Consider Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and the three hundred and eighteen born in his house (Gen. 14:14). How the whole house was harmoniously knit together, how the whole was full of piety and fulfilled the Apostolic injunction. She also "reverenced her husband;" for hear her own words, "It hath not yet happened unto me even until now, and my lord is old also" (Gen 18:12). And he again so loved her, that in all things he obeyed her commands. And the young child was virtuous and the servants born in the house, they too were so excellent that they refused not even to hazard their lives with their master; they delayed not, nor asked the reason. Nay, one of them, the chief, was so admirable, that he was even entrusted with the marriage of the only-begotten child, and with a journey into a foreign country (Gen. 24:1-67). For just as with a general when his soldiery also is well organized, the enemy has no quarter to attack; so, I say, is it also here: when husband and wife and children and servants are all interested in the same things, great is the harmony of the house. Since where this is not the case, the whole is oftentimes overthrown and broken up by one bad servant; and that single one will often mar and utterly destroy the whole.
The house and its adornments must be concordant with the Christian's desire for spiritual development and eternal salvation. The home and personal adornment should be unpretentious and unostentatious. Let the house be handsome, but do not let "... what is handsome degenerate into finery."
The home should be adorned so that an air of soberness rather than perfume is inhaled. The good consequences accruing from this for both husband and wife are, at least, three. First, the wife will not be grieved if any of her furnishings or beautifications are stolen, destroyed, or reclaimed by their several owners.
Secondly, the husband will neither be anxious for the security of their accumulated treasures nor angered by their loss. Thirdly, the husband and wife will not take pleasure in these material possessions and therefore can concern themselves with spiritual matters.
Luxuries, money are worse than ordinary dust and dirt, because they sully the soul; ordinary dust only sullies the body, clothing, or room. O, how necessary it is to despise luxuries, money and dress besides!
The house in which Christians live is the abode where the members of the family will spend the majority of their lives. It is here, not in society, nor at the market place, where individuals will learn of the important things of the Christian life. It is in the Christian home that individuals will be able to work out their eternal salvation. It is in the Christian home, that children will be raised and taught by word and action what it means to be Christian. It is in the Christian home that all of the teachings of Christ and of the Church can be practiced. The Christian home can and should provide all these things, because each home in which an Orthodox Christian family resides should be considered a "family church." Making the dwelling a family church is spiritually edifying for all its inhabitants. St. John Chrysostom states that it is no small thing that Aquila and Priscilla... "had made their very house a church" (1 Cor. 16:19).
The Family Church and Eternal Salvation
The Christian home being the family church in no way implies that the household is independent of the diocese, the parish church or the community of Orthodox Christians. The family church cannot exist as an entity independent from the parish church, but must exist as an integral part and continuation of the parish. As soon as the husband decides to break his family church off from the parish church and become autocephalous (selfgoverning), he has already separated himself and his family from the whole Church. His house can no longer be considered a family church and loses the outpouring of God's grace which formerly had been granted to it.
The primary purpose of the family church is the same as that of the Christian marriage: the attainment of eternal salvation. It is necessary, therefore, that the family church remain an integral part of the parish and that it and all the members of the family church draw their strength and direction from the parish. Without this foundation their strength, direction, beliefs, practices and the very love of God begin to wane or deviate from the divine truths held, guarded and taught through the parish. Basically, no Christian existence is possible outside of the Church; therefore, to separate oneself from the Church is tantamount to severing one's spiritual life-line.
The Icon Corner
The first thing that should be done when an Orthodox Christian family moves into a new apartment or house is to determine which eastern wall or corner can be turned into the icon corner. This should not be a non-conspicuous place where the icons will be hidden from people's eyes, rather it should be a very prominent spot which all can see. The icon corner should have icons of Christ and the Theotokos as well as icons of the saints for whom the family has particular devotion. Many times an Orthodox family chooses a particular saint to whom they wish to dedicate their family church, and place it under his or her protection. The icons in the icon corner of a family church dedicated to a saint will, of course, have an icon of the saint together with those of Christ and the Theotokos.
The icon corner will either have a small table or a shelf upon which may be placed prayer books, a hand censer, a bottle of holy water, a blessing-cross, the candles that the husband and wife held at their wedding, holy oil, palm branches and sometimes other religious objects. In front of the icons an oil lamp should perpetually burn. Some families burn wax votive candles before the icons; however, the tradition is to burn olive oil. Electric lights are not appropriate for use as the light to burn before icons. The traditional oil lamps require an amount of attention which electricity does not, thereby directing our physical services and thoughts to God several times a day when we are required to trim the wick and refill the lamp with oil.
