Peace in the Orthodox Liturgy

by Mark Isaac Pearson

“Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you.”

–John 14:27

In the Orthodox church, the notion of peace generally gets a bad press, if it gets any. I have been trying to figure out why. I think that the reason has to do with what the Orthodox public perceives peace to be. Rightly or wrongly, it is associated with an anti-establishment stance, left wing, liberal, hippy, call it what you will. We see the term being used in a frivolous ways, e.g. ‘peace pops’ popsicles, in ideological ways, e.g. ‘peace tent’, and what happens in a ‘peace Pagoda’ is anyone’s guess. In Russia, the term ‘peace’ has been almost permanently corrupted by it’s association with state propaganda. Thus Orthodox Christians are often suspicious of the term.

But it is this hijacking of a term describing a spiritual state to which all Christians are urged to aspire which I believe we must combat. How can we create a climate of peace, a culture of peace, a church where Christ is — par excellence — the Prince of Peace? Firstly, we need to scrape away surface preconceptions with the scalpel of Holy Tradition. Let us consider the question, how does Orthodox tradition speak of peace, because peace, as an attribute of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, is a central component of Orthodox liturgical life.

‘I give you my Peace’: Peace in Orthodox Tradition

Christ Himself is the core of Orthodox Holy Tradition; all written, oral, iconic and choral tradition of His holy church springs forth from the Holy Trinity. And Christ ‘is Himself our peace’ [Ephesians 2:14] but this is not the same as the world’s peace [John 14:27], it is the ‘peace of God which passes all understanding’ [Phil 4:7. (When I was at school this was recalled at mealtimes when we had fish and chips as ‘the piece of cod which passeth all understanding’ :-)]. Thus peace lies at the root of Orthodox Christianity.

In Colossians chapter 3 verses 11 through 15 St Paul tells the Christians of Colossae that in the new man renewed in God’s image there is neither Jew nor Greek, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free but Christ who is all and in all. Then he tells them to put on the virtues especially forgiveness. But above all the virtues St Paul tells them,’clothe yourselves with love, which binds all the virtues into perfection’ (v 14), and with this, allow ‘the peace of Christ to rule in your hearts’ because ‘as members of one body’ , the Church, ‘you were called to peace’ (NIV). Here St Paul clearly points to the calling of the Church, that is the calling to peace. And how is this manifested? In thanks (v15) (an allusion to the Eucharist perhaps), by letting the word of Christ dwell in you richly, and in worship (psalms, hymns and spiritual songs)(v16). So we have here the central calling of Christ’s body, the Church, to peace through worship.

The unity of the church depends upon the bonds of peace between its members. St Paul urges the Ephesians [Ephesians 4:3-6] to bind themselves together in the unity given by the Spirit with bonds of peace. The unity of the Church, one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all; all this depends on the bond of peace. We are also to live in harmony with our neighbours outside the church, for ‘God has called us to peace’ [I Corinthians 7:15], ‘to live peaceably with all’ [Romans 12:18], ‘to make every effort to live in peace with all men'[Hebrews 12:14 (NIV)].

Moving from the New Testament to the liturgical texts of the church, let us look at the evangelists and some of the saints of the church. We see a clear message of peace here. St Matthew has “borne the gospel of peace, life, and salvation to men” [Apostikha of Vespers for St Matthew (November 16)]. On April 25th we ‘sing praises to Mark’, ‘the wise writer of the gospel’ [‘Lord I Call’ (tone 1) of Vespers verse 1 April 25th]. We pray that ‘by your prayers and teachings, / Guide our lives in the way of peace.’ [Same verse as before.] and we pray him to ‘entreat Christ, … to grant peace and great mercy to our souls!’ [Apostikha of Vespers verses2-3]. ‘Most blessed Mark’, even became ‘a river of peace, flowing from Eden’ [‘Lord I Call’ of Vespers verse 4]. St Luke’s holy writings are ‘powerful weapons of light’ piercing the darkness of evil and we petition him to ‘pray that we may love the light of all’ so that ‘we may granted peace, eternal light and great mercy’ [Apostikha of Vespers October 18th]. Moreover, ‘Your feet were beautiful, most blessed one / as you preached the Gospel of the Peace surpassing all understanding’ [Canticle 8, Matins Canon, Oct 18th]. But it is with our beloved Father Herman of Alaska that we see that peace is for the American people. No fewer than seven times do we petition Father Herman for intercession to grant ‘peace to our souls’ [Canonization of St Herman of Alaska (August 9), Matins post gospel verses], or ‘peace for this land and great mercy to our souls [Vespers ‘Lord I Call’]. The Kontakion of St Herman (tone 3) on the feast of his canonization expresses the significance of peace:

The eternal light of Christ our Savior

Guided you, blessed Father Herman, on your evangelical journey to America,

Proclaiming the gospel of peace.

