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Help in defending the traditional Church rituals - Louis - 15-10-2008

Dear all,

I am currently having a debate with a friend on a facebook (which I again recommend that people sign up to an excellent place to spread information about British Orthodoxy and meet other Christians) group, which involves a number of people. The debate involves such a statement as this:

//I am a huge fan of the ceremony and rituals in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, they are far more in touch with the ordinary man and have been a part of church tradition from the founding by Christ as well as being sanctioned in the Church written Bible.//

Puritanical type:
'Those rituals are idolatry. They were not SANCTIFIED by Christ go ahead and show me where they are sanctified. Communion itself is as well as baptism but I could have some brethren at my house and pour wine and break bread and perform communion in prayer and devotion to the God of our folk and moreso because I and they would be as equals rather than with the priests and whomever calling the shots having me kneel before them etc etc.'

I have never been one to study theology in depth like Mr. Charmley and you other chaps and ladies and I am afraid I have left my orthodox books at home (I am at university). I could attempt to argue with this person but my answers will not be satisfactory as they could be. I wonder if you could provide me with some easily readible assistance and information to counter such accusations.

Many thanks,


- Simon - 17-10-2008

The following is a paper I wrote at uni as part of a theology & ministry degree. I did subsequently slightly re-write it as an article for The Glastonbury Review but I can't locate that version at the moment. Hoepfully it may offer a few helpful thoughts



This is what I wear - and what I don't wear - to celebrate the Divine Liturgy (the Mass). Alb, stole, (deacon's) crown - this is what I wear. Shoes - are what I don't wear. The whiteness of the alb is, of course, symbolic of purity, and that it is covered with crosses is symbolic, and is a reminder, of from whence that purity comes. I am surrounded by the cross of Christ: before me(chest) , behind me(back), above me(crown), on my right(sleeve) and on my left(sleeve) - only on this basis do I dare to enter the sanctuary for the Holy Liturgy. And only on this basis do I dare to lead the congregation in prayer: I stand with hand raised, holding my stole, covered with crosses - and red, the colour of blood. "Nothing in my hand I bring. Simply to Thy cross I cling."(1)

Shoes should be removed for prayer and must be removed to receive Holy Communion. And shoes must be removed to enter the sanctuary. It is a sign of reverence. As God called to Moses out of the Burning Bush: "Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground."(2) And where one stands to pray or to receive Holy Communion is always holy ground - as is also the sanctuary, the Holy Place.

But are such material things as clothes and such physical things as feet relevant to spirituality? For there is, in Western Christendom, a long-standing and widely accepted view that spirit is good but matter is bad - the spirit is good and holy but the body, the physical, is bad or, at any rate, not quite okay, not 'nice'... The spirit is spiritual but the body is physical - not spiritual. This distinction between the physical and material on the one hand and the spiritual on the other stretches back through Luther, Calvin and Zwingli to Augustine - and back beyond Augustine to Plato. Ancient it may be but Orthodox it is not. It is rejected by the Orthodox.

"God likes matter; He invented it."(3) "And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good."(4) Or, as we could translate Genesis from the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) "it was altogether good and beautiful." But is there not the Fall? Yes, there is the doctrine of the Fall - but there is also the doctrine of the Incarnation: God became Man. God the Son, in the words of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, "was made man." God was made man. God was made material. God was made physical. For to be man includes being material, being physical. Given such doctrines as the Creation and the Incarnation Orthodox Christians consider the material and physical to be spiritual.

So we Orthodox Christians involve our bodies (hands held up in prayer, bowing, crossing ourselves, fasting) as well as our spirits in our spirituality. And we use material things too - both clothes and many other things: bread and wine, water, oil, wood and paint, candles, incense...

I will share just one lesson (of many) that candles teach us: they burn completely away and keep nothing back, they give themselves completely. That is one reason we light candles before the icons of saints. Each saint was "a burning and a shining light"(5), not holding back but giving himself up to the glory of God. This is how we too should live for God.

