Everything in our Life and Worship points to Christ

Archbishop Seraphim : Homily
Everything in our Life and Worship points to Christ
Sunday before Theophany
4 January, 2009
2 Timothy 4:5-8 ; Mark 1:1-8

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

When John the Baptiser was proclaiming repentance and the manner of life that leads in righteousness to the Lord, he gained the title of Forerunner because he was living out the words of the Prophet Isaiah : “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’” (Isaiah 40:3). That is precisely what he was doing : preparing the way of the Lord, speaking about repentance, speaking about changing from selfishness to life-giving love, and turning away from darkness to light. He was preparing the way of the Lord by speaking about Him in advance.

This is what you and I are also supposed to be doing with our lives. The Forerunner is an example for us. He is not merely an historical figure. He is an example for us about how we, Orthodox Christians, are supposed to be living our lives. Everything about us is supposed to be (it is not always) pointing towards Christ, referring other people to Christ, and drawing other people to Christ by how we live. How we live as Orthodox Christians includes how we love, and how we repent, also. We have to be exhibiting in our lives the sort of love that the Saviour gives to us every day. In our relationships with each other, we should be as Christ to each other. The way we repent is important, too. It is important that we admit that we do wrong things, that we make mistakes, and so forth, and that we turn about. In other words, it is essential that we have hope in the Lord’s love that He will forgive us, and that He will cleanse us from our sins.

It is crucial for us to remember these things at this particular time of the year. We have finished celebrating (if we ever really finish celebrating) the Nativity of the Lord, and we are about to celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. These two feasts used to be one feast a very long time ago. The Armenians still keep them together. These feasts are an example of the concrete, material way in which the Lord loves us. In the Incarnation, He takes on flesh. He takes on humanity. He takes on our human nature. He takes on everything about us – for better or for worse. In the Baptism that He accepts from the Foreunner, our Lord is showing us how we ought to be being baptised in the future. Our Lord Himself is baptised in obedience to the will of the Father. He is accepting baptism out of obedience as He said (see Matthew 3:15). The Prophet and Foreunner, himself, obeys the Lord who has come to be baptised. All this obedience is in the context of the fact that God is love. It is a response of love.

People from outside the Orthodox way (and some insiders, too) are very often over-emphasising the Resurrection in their perception of our way of life. That is true enough. However, the Resurrection does not mean anything without the Incarnation. The Orthodox way is very much the result of the Incarnation. Our worship is very material. Everything about our life in the Church is very material. It is not separated from the body ; it is not separated from the world. Orthodox Christians bless everything in the world, everything that is good, and we emphasise what is good. In accordance with the words of the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil, our way is to help to make what is not good become good. This is our purpose in the world, and in this life.

Because of the incarnational element that is so much in the front of our hearts at this particular time of the year, I am going to take a few minutes now to speak about the Divine Liturgy, and the arrangement of this Temple. This Temple is also one which is a cathedral. We did not know what we were getting into when we moved into this building. However, the Lord knows what He is doing with us, and there is much prepared for us in the future in terms of our ministry to this city, to this country, and, in particular, in our case, to the diocese. Cathedral churches properly have to express things that parish churches do not necessarily have to express (although the parish churches do to some extent). There are some particular things about this current arrangement that I want to speak about because – do not forget – our worship has everything to do with Christ. Everything is referring to Christ, and not to any bishop in particular, and not to any priest in particular.

Here we have a building shaped something like a basilica. This is not the typical architecture for Orthodox worship (although many of them exist). This is not the typical construction of our Temples, but this is what the Lord gave us. In making this former Roman Catholic Temple into an Orthodox Temple (as much as possible), some modifications have had to happen. As you recall, the ambo on which I am standing right now did not exist before : everything to do with the Altar ended at that arch. Before, there was a big separation between the people, and what was going on in the Holy Place. Even though everything was open, it was still far away. When we began to rebuild this place, it was important to bring everything closer to the people, because the work in the Altar is not something that is separated from the people. The Divine Liturgy is served by the bishops, priests, deacons, and everyone else in the Altar one way or another, but they are not doing what they have to do separated from the people. The architecture of the Temple has to express the unity between the Holy Table here behind me, the service being offered, and the people who are part of the Offering, (without whom this Offering could not occur). Let us not forget that no priest or bishop can serve the Divine Liturgy by himself. Someone else always has to be present.

In most Orthodox Temples, in the middle of the solea, in front of the Royal Doors, there is a projection called the ambo of the solea. This allows the priest and the clergy to come out closer to the people when they are preaching or giving blessings or whatever else they might have to do. It is out like this, projecting into the middle, so that the people can stand around it. Except, this is Canada, and there are pews in this building. Between liking to sit down, and being too shy to come to the front (as Orthodox people do in other parts of the world), perhaps one might find the meaning of this projection to be a bit of a mystery. However, the purpose is to be close to you, and to allow you to be close to the Holy Table. If this were a Temple somewhere in Europe, people would be all packed up here before me near the iconostas, close to the Holy Table. It is the late-comers who have to stand at the back. Somehow, it is universally Canadian to start sitting at the back, working towards the front. I suppose we have a fear that someone is going to ask us to do something, or we might have to be answering a question as if we were in school. We have this strange mentality, but it is universal in Canada. There is nowhere in Canada that we do not behave like this.

