Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015, has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany” and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.”
Jesus entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. And they watched Him, to see whether He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him. And He said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come here.” And He said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And He looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. Mark 3:1-5 (Gospel on the Third Saturday of the Souls)
Good morning Prayer Team!
Without order, there is chaos. And rules are a good way to create and maintain order. This holds true for our society, both outside and inside the church. Imagine a world without traffic laws, it would be totally chaotic and dangerous.
The goal of the traffic laws, for example, is to help people travel safely. Yet, if the speed limit sign says “55 MPH” and traffic is congested, then drivers don’t go 55 because it isn’t safe. Imagine if someone followed “the letter of the law” and drove 55 mph because they perceived that the “limit” was a “requirement.” They would become a source of danger, rather than one of obedience and safety. The overall goal of the traffic laws are to create an environment that allows us to drive safely from one place to another.
If rules are ways to create and maintain good order, this holds true also for the church and for the Christian faith as well. There are lots of “commandments” in the Bible, but we don’t “worship” the commandments. We have Traditions in our church, like the Icon of Christ is always to the right of the altar, or that we baptize by immersion (and thousands of other examples). But we don’t “worship” the commandments. We worship Christ.
All of the commandments can be summarized in one word, which is “love”. God is love. So, in loving others, we show love for the Lord. In worshipping God, we worship “love personified.” In the Gospel reading about the man with the withered hand, Jesus was making a point to the leadership of the temple that it is never wrong to love and it is never wrong to help someone. Even though the “rules” of the Jewish faith said that no work could be done on the Sabbath, here was a person who needed to be loved, who needed to be helped. And Jesus helped this person on the Sabbath.
There are rules in the church, and for good reason. Without them, we’d have chaos. Again, we don’t worship the rules. The canons (the formal name given to the “rules” and practices we follow) indicate that we should abstain from all food on the morning that we are receiving Holy Communion. There are good reasons for this—the chief reason is so that you begin your day by worshipping and receiving Communion, so that the first thing that touches your lips is the Body and Blood of Christ. So, what about the person who is diabetic and can’t skip breakfast, or the person who is sick who needs to eat food along with their medication in the morning? Are they therefore banned from Communion because they cannot “follow the rule”? Absolutely not.
In the Orthodox Church, there is the “tradition” of the Spiritual Father, a priest who serves as your “guide” in the spiritual life. He is supposed to be able to discern for each individual when a rule should be relaxed, such as in the case of the person who needs to eat before Liturgy. So, if you are not sure exactly what to do in regards to some of the “rules”, ask your spiritual father. And if you don’t have a spiritual father, sit down with your parish priest, develop a relationship, so that these things can be addressed in conversation and in prayer in a way that is personal and purposeful to you.
I know that as someone who has heard thousands of confessions, thousands of instances when people have confessed to the Lord that they haven’t “followed the rules,” (God’s commandments) that I try to minister to them first and foremost with love. I’m reminded of the Parable of the Rich Man who went away sorrowful,” which we read in the Gospels of Matthew (19:16-26) and Luke (18:18-27). When he asked the Lord what he needed to do in order to inherit eternal life, the Lord told him to follow the commandments. The man said that he followed all of the commandments. Then the Lord told him that he still lacked one thing—that he should sell all that he had and give it to the poor and that he would have treasure in heaven. This was not an act of judgment. It was an act of compassion. He was reminding the man that it wasn’t purely obedience to rules and laws that was going to save him, but that he needed to show love for others. Jesus was trying to save the man from eternal condemnation by telling him what he still lacked in order to attain salvation.
So, in ministering to the faithful, and in living my own life, I try to let love be the leader, with the “rules” there to “guide” the growth of love. Rules help. Love leads.
Once you had taken the Faith of Christ into your heart like a suit of armor, you trampled the hostile forces underfoot, having contended much, and you were crowned with heavenly laurels forever, as one invincible. (Kontakion, Third Saturday of the Souls, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Let love be your guide today!
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