The use of pure olive oil may be objected to because of its high cost; however, God is beneficent to those who think first of spiritual matters and then of themselves. A family with which I am familiar had a multitude of problems, one of which was not enough money to purchase food. The head of the family placed the household under the protection of the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary. As an offering of faith and love, the family's head promised that the lamp in the icon corner would burn only pure olive oil and that it would be allowed to go out only after there was no more food on the table and no money to buy either olive oil or food. Because of the strong faith shown by the family head, the Theotokos has miraculously provided the family with enough money to purchase both olive oil and food for months on end.
There are a number of different kinds of utensils designed for burning oil before icons. A very common one is the wick-float which utilizes cork to keep the wick and flame floating on the oil. The burning of oil before icons, its care and practice is described below:
1. The Glass. Any low, wide-mouth glass may be used for the lamp. Once used for this, however, the glass should not be reused for any other purpose. In Greece, most of the lamps are of clear glass, but colors such as red, blue or green-colored are also used. [It is advisable to use a large enough glass so that the oil will last at least 10 to 12 hours.]
2. The Oil. The use of olive oil for the lamps is a tradition which we have received even from the time of our father Moses. The olive oil will burn best if left open and allowed to age (or even become rancid).
3. The Wick. To make a wick, use cotton string about one foot in length. Do not use coated or waxed string. Cotton string of about 6 ply will be thick enough. If the wick is soaked in vinegar it will burn brighter and cleaner. If this is done, the wick should be allowed to dry thoroughly before being used.
4. The Flame. The fathers of the Holy Mountain [Athos] have taught us to use a very low flame which they call apathes, passionless. The flame should burn steadily, not flickering. The lamp will burn six to twelve hours, depending mainly on the oil, but also on the size of the flame, the weather, etc. Before relighting the lamp, remove the excess carbon from the wick and twist the string slightly to shape the wick into a point. [Candle wax may be used to make a firm point for ease in "threading" the wick. It should be trimmed off before lighting.]
5. Cleaning. The napkin or tissue used to wipe the carbon and oil from the fingers should be burned in a separate place (the home censer is the best place) and not just thrown into the garbage. Be careful not to drip or spill the oil when lighting the lamp (St. Theodore of Studion imposed a canon of thirty prostrations on the church ecclesiarch who spills oil from the icon lamps). The glass should be washed periodically, and the oil replaced anew. The water in which the lamp is washed, as well as the old oil from the icon lamp, should not be poured down the drain. It is best, rather, to pour it under plants or trees, or an area that is not walked upon.
Pious Orthodox faithful take oil frequently from the lamp and bless themselves, making the sign of the Cross on their foreheads.House Blessing
When the icon corner is in order, the priest should be called so that the home can be sanctified and dedicated as the family church. The service performed by the priest to bless the new dwelling is somewhat similar to the consecration of a church [in Russian practice] in that holy water, holy oil and incense are used and a lesson from the Holy Gospel is read. All the rooms of the house are sprinkled with holy water and each of the four outer walls are anointed with the sign of the Cross with holy oil, a candle placed before them, and after the censing of the house, the lesson from the Holy Gospel is read [in Greek practice the service of The Small Blessing of Waters is generally done]. At the conclusion of the blessing, the inhabitants are blessed with holy water: the husband first, followed by the wife and then the children—the oldest first. Relatives and friends present are then blessed.
Once a new dwelling has been blessed, it is not to be assumed that the priest need not be called periodically to bless the dwelling. Traditionally, houses are blessed annually on, or shortly after, the Feast of Theophany. The Greater Blessing of Waters takes place on this feast day; the waters from this blessing are brought into the dwelling of the parishioners and are sprinkled in all rooms by the priest. The blessing of homes by these holy waters maintains the spiritual association between the family church and the parish, as well as again providing for the sharing of God's spiritual gifts. Some Orthodox Christians ask the priest to bless their dwelling at the same time when an Akathist or Molieben (prayer service) is served by the priest in the family church. Neither the annual blessing nor the blessing in conjunction with these short services are as elaborate as the blessing of the new dwelling, but because of this it should not be overlooked, for it is in this way that the grace of God is extended to individual dwellings.
