O Heavenly King: a sermon on a familiar prayer

By Jim Forest

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Normally at this point in the liturgy we would discuss today’s readings. Instead I am proposing that we turn our attention to one of our most familiar and frequently used Orthodox prayers. I’ll recite the English translation we use in our home:

O heavenly king, the comforter, the spirit of truth, who is everywhere present, filling all things, the treasury of blessings and the giver of life, come and abide with us, and cleanse us of every impurity, and save our souls, O good one.

Not many words — about forty. I suppose most of us know the prayer by heart. It’s a prayer especially associated with Pentecost — the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles — that moment when at last Christ’s followers understood what they had witnessed and what Christ had prepared for them to do. It’s a prayer also placed at the beginning of the Office of Oblation that precedes the Eucharistic Liturgy. Because it’s a prayer connected with every liturgy as well as morning and evening devotions at home, it is a prayer of prayers. Brief as it is, it teaches us a great deal.

The first words of the prayer — “O heavenly king” — remind us that we are not people lacking a ruler. We have a ruler to whom we are uniquely responsible and whose demands on us have absolute priority. Christ has given us — not laws, in the usual sense — but a few commandments.

The Sermon on the Mount opens with the Beatitudes, which the Russian Church refers to as “the commandments of blessedness.” The Beatitudes are in fact a very brief summary of the Gospel. Each Beatitude has to do with aspects of living a Paschal life — that is a life not shaped by death. One way of reading each Beatitude is to use the phrase “Risen from the dead” at the beginning of each verse — for example, “Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit… Risen from the dead are they who mourn…”

There is also the commandment to forgive, and not just once or twice but seventy times seven. Even one act of forgiveness is rarely easy.

And there are the paired commandments — to love God (not as easy as it sounds) and to love our neighbor (much harder than it sounds). The commandment to love God is welded to the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. In the Gospel it is made clear that the neighbor referred to is not only a friendly person living next door with whom we sometimes have pleasant conversations and who might even go to the same church we do. The neighbor the commandment refers to is whomever God puts in front of us. We are not talking about relationships of mutual affection but of proximity, however brief, temporary and unsought: the beggar on the street, the atheist who despises Christianity root and branch, the heretic whose nutty theology makes an Orthodox Christian run for cover, the politician who takes stands we find appalling, the person who just stole my wallet, the wounded stranger lying at the side of the road, the person who threatens my life or the lives of people dear to me.

Perhaps most difficult, there is the commandment to love our enemies and pray for them.

We have a king and, if we are serious about calling ourselves Christians, we are people attempting to live under his rule. But it’s not easy. We are sailors almost always sailing against powerful winds, the winds of our own insecurity, fears and selfishness, the winds of unhealed wounds and bitter memories, the winds of doubt and disbelief, the winds of politics, of propaganda, of slogans, the winds of what we sense we should say and think in order to get ahead in our lives, to be successful.

Our king is a heavenly king — a king, that is, not of this world — and yet a king who loves this world, who gives himself for the life of the world, a king who heals the sick in soul and body, a king who feeds the hungry, a king who forgives sins and saves the lives of sinners, a king who weeps, a king who prays for the forgiveness of those who are crucifying him, a king who hides himself in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the homeless, the sick and the imprisoned, a king who regards our response to the least person as the decisive factor of salvation. Not your usual king.

Our king is someone whom we address as “consoler” or “comforter.” In the original Greek text, the word is “parakletos,” which can mean strengthener, advocate, counselor, consoler, encourager, comforter, helper, defender. No single English word is fully adequate. The English word most often used in translation is “comforter,” which comes from a Latin root, “comfortare,” meaning to strengthen. God offers us simultaneously both strength for the struggle and consolation.

On the theme of strength, I often think of a remark made by Father Sergei Ovsiannikov, the rector of my parish in Amsterdam: “It is a question whether a Christian ought to be a soldier, but it is obligatory for every Christian to be a warrior.” This is what Christ our king tells us when he says, “I come not to bring peace but a sword.” This is not an order for us to go out and buy a sword. He neither possessed or used deadly weapons and reprimanded Peter when he used a sword against one of the men who had come to arrest him. But every word Christ spoke and every action he performed cuts like a sword. It’s the sword that equips us for spiritual warfare. Saint Paul describes the ideal Christian as a kind of a soldier who bears only one weapon, “the sword of truth.” In western iconography you can always recognize Paul not only because he is bald but because he carries a sword, a visual metaphor of his wielding the sword of truth. To use a phrase from one of the early theologians, Clement of Alexandria, we belong “to an army that sheds no blood.” We are on a battlefield but we seek no one’s death. We seek only to further our own incomplete conversion and to be made useful to God in the conversion of others.

God’s Holy Spirit is identified in the prayer as “the Spirit of Truth,” a phrase that often reminds me of the saying, “Speak the truth and shame the devil.” And there is the Russian proverb, “Eat bread and salt and speak the truth.” What a challenge it is to know the truth, speak the truth and to live a truthful life. To speak truthfully is something much more than saying what you sincerely believe on some topic. Just to know the truth about simple things is not easy. How many innocent people are in prison today for crimes they didn’t commit because a witness mistakenly identified them as the guilty party. The witness gave his or her testimony in all sincerity but was in error and the wrong person is now spending long years in prison as a result. Sincerity does not equal truthfulness. One can be sincerely wrong.

How great a challenge it is to live a life shaped by truth — to long to know the truth and to struggle day after day to free oneself from errors, many of which seem to enter our lives through the air we breathe. We live in a flood tide of opinions and slogans.

