Consecrating our Hearts and our Church

Our parish, Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church in Austin, Texas, will be consecrated this summer. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event, akin to the baptism of a church, and we’re all looking forward to it.

As we’ve been putting plans together, we’ve stumbled on some beautiful ways to involve the kids — and we’ve thought about a few things you might want to do in your own parish, even if your church was consecrated generations ago.

Our priest, Fr. Vasileios Flegas, declared this The Year of the Consecration, and went to work getting every ministry, every demographic, every parishioner involved and excited. There are frequent retreats on the meaning of consecration, and on how we might take this opportunity to consecrate ourselves to the Lord — and as the big day nears, more and more beautiful and fun events are being planned to build up excitement and understanding throughout the parish.

When Father told me that we needed to get the Sunday School involved, I thought — what would we do? We’ll show up, I mean, surely all the parents will bring their kids to the consecration and I’ll be there, and probably all the teachers. But I couldn’t picture what it would mean to really involve the kids in the consecration. I’ll admit, he caught me when my energy was low and I wasn’t feeling like taking on any more exciting opportunities. I politely and obediently agreed to come up with something, and sat back, uninspired.

I don’t know about you, but that happens to me. I have these tired, grouchy, lazy periods where I don’t respond very enthusiastically to this kind of invitation. But then, there are other times — times when I’m a little better rested, maybe taking better care of myself, praying a little more, eating a little better — and if you catch me at those times, when someone makes a suggestion, I am off to the races! So it took me a while, but finally on the right day, someone on the Consecration Committee started talking to me and suddenly, there it was: I wanted to find a way to get the kids involved.

Truly, I really do think we need to have the kids involved in the church, in a lot of ways. Our goal is to help them understand this as their own faith and not just mom and dad’s faith.

In my own experience, when I’ve moved to a new parish, I’ve felt like a guest for a long time — an outsider, coming to observe, sometimes invisibly. You know what often makes the shift for me? Everything changes when I get a job. When we’re given a way to volunteer, a way to serve, suddenly it’s ‘our’ church. Whether you’re cleaning up the kitchen or greeting people at the door or helping in the Sunday School or putting out coffee cups, whether the job is big or small, when you start to work in the church, then you know that you belong there.

We should be offering that kind of membership, that kind of ownership, to our kids. We should put them to work in the kitchen, gather them to clean the church, encourage them to be helpful and productive members.

So if there’s flower planting to be done, the kids should be doing it with us. If there are dishes to be scrubbed, invite them into the kitchen. If we need to prepare some food for coffee hour, or bake the prosphora or make koliva on an important anniversary, call the kids over and put them to work. If we’re all pitching in to make a Consecration beautiful, then let’s ask them to do whatever we’re doing.

As our parish council and our various ministries work to make sure that everyone is involved in the joy of our upcoming Consecration, our Sunday School and youth ministries are kicking into gear too!

What are we doing?

  • Developing lesson plans to teach every class at every level about the Consecration.
  • Planning an event on the day of Consecration itself which will be largely created and run by our teens, for the delight and education of the younger kids and any visitors who join us.
  • Preparing the children’s choir to sing hymns at the Consecration Service.
  • Inviting the kids to submit lists of names for inclusion in scroll of names to be sealed into the Altar.
  • Inviting the kids to submit quotes and reflections for the commemorative album the parish is creating.
  • Including the kids in a community service day that will precede the Consecration, and which will help us ensure that our parish is a blessing to the surrounding community.

We’re hoping to educate the kids on the meaning of what they’re seeing, and then to involve them in the preparations and activities surrounding the service. And of course, the children will join us as we celebrate the Consecration itself — altar boys serving beside the bishop, and all of us together, singing the hymns and celebrating this most profound event in the life of our Church.

