Above all, remember Lord, our Archbishop (Name), grant that he may serve Your Holy Churches in peace. Keep him safe, honorable and healthy for many years, rightly teaching the word of Your truth.
Remember, Lord, all Orthodox bishops who rightly teach the word of Your truth. Remember Lord, my unworthiness according to the multitude of Your mercies; forgive my every transgression, both voluntary and involuntary. Do not take away the grace of Your Holy Spirit from these Gifts presented because of my sins. Remember, Lord, the presbyters, the diaconate in Christ, and every order of the clergy, and do not confound any of us who stand around Your holy altar.
(Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, p. 34-35)
And the foundations of the threshold shook at the voice of Him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people with unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!” Then flew one of the Seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lip; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.”
Isaiah 6:4-7
Christ is Risen!
In the midst of the lengthy prayers from St. Basil’s Liturgy, there is the familiar exclamation “Above all, remember Lord, our Archbishop. . .” The Orthodox Church is a Hierarchical Church. The Hierarchs (bishops) have what is called “Apostolic Succession,” meaning they trace their lineage back to the time of the Apostles. There can be no bishop who does not have this. One cannot just appoint himself a bishop. Multiple bishops must participate in the ordination of a bishop, which demonstrates the catholicity (universality) of the episcopacy.
Each bishop has a territory—a diocese, a Metropolis, an Archdiocese, etc. In his territory (eparchy), he is in charge of the preservation of the faith. He appoints priests to communities and oversees a certain number of communities. He is supposed to visit each community often. In his absence, the community is administered by the local parish priest. The bishop is seen as a type of Christ (“typos Christou” in Greek). When he presides over the Divine Liturgy or any service, he stands on a throne which has an icon of Christ on it. He stands in front of Christ, meaning that he represents Christ in the community. This is a pretty heavy charge, which is why we pray for frequently for our bishops.
Next, we turn our attention to the priests, who are most often the celebrants of the Divine Liturgy. Earlier in this study, we reflected on Isaiah 6:1-3, the vision of the prophet in the temple. Here we will reflect on the response of the prophet. Rather than be filled with joy at seeing the angels above the throne of God, the prophet is filled with trepidation. “Woe is me!” he laments. “For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5) Ordination enables a man to celebrate the Divine Mysteries of God—it does not, however, make him a saint, or make him not fall to temptation. Therefore, it is a fine line that the priests (and bishops and deacons) walk—they are sinful men who approach the Holy Altar to do heavenly and divine things.
The prayer continues with the celebrant priest or bishop asking God to remember that he is unworthy, and despite his sinful state, the prayer dares to ask God to forgive his sins, both those that he did unintentionally and those he did intentionally. It implores God to not take the grace of the Holy Spirit from the Gifts because of the sins of the celebrant. This is important to note. The grace of the Holy Spirit works through the unworthiness and sinfulness of the priest. Many times in the history of the church, clergy have been deposed because of sin and scandal. What happens to the sacraments that that man did during his priesthood, now that he is no longer ordained? The answer is that those sacraments are valid—there was grace in them.
The response of the angel to Isaiah’s lament is one of charity and mercy. Isaiah 6:6-67 tells us that one of the Seraphim flew to the prophet, “having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar.” And touching the lips of the prophet, the angel said “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin is forgiven.” Every bishop and priest repeats Isaiah 6:7 after receiving Holy Communion, putting himself back into the vision of Isaiah and his profound sense of unworthiness that is met by God’s profound sense of mercy. This section of the prayer concludes with a plea to God to “not confound any of us who stand around Your holy altar.”
Having served as a priest for over twenty-five years, this part of the prayer of St. Basil’s Liturgy is very humbling. It’s humbling to stand before a congregation and in prayer, ask God to not take away His grace from what’s happening because of my sins. And yet it is humbling to know that despite my sins, God allows me to stand in front of the altar table and celebrate Him in the Eucharist. There is a tension in my soul that no one is really worthy to stand at the Holy Altar, but there is also the notion that God calls certain people, in their unworthiness, to stand at His Holy Altar. Someone has to stand there or there can be no Divine Liturgy. And so some dare to approach the place where really, no one can approach. This is why the priest needs discernment in his own soul, encouragement from those around him, and mercy from God to do what God has called him to do, even though he is a sinful man.
On a personal note, thank you for the prayers and the encouragement I receive. They certainly help with the tension between being called and being unworthy. Please remember your clergy in prayer, and encourage them whenever you get the chance.