dead in the tomb, "resting from all His works", and "trampling down death by death." All Saturdays of the church year receive their meaning from these two decisive Saturdays. Thus, Saturday became the proper day for remembering the dead and offering prayers in their memory. This is why prayers for the dead are offered on the various Memorial Saturdays during the church year, i.e., before Lent and Pentecost.
As the year and week are broken into cycles, so is each day.
The New Testament follows a system of telling time according to which the first hour of the day is hour one after sunrise or 7 a.m. Hour two is eight a.m. Hour three is 9 a.m., etc.
Using this time schedule the early Christians would pause for prayer and meditation every third hour during the day and night. For example, we know that the apostles Peter and John "went up together into the temple at the hour of prayer, being the ninth hour" (Acts 3:1). We find St. Peter praying on Simon's housetop "at the sixth hour" (Acts 10:9).
The monastic orders devised prayer services for common worship around the system of "hours." Their life became a constant balance between prayer and work. They would enter the sanctuary for prayer at the third hour (9 a.m.), the sixth hour (noon), the ninth hour (3 p.m.), the twelfth (6 p.m.), and midnight. They paused for prayer in the morning, noon, afternoon and evening. We still celebrate "the service of the hours" in every Orthodox parish every Holy Friday, Christmas and Epiphany. This New Testament way of telling time is still in use today in the monasteries of Mt. Athos.
Each of the six hourly cycles of prayer had a special theme related to something in the history of salvation that happened at that hour. The worship service composed by the Church Fathers for that hour usually included scripture readings, psalms and hymns relating to that event.
Let us examine each hour with the special purpose of helping us to pause briefly on these hours each day to meditate and pray.
The first hour (hour one after the rise of the sun or 7 a.m.), has as its central theme the coming of the light in the dawn of a new day. The coming of the physical light reminds the Christian of the coming of Him Who is the Light of the World. The physical light is but an icon or image of Christ. Thus, the Christian begins the day by praising God for the dawn of the physical light as well as for the Light of the World which shines brightly in the face of Jesus. We pray that His light will guide us and show us the way for the day, blessing also the work of our hands which begin daily at this hour.
The third hour (three hours after sunrise 9 a.m.), was the exact time the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:15). This single theme dominates the third hour. One of the three psalms that are read is the 51st which contains petitions for the sending of the Holy Spirit: "Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me . . . take not thy holy spirit from me . . . and uphold me with the free spirit" (Ps. 51:10-12).
Special prayers are said to thank God for sending the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, beseeching Him also to bestow the gift of the Spirit's presence upon us for the works of that day. The third hour is a daily reminder that the life of the faithful Christian remains empty without the inner presence of the Spirit. He is the One Who provides inner peace and power. He is the One "in Whom we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28).
The sixth hour, six hours following sunrise (noon), coincides with the hour the Lord Jesus was crucified (Matt. 27:45, Luke 23:44, John 19:14). Each day at noon the Church tries to focus our attention on this great event in the history of our salvation. We offer Him prayers of gratitude for so loving each one of us that He gave His only begotten Son so that we who believe in Him may not perish but have life everlasting (John 3:16). Our noontime prayers (sixth hour) include peti-lions that He save us from the sins and temptations of that day.
The ninth hour, nine hours following sunrise (3 p.m.), is the time when Jesus died on the cross. "And at about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, 'Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? That is to say, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' . . . When he had cried again with a loud voice (Jesus) yielded up the ghost" (Matthew 27:46,50). At this time prayers of thanksgiving are offered to Him Who by His death destroyed death. The prayers of the ninth hour conclude with a petition that we put to death the old sinful nature within us to enable us to live the new life in Christ Jesus with Whom we were not only crucified but also resurrected through baptism.