Anyway, this projection on which I am standing (the ambo) is here to serve as an inviting access to you to come here to receive Holy Communion. It is the privilege of Orthodox people to come as close as possible to the Holy Table to receive Holy Communion. The traditional place for Holy Communion to be distributed to the people is in the middle of the Royal Doors. The priest or the bishop is supposed to be standing right under the arch. You are expected to be coming right up to that arch to receive Holy Communion. This is as close as it is possible for lay people to approach the Holy Table at the Royal Doors.

Everything is pointing to Christ. At the liturgical east of this building, we see the High Place, on which there is a chair, which is referred to as the bishop’s chair (as it were) or the cathedral seat. The bishop sits in that chair in the place of Christ. The High Place in any Temple is always referring us to the Kingdom of Heaven : the future resurrection, the future culmination of all things, the future end of all things. Whether the bishop is there personally or not, that chair is not representing him, himself. It is re-presenting Jesus Christ. It is Jesus Christ’s chair which the bishop is occupying. Again, let us not forget that everything (including this chair) is all focussed on the Saviour.

In recent times, we have added to this Temple this dais to be permanently in the middle. It used to be removable, and was removed as it would be in parish churches. What is it for ? The dais is another aspect of the presentation of the Incarnation. The reason that this dais is here is to demonstrate that Christ is in our midst. When a bishop is coming in and standing where I am now standing, he is re-presenting Christ in whatever limited and imperfect ways that he can do it. Who I am or who any bishop is does not matter. It matters that there is a bishop. This bishop has to present Christ to you in whatever way he is able. You should not be seeing the person himself – you should be seeing Christ. Bishops are not some sort of remote, distant potentates (even though they are all dressed up to look like that sometimes). All these things that are put on a bishop are put on him because of Christ. The bishop thus dressed is visibly re-presenting Christ as the Shepherd.

From the time of early church architecture, there has been a dais in the middle of the Temple. From this time also there has always been a perceived unity between the solea and this dais. Many times a person can see that the solea extends as a raised platform all the way to the dais. Sometimes this unity is maintained by some sort of fence either in metal or in stone. In some Temples (I have not been there, I have only seen pictures), it can be seen that there is an actual raised connexion between the two. In the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome there is a very old example of this, but in many places in Russia and Ukraine, one can see the same thing. It is all one unit ; it is all connected. However, the dais in this building is actually not far enough back. Everyone is sitting so far back already that the purpose of this dais is being lost. That purpose is to be a visible expression of Christ being in our midst. Maybe in the future we can move the dais back a little farther. However, this was the best we could do when we did it (I can feel the builders saying : “Oh no !”).

The point of the presence of this dais in the middle is that when the bishop is standing on it, it can be seen that Christ is in our midst. When the bishop is not there this dais is to remind you that Christ is in our midst. This is not the bishop’s “grandstand”.

What happens when a bishop is standing on the dais ? Well, again, we shy Canadians are not necessarily so free to do what other people might do. When a bishop is standing there, people could come and approach him, ask for a blessing, and speak to him while he is sitting or standing there during the services. For instance, during Matins, he is standing there, and anointing people. He is standing in the midst of people, and surrounded by them. This is a clear demonstration that the bishop is to be, and is, approachable. If the bishop ever thinks that he is somehow higher and mightier than anyone else (because bishops can be deluded like that, too), this dais is a reminder of the fact that he is not higher and mightier than anyone else or separated from anyone else – he is in the middle of the people. He is the people’s servant. That is the work of the bishop : to be a servant as well as he is able to be.

Besides all this, there is one last thing. It is so prevalent in liturgical services that people are frequently bowing to each other. This bowing in Orthodox communities everywhere is not limited to liturgical services. This bowing is done towards people naturally on all sorts of occasions. Why this bowing ? Again, it is directly connected with our understanding of the Incarnation. Bowing has to do with our respect for the presence of Christ in each other. It is actually a living out of some things that Saint John Chrysostom said that we should be doing. The bowing that we do to each other is a visible sign of our recognising the presence of Christ in the other person, and also our respect for that other person in Christ. People cannot be separated from Christ. The image of God cannot be separated from the human being because we are all created in His image. Moreover, all we Orthodox Christians are Christ-bearers. We are giving honour to God in our bowing and in our respecting each other. When we are bowing liturgically, we are respecting each other, and we are respecting and acknowledging the presence of Christ. We are acknowledging our gratitude to each other by bowing. These bowings are all referring to Christ, because everything in the Orthodox life should refer to Christ. Everything.

Brothers and sisters, I hope that we can take more steps, ourselves, towards improving our presentation of Christ and His love in our lives. Let us try to imitate Him more, by living the way of repentance, by turning from darkness to light, by living love. Let us put into action the words of Saint Herman of Alaska, who said : “From this day, from this hour, from this minute, let us love God above all, and do His holy will”, and in doing so glorify the all-holy Trinity : the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.