Behind the Icon Screen: The Service of Kairos

 

I remember quite vividly the first Orthodox service I ever attended. It was a vespers service during Lent, on the Saturday evening before the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt. I remember this detail because I was not expecting the image of a skeletal, white-haired woman on the icon stand. 

[Icon of St. Mary of Egypt with St. Zosimas from www.oca.org]

I can’t remember a single psalm or prayer from that service. But one thing deeply affected me: the sense of honor. Honor for the Holy Trinity and for the saints and angels surrounding us. Honor among members of the community as we worshiped and prayed together, facing the altar.

This sense of honor, so beautifully expressed in the holiness of the prayers, the psalms, the chanting, and the iconography of the temple, had been missing in my life for many years. This is why it affected me so powerfully, even though the readings seemed really long. Holiness in worship was something I longed for but rarely experienced in my Evangelical context, with its bare walls, pop-style music, and sometimes casual approach to God.

This experience of holiness was even more evident in the Divine Liturgy, with the solemn respect accorded to the Eucharist.

I had no idea at the time that the prayerfulness of the Liturgy begins long before the priest chants, “Blessed is the Kingdom.” The holy attentiveness precedes even the Matins service beforehand. The Divine Liturgy requires preparation—preparation for the priest and other attending clergy, and preparation of the Gifts for communion.

The priest’s process of preparation involves three short, back-to-back services that most of the faithful are not even aware of: Kairos, the entrance prayers prior to the Divine Liturgy; the Vesting Prayers as the priest dons his liturgical garb before the service; and the Proskomede, the preparation of the bread and wine to become the Body of Christ.

All three of these services together take about 45 minutes to an hour to complete, then Matins begins. Most of the Orthodox faithful never see these things that happen on the solea and behind the icon screen, but they contain lessons for us lay folk in terms of our own experiences of preparation and worship.

[Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash]

A while ago on this blog, in our six-part series called “Liturgy Quick-Start Guide,” I used the metaphor of a journey to examine the Divine Liturgy—a pilgrimage with a specific route and a joyful destination, an ascent from Earth to Heaven. If the Divine Liturgy is a mountain trail to the summit of the Eucharist, then the services of preparation are the on-ramp, readying the clergy to lead us in the journey through the morning prayer service of Matins and on to the Divine Liturgy and the Eucharist.

Today, let’s take a look at the short Kairos service, which starts after the priest opens the door to the church building and comes inside. There may be variations in the way it is conducted in different jurisdictions, but the basic gist is here. As I describe what happens, notice the elements of the service that stand out to you. 

I know that I personally will never perform these services, and the odds of me getting up early enough to stand in the nave and observe are . . . well, slim. Very slim. So, on a practical level, I suppose you could say that this and the other services of preparation are irrelevant to me and to other laypeople. But there are principles here that we can meditate on and perhaps apply to our lives.

The Meaning of Kairos

Kairos is one of two Greek words for time. In my Protestant past everyone pronounced it KI-ros. I don’t know why. Orthodox priests pronounce it kay-ROS, so I’ll stick with that. The word chronos, where we get our English word “chronology,” is the linear time measured in days, hours, minutes, and seconds. We schedule our lives according to chronos time.

[Photo by JESHOOTS-com on Pixabay]

But kairos refers to God’s time, which moves differently from our time. In the article “Kairos” on the Orthodox Christian Network website, Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis writes that in this service, the priest “asks for God’s blessing to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. It is where he asks God to suspend time, to help him to lay aside all of his thoughts in order to enter into God’s Kingdom for the period of the service.”

You may remember the words of the Cherubic Hymn from the Divine Liturgy. In it we sing, “Let us now lay aside all earthly cares / that we may receive the King of all.” The priest also asks at this early hour to leave behind his earthly concerns and bring his thoughts and his whole self to God alone.

If, like me, you find it difficult to lay aside your earthly cares, finding yourself sometimes attentive and worshipful and other times not so much, know that your very human priests and deacons have the same struggle. It’s a good thing to pray for them in this regard.

Opening the Church

[Photo from OrthodoxWiki.com]

When the priest unlocks the church doors and turns on the lights, he is usually wearing a simple black cassock. He then puts on his outer cassock, called a riassa in Russian and an exorason in Greek. You could think of it as a “liturgical jacket”—it’s the black garment with the billowing sleeves. One priest told me that the voluminous outer cassock reminds him of Jesus’ words in Matthew 23 about the Pharisees, who “enlarge the borders of their garments” so that they can be seen by men (Matt. 23:5). The exorason reminds him that he is a hypocrite, instructing the faithful while often falling short himself. It emphasizes for him the importance of relying on Christ.

The priest enters the narthex and lights a beeswax taper at the candle stand, remembering the parishioners, then enters the sanctuary for the Kairos prayers.

