In His Hands…

Khristos Anesti!

Alithos Anesti!

Another Passion Week and Easter have came upon us and passed in peace.

What a beautiful week it was this year! I felt so blessed to be part of the spirit of love and faith that diffused through our Church. It was so uplifting to hear all those angelic voices lifted together in a harmony of unity in praise and worship of our awesome Lord. Good on you ladies! The antiphonal* singing of “Thok te tigom” and “Epouro ente tihirini“, with the gents on one side and the ladies on the other was so inspiring.

Ten years ago when we first started having English Passion Week services, we could hardly get a peep out of the youth. How wonderful it was this year to hear a whole Church lifting the roof and opening a window to heaven as they sang in voice “Ke iperto” with its moving long tune!

The rites and hymns of our Church are incredibly and deeply filled with meaning. Every year I learn new things about them, see new connections, gain new insights into the passion of our Lord, and indeed, into the very purpose and significance of His mission on the earth.

Passion Week is so special that one often does not want it to end. And it doesn’t have to, in a way. We should take with us the gems we find in Passion Week and keep them close throughout the rest of the year, that we might continually find comfort and inspiration every time we gaze upon them again. I know it’s now the 50 days of joy, but allow me to share with you one little Passion Week reflection:

Think of His hands.

Imagine yourself standing near as Jesus reaches out those gentle hands to lay them upon the forehead of a sick man. Seconds later, the man rises, completely healed of his illness.

Follow those hands as they punctuate and illustrate His words as he speaks to the multitudes on the mount.

Observe as those hands reach out to ruffle the leaves of the fig tree that bore no fruit, and are pulled back again, empty.

Look closely as those hands hold the bread, and break it into as He says “This is My body which is broken for you and for many” – yes, with His own hands, by His own will, He calmly and quietly surrenders His body to agony and death.

See those hands being roughly tied together with coarse ropes, by men who are not worthy of kissing His feet. Covered in dirt and blood and wounds, His hands are ound hidden behind His back while Pilate washes his own hands in a silver laver.

Cringe at those hands contorting in reaction to the furious unbearable pain of the whips being slashed across His back.

Feel the splinters and the weight of the cross upon those hands as they struggle to grip its shaft and keep it from falling off His shoulder … step after excruciating step along the dirt road … to death.

Shudder at every hammer blow that drives the thick iron nails through skin and bone and sinew … such violence … such gentle, healing hands.

Weep, letting your tears drop onto those still, pale hands, lifeless now as you anoint them with perfumes and carefully arrange them over His chest. Such senseless waste … such cruel injustice … such inconsolable sorrow …

And rejoice and exult now, to see those hands glowing with renewed life! The wounds remain as an eternal witness of His limitless love, but there is no pain in them now, no suffering, no corruption, no weakness, no defeat; for defeat has turned into victory, and sorrow has been drowned out forever by joy!

Hold those hands in your own. Touch them … feel them … kiss them … for these are the hands that of our Saviour, our Champion, our Redeemer.

Take your life and place it firmly in these hands. Fold His fingers over your life, enclose it in a cage of flesh and blood … and divinity.

“Lift up your hearts”“We have them with the Lord”

 

Fr Ant

* antiphon – a hymn where two groups take it in turns to sing alternate verses, responding to each other.

Unbearable Injustice

Wishing you all a Happy Feast of the Cross!

What is the Cross?

Geometrically speaking, the Cross is a symbol that is about as simple as you can get. Two perpendicular straight lines. And yet, within that simplicity lie profound layers of meaning, meaning that became attached to it ever since that fateful day on the Golgotha nearly 2,000 years ago. Those two simple lines contrast the attitude that looks upwards, seeking more to life (vertical), to that which is content with the one-dimensional life of the material here on earth (horizontal). They cross at 90 degrees; the maximum possible separation between two lines, implying that the two attitudes towards life couldn’t be further apart. And yet, they avoid the excesses of fanaticism, for if they increased the angle on one side, the angle on the opposite side would necessarily decrease. So also those who go to fanatical extremes of religiousity on the one hand often find themselves inevitably falling into worldly sins of pride and lust for power on the other.

The Cross represents an event, a real, historical, well-documented real-life event. And that event too is laden with meaning.

The Cross represents that totally unfair burden laid upon One who had already suffered enough. By the time the Cross had been laid upon the shoulder of Christ, He had already been subjected to humiliation and taunts, beatings and a barbaric whipping, blood loss, sleep deprivation and dehydration. The added pain and humiliation of carrying a heavy wooden cross through the streets of Jerusalem was a totally unnecessary and inhuman punishment for One who was about to die anyway. And yet, He bore it with grace and patience, and without a word of complaint. He bore it as far as was humanly possible, and after that, one was provided to bear it for Him, that He might complete His journey.

