Paths (Part 54: Mysteries)

You may remember the story of how, when Jesus was washing His disciples feet, to teach them that they should be servants to each other, Peter first declined, because he felt it was beneath Jesus’s dignity to wash Peter’s feet, but then, when Jesus explained that if He didn’t wash Peter’s feet, Peter could have no part in Him; so then Peter said not his feet only, but that Jesus should wash also his hands and his head. The Chrismation portion of the liturgy, which follows directly upon the Baptism, reminds me of this story. Chrismation is the process of anointing with holy oil and is the mystery, or sacrament, that transmits the Holy Spirit to the newly illumined person. One might imagine it would be enough to anoint the person on the forehead and call it a day, but in this service the person is anointed on the forehead, the nostrils, the lips, the ears, the chest, the hands and the feet. As I was being anointed, each time, Father John would say, “the seal and gift of the Holy Spirit”. The power of the Holy Spirit, the gift that Christ sent to us to enable us to do all things for Him is given to the whole of us, and like Peter, I felt like I was being lavishly gifted, and it emboldened me to live zealously for my God, as the Holy Spirit was given to my mind, my heart, my ears which hear, my eyes which see, my lips which speak, to my nostrils which breathe the breath of life, and also to my hands which act, and to my feet which carry me about to do God’s will.

Following the anointing with oil, Father John then led me in a procession around the baptismal font while the choir sings a hymn related to our new life in Christ; along with the choir everyone together sings these words, “As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ, Alleluia!” This speaks to the new spiritual reality that the newly baptized no longer wears their garment of sin, but has instead put on a new garment, the light and power of the risen Lord; and with this, they proceed into their new life as members of the body of Christ, on their way into the Kingdom of God. Because this is a movement away from the old life, and a movement into a new life, with new gifts and new power, we are led in a procession, which embodies and symbolizes this new reality of movement into Christ’s Kingdom.

One final interesting moment during the Chrismation, which came as a surprise to me was tonsuring, in which a portion of my hair was cut off. I’ve always associated tonsuring with becoming a monk, and didn’t realize that everyone entering the Orthodox church is tonsured. Since our hair is associated with worldly beauty, and in a sense our worldly power, or simply our worldliness in general, the idea behind tonsuring is that it shows the underlying reality that we have sacrificed our worldliness for Godliness, and that by our choice and act of baptism and chrismation we have given our worldly beauty to God to be transformed and made new into His likeness, into divine beauty.

With the conclusion of the Baptism and Chrismation liturgy my entry into the Orthodox church was nearly complete; now I had only to wait until the Pascha (Easter) service later that night when I would be first to receive the light of Christ coming out from the altar and first to receive the Eucharist on Pascha morning. My confession had taken place the night before on the day the church participates in the death of our Lord on the cross, my Baptism and Chrismation happened on Holy Saturday, the day that the church participates in Christ’s entombment, and soon I would participate for the first time, with the church, as it participates in our Lord’s glorious resurrection.

As I’ve mentioned it was challenging yet rewarding to wait for so long, several years ultimately, before I could take part in the Eucharist during the Divine Liturgy. From where I stood in the choir though, I had always enjoyed the spectacle, as the church body, every individual, lined up and waited their turn to approach the chalice, and be served the bread and the wine, the body and blood of our Lord. Meanwhile, we in the choir sing the words, “Receive the body of Christ; taste the fountain of immortality”. I often reflected, as I sang these words, that there could be a double meaning to this ‘reception of the body of Christ’. The obvious meaning is that we are singing to all the people in the congregation as they approach the chalice about to receive the body of Christ broken and shed for each of us, but as I watched each individual approach the chalice—every unique person: old, young, tall, short, funny, serious, healthy or sick, joyful or sorrowful—I was also struck that here in all of these divinely created people, also was the body of Christ. Every Christian, every saint was made in the image and likeness of God, and through the actions of God, each of them are returning to Him again. So God too is receiving the body of Christ, because He receives each of us to Himself. I don’t know how theologically sound this idea may be, but I enjoyed the poetic beauty of it, and the wholeness and reciprocity that it represented. Somehow the idea of simultaneously receiving and being received is satisfying and feels supremely fulfilling. I tried to capture a little of this idea, of this feeling which I had mused about while singing and watching others over the years coming forward in praise and thanksgiving to receive the most blessed gift in all creation; I finally put the idea forward in the following words:

Incense coils upward

in long argentine strands

Angelic voices sing a joyous refrain:

“Receive the body of Christ

Taste the fountain of immortality.”

The hands of Christ serve

the body of Christ

from a golden chalice.

Each member called by name,

singular and unique.

Forming a line in quiet expectation

of the gift of eternal blessings;

a body numerous are

the servants of The King,

multiform, and manifesting His

infinite creativity.

Let us each put on

the eyes of thanksgiving

and the ears of obedience

and praise.

Laying aside all earthly cares,

let us settle into that peace

which reveals things

as they truly are;

without judgement

or condemnation,

but in the simplicity

of Godly revelation.

The Body and the Blood–

we receive,

and Christ receives us.

We are glorified by His glory

and deified by His divinity.

We come to the King empty-handed

and He gives us everything.

As I stood in line waiting my turn I felt a nervous excitement, a great anticipation and a curiosity. I wondered what it would taste like, how it would feel, would I do everything correctly? When finally it was my turn, and I stood before the chalice, Father John spoke my name, it was so personal and intimate; the body and blood of my Lord and Savior was being offered specifically and precisely for me, Francis John. I received it and returned to my place in the choir. My reception was now complete, and while it was joyful and extremely meaningful to me at the time, it wouldn’t be until some time later that the true power of it would come into clearer focus, and I would experience the life changing aspects of these mysteries in greater fullness.

(to be continued)


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