Saturday, August 12, 2017

An Akathist for Matushka Olga

          Sanctity is self-authenticating.  That is, Christians know and recognize real holiness when they see it.  We do not need to wait for Synods of Bishops to officially declare someone a saint in a canonical act of glorification before we can know that he (or she) was a saint.  Indeed, it is because of this prior recognition of sanctity on the part of the Christian community that the official pronouncements of episcopal synods are made in the first place.  The bishops place their seal on their testimony of their flocks, as they are part of the community which recognizes that a saint has been among us.
This is the case with Matushka Olga of Alaska.  As the good Christian people of Alaska knew that the elder Herman was a saint while he walked among them, so they recognize the sanctity of Matushka Olga as well.  This is all the more so, since people all over the North American continent have recently experienced her miracles in visions, healings and encounters.  
The sanctity of Matushka Olga is significant for another reason as well.  When one surveys the list of saints in the Synaxarion, one might be tempted to conclude that sanctity is something of a male preserve, for men quite outnumber women in our hagiographies.  Also, monastics quite outnumber people “in the world”, so that it is even more tempting to conclude that sanctity is not really possible outside a monastery, or that people attempting to be holy in the world should strive to live as if they were monastics.  In short, our concept of holiness has become monasticized.  We do not quite believe that one can become a saint if one is married, having and raising children, and living as a layman in a parish. 
The life of Matushka Olga reveals that it is otherwise.  Sanctity is possible for anyone—even for married lay people living unexceptional lives in their parish, going to services, keeping the fasts, saying their prayers, serving on church committees and interacting with the other parishioners at the post-Liturgy coffee hour.  One does not need to be a celibate or a martyr or plant churches to be a saint.  God can take and use and transform any heart that He is given.  
          The following akathist to her was written at the request of Metropolitan Jonah of the OCA some years ago.  It has been looked at by the good clergy of Alaska who made some suggestions for revision, which I gratefully incorporated into the text.  I offer it here for any who might like to use it.  (A version containing footnotes of the Scriptures and other allusions cited is available upon request.)

An Akathist to Matushka Olga Michael

Kontakion 1 (Tone 4)

Our God who makes the moving curtain of the northern lights made you as a living light, shining in the far north and lighting up the desolate with His great beauty. Beholding this radiance, we your children lift up our voices and sing:  Rejoice, Matushka Olga, healer of the abused and broken!

Ikos 1

You laboured in the far north as a new Tabitha, making clothes to shelter the poor from the cold and warming their souls with your love.  We who endure the icy winds of this age also find shelter in your heavenly intercession and offer you these praises:
Rejoice, you that provided boots and parkas for the bodies of those in need!
Rejoice, you that still provide God’s grace for the souls of the afflicted!
Rejoice, for your ceaseless labour clothed many throughout your village!
Rejoice, for your glorious praises are sung by many throughout the world!
Rejoice, strong consolation of peace for widows and orphans!
Rejoice, invincible tower of defence for the crushed and despairing!
Rejoice, haven of peace in the tumultuous world! 
Rejoice, silent witness to the eternal Word!
Rejoice, Matushka Olga, healer of the abused and broken!

Kontakion 2

Born in the humble Yup’ik village of Kwethluk, you walked humbly with your God, doing justice and loving kindness, and were manifested to all as a real person.  Now that your God has exalted you to the heavenly heights, you hear from your earthly Church the song:  Alleluia!

Ikos 2

In your youth you married the village post-master and manager of the general store, supporting him by your prayers so that he became an archpriest.  As a matushka, you were a true mother to all you met, and we your children delight to run to you with these songs:
Rejoice, you whose maternal embrace comforts us in our pain!
Rejoice, you whose unfailing strength fills us with new hope!
Rejoice, for you dry our tears as a loving mother!
Rejoice, for you come to us with the strength of the heavenly Father!
Rejoice, you that sewed the priestly vestments of your husband that he might stand in beauty before God!
Rejoice, you that clothe us also in true holiness that we might stand unashamed in the Kingdom!
Rejoice, open door to the mercy of the Lord!
Rejoice, high wall of protection against the assaults of the enemy!
Rejoice, Matushka Olga, healer of the abused and broken!

