The House of God
For this holy house . . ., let us pray to the Lord.
The third petition of the great supplication, addressed by the priest to God at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, asks two things of God: first, that He bless His holy house, and s econd, that He bless those who attend services in it. Let us concentrate for now on the first of the two requests.
For this holy house. We have mentioned in the past that God as Spirit is everywhere. Whether man climbs the highest mountains or descends into the deepest seas, or even if he flies to the moon and, beyond that, to the stars, God is there, seeing and hearing everything. For this reason the Psalmist says: In every place of His dominion, bless the Lord, O my soul (Ps. 102:21). Even in prison, a man can communicate with God through the secret transmitter called prayer. Anyone who has read the lives of the martyrs knows that those Christians who were arrested for their beliefs and sentenced to death by idolaters, while in prison, awaiting their execution, prayed more fervently, more sincerely, more beautifully than ever b efore in their lives.
Man's body, as well as the entire universe, is, we are taught by Apostle Paul, the temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16). The soul which abides in this temple, which believes in and reveres God, can pray at every moment. It can pray silently, without being heard by anyone. Its prayer ascends into heaven as if it had angelic wings.
Perhaps someone listening will say to himself: If I can pray to God anywhere and everywhere, then why do I have to go to church? It s sad that so many people have been so strongly influenced by groups like Jehovah s Witnesses. These people never go to church, and don t even cross themselves when passing by a church or chapel.
Our response to them is: Christ, during His ministry on earth, did not preach the abolishment of houses of prayer. Indeed, He did teach us to pray at all times and all places, but He also taught, besides private prayer, the public prayer of many people congregated in one place. He Himself, when He was twelve years old, went to the temple in Jerusalem; He so loved that temple that He stayed there for three days, praying and discussing Mosaic Law with priests and rabbis, eliciting awe and admiration from all who heard Him speak. When His holy Mother, who had lost Him and sought Him for three days, finally discovered Him in the temple, He told her: Didn t you know that I had to be in My Father s house? (Luke 2:49).
In another instance, when He was forced to drive the moneylenders from the temple which they had turned into a marketplace, Christ called the temple a house of prayer, and not a den of thieves (Matt. 21:13). It is clear, therefore, that Christ did not abolish the temple as a place of public worship. My fellow Chris tians, you must pray to God wherever you may be, at home or at work, but you must not think this excuses you from attending church every Sunday and holiday, along with all of God s people.
The church is a place distinguished from all other places, because it is dedicated solely to prayer. Everything about the church, from the art and architec ture of the building itself to the words said and the actions performed within the building, contributes to an environment of holy contrition, wherein those who attend church services can be mystically elevated to the throne of God. The church houses the sacred vessels, the baptismal font, the censer, the icons, and most importantly the holy altar. On the altar rest the greatest treasures: the Holy Gospels and the holy Chalice. And every time the priest officiates and the mystery of the Divine Eucharist is celebrated, the faithful are invited to receive Holy Communion.
When the priest of the Most High officiates, the church becomes heaven, and though the people present have their feet on the ground, their souls are in heavenly worlds, worshipping in spir it and in truth the Triune God (John 4:23). As we chant the Church s beautiful hymns, although we are in the temple of His glory, we think that we stand in heaven.
And so the sacred churches have been and continue to be the most beloved of places for those souls in love with God. Together with the Psalmist, they say: How beloved are Thy dwellings, O Lord of Hosts; my soul l ongeth and fainteth for the courts of the Lord (Psalm 8:2_3).
But even though these sacred churches are loved by pious people, who express their love with offerings, these same churches are hated by unbelievers and atheists, who are so evil that the mere sound of church bells infuriates them.
History testifies that whenever idolaters and atheists are in power, they destroy churches, desecrate baptismal fonts and holy vessels and kill priests and faithful lay people. This is true not only of the past but of our time as well. Even today there are atheistic states which persecute the Christian faith and by various satanic means try to close the churches and wipe out the Christian population. Just look to our neighbor, Albania, where horrible persecutions have been enacted against Christians. Services are no longer held in the beautiful churches of Korytsa, Argyrokastron, and other cities of Northern Epiros. They have been shut down, and many have been turned into museums, theaters, and storehouses! Their horrible hatred of God makes these men hate everything that reminds them of God, especially the churches.
For this holy house... All Christians must join in asking God to protect His churches from destruction. And certainly God will hear our prayers and save our churches, if everyone goes to church and attends with the reverence God demands. We will speak of these people in our next homily.
For those who enter it with faith, reverence, and the fear of God, let us pray to the Lord.
In our last homily, we discussed the first part of the petition, For this holy House... We mentioned that there are many unbelievers who want to destroy all our churches. But the faithful Christians, who love the church, pray to God to protect it from every desecration. And God will protect the churches as long as Christians attend services as God wants them attended.
