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”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0
Welcome to The Daily Prayer Team messages, each day includes a passage of scripture, a reflection and a prayer. Sponsored by Saint John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL.
And behold, one came up to Him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” And He said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to Him, “Which?” And Jesus said, “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to Him, “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. And Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Matthew 19: 16-26
Today’s Scripture passage is about a rich man who encountered Christ but went away sorrowful. He was ostensibly “good.” He even reminded Christ that he had “checked off all the boxes”—He had kept the commandments, hadn’t killed anyone, hadn’t committed adultery, hadn’t stole or lied and had honored his parents. Jesus told him that what he had done was good, but it was not perfect. If he wanted to be perfect, he needed to sell what he had and give it to the poor. Because being a Christian is not about just checking boxes and following commandments, it’s about loving God and loving others. This man was obedient, but was it out of obligation, or fear or love?
If you ask most Orthodox Christians what the first thing they do when they enter a church is, they will say “light a candle and put a dollar in the tray.” When you ask them why they do that, most will say they don’t know. The reason why we light a candle is because Christ is the Light of the world. Jesus said “I am the Light of the World; he who follows Me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) He also told us “You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:14) The “light” is the only instance in the New Testament where Christ ascribes a characteristic to both us and to Him. We share “light” with Him. In lighting a candle when we enter the church, we reestablish and reaffirm that He is our light and that we are His lights in the world. It is also an opportunity for us to evaluate ourselves on each count—Has He been our light and have we been His? Every time we enter the Church building, we are reminded that Christ is our light and we are supposed to be His. It’s a lot more than just lighting a candle.
Priests will joke that in Holy Week, attendance is higher on the days when there is a free gift. People come on Palm Sunday to get a palm, on Holy Wednesday to “get the oil,” on Good Friday to get a flower and on Pascha to get an egg.
On Holy Wednesday, we don’t come “to get the oil,” but to be anointed for the healing of soul and body. If we are just coming to “get the oil,” all we are doing is having a priest put oil on our heads with a q-tip. If we are coming “for the healing of soul and body,” we are coming with a recognition that we are “sick” and in need of healing. We come with a recognition that Christ is the healer who can heal our spiritual illnesses. We accept the oil over our senses, over our minds, our mouths, and on our hands. We rub the oil into our skin. And in doing so, we not only recognize that these things all need healing, but we recommit ourselves to using our senses for more Godly purposes. In the beautiful prayers offered at the service, we can experience God’s grace flowing over us.
Like the rich man in the parable, it is possible to check all the boxes and still be sorrowful. Because it is not checking the boxes that bring us closer to Christ. It is understanding why we do certain things, so that in these “things” we can get a closer connection to Christ. I am very thankful that the Orthodox Church has so many rituals. But we don’t worship the rituals. They are there are a way of reminding us who Christ is (in the case of the candle we are reminded that He is the light; in the case of the Holy Oil we are reminded that He is the healer) and who we are supposed to be (in the case of the candle, we are reminded that we are supposed to be lights in the world; in the case of the Holy Oil, we are wounded because of our sins but can receive healing through God’s grace.
There are dozens (if not more) of other examples of rituals that we do without understanding their deeper meaning. Without understanding of what we are doing, we become basically relegated to checking boxes and jumping through hoops, without understanding that there is deep meaning behind what we are doing, as well as that our rituals are designed and done in order to bring us closer to Christ and to a deeper understanding of Him and a more committed expression of our Christianity.
O Christ, the true Light which illumines and sanctifies every man who comes into the world, let the Light of Your Countenance leave its mark on us; that in it, we may behold the ineffable Light; and direct our steps aright, to the keeping of Your commandments; through the intercessions of You All-pure Mother, and of all Your Saints. Amen. (Prayer of the 1st Hour, Trans. by Fr. George Papadeas)
Don’t just check boxes. Learn and understand so that rituals become ways to have a deeper connection with Christ!
The Revised Standard Version of the Bible is copyrighted 1946, 1952, 1971, and 1973 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and used by permission. From the Online Chapel of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
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