St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

Healing in the Liturgy of St. Basil

Sermon preached by Melissa Nassiff on Sunday, March 4, 2012

March is Antiochian Women’s month, and for the next four weeks our homilies will all focus on Healing through the Sacramental Life of the Church. This week we’ll look at healing in the Liturgy of St. Basil;. Others will look at healing through Unction;  through End of life care, Funeral, and Memorial Services;  and through Confession and Spiritual Direction.

In today’s Gospel [John 1:43-51], Philip tells his friend Nathanael that they have found the one foretold by Moses and the prophets – and Nathanael just scoffs at the idea. No one believes  that the savior will come from Nazareth. But Philip doesn’t argue, he simply says  “Come and see.”   And Nathanael does come. When Jesus sees him coming, and greets him in a way that shows He knows him, Nathanael wants to know how he knows him.  Our Lord’s reply is cryptic – "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you."  We don’t know what Nathanael was doing or thinking under the fig tree, but what matters is that he knew, and Jesus knew.  And that mutual knowing showed that Jesus not only saw him physically, externally, but saw deeply into his heart.  It was enough to heal his skepticism and convince him that Jesus was the Son of God.

Now we are invited, as Nathanael was, to ”come and see” our Lord and be healed. We see him through icons (which we celebrate today, the Sunday of Orthodoxy), and we see him through prayer, through sacraments, through our interactions with other people, and through the liturgy. In all these encounters He sees us, as he saw Nathanael, and knows us deeply – knows our hearts, knows our desires, our hurts, our needs.   And he heals us, as he constantly healed those who encountered him in his earthly life. He wants to make us whole – after all, he is called the Great Physician for a reason.

Did it ever occur to you that the Liturgy is a healing service?  Right in the opening moments, the Deacon leads us in praying for a variety of people and circumstances, including “the sick and the suffering.”  We start right out praying specifically for those who need physical and emotional healing. Here’s a place where you can bring to mind the individuals you know who are sick or hurting.

The healing we can receive in the liturgy includes our relationships. Before we begin preparing for communion, we exchange the kiss of peace – or at least the handshake of peace.  This is not a break in the service; it’s actually a tangible experience of our community – our loving unity in the body of Christ.  We are physically affirming that each person here is our brother or sister, a fellow member of Christ’s body. And just as Jesus often reached out to touch a person when he healed them, our touch can be a way of praying for the person we are shaking hands with, or kissing.

The kiss of peace can also convey a healing of wounded relationships – Jesus said if we remember that our brother or sister has something against us we should go and be reconciled with them, before approaching the altar.

Christ’s healing runs like a thread through the whole liturgy, and is especially clear in the Liturgy of St. Basil, which we use during Lent (starting today). The service book in our pews prints only the parts of St. Basil’s Liturgy that are different from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. These prayers include a lot more detail, and make our prayers for healing more explicit, especially in the Anaphora, the long prayer that leads up to communion. (It begins on page 134, if you’d like to follow along).

We start, near the bottom of p. 135,  by recalling the whole history of creation and the fall, and how God sent us prophets, and the law, and guardian angels, and finally his own son, who ransomed us from death. That’s the ultimate healing! Then, in a long and eloquent series of petitions starting at the very bottom of p. 139, we pray for all sorts of people, including ourselves, asking among other things that Christ “maintain their marriage-bond … encourage the faint-hearted…  collect the scattered … set at liberty those who are vexed by unclean spirits … and heal the sick…”.  This is prayer for healing of every kind of need. At the end of these petitions, near the top of p. 141, we affirm that “thou, O Lord, are the Helper of the helpless, the Hope of the hopeless, , and the Healer of the sick. Be all things to all men, You who know each person, his petition, his dwelling-place, and his need.” Just as Jesus knew Nathanael, he knows each one of us.  And he helps, gives hope, and heals us.

We repeatedly ask healing for body and soul. Our souls are prepared to receive healing by repentance and forgiveness. In St. Basil’s liturgy we began the Anaphora by affirming that it is important to come “with a contrite heart and a spirit of humility.” We often need God’s healing here; our pride tends to resist contrition and humility!  And after the Anaphora, before coming up to receive communion,  we pray aloud together, asking God to forgive all our transgressions “voluntary, involuntary, spoken, done, of knowledge and of ignorance.” We pray that this forgiveness will cleanse us and make us worthy to receive his body and blood. Cleansing and healing go hand in hand, so then we ask that our partaking of the Holy Mysteries will be “unto the healing of soul and body.” 

Finally, in the Prayer of Thanksgiving after communion on p. 143, the priest thanks God for the heavenly mysteries He has given us “for the welfare and sanctification and healing of our souls and bodies.” When we receive the body and blood of our Lord, his life within us heals our bodies and our souls, as it joins us to one another.

I would encourage you, as we pray the rest of the Liturgy today, to pay attention to the many places where it brings us healing – personally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and corporately.