Prayer: Corporate and Private
The icon corner is the center for family prayer. It is before the icons that the Christian family should pray together as one unit. "For where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matt. 18:20). By praying together, the family members understand that it is together and as a whole that they are under God and that it is He Who directs the life of the whole family and of each individual member and they clearly realize it is God Whom they are directly responsible to. It is God and the Church which are the real foci of the family, not political leaders, psychologists, materialism, a social structure nor secular happiness. Corporate prayers by all family members allow each to strengthen the other's faith and earnestness. This creates a stronger bond of love and understanding among all the members, so that true forgiveness after a misunderstanding can more readily take place. It is here in the family that true Christian love must be learned and exercised, since if we cannot love those of our own flesh and blood, how much more difficult it will be to show Christian love towards our neighbors. If we are unable to love either family or neighbor, we are not able or worthy to love God Himself. "If anyone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, he cannot love God Whom has not seen" (1 John 4:20). Corporate family prayer can help build that necessary love of family, neighbor and God.
Many Orthodox families have the custom of singing some prayers or verses from Vespers, Orthros or Divine Liturgy and incorporating them as part of their family prayer. Other families say, rather than sing, prayers and verses, but what is most essential and important is that the prayers be alive in each person and do not become merely repetition of empty words. This vitality in prayer is an important consideration in private prayer.
Our prayer must be deep, sincere, wise, and fruitful; it must change our heart, direct our will to good, withdrawing us from evil. Superficial prayer is hypocrisy, a mocking at sacred things—vain prayer. "This people draweth nigh unto Me with their mouth, and honoreth Me with their lips; but their heart is far from Me" (Matt. 15:8).
It is very discouraging for us not to be able to pray in such a deep, sincere manner. For this reason we may not be strongly motivated to assemble the entire family for prayer, since we may feel there are too many distractions in corporate prayer which are not present in private prayer. Even with this difficulty the family must be encouraged to pray together. The devil triumphs when family prayer is abandoned for this reason.
Starets Macarius of Optina Hermitage wrote to a wife regarding prayer:
The joint prayer of husband and wife is a great force. That may be one of the reasons why the enemy is trying to get both of you to break this excellent habit. [This is] one more temptation which God permits so that you should learn to overcome it and come out of the testing stronger than before!In the private prayers of each member of the family church are included prayers for every other member. Members of the family church always must pray in all possible ways, for the grace of God to guide and strengthen each other and for God-pleasing harmony in the family church. It is only with reliance on God and in obedience to God that this will take place. The harmony and spiritual strength of the family church is necessary since it is the ark of our salvation.
Read the words of St. John of Kronstadt on praying for each other:
"Behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat" (Lk. 22:31). It is he who so greatly distracts our thoughts in the temple during Divine Service and at home during prayer; it is he who draws away your thoughts from God, from our souls and the souls of others, from heavenly and eternal things; it is he who occupies us with early trifles or with earthly vanity, with earthly nothingness, with earthly allurements, with food, drink, dress, houses, etc. We must pray for each other that our faith should not fail as the Savior prayed for Peter.In addition to the prayers each member of the family offers for the other members, he should pray once a day for all other members of the Church-at-large and for certain persons. Each day prayers should be offered for the whole Church, our country, its civil authorities, for Orthodox Christian countries, for our bishops, priests, deacons, monks and nuns, for our parish priest, for our spiritual father, for the old and the young, for the poor, the destitute, orphans and widows. We must pray daily for those whom we have offended, scandalized or led into evil, and for those who hate us or offend us. Daily we also should remember in prayer the Orthodox deceased of our family, God-parents, friends and Church leaders.
Formal prayers of commemoration which may be used in conjunction with daily private prayers can be found in some publications of Orthodox prayer books. A comprehensive commemoration of the living and departed can be found as the last portion of Morning Prayers in the Prayer Book published by Holy Trinity Monastery.
Orthodox Christians having Orthodox family, God-parents, or friends fallen asleep in Christ should request the parish priest to hold a Panikhida on the fortieth day after death, the sixth month, the first year after the death, and each year on the same date.
In conjunction with the Panikhida, koliva (boiled wheat with sugar and/or hard candies) usually is prepared and taken to the Church to be blessed at the service. The wheat represents to Orthodox the promise of future life, for since the wheat only gives life after it has been buried in the earth, so too man will rise from the dead. The sugar and sweets remind us that death is sweet and for a pious Orthodox Christian to die is no tragedy. "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints" (Ps. 115:6).