Unfortunately, it is not only the admitted unbelievers who work to destroy the Church. There are many who profess belief in God but who do not live according to this belief. They desecrate the sanctity of the church by their presence. The Jews, for instance, claimed they believed in the true God, and for His worship built the most splendid temple of the world, the temple of Jerusalem. They did not, however, revere this temple. They were disrespectful within its walls as well as without. They used to exchange moneys and sell animals for sacrifice within the temple s courts.
These activities angered Christ, and He chased the businessmen out, saying that God s house is a place of prayer and not a market place, a den of thieves (John 2:16, Matt. 21:13). Did the Jews understand Christ s criticism? Sadly, no. They continued in their unholy activities and ultimately committed the gravest of crimes, executing the One who had so sternly rebuked them. Even after Christ s crucifixion, the God-Man's murderers continued to go to the temple, their hands dripping with His blood, to offer their sacrifices! But God did not long delay His wrath. Forty years after Christ s crucifixion, the Roman armies came, saw, and conquered Jerusalem, massacred the Jews, and burned the temple to the ground. And so Christ s prophecy, that there would remain of the temple not so much as one stone on top of the other ( Matt. 24:2), was fulfilled. As of today, the Jews have not succeeded in rebuilding this temple.
The destruction of the temple of Jerusalem, which was a result of the sins of the Jews, is a warning to us Christians, that in order to enjoy our mighty God s protection, we must treat our churc hes as places of worship and respect them.
We ask: Do we, the contemporary Christians, clergy and laity, respect the sacred temple? The answer is a disturbing one. Take a look and see what goes on every Sunday and holiday, when the church bell calls the faithful together to worship. As soon as the bell is rung, everyone, with the exception of the very old and sick, should hasten to church. And yet, how very few actually do! The priest begins, the hexapsalmos ( the six psalms ) is read, the orthros continues to its end, the doxology is sung, the Divine Liturgy begins, the Gospel is read, the great entrance takes place, and at last people begin wandering into church.
And how do they come? Men smoke their cigarettes until they reach the doors of the church, and then wait to finish their smoke before coming in. They make a hasty and improper sign of the cross. They talk amongst themselves, criticizing the priest and cantor. And they leave before the service is over, lacking even the patience to wait in line for antidoron. Yet how can they accept antidoron when they did not fast and when their mouths are still full of cigarette smoke? During the summer, some men come improperly dressed, in short_ sleeve shirts, looking as if they are attending some worldly entertainment and not church.
And women? They, too, dress improperly, immodestly. When they are chastised, they not only fail to recognize their impieties, but they are impertinent and abusive to the priests and bishops who would restrict them. They want to be absolutely free, as they are when they go to parties or to the beach. Especially on islands and in coastal cities frequented by tourists, the impu dence of these women has become so great that they dare to enter Church in their short pants! There is no longer any difference, it would seem, between the holy church and a common tavern.
Even those who serve the church, the priest, the chanters, church board members, and custodians, with few exceptions, do not behave as they should. Their actions are improper. The candle stands are busy even at the most sacred moments of the Divine Liturgy. The trustees pass the trays whenever they want. The chanters do not chant with modesty and precision. The priests do not attend their duties with the required reverence. Even the children misbehave, allowed by their parents to run and play in the aisles. Indeed, it is a painful situation.
It would be an overstatement to suggest that this goes on in every church. Happily, that's not the case. In our own diocese, severe measures have been taken and the abuses are now strictly limited. Men in short_sleeved shirts and indecently dressed women are not allowed to enter our churches. And yet, though we have successfully checked certain improprieties, we cannot claim to have achieved the heights demanded of true Orthodox worship. Each priest must work to insure that order, decency, reverence and contrition prevail in our churches.
We twentieth-century Christians can not even imagine how seriously the Christians of the first centuries celebrated the Divine Liturgy. History records many moving examples of their piety, such as the following. St. Basil the Great was celebrating the Divine Liturgy in Caesarea, Asia Minor, for a congregation of devout, contrite, and attentive Christians, when a state official, an unbeliever with bad intentions, entered the church. This official was so impressed by the reverence of everyone present, the laity as well as the clergy, that he had a change of heart, and acknowledged within this church that the true God was indeed worshipped.
My dear brothers in Christ! It is not enough to go to church. We must attend with faith, reverence, and fear of God. With faith that the church is the house of God. With reverence, with tears of gratitude that God allows us to approach Him in the church. With fear, because we are sinners, deserving punishment. God hates sin, hypocrisy, lies, and the celebrations of those who worship Him with their lips only. With their hearts - alas! - they worship the devil.
Let us be careful! The Church, as the petition reveals, prays only for those who attend church services with faith, reverence, and fear of God.
Adopted from: Augoustinos N. Kantiotes, Bishop of Florina, Greece, On the Divine Liturgy . Orthodox Homilies, Vol. 1.
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