Archpriest Alexei Sorokin, rector of the Vologda Church of St. Lazarus the Four-days-dead, speaks with our readers on the long-awaited prostrations that return to our Church services on Pentecost.
—We need to strive not to miss the inner content of the feast itself amidst the externals. Isn’t that the most important part? And the feast of Pentecost is not simply a “remembrance” of the Church’s birthday, but primarily the recognition of our own place in the Church, and what we have done in order to walk the path of salvation.
—Is what seems at first glance to be a complex mystery of the Church rubrics’ austerity hidden in this?
—Seeing himself on the path of salvation as infirm, weak, and sinful, man asks that Holy Spirit God has given to His Church not leave us, that it would strengthen us, heal us of our infirmities and spiritual passions. This is what is said in the kneeling prayers. The contradiction that you are talking about would fall away if people only knew the text of the prayers read during the Vespers service on the day of Holy Pentecost. If we read the text attentively we can see the answer to this question and solve many perplexities. Look, for example:
“O pure and blameless Lord, Who art without beginning, invisible and incomprehensible, unsearchable, unchangeable, immeasurable, and unbounded. Accept us, who kneel down before Thee and cry out: we have sinned, and we have cleaved unto Thee from our birth, even from our mother’s womb. Thou art our God, but as our life passes in vanity, we have therefore been stripped of Thine aid, and have been deprived of every defense. Yet do we trust in Thy compassion and cry unto Thee: Remember not the sins of our youth and ignorance; cleanse us of our secret sins. Reject us not in our old age, and forsake us not when our strength fails. Before we return to the earth, prepare us to return to Thee, and attend to us in favor and grace. Measure our transgressions according to Thy compassion, and set the depth of Thy compassions against the multitude of our offenses. Look down from the height of Thy holiness upon Thy people who stand and await abundant mercy from Thee. Visit us with Thy goodness and deliver us from the possession of Satan and preserve our life with Thy holy and solemn laws. Commit Thy people unto a faithful guardian angel. Gather us all unto Thy kingdom. Grant forgiveness to those who put their trust in Thee, relinquish us and them from sin. Purify us by the operation of Thy Holy Spirit and remove from us the wiles of the adversary.”
Oh, if only we were more attentive during the services! What a treasure of Orthodoxy we would possess!
—Does that mean that the main meaning of the prayers on the evening of Pentecost is man’s recognition of his own unenviable spiritual state?
—As regards Christians living on Earth, yes: the main meaning consists in the awareness of oneself as a person having the possibility for salvation, who has been given such a possibility, and who has all the means necessary for salvation. But out of our laziness, infirmity, and vanity we disdain this and fall into such terrible snares that distance us from God. And so, when a person sees this and honestly admits it, he asks the Lord to give him strength, and the strength is given by the Holy Spirit in the sacraments—the strength to struggle with sin. He asks that strength be given to walk the path of salvation, to fortify our weak, injured, sinful human rhythm of life in order to remain a Christian in it always and everywhere, at all times of the day and night.
—Understood. Now here is a question that probably troubles many parishioners—and not only parishioners, but also clergy. Doesn’t it seem to you that the words of these prayers, like other prayers, do not reach the people who are praying or trying to pray? The words of the prayers are too hard to understand, or are read too softly, or, what is even worse, there is too much fuss, too many tree branches that everyone is trying to get blessed—even considering that to be the main meaning of the feast. Doesn’t the ritual to some extent eclipse the content? Much more attention is given to the externals—those much touted tree branches—than to the internal content you were talking about.
—The branches are also needed so that people would see before their very eyes the life-creating action of the Holy Spirit. A seemingly dead branch that appears absolutely lifeless in fall and winter begins to sprout and blossom in the spring. Leaves come out and later, fruits. This greenery on the trees reminds us of the life-creating action of the Holy Spirit on man’s withered soul. However, this is only an outward reminder of inner activity. And it can of course be very upsetting when the rustling in the church distracts people from prayer. It is hard to imagine in some large cathedral, especially if there is no amplifier system, that someone in the very back of the church would perfectly hear the priest or bishop reading the prayers on his knees in the royal doors. Therefore, it would make sense to print the prayers out and distribute them to the parishioners, especially to the regular parishioners who understand something about spiritual life, who sincerely follow it, are troubled and repent over their sins, and rejoice in the Church—so that they would know the text of these prayers. After all, there are published texts of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. We see that in the churches many laypeople kneel or stand listening attentively to what the priest reads, compensating by this for our human weaknesses: voice, diction, inattentiveness, or something else. And in these publications there is also some explanation of the text. That is, it would be good to prepare these publications in advance in order to more deeply understand the prayers for Holy Pentecost. These prayers are read aloud, facing the congregation, and so there is nothing to hide from the people.