At the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, names of members of the family church, Orthodox relatives, friends and spiritual leaders, both living and deceased, are submitted to the parish priest for him to commemorate in the Proskomedia. The names are placed in a special commemoration book held by the family which is submitted together with a prosphora (offering bread) obtainable at the Church's candle-stand [in Russian practice], or baked by one of the members of the family specifically for the purpose of making commemorations.
Prosphora is made without milk, eggs or butter. A recipe and helpful hints for the making of prosphora can be found in A Lenten Cookbook for Orthodox Christians, published by St. Nectarios Press).
Another aspect of an Orthodox Christian's prayer life is the blessing of the bed before retiring. This is done by one's tracing a large Cross over it and dedicating one's sleeping hours to God. This practice should be taught to children as soon as they are able to coordinate the movement. Adults should not consider the blessing of their bed as something "cute," only for children, but as something for all Orthodox Christians and therefore they also should adhere to this custom.
Saint Cyril of Jerusalem writes about making the sign of the Cross:
Let us not then be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the Cross our seal made with boldness by our fingers on our brow and in everything; over the bread we eat, and the cups we drink; in our comings in, and goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are in the way and when we are still. Great is that preservative; it is without price, for the poor's sake; without toil, for the sick, since also its grace is from God. It is the Sign of the faithful, and the dread of evils; for He has triumphed over them in it, having made a shew of them openly; for when they see the Cross, they are reminded of the Crucified; they are afraid of Him, Who hath bruised the heads of the dragon. Despise not the Seal, because of the freeness of the Gift; but for this rather honor thy Benefactor.Scripture reading and study is an integral part of a Christian's prayer life. Holy Scripture is God's revelation to man and it is through this revelation that the Christian receives guidance and direction so he or she may live a virtuous life. The study of Scripture strengthens his faith in God, renews his spiritual life and keeps him free from despair—the life- and soul-destroying sin. The reading and study of Holy Scripture helps the Christian to understand why the Church directs him to think and act in ways which are not always in the mainstream of secular society.
St. John of Damascus in Exposition of the Orthodox Faith tells us:
...to search the Scriptures is a work most fair and most profitable for souls. For just as the tree planted by the channels of waters, so also the soul watered by the Divine Scripture is enriched and gives fruit in its season, viz., Orthodox belief, and is adorned with evergreen leafage, I mean actions pleasing to God. For through the Holy Scriptures we are trained to action that is pleasing to God, and untroubled contemplation. For in these we find both exhortation to every virtue and dissuasion from every vice.It is not enough to hear the Holy Scriptures read at the Divine Services in church, rather their reading and study must be a daily affair. It is with this consistent approach that we will most readily understand God's commandments, His love, His nature and what He expects from us, His children.
Reading of Holy Scriptures may be done on an individual basis, but it is more fruitful for the family to read together the prescribed daily passages of scripture indicated on an Orthodox calendar. Reading Scripture can be done in conjunction with the family evening prayer. This practice accustoms the children to the importance of reading the inspired Word of God on a daily basis. The Epistles, Acts of the Apostles or Old Testament readings can be done by the wife or one of the children while the reading of the Gospel should be reserved for the head of the family. At the end of the Gospel reading, all present, beginning with the head of the family, kiss the Holy Gospel to show their love and respect for the written icon of God—His words.
During the reading of the Holy Scriptures at family prayer, our physical posture should not be relaxed, but we should continue to stand erect and listen to it as we stand during prayer. Prayerfully must we be attentive to the words of Holy Scripture. Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov gives advice on the reading of the Gospel:
While reading the Gospel do not seek enjoyment; do not seek ecstasies; do not seek glittering thoughts; seek to behold infallibly Holy Truth.... Read the Gospel with the greatest reverence and attention. Do not consider anything in it of little importance, little worthy of consideration. Every iota of it emits a gleam of life. Neglect of life is death.
This attentive approach of Bishop Ignatius should be applied to all Scripture reading, not only to the reading of the Holy Gospel.
Our reception of the Word of God must be as worthy and attentive as our reception of the Body and Blood of Christ. When we are administered Holy Eucharist, we take extreme care so that the Body and Blood of Christ do not fall to the ground from our lips; likewise, we should be equally careful to see to it that the Word of God does not fall away from our thoughts, actions and words. The person who carelessly receives the Word of God shares in the same guilt as the person who through neglect permits the Body and Blood of Christ to fall to the ground.
