“‘My counsels are not as your counsels, neither are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord. ‘But as heaven is distant from earth, so is My way distant from your ways, and your thoughts from My mind” (Is. 55:8-9).
The ways, counsels, and thoughts of fallen man are as distant from the way of the Gospel as heaven is from the earth.
When a person enters into Christ Jesus, he is called upon to set aside the fallen mind of the flesh and to acquire the mind of Christ the Lord. To those still wandering in the dark shadowy reasonings of the fallen mind, the mind of Christ – the way of the Gospel – appears as foolishness.
Thus, when it comes to spiritual Truths and realities, a fleshly — worldly — minded person cannot understand them whatsoever. In fact, he will probably scoff at and deride them.
St. Paul clearly teaches, “We received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, so that we might know the things that were freely given to us by God. These are the things we proclaim, not in words which human wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual things” (1 Cor. 2:12-13).
The Mysteries of the Faith are only understood by a mind being renewed through the Holy Spirit. These Mysteries are in no way subject to worldly “wisdom.” In fact, we as Christians are called to compare spiritual things with spiritual things. We do not compare, that is evaluate and discern, spiritual things by worldly standards.
Bl. Theophylact comments on the above verse, “He names human wisdom the wisdom of the world … ‘the Spirit,’ he says, ‘is light, and we have received this light, so that, being illumined by Him, we might see the things that were hitherto hidden.”
As the Psalmist says, “In Thy light we shall see light” (Ps. 35:10/36:9). All things must be understood in the Light of God. How much more those things which pertain to the holy. The only wisdom that may be used to understand and know them is that of the Revelation of Jesus Christ.
St. Paul continues, “Now the material-minded person does not receive the things of God’s Spirit because they are foolishness to him, and such a person cannot know these things because they are spiritually discerned. On the other hand, the spiritual person discerns all things and is not subject to mere human opinions. Truly, who has known the mind of the Lord to instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:14-16).
The Orthodox Christian Faith is not of men, it is of the revelation of Jesus Christ, the God-Man (cf. Gal. 1:12). The worldly mind has no place in it; neither can the Mysteries of the Faith be evaluated by such a mind. The opinions of the world matter not to the Truth of the Faith. The only way to rightly comprehend the Faith is to hearken and hear the counsels of spiritual men; comparing the spiritual with the spiritual. Of course, each believer must be striving to be being enlightened and filled by the Holy Spirit himself.
Even the simplest of true Christians is wiser than the “wisest” of this world because he has God for his teacher.
This is one of the reasons the saints call the true spiritual life, “the Science of sciences.” That is, “the Knowledge of knowledges.”
We are called to evaluate the spiritual and holy things by spiritual and holy standards, not those of this fallen world. Bl. Theophylact instructs, “If certain spiritual questions should emerge, we compare them, that is to say, we resolve them through certain other spiritual concepts or stories.”
With this basic guiding spiritual principle in place the Christian of the current age may evaluate events that transpire around him.
We may even ponder, at current are we evaluating holy things spiritually or according to the world?
One hears of the forbidding to venerate with a kiss holy icons, the holy cross, and so forth. Or if these holy things are venerated, then they are instantly drenched with a bleach mixture or some sort if anti-bacterial solution. I’ve heard of people that receive a small chemical burn on their lips after proper veneration due to these chemical baths.
Or what is the place of the holy Temple? Is it bound by the need to wear masks and social distance? At times even by clergy and servers in the altar itself? Is it just a common place? To evaluate the reality of the holy Temple, according to the principle outlined above, we, as Christians, must first turn to the spiritual testimonies on such a subject. That is the living tradition of the Body of Christ, and its sure voices, the saints. This wisdom should be the foremost and explicit standard used to guide a Christian response.
Clearly, it is beyond the task of a blog post to exhaustively explore such a topic. Yet, here I will highlight the teachings of one very respected and revered saint on the topic of the holy Temple and the services therein. His view, indisputably, faithfully reflects the mind of the Church. The spiritual man to whom we will turn for guidance is St. John of Kronstadt (all subsequent quotes from the saint are from “My Life in Christ,” Holy Trinity Monastery, 1994. Page numbers will be provided after each quote.)
Thus, let us study the science of the Divine service, as the saint calls it.
“Those who attend the Divine service of the Orthodox Church, and study the science of the Divine service, must bear in mind that the service here on earth is a preparation for all-rejoicing service to God in heaven” (pg. 328).
The Temple and the service performed in it are preparations for service to God in heaven. They are icons of heavenly realities. As icon they convey to us the grace of the prototype, which is heavenly worship.
“When you are in the temple, remember that you are in the living presence of the Lord God, that you stand before His face, before His eyes, in the living presence of the Mother of God, of holy angels, and of the first-born of the Church – that is, our forefathers, the prophets, Apostles, hierarchs, martyrs, reverend fathers, the righteous, and all the saints. Always have the remembrance and consciousness of this when you are in the temple, and stand with devotion, taking part willingly and with all your heart in the Divine services” (pg. 283).
In a completely unique manner on earth, the entering into a true Christian Temple is an entering into the living presence of the Lord Himself. Indeed, a Christian, standing reverently in prayer in the Temple is in the presence of heaven itself. Thus, the Temple is an exceptional manifest of heaven on earth. Of course, this is not magic. The believer must approach with a heart full of true faith and acquire eyes to see.
The above quote from St. John brings to mind the imagery used by St. Paul in the Scriptures, “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and unto innumerable hosts of angels, to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, to God the judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant” (Heb. 12:22-24).
