Archive for March 1st, 2012

On Tuesday I attended a funeral.  In fact, the deceased was nobody I knew,  but when the priest sent out a parish-wide memo concerning this funeral, as a member of my church’s choir I felt I ought to show up – who knew how many other choir members would be there?  And this wasn’t just about a few feel-good hymns, either; in the Orthodox Church, we sing everything.  The priest sings his prayers, and the responses are sung back.

As it turned out, it was a good thing I went, since only two other singers showed up, one another choir member, and the other a young woman who can’t be in the choir right now because she has young children to keep track of.  (I look forward to her return in five or so years.)  As it also turned out, our presence was not necessary; family members who could sing were present, and requested to sing the responses.  And they did a wonderful job of it, too.

After the funeral, while everyone else walked over to the cemetery for the committal, I asked  my young friend if she would join me for lunch.  Between her children and my commute (50 miles, one way), we almost never get a chance for a  good, sit-down chat, and I wanted to grab the opportunity.  Apparently, so did she.  We met up at a watering hole not too far from church, ordered seafood, and dug in, both to our meals and to our chat.

She’s a lively little party, and I always enjoy talking to her.  As the conversation often does with young mothers, hers turned to her children, and to her son’s fear of receiving Communion, which had baffled her:  Orthodox children receive Communion from the time they are forty days old, and in this parish, at least, frequent Communion is the norm.  So why would a child suddenly become screaming-terrified of what had been a weekly occurrence?  And all she could get out of him was, “I’m scared.”

The priest was laid back about it.  “They all do it, at one time or another,” he told her.  “Give him time, he’ll get over it.”  (With five kids of his own, he should know.)  But she was sufficiently perturbed about her son’s fear to post her question to an online community for Orthodox mothers, and the response she received from one mother in particular has burned itself into my brain:  “Maybe he sees It for what It is,” wrote this mother of six.

She had me flummoxed, that’s for sure.  “What do you mean, what It is?” I asked my young friend, and she quoted from her online conversation:

“A Bowl of Fire.  A chalice full of flame.”

* * * * *

In the Orthodox Church, we take nothing for granted.  People who think we are indulging in Empty Ritual should talk to any of the older ladies of the parish, the ones who have time to answer, the ones who have lived this all their lives.  They can tell you the reason for everything we do (as can the priest), and it’s always theologically sound.  One of our common practices is to say pre-Communion prayers.  Yes, they were written by someone else; they express not just the personal feelings of the author, but the very depths of theology, of the essence of mankind’s relationship with his Creator.  We read them to school our own minds in the proper approach to God and to His mysteries, in particular, the Mystery of Communion.  And one of these prayers begins:

If thou desirest, O man, to eat the Body of the Master, approach with fear, lest thou be burnt; for It is fire. 

As any Christian knows, fire is all over the Bible.  Malachi speaks of a “refiner’s fire,” the Three Youths in the Book of Daniel experienced the fire meant to kill them as refreshing dew, and if you look it up in any good concordance, you can find an entire page of references to fire, both as a destroying agent and as a purifying agent.  In Orthodoxy, too, there is a particular miracle that takes place at Easter, the Holy Fire.  People who have been present for this miracle note that it is possible to put one’s hand into the flame, and it will not be burned; rather, it is a life-changing experience.  (Note that this miracle only takes place on Orthodox Easter, or Pascha, which falls, this year, on April 15, a week after everybody else’s.  Next year it takes place a month after everybody else’s.)

So no, this is not a Fire that would burn you if you consumed It, but It would, and does, burn away impurities of thought or action; It burns away sin.  Those of us who have been communing for decades understand this prayer in this sense when we read it, and when we approach the Chalice, we see only the mingled bread and wine, though we understand that through the action of the Holy Spirit, what is present is the actual Body and Blood of Christ, of which He spoke at the Last Supper.

But very small children see things differently.  Very small children have a purity that our Lord told us to emulate.  What if this very small boy, with the pure eyes of a child, did see Fire?  He would have no way of understanding that it’s not the same kind of fire that’s on his mother’s kitchen stove.  And he would be terrified to take this into his mouth.

Well, whatever it was about, it’s over, and he now communes regularly and happily.  I, on the other hand, will never see Communion in the same way again.

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