And we too are charged to take up our cross if we wish to be His disciples (students). Do not be surprised, then, if your cross turns out to be heavy or if it seems unnecessary or unfair. To follow Christ means to share with Him the total humiliation of injustice, and to bear it with grace and patience. Do not expect your cross to be fur lined for your added comfort, or electronically balanced for smooth driving. It will be, by its very nature and purpose, burdensome, unwieldy, ugly and agonising. When we have already suffered ‘enough’ – that is the point at which we are called to take up our cross … if we truly wish to follow Him.

It is at this point that faith becomes real. If faith is to mean anything, it must be trusting when all the evidence points to the contrary. “My God, My God; why have You forsaken Me?” He cried from the agony of the Cross. And yet, He did not bring Himself down. He did not say, “If My Father has forsaken Me, then I too shall forsake Him.” The Cross is faith that crosses the boundary of simple reason, that trusts when there appears to be very little reason to trust.

But this faith is not unreasonable. Probe deeper, and you will find a reason so compelling that it cannot be honestly escaped. “For the Father loves the Son,” – twice He says it in the Gospel of St John, as if to confirm its truth, so that we should not doubt it when we see Him later suffering on the Cross. It is faith in this love that makes this unreasonable, unjust, unbearable cross become our joy – and our salvation.

For without this trust, without this utter surrender into the hands of the Father, accepting whatever, whatever mind you, may come; without this trust we will never experience what the love of God really means. The seed cannot grow into a plant and bear fruit if it does not first surrender to gravity, fall to the ground and die. The Cross represents our surrender of the ego, and our submission to having it broken, however painful that may be, however unfair that may seem. The injustice becomes bearable because it comes from the hand of the Father, who loves us.

That is not the whole story. There is a happy ending:

“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
“Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
“For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30

Fr Ant

Lent and Lentils

It’s Lent again: Hooray!

By now, you may be reading the above words with disbelief. There is an ever-present temptation in times of fasting to dread what’s coming. The whole problem of having to be limited to fasting foods, the gastric pain of abstinence, and for all you poor mothers (and fathers) who have to prepare the food, that constantly annoying question of “Whatever am I going to cook tonight? We’re sick of lentils!”

Interestingly, the vegan vegetarian diet we adopt in Lent is meant to hark back to Paradise (did they have lentils in the Garden of Eden???) For of course, before the Fall, Adam and Eve ate no foods that involved the killing or suffering of animals.

The simpler diet is meant to lead us to a simpler lifestyle. Today, the variety of vegan foods available is far greater than it has ever been in history, I think. And yet, we still grumble.

My Confession Father once advised me to consider food and drink as nothing more than petrol for the tank during fasting times. Don’t worry about variety and taste and consistency, and all that stuff. So long as it contains the energy and nutrients you need to go about your daily business, just eat it. I have found that a very useful way to look at fasting food.

It confers the added benefit of independence. It is somehow liberating to be able to genuinely eat whatever food happens to present itself before you at any given time, and be quite content. There is a kind of joy in the victory over your tastebuds: “Aha, little buds! I have you now! No longer will you enslave me with your petty pickiness. I’ll show you … have another mouthful of lentils! Take that! And that!”

You may have noticed by now that I have lentils on the mind. I like lentils. They are small and humble, a poor man’s meal. And yet, with the right seasoning, they can be quite delicious. But they’re really not a Western dish. Many young people find a good bowl of lentils quite hard to stomach. And so they suffer in times like Lent. I sympathise. It took me some time to gain the victory over my stubborn tastebuds.

But then, isn’t that what Lent is all about? To eat like a poor person, that you may feel more empathy for the poor, be moved to help them more, and perhaps appreciate your own daily gifts that much more as well. The traditional great Easter Feast after the Resurrection liturgy is more than just a time for meatballs and turkey! It is a time for renewing old friendships with those chums, it is true. But think of the joy of that reunion. Think of how nice that food tastes, after a separation of 55 days. Well, maybe it’s better not to think too much about that when we’re only a couple of weeks into Lent. But my point is that “absence makes the heart grow fonder”. Through fasting, the joy of food that God created for us is renewed and reinvigorated, and with it, our joy in the Creator of the food Himself. As St Paul says, “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

So in Lent, we experience the victory of the spirit over the body, and thus approach closer to God. And after Lent is over, we experience the joy that God has written into all His creation, and thus approach closer to God. Each is all the more vivid an experience because of its opposite. Without the contrast, neither would be as powerful in leading us to God. In a simlar way, marriage throws into relief the beauty of the selfless sacrifice of celibacy, and celibacy brings an appreciation of the sacred mystery of marriage.

Lent … and lentils. Hmmm.

I think they were made for each other.