Sundays, Saturday Evenings and Feast Days
Divine Liturgy on Sundays and on feast days should never be considered as replaced by corporate family prayer in the home. On these days the family should attend the entire Divine Liturgy at the parish church, since it is here that God's greatest gift is bestowed upon us—the Body and Blood of Christ.
Saturday evenings and the eves of major feat days should be times given particular attention by the family. The attendance at the Vigil Service at the parish church is the ideal manner to spend these evenings. If, however, due to small children or illness, members of the family are not able to attend the vigil, they should spend a quiet evening in prayer and spiritual reading. Orthodox Christians should not be spending these evenings at movies, balls, or amusements, nor playing cards, cutting the grass, fishing, or involved with other secular concerns, whether within the home or without. Radios, televisions, stereos, and musical instruments are silenced on these evenings, since the day of the feast has already begun at sundown. These silent evenings are to be spend in quiet, spiritual preparation for the feast. Secular entertainments should not be recommenced until after the celebration of the Divine Liturgy on the feast day.
On the eve of a major feast day and on Saturday evenings (when the Vigil to the Resurrection of Christ is celebrated each week), Orthodox Christian husbands and wives abstain from sexual relations in order that they can direct all their thoughts, actions and concerns to spiritual growth and not be occupied with non-spiritual matters. The Christian Church does not view sexual relations between husband and wife as a base act brought about by the sin of Adam and Eve for the sole purpose of conceiving children. The abstention from physical relations at these and other times is not motivated by a mentality that views these relations as unclean or sinful. The Church Council of Gangra held in 340 A.D. decreed four canons which uphold the respectability of the marriage bed.
Canon One states:
If anyone disparages marriage, or abominates or disparages a woman sleeping with her husband, notwithstanding that she is faithful and reverent, as though she could not enter the Kingdom, let him be anathema.Canon Nine states:
If anyone should remain a virgin or observe continence as if, abominating marriage, he had become an anchorite, and not for the good standard and holy feature of virginity, let him be anathema.Canon Ten states:
If anyone leading a life of virginity for the Lord should regard married persons superciliously, let him be anathema.Canon Fourteen states:
If any woman should abandon her husband and wish to depart, because she abominates marriage, let her be anathema.The abstention from sexual relations is for the sake of spiritual matters and preparation. This reasoning is as old as the Church itself, since St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 7:5) indicates that husband and wife should not refuse each other except for times when they devote themselves to prayer.
Earlier we mentioned the hand censer as part of the icon corner. This hand censer is used in the home on eves of feasts, Saturday evenings, the beginnings of lenten periods, on the eves of name's days of the family, on the eve of the patron of the family church, and on other occasions. Some Orthodox families use the hand censer each evening at family prayer, but the minimum use of it is for the above-mentioned occasions.
The offering of incense to God is a practice which dates back to the time of Moses when God gave commands as to how to burn it.
You shall make an altar to burn incense upon ... And Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it; every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall burn it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations. You shall offer no unholy incense thereon (Ex. 30:1, 7-9).
The burning of incense as an offering to God will continue even to the end of the world, as revealed by God to St. John.
And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God (Rev. 8:3- 5).
Because of the command and revelation of God regarding the offering of incense, the Church uses incense as an acceptable offering in its Divine Services. Since the parish church uses incense, so should the family church use incense as an offering pleasing to God. On Saturday evenings, on the eves of feasts and the other already-mentioned occasions, the house is "blessed" with incense. The head of the household carries the hand censer with burning incense throughout the entire dwelling (basement and attic included) and makes the sign of the Cross on the four walls of each room and over the beds. Some Orthodox have the custom of saying with each sign of the Cross thus made: "This room (or bed) is blessed by the sign of the Holy Cross." The person censing is accompanied by all members of the household chanting "Holy God...," the troparion of the feast or Sunday or other appropriate ode, and bearing icons or candles. The procession begins at the icon corner, proceeds through the entire dwelling, and returns to the icon corner.
The hand censer, charcoal (for burning the incense) and the incense may be purchased at some parish churches or from monastic communities such as Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Brookline, Massachusetts 02146). The parish priest or deacon would be happy to show parishioners how to light the charcoal and offer incense.
