And, “Thou, Lord, didst found the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of Thy hands; they will perish, but Thou remainest; they will all grow old like a garment, like a mantle thou wilt roll them up, and they will be changed. But Thou art the same, and Thy years will never end.” But to what angel has He ever said, “Sit at my right hand till I make Thy enemies a stool for Thy feet”? Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation? Therefore we must pay the closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For if the message declared by angels was valid and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard Him.
Hebrews 1:10-14, 2:1-3 (Epistle Reading from Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas)
Many times, people in our churches wonder, sometimes rather loudly, why we do “the same and the same,” when it comes to our liturgical services and calendar for the year. Saint Paul helps provide an answer in his Epistle to the Hebrews, when he writes: “Therefore we must pay the closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” (Hebrews 2:1) Saint Paul writes these words in his Epistle to the Hebrews.
Marketing specialists say that it takes at least seven “touches” to get people to remember things they see advertised. That’s why companies run the same commercials again and again, hoping the product they are advertising will stick in our heads, especially the next time we go shopping.
The Church is very wise in setting up the Lent and Holy Week journey in the way that it does, in the way that it repeats each year. That’s because, throughout life, we experience this special time of year in a different way. When I was a child, we thought Holy Week was great because we got to stay up late. We begged our parents to let us go to the late services, not because we knew who Christ was, or because we had an appreciation for what we were seeing or hearing. We wanted to go just to stay up late. Even then, however, we understood that Holy Week was something special.
When I got older and served in the altar, Holy Week was special because this great “play” that the priest was putting on, the altar boys got to be on center stage with him. Again, not the holiest of thoughts about Holy Week, but the week still had a special feeling for us. I remember one year on Holy Thursday, I saw our priest kneeling at the cross and he started crying. That moment has always stuck with me. That was a very private moment in the middle of a very public service. Now that I serve as a priest, I realize that that might have been his only private moment of worship the entire Holy Week. His tears told me that what we were doing is actually pretty important, serious, and moving.
As I have come to know who Christ is, Holy Week takes on a different meaning. I know why Christ came, I know what He did, and I’ve read it enough times in the Bible. Now, I listen to the hymns and Scripture passages of Holy Week and pick up new and different layers of meaning. On Holy Tuesday, for instance, we hear of a harlot who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears contrasted to Judas, a trusted disciple who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. This reminds us that it’s not how we start but how we finish that matters. It makes me examine where I am in relationship to God as I run my “race” through life. Am I more like the repentant woman or the fallen disciple?
Let’s leave Holy Week for a minute and speak of the Divine Liturgy that we celebrate so often in our church. Why the repetition? There are three reasons.
First, the Divine Liturgy affords us a way to BE with Christ that is unique to the Liturgy—the opportunity to receive Holy Communion. This is as close to “perfection” as we can get, as Holy Communion affords us the opportunity to touch God, and for God to touch us. As the saying goes “You can’t improve on perfection.” So we come again and again to experience perfection.
Second, the Divine Liturgy is the most complete prayer—it touches everything we can think of in prayer. For peace in the world, for our country, our city, our president, for those who are sick, for deliverance from any kind of affliction and need—these are things we may forget to pray about on a daily basis. If we come to the Divine Liturgy each Sunday, not a week will go by that we don’t remember and lift up all of these things in prayer.
Third, the Divine Liturgy brings to mind things that I need constant reminding about. For instance, when the priest prays for “all that is good and beneficial to our souls and for peace in the world,” it reminds me to make my decisions based on these two metrics—is it good for my soul? Does it promote peace in the world? Not a week in my life has gone by where I’ve made every decision on these two standards. I’m still looking for my first perfect week. The Divine Liturgy is a reminder of the things I’m supposed to do, the things that help me show love for God and for my neighbor.
Today’s Epistle reading is a reminder that we must “pay the closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” It is a reminder that if we do not pay close attention to what we hear, either because we are not in attendance or we are not trying to comprehend what we are hearing, we are going to drift away from what God is calling us to be.
Beacon of Orthodox belief, the strong support of the Church and her teacher inspired by God, you are the ornament of monks, the unassailable champion of theologians, O Gregory the Wonder-worker and the boast of Thessalonica, the messenger of grace. Forever earnestly entreat for the salvation of our souls. (Apolytikion, Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Plan to go to church this Sunday, and every Sunday, and now during Lent, plan to attend some additional services as well!