Yesterday at St. John Orthodox Church, I watched as my fellow parishioners touched the garments of the priests and deacons as they processed through the nave, holding the elements—the bread and wine—which would be offered back to God on the altar a few minutes later. (The photo at left is not at St. John, but it shows this practice.) And then, during the epiclesis, the priest invoked God the Father to send down the Holy Spirit in order to, according to the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, "...make this bread the precious Body of thy Christ... And that which is in this cup the precious Blood of thy Christ... Changing them by thy Holy Spirit." This is the most solemn point of the anaphora, as it is from that point on the bread and wine are considered to be the literal body and blood of Christ.
And so, it’s interesting to me that we touch the garments of the clergy when they are carrying the elements during this procession through the nave. They aren’t really carrying the body and blood of Christ at this point, and yet this pious tradition exists. Many parents teach their children to kneel as the procession comes by their pew, and to reach out and touch the garments as they are kneeling. Maybe it’s reminding us that we are participating in this Eucharistic sacrifice, as we offer ourselves back to God through our participation in the liturgy, which is “the work of the people.”
A long introduction to my point today. This morning, I read the information for today’s date in the Orthodox “Daily Lives, Miracles and Wisdom of the Saints” calendar, and noticed that we are commemorating Saint Veronica today. She was the woman with the issue of blood who touched Jesus’ garment and was healed (Mark 5:25-34). Another tradition says that Veronica is also the woman who wiped the sweat from Jesus’ face as he carried His Cross to Calvary, and that the image of His face was left on the cloth, which she carried with her on missionary trips. In France, Emperor Tiberius was healed of a terminal illness when he looked at it.
Another holy tradition tells the story of King Avgarus of Osroene, who had leprosy, and heard of Jesus's miracles and His power helping numerous people. He sent an artist from his court to invite Christ to come to his kingdom. The artist was also asked to bring back a portrait of Christ, because the king felt that if he could only see the image of Christ, it would heal him. The artist tried many times to capture Christ's face but was unsuccessful at accomplishing this task. So, Christ took a cloth and brought it to His Face, and a true likeness was impressed on the cloth. This cloth was brought to King Avgarus and it healed him. This first icon given to us was called "Not Made By Hands". Sometimes it is called “The Holy Napkin.”
There are some lovely icons of the Holy Napkin here.
I wrote an icon of Christ, the Holy Napkin, a few years ago, which is here (at right). I wrote it for someone who was in need of healing—emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically—and during the writing of it, I felt healed of some of my own struggles at the time.
Which brings me (finally) to the main point of this blog post today: I am struggling to know God’s love. I am having a bit of a spiritual crisis. As an Orthodox Christian, I have learned that when this happens, you just pray. Whether or not you have faith, you just pray. The Scriptures talk about needing a mustard seed’s worth of faith. Maybe I have that. I’m trying to pray the prayer of the father whose son had a demon that caused him to fall down and foam at the mouth: “I believe, help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24) But I’m wondering if God even requires this—the mustard seed, the “I believe.” What about during times when even this seems like more than we can summons? At these times, would touching His garment help?
I didn’t touch the priest or deacon’s garments during the procession at St. John yesterday. I'm not sure why, but today I wish I had touched them. I think I didn't want to just "go through the motions" when I wasn't sure if I believed that touching the garments could help me. And in some way I felt I would dirty them up with my unbelief. I guess we dirty up the physician’s instruments when we go to get healed, physically. And how much are we required to “believe” that the physician can heal us when we go to him with our illnesses? I guess we need enough faith to get in the car and drive to the appointment. I had that much faith yesterday, when I drove to St. John and went to the Divine Liturgy. I sang some of the songs and prayed some of the prayers with my fellow parishioners. I asked God to show me His love. And I looked at the icons on the walls and ceiling and tried to pray.
We are all wounded. I know this. But something in me feels so broken that I’m not sure I’m capable of receiving—or giving—love the way a less broken person might be able to. I was at a party Saturday night and the plastic cup I was drinking from had a crack in it. So when I poured some wine into the cup, it began leaking onto the floor. I immediately poured the remaining wine into a new cup, threw away the old cup, and cleaned up the floor. I looked at the small amount of wine that survived the break, and I wondered if that’s what happens when God pours his love into me. I wonder if a lot of it spills out and I’m not able to drink it, and so I remain thirsty.
I think I’ll touch the priest’s garment next Sunday.