Monthly Archives: September 2011

Holy

“I am the Lord, the Holy One, the Creator… your King” (Is 43:15). Thus speaks the Lord God from his sanctuary on high. He is the One before whom the glorious, fiery Seraphim tremble in awe, needing two of their six wings to cover their faces lest they be overcome by the unutterably dazzling brilliance of the divine glory. The only words that can find expression on their lips are, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts…” (Is 6:3).

God, essentially the Holy One, and especially Jesus Christ, the divine “Holy One of God” (Jn 6:69), are often not accepted or spoken of as such these days. The transcendent, awe-inspiring dimension of the divine nature manifested in and through Christ, the unique Son of God and only Savior, has to a great extent fallen out of liturgy, theology, and spirituality, especially in much of the West.

To those who deny the divinity of Christ, who want to bring Him down to our level instead of begging to be raised up to his, who want to jettison gestures of reverence and to remove from our midst images and symbols of the majesty and holiness of Christ our God, I say: the demons have greater faith and clearer insight than you do! “I know who You are, the Holy One of God!” they said to Jesus (Mk 1:24). May God take pity on those whose spiritual understanding and sensitivity is inferior to that of demons, and who would still teach and lead others!

My purpose here, however, is not primarily to deal with the phenomenon of the loss of the sense of holiness or with those who have brought it about. Rather, I wish simply to reflect on the presence of the Holy One in the Byzantine Liturgy, and thus to help rekindle the fire of fervor, the wonder of worship, and the righteousness of reverence toward Him who is holy. To the Lord God the priests sing: “For You, our God, are holy, and to You we give glory, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever…” And the choir responds with the Trisagion (“thrice-holy”): Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us.

Some time ago, I was suddenly made aware, during the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, of the beautiful interplay of the priest’s silent prayers and the choir’s hymns during the anaphora, when the consecratory prayers are prayed. The reverent worship of the people rose like incense as the priests fervently invoked the Most High to make present the awesome Sacrifice. Holiness was like the air we breathed. Silent prayer and chanted praises became as one heartbeat, one cry of longing for the Coming One to come. It all started when the choir began softly to sing: “Holy, holy, holy….”

Rather than try to explain it all, I would like to present a selection of excerpts from the prayers, alternating the priest and choir parts, to highlight the delicate dance of divine praises which the Bride offers Him who loves mankind (the priest’s prayers are in italics).

It is right and just to sing to You, to bless You, to praise You, to thank You, to worship You… It is fitting and right to worship the Father, Son and Holy Spirit… You brought us from nothingness into being… we fell, You raised us up again… You, Your only-begotten Son, and Your Holy Spirit… the Trinity, one in essence and undivided… We thank You for this sacrifice which You have deigned to accept from our hands, even though there stand before You thousands of Angels…the cherubim and six-winged Seraphim… Singing, crying, exclaiming, and proclaiming the triumphal hymn….

At this point the choir, which “mystically represents the Cherubim,” begins to sing ‘the thrice holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity.” And the dance goes on:

Holy, holy, holy… With these blessed powers…we too cry out and say: Holy are You… holy Lord of Sabaoth… You and Your only-begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit… Heaven and earth are full of Your glory… and magnificent is Your glory. You so loved Your world as to give Your only-begotten Son… Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord… He came and fulfilled the whole divine plan for our sake… Hosanna in the highest!

The priests sing the Words of Institution aloud, while the choir, deeply bowed or prostrated before the Mystery, responds with a soft yet solemn “Amen.” And we remember the price of our redemption:

Remembering… all that was done for us, the cross, the tomb, the resurrection… we offer to You, Yours of Your own… We sing to You, we bless You… in behalf of all and for all… we thank You, O Lord, and we pray to You… we implore, we pray, and we entreat You: send down Your Holy Spirit…

Before Holy Communion, there is more explicit worship of Christ as the Holy One. The priest bows three times before the precious and holy Body and Blood of Jesus, saying, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Then, with all reverence and care, extending his hands to touch God—the Burning Bush, the Pillar of Fire, the Slaughtered Lamb, the King of kings and Lord of lords—the priest performs the elevation, saying aloud, “The Holy Things for the holy!”  The “Holy Things” here mean, of course, the holy Body and Blood of Jesus. The “holy” who receive them are those consecrated by God for divine worship and Holy Communion. All holiness is derived from and communicated by the Holy One. Therefore the choir sings:

One is holy, one is Lord… Broken and distributed is the Lamb of God… Jesus Christ… sanctifying those who partake… to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

After Communion, choir and clergy alike give thanks: Let our mouths be filled with Your praise, O Lord… We thank You, O Master, Lover of mankind… for You have made us worthy to share Your holy, divine, immortal, life-giving Mysteries… even today You have made us worthy of Your heavenly and immortal Mysteries… Keep us in Your holiness… protect our lives and secure our steps… that we may always learn Your righteousness… through the prayers of the glorious Mother of God and Ever-virgin Mary, and of all Your saints… Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

After celebrating the Eucharist like this, there is obviously no place for the irreverence, informality, and general lack of respect for the majesty and holiness of God that characterizes all too many church services today. The way God is to be worshipped is not a matter of some liturgists’ tastes, nor does the agenda of some theologians or even bishops matter, when they declare that the widespread evisceration of the Eucharistic Liturgy is “what the people want.” The prevailing spirit of the world is not the Spirit of God. There is room for a legitimate plurality of liturgical traditions, but they all have to respect and reflect the reality that God is God, that He is to be approached as the Holy One as well as the Lover of Mankind.

The balance of reverence and intimacy needs to be kept in order for worship to be authentic and acceptable to the One whom we adore. Otherwise, people may be creating a cult of self-worship or community-worship, being blind and deaf to the will of God. That would defeat the purpose of worshiping God because He is God, because He created and redeemed us and prepares everlasting life for us, because his judgments are righteous and his word is Truth, and who therefore has absolute rights over his creation.

Where orthodox faith and “acceptable worship with reverence and awe” (Heb 12:28) are lacking, one has to wonder precisely what is the agenda of those responsible for, and who preside over, this degeneration. And who are they serving and trying to please, if they are not faithful servants of the God of Scripture and Tradition, of Sinai and Tabor, of the Cross and the Empty Tomb, the God who was, and is, and is to come?

Esther, Judith, Mary

It has long been the teaching of the fathers of the Church—going way back to St Justin in the second century with his understanding of Mary as the New Eve—to see in the Old Testament various symbols or prefigurations of the mystery of the Mother of God.  Here I want only to look at two women of the Old Testament who offer us some insight into what Our Lady does for us and for our salvation.

There’s a connection between Queen Esther and Mary, the Queen of Heaven, and it is not only because “she was exceeding fair, and her incredible beauty made her appear agreeable and amiable in the eyes of all” (Esther 2:15).  Nor is it only in the fact that Mary pleased God and was made Queen of Heaven as Esther pleased King Ahasuerus and was made queen of his realm: “She pleased him and found favor in his sight… And the king loved her more than all the women, and she had favor and kindness before him… and he set the royal crown on her head…” (2:9, 17).

At Fatima, Our Lady appeared with a star near the hem of her robe.  This is interpreted as a symbol of her intercessory role. The name Esther means “star,” and we know that in the Bible, the beautiful Queen Esther interceded with the king to save her people from the destruction plotted by an evil man.  The people were to be annihilated on the 13th of the month (Our Lady appeared in Fatima on the 13th of 6 successive months).  Esther went to the king and pleaded that her people would be spared, and the king granted her request, executing the evildoer instead.  This is a prefiguration of how Mary, the Queen of Heaven, appears before the King to intercede that her people be saved from the evil one and all his treacherous plots against our souls.

We read in the Book of Esther that that her uncle Mordecai “charged her to go to the king and make supplication to him and entreat him for her people” (4:8).  This is precisely what Mary does for us: making supplication to the King of Heaven for her people.  We should be grateful that God has chosen and loved one of us so much as to make her our Queen, with the power of intercession, and so her petitions He will never refuse.  “What is your petition, Queen Esther?  It shall be granted you” (7:2).