Kontakion 3

As the handmaid of the Lord, you obeyed His first command and fruitfully multiplied, bearing thirteen children, loving each one and sorrowing over the ones who died.  Now that you stand with them in heaven, you hear from us your children still on earth the hymn:  Alleluia!

Ikos 3

Even during your earthly sojourn you were life-giving, bearing many children and filling their lives with the love of God.  Now that your sojourn has ended and you sing in the heavenly choir of the saints, you continue to give life to us your spiritual children, who thankfully offer these words: 
Rejoice, you that taught your earthly family the ways of the Lord!
Rejoice, you that watch over your spiritual family with the love of Christ!
Rejoice, you that received each of your children as the gift of God!
Rejoice, you that welcome all of us who come to you as your own children!
Rejoice, healing maternal embrace for the wounded!
Rejoice, victorious divine defense against the demons!
Rejoice, consolation of all your troubled children!
Rejoice, joy of all who seek your help!
Rejoice, Matushka Olga, healer of the abused and broken!

Kontakion 4

During your life you gave away your children’s clothing to the poor and taught them to preserve the dignity of the poor by not saying anything when they saw others wearing their clothes.  Now that you stand before God clothed in the vestments of glory, you cry aloud to Him:  Alleluia!

Ikos 4

You toiled ceaselessly, Matushka Olga, making traditional fur boots and parkas to raise funds for the needy throughout Alaska, so that your maternal care was felt by those far distant from you.  We needy ones also cry to you from the ends of the earth, taking refuge in your maternal intercession and offering you these hymns:
Rejoice, for the Lord has covered you with the robe of gladness!
Rejoice, for the Bridegroom adorns you with the jewels of His Kingdom!
Rejoice, you that clothe the poor children with the love of God!
Rejoice, you that restore their dignity before the eyes of men!
Rejoice, shining garment of our earthly vindication!
Rejoice, radiant vestment of our heavenly triumph!
Rejoice, boast of the widows!
Rejoice, song of the orphans!
Rejoice, Matushka Olga, healer of the abused and broken!

Kontakion 5

Like your Lord who wanted to gather Jerusalem’s children together the way a hen gathers her brood, so you also, Matushka Olga, sheltered the broken children who needed your care.  Now that you stand in glory as their strong intercessor, you hear from them the cry:  Alleluia!

Ikos 5 

Those defenseless ones who suffered abuse at the hands of men looked to you for healing, O blessed Matushka, and you never disappointed them, but comforted their hearts and filled them with hope.  We your children who also suffer our own wounds in the world turn to you with confidence and say:
Rejoice, you that give rest to the weary and heavy-laden!
Rejoice, you that fill the fallen with new strength!
Rejoice, for your counsel empowered the battered and despairing!
Rejoice, for your wisdom delivered them from all their fears!
Rejoice, for they looked to you and were made radiant!
Rejoice, for you took from them their guilt and shame!
Rejoice, ceaseless advocate before God for those molested and injured!
Rejoice, unconqueable stronghold for all needing refuge!
Rejoice, Matushka Olga, healer of the abused and broken!

Kontakion 6

Even when your children and their playmates were noisy and made a mess in your house, you never scolded them or raised your voice in anger to them, but your silence showed them your love and understanding.  Marveling in your divine patience and maternal compassion, we your children also cry:  Alleluia!

Ikos 6

None who suffered neglect could fail to find their help in you, O blessed Olga, for in your wisdom you knew how to feed the hungry as you preserved their failing self-esteem.  We who hunger and thirst for the righteousness of the Kingdom look up to you for aid, calling aloud:
Rejoice, for you fill the hungry with the good things of the Kingdom!
Rejoice, for you satisfy the poor with the bread of God!
Rejoice, for your prayers scatter the proud and end their oppression!
Rejoice, for your love exalts those of low degree and sets them on high!
Rejoice, you that lift up the heads of the ashamed and beaten!
Rejoice, you that heal of the hearts of the broken and weary!
Rejoice, inexhaustible abundance!
Rejoice, eternal banquet!
Rejoice, Matushka Olga, healer of the abused and broken!