Fr Ant

In the Light of Dawn

One of my favourite hymns of all time must be the Morning Doxology. The tune is lovely: lively, enthusiastic, full of joy and hope … a great way to start off the day. On special ocassions, like the Raising of Incense for the Great Feasts, Easter, Christmas and Epiphany, this hymn has a special long tune called The Seven Ways. it combines all your favourites from tasbeha and the liturgy, and is a truly heavenly experience, when it is done right.

But it is the words I especially like. Please allow me to share some of them with you, together with some thoughts.

The Light of Truth: who illuminates: every one : who comes into the world.
You came into the world: through Your love for mankind: and all the creation: rejoiced at Your coming.

The imagery of light darkness is of course is a very well known device used in the Gospels and the Bible in general. This hymn applies it, though, in a very intimate way to or daily experiences. It sets out clearly near the beginning just Who exactly is the source of all light in our lives. True, we no longer think that God literally holds the sun in his hands and moves it across the sky for us, but we know that it is He who created this whole universe, gave it its laws of nature, and designed this amazing planet for us to dwell on.It is true, then that every morning that dawns upon us is a gift from the hand of God. The light that shines upon us from the rays of the sun is symbolic of the light of Truth and Love He shines in our hearts.

With the morning, the past day is wiped away, consigned to memory, while a new and exciting day full of potential is revealed by the sun’s light. So also does the light of God push behind us our past failures and weaknesses, and reveal to us new hope, a hope founded not on ourselves, but upon the power of the Giver of that Light. Thus did St Anthony the Great pray every morning, “Lord, I have not yet begun to know You! Forget all the wasted days of my past and let me begin a new life with You this day”.

and later on:

Let there shine in us: the senses of light: and let us not be covered: by the darkness of pain.

It is only when our souls are blinded by the darkness that we can fall in sin. We err when we consciously or unconsciously hide ourselves from the Light of God’s Truth and love, and there in the darkness, our baser instincts can gain control over us. It stands to reason that when one throws open the curtains and lets the Light back in, the works of darkness flee and dissolve away. This is what happens when we repent and then confess. This is what happens every time we invite our Lord into our hearts with warmth and longing.

When going from a dark room out into bright sunshine, one is blinded for a while until the eyes adjust. So also, when returning to the room, the eyes see nothing for a while until they readjust. At the beginning of the day, we cry to God to give us eyes for light, not for darkness, to grant us to roam free in the wide world of light, not to be imprisoned in the man-made prison of our selfishness and self-centredness.

and:

In this morning: ease our inner ways: and our outer ways: with the joy of Your protection.

That which we do on the outside is a reflection of that which we are on the inside. Most sins begin in the mind and heart, and from there progress to fruition in action or word. Thus we ask God to walk with us this day along our inner paths. These are the paths the feet of our mind will tread, the directions our thoughts will follow. Without Jesus to guide us, it is all to easy to lose one’s way and find oneself treading upon thorns and thistles, or fighting through dense undergrowth and branches that will not yield. Much effort, little progress … all because I chose the wrong path.

But with Jesus beside me, listening to His directions, feeling His gentle nudges on my hand in His, looking to Him constantly for a lead, for reassurance, for courage and strength, any path is negotiable. Even when the right path becomes dangerous and difficult, His presence at my side makes the path not only bearable, but passable.

and:

Out of Your goodness: You prepared for us the night: grant us this day: to be without sin.

The night and the day are both from God. He allows us to enjoy the sweet rest of sleep as well as the thrill of the challenges of the day. With Him, good can be found in both darkness and light. Under His protection, we can even “Walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil”. Sleep, often called in Coptic tradition, “the little death”, holds no fear, for it has become inhabited by God.

We give thanks for the night that has safely passed, for all previous nights and days that have now passed. It is good to remember that the Lord has never left us. With that knowledge to fortify us, we can look forward to the new day with hope rather than fear. Perhaps today is the day that I will repent truly from my troublesome sins?

___________________________________

You can find the text of the Morning Doxology in any Psalmodia book, or online, in Coptic and English, at:

http://www.alhan.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=34&Itemid=57

You can also hear it as an audio file or download it as an mp3 from the above site or from:

www.coptichymns.net/

www.tasbeha.org/

Aren’t we blessed to live in an age of technology!

Fr Ant

41

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the hero discovers the answer to the meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything: it is 42. Actually, he got it wrong. It is 41.

The Coptic Rite frequently uses a hymn which consists basically of one phrase repeated 41 times. I am referring of course, to the KYRIE ELEISON.

The words are Greek, not Coptic, harking back to the early days of Christianity when Greek was the common language in use throughout most of the Mediterranean civilisations. The Gospels were originally written in Greek and the liturgies we use in the Coptic Church were originally all in Greek. It is only as time went on that they wee translated to the vernacular Coptic. Even today, the standard form of the “Coptic” liturgies we pray – when we say we are praying in Coptic – has a pretty significant percentage that is Greek, not Coptic.