Incense teaches the same lesson. To give off the sweet smell and to give off the smoke, the incense burns away. It is consumed. As the smoke rises upwards so our eyes have a tendency to follow its upward movement, to rise with it. And our hearts have a tendency to follow our eyes. "Set your affections on things above, not on things of the earth."(6) And with our hearts rise our prayers. "And the smoke of the incense...with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand."(7)

Sometimes I can still smell the incense on my cassock days after I've been to Church - the smell is still there from Sunday. When we've been to Church people should be able to notice it for days as well.

Here is a black American's first encounter with Saint Moses the Black: "I turned, and to my right was a magnificent five-foot icon of Saint Moses... He looked into my heart with piercing eyes; his hair was like lamb's wool and his nostrils flared. His face was proof that hell has no power that heaven cannot heal... The face...shone like the sun, and his upturned hands were those of one who beheld the face of Jesus. I was stunned by its terrible beauty and other-worldliness... I wanted to cry or shout for joy. And for the first time in my life, I felt the power of the Church eternal."(8) And he felt that power through an encounter with an icon - wood and paint (though also much more than wood and paint).

The ancient practice of pilgrimage involves both the physical journey of the pilgrim and, frequently, concludes with the pilgrim in the presence of the physical remains of a saint.

One pilgrim recorded the "profound impact" on him of his visit to Russian monastic caves where thousands of Christians were buried: "I found myself touching the sandal of a monk who died in the seventeenth century... I wanted to sit there the rest of the day...bathing my soul with the grace-filled presence of so many lives who died to this world to live to Christ. I prayed for the grace of God to carry this moment with me... Words cannot describe that moment in my life. It was an encounter with spiritual reality."(9)

Another recorded his visit to the shrine of Saint John Maximovitch, Archbishop of San Francisco: he knelt on the marble floor, pressing his forehead against the sarcophagus covered by the saint's mantle. "And as I did so, I felt a warm bright light come on inside my heart..."(10)

When I visited the glorious shrine of Saint Mark (the Gospel writer) at Saint Mark's Cathedral, Cairo, I was overcome, tears welled up in my eyes - but I restrained them and, I suppose, cut short the experience. But God is merciful and the next day when visiting the simple, plain tomb at the old cathedral where eight nineteenth and twentieth century Coptic Patriarchs are buried, I had the same experience. Again I was overcome, tears welled up in my eyes - and, I regret to say, again I restrained the experience, I curtailed the blessing. I know not whether to marvel more at the mercy of God twice blessing me or at my sin in twice resisting! But note, in each case, the close physical proximity between spiritual experience and the physical relics.

Another physical spirituality is the Jesus Prayer in which our praying and our breathing are united. We breathe in Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God and out have mercy on me, and in again Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God and out again have mercy on me. (In)Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God (and out)have mercy on me. We give our hands the work of counting the prayers on prayer-ropes - we occupy our hands, an established aid to concentration. And so we bring back our scattered and wandering thoughts, and centre ourselves and still ourselves: "Be still, and know that I am God."(11)

Another way we still and centre ourselves is by doing something as simple (and as profound) as making the sign of the cross.

"To make the sign of the to do something startlingly beautiful. The beauty and the meaning are united in the act. The horizontal and vertical lines 'cross' each other in exact mathematical symmetry. As priestly hands trace that vertical and that horizontal, the soul is imprinted with a full, perfect and sufficient satisfaction. The act has physical grace and heavenly benediction in it. The movement of the hands reverts to a still centre, simultaneously physical and spiritual. We are stilled and centred."(12)

And when we cross ourselves we are reminded of the first and great commandment: to love the Lord our God with all our mind(touch forehead), with all our heart(touch chest) and with all our strength(shoulder to shoulder).

Yes, we Orthodox involve our bodies in our spirituality - we involve all five physical senses: sound, touch, taste, smell, sight. We hear the chants, prayers, Bible. We kiss the icons and the cross. We taste the Bread which is the Body and the Wine which is the Blood. We smell the incense. We see the incense smoke, the candle flames, the icons, the beauty and glory of the vestemnts... We hear, touch, taste, smell and see - and we know not whether we are in heaven or on earth.(13)

The ignorant may reject all these (and many other) externals as 'smells and bells'. But then the ignorant do not appreciate how Orthodoxy "involves a system which contemporary psychologists call a "feed-back loop." By attention to externals, we affect internals; and by the restored internal state, external attributes are affected. Endlessly linked to one another, internals and externals interact with one another to the point that they are no longer separate. The humble spirit manifests itself in the humble face; the sweet countenance in the sweetness of spirit; and the contrite heart within a contrite act. Grace brings what is inside out and what is outside in."(14)

