Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Take your sandals off your feet,
for the place where you are standing
is holy ground (Exodus 3. 5).
Imagine that you are arriving in church around 10:00 or 11:00, when the Divine Liturgy is due to begin. Your alarm clock actually went off on time. You washed, dressed, and caught the train which, miracle of miracles, took off on time. When you arrive, the chanters at the right kleros are already singing the evlogitária of Orthros. While the older folks and a few visitors take seats around the border of the nave, you stand attentively. By the time of the Cherubic Hymn, to your surprise the grand Holy Doors in the centre of the iconostasis rapidly swing open. Young and old, male and female, adults and children pour into the altar or 'sanctuary', as Westerners call it. In shock, you open the deacon's door and step inside. Inside the Holy of Holies, where only the clergy and altar servers dare enter, you see a mob of howling brats, bloated middle-aged men and women, and senile oldsters munching on… peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Encircling the holy table of sacrifice, they drop globs of peanut butter on the embroidered cloths, the antimēnsion containing the relics of glorified saints, and the spoon that shortly shall contain the Body and Blood of the incarnate God. Like so much tubercular phlegm, drops of grape jelly smear the icon of our Saviour laid in his tomb. Sheepishly unaware of the sacrilege, the priest mumbles to himself in a blend of Byzantine Greek and Old Church Slavonic. It scarcely matters. No one is listening, least of all he.
This nightmare actually woke me from sleep around 1993, when I was thirty years old. Once an altar server, I was now a tonsured Reader who dutifully intoned the stichēra and apósticha of Great Vespers, the Old Testament prophecies, and the Epistle at the Divine Liturgy. The 'altar', as I knew how to call it, was not my abode. It was my life. Sunday after Sunday, I stood near the Vespers klēros while the professionally-trained choir took refuge in a loft over the entry doors. In the year following the end of the USSR, millions of Russian, Ukrainian, Latvian, and Kazakh or Kirghiz immigrants, it seemed, were pouring into Canada in search of some post-Soviet sunrise. Instead, they found a bourgeois twilight. Priests who had run on empty for decades were just as unable as unwilling to answer the urgent question, 'What must I do to be saved?' (Acts 16. 30). It embarrassed the silent, suburban majority. Going to church because your ancestry was Greek, Romanian, or Ukrainian — this threatened no one. Going to church because it will teach our kids to be good (how?) — this was perfectly digestible to a kosher stomach or a New Agey Buddhist who lived on banana leaves. Going to church because it is holy, set apart, consecrated to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God? This was fanatical. 'Are you some sort of religious nut?' the wedges of the Canadian mosaic would ask. 'Why take it so seriously?' asked a fellow 'Orthodox', that is, pseudo-dox. 'Why do you not?' was my Socratic repartee. The answer lay in one word: reverence.
Reverence comes from the Latin verb revereor, to respect, revere, stand in awe. The verb is in turn derived from 're-', again, and the Indo-European root '-wer', to notice. In brief, to revere is to notice again, to take a second glance, to focus your vision where you did not focus it before. The word is related to venerari, to honour, to consider worthy. We venerate the holy icons because they show forth holy persons. They do not contain them, as do idols. We reverence (or venerate) the priest's right hand that consecrates bread and wine to become the Body and Blood of Christ, our one true God. Reverence recognises that a thing or person is unusual, special, set apart for a purpose that is not everyday. We call a priest formally 'the Reverend Father', Father for short. Since Protestants have no priests, we call a minister 'the Reverend Mr. ', Reverend for short. An educated minister of religion could be 'the Reverend Doctor', if s/he holds a Ph. D. . The special adjective remains.
Logically, it follows that if going to church is nothing special, that is, a mere everyday routine, your sense of reverence will be in short supply. Mates chatting loudly, children running wild or else shrieking to drown out the chanting, and visitors breaking into raucous, manic laughter will not grate on your nerves. 'Church' becomes a family trip to the playground. Noise that no one hears in a theatre, even a sports ground, passes unnoticed in a certain kind of Orthodox church. Once an enquirer from the Latin Mass asked 'What's all this noise about? Is it an Orthodox thing, or what? At the Latin Mass, you can hear a pin drop'. I did not offer him the lame excuse that we feel at home in church. How do I know that he does not? Instead, I reminded him that not everything that calls itself Orthodox necessarily is.
