His Appearing in the Liturgy

00-vladimir-yeshtokin-a-joyful-place-07-12-12Standing in the Church, listening to the choir or chanter sing while priest censes the icons, words swirl with the rising smoke and connections and associations multiply as words evoke images and images evoke thoughts: participation, coinherence, incarnation, mystery, timeless form and formless time, fullness and emptiness, fulfillment and…

And then the thought comes, full-formed or teasing, but it arrives. Not as a result of logic or reason, not as the end of a chain, but more like fruit falling from a tree, sweet and wondrous.

The knowledge that comes within the liturgy belongs to a different class of knowing than is most commonly described. The liturgy never seeks to make a point. It is never insistent or argumentative, does not teach or correct. And yet there is an insistence and an argument, teaching and correction within it. Preoccupation and distraction easily overlook their presence. Fatigue can render us immune. But when we become present, even quiet to the Presence, knowledge comes.

And the knowledge that comes is often itself without words. Birthed in a torrent of words and sounds, the knowledge itself can be impossible to speak. But there it is.

The services that surround Christ’s Pascha, those of Great Lent and Holy Week, are not the fruit of immediate Apostolic reflection. Many elements within them are among the most “recent” developments (though they are more than a millennium in age). The first services of Pascha took place behind locked doors. There, bewildered disciples gathered only to be surprised by interruptions of breathless witnesses saying, “The tomb was empty!” and “We saw a vision of angels!” Unable to make sense of such things the gathering remained. Cephas and John, Luke and Cleopas joined the chorus of women’s voices, “We have seen the Lord!” and the mystery of those early gatherings deepened. Did they pray? Surely. How did they pray? Doubtless with the singing of Psalms. But the enigma and riddle remained.

The liturgy deepened when, the doors being locked for fear of the Jews, Christ Himself appears within their midst and speaks the words that are repeated regularly throughout the Church’s services today: “Peace be with you!” And then ensues the tangible liturgy, the touching and the probing, the demonstration of the Crucified. “Thrust your hand into my side!”

We have the strange witness, even terrifying, in the early gospel accounts of these liturgies: “Some doubted.” How can they see and doubt? Seeing is not always believing and doubting is not a matter of thought. The risen Christ appears and the thoughts of all are laid bare. The doubting heart was always a doubting heart – for its thoughts are not those of reason but of fear.

But the liturgy continued. “On the first day of the week” the disciples continued to meet. “On the first day of the week” they continued to read Scripture and Break the Bread. And He appeared. And they met. And He appeared.

And it is this appearing, His parousia, that abides. It is this appearing that the liturgy remembers. And it remembers actively as the appearing itself continues. If the liturgy did not remember His appearing, it would have ceased. But it is His appearing that is participation, coinherence, incarnation, mystery, timeless form and formless time, fullness and emptiness, fulfillment and full-formed teasing.

It is not history that draws Christ’s disciples back behind the doors year by year and week by week. It is not memorial and sentiment that stands for hours in darkened Churches, lighting candles and breathing prayers. It is not superstition and ethnic pride. It is the appearing.

Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing. (2Ti 4:8)

Even so. Come quickly!


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


37 responses to “His Appearing in the Liturgy”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    We’ve been some time without comments…the longest in my memory. I wonder if successive articles on opinions and silence have forced our community into a deep hesychastic mode.

    I pray for you all each day. May God give you a good Holy Week and Pascha!

  2. sara Avatar

    There certainly has been a wave of posts lately, and I’ve been reading. Thank you for your daily prayers. And for this post in particular.

  3. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thanks, Sara.
    I can tell from within the blog (dashboard) that “views” are normal. But we’ve been quiet. It’s probably God’s good grace. I’ve been very occupied with services, confessions and other pastoral duties. Others may have their own Lenten busy-ness as well, no doubt.

  4. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The Lenten journey has deepened for me and the ineffable nature of what you have written makes cursive comment seem almost offensive. I have one observation on the encounter in the Liturgy which you describe:

    The person I know best in this world is my lovely wife. She stands and sits (our legs are not as strong as they used to be) next to me in each Liturgy. I am often amazed when I look at her there as her entire countenance is transformed by light and she is somewhat other worldly in appearance–her beauty enhanced and beaming.

