The Holy Things for the Holy

prosphora

I made prosphora this week, the bread that is used for the Sunday liturgy.

As I kneaded the four simple ingredients into life I prayed the prayers of the church and named the members of our community one by one. I said each name aloud with the list open before me on the kitchen table. This is how prosphora is made and has always been made.

Kneading bread is hard work. The raw flour and water initially resist all efforts to be combined. It will fight back. You must lean in with the full body of your weight against the kitchen table with the lump of dough caught between it and your hand. The heel of my of  palm is a tool and my fingers are rolled in a fist. For a short moment, in the quiet of my kitchen, I am god of the dough and from it I can bring life. I fold and pummel, beat and stretch. The dough, will gradually soften and yield to the pressure of my hard working hands. Under the weight of this work flour, water, salt and yeast are transformed. Dead things are given life, hard things yield. And prayer is like this too. Participation in the eucharist is like this too. This is how we love one another in the church, working, watching, waiting for the signs of Christ at work in us, at work in the world.

Arms aching and shoulders stinging I sit waiting for the bread to prove: waiting for proof that the dough is alive.  How can I not compare this to the disciples in the upper room? Him three days in the grave, no one understanding why the  Saviour of mankind has succumbed to death. I do not know if the yeast in my loaf will come alive, if it has what it takes to raise a loaf. The stone is rolled over the door of the tomb and the Roman guard marks the place. Inside that grave the silent and invisible work of bringing him alive has begun.

When the loaf is ready for the oven, I seal it with the mark of the cross and I prick it in the places where the priest will cut it up. IC XC NIKA “Jesus Christ Conquers”, this is how we mark the bread. The centre of the loaf that will be consecrated and added to the cup during the proskomedia, the liturgy of preparation. It is from this that the faithful will eat.

Why would you want a wafer or bread from Tesco, wrapped in plastic and made by a stranger, when someone from amongst you can participate in the transformational work of making the bread? They can pray for you by name, and stand with you through the celebration of Christ’s resurrection week by week.

Is it possible for rational people, raised in a secular world to believe that God could change the nature of the cosmos in the single life of Christ who dying on the cross? This is how I pray when I stand in line on Sunday for my crumb and for the wine. How? Why?The choir sing and the priest raises the spoon to our trembling lips and not one of us knows for sure but we all have faith as we share in this food.

A scientist can tell us the chemistry of grain, yeast and water transformed into bread but no priest or theologian will ever be able to explain how this loaf will be raised from the table, body of Christ broken for us. The Holy things for the Holy and from the kitchen, my ordinary life is swept up in salvation’s plan of cosmological size, along with the names of the people I prayed and all the imperfections of this loaf, split from its base and bubbles rising under the crust.

“Let our mouths be filled with your praise, O Lord, that we may sing of your glory, for you have counted us worth to partake of your holy, divine, immortal and life-giving, Mysteries; keep us in your holiness, that we may meditate on your righteousness all the day long, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

prosphora2

If you want to know more about how Orthodox Christians celebrate the eucharist there are some resources below to help, but the best way is to go along to a Sunday morning liturgy and see for yourself.

Our Life in Christ, from Ancient Faith Radio.

Father David Smith explains the Proskomedia, from Youtube.

Article on the eucharist from, Orthodox Church in America.

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Thoughts on loving the liturgy

anastasis

I’d like to say that my first visit to Orthodox liturgy was a homecoming – but it wasn’t.

I had more question that would have allowed me to worship that day. How can something that seems so wrong be so right? The beauty of the gospel I loved was being made holy before my eyes by priests in robes under the eyes of iconised saints. On the surface it looked like some kind of crazy idolatry, but when people asked me all I could say was I found it deeply Christian; deeply Christian in a way I had rarely known.

I felt conflicted; fascinated and conflicted. So I return for more.

The second time I visited, I entered nervously, but ready to listen for God.  At the door of the church is the icon they call the anastasis. It is an icon depicting the resurrection. It captures the whole span of salvation history, from a moment towards the end of the three days in the tomb. In the centre of the icon is Christ, his white robes flowing in a rush of movement as he returns from his descent to hell. He is lifting Adam and Eve in his wake and casting Satan down. As he rises, the broken gates of Hades shatter beneath his feet, and fragments of broken locks and chains crash into the abyss. I know this victory and I want it for myself and I want it for our broken world. I start to pray.

Christ stands strong upon a bridge of rock. I look more intently at him and see that he grasps the man and the woman (Adam and Eve) firmly by the wrist. The heat in my eyes is tears that won’t quite come. I am receiving a truth I love, not as a preached word but directly to my senses, especially my sight. I can see how He grasped me, I did not grasp him. I know for sure he is grasping me now.