(1580 words)


1 Augustus Toplady Rock of ages, in Hymns Ancient and Modern (Standard

2 Exodus 3:5 (A.V.)

3 attributed to C.S.Lewis (but no source noted) in Jordan Bajis Common Ground -
an introduction to Eastern Christianity for the American Christian, Light & Life
Publishing, 1996

4 Genesis 1:31 (A.V.)

5 Our Lord's description of Saint John the Baptist, John 5:35 (A.V.)

6 Colossians 3:2 (A.V.)

7 Revelation 8:4 (A.V.)

8 Father Moses Berry An Encounter with a Saint, article in AGAIN
Magazine, vol. 17, no. 2, June 1994, Conciliar Press, page 27

9 Father John Weldon Hardenbrook The Place for Pilgrimage, article in AGAIN
Magazine, vol. 18, no. 1, March 1995, Conciliar Press, page 11

10 Father Alexy Young A Pilgrimage to the Canonization of Saint John
Maximovitch, article in AGAIN Magazine, vol. 18, no. 1, March 1995, Conciliar
Press, page 30

11 Psalm 46:10 (A.V.)

12 David Martin Personal Identity and a Changed Church in No Alternative - The
Prayer Book Controversy, edited by David Martin & Peter Mullen, Basil
Blackwell Publisher Ltd, 1981

13 "We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth." The famous words of St
Vladimir's envoys describing their experience of the Orthodox Liturgy at Hagia
Sophia, Constantinople. Timothy (Kallistos) Ware The Orthodox Church,
Penquin Books Ltd, 1985 reprint, page 269

14 Archbishop Chrysostomos The Monastic Life: In Response to a Modernist Abbot's
Observations, INTERNET reprinted from Orthodox Tradition, vol. 6, no. 4,
1989. page 4

- Simon - 17-10-2008

On the particular points of all being equal and not kneeling before the priest or the 'one calling the shots' I would recommend His Holiness Pope Shenouda's book 'The Priesthood' which is I think available online and can be downloaded.

As for bowing, you could always offer the puritanical type a Bible study:

BOWING ? a Bible Study

Where in the Bible do we find reference to bowing to other people? It is, of course, the Biblical principle that we only bow to God in worship and adoration and in worship and adoration to none other whatsoever (eg: Exodus 20:1-5, Deuteronomy 5:6-9, Matthew4:9)

There are however repeated examples through the Bible of bowing unto other people and also places in respect. This is the bow of respect or reverence. The bow of worship and adoration is for God alone.

The following are some examples of bowing in respect for someone, bowing to show reverence to someone:

Moses bowed to his father-in-law (Exodus 18:7) and Solomon (even though he was king) bowed to his mother (1Kings 2:19) - examples of showing reverence for parents, of honouring parents (Exdous 20:12)

Then there are repeated examples of people bowing to King David and also King Solomon out of respect for the Lord's anointed: Abigail (1Samuel 25:23), the Amalekite (2Samuel 1:2), Mephibosheth (2Samuel 9:6), a woman from Tekoa (2Samuel 14:4), Ziba (2Samuel 16:4), Ahimaaz (2Samuel 18:28), Shimei (2Samuel 19:8), Araunah the Jebusite (2Samuel 24:20), Bathsheba (1Kings 1:16&3 1), Nathan the prophet (1Kings 1:23), Adonijah (1Kings 1:53). And these holy men of God, David and Solomon, accepted these bows - neither is there the least suggestion that at any time they ever did wrong in so doing. Indeed David, in turn, had bowed before King Saul as before the Lord's anointed (1Samuel 24:8) Similarly Joseph, as ruler of Egypt (under Pharoah), received bows from his brothers on four occasions (Genesis 42:6, 43:26, 44;14, 50:18).

Then there is bowing to a prophet (even as the King was the Lord's anointed, so is the prophet God's prophet): thus Elijah received the bow of the king's captain (2Kings 1:13) and Elijah received the bow of the Shunanite woman (2Kings 4:37) and Daniel received the bow even of Nebuchadnezzer (Daniel 2:46).