    God is with us!

    One topic I would like you to write on is how to pray for others. I struggle between the dryness of a list of names and the attempt to do to much. Either tends to make me put my duty and desire to pray for many aside.

  5. Casey Avatar

    I read and appreciate every post that you make, although this is my first time to comment. I have learned so much from this blog and am very grateful. I recently looked for the nearest Orthodox church and was surprised to find that it’s led by your son-in-law (in Menlo Park). I’m not *yet* Orthodox but would appreciate your prayers as I continue the journey.

  6. Theodossia Avatar

    Thank you Father for your prayers. I too am a regular reader of your blog, even though I seldom comment. I was especially fascinated by the article about opinions and passions. It taught me a lot and showed me how far I am from a quiet heart. Thank you again. May you have a blessed Holy Week!!!

  7. 'lia Avatar

    Thank you very much for this post, father, especially for allowing things like doubt and teasing into it and bringing them into the light of His appearance.
    And another thank you for the articles on “opinions”; remembering what you’ve said, that when we most feel the urge to speak our mind, then maybe it would be best to keep quiet — this is a teaching that makes me bite my tongue (or at least try) several times daily.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    ‘Ilia. Don’t bite your tongue too hard, it’s still Lent!

  9. Steve Avatar

    I have the same question as Michael regarding praying for others. How much detail does my prayer really need? Too much and I think I sound presumptuous. Or artificial. Too little and it becomes just a list of names. My “compromise” has been to visualize the person I’m praying for and their circumstances and offer it to God.

  10. Charlie Avatar

    well, there you have in a nut-shell the answer to the question ‘Why should we bother going to Church?’

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    “How much detail?” The answer would be, “as much as your heart needs.” For it is your own heart that is of importance in this. God obviously doesn’t need information. It is the effort we undertake to unite ourselves to the other (whomever we are praying for) and offering that to God. It will obviously vary according to the situation.

    Intercessory prayer is a great mystery. In its most ideal form, we, in a manner, “become” the one for whom we pray, making little to no distinction between ourselves (or the situation). This would include the worst of sinners and the worst of situations. And we pray for them by uniting ourselves (and thus them) to God. In a truly great-hearted saint, this could be sustained pretty much continuously. It is a very difficult thing to do for anyone. Involving great spiritual effort.

    I find it very helpful to do such prayer before the altar (it’s a privilege for a priest). I have many names (all of my parishioners and others). I will read the names and consider what I know. I will speak about it – I like to pray out loud when at all possible. Very few people are capable of sustained prayer silently in their head – I cannot – my attention is very bad. Sometimes I will plead with God or complain to Him on their behalf, etc. The Psalmist teaches us how to pray. In all things, I beg God’s mercies.

    Some days I have less time than others and am less detailed. Some of this will depend on an individual’s desire to intercede. I believe that a priest is ordained to intercede and that there is a sacramental power in the prayers of a priest far beyond his own individual life. I have seen great answers to prayer even for rather casual efforts by a priest.

    But most people don’t have a long list. Let your heart speak. It will know how much to say (or it will learn).

    But in all things, we unite our heart to others and to God. God sometimes allows us to suffer, but He never wills us to suffer alone. Christ in us can bear all things – and if we will unite ourselves to someone else in their suffering – that union will also help them to bear it.

    This is a great mystery.

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Thank you Father Stephen for reminding me of what I knew and putting into words what was only intuitive before.

    My lists always seem to grow as more people come to mind and my heart is too small. Most days I can barely pray for myself.

    May the Lord have mercy.

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    …and Father, thank you for your service.

  14. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    This is one of your best posts Father, because it forces us to lean on Christ to know what you are saying. Thank you. Please, Father, bless.

  15. davidp Avatar

    During the Liturgy, I have to close my eyes to listen to the spirit of the words that are spoken and the choral response. I have to do it because the movement of people, sometimes the bright lights, are distracting.

