The bishop will be visiting Holy Nativity next weekend. This is a huge event in the life of our community. In an iconic way, it is Christ, the Head of our community, coming to be with us. How we receive the bishop is an icon of our receiving Christ. And yet, the bishop is but a man–a good man, a holy man–but only a man.
Throughout scripture and Christian history, God has chosen to use the material realities of our existence to manifest the spiritual realities. Bread, wine, oil and water, these bring the presence of God to us. But not only inert objects, but also certain people are chosen and set apart to serve as icons within the community of the Church, to stand as priests offering to God the gifts of the people (and through the gifts the people themselves) and bringing to the people the Gifts of God (and through them God Himself). However, there is nothing automatic about our participation in or even awareness of this Spirit bearing matter.
How we prepare ourselves spiritually makes a huge difference in how we experience the material sacraments, icons and symbols. As we nurture the quiet, inner life with God, the impact and meaning of the outer, sacramental life takes on more significance to us. Preparing to meet the bishop is similar to preparing to venerate an icon. Ideally, when we venerate an icon, we stand before it a moment in prayer. We stand with attention: outwardly standing respectfully and inwardly attending to God in prayer. When we greet the bishop we come to him respectfully asking his blessing (“master bless”) and kissing his hand. Inwardly, we are looking to Christ, in our minds bowing before Christ and receiving His blessing in the bishop’s blessing.
For Orthodox Christians, all of the material world and every human relationship has the potential of being an encounter with God. What each encounter is to us, however, depends a great deal on how our hearts and minds are spiritually prepared. We prepare spiritually through repentance (changing our minds) which is both facilitated and manifested through ascetic effort. Ascetic effort is the name given to the disciplines Jesus exhorts us to in the Sermon On The Mountain: prayer, fasting, alms giving and forgiveness–all done in secret. “In secret” has at least two meanings. Outwardly, in secret refers to ascetic effort not done to be seen by others. However, in secret also refers to the hidden place of our heart. “Go into your room, and when you have shut the door, pray to your Father in secret.” This has been interpreted by the Church Fathers to refer to the inner room of our heart.
When fasting, prayer, alms giving and forgiveness are matters of the heart, repentance is both brought about and manifest. The repentance of changing our minds, or renewing our minds to use St. Paul’s phrase, helps change the way we see and encounter the world. Eventually, we are told by the saints and in the scripture, all physical reality is the Word of God. Every human being is Christ coming to us. However, in the beginning we learn to encounter the world as Christians in the “hospital” that God has provided: the Church. The sacraments, icons and symbols of the Church teach us how to encounter physical reality as Spirit bearing and how to relate to other human beings. We need the Church, this school of spiritual sight, because seeing with spiritual insight requires that we learn discernment.
Discernment is the ability to separate what is good, true and eternal from what is broken, false and passing away. And in the world in which we live, the good, true and eternal is bound up with what is broken, false and passing away: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.” God has given us the Church as a school, as a hospital, as a kind of spiritual therapy centre where we are told in advance what the spiritual meanings of things are, told in words, signs, rituals and traditions; but at the same time we must encounter these spiritual realities in their fully material form. The bread and wine are Christ–even if the bread needs more salt and the wine is too sweet. Water is the tomb of Christ and we enter this water to die with Christ and rise with Him in a new life–even if the water is too cold. And the bishop is Christ in the community; his blessing is Christ’s blessing; his words are Christ’s words, even if the bishop as a man makes mistakes, forgets your name or is distracted by pain or cares or any of the hundreds of other possible distractions that human beings must endure. What is whole is hidden in what is broken.
Discernment allows us to see what is whole. And not only see it, but when we discern what is good and true and eternal, we experience the good and true and eternal despite whatever failings and weakness may be bearing it. We can experience Christ coming to us as a man by discerning what is good, true and eternal in all of the words, rites and traditions that surround our bishop’s visit to us. And as we learn to discern Christ in the coming of the bishop, we become more able to discern Christ in every person.