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Question 98.

Your blessing Father Christopher,

I read somewhere that in ancient times people were used to offering their own goods for the maintenance of the temple and sustainance of the clergy. I think the 3rd and 4th Apostolic Canons recall this practice and describe which kind of offerings should be brought to the church. However some gifts should not be offered on the Holy Altar where only bread and wine should be offered for the Holy Eucharist.
My first question is: do you have an account on how this process occurred in the early church? Was this something like the offering of first fruits, similar to the offering of Abel?
The second one: I believe this practice does not pertain to the Church anymore because nowadays the faithful are used to contribute financially, buy candles, prosphora or through the diptychs. So, is it part of the orthodox practice to make a collection of money during the Liturgy?
Now let's consider a small/missionary parish where the well functioning of the temple is a responsibility of a small group of faithful and every faithful is invited to contribute materially with frankincense, candles, coal, ... for the accomplishment of the services. My question is: how these offerings should be received according to the greek practice? Is there a special service/blessing that makes them proper for liturgical use or they become sacred by their use? These offerings must be brought to the Holy Altar? I mean they should be placed (for 40 days) on the Altar like a new icon?
I'm asking all this because I heard of a strange practice (at least to me) consisting of placing candles, frankincense, prayer ropes (komboskinis) and every "religious object" close to the Altar, touching it from behind. In this way these objects would be sanctified by the presence of the Holy Spirit after the epiklesis. I my opinion this approach denies the prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit which asks the presence of the Spirit upon the people and the gifts, that is, only bread and wine.
By the way, if this practice is correct, can we say things become holy by conduction, just like thermal conduction? I know the account about the woman who touched Christ and was healed.
This makes me wonder can I refill my almost empty holy water bottle with "normal" water and then "make" more holy water?


Answer to Question 98.