  16. Dino Avatar

    Father Stephen, Michael & Steve,
    the topic of prayer for others and the related questions has been one I have continuously asked and tried to learn about from the start. Of course, a priest’s calling, his very ministry, expects such prayer from the start – even when he is not fully ‘ready’. However, how to go about this can be more uncertain for others at times. The two Elder’s – Sophrony and Aimilianos (and their close disciples whom I had for Spiritual Fathers, as I started with the one and then God’s providential circumstances led to the other)- are my main source of answers on the subject.
    Their key counsel could be broken down (for simplicity) into these 3 points:
    – for beginners, prayer for others can become a distraction motivated by the ego’s attachments and worries rather than genuine Christ-like love.
    – it is wise therefore to set aside a certain time when you list (yes a ‘dryish’ list – accompanied perhaps with prostrations is even better) their names, and thus avoid coming back to them continuously during times when you cannot discern whether this is becoming a distraction – especially for those who practice the Jesus prayer. There are such ‘set’ times within the Liturgy too.
    – Perfection in the matter of intercession requires that the Holy Spirit (and not our conceptually and philosophically skilled mind) bestows the state of ‘praying hypostatically as Adam’. In other words, saying have mercy on “me” becomes no different to saying “them” – the need to say “us” is no more…

    I also remember Elder Paisios’ advise that a eucharistic trust in God’s providence for others can become as strong or stronger than a tearful heartfelt prayer for them, without it being a lack of concern in any way, again this is tricky -as with many things- to remain pure and constant “Nepsis” is required.

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    Sage advice. Thank you.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m glad it works for you. I started to write it more “analytically,” but it kept going poetic. So I gave up and quit trying to be analytic.

  19. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino, it is tricky because the evil one likes to twist even our best intentions and keep us from prayer in any way possible. I am, sadly, all too easy a victim.

    I appreciate the comments.

  20. Fr. David Wey Avatar
    Fr. David Wey

    Fr. Stephen,

    This post expresses very well, as “poetry” (and I am grateful to God for your gift that way), a paradigm I have been pondering for some weeks, stimulated in part by your posts on “The Modern Project” and in part by the latest installments of Clark Carlton’s “Faith and Philosophy” podcast on Ancient Faith Radio. In these he articulates the ancient understanding of “the three ways of knowing” – the Sensory, the Discursive (concept, language, thought, etc.) and what we call the Noetic. This “third way” has been discounted increasingly in the last four centuries or so (though every human being experiences it in some fashion).

    It is upon this Noetic Knowing that you have reflected, and it resonates deeply with my experience. Glory to God, indeed!

    Praying for a blessed Holy Week and Joyous Pascha for all.

  21. kimfrank Avatar

    “But in all things, we unite our heart to others and to God. God sometimes allows us to suffer, but He never wills us to suffer alone. Christ in us can bear all things – and if we will unite ourselves to someone else in their suffering – that union will also help them to bear it.”

    Thank you for these words, Fr. Stephen. I want to believe them. I have difficulty bearing suffering. Mine and others. It does often seem unbearable to me. I have watched four people die in the last six months. They were all very close to me and I was involved in their care to the end. As much as I prayed for them and tried to be with them in their suffering, they seemed very alone in their suffering, bearing it alone to the end, and I often felt and feel alone in my suffering. I know this is my own lack of faith and courage, and the weakness of prayers, but I would appreciate it if you would speak more of what it means or what it looks like for Christ to bear suffering in us. I would also like to know more about patience and endurance. It seems like lent is a test of patience and endurance. I even fail that little test and I want to grow.

  22. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Silence Possibilities:

    1. It’s Lent.

    2. You’ve been waxing more mystical lately than logical – which could mean an appeal to a different crowd, or could simply mean that the mystical is more for ponderance than discussion.

    3. You’ve been spreading on the “Orthodox” more heavily lately instead of just speaking in terms of “Ancient Christianity”.

  23. fatherstephen Avatar

    Those are all true. I know that I become far more “inward” as Lent goes forward. With some exceptions (facebook for one) I’ve stayed there – and have tended to regret it when I don’t. But we’re all making the same journey to Pascha.

