Orthodox Metropolitan Bishop, Serbian Patriarchate
1. Concerning prayer as the source of peace-making
As we approach the given topic, it is necessary, to first briefly answer the question: what is prayer? If, regarding this question, we consult the lavish and ancient Christian tradition, what calls for special attention is the striking description of the manifestation of the Church of God in this world – Ecclesia orans. Indeed, the Christian Church expresses her mode of existence exactly as a petitioner, that is, as the one who abides in communion with the Triune God. Hence, everyone who partakes of the Body of Christ, whether as a member of a liturgical community or individually, builds up their relationship with God and colorfully expresses the mode of their existence through the communion of prayer with the Lord. This sacramental dimension of the communion of prayer of the Holy Trinity and mankind is made eternal through the biblical description of the life of Adam and Eve in Eden, where our ancestors have “seen God face to face”. Therefore, Christian life is unthinkable and unsustainable without prayer as a form of “spatial time” where there is the encounter with the speaking and acting God (Deus loquens and Deus agens). But in order to acquire active participation in such Divine activity (opus Dei), it is necessary for the Holy Spirit to come, dwell within us and purify us, “for we know not what we should pray for as we ought but the Spirit himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8: 26).
Through prayer and giving thanks for such a gift, Christians come to live on the threshold of eternity. Or more precisely, liturgical time becomes, in fact, eschatological time, which transforms created time into eternity. Simultaneously, the respective dimension also means that the life of prayer creates a Christian into a vessel “of the great Mystery of godliness” (1 Timothy 3: 16), a participant of the life in Christ, of which the apostle Paul emphatically declares: “… yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2: 20). Consequently, it should be noted that the prayerful union with Christ through the grace of the Holy Spirit is in fact one of the goals of the practice of ceaseless prayer (the Jesus prayer) in the Orthodox Church, meaning that Christ Himself comes to dwell and pray within us.
Having all this in mind, we should point to the fact that one of the indisputable fruits of the liturgical union of Orthodox Christians with Christ is peace. Nevertheless, peace acquired this way cannot be understood simply as a psychological category or, as the ancient Greeks noted, ἡ ἀταραξία – the acquisition of psychic serenity or peace. As we acquire the Peace of God, we find ourselves at peace with the entire world and begin perceiving creation overall as a gift of the Holy Trinity. The great Russian saint, St. Seraphim of Sarov, would usually say in this regard: “Be at peace with God, and thousands of people around you shall find peace”, alluding thereby to the essence of the acquired peace – the return to the bosom of the heavenly Father.
Accordingly, it would be appropriate to notice that the prayerful acquisition of peace reveals the true nature of human love for the Divine (love for God), which is in turn based on the Divine and salvific love for man (Philanthropy), manifested in the person of Christ. Above all, Christians refer to the Logos of God and Son of Man as Peace, which is the organic element of Paul’s preaching to the Ephesians; for, “He is our peace, who has made us both one, and had broken down the dividing of the hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace…” (Ephesians 2: 14-15). Finally, a significantly wider perspective concerning the establishment of peace, rooted in the prayer of the Orthodox Church, is met in the Divine Eucharist.
2. The Divine Liturgy as prayer of peace and activity of peace-making par excellence
An authentic interpretation of the essential relationship of the Divine Eucharist and all other Sacraments with prayer in Christian life, is impossible without an understanding of the Divine Liturgy as the All-Encompassing Mystery of the Church. If we start examining the prayerful foundations of Christian peace-making in such a context, we will notice that the assembling of Christians in one place assumes a multifaceted dimension of communal prayer for peace, a call for peace-making, an empirical foretaste or foreshadowing of the peace of the Kingdom of God and its distribution to the entire world.
At the very beginning of the Divine Liturgy, Orthodox Christians are encouraged to pray in peace through the first three petitions of the Great Litany. The words “In peace let us pray to the Lord” invite those participating in the public work of the Church to offer their prayer in peace, for which St. John Chrysostom says is the “mother of every good”. With the petition “For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord”, we point to the next stadium of acquiring Divine peace which, according to Apostle Paul, “passes all understanding…” (Philippians 4: 7). This peace, kept in the “hearts and minds of the Christians through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4: 7), is bestowed upon the entirety of creation thereby permeating it, with the goal of transformation and salvation of the world, of which, after all, speaks the subsequent petition: “For the peace of the whole world, for the welfare of the holy churches of God, and for the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord”.