The charcoal and incense ashes should not be discarded in the garbage, but should be put along the foundation of the building, buried in the ground or put in some other appropriate place where no one will step on them.
Feast days are celebrated by Orthodox families as special and joyous occasions. These days are not regarded as normal days and for this reason Orthodox homes often are decorated especially for the feast. The decorating of the home and icon corner can be a project for the parents together with the children. The decorations themselves, the decorating, and the blessing of the house with the hand censer, all place emphasis on the specialness and the importance of the feast. These are not to be surpassed by any secular celebrations at home, for after all, the Orthodox home is a family church and God is at the center of its existence. There is nothing so empty as a Christmas celebrated, as many westerners do, so that the house decorations, the meal, the gifts, or the family get-together are the center and reason for the celebration. In other words, Christ has been made alien to the celebration.
The Name Day Celebration
The first name given to a child is always a Christian name. It is the saint of this name who is the patron of the child. Many times the child receives the name of a saint who is commemorated on the day or near to the day of the child's birth. Sometimes the child is named after a saint for whom the family has special devotion. An adult who becomes Orthodox generally will be given a Christian name by the priest who accepts him into the Faith or he will be allowed to choose his own patron saint to whom he has a strong attachment.
It is to our patron saint that we should pray and have special devotion, so that we may receive an abundance of God's blessings. Not only should we hold our patron saint in special reverence, but also we should have an icon of the saint in our room and in the icon corner. His or her life should be read and studied, so that we may learn how our lives should be directed. On the feast day of the saint, we celebrate our name day and the saint's day. This day is considered as our birthday into the Church and on this day we celebrate this important event.
Orthodox, many times, celebrate their name day by inviting Orthodox family and friends to their home which may be decorated for the occasion. An icon of the saint is displayed in a prominent place and often is decorated with flowers. The priest may be requested to serve an Akathist or Molieben (prayer service) to the saint on this day either in the home or in the church.
The difference between the celebration of one's day of physical birth and of one's name day is that on the former the person whose birthday it is, is the center of attention, whereas on the latter, the saint is the focal point. For this reason the icon of the saint is prominently displayed. The saint being the center does not imply that the person is forgotten, for he is wished by all a "Happy name day," or is sung "God grant you many years." The latter might be thought of as the capstone of all name day celebrations.
Placing the saint as the center of attention on one's name day ties the whole celebration in with the entire Church—both the living and those fallen asleep in Christ, since it is on this day that the Church is commemorating the saint. Our friends and relatives are not alone in their celebration, but do so together with the whole Church. Their prayers are directed to the saint so that his or her prayer to God on our behalf may bring us God's bountiful blessings.
One's name day is not only a day for celebration but also is a day for our spiritual growth. We should try to go to confession and to receive the Holy Eucharist on this day. In parishes where this is not always possible, one should do so on the Sunday or feast that is nearest the saint's feast day.
Deceased family members and friends should be remembered in prayer on the feast day of their patron saint.
Four periods of fasting as well as nearly all the Wednesdays and Fridays of the year are observed by Orthodox Christians by abstaining from flesh meat and dairy products. The regulations of fasting for these days and periods can be found in an easy-to-follow outline in A Lenten Cookbook for Orthodox Christians. Periods and days of fast with the fasting regulations are also noted in the St. Nectarios wall calendar. Both are available from St. Nectarios Press.
The prescriptions for fasting are not easy to keep but neither is Christ's mandate to us to be as perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48). Many times Orthodox view fasting from foods as nearly impossible to do, and yet this aspect of fasting is really the easiest.
... in fasting one must not only obey this rule about food, but refrain from every other sin in order that, while the stomach is fasting, the tongue also may fast, refraining from slander, lies, idle talk, disparaging one's brethren, anger and every other sin committed by the tongue. One should also fast with the eyes, that is, not look at vain things, not give freedom to the eyes, not look shamelessly and without fear at anyone. The hands and feet should also be kept form any evil action.
The fasting periods are observed in Orthodox homes by an increase in individual and family prayer, Scripture reading and other spiritual reading and endeavors. Entertainment is cut to a bare minimum so that our spiritual effort is not distracted by secular concerns. In many Orthodox homes the operation of televisions, radios and record players is suspended or severely restricted throughout the lenten periods.
Holy Water and Oil
A bottle of holy water, blessed in the parish church, is kept in the icon corner and sometimes by individuals in their rooms. This holy water is to be used, not left on the shelf, and disposed of when newly sanctified holy water is obtained.