But I’m actually not interested in the language side of things today – I wanted to contemplate on the spiritual significance of the 41 Kyrie Eleisons. You might have asked yourself at some stage, “Why do we just repeat the one phrase over and over like that? Didn’t Jesus warn us against just such a practice?”

“And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.” (Matthew 6:7)

Yes, God knows that we need His mercy. But the prayer is for our benefit, not His. It is a reminder to us of that need for mercy, lest we should ever forget and think ourselves self-sufficient without Him. As I sing the repetitions of “Lord have mercy!” I can have two things running through my mind. One is my deep need for the mercy of God; the other is the mercy of God itself, and the God of Mercy Himself.

Our need for mercy stems from our inherent weakness and moral frailty. God is all-good. We desire to be one with God. Yet we sin. By sinning, we exclude ourselves from being one with God. Oops. How is this problem to be solved? There is nothing we can do about it, for it does not lie within our power. Only He can do something about it … and He did.

God’s solution to the problem was to become one of us, to suffer for us and to die for us, and then to rise again from the dead, satisfying the law of justice, yet opening a door to the infinite possibilities of mercy. On His way to completing this course, He was tied to a post and whipped. The 41 Kyrie Eleisons bring us to the very Roman pavement upon which his tired knees rested, and challenge us to look on as the sadistic whip, sharp stones and rusty nails tied to its cords, is scraped over and over across the bare back of the Humble Servant.

Can you stand here unmoved?

What heart of stone would not cry out, “Stop!” Not only is this inhuman, it is uniquely unjust, for all have sinned, all deserve the reward of their evil … but not his Man. Anyone but this Man. This is He whose gentle eyes gave hope to the woman caught in adultery after He saved her life from the bloodthirsty mob … the same eyes that now weep in pain and agony. This is He whose strong voice echoed over the Mount as He taught the multitudes to be meek, lowly, poor in spirit … the same voice that cries out now uncontrollably in suffering. Anyone but this Man.

Imagine that from the midst of His blood and spasming muscles His eyes glanced out for a moment through tangled, sweaty hair and met with yours … And what will you say now? Can anyone remain silent? There is no “I will do something to save You!” You will find no comforting if futile action to ease the burden of this monstrous event. It is done. It is finished. It has happened. And all because of our sins. He took what is ours, and gave us what is His.

What then will you say? Is there anything else we can say, other than “Lord have mercy!”?

Sometimes we pray this hymn with a fast tempo, as if the pain of it is such that we only wish to bring it to an end as soon as we can. At other times, we pray it more slowly, as befits a dirge of sadness. Always, we should pray it with this image firmly held before the eyes of our minds: the broken Body, leaking blood from a thousand points, submitting to this suffering … that I deserved instead.

We cry for mercy because we never meant it to come to this. All those times we gave in to sin … it was never meant to end like this! We cry for mercy for the chains that bind us still to our frail humanity, the undependable, unfaithful, unthankful and brute nature that drags our eternal spirits down into the dust of sin again and again … only the Suffering Servant has the power to break those chains, and so, even while He suffers, we cry out for His mercy. It should be He who cries out for mercy from His tormentors, but instead, it was He who administered mercy to them as He hung on the Cross, asking for His Father’s forgiveness for them. He has taught us to ask, and so we do.

No, this is no vain repetition. This is not multiplying empty useless words (or at least, it never should be). This is our witness, so many times each day, that we know and appreciate the sacrifice of profound love that our loving Saviour offered for us. If any words of prayer have meaning, it is surely these simple words!

Fr Ant

Gems in the Liturgy

The Prayer of the Veil

There is a little prayer prayed silently by the priest each liturgy that goes all but unnoticed by the congregation. It is indeed a very personal and intimate prayer, but it is one that the congregation can share, at least in spirit. It is called the Prayer of the Veil, for it is prayed at the Royal Door, the entrance to the sanctuary, which represents Heaven, the place where the Veil was split in two at the time of Christ’s crucifixion. That sign was the indication that we are now able to enter the Holy of Holies, previously an honour reserved only for the Jewish High Priest. But the Christian priest of today does not take this honour lightly! It must never be taken for granted, and thus the tradition of the Church teaches us that none is to enter or exit through the Royal Door except when necessary for the service, and that one should bow and offer reverence to God whenever passing through that Door.