Excluding the described petitions from the beginning of the Divine Eucharist, particular importance is to be given, within the venerable Eucharistic work of the theanthropic community – namely, to the offering of peace to the gathered community performed by the presiding clergyman. As he approaches the middle of the church face to face with all the participants of the Holy Liturgy, the bishop or priest blesses the gathered people with the sign of the cross, saying: “Peace be to all!”, and this happens shortly before the reading of the Gospel, before the common proclamation of the Nicene Creed, before the offering of the Lamb (Amnos) and communion of the clergy and laity. It is without any doubt that in these Eucharistic actions we ought to recognize the undisputed actualization of Christ’s words: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you” (John 14: 27). But above all, these are specific moments of epiclesis which do not only make present the event of Pentecost and the outpouring of the grace of the Paraclete, but also open the mind of the participants in the liturgical gathering and deliver to them the peace of the Kingdom of God by means of which, in turn, the abundant meaning of all the events of the economy of salvation are understood. What occurs in these blessed moments is exactly what can be read in the description of the Gospel of John: “Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and said unto them, “Peace be unto you”. And when he said this, he showed unto them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad, when they saw the Lord. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said unto them, Receive ye the Holy Spirit…” (John 20: 19-23).
The acquiring and establishing of the overall life of prayer of Christians is being completed or complemented in the Divine Eucharist through the communion of the Body and Blood of the Lord, that is, the Son of God as the Offering of peace, which is done “once and for all”. And indeed, the salvation of the entirety of creation in Christ Jesus and its coming to peace with God, which has the love of the Holy Trinity as its source and summation point, is elucidated and experienced in the fullest way possible at the Table of the Kingdom to come. Only in the light of such sacramental life can we say that “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5: 1). For that reason, we should not be surprised to hear that the former dismissal at the Holy Liturgy in the Orthodox Church used to follow after the words: “Let us depart in peace”. The message was above all powerful and meaningful. Christians were, in the end, being dismissed and sent out to the world in peace, so that the acquired peace of the Kingdom of God, which is the all-permeating mystery of the Holy Trinity, would sanctify and transform even the smallest bit and briefest moment of the created world. Despite the different and various social and cultural challenges of our time, the same message continues to be proclaimed by the Orthodox Church even today.
Although contemporary man – perhaps today more than ever before – is faced with a rapidly changing world, his thirst for everlasting peace, an enlightening faith and constant cultural dialogue, cannot be quenched by solely political and economic means. These are, of course, necessary and of crucial significance, but they are still far from enough. Therefore, the role and responsibility of every religious man in the process of testifying and building up of peace are most precious. Having this in mind, I repeat the words of St. Seraphim: “Be at peace with God, and thousands of people around you shall find peace”. This means that we as faithful people, regardless of our religion, need to be authentic representatives of God in the world, primarily through works and only then through words, that is, by means of public engagement. In a world which will always remain a place of unrest, we will, by doing so, with hope in God and to the extent to which it is possible contribute to the establishment of peace between individuals and nations.
This is precisely what we are taught by the Christian saints. They truly were and still are the greatest peace-makers, because the prayers of the Saints of God have a far greater impact on the peace in the world than any other human effort. Above all, the saints contribute to the establishment of peace on earth through their existence in Christ Jesus as Peace, “for in him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17: 28).
Finally, allow me to bring this humble presentation to an end with the words of one petition from the Liturgy, written down in the work of the Apostolic Constitutions, originating from the fourth century C.E. from the martyric lands of the even now tragically suffering Syria. They go as follows: “Let us pray for the peace and happy settlement of the world, and of the holy churches; that the God of the whole world may afford us His everlasting peace, and such as may not be taken away from us; that He may preserve us in a full prosecution of such virtue as is according to godliness” (The Bidding Prayer for the Faithful, Apostolic Constitutions VIII, Section 2, X).