Kontakion 7

You laboured as a midwife, O blessed Matushka, caring for the women of your village, and in your prophetic insight you knew when a woman was pregnant in her first weeks, even before she did.  Marveling at how God is wonderful in His saints, we give thanks to Him with the hymn:  Alleluia!

Ikos 7

The weak and vulnerable came to you for strength, O Matushka Olga, and you guided them through the sorrow of childbirth into joy.  We who walk through this life of sorrow and who seek the joy of the life to come offer you these songs: 
Rejoice, gentle healer, working to bring many newborn children into the world!
Rejoice, spiritual midwife, labouring through your prayers until Christ is formed in us!
Rejoice, for your heart knew when God had formed a child in the womb!
Rejoice, for your hands brought many children to the light!
Rejoice, hidden prophetess, deep in the counsels of God!
Rejoice, manifest sanctity, revealing the goodness of the Lord!
Rejoice, you whose patient labours filled many with joy!
Rejoice, you whose constant intercession bring many to the Kingdom!
Rejoice, Matushka Olga, healer of the abused and broken!

Kontakion 8

The old and ill found cause to praise God for you, O Matushka Olga, for you visited them in their infirmity and did their housework when they could not, quietly serving the Lord through His people.  Knowing that you continue to serve the Lord through your heavenly intercession, we lift up our prayers to you, singing aloud:  Alleluia!

Ikos 8

Like your Lord before you, O blessed one, you girded yourself in the radiant garments of humility and washed the feet of your fellow-servants, and inherited the blessing He promised for those who follow Him in humble service.  Now that He has exalted you on high, you hear our fervent praises:
Rejoice, you that visited orphans and widows in their affliction!
Rejoice, you that kept yourself unstained from the world!
Rejoice, you whose labours refreshed the hearts of the lowly!
Rejoice, you whose prayers lifted them up to God’s throne!
Rejoice, never-flagging zeal, aglow with the Spirit!
Rejoice, never-failing intercession, serving the Lord!
Rejoice, for you never ceased in your work of love!
Rejoice, for your toil always gave the weary new hope!
Rejoice, Matushka Olga, healer of the abused and broken!

Kontakion 9

God formed you for Himself to declare His praise, O blessed matushka, and you knew by heart all the words of the services for many feast days, Holy Week and Pascha, that you might lift up a ceaseless song to your Lord.  Joining you in singing His matchless praise, we also cry aloud:  Alleluia!

Ikos 9

God opened your lips that your mouth might declare His praise, and your lips poured forth His praise, since by His Spirit He taught you His statutes.  Like the Mother of God before you, your soul magnified the Lord, and we who have heard your song also rejoice in God our Saviour, saying to you:
Rejoice, you that dwell in the courts of the Lord!
Rejoice, you that sing for joy to the living God!
Rejoice, song of triumph, silencing the din of the demons!
Rejoice, eternal melody, joining with the heavenly choir!
Rejoice, for the words of the Church’s praises were written on your heart!
Rejoice, for the pure words of adoration came pouring from your lips!
Rejoice, you whose heart overflowed with good Word of God!
Rejoice, you who addressed your verses to the King!
Rejoice, Matushka Olga, healer of the abused and broken!

Kontakion 10

God, who sends forth His word and melts the ice, cared for you even in death, for even though you died in the frozen month of November, a warm wind blew in and melted the river, enabling many of your friends to come to your funeral unexpectedly and allowing your grave to be easily dug.  Then, after they departed, the cold returned, the river froze and the ground hardened.  Observing the care the Creator lavishes on His saints, we sinners lift up the cry:  Alleluia!

Ikos 10 

When the mourners at your funeral escorted your holy body to the graveyard, they saw that a flock of summer birds flew overhead, as if joining in the sacred procession, though after the funeral feast the unseasonable birds were seen no more.  As the created order joins in honouring God’s saint, we too hasten to add our praises: 
Rejoice, for your whole life was a witness to God’s healing love!
Rejoice, for in even your death you testified to His sovereignty over creation!
Rejoice, you that gathered all to the Lord by your humble acts of service!
Rejoice, you that assembled all to worship Him at your final appearance on earth!
Rejoice, for your prayers bring God’s warmth to our souls!
Rejoice, for your presence banishes icy fear from our hearts!
Rejoice, fire of love in the bitter Arctic snows!
Rejoice, pillar of light in the long night of the north!
Rejoice, Matushka Olga, healer of the abused and broken!