Dear Akakios,
When the Israelites came into the land of Canaan the land was divided among the tribes of Israel, but no land was allocated to the tribe of Levi because they were the priestly tribe and servers of the tabernacle. Because they had no land to grow their produce, all the other tribes had to give a tenth of everything they produced to the priests who then divided it among the Levi families. Tithes were also given for the poor and strangers. In the New Testament we have testimony of this practice from Christ. The Law required that a tenth of livestock, oil, wine and wheat should be given to the priests. The law spoke in general about seeds, so to express their righteousness and complete obedience to the Law, the Pharisees interpreted it to mean every kind of seed, even the least of seeds – mint, cumin and anise. Christ reprimanded them for being so meticulous to the letter of the Law concerning tithing, but omitted the more important matters of the Law which were judgment, mercy, and faith. (Matt. 23:23)
There are several mentions of tithing in the New Testament (Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42, 18:12; Hebrews 7:5-9), but all refer to the Old Testament system. The New Testament does not give any specific rules about tithing, and most aspects of the Old Testament Law do not apply to Christians. But we do see a new system in operation in the Acts of the Apostles.
In chapter two we are told by Luke that "all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. (2:44-45) At that time many who had lands and houses sold them and brought the money to be used for the common good of the first Christian community.
This new Christian Community would gather daily at the common meals which came to be known as the Christian “Agapes” or the gatherings of love. After the meals they would then offer the Eucharist and after this took place the practice of collecting and distributing charity which had been placed at the disposal of the Apostles for the needs of the members. For how long this practice took place we are not told, but as the Church grew she relied more and more on the donations of the wealthy to provide income for the priests and to continue her charitable works.
From the Apostolic Canons it would seem that the gifts people brought for the priests were collected in the sanctuary. This doesn't mean that they were placed on the altar, but possibly various items were blessed over the altar. Also possible is that the wine used for the holy Gifts was mixed with other intoxicating beverages like raki. For this reason the 3rd Apostolic canon forbids any offerings to be taken into the sanctuary except for ears of wheat and grapes. The exception of the wheat and grapes is because these are the elements that are made into bread and wine which are then trans-made into the Body and Blood of Christ.
The 4th canon then supplements the previous canon by saying that every other offering should be taken to the bishop's and presbyter's homes as first-fruits who would then distribute them accordingly.
Today the practice of bringing grapes as an offering of first-fruits is still practiced. On the 6th August, the feast of the Transfiguration and the beginning of the grape harvest, people bring grapes which are placed before the Icon of Christ. At the end of the Liturgy the priest reads the prayer for the blessing of the grapes and the grapes are then distributed among the people. Wheat is also blessed on a more regular basis at every blessing of the five loaves. When people celebrate a feast, they bring during the service of vespers, five loaves, oil, wine and wheat. These are blessed at the end of vespers with the prayer of Artoklasia. In older times when priests did not have an income, they relied on these gifts to provide for their families. Today the priest may take one loaf of bread and divide the remainder to those in need. The oil is usually left in the church for the vigil lamps, the wine, if it is suitable is used for the Holy Gifts and the wheat is returned to the person who offered the gifts to use during the making of Kolyva.
We saw that in the ancient church people donated gifts for the use of the priests and for charity works. Priests did not always have wages, and even up to most of the last century, they relied on the gifts from people and for receiving a money gift when performing services other that the usual vespers, matins and Divine Liturgy. These consisted of the prayers for the mother after giving birth, the prayers on the eighth day, the fortieth day, baptism, engagement, wedding, funeral, blessing of waters, Holy Unction, and in general any supplication for someone ill or in need of enlightenment. Priests in towns were obviously better off than priests in small villages, but being a priest in a town meant more people so more work, whereas village priests had only the church services and were free to work on their land or even have a second job.
Today priests (in Cyprus at least) get a respectable wage and do not need the gifts of money for performing these extra services although people still give them for most of the services, especially the ones that are performed in peoples homes, but with the economic crisis these gifts are getting smaller and smaller.
The church has many overheads many of which are hidden. People do not contribute financially as you say. The church receives a small amount from the sell of candles, for charging a small sum for the commemoration of names during feasts and memorials, for weddings and baptisms and in some places a charge for funerals. These are certainly not enough to cover the priest's wages let alone the chanters, the church warden, the cleaner, lighting, air-condition, heating, insurance, fees for the Metropolis, the Archdiocese, new books to replace old, the buying of candles, incense, coal, structural repairs and general upkeep of the church building, water rates, land rates, charity works if possible and many more other hidden expenses. These costs should be covered by the people and occasionally someone will make a small donation, but this is still not enough to cover the costs. People often complain that the church charges for certain services like weddings and baptisms, but the charge is not a great amount (€100 for weddings and €50 for baptisms) which in reality is not a charge at all but a way for the church to make people donate towards the upkeep of the church which is their duty.
Another way to get people to contribute is to have a collection of money during the Liturgy. This is not wrong, but the timing of the collection is wrong. It usually takes place during the preparation for Holy Communion. This possibly also contributes to why people consider this solemn moment as an interlude and possibly justifies for the curtain of the Holy Doors to be closed. For most churches the collection is a necessity especially if the church is a new building with a financial loan of over a million of which we have many in Cyprus.
Since 1999 when our metropolitan Athanasius was enthroned, he forbade us to have collections in church during the Liturgy and if a collection was needed then this was to be made after the Liturgy and outside in the church courtyard. Thus for most churches in Limassol we have stopped the collection tray and only have collections for certain charities when they have written permission from the Metropolitan.
Let's now look at your question on the offerings of incense, candles and coal. I have never heard of these items being offered at the altar or of any special service or blessing that makes them suitable for liturgical use. The items never become sacred and are simply materials which are used in prayer. Within the Orthodox tradition, the lighting of candles during prayer, symbolizes the light of Jesus Christ, which enlightens and sanctifies “every man, who comes into the world” (John 1:9). When we light a candle we pray that the Lord will have mercy on us (or for the person the candle is lit). In other words we are asking that Christ enlightens and sanctifies our hearts. The candles also stand as a reminder of the flames of Pentecost. And yet another symbolism is taken from the parable of the Ten Virgins who waited for Christ the Bridegroom to come. Thus it is not the candle itself that has any sanctification, but our prayer which accompanies the lighting of the candle. The same applies to the coal and incense. The coal is simply the item that provides the heat to melt the incense. The priest blesses the incense but that does not make the incense sacred, rather it is the symbolism of the smoke and the prayer of the incense which is of importance. At the blessing of the incense the priest prays: "We offer incense unto Thee, O Christ our God, for a sweetsmelling savour of spiritual fragrance, which do thou accept upon Thy most heavenly altar; and send down upon us the grace of Thy most Holy Spirit."