We next have the phrase “everywhere present and filling all things.” We might sometimes wish, like Jonah, for God to be anywhere but here, but God cannot be unpresent. Light cannot hide itself in darkness. Even in hell God is not absent — it’s impossible. But it’s possible to ignore God’s presence. Hell is what we experience when we attempt to be absent from God, that is not to love. As Bernanos put it, “Hell is not to love anymore.” But God is everywhere present. A well-made church does everything possible to help make us aware of that presence and open our hearts to it, but God is not less present in your kitchen or in a supermarket or in prison or in a place where people are enduring torture.

Moving on, we address God as the “the treasury of blessings and the giver of life.”

Who isn’t interested in treasure? As a boy I used to make treasure maps and imagine myself finding pieces of eight. I’ve outgrown that fantasy, but who doesn’t seek a treasury of blessings? The treasure referred to in this prayer isn’t gold. It is a life in communion, first of all with God, but also with each other. Connection. As Saint Dorotheos of Gaza said, “The closer we come to each other, the closer we come to God. The further we go from each other, the further we go from God.”

In recognizing that God is “the giver of life” we are reminded that the Creator is not the giver of death. As Christ says in John’s Gospel, “I have come to give life and to give it abundantly.” [John 10:10]

Only now comes what we are actually asking for in this short prayer: “Come and abide in us and cleanse of every impurity and save our souls, O good one.”

One could make a list a mile long of various impurities that most of us struggle with. There are so many! So many addictions, so many lusts, so many destructive habits. I want to focus briefly on only two impurities: tribalism and fear.

Tribalism first. One aspect of our damaged human nature is a strong tribal tendency, bringing with it the illusion of separateness and of being more dear to God then those across the border of our group identity. While the life of anyone in this church could be saved by blood or organ donations given by a Latin American Aztec, an Alaskan Inuit or an African Zulu, in day-to-day life we prefer to see ourselves as linked with those who share our nationality, ethnic heritage, skin color, language and primary stories, or — when tribalism has a religious character — with those who share a similar ritual life and a similar religious vocabulary. I’ve been in Orthodox parishes where the unspoken question was, “Why are you here? Your ancestors did not come from the place where our ancestors were born.”

Within our tribal and sub-tribal boundaries, we are willing to make notable sacrifices, even to give our lives if there is no honorable alternative. The tribe excludes far more than it includes. We see ourselves as separate from the vast majority, though in God’s reality we are all brothers and sisters, equally descended with us from those mysterious first humans we call Adam and Eve, and equally the object of God’s love and mercy no matter where we live and no matter what the local flag may be. There is a rabbinic commentary that says the reason God made only one Adam and one Eve was that so no one could regard himself as being of higher descent.

Finally let us consider fear, fear being the primary force restraining us from acts of love.

One of the often repeated Gospel messages is: “Be not afraid.” But most of us are polluted by fear, and perhaps never more so than since the two towers of the World Trade Center fell. High on the list of our anxieties is fear of radical Muslims in groups like Al Qaida, militants who are waging a ruthless jihad against us, with many Christians among the dead and wounded. Such fear is certainly not baseless. Truly we have mortal enemies. Keep in mind that most Moslems share our fear, as the main targets of Islamic terrorists are their fellow Muslims whom the jihadists see either as heretics or as conscientious objectors to jihad.

If you want an example of a very different way of relating to Muslims, consider Saint Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai Desert. This is one of the oldest monasteries in the world, a place of uninterrupted prayer and worship since its founding in the sixth century. If you look attentively at photos of the monastery, close to the monastery church you will notice a white tower. This is the minaret of the only mosque within a monastic enclosure. The Fatimid Mosque, still used by the monks’ Bedouin grounds-keepers and neighbors, was originally a hospice for pilgrims, but in the year 1106 the building was converted to its present use. It must be one of the oldest mosques in the world. A document signed by Mohammad himself instructs Muslims not to mess with St. Catherine’s. An instruction from Muhammad surely has provided a shield, but so does the monks’ remarkable hospitality to Muslims help explain how the monastery survived all these centuries in Muslim territory and how it became the safe harbor for some of the oldest icons and biblical manuscripts to survive from Christianity’s first millennium. It’s a striking witness to a genuinely Christian response to conflict in a non-fear-driven manner.

Christ tramples down death by death. Similarly the cure of fear is fear — not fear of others but fear of God. These are two very different fears. Fear of God is not similar to the terror someone might feel if he had to stand before someone who could order your execution. Fear of God is something vastly different — a condition of absolute awe and astonishment that must overwhelm any person aware he stands in God’s presence. Fear of God is an empowering fear. It gives us the strength to swim against the tides of hatred, enmity, propaganda, and socially-organized bloodshed in which we are made complicit even if others do the actual killing.

The fear of a tyrant cannot open the gateway of love — only the fear of God does this. To love another as Christ commands — that is to be willing to lay down one’s life for another even though he is your adversary — is never one’s own achievement but only God’s gift, specifically a gift of the Holy Spirit who purifies the heart. Even love of one’s wife or husband, one’s children or parents, is God’s gift. It is impossible to love without God’s grace, yet only that love is perfect which sees and responds to God’s image in those whom we have no familial or social obligation to love. “The soul that has not known the Holy Spirit,” taught Saint Silouan of the Holy Mountain, “does not understand how one can love one’s enemies, and does not accept it.” As a young man, this Russian monk once nearly killed a neighbor. Later in life, having become a monk, he insisted, “He who does not love his enemies does not have God’s grace.”

I hope I have left you with something to think about.

Let’s finish where we started, by repeating this simple prayer:

O heavenly king, the comforter, the spirit of truth, who is everywhere present, filling all things: the treasury of blessings and the giver of life, come and abide with us, and cleanse us of every impurity, and save our souls, O good one.

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text as of 14 October 2013
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