But before he enters the sanctuary to begin the Liturgy of the Faithful, the priest must first pray this prayer. When the reading of the Gospel is finished, the priest, who had been standing next to the lectern and offering incense, must now return to the sanctuary to begin the prayers at the altar once more. But he comes to a stop at the Royal Door and prays the following prayer* :

“O God, who, in Your unspeakable love toward mankind, sent Your Only Begotten Son into the world, that He might bring the lost sheep home unto You; we ask You, O our Lord, thrust us not behind You when we offer this awesome and bloodless sacrifice. For we put no trust in our righteousness but in Your mercy, whereby You have given life to our race. We pray and entreat Your goodness, O Lover of Mankind, that this mystery which You have appointed unto us for salvation may not be unto condemnation unto us or unto any of Your people, but unto the washing away of our sins and the forgiveness of our negligence and unto the glory and honour of Your Holy Name, O Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and unto the age of all ages, amen.”

Basically, the priest stands outside the Royal Door and prays, “As You came out of heaven, and in Your holiness came out us sinners in the world – so now please allow me the sinner to enter into Heaven to be with You, and sanctify me that I may do so.”

He comes out of heaven to pray for his brothers and sisters in the world before the Word, the Logos. But having carried the burdens of the world, having prayed for those who are distressed, in captivity, sick, and so on, he stops before re-entering Heaven to seek ‘cleansing’ of his thoughts. For he will now enter the sanctuary to take part in the calling down of heaven to come and fill the Church, he will stand before the Throne of God, upon which sits the Lamb of God, slain for the life of the whole world, he will be in the presence of the cherubim and seraphim and the angels that surround God’s heavenly throne. He does not dare to enter into such a service without first asking permission, and seeking the acceptance of God, and the forgiveness of his own, many sins.

The priest confesses that he is one of those lost sheep for whom the Shepherd came out to search. He pauses, awkwardly, uncertain, “sheepishly”, outside the door, wondering if he is welcome, pondering whether he will be allowed back in. For he knows that he is not worthy; “For we put no trust in our righteousness…” he complains, since before God, “There is none righteous, no, not one … There is none who understands … There is none who does good, no, not one.” (Romans 3:11-13) If he were treated with justice, he would deserve to be cast out, “thrust behind” God, and not allowed to enter the Holy places, like St Mary the Egyptian of old. All he can hope for is that God will accept him, unworthy as he is, in His great mercy, for He came to seek the Lost Sheep like him.

The priest knows full well that if he approaches this Mystery in an unworthy manner, not only will he forfeit the blessings it bestows, but it will become a curse to him, for “he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Corinthians 11:29) Thus he entreats God “that this mystery which You have appointed unto us for salvation may not be unto condemnation unto us or unto any of Your people, but unto the washing away of our sins and the forgiveness of our negligence and unto the glory and honour of Your Holy Name”.

This is God’s “unspeakable love”, the love that no words can describe, no mind can comprehend. The love that transforms the lowly, the confused, the uncertain and the spiritually orphaned into true adopted Children of the Lord of Heaven and Earth. Before he can begin the Liturgy of the Faithful, the priest pauses at the door to experience this intimate moment of surrender to God and to be flooded with the warmth of His all-consuming love.

During this moment, the congregation are singing the appropriate Gospel Response. The general response is “Truly blessed are they indeed, the saints of this day, each one, each one by his name, the beloved of Christ”. Through this hymn they share in this intimate moment with the priest and with the saints who have lived before us over the past 2000 years and grew to know well the love of Christ. We dare to proceed to the Liturgy of the Faithful because they dared … and were not turned away! Rather, Christ accepted them to Himself and even named them “His beloved”. Can we possibly receive this same immense grace? Let us step forward boldly and find out – the priest completes his prayer and steps boldly into the sanctuary through the royal door, and the grand adventure of the Eucharist begins…

Fr Ant
www.stbishoy.org.au

* In order to save time, the priest will often pray this prayer while he is still standing at the lectern, during the reading of the Gospel.

The Smile of Equal Width

KHRISTOS ANESTY!

I hope you all enjoyed a lovely Passion Week topped by a beautiful Resurrection Liturgy. It’s a lovely time for families too to get together in love and celebrate the Risen Lord , and the life He gave to each and every one of us.

This 50 Days after the Resurrection are sometimes misunderstood. Because the Church virtually bans fasting in this period, it is a natural reaction to take from that the message that this is a time for relaxing spiritually and taking things a bit easy. After the effort and ascetism of nearly two months of Lent, this is the time make up for it by enjoying the delights of various foods and … anything else you gave up in Lent? Surely I’ve given God enough to tide me over for a while now. He won’t mind if I take a bit of a break from Him…

But it really is about so much more than that, just as Lent is about so much more than just a change in your diet and eating patterns. This 50 Days is about living in the joy of Christ, the comforting, glorious presence of Christ.
He is not dead, He is risen!
He has not left us, He has returned to us!
He is not defeated, He is irreversibly victorious!