  24. fatherstephen Avatar

    This is a mystery – and, I think, experienced in different ways. It is an established matter of the faith that Christ suffers with us. St. Maximus said, “Until the end of the world He always suffers with us, secretly, because of His goodness according to [and in proportion to] the suffering found in each one.”

    If you have sat by the bed of someone you love, then you know your own heart, and how it perhaps longed to do just that, and to ease their suffering as well. Christ cares for them no less than we, and He can enter into their suffering and make it His own – and make His suffering their own. This is the great mystery of our salvation – not that God works outside of us, but within us and in union with us. This is why God became man, not to accomplish something for us, but to accomplish something in us. And this is why we eat His flesh and drink His blood, that He may dwell in us and we in Him.

    I have sat by the bed of several hundred deaths in my years of ministry (I worked for a time as a hospice chaplain). At first it was as you described, and I was mostly aware of their aloneness and of my aloneness, and often far more aware of God’s absence than His presence. But it began to change. For one, I began to recognize that the aloneness is itself part of the suffering – and what you described – “they were alone” and “you were alone” is indeed a very deep sharing. And so I would pray and bring my aloneness to God. Psalm 139 “Lo, if I descend into hell, Thou art there.” And I began to find God-in-the-absence. If His absence, particularly in its most profound forms, are also very deeply His presence. How can I be aware of someone’s absence, unless I also know their presence? And so I recognized His suffering absence as itself a presence. It helped. I hope that doesn’t sound confusing.

    The prayers of the Church – the Akathist for the Departed – for example, were a great help, as well as frequently lighting candles in the Church for the departed, etc. Grief is not unholy. Christ wept at the grave of Lazarus. But St. Paul told us not to grieve “as those who have no hope.” That’s not the same thing as saying “don’t grieve.” I think my English ancestry misinterpreted the verse and we’re often very stuck in our emotions and unable to express them.

    But Christ is sanctifying all things. He enters into and unites Himself to people, places and things that would completely scandalize us, just as His actions in His earthly ministry scandalized. We look at a battlefield and conclude, “Where was God.” In every suffering soldier and every sinner pulling the trigger – in us all in the totality of our messiness – redeeming, transforming, suffering, pleading, reconciling – “gathering together all things in One.”

    And now when I commune of His most Precious Body and Blood, He gives me a share in all of it – all human joy – all human sorrow – everything that was on the Cross and triumphant from the tomb. All of it.

    Of course we can’t take it in. But it’s just true. We ponder these things in our heart. God will make them known in time.

  25. Drewster2000 Avatar

    So….perhaps you experience the presence of your commentators right now more fully in their absence? (grin)

    In seriousness I want to take this moment to express my gratitude not just to Fr. Stephen but to all those who are willing to share their lives and hearts here so freely: Dino, Michael Bauman, Mary Benton, TLO, Michael Patrick – to name a few.

    God works in mysterious ways and He’s certainly at work here.

  26. kimfrank Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen. These words touch my heart.

  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Those who have reposed in Christ are not quite absent from our lives. As we commune with Jesus Christ in the Divine Liturgy and in other ways, so do they and therefore we are still ‘in touch’ with each other. Not as directly, not as concretely, but still in touch.

    Everyone is alone in death, even Jesus on the Cross cried out…”why have you forsaken me” but in life we are all in community.

    The more conscious we are of the focus and center of our community: Jesus Christ, the more we are bound together in love, in bearing one another’s burdens including the suffering of each. It is part and parcel to being able to really pray for one another, entering into each other’s suffering (through Jesus Christ) and offering it all up to Him.

    That sharing is one of the things that is a bit daunting for me in praying for others. I think Jesus expressed a similar reluctance in the Garden when He asked for the cup to pass from Him.

    Only by rejoicing in the Holy Trinity, the Saints and the Church is the pain bearable and transcended whether it is my own pain or the pain of the one for whom I pray. At a certain point, there is no difference. That also is the foundation for Jesus words from the Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

    May our Lord’s mercy be abundant for each of us.