There is yet another side to the content of the prayers for Holy Pentecost, which is bound up with prayers for the reposed. It is bound up with the prayers for the dead and the feeling of love and concern that the Church shows before God for those who are no longer with us, who have gone to the other world, and can no longer do anything for their own salvation. Only we here on earth can help them in their lot after death. Now we will try to find those words relating to the reposed in the prayers of Holy Pentecost. They are very good words. In speaking of the prayers, praising God’s mercy, His Providence and the way that the Lord has made for the sake of our salvation, the Church turns to Him with these amazing words:
“Thou art the Lord of everlasting glory, the beloved Son of the Most High Father, eternal Light from eternal Light, Thou Sun of righteousness! Hear Thou us who beseech Thee, and give rest the souls of our parents, brethren, and the rest of our kinsmen in the flesh, and those who are of the fold of faith who have fallen asleep, and for whom we celebrate this memorial; for Thou hast power over all, and in Thy hands Thou holdest all the boundaries of the earth.
O Almighty Master, God of our fathers, Lord of mercy and Creator of all the races of mankind, the mortals and the immortals, and of all nature, animate and inanimate, of life and of the end of life, of sojourning here and translation there, Who dost measure the years of life and set the times of death, Who bringest down to Hades and raisest up, binding in infirmity and releasing unto power, dispensing present things according to need and ordering those to come as is expedient, quickening with the hope of Resurrection those that are smitten with the sting of death, Who also, on this all-perfect and saving feast, dost deign to receive oblations and supplications for those bound in Hades, and grantest unto us the great hope that rest and comfort will be sent down from Thee to the departed from the grief that binds them. Hear us, Thy humble and piteous ones who pray, and give rest to the souls of Thy servants who have fallen asleep before us, in a place of brightness, a place of verdure, a place of repose, whence all sickness, sorrow and sighing have fled away; and do thou place their souls in the tabernacles of the righteous; and make them worthy of peace and repose. For the dead praise Thee not, O Lord, neither do those in Hades dare to offer Thee confession, but we, the living, bless Thee and supplicate Thee and offer favorable prayers and sacrifices for their souls.”
As we can see, there are words here that can also be considered intercession for souls that are in hell.
—These prayers have meaning when they are known, just as any other prayers a person reads in church, right?
—Of course. There is corresponding explanatory literature for people who want to know about the rich treasure of Orthodox services. After all, it is makes no sense to stand next to a sumptuous table that belongs to you by right, a table that was set for you and to which you are invited every day, yet stubbornly eat only stale, moldy crusts, saying that you are too busy, don’t understand the texts, or some other excuse.
—Practice shows that many parishioners—precisely those you were talking about: the zealous, conscious, and constant—greet with great joy the return of the kneeling prayers to liturgical life.
— Yes. Kneeling returns us to our customary rhythm of prostrations accepted in Church life. Nevertheless, we must remember: we do not always kneel during the services, even after Pentecost. In speaking of prostrations, what do they mean? The symbolic meaning of a prostration is the remembrance of man’s renewal in Christ. We fall to our knees, showing our fallenness, our moral fall. But we rise from our knees because Christ called us to rise from them. And this is the path of our whole life: we fall and get up, fall again and get up again. Therefore, prostrations are part of the prayer rule of an Orthodox person—the everyday prayer rule. Moreover if we look at the rule of morning and evening prayers, the prayers of preparation for Holy Communion, we see: “and prostrations as desired”. That is, as much as you feel your unworthiness, that is how many prostrations you make—and as many times also hope in God’s mercy. A prostration is not just slavish bowing; there is also a moment of rising. Incidentally, recall that “rising” in Greek is anastasis; that is, resurrection. This is food for thought, for every day. Every prostration to the ground is a reminder of both the fall into sin, and of man’s rebirth through the Resurrection of Christ. That we kneel on Pentecost is simply a reminder that without God, well, this is what we are. But the Holy Spirit, Who descends during Pentecost, brings us up to the path of salvation—if only we would not hinder Him by our sins.