If you were blessed with grace from God through Lent, you might have been able to feel that what you ate really didn’t matter. After all, whatever you eat will still keep you going and reasonably healthy (junk food aside). And it didn’t matter because there are bigger fish to fry – imagine if your only goal in life was to make sure you ate the best foods. Pretty shallow?

It is, when you consider the other issues facing us in life. Issues such as justice and mercy, poverty and bereavement and death. Is food really all that important in the grand scale of things? Well, what changed on Saturday night? Did any of those really important things suddenly become less important? Just because steak and drumsticks, fattah and ice cream re-entered your life?

Of course not! In Lent, we gave up food so as not to distract ourselves with its attractions. In this 50 Days, we eat without restrictions so as not to distract ourselves by having to pay too much attention to what we eat. Both practices bestow their own unique benefits, and the person who is genuinely focused on the things that matter in life will, I think, appreciate those benefits and get the very most out of them both. And, with a smile of equal width in both seasons. 🙂

This is not a time to sit back and relax, but a time to use whatever resources God gives you at the moment to seek Him and to seek to do His will. That never changes, no matter what the season may be. The life with God, if it is that sort of life, is not one we need a holiday from. Sure, our physical bodies may only be able to cope with so much, but our spirits, if they truly love Him, cannot help but be constantly attracted towards Him without interruption.

That’s part of the beauty and truth of our blessed Orthodox Christian faith – it teaches us to see through the curtains of our earthly and physical limitations into the clear pure world of the spirit, where the light of God is always shining, beckoning, inviting us to come closer and enjoy its light and warmth.

Would you really postpone that for a few squares of chocolate?

Fr Ant

Passion Week Psalms

As Passion Week approaches we find ourselves looking forward eagerly to this one very special week in our annual cycle. Those who can take a week off work. Uni students use it as an excellent excuse to skip classes (is there a better one?!). And of course, off the shelf comes the dusty Passion Week Book for a bit of early revision of the chief hymns and readings.

It’s a very special week.

With a lot of very long Psalms. So today, I just thought I’d share a few ideas with you on how to get the most from your time in Church during all those very long Psalms.

1. Contemplate the Psalm
Delve deeply into the meanings of the words. Why was this particular verse chosen for this particular time? What light does it shed on the prophecies that came before it and the gospel that follows it? If you are good at Coptic, look for the slight differences in meaning between the two languages that often reveal some unexpectedly beautiful thoughts. Let the tune of the Psalm take you away on a flight of profound reverie and insight…

2. Contemplate the Gospel
What would it have been like to have lived through these events with Jesus? What do the gospels tell me about Jesus, His personality, His thoughts, His ideals and His manner with people? Get to know Jesus as a real person through this biography of His last days.

3. Contemplate on the events of the day
The Passion Week Book has some concise summaries for each day as well as for the week as a whole. They run to many pages and reading them on the appropriate day can help bring the service to life. And then there other books full of contemplations on the events of this week, such as HH Pope Shenouda’s classic on the Seven Words of Christ on the Cross.

4. Contemplate an icon
Special icons of Christ are placed at the front of the Church during the services. They help focus our attention on Jesus Himself. Take the time to look at the ocon closely, to think about those thorns piercing the soft flesh, or to see the love in those eyes. I love looking into His face as we sing “Emmanuel our God, is among us now…” at the end of the service – it helps make it real.

5. Read a good book
Is there a particular virtue you would love to learn? Read a book about it through this week. Or what about that great book you’ve been meaning to get around to for ages but never had the time? This is your chance for some serious reading. Scribble your thoughts in the margins. Stop every now and then to digest what you have just read and consider how to put it into practice.

6. Read THE Good Book
Tradition dictates that we read the Four Gospels, The Book of Psalms and the Book of Revelation through Passion Week:

Tuesday = Matthew
Wednesday = Mark
Thursday = Luke
Friday = Psalms
Apocalypse Vigil = Revelation
Evening before the Resurrection Liturgy = John

Bring your Bible with you and read, read read! You’ll be amazed how differently you see a Gospel when you read it straight through, from beginning to end, like a novel. All sorts of patterns and lessons show up that you never notice reading it one chapter a day.

7. Lay a major problem before God
This is your chance to have a nice long uninterrupted talk with God. Don’t keep carrying that burden around for ever! This is a good time to unload and let Him share the burden, as He has always wanted to. Let His comfort and His peace flood through you as you realise that He is in control, whatever happens…

8. Keep a journal
Often you will come upon some lovely and inspiring thoughts or contemplations as you pray in Church. Keep a little notebook handy, and when you sit down for the Psalm, jot down those thoughts, perhaps with the time and ‘Hour’ of the Psacha when they came to you. This little journal can be a great support and motivator in later times when you are feeling down or lost. Just pick it up and read it, and you will be transported back to that lovely time in Passion Week!