Is our Orthodox heritage really racing toddlers, gossiping grannies, the odd youth gawking at an adolescent girl or smoking a joint on the side, a senile priest muttering into his 15-foot beard, or puffs of tobacco suffocating the incense on the way to Communion? Reverence for the holy does not vanish overnight. Over time, a heedless, phlegmatic attitude becomes a frame of soul. Priest and people no longer notice. The Holy Doors (oraía píli, literally, beautiful doors) in front of the holy table no longer keep safe the sacrifice — properly speaking, not what you give up but what is made sacred. The altar behind the iconostasis no longer forms the border with the nave, where able-bodied worshippers ought to stand, not sit. No longer does a congregation look for sanctuary in the holy place. Instead, a mob invades it. Give it enough time and a priest who is unwilling to instil a reverent attitude finally proves unable. Unaware — or else, faintly aware — of the long-term harm that his 'oh, well' does to human souls, he takes refuge in a place concealed more carefully than a choir loft. It is indeed a sheep's fold, only the shepherd is not Who he thinks. Ottomans and Bolsheviks could never corrupt our Orthodox people as much as sheer neglect.
From the dawn of Israel, God has shown us what reverence is. When Moses climbs Mt. Sinai, it is the Voice from the ever-burning bush that orders: 'Take the sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground' (Exodus 3. 5). Sandals carry everyday dirt. Shall we not cast off everyday thoughts when we enter the holy place? Or is that for Muslims only? If the Law called upon Israel to respect the deaf, blind, and elderly (Leviticus 19. 14, 32), dare we disrespect God who sees, hears, and reigns above all since before time? Recognising this grandeur is the 'fear of the Lord' (yir'at YHWH, phóvos Kyríou) that Psalm 110. 10 (LXX) declares the first step, the beginning of wisdom, Psalm 127. 1 the source of blessings, Psalm 18. 9 the most enduring of all treasures, and Palm 114. 11 a shield for those who possess it. This is not the craven fear of the slave or abused child. It is a mark of God's mercy (hesed, éleos, Psalm 146. 11). Revering God, above all in his tabernacle, is not one of many options for the People of God. It is the criterion of our very survival (Deuteronomy 6. 24).
Nowhere is this truth more evident than in the laws concerning the Holy of Holies (Qōḏeš haQŏḏāšīm). Sometimes called haDəḇīr, the sanctuary, the inner sanctum behind the veil of the tabernacle and later the Temple was off limits to everyone except the High Priest. He alone could enter once a year, on the Day of Atonement, only fully vested and bringing a sacrifice for the sins of the people (Leviticus 16. 2-6). Should anyone else dare to enter it casually, he or she shall surely die (Leviticus 16. 2). 'Surely', our casual ghetto-dox will argue, 'this holds true under the Law of Moses. We live under grace!' Then why should 'the fear of the Lord' be so decisive in building up the early Church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria (Acts 9. 31)? Why should the Apostle Peter constantly admonish the Gentiles to 'fear God' (I Peter 2. 17) and Paul, apostle to the Gentiles, counsel believers to 'be subject to one another in the fear of Christ' (Ephesians 5. 21)? Christ is no fearsome tyrant. What can the verse conceivably mean except revering God, the house of God, and those who dwell therein? 'Reverence and awe' are the sure proof that we are grateful for our access to a Holy of Holies where the High Priest himself could never set foot before our incarnate God bought us back from death (Hebrews 12. 28). God is and always shall be a consuming fire (Hebrews 12. 29). Reverence is the only key to receiving this Uncreated Fire into our souls and bodies without being consumed.
In this month of the Entry of Our Lady into the Temple, of the Bodiless Angels that encircle the throne of God, and John the Golden Mouth (Chrysóstomos, ca. 347-407), the spirit of mockery who calls himself an angel of light shall ask: 'Why take it so seriously? Come off it. Most people go to church to meet friends, listen to sweet music, and basically take a break from… ' yes, the everyday. Worship is the exact opposite of the everyday. When the alarm stalls and you cannot be bothered to arrive on time, when bourgeois comforts clog your arteries, when you cannot bother to take a second glance and consider no Liturgy worth a single day's effort — in short, when that fatal, if everyday, form of TB eats away at your spiritual lungs, consider this passage from the forefather of the Cappadocian Fathers: Basil the Great (331-379), Gregory of Nyssa (335-395), and Gregory the Theologian (329-390). Clement of Alexandria (150-215), teacher of Origen, distinguishes craven fear from reverence for God.
There is a two-fold species of fear. The first kind is accompanied with reverence. This is the type of fear that citizens show towards good rulers, and that we show towards God. Right-minded children show this fear towards their fathers… The other kind of fear is accompanied with hatred. This is the type of fear that slaves feel towards harsh masters and that the Hebrews felt. For they made God a master, not a father.
Written around AD 195, Clement's Paidagógos (The Teacher) is a tribute to reverence: to the heavenly Father who gives himself, through his only-begotten Son, for the life of his children; to the earthly priest-father who gives unstintingly, as well as to us, the children of God (John 1. 12- 13). All that we offer in return is reverence. Then, miracle of miracles, we become Orthodox in more than name.
