It’s 7:00 pm and 108⁰ outside. The conference is over. I’m tired. The hierarchical Divine Liturgy this morning was an amazing experience for me. I have seen and concelebrated many hierarchical Divine Liturgies. This one, for me, was different. Perhaps it was different because I was standing at the side, instead of in front, and I saw more of the movement of subdeacons, altar boys and non-celebrating priests. It seemed for a few moments that I was in heaven. It seemed as though all of the variously clad servers and clergy were angels moving in seemingly random paths, each on a mission, each working separately/together to create one motion of the Bishop toward the Altar. Christ, the Great High Priest, was seated on the solea surrounded by the Apostles (the fellow bishops and the priests, who are elders). For a moment, I could not tell if it was heaven or earth, and so it was heaven, for a moment, superimposed on earth—or was it earth superimposed on heaven?—it doesn’t matter.
What matters is that after a week of struggle and politics and differences of opinion and not a little misunderstanding and even a few moves that seemed to me to be somewhat shady, the Church is still the Church. Sinners are still icons. The light of Christ radiates for all who are graced to see it. In the words of St. Paul, “We have this treasure (the Glory and Grace of God) in earthen vessels.” There is no confusing whose the Glory is. The “eartheness” of God’s vessels was evident throughout the week, yet for me, for a moment, the Glory was also evident.
And so this is the Church. Men and women, like angels, like subdeacons and altar boys behind the altar, going here and there, getting ready, seeming to contradict each other, doing their best, upset when they fail, relying sometimes too much on the strength of their arm or the power of their position, all to bring the King of Glory to the Altar. And somehow, Christ is still there. Even when our proposals are shot down, Christ is still there. Even when it seems so unfair, Christ is still there. Even when you are sure that Christ is not pleased with “the way things are done” or this or that or the other thing, Christ is still there. This is the Church.
This morning before the Liturgy, I was hearing confessions. It was an accident really. I just happened to be there early and had my stole (for I was to help distribute Holy Communion later) and people started coming up to me asking who was assigned to hear confessions that morning. Usually two to four priests are assigned to hear confessions before Liturgies at conferences. No one was there, so I started hearing confessions. I heard all sorts of confessions from all sorts of people who were at all sorts of places spiritually. Somehow with each one, I felt a little of their heart. I felt each one was making a step. I had no time to counsel or instruct. Mostly I listened, said one or two words, and said a shortened form of the absolution prayer. I told them they were forgiven; I accepted on Christ’s behalf their step. Each one at his or her own level was either a brightly robed heavenly subdeacon, or perhaps a dark robed heavenly chanter, or a plain robed heavenly Altar server. Each according to his or her strength, each making mistakes according to his or her weaknesses, each moving one step closer to who they are called to be. The Altar on earth not only reveals the heavenly Altar, but it reveals all of Christian life. A life full of struggles, both personal and corporate, full of mostly hidden victories, and a life that manifests Christ’s Glory in earthen vessels.