Another Old Testament heroine is Judith.  The way she prefigures Mary is somewhat different.  As we know from Genesis, God put enmity between the woman and the serpent, who represent Mary and the devil, respectively, and through the power of her Son, the Woman would crush the serpent’s head.  Well, Judith is an image of this mystery, for she saved her people by cutting off the head of the evil and tyrannical general, Holofernes.  Judith, like Esther and like Mary, was exceedingly beautiful and devout, and was held in high honor by her people.  When their faith wavered in the face of the threats and power of the enemy, she counseled them to trust in God, and not put Him to the test by placing a limit on how long they would wait for Him before they would surrender to their enemies.  For God would deliver them at the proper time by the hand of a woman.

After Judith had killed the enemy leader and returned victorious to her people, they sang to her (and this is used in the Latin Rite on certain feasts of Our Lady): “You are the exaltation of Jerusalem; you are the great glory of Israel; you are the great pride of our nation!  You have done all this single-handedly; you have done great good to Israel, and God is well pleased with it.  May the Almighty Lord bless you forever! … The Lord Almighty has foiled them by the hand of a woman!” (Jdt. 15:9-10; 16:6).  Our Lady is the Woman at whose hand (or rather, under whose foot) God has foiled the designs of our evil enemy, the devil. God has chosen her to bring the Savior into the world and to stand with Him and to wield the power He has given her to protect us from evil and to neutralize its power and influence in our lives.

There is much more that can be said about Old Testament prefigurings of the Mother of God, but let this suffice for now.  Let us realize that just as the mystery of Christ was known in Heaven for all eternity, the mystery of his Mother was known as well—for how could there be an incarnate Son considered in isolation from the one who gave flesh to Him?  So the mystery of both Mother and Son was intimated in the stories of salvation history, until their complete revelation in the fullness of time—and the ever-deepening understanding of these divine mysteries in the ongoing life of the Church, until the Lord returns in glory.

Lifting the Veil

[The following is an excerpt from my book, How Lovely is Your Dwelling Place: Lifting the Veils on the Presence of God.]

The Holy Eucharist… is the greatest of the Church’s “veiled mysteries.”  In fact, the proper term for the Eucharist in the Byzantine tradition is the “Holy Mysteries.”  This doesn’t mean merely that this unique mode of the Lord’s presence is “mysterious” in the common sense of the word… The Greek term mysterion is translated into Latin by sacramentum, whence comes the English “sacrament.”  The Eucharist is the sacrament par excellence of the Church, which in turn is the sacrament par excellence of Christ.  To put it as simply as possible, a sacrament is a ritual “sign” that bears within itself and communicates the divine reality it signifies.  The fullness of the grace of Christ, the abundant life He wishes to communicate to us, is to be found in his Church, his primary dwelling place.  Here is preserved, as in a heavenly treasury, his word and his holy mysteries, so that the Church as such is in a sense the sacrament of Christ.  All the other sacraments flow from the life of the Church, as water and blood flowed from the pierced side of her crucified Savior and Lord.

As one example of the divine grace communicated to and through the sacramental signs, water is just water until it is blessed for the Church’s celebration of the sacrament of baptism. Suddenly it becomes a grace-bearing sign, the immersion in which communicates the “washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5), the baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom 6:3-5), the incorporation into his Mystical Body (Gal 3:27).  It still looks like the same old water, and this is the sacramental “veil” over the hidden mystery of grace within.  But the invocation of the Holy Spirit by one ordained as an official representative of the Church (this ordination is another sacrament), and the words and actions of the ritual, manifest and communicate a new reality, the watery “womb” out of which emerge newborn children of God.

Let us return to the Holy Eucharist.  Here Christ is present “in the flesh,” though sacramentally, not in the physical composition of human flesh.  For the inner reality of the Eucharist is the actual Body and Blood of Christ, but the sacramental signs appear as bread and wine.  They are “veils” that must be lifted by faith, and when this happens, Holy Communion bears spiritual fruit in the lives of those who partake.  The Church as sacrament of Christ finds her fullest expression and inner essence in the Holy Mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ, for this sacrament is not only a means of grace but the Source of grace Himself.  He is rightly enthroned and worshipped in the heart of the Church, and the elders (presbyters) of the Church fall down before the Lamb, praising his glory with all the citizens of Heaven.