Morning and evening were always considered to be proper times for prayer. Worship services were held every morning and evening in the Temple of Jerusalem and were continued by the early Christians even after they separated themselves from the worship of the Temple. The old Jewish psalms are still used. The theme of vespers takes us through creation, sin and salvation in Christ. It includes thanksgiving for the day now coming to an end and God's protection for the evening. In the Orthodox Church the liturgical day begins in the evening with the setting of the sun. The coming of darkness reminds us of the darkness of our sin and death and makes us long for the light. One of the great themes of vespers is (lie coming of Christ the Light to dispel the darkness. Jesus is praised as "The gladsome light of the holy glory of the Immortal Father" and "a light for revelation lo the Gentiles." Vesper services are offered daily in monasteries and usually only on Saturday evenings in parishes. Evening prayers may be offered in private by Orthodox Christians daily by praying the Psalter and the other vesper prayers at home.
The hour of midnight was designated as a time for prayer for three reasons. First, the Jewish people were led out of Egypt at midnight (Exodus 12:29). In remembrance of this event, the Messiah at the time of Jesus was expected to come at midnight. This expectation was fulfilled when Jesus was resurrected in the early morning while it was still dark (Matthew 28:1). Midnight also became associated in early Christian thought with the hour of the Second Coming of Jesus (Mark 13:35). He was expected to come "as a thief in the night" (I Thess. 5:2,4). This hour of prayer is kept today only in certain monasteries where monks rise at midnight, as if from the grave of death, to meet the risen Lord in prayer. The prayers offered at this hour remember those who have died in Christ and also invoke God's mercy upon us for the coming judgment. Although we do not live in monasteries, we may use midnight as an hour of prayer if we happen to waken during the night. Instead of counting sheep, we can use the time to speak and pray to the Shepherd of our souls.
The service of the hours was not able to survive outside the monastic environment. People simply did not have the time to flock to the monasteries three or four times a day. Yet how much we need the inspiration and the power that comes to us today from the prayerful observance of these hours:
the FIRST HOUR, 7 a.m., to thank Jesus for the physical and
spiritual light as a new day dawns;
the THIRD HOUR, 9 a.m., the hour of Pentecost, to thank God
for the Holy Spirit beseeching Him for the Spirit's presence with
us throughout that day;
the SIXTH HOUR, noon, to pause at that, the moment of His
crucifixion, to thank Him for His great love for us;
the NINTH HOUR, 3 p.m., to remember Him Who expired in our
behalf at that very hour, repeating the words of the dying thief:
"Remember me, Lord, when You come into your kingdom";
the TWELFTH HOUR, 6 p.m., to remember Him Who came to be
"a light for revelation to the Gentiles";
the MIDNIGHT HOUR, to remember Him Who will come again as
"a thief in the night" to judge the living and the dead.
The most inspiring and meaningful periods of the liturgical year in the Orthodox Church are Lent, Holy Week and Easter.
The main purpose of Lent in the early Church was to prepare the catechumens, i.e., the newly converted pagans, for baptism which was administered at the Easter liturgy. Even though today we do not train catechumens during this period, the basic meaning of Lent remains the same. Fr. Schmemann observes, "For even though we are baptized, what we constantly lose and betray is precisely that which we received at Baptism. Therefore, Easter is our return every year to our own Baptism, whereas Lent is our preparation for that return – the slow and sustained effort to perform, at the end, our own 'passage' or 'pascha' into the new life of Christ."
During Holy Week the Church re-enacts before us the entire passion of Christ. We do, within the confines of the church building, what the early Christians did in Jerusalem every year during this week. They visited and prayed at each site where the events of Holy Week originally took place. This sacred Holy Week Pilgrimage is acted out before us through the service and processions of this week. We are mystically present with Christ at each stage of His passion and death. At no other time of the year do we have the opportunity to experience the love of Christ as powerfully as during Holy Week.