Then there is bowing unto angels (also, of course, ministers of God) - thus Abraham (Genesis 18:2), Lot (Genesis 19:1), Balaam (Numbers 22:31). Now it is very instructive to compare the Apostle John in Revelation who bowed to the angel in worship and the angel refused the bow (Revelation 19:10 & 22:8&9). One possible explanation is that John was actually bowing in worship or adoration (which one should only do to God) but given the whole context of this series of heavenly visions, including his prostration as one dead at the feet of Jesus at the beginning of the visions, this does seem unlikely. The more probable explanation is that John's bow is indeed one of reverence and the angel's refusal one of humility ? I have seen this very thing by Coptic (and other Oriental) Orthodox priests where one goes to bow and the other avoids the bow out of humility (this would certainly be in keeping with the angel?s words about being John's fellow servant).

Then there is Abraham's bows of respect to the Hittites - not because they were his parents nor his king nor prophets... but only, so far as we can tell out of respect to them as people (for all are images or icons of God, Genesis 1:27, and to be accorded respect and reverence).

Then there is bowing in respect to, in reverence for, the temple of God (Psalm 5:7 & Psalm 138:2).

In Revelation 3:7-9 God declares that He will make others to worship before the feet of "the angel [or minister] of the Church in Philadelphia" . Do not be confused here by the word worship - the literal meaning of worship is to bow down or even to kneel - but it can also of course have the full meaning of to worship or adore God. Obviously God is not saying that He is going to make others worship the minister in the sense of the worship or adoration to be given unto God. It means that they will bow before the minister to accord him the respect and reverence as God requires them to.

Related to all these verses on bowing are those requiring us to give reverence and honour to whom it is due (1Peter 2:17), and to esteem others above ourselves (Philippians 2:3 - see also verses 4-8). Also the verses calling us to humility should be borne in mind as well.

If it be asked why we bow, other than of course to follow all these Biblical and godly examples, then I would say that it is like all those other physical acts we do, such as lighting candles, taking off our shoes, kissing icons? what is going on in all this Orthodox ritual and symbolism, is what psychologists refer to as a 'feed-back loop.' "By attention to externals, we affect internals; and by the restored internal state, external attributes are affected. Endlessly linked to one another, internals and externals interact with one another to the point that they are no longer separate. The humble spirit manifests itself in the humble face; the sweet countenance in the sweetness of spirit; and the contrite heart within a contrite act. Grace brings what is inside out and what is outside in."

help in defending traditional church rituals - kirk yacoub - 17-10-2008

Dear Louis,
A hefty tome could be (and probably has been) written about all this. If the puritan type's main problem is with the priesthood then he/she should be sent back to the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, St Paul's letters and other letters in the New Testament.
It is true that all are equal within the Church, that a priest or a bishop is a servant, representing the greatest servant of them all, Jesus Christ, yet there are a variety of gifts given by the Holy Spirit in the Church. The Roman Catholic Catechism does make a definite distinction between clergy and laity, but Orthodoxy does not. In bowing to a priest or a bishop we are in fact bowing to He who is represented, Christ our Lord. If anyone thinks that it is possible for anyone to caricature the Holy Liturgy in their own home with friends, then they do not understand the nature of the gifts distributed by the Holy Spirit and passed on by the laying on of hands. To partake of our Lord and God's Holy Body and Blood is the most serious thing of all and is not to be likened to afternoon tea with friends.
I'll be back on this with quatations from Scripture and the Fathers next week.
Kirk Yacoub

- John Charmley - 17-10-2008

Dear Louis,

Although it won't work, you might remind the puritanical type that we have the same warrant for the NT canon as we have for the traditions of the Church - that is that both were accepted by the early Church.

In Christ,


- Louis - 17-10-2008

Thank you all kindly. I shall be back with any developments.

Help in defending the traditional Church rituals - rpm - 09-11-2008

Reading some articles below should be of help

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I believe Orthodoxy speaks for itself to those who earnestly seek to learn of it. It is not something to be shouted down to others nor is it for people who thrive solely on emotional highs or "my feeling good" for their spirituality.

God bless,