Hating the devil, the enemy, the 'father of lies' (John 8. 44) is not irreverent. It goes hand in hand with loving 'the Truth' (John 14. 6) himself. Many who imagine that they 'hate' God, that is, an icy abuser, an arbitrary and bloodthirsty dictator in the heavens who tortures infants to death for his perverted pleasure — actually hate the evil one. It is he who hardens hearts, 'predestines' few to serve him and the rest of humanity to roast in unquenchable flames, and thus deprives mankind of the mark that we are the image of God: free will. The enemy scores his favourite victory over Christians precisely by masquerading as God. It is the chief duty of the Archangel Michael and his loyal angelic forces to strip off that mask.
An angel is a creature with a mind, a will, and a heart but no body that we can see. We call the angels who serve God in the heavens the 'Bodiless Powers'. Cherubim offer the Divine Liturgy perpetually. Seraphim guard the gates of paradise. It is the great archangels — Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, Salathiel, Jegudiel, Barachiel, and Jeremiel — who rouse armies (the 'hosts', i. e, military forces, of heaven) to combat the father of lies and his treacherous angels, the demons. An angel is not a god. The Archangel Lucifer, once bringer of light, is only an angel himself. We call upon the Archangel Michael to bind Lucifer and cast him out (Revelation 12. 7-12).
You need not be a soldier of a traditionally Orthodox regime (Greece, Romania, Russia, or Serbia, among many) to carry a banner into battle depicting the Archangel Michael. You need be only a catechumen or full communicant member of the true Church, who battles with hurtful 'thoughts'. From the instant you were baptised or anointed with holy chrism, God yoked an angel guardian to your life. On the first Sunday of November, anticipating Wednesday, we call upon the angels who guard us all. Mi ka'el, or Michael, means 'Who is like God?'
Come call upon the Archangels with us on Sunday 5 November
We shall ignite a barrel of gunpowder to explode the parliament of devils.
Reverence is not always meek, mild, or unobtrusively timid, as a certain stereotype of Christian saints caricatures them. A glorified saint such as Athanasius (296-373) inveighs fiercely against the heretic Arius and gloats over the latter's painful, humiliating death. Rather like his forebears, King David the psalmist and others, he curses the father of lies in human forms. Military saints, including my patron, Prince Alexander Nevsky (1221-1263), stand around the throne of God the Conqueror of death holding swords wet with blood. Those who take up space in church in order to 'be nice' and listen to 'nice' words wrestle the sword from his hand. In the case of Archbishop John of Constantinople (347-407), nicknamed Chrysóstomos (the golden mouth), the pseudo-dox wrestle the sword from his lips.
'Why this fiery rhetoric, this polemic against hypocrites and empresses?' ask the pseudo-dox churchgoers in 4th century Constantinople or 21st century London. 'Isn't he taking a risk? Must he string words together like a poet, then aim them at lazy, rowdy gossipers in church, Jewish money-changers operating on Sundays, and the secular authorities? Who does he think that he is?' To the sheepish priest who dares preach nothing but pablum, two exiles at the hands of the empress who once admired him are not bad enough. The author of the Paschal Homily and the Divine Liturgy text offered on most Sundays deserves much worse. After all, he does what no self-respecting hierarch in our day ever would: he speaks the truth.
A member of our parish family is currently writing a novel about the Golden Mouth. Like all souls who truly revere him, the author is aware that his reverence is boldness. To walk in the fear of God is to fear nothing but betraying God. 'We must obey God rather than men' (Acts 5. 29). It is the theme of John Chrysostom's life.
Come honour the Golden Mouth with us on Sunday 12 November
LOOKING FORWARD: the Nativity Fast
The 40-day fast from wine, olive oil, and animal fats that culminates in Christmas begins on Wednesday 15 November. We do not call it 'Advent', the coming. Christ our God comes more than once. We name it after the feast for which it prepares us.
If anyone abstains from animal fats in order to boast of how strong he is or judge his brother and sister for being 'weak', it is he who is the weakling. It would be better to eat black pudding every Friday. If anyone damages her digestive tract by eating nothing but a bowl of broccoli, she has her own reward. Fasting is not a form of suicide. If anyone ignore the fast altogether, as if there were none, the turkey (better yet, goose) is likely to lose its flavour. The stuffing is likely to taste a bit flat, the cranberries a bit sour.
We relish a feast when we postpone its pleasures. That is, we revere it. By revering the feast, some keep it without the diet.