Easter in the Orthodox Church is the feast of feasts, the festival of festivals. It radiates the tremendous joy of Christ's victory over death. At the stroke of midnight the Paschal Candle is illuminated at the altar – the candle that represents Christ, the Light of the World. The door to the sanctuary swings open, representing the opening of Christ's tomb. The priest appears holding the unwaning light of Christ.  "Come, receive light from the unwaning light," he sings, "and glorify Christ Who is risen from the dead." The worshippers light their candles from the Paschal candle passing on the light to their neighbors until the whole church is ablaze with the new light of the resurrection, proclaiming to the world that Christ is risen, that through His resurrection our darkness has been changed into light, our death has become life, our midnight has become dawn, a dawn of victory.
The brightness of Easter spills over into the following week which is celebrated as the Bright Week, a week of unbounded joy during which no fasting is permitted. For forty days following Easter, Orthodox Christians greet one another with the words, "Christ is risen" and hear the joyful response, "Truly He is risen."
The Orthodox calendar celebrates a synaxis (Greek: an assembly or gathering). This is a feast on which we commemorate those saints who are a vital part of the ('cast that was celebrated on the previous day. For example, on the day following the Nativity of the Mother of God, we celebrate the feast of her parents, Joachim and Anna. On the day following the presentation of our Lord, we honor St. Simeon and St. Anna who acknowledged the Christ Child as the Expected Saviour when His Mother brought Him to the Temple. On the day following the Annunciation we celebrate the feast of St. Gabriel the Archangel who brought the gonil news to the Theotokos the day before. On the day after Epiphany we celebrate the memory of St. John the Baptist who baptized Jesus on Epiphany, etc. In I he curly Church, according to tradition, the bishop would have an actual synaxis (synod) with his clergy on the day after certain important feast days.
To celebrate a sacred event on one single day is not enough to help us remember it. The one day quickly passes and hardly leaves an impression. There is no permanent spiritual benefit.
For this reason the Church Fathers decided that there should be a preparatory period before certain Feasts in order to help place us in the proper spiritual mood and excite in us a greater interest in the feast. This is called the pre-festive period.
To make certain that the fervor generated by a feast day outlasted the actual one-day celebration of the feast, it was felt that in addition to the pre-festive period, a post-festive period was required as a sort of aftermath or echo of the feast day. The pre-festive period builds up interest in the feast through special services, prayers and hymns. The post-festive period is designed to maintain our interest in the facts of the feast just celebrated and help us see its abiding relevance to our lives. The last day of the post-festive period is called Apodosis, a Greek word which means the "giving up" or the "conclusion" of the feast. The services on the day of Apodosis are almost the same as those on the day of the feast.
All the major feast days (except four) are anticipated with one pre-festive day. Easter, one of the exceptions, is anticipated by ten weeks of preparation (Pre-Lent, Lent and Holy Week) and forty days of post-festive celebration (until Ascension Day). Christmas has five pre-festive days while Epiphany has four.
The length of the post-festive period varies from year to year especially with those feasts whose date depends on Easter. A typical post-festive period will last from one to eight days.
In the words of the German scholar, Kirchoff, "Just as the sun bathes the earth in the rays which she sends out and bestows fertility and growth upon her, so the heavenly sun, Christ the giver of light and life, enters into the liturgical year of the Church of God with His gifts and the riches of His goodness in order to fill her with the divine light of His grace."
Thank God for the liturgical year! More than a teacher, more than a reminder, more than a life-giving slap to help us breathe on our own, it places us in the sacred events of the history of salvation that we may experience personally their relevance and power. That which time tends to erase from memory, the liturgical year keeps re-writing,
1. As the secular calendar of holidays expresses the national history and heritage of a people, so the church calendar expresses the history and faith of the Church.
2. The liturgical year helps us remember annually events that are vital to our salvation and the abundant life that God wants us to have.
3. The Church year unfolds before us every year the whole life of Christ. It makes the events of His life present again in a mystical way so that we may re-live them and participate in them. This is expressed through the constant use of the word "today" in the hymns of the Church.
4. Easter is the hinge on which the whole Church year swings. It is the greatest and most exalted feast of the Orthodox Church.