Holy water may be used in cases where a person falls under the power of evil spirits. The individual should be encouraged to drink some of the sanctified water and be sprinkled with it. At times when members of the family feel an especially evil force within the home, the head of the family should sprinkle the inside walls of the family church with holy water in the same manner as is done by the priest. Other members of the family, bearing candles or icons accompany him during this sprinkling. The evil spirits should be exorcised by this sprinkling of sanctified water; however, if their force persists, the priest should be asked to come and bless the family church.
As the first thing taken into the body, holy water (together with a piece of antidoron, if this available) may be drunk in the morning. It is drunk at times of temptation and in times of illness, in fits of anger; it may be used to sign the Cross on sores and cuts.
Oil is referred to frequently in both the Old and New Testaments as a main source of good, for lighting, for healing, for anointing and for cosmetic purposes. The practice of anointing with oil is observed today in the Orthodox Church as it was in apostolic times. The anointing with oil takes place in the Mysteries of Baptism and Holy Unction and at the All-night Vigil Service on the eves of important feasts.
Oil symbolizes God's mercy and when used in anointing it is a visible embodiment of the grace of healing. Christians, therefore, often keep small bottles of holy oil in their icon corner and anoint themselves and others of their family with the sign of the Cross in holy oil. This anointing is usually done on the individual's forehead and is used for the same reasons for which holy water is used.
Oil taken from oil lamps burning in holy places, where saints and holy persons are buried, and in front of miraculous icons is considered to be blessed by God and is used often by Orthodox Christians in the same manner as oil which has been blessed in a formal manner in church.
Holy water and holy oil are both restorative and protective when they are used with faith and belief in the grace of the Holy Spirit that sanctified them.
Illness in the Family Church
When the sickness of a member of the family church entails his or her absence from Divine Liturgy, this should impel the family members who do attend the service to bring home antidoron (blessed bread) for him or her. Antidoron is not a substitute for Holy Communion, but is for those who, for one reason or another, are unable to receive the Eucharist. Those ill at home benefit spiritually and physically from this link with the healing Church of Christ.
During times of illness, Orthodox Christians do not put their faith entirely in medicines, medical personnel or home remedies as the answer and cure for their physical or mental illness. Holy water and blessed oil are used freely as some of God's gifts to help us at these times. Prayers said by the infirm and other family members are extremely important during illnesses within the family church.
The priest should be called during illnesses so that he may pray for the infirm, offer spiritual advice and bring the Mysteries of Holy Confession, Holy Communion and Holy Unction. The idea that a priest should be called only when someone is in danger of death is not an Orthodox idea but comes from the western churches and is contrary to Holy Scripture. The priest does not come to prepare a person for the grave but he comes to bring spiritual life. Holy Unction is a service for the spiritual and physical health of an individual, not a preparation for death and burial (Jam. 5:14-15).
A priest coming to a sick member of the family to bring him spiritual and physical strength through the mysteries should be welcomed into the house which has been prepared for the visit. Radio and television should be turned off during the visit, so there are no distractions from the great blessings that God bestows through the operation of the Mysteries. Religious objects needed for the priest's visit should be out and in their places. This arrangement can be discussed with the priest at the time he is requested to make the visit.
During pregnancy an Orthodox woman should be particularly concerned with the spiritual aspect of her nature. The child lives within her for nine months and because the baby is part of her body, any spiritual gifts the mother receives also come to the unborn child. Frequent reception of Holy Communion and frequent prayer are highly desirable during this gestation period so that God's grace may envelope the mother and her child.
After the assurance of pregnancy or after the birth of the child, the parents may wish to have the priest offer a thanksgiving Molieben to God for His blessing them with a child. On the eighth day after birth the child is named according to the tradition of the Church. Although the hospital or civil authorities may desire the name sooner, on the eighth day, Orthodox parents should bring the child to the church and have him or her named in the Orthodox manner. This service of naming an eight-day old baby may be conducted in the home before the icon corner if weather conditions or the child's health make it impossible for the child to be brought to church.
The fortieth day after a woman gives birth, she comes to the church with her baby in order to be "churched." This is done in imitation of the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, who on the fortieth day after giving birth brought Christ to the Temple so she might be purified and present Christ to God (Lk. 2:22-38).