Kontakion 11

The villagers who sang hymns from house to house at Christmas-time and who sang “Memory Eternal” at the homes of those who died the past year refused to let you die from their hearts, O blessed Olga, for even twenty years after your repose, they still come to sing “Memory Eternal” before your empty house.  We who love you also join them in their ceaseless devotion, singing to you the hymn:  Alleluia!  

Ikos 11

Those who carried the Christmas star from house to house, illuminating the night with their carols, still carry you in their heart, Matushka Olga, as they stand in song before the home you vacated when your soul left us for the mansions of heaven.  As the north star shines brightly among the stars in heaven, so you stand among the choir of the saints, and hear from us these songs:
Rejoice, you whose healing love binds us to you with the cords of devotion!
Rejoice, you whose gentle touch looses us from the bonds of pain!
Rejoice, for you never forsake your people!
Rejoice, for your people ever turn to you for aid!
Rejoice, ever-present bulwark in the midst of your church!
Rejoice, never-failing intercessor before the throne of God!
Rejoice, song of joy in the night!
Rejoice, flame of hope in the morning!
Rejoice, Matushka Olga, healer of the abused and broken!

Kontakion 12

In your maternal love you continue to care for us, Matushka Olga, praying for our souls and granting peace through your holy icon.  Thankful to God for your miracles among us, we offer up the doxology:  Alleluia! 

Ikos 12

Those abused from childhood know you as a mighty healer, O blessed matushka.  You appeared in a dream to one undergoing counseling for abuse, leading her through a forest, massaging her like a midwife so that all her years of painful trauma poured out from her, leaving her restored and joyful in spirit.  Exulting in your healing love, we offer you these praises:
Rejoice, companion of the Theotokos, granting us maternal protection!
Rejoice, heir of St. Herman, shining forth from Alaska!
Rejoice, you that straighten the tangled cords of the darkened past!
Rejoice, you that give to the hurt and fallen a radiant future!
Rejoice, for you dry the tears of children!
Rejoice, for you drench us with the joy of Christ!
Rejoice, peace for the traumatized!
Rejoice, wholeness for the wounded!
Rejoice, Matushka Olga, healer of the abused and broken!

Kontakion 13

O blessed Matushka Olga, accept these songs of us who trust in you, and in the compassion which you have always shown us, rescue us from distress, pain and despair. Fill us up with the light of Christ, so that we may sing with you to God the eternal hymn of victory:  Alleluia!
(thrice; then:)

Then: Ikos 1
You laboured in the far north as a new Tabitha, making clothes to shelter the poor from the cold and warming their souls with your love.  We who endure the icy winds of this age also find shelter in your heavenly intercession and offer you these praises:
Rejoice, you that provided boots and parkas for the bodies of those in need!
Rejoice, you that still provide God’s grace for the souls of the afflicted!
Rejoice, for your ceaseless labour clothed many throughout your village!
Rejoice, for your glorious praises are sung by many throughout the world!
Rejoice, strong consolation of peace for widows and orphans!
Rejoice, invincible tower of defence for the crushed and despairing!
Rejoice, haven of peace in the tumultuous world! 
Rejoice, silent witness to the eternal Word!
Rejoice, Matushka Olga, healer of the abused and broken!

And again: Kontakion 1 
Our God who makes the moving curtain of the northern lights made you as a living light, shining in the far north and lighting up the desolate with His great beauty. Beholding this radiance, we your children lift up our voices and sing:  Rejoice, Matushka Olga, healer of the abused and broken!