The incense offered by the priest foreshadows the descent of the Holy Spirit. The prayer said at the blessing of the incense denote exactly this, that God will find our offering of incense pleasing and in return will send down upon us the grace of the Holy Spirit. The sweet smelling aroma of the smoke suggests the spiritual fragrance of the Holy Spirit.
The priest censes the people three times during the Liturgy, the first just before the start of the Liturgy at the beginning of the Doxology. You may not see thing in most churches because it is the censing at the closing of the Proskomide which the priest closed earlier on during matins and only censed the Sanctuary. If matins did not precede the Liturgy then the closing of the Proskomide would be immediately followed by the Divine Liturgy. Thus this first censing, if it is done during the Doxology, has nothing to do with the Doxology which is simply the closing of the matins service. It is to close the prothesis and welcome the faithful into the house of the Lord at the start of the Liturgy for which we ask Christ to receive our prayers and to send down his Holy Spirit to enlighten us to understand the sacrifice and all that he has done for us.
The second censing is before the reading of the Gospel. Now the priest offers incense so that we may receive in return spiritual enlightenment to understand the deeper meanings of the Gospel reading. We need spiritual grace to understand the Gospels because we do not interpret the Gospels just literally with the face value of the words, hidden within the words are many meanings which only God reveals to spiritual people. We can read a passage from the Gospels hundreds of times and not see anything new in it, then when God opens our eyes we see the same passage as though for the first time and with a different meaning and are puzzled why we didn’t see it before. The third time is before the Great Entrance and again we ask that Christ sends the Holy Spirit to enlighten us to understand the great Mystery of his saving sacrifice.
So all the items mentioned are not sanctified before liturgical use and certainly should not be offered upon the altar. They are simply items that are offered to God accompanied with our prayers. Of course there are lit candles upon the altar during services, but I don't think your question was specifically for these but for candles in general.
You mentioned the custom of placing a new icon on the Holy Altar for forty days. The Holy Altar is the throne of God and nothing should be placed upon it other than the antimension, the Gospel Book, the hieratikon book, the vigil lamps (candle holders) and the Artophorion which contains the dried reserved sacraments. In Cyprus there is the custom of bringing new icons to church on the Sunday of Orthodoxy and leaving them for 40days or until the feast of the Ascension. The icons are not placed on the altar and sometimes not even in the sanctuary, but in some suitable place anywhere in the church. The Russians, on the other hand, have a special prayer for the blessing of icons. Both practices are wrong according to the theology behind the icon.
The name of a saint on his Icon identifies who he is and at the same time is a seal of sanctification and constitutes its blessing, The Icon does not need to have special prayers read over it or receive any other form of blessing by a priest to make it holy. It cannot receive any additional benefit from a priest’s blessing or any application of holy oil. The icon is sanctified through its communion with Christ and the saints, through the image and the inscription that it bears. It is holy in the same way that the Cross and the Bible are holy. St. Basil the Great says that iconographers are equal in honour to the Gospel writers. He says this because what the Gospels explain by means of words, the painter explains by means of his works. The Bible is holy not because of the paper and ink, but because the words it contains are the words of God, written by men inspired by the Holy Spirit. These words of God are holy because they proceeded from the mouth of God and sanctify us each time we hear them. In the same way we are sanctified through the Icon because it also is the word of God represented in images, and to put it another way, as the Icon is the image of Christ, so likewise the Bible is the verbal image of Christ, Both inspire and teach us how to live so that we may find the narrow road that leads to salvation.
As for the rest of your question, there is nothing wrong in blessing a komboskini on the holy Altar, but we must be very careful not to think that items having touched the altar have received special grace or magical powers. A komboskini is simply a means to count prayers and a help to concentrate on the Jesus Prayer. If it is not used for this purpose then it has no purpose. It has become fashionable for people to wear Komboskinis as bracelets as thou this signifies to others that they believe in God. A komboskini is simply a prayer robe, an item to assist in prayer and it will not make us holier if we wear it as a bracelet.
I have never encountered items being left near the altar to be sanctified by the presence of the Holy Spirit after the epiclesis. If the altar is the throne of God then the Holy Spirit is always present, but is not the Holy Spirit present in all places as we pray: "O heavenly King and Comforter, Spirit of truth, which art in all places and fillest all things"? Be sure that nothing left near the altar will prevent the Holy Spirit from transmaking the bread and wine into the precious Body and Blood of Christ.
An item touching the holy Altar will not become sanctified through conduction. If this was the case then we priests would have extra special healing powers and there would be no need for hospitals. Think of it logically; we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. We do not simply touch him, but contain him within us, do we then become conductors of his healing grace?
The woman with the issue of blood was not healed of her ailment because she touched the hem of Jesus' garment, but because she believed by doing so she would be healed. Christ confirms this by saying: "daughter be of good comfort: thy faith hath made thee whole." Also in the Acts of the Apostles 19:12, we read that handkerchiefs and aprons that Paul had touched were placed on the sick and possessed and they were cured. In both cases it is not the material, but the faith of the healer or the healed that brings about the miracle.
As for adding water to holy water this is a different matter altogether. In large city churches were many people have communion especially during Christmas and Holy Week or when we have schools attending the Liturgy, we do something similar with the Blood of Christ. We prepare a very large lamb enough to give communion to thousands but one chalice would not be enough. Sooner of later the Blood in the chalice will reach a very low level making it difficult to give communion, so we will need to enter the sanctuary and add more wine and water.
But if there are two or three priests we can have two or three chalices which we can sanctify in two ways. The first is to place them all on the holy altar and bless them during the epiclesis as one single chalice in the same way that we have two lambs on Holy Thursday but bless them as one single lamb. The second way is after the epiclesis, during the preparation of communion, to bring the extra chalices with the wine to the altar and add to them some of the Blood from the first chalice.
Whether we believe that all the wine becomes the Blood of Christ or only what we have added from the first chalice does not matter. The two have mixed and have become as one. The spoon with which we give communion to the people may contain only one drop of the original Blood, but how many drops of Christ's Blood do we have to receive? I don't know how to explain it better, but you can be sure that everyone receives both the Body and Blood. Quantity does not matter. We give a fairly large piece of the Body to every adult, but there are priests that only give a small crumb. Whether a large piece or small each communicant has received the complete Body of Christ and not some dismembered part.
Because, like the Blood, holy water is liquid, the same rule applies. A little holy water in a bottle sanctifies any water added to it. In theory then we could continue adding water as the level decreases and we wouldn't need to have another service for the sanctification of the waters, but in practice many churches have a sanctification of the waters at the beginning of every month. If the church near you has such a custom then fill your bottle from the newly sanctified water if only just to keep your mind at rest that you are actually drinking holy water.

With love in Christ
Fr. Christopher