5. There are twelve great feasts annually, five relating to the Mother of God and seven to the Lord Jesus. Periods of fasting are associated with many of the feast days.
6. Each day of the week has its own memory and is dedicated to some event In (he history of our salvation. Sunday is a "little Easter," Monday is dedicated to the angels, etc.
7. Each day is broken down by hours to the remembrance of an important event in our salvation history that happened at that hour. For example, during the first hour (7 a.m.), the rising sun reminds us of the coming of the Light of the World; the third hours (9 a.m.), the actual time of Pentecost, reminds us to pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit, etc.
8. A synaxis is a feast on which we commemorate those saints who are a vital part of the feast that was celebrated on the previous day. On the day following the Nativity of the Theotokos, for example, we celebrate the feast of her parents, Joachim and Anna, etc.
     9.Since a single day is not enough to help us remember a sacred event, the Church has established pre-festive and post-festive periods before and after major feast days culminating in the apodosis – the "giving up" or "conclusion" or a feast.
What the Walls of the Orthodox Church Teach Us
The idea of the saints on earth communing with the saints in heaven, is greatly emphasized in the Orthodox Church. This communion is expressed very effectively in the iconography of the Eastern churches. Cecil Stewart describes the role of sacred pictures on the walls of our churches as follows:
"The pictures seem to be arranged in a way which instills a feeling of direct relationship between the viewer and the pictures… each personality is represented facing one, so that one stands, as it were, within the congregation of saints. Byzantine art, in fact, puts one in the picture. Thus is achieved a spatial dynamic relationship across the volume of the church. The beholder belongs within the artistic envelope, and is linked visually with the heavenly host. He observes and is observed."
To illustrate this interdependence between the worshipper and the icon a little further, let us look for a moment at the interior of an Eastern Church. At the highest point of the church, i.e., the top of the dome, there is an icon of Christ Pantocrator – the Ruler and Redeemer of the universe. Immediately below He is surrounded by angels and archangels who serve Him and execute His commands. The remaining part of the ceiling and walls are decorated with episodes illustrating the redemption of the world, with pictures of saints who not only look at the worshippers but also converse with one another and form their own sacred circle. In the eastern .apse, the most significant place after the dome, stands the Virgin Mother, the link between Creator and Creation. The whole story of the Incarnation is depicted on the walls of an Orthodox Church. It begins with the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets. Then come the apostles, martyrs, doctors, teachers, saints and finally on the floor level of the congregation, i.e., the members of the church militant on earth. Thus around the figure of the all-ruling Christ in the dome is gathered in a circle the communion of saints, the members of the church triumphant in heaven and the church militant on earth, all conversing with each other and all together offering the sacrifice of the liturgy to their Lord.
We now proceed with a detailed explanation of the interior of an Orthodox Church where the walls indeed speak to the worshipper.
is designed to speak to the worshipper, to establish the mood for worship, to preach the Gospel through architecture and icons, to elevate one's mind to the God one comes to praise and worship.
or vestibule of the church, represents this world in which man is called to repentance. The nave represents the kingdom of heaven. Passing from the narthex into the nave of the church symbolized the Christian's entrance into the kingdom of heaven. Paul Evdokimov wrote, "Architecturally speaking the temple has a cubic form or that of an elongated rectangle, always turned toward the East whence Christ came, like a ship (nave from navis) it floats in the eschatological dimension and sails towards the East, towards Christ."
remind the Orthodox Christian that Christ and the saints are his invisible hosts when he comes to Church. His first act upon entering church is to salute them hy making the sign of the cross. Often the worshipper also lights a cundlc upon entering the sanctuary as a reminder that he is to reflect the light of Christ In the world.
Orthodox churches vary. Many are built in the form of a cross. Above the middle of the cross is a dome. This represents that in order to receive the many blessings that descend upon us from heaven through the open dome, it is necessary first to accept the cross, or salvation through Jesus Christ.