Prayer to Matushka Olga

O blessed Matushka Olga, hear our prayer as we lift up our hearts to you, trusting in the power of your ceaseless intercession.  Even as you spread the warmth of your maternal love over the souls of the needy, abused and broken, so warm our souls also, healing our pain and bringing us the love of Christ.  Through your prayers, may we walk in the paths of peace, pleasing our Lord and glorifying His Name, and so finally fail not to enter into the joy of His eternal Kingdom, praising our God forever before His throne:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.  Amen.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Part Two: Not Like Religion - the Christian Calendar

          In a previous post we looked at the difference between the Christian Faith and all the other religions, and suggested that the main difference lay in the fact that Christianity was not a religion, but rather the saving presence of Christ in the world, and through His Spirit, our participation in the powers of the age to come.  The idea that Christianity is not a religion comes as a surprise to many, since Christianity shares many external features with the religions of the world.  One of these features is the use of a sacred calendar.  Does our use of a Christian calendar mean that Christianity is a religion after all?
            At first glance, our present use of a calendar seems somewhat problematic.  The earliest Christians seem to have had no calendar apart from the weekly Sunday.  As Jews they would meet with their fellow-Jews on the Sabbath and the other Jewish holy days, and on Sunday (called by them “the first day of the week”) they would gather with their fellow-Christians for the weekly Eucharist.  Thus Sunday, the day when Christ the Lord rose from the dead and first appeared to them, became “the Lord’s Day” par excellence, the day of Christian assembly.  But that seems to have been the totality of the apostolic Christian calendar.  The other Jewish feasts they kept (such as Pentecost; compare Acts 20:16, 1 Corinthians 16:8) they kept as Jews and with other Jews.  A distinctly Christian calendar as such did not yet exist.
            More than this, Paul has harsh words for his converts who insisted on keeping a calendar.  Thus though he regards the keeping or non-keeping of holy days a matter of complete indifference (Romans 14:5), he chides the Galatians for their new practice of observing days, months, seasons and years, wondering fitfully if perhaps he had laboured in vain over them (Galatians 4:10-11).  He insists that the Colossians must not let anyone act as their judge regarding festivals, new moons or Sabbath days (Colossians 2:15) and insist that these be kept.  Here we have to free ourselves from our secular experience of calendar “holidays” and understanding the significance of Jewish or pagan “holy days”, for a holy day was not a holiday.  A holiday, as experienced in our contemporary society, is a day chosen more or less arbitrarily.  In Canada, for example, we keep the last Monday preceding May 25 as the holiday “Victoria Day” (after Queen Victoria), but the date itself is not fixed—this year the date was May 22, whereas last year 2016 it was May 23.  And governments can invent new holidays if they choose, to give workers a break from work in the form of federal or provincial “Stat” holidays.   In other words, there is nothing inherently special about the day itself; the date of the holiday is only significant after it was arbitrarily chosen to bear certain (usually fairly minimal) significance.
            It was otherwise with holy days in Judaism or in the pagan world.  There the day was holy in itself, and could not be arbitrarily moved.  The weekly Sabbath was holy because it was the seventh day, and a Jew could not move the Sabbath occasionally to work on Saturday and keep Monday instead as the Sabbath because it was more convenient.  That is why Paul objected to his converts keeping calendar like they did—they were acknowledging thereby that the days were holy in themselves for Christians, when in fact they were not.  Paul famously said that “neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Galatians 6:15).  He had no problem with circumcision so long as one did not ascribe ultimate or saving significance to it, and thus he had Timothy circumcised for reasons of practical evangelism (Acts 16:3).  It was only when someone ascribed such religious significance to circumcision (as the Galatians did) that Paul violently objected to it (Galatians 5:2).  It is the same, I suggest, with the use of a calendar—one could paraphrase Paul and say “neither a calendar counts for anything, nor non-use of a calendar, but a new creation”.
            This brings into focus the difference between our present use of a calendar and the religious use of calendar in Judaism or paganism.  That is, unlike Judaism, we Christians do not say that any day is holy in itself.  Our holy days are holy by virtue of their participation in the Eucharist on those days, and the days are chosen with a certain amount of arbitrariness.  For example, we keep Annunciation as a holy day on March 25, but in our earlier history we commemorated the Marian event on other dates, such as in the weeks prior to Christmas.  The addition of holy days to the Christian calendar such as feast of the Transfiguration did not occur because we discovered anything particularly sacred about August 6, but because we decided that was the day we wanted to celebrate the Transfiguration.  Confirmation of this may be seen in the (admittedly regrettable) use of two calendars, “Old” and “New”:  what matters is not the holy day itself, but what one does on that day.  One may prefer the Old Calendar to the New (or vice-versa), but the preference is based on other considerations than the perceived holiness of the days themselves.  Those wanting to celebrate the Transfiguration on August 19 do not say that the day itself is holier than August 6, but that the calendar system as a whole is to be preferred for historical reasons.
            Christians therefore use a calendar not because we think that one day is holier in itself than another day, but because we want to celebrate certain events together and therefore need to agree about when we can do it.  If I choose to celebrate our Lord’s Transfiguration on August 6 and you choose to celebrate it on September 6 we cannot celebrate the feast together.  The use of a calendar therefore expresses the Church’s corporate nature and enables us to worship as a body.  What matters is our corporate celebration of the feasts, not the date chosen for the celebration.  The day of August 6 (or August 19) is indeed holy—not in itself, but because that is the day on which the Church serves the feast of the Transfiguration.  And because our corporate nature matters and rejection of this unity involves a sin against love (i.e. schism), one is not free to reject the Church’s calendar or set up one’s own.  The Church has chosen August 6/19 as the date for assembling for the feast of the Transfiguration, and those who consider themselves her children must keep the feast.  Setting up a rival calendar is like setting up a rival altar—it involves a kind of temporal schism, and must be avoided.
            Thus the Church has developed a calendar and continues to use it to express her corporate nature and celebrate the saving significance of certain feasts.  But that does not mean we ascribe holiness to the days themselves.  Ours is not a religious calendar, but a Eucharistic one.