This imagery of gathering in the presence of the Lord Himself is reiterated countless times by St. John. On earth in the church Temple, heaven and earth are united in an exclusive manner.
“The Liturgy is the supper, the table of God’s love to mankind. Around the Lamb of God upon the holy diskos all are at this time assembled – the living and the dead, saints and sinners, the Church triumphant and the Church militant” (pg. 197).
“In Church I am truly as if in heaven upon earth; here I see the images of the Lord, of the Most Pure Mother of God, of the holy Angels; here is God’s throne, here is the life-giving cross, here is the eternal Gospel , that word of God, by which all things were created; here are the images of the Saints; I feel myself in the visible presence of God, of His Mother of the heavenly powers, and of all the Saints. This is truly heaven on earth: here I know that I am, and feel myself indeed a member of Christ and of His Church, especially during the celebration of the most heavenly Liturgy, and the communion of the Holy Mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ. O, how I ought to live, think, feel, and speak in order to worthily be in this heaven on earth” (pg. 325)!
Can there be any doubt that the saint understands the Temple to be a totally unique place, indeed it is an earthly-heaven and a heavenly-earth. Mystically present are all the powers of heaven and the very throne of God. See how many times he calls it “heaven on earth!” I wonder, is heaven subject to the CDC or the WHO? Do Christians need to protect themselves when entering into the heavenlies? (In this I’m not advocating to senselessly throw precaution to the wind.)
And again the saint confesses, “The Divine Liturgy is truly a heavenly service on earth, during which God Himself, in a particular, immediate, and most close manner, is present and dwells with men, being Himself the invisible Celebrant of the service, offering and being offered. There is nothing upon earth holier, higher, grander, more solemn, more life-giving than the Liturgy. The temple at this particular time, becomes an earthly heaven; those who officiate represent Christ Himself, the Angels, the Cherubim, Seraphim, and Apostles” (pg. 390).
The saint, speaking with the spiritual mind of Christ, tells us that in the Temple, most acutely during the Divine Liturgy, God Himself is present in “a particular, immediate, and most close manner.” There is nothing, nothing, on earth holier. Nothing. In it, most expressly during the Liturgy, a heavenly service is being offered. Is it then possible to treat the Temple as if it were just another building?
Those who officiate represent Christ Himself, the Angels, and so forth. And thus, are we masking Christ and the Angels as they minister in the holy Temple for fear they will transmit sickness to us, for we are masking those that stand as their icons?
“O, holy temple, how good, how sweet it is to pray in thee! For where can there be ardent prayer if not in thy walls, before the throne of God, and before the face of Him Who sitteth upon it” (pg. 291)?
To pray truly in the Temple is to be before the face of the Living God Himself. The divine grace and light that emanates from His face drives out all corruption, it purifies the very space and air of the Temple.
“Lord! I confess to Thee that neither in the country nor in the forest are to be found life, and health, and vigor of the spiritual and material powers, but with Thee in the temple, and above all, during the Liturgy and in Thy Holy Life-giving Mysteries! O, greatest blessedness of the Holy Mysteries” (pg. 287)!
In the Temple, with the Lord, are found only “life, health, and vigor of both the spiritual and material powers.” First and foremost the Christian must seek health and well-being in the Temple before the face of the Lord. Here, in a primary sense, is the source and fountain of all true health. (The medical being important but secondary to the primary source of God’s grace. One might say it is only by God’s grace that medicine could impart physical health. I do not take the saint as totally negating the possible health benefits of being in nature, the example he puts forth, but rather he is drawing the believer back to primary source. To what are we looking first and foremost?) Alas, would that we would say today, “I confess to Thee, that neither in government mandates nor in CDC guidelines – mask and social distancing and vaccines – are to be found life, and health, and vigor … but with Thee in the temple!”
“By means of its Divine service, the Orthodox Church educates us for heavenly citizenship” (pg. 342).
What is done in the Temple, and what is the practice and performed in it, is extremely important because it is an icon of the heavenlies. When a believer enters in, he is instructed by the services and very structure and practices of the Temple of how to be in the heavenlies, before the Throne of God. Indisputably the Temple is an icon which must be diligently preserved with all faithfulness, for in it, more than anywhere else, the believer is taught how to be in heaven. A Christian should strive to act in the Temple as if he were in heaven itself before the Throne of God (indeed, mystically he is!). Thus, if something would not be done in heaven it seems clear it should not be done in the Temple.
“Does not coldness towards public worship, towards Divine services, proceed from the fact that some do not understand it, and that others, although they have studied the science of Divine service, have been taught it dryly, without examples, only according to the understanding? Whilst the Divine service, being the high contemplation of the mind, is at the same time, pre-eminently, the peace, sweetness and blessedness of the heart” (pg. 278).
The true Christian Temple and the services offered in it are living acts. It is good indeed to remind ourselves, in these times, of the utter holiness of the Temple but moreover we must fervently recapture in our hearts a deep burning love, zeal, and reverence for this holiness. Otherwise we are in danger of treating it as if it were simply something of this fallen world, and thereby letting our hearts grow cold to its transcendent holiness.
The Science of the Temple and the Divine Services is indeed a Science of sciences, that which surpasses the material sciences of this mortal age, as important and useful as they may be in our fallen times in their proper context. Everything done and practiced in the services must be weighted not according to lesser science, which speaks only of physical things, but first and foremost to the spiritual. All things must proceed from that starting point. For to alter the spiritual Science to conform to the material is to attempt to conform that which is heavenly to the earthly.
- For more posts that explore the Orthodox understanding of the Temple and Divine Services, click here.