The connection between the real flesh and blood of Christ in the Eucharist with his “becoming flesh” in the Incarnation is made explicit in the Liturgy.  Before the consecration of the bread and wine, the deacon says to the priest, in the words of the Archangel Gabriel: “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”  These words were spoken by the Archangel to Mary, when she asked how she would bear a son without “knowing man.”  The same Spirit, the same power that worked the Incarnation in the womb of Mary, now makes the incarnate Son of God present upon our altars, “becoming flesh,” and giving this flesh mystically as food—for the life of the world (Jn 6: 51).

The sacrament of the Eucharist unites the Church and creation as dwelling places of God and it opens this mystery to our contemplation.  Christ, sacramentally present at the heart of the Church, is worshipped by the faithful as the divine Son of God.  Through Him, and in the Holy Spirit, all glory is given to God the Father.  The coming of Christ has unveiled for us the Mystery of mysteries, the All-holy Trinity, as far as our faith can grasp it.  But Christ in the Eucharist, using the sacramental signs of bread and wine as the means of making available his Body and Blood for our sanctification, draws created things into Himself, so that our worship is not “disincarnate,” but can truly be the “cosmic liturgy” in which everything in the universe gives glory to God (see Rev 5:13-14).  We were created body and soul (material and immaterial nature), saved body and soul (by the Son of God becoming man—the fathers say that what was not taken into Christ was not saved), and so we worship body and soul, with prostrations and all the liturgical gestures and elements like incense, candles, icons—all of which appeal to the senses.  The crowning glory of our “incarnate” worship is the Holy Eucharist, that bit of Deified Creation by which Christ is personally present and giving Himself to us, so that He may abide in us and we in Him—and so that He may raise us up on the last day (Jn 6:53-56).

Our participation in the ongoing heavenly worship is sealed by the Eucharist, for the very meaning of “communion” is participation, partaking, sharing to the point of oneness.  “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation [or communion, Greek koinonia] in the blood of Christ?  The bread which we break, it is not a participation [koinonia] in the body of Christ?” (1Cor 10:16).  As we receive Holy Communion, we participate in the life of Christ, the life of Heaven, and it becomes clearer that our worship and that of the angels and saints is one.  Adrienne von Speyr wrote that our communion in the Holy Mysteries is a “bonding with Heaven,” an image of which I am rather fond.  To worship Christ and receive Him in the sacramental mysteries is to bond with Heaven and all that goes on there.  To abide in Him and He in us is not only a matter of individual intimacy, but in the very act of this mutual abiding we are caught up into the great marvel of God’s love for man, of man’s quest for God, of the whole panorama of the divine plan for our salvation.  We are given a pledge and foretaste of the everlasting life of joy to come.  For now, as we receive of the Eucharistic chalice, we drink from the “fountain of sweet healing wine” (Byzantine Office) flowing from the pierced Heart of Christ, the True Vine trellised on the Holy Cross, giving life to the world.

The Holy Eucharist has been, for some centuries, a stumbling block for many, a veil they cannot lift.  It was even so when Jesus first announced it: “After this, many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.”  He asks us today what He asked of his closest followers: “Will you also go away?” (Jn 6:66-67).  The ones who left Him did so because his insistence that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood was “a hard saying.”  But Jesus responded by saying, in effect: if you were to see an amazing miracle, would you then believe in this one? (see Jn 6:60-62).  But Jesus knew that many who saw his miracles still did not believe.  Either we take Jesus at his word or we don’t.  Either we believe Him because He has “the words of eternal life” or we walk away, regarding the questionable conclusions of our own limited intellects more highly than the divine words and power of the Lord.

Our Lady Guarantees Salvation

The 10-year-old girl, Lucia of Fatima, may have been uneducated, but she sure knew how to ask the right questions.  When the Beautiful Lady from Heaven appeared to her, she asked right away: “Will I go to Heaven?”  And the Lady gave the answer I think we are all longing to hear: “Yes, you will.”

Now it is extremely rare to receive such an unconditional guarantee of salvation, directly from the Queen of Heaven, who foresees the truth of her answer.  The promises of the Lord we find in Scripture are all conditional, and rightly so, since we do have to respond personally and wholeheartedly to his offer of salvation if we are in fact to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  But even without the benefit of a direct visitation from Heaven, we can find in the Mother of God a kind of guarantee of our salvation, though this too requires our personal response and fidelity.

