Lenten Lesson Three 2019

Wednesday Lenten Lessons
“The Liturgical Rituals of the Church and Their Meaning”
Lenten Lesson No. 3
by Archpriest Timothy Baclig

Purpose: To discuss with you “the various rituals of our services and
their meaning.” My objective: to clarify the purpose and function of the
rituals in our services and to correct some misconceptions.
Last week our focus was upon the movements and the processions in
our prayer services. I described how all of our prayer services and the
Sacraments of the church point and direct us to a destiny: The Kingdom of
God; also that our entire life’s journey is a procession to God’s Kingdom.
Similarly, we saw how Great Lent is also described as “a journey” that is
culminated with Holy Week: depicting Christ’s passion, His Crucifixion,
Death, Burial and Holy Resurrection. Each year, Great Lent is a school for
those preparing for Holy Baptism. They are the Catechumens and those
“preparing for illumination” prayed for in tonight’s service. At the same
time, Great Lent is a shared annual learning experience with those who are
already Baptized and full participants in the Sacraments.
Last week we saw how all of the liturgical movements in our services
are accompanied with specific prayers, if not by the singing of hymns and
melodies. This fourth week of Great Lent focuses upon last Sunday’s
theme of the Holy Cross, that commemorates its finding. In addition to the
Veneration of the Holy Cross at Mid-Lent, there are other times of the year
when the Holy Cross is commemorated: Wednesday of every week; a
Procession on August 1st, when it is left out for veneration for those
needing healing; kept out until the commemoration of its return to the
imperial Palace (August 14), just prior to the Feast of the Dormition. The
Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross and its appearance over Athens
(September 14; observed as a day of strict fasting); and finally the
procession of Great and Holy Thursday that depicts Christ’s crucifixion.
The reverent signing of the Cross is used with specified prayers by
the Bishop and priest to bless (“Peace be to all!” “Look down, O Lord, from
heaven and bless this vineyard…”); to forgive and absolve at the
Sacrament of Confession; to exorcise, to aid and protect, to dedicate and to
renew. Every signing of the cross is an “exorcism” with the purpose of
warding off evil, protecting, guarding and sealing a person or object from
demonic activity. It is done invoking the name of the Father, Son and Holy
Spirit, but also with specific prayers for the absolution of sin at the
Sacrament of Confession, prayers of exorcisms (heard at a Baptism or
when the need arises for a person who is undergoing spiritual attack); all
of which are done by a priest (and not by a deacon). The fingers of a
priest’s right hand is positioned to reflect the Greek letters of the word
“Christ” (in Greek: Christos) when he pronounces the blessing. The
Orthodox signing of the cross from the right shoulder to the left, unlike the
Roman Catholic, is described in the handout provided at the end of this
The priest’s blessing does not mean that a deacon or anyone of a
lower rank, including the laity, cannot use the sign of the cross for a
personal blessing upon themselves or upon others. It only means that the
formal Sacramental rite of a blessing belongs to the office of the Bishop
and the Holy Priesthood. It must also be stated that the Deacon is only
able to administer the Sacrament at the direction and with the blessing of a
priest, but does not perform a blessing as a priest.
We should all be very reverent in signing ourselves with the cross. It
is usually done in services when the name of the Holy Trinity is said by the
priest in an exclamation. Our own personal use of signing ourselves with
the cross should be accompanied with a short prayer. It is very easy for the
sign of the cross to become something that we do as a reflex or a habit
without any prayerful thought. It is also helpful to know that when asking or
receiving the blessing of a bishop or priest, it would not be proper to bless
oneself at the same time. Also, when a priest blesses the congregation
during a service, the proper response is to bow and not make the sign of
the cross, since the blessing is being given by the priest. It would make no
sense to bless oneself.
The emblem of the Cross has been a symbol of hope to Christians. It
is a very popular symbol also used on body tattoos and ornamental jewelry.
