This summer we gather as the people of God in Los Angeles, California on June 30 – July 5 to consider the theme “Offering our Orthodox Faith to Contemporary America.” In the weeks leading up to our Biennial Clergy-Laity Congress, it is fitting for us to meditate on the meaning of this momentous topic in all its facets. In this article, the second in a series of four on the theme of this year's Congress, we shall look at the notion of offering from an Orthodox Christian perspective.
The word offering often evokes images of things that we give to the church: a stewardship check, a loaf of prosphoron, a garland of flowers to adorn an icon. In a spiritual context, however, the notion of offering should lead us to consider, not a thing, but a process, or better yet, a way of life, a mode of existence. Offering names our continuous relationship to God in the Christian life, an ongoing liturgy of dialogue between God and His people. God gives to us, and we in turn give again to God.
Ta Sa ek ton Son, Soi prospheromen. “Thine Own of Thine Own, we offer to Thee.”
These words come from a prayer of King David (1 Chronicles 29:14); we recite them in the Divine Liturgy just before the moment of consecration. They are more than just a prayer, though. They are a manifesto of faith. In these few words are captured the essence of our walk with God, for thereby we confess that all things come from God, belong to God, and depend on God alone. With these words we proclaim the reality of grace, that God bestows upon us His goodness unearned.
What can we give to God that is not first His gift to us? All of our time, talent, and treasure—every minute of the day, every dollar in our pocket, every skill or expertise that we can offer—these things are His gifts to us, free gifts of grace, given from the hand of God, as a father freely gives to all his children, out of deep and unconditional love.
Ta Sa ek ton Son, Soi prospheromen. God offers us food, and from this we offer back to His Church loaves of bread and bottles of wine. He in return offers these Gifts back to us as the Body and Blood of His Son; we receive these Gifts and offer them in back to God in the form of our own bodies as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1) to do His will in the world.
Offering is in essence an act of giving to God that becomes for us an opportunity to receive even more from Him, to receive “grace upon grace” (cf. John 1:16).
We have a beautiful illustration of this in the story of the woman who came to anoint Christ with precious ointment (Luke 7:36-50)—an event that we commemorate on the evening of Holy Tuesday every year, when we chant the Hymn of Kassiane.
This woman had been transformed inwardly through her encounter with Jesus Christ. In place of the malodor of sin, He had imparted to her through repentance the osmin evodias pnevmatikis, the sweet odor of a spiritual fragrance (cf. 2 Cor. 2:14-15, Eph. 5:2). In thanks for that which He had given to her, she wanted to offer something in return, a gift which would inspire awe in those at the table where Jesus sat and in succeeding generations down to the present.
Thus she brought to the Lord the lavish offering. But when all was said and done, it was the woman herself who left the house with her own head anointed, with own her hair bearing the beautiful fragrance of the precious ointment! And the story tells us moreover that the whole house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment (cf. John 12:3).
And so it is for us when we enter into the Christian life of offering: everything we give to God is at the same time a gift back to us from Him, one that enhances not only our own lives, but also the lives of those around us.
Do we offer Him our abstinence and fasting? This is but His gift to us of cleansing and purification of body and soul. Do we offer Him our spiritual service in the liturgical worship of the Church? This is but His gift to us, to raise our minds and hearts unto heaven, to bless our bodies with His grace, to strengthen our souls with His love. Do we offer Him our faithfulness in times of trial? This is but His gift to us, to perfect us and to draw us near to Himself. (cf. James 1:2f.) Do we offer Him our patience in affliction? This is but His gift to us, to strengthen us in virtue and in love and compassion for our fellow man.
And how much more is this true in regard to the act of offering our Orthodox Faith to contemporary America! In sharing our faith with others, we receive innumerable blessings in return: strengthening of our faith, the assurance of our hope, growth in love, the fellowship of new brothers and sisters in the Lord, and a crown of rejoicing on the last day (cf. 1 Thess. 2:19).
But we receive more even than all this. Saint John the Forerunner and Baptist said (John 3:27), “No one can receive anything except what is given him from heaven.” What is it that we have received from heaven and would offer in turn back to God by way of sharing our Orthodox Christian Faith? It is nothing less than Christ Himself. Offering our faith is not simply communicating our dogmas or expounding our beliefs or displaying our liturgical riches. It is fundamentally an act of bringing the divine-human person of Jesus Christ to others as He has been brought to us. This we accomplish through the giving of ourselves to God on behalf of the world.
This is the inner meaning of the chosen Scripture verse for our Clergy-Laity Congress is John 20:21, “Jesus said to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” We are sent to continue the mission of Christ, to radiate His winning love, to convey His peace, to sow the seed of His Word, to work His deeds of compassion, to fill up the measure of His afflictions (Col. 1:24), to become flesh of His flesh and bone of His bones (cf. Eph. 5:30) to all in our contemporary world.
The more we engage in this act of offering, the more we receive for ourselves the gift of Christlikeness, the grace of theosis. Striving to spread the knowledge of Him everywhere, we ourselves come more and more to know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, with the hope of participating likewise in His glorious Resurrection (cf. Phil. 3:10-11).
In the Divine Liturgy during the singing of the Cherubic Hymn, the priest recites before the Holy Table a prayer in which he acclaims Christ as o prospheron kai prospheromenos kai prosdechomenos kai diadidomenos, “the One who both offers and is being offered, the One who both receives and is distributed.” This is precisely the Orthodox Christian understanding of offering, and the calling that lies before us to explore in our upcoming Clergy-Laity Congress.
May God grant us through the work of this Congress more and more to become offerers who are offered, recipients who are distributed, and so “to be conformed to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29) in all things, to the praise of the glories of His grace.