My favorite event, I think, is the one we’ve planned for the day of the Consecration. After the service and the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy that follows, we’ll have a big picnic at the church. We like to offer bounce houses and pinatas for kids on picnic days, and we’ll do that, but we’re also going to add a twist on another of our parish traditions. For years, on or near Halloween, our kids hold a Holy House, where the teens dress up and decorate the hall or the classrooms and perform skits for the younger kids. We usually do Old Testament stories, or parables from the Gospel, but on this day we’re celebrating the Consecration, so we’ve challenged our teens to write skits about the lives of our Three Holy Martyrs, and about the consecration of Solomon’s Temple, and finally, one about our patronal feast, the Holy Transfiguration. These skits are always a blast, from the setup and rehearsals to the joyful execution. It’s kind of chaotic and silly, but the kids really love it, and they remember those stories forever — not to mention how they enjoy interacting with one another, big kids and little kids together. It’s a wonderful way to teach, to build community and to create memories.

The other very big piece of our Consecration puzzle is the Sunday School element. We created two lessons, both of which are available on our parish website and right here — we’ll be adding a new link to your right to a Sunday School Curriculum page which will offer this curriculum and any future lesson plans I post.

In the first lesson, we learn about the Relics of Three Holy Martyrs. This lesson is also useful for those in parishes who’ve already been consecrated, because at the time of the Consecration, the bishop seals the relics of three Holy Martyrs into the altar. Do you know who the martyrs in your altar are? Do your kids? It’s worth digging around and researching, because these three martyrs are physically present in your parish, and are an important part of every Divine Liturgy served on that altar.

The lessons begin with the basic question: why relics? Why would the Orthodox venerate bone fragments? Children who have been brought up in the faith are often comfortable with relics, but if some of the kids are coming in recently from other faiths (or if they field questions on Orthodoxy from friends of family who are non-Orthodox), this might be a worthy topic to discuss more deeply. In so many ways, the non-Orthodox culture that surrounds us is uncomfortable with death and with dead bodies, so your students may benefit from a longer conversation on the topic.

We begin at the beginning: How does a person become a Saint? They’re not born holy, but over time, they put themselves in a place to be transformed by God’s grace (via a life of prayer, of love for God, of asceticism and participation in the sacraments, etc.)

As a demonstration, we’re bringing in waffles or pound cake — anything sweet that could be soaked in a syrup, so that the kids could watch it soak in and change the cake into something gooey, changing its color and its taste and its texture.

The syrup is like the grace of God; it flows over us and penetrates our souls and bodies. The cake/waffle is not the same after it has been penetrated by the syrup: it’s permanently transformed. A Saint’s body is soaked in God’s grace, so Holy Relics are different from plain old bodies, because the grace remains.

It’s important to teach our kids that the body is not some awful prison in which the soul is contained. The body is good, and is truly a part of who a person is: you are your soul and your body. When someone dies, their body is still part of them, left behind, which is why the Orthodox treat bodies with respect and love.

When a body contains the grace of God, we venerate it. Bodies should smell terrible as they decay, but some Saints’ relics will exude a sweet-smelling fragrance, and sometimes they will even exude myrrh (a sweet-smelling oil.) In these ways, God lets us know that He loves His Saints and that He is with us and His Saints are with us. We are not alone.

But why are relics placed in our altars?

In the early years of Christianity, Christians were persecuted and killed for their faith in Christ. They were forced to worship in secret. At the same time, they were actively mourning the deaths of new martyrs — so they met in the catacombs, the underground burial places where the bodies of their friends who died for their love of Jesus Christ were placed, and they celebrated the eucharist on the holy graves of the beloved Martyred Saints.

When the persecutions ended and the Church was allowed to exist openly, the tradition of celebrating the eucharist over the graves of Martyrs was continued by placing Holy Relics in the altar tables of consecrated churches. In this way, we always remember that the Church is built on the faith and blood of the Holy Martyrs.

After this introduction, we are teaching the lives of the three specific Holy Martyrs to be placed in our altar, doing our best to retell the stories in a dramatic and interesting way. As we consider their deaths, we note testimonies that these Saints were calm and courageous — this surely indicates that God was present with them, that He responded to their faith and selflessness by filling them with the peace of the Holy Spirit, giving them the strength to withstand tortures without compromise. Because witnesses can see that the Martyrs are filled with grace at the time of their death, we know especially that their relics are must contain grace.