There are generally four categories of crosses: a) the “Greek + Cross,” b)
the “Roman Cross” that has a long stem, c) the “Cross of St. Andrew” [X],
and d) the Cross of St. Anthony [T]. Specific “Orthodox Crosses” are: 1)
the Byzantine Cross (that shows three clovers at the four ends;
representing the three persons of the Holy Trinity), and 2) the “Slavic
Cross” that is known as the three barred cross.
To some, the cross has been a dreaded and detestable sign that
represents the horrors of war (i.e., the Crusades) and periods of
persecution. In the 8th century iconoclasts considered it among idolatrous
images. My grandmother was an iconoclast. While her life was devoted to
Christ, who she understood as her Saviour, any image that portrayed Jesus
on the cross, or even the wearing a cross was considered idolatrous.
“Jesus is no longer on the Cross” she would say. She was right. However,
to live our lives in the present also means knowing and understanding what
He meant when He commanded us to “take up our cross and follow Him.”
The cross must be understood and identified with the cross of our Lord,
and what He accomplished for us by dying on it, and why He did it. We
must also know who it was who died on the Cross.
No one likes to face suffering, pain or death. However, in this life we
cannot escape it. And while each person’s personal experience may differ,
we pray for “a Christian ending to our life, painless, blameless and
peaceful…” However, we cannot guarantee it. The Orthodox teaching is
clear: There can be no denial of pain, suffering or death. It must be
embraced insofar as we identify with Christ’s own suffering, just as we
understand Holy Baptism as being buried with Christ and rising with Him.
However, it must be also understood that pain, suffering and death are not
what a Christian desires. Desiring it is to terrorize, to torment, to kill others,
and also to be suicidal.
Today there are non-denominational mega churches that do not use
the sign of the Cross in any of their symbolism. It is intentionally absent;
nowhere to be found either in or outside of their buildings; nowhere on their
website or even their stationery! It is considered unnecessary and is
avoided as a Christian symbol for carrying a “Catholic religious”
connotation that is considered a problem. Consequently, the symbol of the
cross is intentionally avoided. These communities are also lacking in a
“theology of suffering.” The result is an incomplete message on salvation
that is without a full teaching of suffering and death. Consequently,
unexpected or senseless tragedies are unrelated and irrelevant to one’s
understanding of redemption, and remains alien to the Christian experience
altogether until one is force to face a tragedy or unexpected crisis, like a
The Apostle Paul says in writing to the Philippians: “I want to know
Christ and the power of His Resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in
His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, and so, somehow, to attain
to the resurrection from the dead.” [Phil. 3:10] St. Paul was a man who
underwent tremendous suffering in his personal experience after his
conversion. If we examine his life closely we find in the New Testament,
from the time of his conversion on the road to Damascus, Saul, who was
known as the “persecutor of Christians” (and who was later called “Paul”),
faced great struggles beginning with being stricken with blindness in his
encounter with the Lord. Prior to his arrival in Damascus, Ananias, who
had a vision of Paul was told by the Lord to meet Saul “my chosen
instrument,” and of whom he said: “I will show him how much he must
suffer for my name.” (Acts 9:10ff).
In writing to the Philippians (4:11ff) the Holy Apostle states: “I can do
all things through Christ who strengthens me!” [the theme of this year’s
Conference that our young people will be speaking of in their orations and
illustrating in their festival projects.] This positive proclamation of faith was
the result of St. Paul’s experience with through great adversities. If we
read this verse within the full context of the passage, we hear the Apostle
begin by saying: “I have learned to be content in whatever the
circumstances. I know what it is to be in need; and I know what it is to
have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every
situation, whether well-fed or hungry, whether living with plenty or in want.”
Then he says, “I can do everything through Him who gives me
strength.” [Phil. 4:11ff] Notice how St. Paul uses the phrase “through Him.”
It is not without Him that we take up “our cross” but with Him and by
completely identifying with him that we might also share in the glory of His
Holy Resurrection.
Next week we will take a closer look at the rituals of the Sacraments.