Thursday, November 23, 2006

Helena's Blessing

Over the last twenty years since my ordination to the holy priesthood within the Eastern Orthodox Church, I have experienced nearly every reaction from other people that a priest might reasonably be expected to have, ranging from the genuine piety of those who love Christ and thus give honor to His servants, to the hostility of those who stridently reject traditional ecclesiology, and with that, the need for an ordained priesthood.

However, last Sunday after the Divine Liturgy at St. Barnabas, I was treated to the one reaction that above all others I personally cherish.

This occurred when young Helena, one of the many toddlers in our parish, approached me at coffee-hour (The time of fellowship after the divine services) and babbled something to me in her delightfully unintelligible toddler-English. As is usual for me, and with the utter cluelessness of an adult who is no longer fluent in such a wonderfully complex pre-language, I just smiled dumbly back at her and replied something like “Oh, is that so? Well, isn’t that just grand!” Usually a response along those lines will light up her whole face, and she will then waddle off to her next great adventure. But on that day, something rather different happened.

As I sat there, earnestly pretending to understand whatever the heck it was that she thought she was saying, it soon became obvious that she was not getting the response from me that she desired. Her joyous expression, underlined by her beautifully sweet and semi-toothed grin, soon dissolved into the very picture of royal impatience as, like a princess, she stood before me waiting for me to fulfill her regal demands. Just like Strother Martin and Paul Newman in that famous scene from the movie Cool Hand Luke, what we had between us was a genuine “failure to communicate”. Looking at her, I asked, “What is it, Sweetie?” I didn’t have to wait long for her answer. Immediately she grabbed my right hand with both of her pudgy little toddler hands and pulled it toward her lips to plant a loving kiss upon the back of it. “Oh, you want a blessing!,” I said, and promptly formed my fingers into the “IC-XC” shape which spells out the first and last letters of the words “Jesus” and “Christ” in Greek, and traced them in the Sign of the Cross over her in the traditional manner. The instant return of her joyous smile assured me that I had finally stumbled upon the right comeback. Thusly satisfied to have received the blessing of her priest, she then spun a bit unsteadily on her heels and ran off to her mom who was standing a few feet behind her, watching with joy.

As I sat there in the wake of her absence, I contemplated what a beautiful thing it was in which I had just been privileged to participate. I couldn’t help but recall to my mind the story in the gospels of the parents who brought their little children to Jesus to be blessed by Him. His disciples took offense at this, and told the parents to stop wasting the Master’s time. Perhaps they thought Jesus’ message was for adults only, even as the many Protestant denominations today which refuse to allow small children to be baptized or to become participants in the Eucharistic community. Jesus rebuked His disciples, telling them to permit the little children to come to Him unhindered. In another place in the gospels He told us that unless we ourselves “become as children” we shall not see the kingdom of heaven.

What are some of the characteristics of little children that our Master would want us to imitate? For one thing, children only know what they are taught. They naturally absorb the customs and traditions of the good families they are raised within and do not seek to reinvent these to suit their own whims. They delight in hearing the old stories from their grandparents and perhaps even great-grandparents, and by these priceless experiences, gain a sense of rootedness, identity, and belonging. With such a firm foundation established for them in their youth, such children are more likely to maintain the family customs, and in time, pass them on to their own children. Families such as these are truly blessed.

Little Helena is lucky to belong to two families; one, the earthly family of her bloodline, the other, the heavenly family of God which is called the Church. As her heavenly family imprints its customs and traditions upon her earthly family, she in turn absorbs the Christian way of life from them. From the moment of her baptism, 40 days after her birth, she was brought into the “community of the faithful” and given the Precious and Life-giving Body and Blood of Christ to nourish her new and growing life in Him. She has been carried into church by her parents or grandparents since her infancy, and watched as they revered the holy icons, or lit a candle in prayer, or read from the Holy Scriptures, or bowed when the deacon censed them, or kissed the hand of the priest. Quite naturally she has taken to these outward expressions of faith, as in fact nearly all children who are exposed to them do. She did not choose to become an Orthodox Christian; that choice was made for her by her parents. But as she grows, the foundation that is now being formed for her will make it much easier for her to accept the faith of her heavenly (And earthly) family as her own. Perhaps one day she will pass on the customs and traditions of her family to her own children, as indeed Orthodox Christians have done for nearly 2000 years.

Many Christian believers today have not been exposed to these customs and traditions of the ancient Orthodox Church, or perhaps have been influenced by “protestant” beliefs to be suspicious of them. Perhaps some may even be personally offended at the idea of a toddler seeking the blessing of a priest or kissing his hand. I suppose we could say that such people are at least in good company, for our Lord’s own disciples once made this same mistake. However, it would be so much better for these people (And for their children!) to look beyond such initial reactions, and to engage in a personal and open-minded study of historic Christian Orthodoxy. While there are many who do not yet realize this, the Orthodox Church is truly their “family” as well. The customs and traditions of the Orthodox Church represent the full expression and realization of the Christian faith delivered to the apostles “once, for all” and handed down within the family ever since. These things represent the common inheritance of all Christians. Though many believers may presently be estranged from this family and may not understand many of its customs, the Orthodox Church warmly welcomes all of its children back and beckons them to experience what they have been missing. Those of us who have accepted this invitation and have been received into the Orthodox Church as converts, have truly understood ourselves as “coming home” and have learned to deeply appreciate our Christian ancestors for all that they accomplished to keep the family intact and well for our sakes.

I suppose one day young Helena will grow up and look back on her childhood experiences with a similar gratitude. On that day she will bless God that she did not have to go looking for her spiritual family, or wonder if such a family even existed. Having been raised in the Church, she will always know she is one of God’s family, and have that wonderful sense of belonging so vital to human beings. I felt very happy for her as I saw the joy in her face over the blessing I gave her. Yeah, maybe she is a little too young to understand what it all means to her now. But one day she will understand, and loving her Lord Jesus Christ just as her family taught her to do, the joy she experiences even now will be made complete.

Blessed is our merciful God!


At 11/24/2006 5:23 PM , Anonymous Kevin said...

Fr. Michael,

My eyes are teary as I read this story of my grandaughter, Helena. You do "our family proud" with this tender and touching story of her "baby faith" and simple acceptance of the "faith which was once for all delivered to the saints." This story will be printed, kept and handed down to her as part of her "spiritual legacy". Thank you very much for this blessing!

At 11/25/2006 3:32 PM , Anonymous Trenna said...

Father Michael,
That is one of the most lovely stories I have ever heard. I pray that I will be so blessed to see the faith of my grandchildren! This is what it is all about!!!

At 11/26/2006 4:28 PM , Anonymous Bruce said...

Just an unbelievably beautiful story. Makes whatever hair I have left stand up!! Thanks for sharing this with us Father Michael.

At 12/02/2006 7:45 PM , Blogger jen-o said...

Fr Michael,

I loved this post! What a beautiful picture you painted. You should add a real photo of Helena here in your post and then it would be even more complete! =)

At 12/30/2006 9:13 AM , Blogger Petros said...

Helena is such a beautiful child, with such a gentle, joyful soul. It is no surprise to me that she would ask for your blessing already. Two people who were the biggest influences on me in my journey toward Orthodoxy were little Basil and Navah. For such is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Lovely story Father.


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