It’s not only that her intercession is powerful and her faithful love efficacious, even though these are precious elements of our life in Christ.  It is simply a verifiable phenomenon that those who love Mary and are deeply devoted to her are the ones who remain most faithful to God and to the Church.  Faith in God is essential for salvation, but not all who believe (or who say they believe) are going to be saved.  One has only to look at the history of Christianity to see how splintered and fragmented it has become, especially since the time of the Protestant “Reformation.” Many errors have been promulgated in the name of Jesus by those who say they are his followers, and many of them even hate and denigrate those who have kept the True Faith.  Even within the Catholic Church herself, many dissenters from the authentic Tradition and teaching of Magisterium are in danger of losing their souls because of their intransigent disobedience.  One would rarely, if ever, find souls who are thus alienated from the Truth to be at the same time true and orthodox devotees of Our Lady.  It is practically impossible, and this is perhaps why she has been called the destroyer of heresies.

St Bernard of Clairvaux said of Mary: “With her for your guide, you shall never go astray; while invoking her, you shall never lose heart. So long as she is in your mind, you are safe from deception; while she holds your hand, you cannot fall; under her protection you have nothing to fear; if she walks before you, you shall not grow weary; if she shows you favor, you shall reach the goal.”

It is true that there are some New Agers that view Mary as some sort of goddess, but they are outside the Church altogether, and as such their regard for her is falsely conceived.  And there are a few of the radical feminist stripe who try to force the humble Maiden of Nazareth into the mold of a kind of icon of women’s liberation.  But again, this is a false image, and they are only devoted to an ideology, not the true Mother of God.

But when you look at the faithful of the Church, traditional orthodoxy and Marian devotion are always found together.  More specifically, Marian devotion and Eucharistic adoration are always held together by the faithful.  You simply won’t be able to find people in the Church who believe all the teachings concerning Our Lady, who love her and practice devotions in her honor, who are consecrated to her Immaculate Heart, etc, and who at the same time deny the teachings concerning Catholic faith and morals which it behooves all the faithful to embrace.  Love for Our Lady and rebellion against the Church do not go together.  Indeed, they cannot, for devotion to her is like a sign of divine predilection, a guarantee that one will stay on the narrow but life-giving path to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Of course, it is always possible (though God forbid!) for one to renounce one’s faith and religious practice in favor of some false religion or ideology or the fleeting pleasures of sin, in one form or another, but then true devotion to Mary is also necessarily renounced.  Just as true faith and Catholic spiritual life are inseparably bound with devotion to Our Lady, a life of sin and apostasy and heresy is utterly incompatible with genuine Marian devotion.

So love for Mary (with all that this entails) is a kind of mark of the true believers, a sign that they are on the right path, living the whole Gospel—not merely practicing a truncated version of Christianity, but rather the fullness of it—and thus is a sort of guarantee of salvation.  One of the saints wrote that no true child of Mary is ever lost.  But we do have to persevere.  Apostasy is not rewarded simply because we once were faithful.  Staying close to the Heart of the Mother all our lives will assure us that we will be carried in her arms to Heaven when we die.

I just recently read the following (from the America Needs Fatima website): “When Saint John of God, who founded a religious order while yet in the flower of his youth, approached his end, he lay in his deathbed waiting to appear before the Sovereign Judge. After receiving the last sacraments, he hoped to be blessed with a visit of the Immaculate Virgin. When she failed to appear, the saint seemed discouraged. Agony had taken its toll when, suddenly, the face of the dying man was transformed. The Queen of Heaven appeared to him: ‘John,’ she said with a maternal smile, ‘do you think me capable of abandoning my devoted servants at such an hour?’  Thus, in the embrace of the Virgin, he breathed his last.”

If we are her devoted servants in this life, we shall have no fear of the judgment at the end of life.  Whether we receive extraordinary visions or not, we can be sure of God’s mercy and favor, and hence of eternal happiness in Heaven, when we both live our life and breathe our last in the embrace of the Virgin.