16 June 2017

In the Midst: Holy Orders

he Ordination of men as priests or deacons can occur at any time. In the Western Orthodox tradition, the Ember Days of Advent, Lent, September—and most especially the week of Pentecost—are designated for conferring the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
During these Ember days, the entire Church joins the candidates in a special fast and penitential Mass on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday leading up to the ordination of deacons and priests during the Saturday Divine Liturgy. (The lesser orders may also be
conferred at this time.). At this time, the entire community of the faithful pray for the Spirit’s grace both upon the men who will be ordained, and upon the whole church so that she may increase and her members may grow in faith and holiness.
Our Lord’s Church cannot grow in faith or holiness without His sacred ministers. Their ministry is to deliver His gifts—the sacred mysteries—which unite us to Christ, seal us with His Spirit, heal our bodies and forgive our souls, and strengthen our life in and with each other until we together attain the fullness of the kingdom of heaven.
But there is something more that is revealed in this Ember Day practice. The whole Christian community fasts and prays (while only some are being ordained) because this Holy Sacrament—unlike all the sacred mysteries—centers the Christian parish family. That is the essence of this sacrament. Fr Alexander Schmemann, of blessed memory, puts it this way:
If each man [or woman] is to find in Christ his own life, if Christian engineers find in the Church what it means to be a Christian engineer, if a Christian novelist finds in the church the idea of what is Christian art, if a Christian father and a Christian mother find in the Church the essence of Christian parenthood, there must be someone in the center of the community who, just as Christ, has nothing of his own, but in whom and through whom everyone else can find his way.
That “someone” who stands in the center of the community is “the one who makes Christ present—who ‘represents,’ but in a very real sense, Christ’s care, Christ’s love, Christ’s teaching.” (Schmemann) To say it simply, the Priest is the one who re-presents Christ; that is, who repeatedly makes Christ present. And it is the same with the Deacon: he also presents Christ again and again.
The significant difference between the priest and deacon is that the priest’s primary focus is making present Christ’s compassion and mercy for the soul (i.e., through the sacraments and visitations), while the deacon’s primary emphasis is making present Christ’s compassion for the body (i.e., through material assistance and prayer).
These roles are clearly demonstrated in the Divine Liturgy. The Deacon reads the Gospel of Our Incarnate Lord, reminding us in every word that God came in our flesh to put an end to our captivity to ungodly passions not by freeing our souls from our bodies, but by healing, redeeming, and restoring our bodies as well as our souls; and that this liberation culminates when, by His Ascension, Our Lord shows that our flesh will be capable of being raised up to heaven to see the Father with our very own eyes.
In a similar way, the Priest does not just promise but actually bestows upon us the compassion and mercy of the Father through the Son in the unity of the Spirit. This peace with God, which surpasses our understanding, is delivered when the Priest leads the prayers, and gives the blessing. And most especially, when the Priest handles the Lord’s very own Body and Blood, and leads us to give thanks by consuming the Holy Eucharist, then is the Lord’s own divine nature, abundantly and unfathomably, knitted to our own flesh and coursing through our veins.
In both instances, when the Deacon and the Priest serve us, the re-present Christ to us, making Him present, standing in our midst. For they say, “The Lord be with you,” each time before they exercise their specific ministry. These words mean that the “I AM,” who is always with us, now, by means of the Deacon and Priest, stands in the midst of the “two or three” (or more). The faithful acknowledge this whenever they respond, “And with thy spirit.” For those speak declare that the Holy Spirit, given to the Sacred Ministers in the Sacrament of Holy Orders, has permitted us to see not them, but Christ; not their failings and weaknesses, but His strength and undying kind-heartedness.
In practical, every-day terms, the Sacrament of Holy Orders is exactly that: a re-ordering of the life of the ordained man. No longer does that man have a “private” or “individual” life. No longer can he make decisions based solely on what is best for himself, his health, his prosperity or success, or even his family. And no longer can he set aside, even when “vacationing” or on his “day-off,” his duty and responsibility to serve at the altar or pray the prescribed prayers.
In a very real sense, then, the ordained man is “under orders.” In every moment, he must “become all things to all men.” He must “do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.” For his life is no longer his own, but is offered up as Christ gave Himself completely as a self-offering for men.
This is why Holy Orders is a sacrament which conveys the grace to bolster and sustain those who are ordained. And perhaps you see why it is both good and necessary for the whole Church to join in the fasts and prayers—not only for the men who will be ordained, but even more so for the priests and deacons who now serve. For by your fasting, you remember the sacrifice; and by your prayers, you support and encourage them in being faithful to their orders.

V. Rev. John W. Fenton
Pastor, St Michael Orthodox Christian Church, Whittier CA
Assistant to the Vicar General, Western Rite Vicariate

Pentecost Week 2017

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