“Today salvation has come into the world. Let us sing to him who rose from the tomb, the author of our life. For destroying death by death, he has given us the victory and his great mercy” I am greeted by the choir’s song. The room is flooded with light. The faces of the painted icons shine and their brilliance is reflected in the face of the people there. Candle light softens the room, the sweet smell of incense flood the senses, hymns, prayers, robed-ones moving from the altar and out among the people, as all the saints look on.

The priest announces in a loud voice, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and forever, and to the ages of ages.” This is how the liturgy always begins. This charismatic-evangelical girl wants to raise her hands and jump and dance. The liturgy is welcoming us into a space of saving grace like no other space I have ever known. Here you can see it, hear it, smell it and as the liturgy reaches its climax the faithful will taste it on their tongues, the sweetness of the wine that makes the heart glad, the broken bread spilling abundance.

We stand for the whole of the liturgy. On Sunday’s we never sit or kneel, for no one can rest with so much glory in the house. Every inclination of the heart and all the sense are drawn into worshipping God. Our eyes are on Him and His eyes are on us. “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy”, we repeat the refrain and it isn’t just a plea, it’s a triumphal statement. We stand here because he has had mercy on us. He is having mercy on us. He will have mercy on us.

I cross myself deeply at his name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. My hand moves, nervously the first time, to draw the shape of the cross on my standing self. “As many that have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ, Alleluia,”  the choir sing and the priest sings it back. The bread and the wine are made ready  and the cherubic hymn is sung,  “We, who in a mystery represent the Cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn, to the life-giving trinity, let us now lay aside every care of this life”, and that is what we do. We say the Creed and we pray the Lord’s Prayer in as many languages as are represented amongst us. We share in the bread and the wine.

Later in the church hall where the coffee is really good and the welcome warm, Antonio is telling me about his faith and his upbringing in the Orthodox Church. He is a Reader who has now removed his gold vestments. I am new and have so many questions and he can tell me what is happening behind that altar screen, the prostrations and the prayers, the fragments of Greek, the ceremony and ritual. Then part ways through the conversation, hand on heart (literally), he says, ” Once God is here, there’s no turning back.”

And this is how Orthodoxy speaks my language. Once we’ve tasted that intimacy, that sweetness, we’re spoil for anything but the pursuit of more. We are on course for worshipping in Spirit and in truth in ways more surprising than we ever guessed or imagined.

 

A Seamless Garment

candles

Transition to the Orthodox Church has been, for me, a seamless garment.

No rough places where two pieces of different cloth are joined, my faith remains intact just like the folded garment at the foot of the cross. Since forever this garment has represented unity to Christians seeking to interpret the gospel events. It represents an against-the-odds wholeness, emerging as it does out of the brokenness of the crucifixion; defeat, failure and death. That garment should have been ripped on the road to Golgotha or torn to shreds by mourners watching the Messiah hung to die like a common thief, but it somehow survived the ordeal.  The soldiers who divide Christ’s processions were unwilling to cut his coat. It was too valuable to divide.

For me this whole cloth garment represents how I made the change without any deep tear in the cloth of my heart, the place where I pray and the place from which I live and love. Leaving behind deep commitment to a charismatic-evangelical church and joining an ancient liturgical church looks like a big change but it hasn’t felt like that to me. It may look like I need to explain my new allegiance to a Orthodox beliefs and practices but talking about icons or Marion theology misses the point because the essence of change in me me will not be found in outward practice. I asked Jesus, “Lord teach me to pray” and this is where that request took me. I told him that I would follow him and this is the place I find myself in.

I am the proverbial dog with a bone; I can not let it lie; the irreconcilable, the unresolved, the injustice, the imperfection and the unanswered questions. I came to follow Jesus because I had an insatiable curiosity about God and an irresistible longing to know him. I found that as a Christian my curiosity and longing for God only increased. A familiar paradox: the more we know him the more we want to know him more. For as much as he healed, restored and saved me, he also broke me, undid me and turned my whole universe inside out. He refuses to let us stay as we are when staying as we are is not the best. As American pastor and writer Max Lucado says, “God loves you just the way you are, but He refuses to leave you that way. He wants you to be just like Jesus. ” Our faithfulness is to Jesus alone, not to a denomination or tradition, not to a particular culture or position in that culture. When we are following this Jesus we should not be surprised by unusual twists and turns in the plot.

When I left my church I did not plan to join the Orthodox Church, butI found myself by accident in the Sunday morning liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Leyland. I loved the rich scriptural tradition and the sense of continuity with the life of the first Christian communities. When I tentatively began to participate, standing for the procession of the Gospel or lighting a candle I took my first steps into an alien worship that actually felt strangely familiar. All I could say to those who asked was that I found it deeply Christian. After just three weeks I had the strangest sense that I would be a fool to leave.

