Sunday, July 21, 2013
In the Divine Liturgy of Orthodox Christian worship, the presbyter comes to the Royal Doors of the ikonostasis, and bids us to ‘love one another’ so that we shall be able to confess ‘the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints’ in unison recitation of the Symbol of Nicæa. After he bids us to love one another, he returns into the altar and visibly exchanges the ceremonial ‘kiss of peace’ with the other clergy who are serving with him that day, bishops, presbyters and deacons. We only see as much as can be seen through those open doors. The ikonostasis, a wall covered with ikons, prevents us from looking inside the altar, that is, the Holy of Holies. Perhaps the altar boys are also exchanging the ‘kiss of peace,’ or maybe not. At their age, they may think it a bit much. After all, boys will be boys. Then again, maybe not. Often, the father of one of the altar boys will be serving as an acolyte (a fancy name for adult altar boy), and with him there, well, boys will behave.
This morning an elderly friend who is not Orthodox and hardly thinks of himself as a Christian (though he is one, both by childhood faith and adult compassion) accompanied us to the Divine Liturgy. He is a young octogenarian who has just been diagnosed with a possibly non-threatening cancer, but he is still worried. Life doesn’t seem long enough, even at eighty, when you still love the people around you, and life itself, and someone tells you that this might be your last year on earth. As I said, I don’t believe his diagnosis, once it is complete, will be ‘bad news,’ but he is still disturbed. And why shouldn’t he be? The very thought of cancer can feel like a death sentence, if it happens to be planted in your mind. Nonetheless, coming to church did him good, even though he couldn’t hear or understand some of what was going on around him. He felt he was sinking, so he asked us if he could come with. It was only his second time. The first time he came with us to Palm Sunday services.
After the service, we ended up returning to this friend’s house and visited for several hours with him in his sunny patio. Naturally, conversation frequently turned on spiritual, even religious, topics. He is always learning, and his gradual acquaintance with Holy Orthodoxy has begun to dissolve some of his inhibitions and preconceptions about Christianity, and hopefully about Christ, as well. We all know that it is his fear of the unknown, of possible sickness (he has been a remarkably healthy man all his life), and death, that has propelled him in the direction of God and the Church. We just happen to have come into his life, perhaps, at the right moment. Though we humans can be (no, are) fickle and unfaithful, our good and man-loving God never abandons the child that once came to Him, but continues to visit that child all his life long, even into old age, like the loving but silent Father that He is, watching over us even when we are oblivious of Him. Never abandons, because He is love.
As our afternoon visit came to its end and I was leaving, my friend stood up out of his chair and gave me a hug, and I instinctively gave him the ‘little peck on the cheek’ that is the somewhat formal kiss we exchange in the liturgical ‘kiss of peace.’ Before I knew myself, I had blurted out ‘αγαπήσωμεν αλλήλους!’ and then found I had to explain, to translate, what I had just said. ‘It means, let us love one another,’ I told him, bringing the ceremonial of the Divine Liturgy instantly into our midst. He had experienced that love both in the people gathered at church this morning, in the services and later in the fellowship hall. He remembered the ceremonial ‘kiss of peace’ and our greeting ‘Christ is in our midst! He is and ever shall be!’ He participated in that ceremony without knowing the ‘password’ and just said ‘good morning’ to those with whom he shook hands. He understood that it was the love, not the form of the greeting, that matters, and makes possible everything else.
Yes, ‘let us love one another.’ Why? So ‘that with one mind we may confess.’ So that we can understand once and for all that without love, nothing but nothing we say we believe can have any meaning or power, to renew ourselves and to transform the world. Without love, we can never be ‘of one mind,’ that is, we can never have ‘the mind of Christ,’ but instead we wander forever in the wilderness of our wills, wanting but never being satisfied, serving not the God who is Maker, Preserver, Provider, and Lord, but serving all that is not, all that has no being—the devil, the flesh, the world—all that has no being yet draws us into its web until, along with our wills, we are extinguished, forever. No, with love this does not happen to us, because our God who was dead and is alive forever, Jesus Christ, has ‘emptied the tombs,’ has ‘harrowed Hades’ itself. It is He who always goes before us, beside us, above us, below us, and finally, after us. Yes, Love Himself is in our midst. He is and ever shall be!
at 7:56 PM