Forgiveness in the Christian Family
The bonding cement of a Christian community—whether it be a parish or the family—is the ability and the readiness of each of the members to ask forgiveness from one another. If we are not able to forgive one another how can we expect God to forgive us? In the "Our Father, ... " which Christ taught us to pray, we ask for God's forgiveness on these conditions: "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors . . ." (Matt. 6:12). The most effective medicine against anger and irritability, although it is the most bitter at the first draught, is to ask forgiveness after a quarrel. It is bitter for human pride but, if it is so, hasten even more to make use of it, for it is bitter only for the proud, and if it seems so intolerable to you, then you know that you have within you yet another serious ailment, pride. Sit down and think over your own soul, and pray that the Lord might help you master yourself and ask forgiveness and reconciliation from the person you have offended, even if he is more to blame than you are.
The Christian family is the most primary of all human relationships, for on its stability depends the stability of the entire Church. Disharmony within Christian families penetrates into the larger Christian community, creating disharmony in the parish church as well. Members of the family should be quick to ask for each other's forgiveness when they have said or done wrong to them. Asking for forgiveness keeps animosity, anger and hatred from becoming rooted in members of the family, which eventually may cause the dissolution of the family and the family church. This catastrophe is not only physically harmful, but also spiritually detrimental. The seeking of forgiveness for wrong or harsh words or anger should never be put off until tomorrow, for then it has had time to root in the heart, and sets a precedent for the next time. Eventually it will become a habit not to seek forgiveness, but rather to let these passions build up to the point where one is too proud to ask it.
The heads of monastic communities ask forgiveness each day of the brotherhood and entire community in the prayers at the conclusion of Compline and Midnight Office; this indicates the importance of asking forgiveness from those with whom we live.
Seeking forgiveness from members of the family church can be patterned after the parish church's Vesper Service on Forgiveness Sunday (Cheese-fare Sunday) when all parishioners seek forgiveness from one another. At the Vesper Service, each person says to the other, "Forgive me, a sinner," and then makes a complete prostration (touching the head to the ground) before the other person, after which they exchange the apostolic kiss of peace by kissing each other on alternate cheeks three times.
In the family church the member who has been angry or has spoken un-Christian words toward another, whether or not this was justified, should ask forgiveness for his deeds, words or actions and make a complete prostration no later than bed-time the same day.
Husband and wife, the evening before receiving Holy Communion, as part of their preparation, should ask forgiveness from each other as well as from the children and anyone else residing in the house. A tradition existing in some pious Orthodox households is for the children on the evening prior to Communion to kiss the right hand of their parents when asking forgiveness.
Before the reception of Holy Communion, an Orthodox Christian must ask forgiveness both from fellow believers in the parish and friends with whom he has felt anger or has exchanged un-Christian words. He explains to them his intention to receive Holy Communion
... and asks, in a general way, their forgiveness, he does not mention any particular offense unless there is a special reason for doing so; the answer has become a formula: "May the Lord forgive!" This custom is founded on two convictions. When men offend each other it is God that they offend; and it is to God that men confess their sins. But confession must be done in the presence of a priest, and can honestly be done only by him who can think that he is reconciled with all men.
Eternal salvation is the goal of our earthly life. This goal requires our constant striving to live as Christians—a task, in any age which is difficult to accomplish. The influences of our contemporary world with its atheistic, humanistic and secular approach to all aspects of human life has made it extremely hard to live as a true Christian. The parish church and the home are the only bastions where God can be praised, glorified and entreated. These are the only places where Christianity can be taught and where one can gain the courage to begin living a Christian life.
The home is the place where people spend a great deal of their time; therefore, the environment of the home is important if we wish to keep in contact with our Faith and eventually attain eternal salvation. For this to happen, the home must be converted from an ordinary home into something more—the family church. The family church provides us with an environment in which we can grow and develop into mature Christians. The proper understanding of the responsibilities in Christian marriage and in the establishment of the family church does not bring us any closer to actually being mature Christians. This is only the rationalistic, theoretical aspect of the matter, not an implementation of it. What God seeks are actions, not lifeless reasonings and abstractions.
Our lives, marriages and homes remain as the inferior wine that was served first at the wedding feast of Cana, if we do not become active in our pursuit of the goal of mature Christianity. It is only after we work at preparing our lives and homes for the reception of Christ and the Christian life, that our lives, our marriages and our homes will become like the good wine which Christ miraculously made from water at that joyous wedding (Jn. 2:1-12).