  28. fatherstephen Avatar

    My thoughts on “absence” were to recognize that even when we do experience “absence” this too is filled with God (and the beloved of our heart). Nothing can separate us…

  29. Dino Avatar

    I could be wrong here, but I sometimes ponder whether, even from a “non-Christian” perspective, those torturous sufferings that sometimes befall Man (and even small children) bestow a surprisingly mature and invaluable insight into the futility of ‘this world’ (this world ‘apart from God’ that is) -as insight that can even partly approach the awareness of seasoned ascetics who have knowingly ruminated on and renounced this futility(?)

  30. Drewster2000 Avatar


    This has been my thought as well. Though it’s only a movie, the boy in “The Sixth Sense” is one picture of what it may look like for a child to be so acquainted with death. Just an example.

    But it’s tricky. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” One can have their spirit killed instead of being made stronger or more mature. Thus the reason we let God be the surgeon in these situations.

  31. Dino Avatar

    From a Christian perspective and a Paschal perception of sufferings on the other hand, man passes through, as if it is not him; his desire for Christ, his healthy “hate” for himself (Luke 14:26) and utter concern with nothing but Christ approaches that formidable awareness of St Ignatius that death is being utterly trampled through this ‘death’. He rejoices constantly -even in Hell- because he rejoices not in his emotions or his surroundings etc but solely in Christ.
    Obviously, this world, this body and this selfishness we are immersed in obscures such a perception hugely, however, that is our calling. God called it a “cup”, a “chalice” to signify that (no matter how torturous) it somehow contains an inebriating joy.
    St Ignatius speaks of this most inspiringly.

  32. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I understand that. My point was that the aloneness is a matter of perception and a part of our estrangement from God.

  33. Dean Avatar

    Father Stephen…
    A beautiful article making Christ even more present to me in the liturgy. He comes and His presence is felt when we are present. The knowledge, the abiding presence, the appearing continue to hearts that are open. And in special moments our hearts burn within as they are manifestly cognizant of His presence…holy moments of pure grace and love. Also, the word -parousia- was especially meaningful to me…while as an evangelical I had always thought of His parousia only at His second coming. Thank you for opening to me this until now unknown use of the term. His parousia now present.

  34. Karen Avatar

    Many thanks, Father, (and others) for your prayers and for those for my mom. After three weeks in the hospital after her heart surgery (the first in ICU), she was released from the hospital yesterday to rehab (another answer to prayer). She’s in great spirits, has experienced no pain, and enjoyed being waited on in the hospital! 🙂 She credits her peace and steady progress in recovery to all the prayers going up for her. We are very grateful.

  35. John Grinnell Avatar
    John Grinnell

    ” For fear of the Jews”But they were Jews as was Jesus!

  36. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen,

    It’s been hard to keep up with you lately! You have written so many good articles that I am reading them in reverse order so that I can still participate in some of the current discussion. I cannot tell you how much your blog and this community mean to me – they have changed me profoundly.

    I was particularly interested in the comments above about praying for others. I have some “routines” of praying, often praying for people in clusters (e.g. my patients) or “for all the people I promised to pray for” when lists become distracting and/or fatigue takes over – because I know God already knows. The prayer is to keep my heart loving, not to exhaust myself or persuade God.

    If I might share a grace that has come to me: I have found a blessing in having a small (modified) prayer rope that I keep in my pocket. Praying with it regularly has helped me when I feel called to pray more deeply with someone, to “enter their suffering”. In the work I do, my suffering patient may not know that I am praying. But slipping my hand into my pocket and touching the prayer rope connects me with the Jesus prayer that has recently been in my heart. This often graces me with more patience and sometimes enables me to feel that Christ, that person and I are very close, even if the patient is sending me text messages from across town.

    To Him be glory who makes known His love in so many and varied ways…

    (Fr. Stephen – if my sharing here is inappropriately personal, please delete my comment. I struggled a bit with this and will respect your judgment.)

  37. Dean Avatar

    Good to see you commenting again. I too cherish this site and
    the community here. And I thought I was the only one fingering the prayer rope while in my pocket!:) Father Stephen, wonderful growth with the baptisms and chrismations this Lazarus Saturday. Blessed Holy Week.

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