Yesterday we commemorated the beheading of St. John the Baptist, the patron of our parish. I’ve been preaching on St. John for the last two days and since today is called the apodosis, or leave-taking, or giving-back of the feast, I’d like to take some more time to preach about him.
John is the greatest of all our prophets, because he was sent by God to announce the coming of Christ. In the Gospels he says to ‘prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’. He’s saying ‘Get ready, guys. Get yourselves in order because the Lord is coming’ and having people make confessions of their sins and receive baptism. It was of grave importance to him that everyone understood that they were soon to meet the Lord. And now, even as at that time, we 21st century Orthodox Christians, every Liturgy, will meet our Lord, mystically present in Eucharist, and it’s just as important to be prepared.
Take a look at our parish, or any Orthodox parish, and what’s the first thing you see? Icons! The iconostasis with Christ and all the various saints on it, or with many churches, a big dome with the icon of Christ in it, or some with the icon of the Panagia holding the Christ child with her arms spread out. You are immediately made aware of ‘who’ this is about. It’s about Christ; and we’re surrounded by other icons of saints who lived an example for us, an example of how we are to live.
Let me share with you something related to this. During a Vespers and Orthros service the priest (or deacon) will cense the entire Church. Some churches will ‘follow’ the censer, turning around in their aisles to watch the priest. But tradition says that’s not really what we’re supposed to do. You see, the focus is supposed to be on Christ. The priest isn’t doing anything but censing the Church, and in these moments it’s most appropriate to face the iconostasis, to continue to focus on Christ while the priest censes. The issue is that it’s unseemly to turn our backs on the altar.
So we have all these icons that are drawing our eyes, but let’s look then at the Liturgy itself. We don’t just up and commune, but we have to prepare ourselves to do that. We have sets of petitions that the priest sings (and hopefully the Church responds with a resounding ‘Lord, have mercy!) and three antiphons (Through the prayers of the Theotokos, Save us, O Son of God, and the hymn for the day as we lead into the small Entrance). We sing Holy God / Agios O Theos, constantly over this whole period begging for mercy and asking the Panagia to pray for us. Then we listen to the Epistle and Gospel for the day. This is very important for us, to hear the word of God. It’s so important that one shouldn’t enter the church while the Word is being read. It’s so important that one shouldn’t approach the chalice if they arrive after the reading of the Gospel. And yet even still we’re not done! We lift up our hearts to the Lord, we give thanks to the Lord (because it’s proper and right!) for the many gifts He bestowed in our lives and ultimately coming down in human form to die for us.
Then we have the Eucharist itself. Once the priest has invoked the Holy Spirit to come down on the gifts and make the bread and wine the precious body and blood of Christ, and right before the priest brings the chalice out (with the fear of God, faith and love) we read our pre-communion prayers. Are you getting the point here? The Church, in her wisdom, has created a liturgy to draw us towards understanding and preparing for who is most important: that is Christ Jesus.
But outside of the Liturgy how are we preparing ourselves to receive the Lord? Are you fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays? Are you keeping the fast from midnight prior to Liturgy? Fasting is an ancient tradition, going back into Judaic time; it’s not really something we considered not doing. What have we been talking about for the last couple of weeks? Have you made amends with your brothers? Are you harboring hatred or anger in your heart? Do you make regular confessions? Have you ever made a formal confession? Prepare your heart for the Lord! Of course is the expectation that we have this all worked out before we commune? It comes down to intention, to effort, and experience. Let me give you an example.
Presbytera and I became catechumens two or three days before the Dormition fast for the first two weeks of August. Without talking to our priest we decided to hold the fast in its entirety. Guys let me tell you, it practically broke us; fasting afterwards was very, very hard to get into because we decided to do something out of our experience, without ever asking our priest. And this was just for two weeks! Many of you who have grown up in the church maybe didn’t follow a fasting or confession schedule either. We have to start somewhere!
St. Paul speaks about staring with milk and moving onto solid food, so we need to start with basics before we can move on to more advanced things. You have to fast a little before you can fast a lot. You have to make a confession before you can start making them regularly. If you need to start with milk, then maybe this sermon is the equivalent of the Big Texan Challenge 72 oz steak with baked potato, shrimp cocktail, salad & a bread roll. It’s big, it’s daunting, and it takes some time to be ready for! The power of the Holy Spirit will give us the strength and will to walk this path, and to prepare to meet the Lord.