I have never been a Christian who heard an audible voice or felt the need to labour hard for a directive word. These Sunday mornings had come to me as a gift and they sounded as loud as any audible voice. The nature of the gift was such that I felt declining it would, be an affront to the God who had so surprisingly lavished it upon me. With no prior effort to invite it, this is the nearest thing to a calling I have experience but it was not without its difficulties. So many Orthodox practises there were alien to my Protestant ways. Things I had long thought of as idolatrous were, it appeared, the main stay of this ancient Christian church. I thought we should visit some other churches, branch out a bit, but when Sunday morning came we had no enthusiasm for the hunt, just a longing for that Orthodox place, praying that liturgy and finding peace amongst the saints.

So we stayed and just before Easter we threw in our lot with the Orthodox Church in a ceremony that is called chrismation. For me it has been a seamless garment and the new place of belonging does not mark a change of religion (as some may see it) but the next step along the way. My new place of worship is a location in a journey I began over thirty years ago. There is only one church.

I’m grateful for the way the image of that seamless garment leapt out from the gospel over Holy Week, helping me interpret and give voice to the change and I will end with a quote from Cyprian of Carthage who, uses the image in his writings on the unity of our faith.

“When someone would be clothed in Christ he receives a perfect suit of clothing and an undamaged tunic. But what comes into his possession is common property … So truly because Christ’s people can not be torn apart, his tunic ‘woven without seam and holding fast together’ reveals the concord that holds together the unity of our people who have put on Christ. By the sign and seal of the tunic Christ has declared the unity of the church.”

Cyprian became Bishop of Carthage in 249 and was a pre-eminent Christian teacher and writer in the days prior to Augustine. He was a strong leader through turbulent times, a defender of Trinitarian orthodoxy and beloved pastor of the people. He was martyred in 258.

Advent light

trees

For anyone looking for more light as we approach the December solstice.

We need more light in the upstairs sitting room but the length of fairy lights I bought are not long enough for the bookshelf.

I’ve been working at my desk since before seven this morning. I didn’t sleep well and got up even though it was still dark. Lucy and I both feel we are suffering a little from the shortness of day light hours, from deep shadows in the house, squinting our eyes to see in the gloom. We need to be outside more, under the sky, breathing fresh air, soaking up what little sun is left. Only a few weeks into winter and we long for spring.

The window behind my desk is darkened by the silhouette of bare trees, but the sky is acid yellow where the sun presses through and the raindrops on the glass have swallowed enough light to burn like candles.

 “The light shined in the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it.”

John 1.5

I sit down to write from my heart, from the scriptures, from wild imaginings and dreams. And it comes to me again, the measure of His grace and how words can only be used to approximate his love. How we are all debtors to an unconditional attentiveness that will not let us go. That He has shined his light into our world and it has touched every dark place. It has found its way through a hairline crack or a pinprick hole, even the slightest thinning in the fabric of life must give way to light. And in our hearts, brightening and softening, the darkness of our thinking and the bitterness of our hurt are bathed in His light.

Today is the Feast of Saint Lucy in the western and eastern church.  Lucy was a 3rd-century martyr who according to legend took food to ancient Christians who hid from persecution in the catacombs. The stories tells of how she took a candle wreath to light her way. She is remembered for her generosity to the poor and commemorated as a martyr. But this feast day, so close to the shortest day of the year, is all about light. It is all about learning how to live in a turning of the seasons, how this is only possible when we can look ahead. I read of one beautiful St Lucy’s day tradition from Hungary and Croatia: planting wheat grains on December 13th that will be several centimetres high on Christmas, to represent the life and growth that Christ brings us by his nativity.

Waiting for the divine Word to come for her, like the wise virgins Lucy filled the lamp of her soul with oil most rich; for having sold all her property, she bestowed all her substance upon the poor and destitute. Wherefore, feeding the hungry and giving drink to those athirst, clothing the naked and providing shelter for the indigent, she laid up for herself great store of the oil of mercy, wherewith to delight her Master. For this cause, let us sinners entreat her with boldness, that she pour forth of her oil and wine upon our manifold wounds, treating the afflictions of our bodies and curing the passions of our souls, that, restored to full health by her, we also may abide eternally with the heavenly Bridegroom.

Liturgical hymn for Saint Lucy

We have been watching the footage coming out of Yeman and last night there was bad news from Aleppo. Kingdoms rise and Kingdoms fall. Close to home someone you know someone lost sleep through sickness, sadness or deep deep care.

Let us pray.

The season of nativity, a fast in the Orthodox church, where, deprived of the comfort of rich food, we look to the Light of the World for comfort. For the six weeks of advent, Orthodox Christians fast from meat, eggs and dairy.  It is a fast that changes the tone of the season for those who try to keep it. Our modern Christmas time is one of plenty, it is an advertisement of our self made wealth, our man made prosperity. It will come, it will pass. The fast seeks to separate us from the temporary and fleeting pleasures of the season and prepare us long and slow for the coming of Christ, Light of the World, a real and lasting promise in dark times.

 

lucia