In our pandemic fatigue, it is now common to reflect on what we hope for as we hurry to complete this journey. I want to briefly reflect on a selection of petitions from the Byzantine liturgical offices.
The Great Litany begins the prayers:
In peace, let us pray to the Lord.
For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord.
For the peace of the whole world, for the welfare of the holy Churches of God, and for the union of all, let us pray to the Lord.
In our time, there seems to be little interest in peace. The ‘union of all’ is utopian – or even dystopian. Alienation and polarization remain predominant. We may have good reasons to abandon peace and union. How does one seek union with those who can only have it their way? Having experienced the terms of union in recent times, is it not better to remove the illusion of union, once and for all?
There are dozens of reasons to say ‘yes’ to the above assertion. If that answer is yes – forget about peace and union – are these lines just going through the ritual motions? And would it not be best to remove them from the Liturgy?
I ask these questions of myself on a daily basis. So bear with me as I accuse myself, take a deep breath, and ask what the Liturgy that has been handed down to me has to say about our seemingly hopeless alienation. I will attempt to clarify the meaning of my community’s prayers through statements of hope.
Statements of Hope
I hope that Christians will remember that God is the source of peace, and that the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, gives the peace of God’s reign to his disciples as a gift to be received.
We cannot create peace by ourselves, no matter how bold or innovative the initiative. Peace is a gift from God that can only be received. Praying the petition for the “peace from above” is not an expression of doubt from the community of the faithful. The community believes and knows that God brings peace, and that the risen Lord shares that peace with the community at every gathering. It is not a matter of whether or not God will grant peace. It is a matter of understanding how gift exchanges work.
Much of our discussion about Liturgy focuses on what we do. That’s natural and understandable, because the rites are more comprehensible to us when we discuss them in terms of human behavior. Our mode of discussion does not change the fact that God does the work in Liturgy. God convenes the gatherings, and God is the one who gives.
Receiving Peace from God
Receiving a gift is not a passive act. Receiving is active. What do we do with the peace that God gives us? Do we allow that peace to transform us into God’s body, or do we consider its utilitarian value in our ranking of agenda items? What if God’s peace is inconvenient to us? What happens when we realize that God’s peace asks us to see our enemy, the stranger before us, as someone who should become our brother or sister in Christ?
I hope that Christians will be confident that God gives them the peace from above, and that they will ask God to give them the courage to receive it and allow it to transform them.
I hope that Christians will remember that they are citizens of the kingdom of God, and that there is no red or blue, rural or urban, conservative or liberal in God’s realm.
Every day, I walk past a house where a sign still stands promoting a defeated candidate for office. Oh, the demonic thoughts my weak soul has permitted to enter into my heart! My own pride has caused me to look upon them with enmity, to imagine them as demons, and in the process, I have disfigured my own soul. I cannot see into their hearts! They have not revealed their sins to me! And yet God knows and remembers them by name, even from their mother’s womb (as the Liturgy teaches me).
The Constitution of God’s Realm
I have been baptized and anointed, and I have sworn my allegiance in word and rite to the Risen Christ. I have been made a citizen of God’s kingdom because Christ has washed and anointed me. The Gospels and the traditions handed on to me are holy – they are the constitution of membership in God’s realm, and they supersede all other allegiances and oaths.
This community of faith teaches me my sacred duty on a daily basis, and that duty requires me to love my enemies and to give generously to those in need. My own sloth and preoccupations keep me from devoting myself to these holy tasks. A wise elder once told me that if I devoted myself to them, I wouldn’t have time to see my neighbor through the devil’s eyes and regard them with enmity. I hope that God will renew my commitment to my chrismation and give me strength to carry out the sacred duties that God has assigned to me.
Charity for Opponents and Zealous Advocacy for the Vulnerable
Does loving my enemies, refusing to demonize them, and giving generously require me to submit to them, to give in to their demands? Receiving the peace from above and upholding the constitution of God’s realm means that one must share God’s peace and its blessings with everyone. This will inevitably lead to dispute and debate with one’s opponents.
It is enormously difficult to find the sweet spot between charity for my opponents and advocacy for everyone. I pray for the emotional intelligence and Christian temperament to defend the vulnerable with zeal without hating others and causing harm to myself in the process.
‘Holy is the Lord our God’
I hope that Christians will remember that God is holy, that they sing the thrice-holy hymn in praise of God, that they place their trust first and foremost in God, and that the rulers and institutions of this world are finite.
When we read 1 Samuel and hear the stories of God’s appointment of kings to Israel, we are reminded of human finitude. God was the king of the Hebrew people – they needed no other king – yet they cried out to be like their Ancient Near Eastern neighbors, and God gave them a king. One of those kings built the most magnificent temple. The temple fell, and so did the kingdoms of Judah and Israel.
In the sixth century, the Emperor Justinian dedicated an architectural marvel, the Great Church, Hagia Sophia, and legend says that he ran into the courtyard and cried, “Solomon, I have outdone you!” Justinian’s kingdom fell. What was once the most inspirational temple of worship of the Christian East has now become a symbol of contemporary politico-religious struggle.
The kingdoms of David, Solomon, and Justinian were finite.
Creeds should be untouched; systems can change
We are alarmed, rightfully, by the frightening decline we are witnessing in Christian communities throughout the world, especially in North America. The pandemic has hastened the closure of beloved Christian schools and seminaries. The unimaginable has become reality. Even the most seemingly august institution can fail. We flee from the finitude of our labors.
Christians do not worship systems. Sometimes, faithfulness requires the Christian to admit failure, to accept the finite nature of our institutions and organizations, and to be faithful by adapting systems as required by circumstances. No one is permitted to change the community’s Creed – its confession of faith – on one’s own (see the Ravenna document of 2007, no. 33). God does not change – Jesus Christ remains the same. Christians need the humility to recognize when God permits them to change systems, and sometimes, even their rites. If love for systems, institutions, and small-t traditions supersedes love for God, and for the least of the brethren – then systems will, indeed, fail and fall.
Voluntary and involuntary idolatry are not the only causes of failure. We could do many things right in faithfulness, and still see them come to their end in this life, and in this world. If such misfortune comes upon us, we give thanks for the good that has been done. We pray for and await guidance on what to do next. And we give thanks for the gift of the infinite – the second coming of Christ, the destiny of our pilgrimage.
I hope that God will grant us the peace from above and the union of all. Let us pray to the Lord, Lord, have mercy.