He begins in the middle of the solea, making the sign of the cross and making a small metanoia—a bow from the waist—three times toward the bishop’s throne, each time praying, “O God, cleanse me, the sinner, and have mercy on me.”

Next he turns toward the central doors of the iconostasis, which are closed, and prays the Trisagion prayers, which are familiar to us from the Divine Liturgy and so many other services of the Church. He prays two more prayers for mercy, and during the third prayer, offered to the Virgin Mary, he opens the gates while saying, “Do thou open the portal of compassion unto us, O most blessed Theotokos; for hoping in thee, let us not fail, we pray; through thee may we be delivered from adversities; for thou art the salvation of the Christian race.”

[Photo by 41330 on Pixabay]

Next he prays before four icons, kissing each of them. First he venerates the icon of Christ with 12 repetitions of “Lord, have mercy,” followed by a prayer that asks forgiveness, remembers Christ’s work on the Cross, and gives thanks.

Moving to the left side of the iconostasis, he approaches the icon of the Theotokos and asks for her compassion. At the icon of St. John the Baptist on Jesus’ left—there is a lot of walking back and forth here—the prayer remembers John’s baptism of Jesus and John’s greatness above all the prophets. Finally, the priest moves to the icon of the parish’s patron saint, located next to Mary, at her right hand (our left), and sings the hymn of honor that the parishioners will sing together later during the Liturgy. 

Venerations completed, the priest returns to the center of the solea, facing the altar through the holy doors, for the concluding prayers. He asks God for strength to “fulfill the bloodless service” without condemnation, and prays the same prayers that end the Divine Liturgy, asking for the intercessions of the various saints along with the particular saints of the day.

If the priest is serving with additional deacons or priests, the clergymen bow to each other and to any others who are present in the church. Next the priest enters the sanctuary through the Archangel Gabriel door and walks to the front of altar, makes small three metanoias, and prays again three times, “O God, cleanse me, the sinner, and have mercy on me.”

[Photo from John Sanidopouloss blog Orthodox Christianity Then and Now]
 

He venerates the holy Gospel book and the altar, kissing them. He does this before each service, including the services that flow into one another, so he will venerate the Gospel and the altar again before Matins and again before the Divine Liturgy.

If other clergy are present, he will turn to them with the words, “Forgive me, the sinner.” The other clergy respond, “May the Lord God remember your priesthood in His holy kingdom.”

And that’s it. The short Kairos service is concluded, and the priest moves on to the Service of Vesting, which we will examine in the next blog post.

Lessons Learned

What stood out to you from this preparatory service?

For me, I am impressed by the way the Kairos service puts the priest in his place—in a good way. He begins and ends the service with “O God, cleanse me, the sinner, and have mercy on me.” If he is truly attentive to the words, he will find no room for pride in the office of the priesthood. Instead, he is reminded before every Divine Liturgy of his own need for forgiveness and renewal.

The veneration before the icons also illustrates that none of the clergy are alone in performing their duties; we in the Church are part of a spiritual family in time and eternity. They intercede for us.

I will never be a priest, and I’m guessing that those of you who are reading now are and will remain part of the laity. We will never participate in this prayer service. We will never personally need strength and blessing to perform the “bloodless sacrifice.” 

[Photo by congerdesign on Pixabay]

Yet I have many necessary tasks in my life that I must perform faithfully; so do you. Do I humbly ask God for His help, or do I think I can handle the familiar, repetitive duties by myself? My record of seeking God’s strength in the day-to-day is a bit spotty. I have prayer books, which I rarely open, and a handy phone app called “Pray Always,” which I use often. It includes many short prayers to pray before starting a task: prayers “Before Reading the Holy Scripture,” “Before Starting a Journey,” a prayer “In Time of Trouble.” One of my favorites is a set of prayers before and after any work.

Here is the prayer labeled “Before Any Work”:

O Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of the eternal Father, You have said, “Without me you can do nothing.”

In faith I embrace your words, O Lord, and bow before Your goodness. Help me to complete the work I am about to begin for Your own glory: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I love this prayer, but I don’t say it as regularly as I should. I want to use it more often, as well as the shorter, “arrow” prayers of “Help me, Lord,” and “Lord, have mercy.” In such prayers, and in the prayers of the clergy during the Kairos service, we find both humility and hope. Humility in the knowledge that I need God’s help and the intercessions of His saints, who are my extended spiritual family. And hope, knowing that God in His infinite mercy will draw near to me when I seek Him, and that I am not alone.

These are not truths reserved for the priesthood; they are lessons for life, for all believers.

***

Next time we will look at the Vesting Service as the priest, in a room behind and to the side of the icon screen, prayerfully puts on his liturgical garments. We will consider the meaning of the items and the lessons they teach. 

I hope you can join me.