And now, they are to be sealed into our altar, giving us a special connection to them. We must ask for their intercessions, and look for their presence and their assistance.

The second lesson goes through the actual Service of Consecration, drawing parallels to the service of baptism & chrismation and bringing out the meaning of the various prayers and traditions involved. With the younger groups, we focus on acting out the service and comparing it to the more familiar baptism, while for older students we really emphasized the meaning and symbolism of the service and its prayers.

When we consecrate a church, the Bishop (or in our case, the Metropolitan) carries the relics of the Three Holy Martyrs in a procession that circles the Church three times; together, we draw a big line around the Church, declaring that everything inside this circle, this Holy Church, is set apart for God. Just as the baptism declares that I have been set apart for God, the consecration will set this building apart for God.

After the beautiful procession and its accompanying Gospel readings, which we read and discuss with the kids, everyone enters the Church, and the Holy Relics are placed in a hole in the altar table. We recall that the first altars in the early Church were the tombs of the Holy Martyrs, and we create a little tomb for them now inside our altar. With them, we include a scroll which lists the names of the founders of the church and of all the parishioners and their loved ones. We’ll even invite the kids to add the names of their loved ones to this list, giving them ownership and real participation in the process and in the service.

His Eminence will pour Holy Chrism over the Relics & the Scroll — and then he pours a wax/mastic compound which contains the sweet-smelling spices used by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus to anoint the Body of Christ for His burial, and then covers them with a marble lid and seals them permanently. The holy altar table represents the entombed Body of our Lord.

As it says in Romans 6:8, “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him….” We read this in the baptism service, because when we are baptized, we die with Christ so that we may rise with Him. The Holy Relics of Martyred Saints connect us to this great truth, and to Christ Himself. A consecration is the “baptism” of a Church, and in it each of us reaffirms our own baptism, our own dying and living with Christ. Therefore the Church allows us to be “entombed” with our Lord through the interment of the names of our loved ones, past and present, living and dead.

The bishop washes the altar, while the chanter chants, “Purge with hyssop and I shall be clean, wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.” And then he will then make the sign of the cross with oil over the altar three times, calling out, “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!” each time (as when a person is chrismated.)

We read from Psalm 132, which reminds us that when Aaron was chosen by the Lord and anointed, the oil flowed over him and into his beard! Oil was used to heal wounds and to make dry skin supple, to make food delicious and of course, oil was also burned for light — so to have an abundance of oil is to be blessed with many good things, from God’s good pleasure (which is why He would be anointing you in the first place) to good health and plenteous food and to the very light of Christ.)

A cloth with the icons of the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) in each corner is sealed into the altar with wax. They are in each of the four corners, just as they are in the four corners of our dome, because their Holy Gospels have gone out to all the ends of the universe.

Finally, the altar is now covered with a new white cloth — like the new white garment which is worn by the newly illumined (that person who has just been freshly baptized & chrismated).

His Eminence will chrismate the icons and the building; walking around and chrismating each peice individually. In many of our adult retreats, we’ve talked about this image, and considered whether we can do that in our own lives: can we examine our lives, and chrismate each separate component of our lives, finding a way to consecrate each hobby and each love, each habit and every action to Christ our God?  That’s a worthy question for our kids too, and an idea that can be drawn out into a productive conversation.

Finally, at the conclusion of the service, the Metropolitan will bring to all the faithful out the Vigil Light, an oil lamp from the altar, which reminds us of the unfailing light of our transfigured Christ in His Holy Resurrection (and, of course, it’s not unlike the candle that a newly baptised & chrismated person carries!)

If you have a consecration coming up in your parish or in a neighboring parish or at a new monastery in your area, you might want to use some of these ideas and lessons, or let them inspire you to even better ones! If your Church is already consecrated, you may want to research who the Martyrs in your altar are and teach the kids what was done to make your space holy and set apart for God.

May God bless us all, and help us to consecrate our own lives and our hearts to Christ our God.

Elissa Bjeletich

About Elissa Bjeletich

Elissa Bjeletich is the mother of five daughters, and serves as the Sunday school director at Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church in Austin, Texas. Find more information on her website: elissabjeletich.com

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