Eastern Christians set up their church buildings in such a manner that the whole theology of the Orthodox Church can be conveyed within a single church building. Each church becomes a complete expression of the complete cosmos. Jerusalem is where? Right in the parish church. Where is Mt. Tabor'? Right in the parish church. Where is the Garden of Eden? Right in the parish church; the Mount of Olives – right in the parish church. Thus, to a person going through his own parish church, all these are present realities – not just fads in the past.
is considered to represent the universe. The ceiling represents heaven. The opening in the ceiling (dome) on which is usually painted an icon of Christ Pantocrator, i.e., the all-ruling Christ, represents Christ looking down through heaven upon the assembled congregation hearing their prayers, reminding them of His all-pervading presence in the universe. The floor of the church represents this world. The altar uplifted from the floor by four or five steps and suspended, as it were, between heaven and earth gives expression to the fact that its purpose is to lift us up to heaven through the teachings of the Gospel and the grace of the Sacraments, both of which emanate from the altar.
in the way the icons are arranged in the Orthodox Church. The highest point, the dome, is reserved for our Lord. Then comes the figure of the Mother of God on the front wall. Next there are the icons of the angels, apostles and saints on the iconostasion. These constitute the Church Triumphant in heaven. The floor level of the church is reserved for us – the members of the Church Militant. Thus around the figure of Christ is gathered His entire Church both that in heaven and that on earth.
for the King of Kings. This explains the extensive use of royal colors: gold, blue and white. The fact that the church is the palace of God's presence gives expression to our faith that even now earth is changed into heaven whenever the Eucharist is celebrated and divine grace is received.
The victory of Christ is central to our Orthodox Christian faith. It is to dramatize this victory that the figure of Christ is placed at the highest point of the church, i.e. the top of the dome. It gives full expression the to great victory hymn of the early Church, quoted by Paul in his letter to Philippi:
". . . He lowered His dignity still more becoming obedient even unto death to the death of the cross.
Therefore God has raised Him up and has given Him that name which is above every name
so that all things, at the name of Jesus must bend the knee – those in high heaven and upon the earth, and under the earth and every tongue must proclaim of Jesus Christ, that He is the Lord in the glory of God the Father."
A large painting of the Child-Holding Theotokos is usually depicted above the holy table on the sanctuary wall of many Orthodox Churches. The purpose of this icon is to express the incarnation. Out of the infinite heaven the Theotokos is presenting the new-born Child to the multitudes of believers standing below. It is a visual expression of Scripture:
"Today a Savior is born to us; a Child was born to us, and a Son was given to us."
before the icon screen, represent the column of light by which God guided the Jews at night to the promised land. When the light appeared the Jewish people followed it until it eventually led them to the promised land. During the day God used a cloud. These two candelabra remind us that we, too, have a promised land, i.e., the kingdom of heaven. Just as God guided the Jews to their promised land, so today He guides us to ours through the teachings of the Gospel and the grace of the sacraments.
separates the nave from the altar. It is symbolical of the temple veil in the Old Testament which separated the Holy of Holies from the remainder of the temple. On the screen are placed icons or religious pictures of Christ, of Mary the Theotokos, and of various other saints. All these invite the faithful to a worshipful meditation of God. The icon screen, screening off the holy of holies from the full view of the worshipper, reminds us of the mystery of God who can never be fully understood by finite man.
on the icon screen depicts the major scenes in the life of our Lord from the Annunciation to His Ascension. This serves as a visual Gospel to the worshipper. Not all churches may have this second tier of icons.
on the icon screen are called "royal" in view of the fact that Christ the King is carried through them in the Sacrament of Holy Communion as the priest carries the precious Body and Blood out to the congregation. They remind us that Christ alone is the door leading to communion with the Holy Trinity.
The Christian people need to realize that they belong to a pilgrim people en route to heaven. Here we have the role of iconography in our churches: to represent some of the major phases of salvation history to the worshippers and provide a reminder that the small local parish is in communion with the angels and saints.
