In writing to his spiritual son Timothy, the Holy Apostle Paul charges him, “Do not neglect the gift … which was given to you …” (1Tim 4:14) and again he says, “Guard that which was committed to your trust…” (1Tim 6:20). Both of these instructions refer to the spiritual gifts which are given to Timothy, however, they also indicate the importance of caring for those blessings which we have been given. We all have experienced such spiritual blessings in our own lives, the grace which we received in our baptism and in the other sacraments or the encouragement of the joy of God which we experience at times. But not all of these spiritual gifts are intangible. In the book of the Acts of the Apostles, it is described how those things which had been blessed by the Apostle – handkerchiefs or aprons – were brought to the sick who were then healed by their touch. From this we see that the grace of God is not only found in intangible experiences but also in tangible things. We know this as well from our own experience in the Church, for every sacrament consists not only of the prayers and spiritual components, but also of physical components: the water of baptism, the oil of anointing, the bread and wine of Holy Communion, etc. We also interact with many other blessed or holy things in our lives: for example, the relics of saints or wonderworking icons. In addition, we often receive holy things for our personal use: holy water, prosphora, holy oil or myrrh from miraculous icons, etc. We receive these many gifts of grace, both tangible and intangible, from God and so we too should heed the charge of the Apostle to “Guard that which is given to (us)” and not to neglect these gifts of grace.
It is especially important to learn care for the tangible gifts of grace, the “holy things” that we receive and to teach our children to care for them as well. In our environment of “throw away” goods and mass produced plenty, it is often easy to forget that spiritual things have a worth that is hidden and unseen and which makes them valuable beyond price. We have all seen or heard of the care that is taken with holy things such as the Most Holy Body and Most Precious Blood of Christ. Care is taken so that not a drop of the Precious Blood is ever spilled nor a crumb of the Holy Body is ever left behind. The antimens on the Holy Table catches any crumbs that may fall from the paten during the consecration and below that is another cloth which catches anything that might somehow get brushed from the antimens. And when the chalice is brought out, extreme care is given so that it is not jostled or bumped and that the Mysteries are transferred directly from cup to mouth on the spoon. A cloth is stretched out beneath the chalice so that any inadvertent drops might be caught before they are lost and the lips are wiped clean so that no morsel of the Mysteries remain unprotected. We see this every time we come to the Liturgy. But then when we are given that which is blessed: the prosphora, we drop crumbs, we take a bit and leave it lie, we neglect it and don’t care for it. Each crumb of prosphora is more valuable than pure gold or diamond dust for it contains the blessing and grace of God. How then do we care for these things?
Prosphora, the bread from which the Lamb is taken, is blessed in the liturgy and is in its own right something holy. We have to be careful not to neglect it or treat it carelessly. When receiving the prosphora we must be careful not to drop even a crumb on the floor and it should be eaten immediately. Prosphora, like the Mysteries, should be consumed having fasted beforehand. It isn’t a “snack” or “appetizer” but it is a blessing and should be treated as such. When we give some to our children, we should be very diligent in teaching them also not to be careless with this blessing but to treat every crumb carefully. Too often we see little children scatter crumbs all over the floor where they are walked on and then swept up and discarded as trash. When you receive the prosphora then, cup it in the palm of your hand and take it directly to your mouth. Make sure no crumbs are left in your hand. Do not carry around the prosphora and hand it out as if it were a party favor. Prosphora should only be received by those who are Orthodox Christians. (Prosphora should not be given to the animals or scattered for the birds to eat either). There is a pious custom of taking some prosphora home to consume during the week as you break the fast each morning. If you do this, then transfer the prosphora from your palm directly into a plastic bag or napkin and then wrap it up carefully so that no crumbs fall from it. Then keep it in a safe place, ideally with your icons at home. In the Russian tradition, we send in small loaves to the altar with our requests for commemoration or prayer which also have pieces taken out of them and included on the paten with the Lamb. These prosphorae when they are returned to you should be treated with the same care as the prosphora that you receive at the end of the liturgy.
Another “holy thing” that we all frequently have at home is holy water. This too must be treated with respect. It should not be spilled carelessly and then stepped on or poured down the drain. The holy water should be drunk from a glass dedicated to that purpose. Pour a little into the glass, then empty the glass in three sips while maintaining an attitude of prayer. Allow the glass to dry by evaporation before it is washed and even then it should be rinsed at first with clean water and that water poured out on a place where it will not be stepped upon (in a flower bed or near the foundation of a building for example). We frequently receive many items that have been blessed during a service at the Church and these should be all be treated with equal respect. Palm and willow branches that are blessed and distributed to the faithful on Palm Sunday are a good example of this. These branches should be taken home and placed with the icons. If a bud falls off the willow branch, or if the branch itself is to be discarded, it should not be thrown in the trash, but burned and the ashes buried in an out of the way place as with the holy water.
In our homes we all have icons and often we receive a print of an icon as a gift or a remembrance. Our icons, whether painstakingly painted in egg tempra on a board or whether printed on a printing press and mass produced, should also be treated with respect and honor. Paper icons are frequently neglected and lost in the bottom of a pile of papers, or used as a bookmark and then forgotten, or even folded up and tossed in the trash. Sometimes the neglect is so great that icons or even the Gospel will be used as an impromptu coaster under a glass of water or cup of coffee. This is indeed extreme neglect and disrespect for that which is holy and we simply have to be attentive and thoughtful in how we treat these things.
There is another error related to these things which falls in the opposite extreme and that is when we elevate these things above their proper place and misuse them. They are holy because of the blessing of God, but in their essence they are nothing. We are given these holy things as tools to help us in our spiritual growth and development. They are not “good luck charms” or some kind of magical talisman. They must be part of our prayer filled life. Prosphora is not some kind of magic charm that simply by its presence wards off bad luck or evil. Holy water is not some kind of magic fluid that on its own will change lead into gold – or will render that which is harmful into something harmless. These things are not some kind of “miracle grow” which we feed to plants or animals to make them somehow better. Icons are not a talisman to ward off evil. These things in and of themselves have no power or positive effect but because they are blessed by God they are properly used as a part of our own life of prayer. When we misuse these holy things in this way, it is just as bad as if we had neglected them.
What then do we do with those things – dried bread, old icons or other holy items – of which we wish to dispose in a respectful manner? Such things should be burned and then the ashes buried in a place where they will not be walked upon. Holy water or oil from an icon lamp can be poured out, as mentioned before, in a similar place, but it should never be poured down the common drain. If you have any such “holy trash” to dispose of and don’t know what to do with it, then bring it to the Church and give it to the priest so that it may be dealt with respectfully and prayerfully.
God has given us many great gifts and all of them require our careful and prayerful attention. When we neglect these gifts, whether spiritual or physical, then we have neglected as well the Giver of those gifts and the disrespect that we bestow upon those gifts ascends also to their Giver. Let us be good and careful stewards of the gifts of God, using them as they were intended to be used for our spiritual well being and growth but not neglecting them and allowing them to suffer disrespect. Take care of those things that God has given to you and use them well.