9. Have a chat with Jesus
How well do you really know Him? How often have you really just stopped to chat? You don’t have to ask for anything, and you don’t have to complain. What about just sharing your life with Him – He’s all ears! Or better still, what about sharing HIS life with Him? Tell Him how you feel about all that happened to Him. Let Him know that you care.

10. Play a DVD in your head
Some people’s brains are very visual. Close your eyes and play a little movie in your imagination of the events of that hour and day. Try it from different perspectives, different people’s points of view. Movie makers often develop a much better grasp of events they are reconstructing than anyone else.

11. Pray for someone in need
Perhaps your heart is bleeding for someone who is going through a very, very difficult time. This is a great time to pray for them. I mean, really pray for them. With focus, with passion, with faith, with confidence in the love of God. but don’t forget to say, as Christ did in Gethsemane, “Let Thy will be done”.

12. Help a bored child (or a harrassed mother – same thing)
Passion Week can be torture if you have to keep a little child quiet for hours on end. Some mothers (not all!) would love the chance to have a few minutes of peace and wuiet to enjoy the prayers. Bring some colouring pages or activities for a mother you know might need them or even offer to keep the child busy (quietly please!) to help her out.

So much to do, so little time!!!

No wonder in times past when life was less hectic people would spend the whole week at Church! But at least we aren’t living in the most ancient of Christian times, when Passion Week was observed only once every 33 years…

Fr Ant

Outside Looking In.

I recently heard a talk on CD distributed by St Paul’s Outreach Service (you know, the service that sends them out to a mailing list) by an American convert to Orthodoxy called Francis Schaeffer. He seems to be a very eloquent and deeply thoughtful man. On this occasion, he was speaking about his experiences since abandoning Protestantism and joining the Orthodox Church. The whole talk was an eye-opener, for he gives his impressions from the point of view of an objective ‘outsider’ who has come into intimate contact with the Orthodox Christian community. But the thing I want to address today is a comment he made about how many Orthodox Churches there are. Roughly paraphrased, it went something like this:

“Some people complain that the Orthodox are divided along national and cultural lines – the Greeks, the Russians and so on, but I in fact see only two Orthodox Churches. These two churches often exist within the same parish. Most Orthodox people tend to belong to one or the other of the two, but they drift in and out of each of the two.

“The two Orthodox Churches are the “Social Club” Orthodox Church and the “One, only holy catholic and apostolic Church”.

“The first is where people come to Church just because they ‘belong’. In this Church, people to tend to ignore the reality and the importance of the sacraments and the teaching, focussing more on their interactions with others, maintaining their ethnic identity, internal politics, beaurocracy, gossip and so on. This Church is not going to last very long. There are others out there who do ‘social club’ much better than we ever can. They have more money, more resources, and more experience, and they will rob this Church of its members over time.

“But the other Church, the ‘real Church’, is where people appreciate and value the unique mysteries present in the Church, and avail themselves of its power to transform lives. On any given Sunday, in any given parish, you will find members of both these Churches standing shoulder to shoulder in thel liturgy.”

Schaeffer is speaking from the point of view of one who has not grown up inside the Orthodox Church. He has not had the opportunity to develop ‘tolerance’ (in the sense of tolerance to a drug) through over-familiarity. He expresses his amazement at the amazement of life-long Orthodox who cannot understand why he converted. They seem to him to be saying, “You don’t have to be here. Why on earth would you want to join this leper colony?!” Yet those who react like this are the ones who never really use the power of the Church in their lives. They belong to the Social Club Church, and they see him as leaving much better social clubs for an inferior, ethnically based one.

We have such treasures at our disposal, yet often we need an ‘outsider’ to point them out to us. Hearing Schaeffer speak about the sacrament of confession, how much he has felt the difference that being accountable to someone for his spiritual state has made, and how the Holy Spirit is working to slowly change him through this sacrament made me think of how poorly the ‘life-long’ confessor often benefits from his/her confession. What a pity!

Perhaps our expectations come to be lower? Perhaps we can be too close to see the big picture? Perhaps it is yet another example of the old adage, “Familiarity breeds contempt”, or that one never appreciates a valuable thing until one loses it? I recall working in the Illawarra during my intern year and suddenly feeling acutely the lack of a local Church to go to; suddenly appreciating the immense blessing of weekly Communion when I could no longer get it. I hear many such experiences from our tertiary students who travel to distant places to complete their studies.

Why wait till I lose a precious thing before I appreciate it and benefit fully from it? Why not find that appreciation now? Can you imagine approaching Confession with the expectation of real transformation through the grace of the Holy Spirit combined with your own genuine efforts? Can you imagine approaching Holy Communion in the full understanding of this incredible miracle that occurs weekly before your very eyes? Can you imagine the feeling of walking out of Church carrying Christ in your body, dwelling in Him as He now dwells in you?