During the services of our Church the priest censes first the icons and then the entire congregation. In so doing the Church honors not only the angels, saints and martyrs, but also the living icon (image) of Christ which every faithful Christian bears.
From the very beginning Christians honored the memory of those who died in the persecutions. The tombs of the early martyrs were held in high veneration. On the anniversary of their deaths the liturgy was celebrated on their graves and a sermon was preached. This was practiced especially during to first 300 years of Christianity when worship was underground, in the catacombs, where the tombs of these early martyrs were easily accessible. From this early Christian custom has come the practice of placing the relics of some martyr in the holy altar of each church upon its consecration.
is kept on the center of the holy altar. In the Old Testament the tablets on which God had written the Ten Commandments were kept in the tabernacle. In the New Testament it is the Lord Jesus Himself who dwells in the tabernacle. His precious Body and Blood are ever kept in the tabernacle. The church, then, is truly the house of God. God is ever present there in a very real way. This is why the Eastern Orthodox Christian makes the sign of the cross whenever he or she passes before the holy altar.
is the votive light that is suspended above the tabernacle. It burns constantly to denote that the Lord Jesus Who is "Light of the World" is present in the tabernacle.
which are found in many Orthodox Churches are called in Greek "exapteriga" (six winged). Engraved on these are the six-winged angels which, according to Isaiah's vision of God, surrounded the throne of God in heaven. They remind us that these same angels surround the throne of God on earth – the holy altar – where God's precious Body and Blood are ever present in the tabernacle. They are used in sacred processionals during the liturgy.
is enthroned constantly on the holy altar where Christ is constantly present as the Word of Life in the Gospel book and as the Bread of Life (Eucharist) which is kept in the tabernacle.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are usually depicted at the four corners of the base of the dome to express the fact that through their writings the Gospel of Jesus was spread to the four corners of the earth.
is usually suspended from the dome or ceiling to signify the majesty of the firmament and the glory of God's heavenly bodies i.e., the sun, the moon and the planets. "The heavens declare the glory of God" (Psalm 19:1).
is a small altar to the left of the main altar behind the icon screen. Here the peoples' gifts of bread and wine are prepared before the liturgy and later carried in a solemn procession to the main altar. An icon of the Nativity is usually found on the altar of preparation to signify that it represents the manger of Bethlehem. Just as Jesus was born in Bethlehem so through the Eucharist He comes to be born and dwell in our lives today.
is usually found in Orthodox churches to represent the seven sacraments and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
is usually found to the right of the iconostasis. It is set apart for the bishop or archbishop who is considered to be the head of the local Church and represents Jesus Christ. For this reason and icon of Christ, the High Priest, is usually painted somewhere on the throne. The Bishop occupies the throne during the liturgy and other church ceremonies.
is usually located to the left of the iconostasis near the center of the nave. Used for the reading of the Gospel and the preaching of the sermon, it symbolizes the stone used to seal the entrance to Christ's tomb from which the angel proclaimed the good tidings of the Resurrection to the women who had come to anoint His body. Often the pulpit is decorated with icons of the Lord and the four Gospel writers.
In the film The Deer Hunter a Russian Orthodox parish church stands as a monument of riches and finery in the midst of an otherwise dreary Pennsylvania steel-town. Its gold encrusted "onion" towers and ornate Byzantine chancel are in stark contrast to the grim lives of the people it serves.
Rather than being offended by it, one gets a sense of purpose in the contrast. This parish church represents an alternative in the lives of the people. Rather than just more of the same, a mirror of what they already know and struggle with, it proclaims something else, as an active and saving force. It is erected not only to the glory of God, but as a sign of the presence of His glory. It is an invitation to experience heaven on earth.
The Orthodox church building represents God in the midst of His people, in their joys as well as their sorrows; God calling us to the other alternative, to the "more excellent way" (I Cor. 12:31), to the more fulfilling life for which we were created.
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