DANCING in the HOLY OF HOLIES: the Entry of Our Lady
Reverence is true to its vows. When she was nothing more than an elderly, barren woman, old Anna made a vow to God: 'Grant me a child and I shall give him to thee'. Now the child, all of 3, 5 at most, stands at the gates of the Court of Women in the Temple of Jerusalem. Elderly Anna hands her over to a priest. She shall grow up here, in the Temple itself. No mother's hands shall dry her tears. No mother's voice shall sing her to sleep. The chanting of the Levites shall be her only lullaby. Prayer shall come easier than breath.
One day, little Maryam wanders behind a dense curtain. She discovers a secret inner sanctum, full of marvels: a wooden ark holding the twin tablets of the Covenant, the gold-covered 'mercy seat' where God speaks to men, the priest robe of Aaron, and the staff of Moses that parted the Red Sea. It is the Qōḏeš haQŏḏāšīm itself, the holiest place on earth. Playful as she is at her age, the little girl dances to unseen singing. Contrary to the warning in Leviticus 16. 2, she does not die. Instead, each unseen Bodiless Power covers his face before the light inside her. She is the Holy of Holies. In under ten years, she shall contain in her womb what the Holy of Holies is unable to contain. Indeed, the universe cannot contain him whom she shall bear.
Precious to monks and nuns, the Feast of the Entry reminds us that little children have no need to strain towards faith. It comes naturally. Properly reared, they are naturally reverent. The holy is within reach of everyone who becomes a little child (Matthew 18. 3).
Come dance with Our Lady on Sunday 19 November,
celebrated two days early so that all can take part.
SPINNING WHEEL: Great Martyr Catherine of Alexandria
Like virginity, reverence is not an absence but a presence. A noise-free place is not 'reverent' in itself unless those present are immersed in prayer. Before the 1920s invented the teenager, i. e., that half-adult, half-child segregated among high school gangs and forbidden to marry, societies expected a young man of 13 to 19 to be either an apprentice or a university scholar. As a youth, he learned from a master of his chosen trade. By contrast, a woman as young as 12 or 13 was married, bore as many happy children as possible, and kept herself to the kitchen, the nursery, and the family hearth. She did not generally debate with philosophers at age 14.
Daughter of the Roman governor of Egypt, Aikaterínē (287-305) masters Greek, Latin, Coptic, and similar tongues, philosophy, science, and similar disciplines by the age of only 14. Bravely Christian, she rebukes Emperor Maxentius (r. 306-312) for persecuting her fellow believers and ends up converting his wife. No sooner does the emperor send pagan scholars to contradict her than Catherine ties up every argument in knots. What can you do with a brazen, beautiful young intellectual who refuses every suitor, including the emperor himself? Imprison her, flog her, then smash her limbs and weave them through a wheel… that breaks. Nothing left but a swordsman lopping off her head. She was just under 18.
Unlike her morbid namesake of Latin faith, Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), the real Catherine drinks no pus from a cancerous wound and, surprisingly, never starves herself to death. The fires within her allow for no anorexia nervosa. Instead, she will settle for no less a husband than one whose face shines a billion times brighter than the blazing sun, who is richer than any possessing ivory tusks and ostrich plumes, and above all wiser than the creation. Reverence for God was never so bold. Her love is as 'pure' as her name — that is, as absolute.
Come honour Catherine the Pure with us on Sunday 26 November,
postponed by only one day.
VISITING US: No worldlings need apply
'Do not love the world or the things in the world', writes the Apostle John who states firmly that 'God is love' (I John 4. 16). 'If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him' (I John 2. 15). Reverence means nothing if not honouring something or someone special. If you 'fit' into the conformist, consumerist 'what's-in-it-for-me' culture that Saint John calls the world, you shall be sorely disappointed. We do not.
If you are already a member of our Orthodox family whom we have not seen since 2021 or at least 2020, email or text me and I shall tell you the directions. If you are a serious enquirer who searches for Truth himself in the actual Church that he founded, email me at the address on the web (alexander. tefft1@gmail,com) and I shall ask you a little about yourself before inviting you. The tourists leave. The faithful stay.
'The blind receive sight' (Matthew 11. 5)
Late autumn wind and rain inflames my sinuses, causing my one good eye to water up and thus blinding me all the more. Vision faint, eyes burning, every noise magnified a thousand-fold from ears that overcompensate, I struggle to read a liturgical text or to recognise a face. I thank God for those thoughtful souls who email me in GIANT, bold print. When age catches up with you too, the Physician of souls and bodies shall remember your mercy.
Reverence is my eyes. My soul sees what a blurry, cloudy cornea cannot. Faith in him whom an unworthy Priest Alexander offers on the table of sacrifice enables me to offer my own body to eat and blood to drink. Then, miracle of miracles, I open my eyes.Yours faithfully in Christ,
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