Next in the series: Christian sacred space

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Part One: Not Like Religion - the Christian Clergy

           According to Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Orthodox Christianity is not a religion.  In his For the Life of the World, he wrote, “Christianity is in a profound sense the end of all religion…Nowhere in the New Testament is Christianity presented as a cult or as a religion.  Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man.  But Christ, who is both God and man, has broken down the wall between man and God.  He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion.”    
            This concept is not new, but is found throughout the New Testament.  Christ Himself, though firmly anchored in the Second Temple Judaism of His day and keeping the Jewish Law, pointed to something beyond it—the “new life” to which Fr. Alexander referred, a life given by the Spirit (John 3:5-8, 7:37-39).  His followers would no longer need a temple with its priesthood and sacrifices to commune with God, whether that temple were on Gerizim or Jerusalem (John 4:21-23); His own flesh would be the new Temple (John 2:21).  In that new life, Sabbath restrictions would no longer be ultimate (Matthew 12:16, John 5:8-11); nor would the food laws restricting certain foods (Mark 7:19).  While living as a Jew faithful to the Old Covenant, Christ offered a new wine, a drink too potent to be contained within the old wineskins of that Covenant.  The new wineskins of the Kingdom would be required (Mark 2:22).
            This fundamental insight is the source of St. Paul’s rejection of Judaism.  Judaism, though divine in origin, was now no longer adequate because Judaism was a religion.  Like all religions of the world, it was characterized by certain fundamental concepts and dichotomies.  It had a priesthood which offered animal sacrifices—and the rule that priests alone could offer these cultic sacrifices.  It knew of sacred space—the courts of the Mosaic shrine, and later of the Temple, and places to which only certain persons could go (such as the inner Holy of Holies).  It had certain categories such as “holy-clean-unclean”, and said that the unclean could not offer holy sacrifices until they were cleansed.  It also used the category of “clean-unclean” for certain foods, outlawing the consumption of certain animals.  Using a lunar calendar, it declared certain days were holy—i.e. holy in themselves—days such as the Sabbath, the full moon, the Passover.  These things were not unique to Judaism.  All religions of the world used the same basic categories.  They were not categories of Judaism, but of religion itself.  Religions might differ about which days were holy and which foods were allowed and who was allowed to function as a sacrificing priest, but they agreed that such categories were basic and constitutive.
            Such categories St. Paul termed stoicheia (Galatians 4:3, Colossians 2:8, 2:20).  They were not wrong in themselves, but represented a retreat and renunciation from the new life given freely in Christ apart from them.  Thus St. Paul taught that it did not matter whether or not one regarded a particular day as intrinsically holier than another (Romans 14:5), and that no food was unclean in itself (Romans 14:14, 1 Timothy 4:4-5).  He regarded the Galatians’ adherence to the Jewish calendar as an alarming development (Galatians 4:10-11), and said that the Colossians’ submission to the decrees about unclean foods was unworthy of those who “had died with Christ to the stoicheia of the world” (Colossians 2:20-23).  Religion was for the spiritually immature, for children, those who were no better than slaves (Galatians 4:1-3).  But now that Christ had come to redeem us, we were such slaves no longer, no longer under any religion with its fundamental categories.  In Christ mankind comes of age, and no longer needs religion.  We can have the Holy Spirit instead, who is the pledge and participation in the powers of the age to come.