Let us not wait to be kicked out of our Father’s house before we realise what we have. Let us not be a Prodigal Son or Daughter. We are rich beyond measure! Let us enter into the joy of our Lord…

Fr Ant

Coptic Women Priests?

I recently came across an interesting book by a pretty conservative Eastern Orthodox theologian on the topic of women in the Orthodox priesthood. You can guess that he was against the idea. What struck me about the book, though, was that some of the arguments he used were totally alien to my understanding of the priesthood.

Especially noticeable was one argument that kept pooping up, whether directly or indirectly, that I might paraphrase as follows:

Priesthood means authority. Authority means control, power, being in charge.
The woman is not fit for this role, since she is the man’s helper, not his boss.
Therefore, we can never have Orthodox women priests.

I’m not sure what you would make of this?

I don’t intend to get into the whole “a helpmate meet for him” argument in this post. It just seemed to me that this argument was weak because it was built on one big mistake: Priesthood is not first and foremost about authority; it is about service.

That this is the teaching of Christ couldn’t be any clearer. He said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)

HH Pope Shenouda III wrote in his spiritual classic a chapter entitled “Poor Men” (Al Masakeen, I think). In it, he describes his pity for those who are ordained to the ranks of the priesthood, pointing out that they will be judged not only for their own deeds, but for those of the people whom they serve. Imagine, he says, the poor Pope – who will be held responsible for the fates of millions of souls! Perhaps you can guess he wrote this when he was still a layman, before entering the monastery. Prophetic, though, wasn’t it!

Now that’s the understanding of priesthood (and indeed, any kind of Church position) that I can relate to. The world is all about power and control and advantage and prestige. But those ideas should never be allowed to get in and contaminate the spiritual service. If ever the priest needs to exercise some sort of ‘power’ or ‘authority’ over his flock, it should never be out of a lust to control others, or pride or selfishness. It should be because that is the only avenue left to him to achieve the will of God and the spiritual goals of the Church. It can also only be successful if the people he serves are willingly accepting that authority. Yet it is an authority that any sane man would flee from, for it is very, very dangerous.

What if he makes the wrong decision? What if those he serves suffer because of his orders? There is a great scope for doing damage here! I recently saw a documentary about the Jim Jones tragedy in South America. In short, an American pastor grew gradually more and more manipulative of his flock. Being very charismatic, his influence upon them grew to such an extent that he was able to take 900 of them to a jungle in South America to build a new country, Jonestown, where everything would be perfect. With a frightening array of tools of psychological manipulation, these people virtually became his slaves. Eventually, the whole thing ended with him making them all commit suicide with him. Scary.

No, religious leadership is about serving. It is about the genuine needs of those being served – not the needs of the servant. Because of this, it is often a very harsh, very difficult path to follow. Which means that any sensible person would run a mile to escape it. If you have ever seen a Coptic bishop being ordained, you will have noticed that he is brought in to Church with two strong bishops holding him firmly by each arm. Although this is largely ceremonial now, its original purpose was to stop the candidate from running away! Pope Shenouda himself repeatedly refused to be ordained as a bishop, until Pope Kyrollos VI virtually forced the matter by one day unexpectedly placing his hand on his head in the corridor, and saying “I ordain you, Shenouda, Bishop in the Orthodox CHurch of God …” There was no escape.

Pope Shenouda is famous for saying “Those who wish to be ordained as priests are usually unsuitable, and those who are suitable, usually do not wish to be ordained”. There is a lot of wisdom in this. Only a person who really understands the responsibility and the sacrifice of priesthood is suitable to be ordained. Yet that is the very person who would run away from it because of that huge responsiblity and sacrifice!

Which seems to me the biggest reason why it is unlikely that we will have women priests in the Coptic Orthodox Church … they are too smart for that 🙂

But seriously, I think we are very blessed to have a ‘humble’ attitude to service in the Church. We do not see it as authority, or prestige, or position or power. Priesthood is simply one important service among many others. The Church runs through teamwork, joint effort, not through the efforts of any one individual. There is simply a need for one individual to organise that teamwork, and that happens to be the priest. There is a need for one individual to be set aside for the very scary task of administering the sacraments, and that happens to be the priest. It is a frightening thing to approach an altar with the Body and Blood upon it – frightening because we are sinners, and we are approaching an unimaginably powerful Holiness. But the priest does it because someone has to, and because God has called him to be that someone. No one in their right mind would put themselves forward to do it – only those who don’t quite understand what it really means.

Sadly, in modern life, even Christian Churches have become infected with this idea of power and authority – hence the fight over who is to rule. I hope our Church never loses its innocence. It’s not about anyone ruling.

It’s all about serving.

Fr Ant