            It is easy to misinterpret Christianity as a religion like any other.  For all major religions have books (the Torah, the Bible, the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita); they have officiating clergy (Rabbis, priests, imams), they have buildings in which to worship (synagogues, churches, mosques, temples).  There is much commonality among their teachings—all say that kindness is preferable to cruelty, and that people should not murder each other or commit adultery.  It is too easy therefore for those studying Comparative Religion to imagine that Christianity is comparable to the others.  But, as we have seen, it is not so.  The things which seem to be the same and comparable to things in other religions really are not.  There is a superficial similarity, of course.  But the inner and essential reality is different, just as there is a superficial similarity in the bodies of all men, and the real difference between them is found in their souls. 
            One of the apparent similar things between Christianity and religion is in the fact that both Christianity and the religions have a class of people who officiate when everyone comes together, and who perform certain set liturgical rites.  Often the term for them is “priests”.  In Judaism and Greco-Roman paganism, their function was especially located in the offering of sacrifices.  It is significant, therefore, that the term “priest” (Greek iereus; Hebrew cohen) is never applied to the Christian clergy.  They are called “elders/ presbyters” (Greek presbyteros) or “overseers/ bishops” (Greek episkopos) or “shepherds” (Greek poimen)—but never priests.  The Jewish priests are referred to by that term (Acts 6:7), but not the Christian clergy.  In the Church that title is reserved for Jesus Christ alone—He alone is the first, true, and only priest in the Church.  And one can see why—a priest is one who offers a sacrifice, and the only true sacrifice that avails to save and transform is the sacrifice of Christ’s body upon the Cross.  All the other sacrifices of the Law were mere prophecies, pledges, prayers for a cleansing that would only come later.  The Jewish priesthood—and, taking a wider more global view, all the pagan priesthoods of the world’s religions—found fulfillment in Him.  He is the true priest, who offered Himself as the true sacrifice (Hebrews 8:1-5).  Those who have liturgical or pastoral responsibility in His Church are not, properly and strictly speaking, priests.  They do not offer a sacrifice like the other Jewish and pagan priests offer sacrifices, for the only sacrifice we need has already been offered.
            It is true, of course, that the term “priest” has been applied to the celebrants of the Eucharist—first to the bishop (when he was the main celebrant) and then to the presbyters (when they later took over this function).  That poetic attribution of title was not incorrect, for it was based upon the insight that the celebrant offers by anamnesis or commemoration the one true sacrifice of Christ.  The celebrants were thus priests not in their own right, but by virtue of their role as liturgical heads of the royal priesthood, the Body of Christ our high priest.  Referring to them as “priests” meant only that they presided over the Church’s sacrificial anamnesis, not that they slaughtered animals and offered them up with their blood in sacrifice upon stone altars.  (That was the point of calling the Eucharist “a bloodless sacrifice”.)  Christianity is not a religion, and its officiating clergy are not strictly speaking, priests.  Their priesthood consists of their calling to manifest through the Church’s corporate liturgical worship, the true and saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  They are priests, not in their own right, but through their ordained participation in the heavenly priesthood of their Master.  The coincidence of title between the Christian priests and the priests of the Jewish religion should not mislead us into thinking that Christianity is just another religion.  Christianity is not a religion, but the sacramental presence of the incarnate God on the earth.

Next in the series:  the Christian calendar