Now you stand before the throne of glory;

Intercede for your land and its people:

Peace for the world and salvation for our souls!

Finally we have a wonderful Irmos in the Matins canon:

I seek you early, Creator of all

And peace that passes understanding.

Guide me in your commandments, for they are my light

[Canticle 5 Matins Canon]

And there is not only Father Herman. We pray to St. Innocent, enlightener of the Aleuts and Apostle to America that ‘as the foundation of the Orthodox Church in America’ he would ‘confirm our lives in peace and unity! [Matins canon Canticle 3, March 31st]. We also ‘Pray that your flocks across three continents / In peace and tranquility may glorify the Lord'[Matins Praises (tone 6)].

Saints Peter and Paul were also missionaries of the gospel of peace; ‘Their feet carried them to the ends of the earth, / Preaching the gospel of peace.’ [‘Lord I Call’ Vespers (tone 2) June29th] Through the Apostles ‘You have given peace to the Universe’ [Wednesday Matins sessional hymn (tone 2), 3rd week of Pentecost]; ‘united by a bond of love’ ‘their beautiful feet were washed / for the preaching of the gospel of peace to all’ [Holy Week Thursday Matins canon Canticle 5]. We ask them to “guard us as we pass through the time of the fast:/May we remain at peace with each other by the grace of God!’ [‘Lord I call’ (tone 8) Wednesday vespers 5th week of Lent]

We find also that the Theotokos ‘grants peace to those who extol you in song’ [Canticle 5second canon, Katavasia, Matins Sunday 2nd week of Lent, Canticle 5 Matins Saturday 5thweek of Lent and four other references in the Lenten Triodion.]. As the Mother of God, ‘She commenced the peace, she opened the kingdom’ [‘Lord I Call’ Great and Holy Saturday Vespers] . Through her prayers and those of the apostles and saints, we ask the Lord to ‘grant us Your peace and have mercy on us’ [Apostikha (tone 1) Sunday Vespers, 5th week of Lent],to ‘keep the church and our land in abiding peace’ [Troparion to the saints (tone 8) 2nd Sunday after Pentecost All Saints of North America], to ‘guide our lives in peace’ [Troparion (tone 4)Saturday before Lent, Commemoration of all who shone forth in the ascetic life], and ‘keep all who praise and magnify you (i.e. God) in perfect peace’ [Kotakion (tone 8) same day]. We alsopray to the Theotokos that she would ‘make the strife and scandals of the Church to cease; in Your goodness grant her peace’ [Matins Praises of Great and Holy Saturday].

Rightly confessing the true faith, the Church ‘is seen overshadowed with peace’ [‘Lord I Call'(tone 6) Vespers Tuesday 4th week of Lent]. This is a remarkable statement upon reflection.

Time and time again we find the phrase ‘and He grants to our souls peace and great mercy!'[Troparion to September 26: Repose of the Apostle & Evangelist John the Theologian].Note here that peace is intimately associated with mercy. Christ is portrayed as the Prince of Peace ‘For You are the Prince of Peace’ [Canticle 5, Third Week Sunday Matins, Pentecostarion] ‘who gives peace to all who sing your praises’ [Canticle 4 second Canon Thursday Matins Ascension, 6th Week Pentecost] whose ‘statutes are light and peace'[Canticle 5, Matins Seventh Sunday of Pascha]. ‘He is the life, the light, and the peace of the world’ [Antiphon XII (tone 8) Holy Friday: Matins Post-Gospel Antiphons] and ‘Our illumination and resurrection and peace’ [“Lord I Call” Antipascha Saturday Vespers of Thomas]. ‘You are the river of peace and valley of paradise’ [“Lord I Call” (tone 4, Vespers January 2: First Day of the Prefeast of the Theophany], granting ‘peace that passes all understanding’ [Matins Canticle 5, January 1: the Circumcision of Our Lord God and Savior, Jesus Christ]. And “wondrous is Your Incarnation, Good Jesus…/ You have given peace to all those dwelling on earth” [“Lord I Call”, Vespers seventh Tuesday of Pentecost].

The descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is also the harbinger of peace; ‘Holy Comforter, hasten to bring peace to the world’ [Apostikha Vespers week of Pentecost (Pentecostarion)].’The most joyful celebration of Pentecost’ ‘grants our souls peace and great mercy’ [“Lord I Call” Thursday Vespers, fourth week of Pentecost]. With the spirit cometh power: ‘Let your Spirit come, bringing peace to the world; / Show the children of mankind the works of your power’ [“Lord I Call”, Vespers Thursday 6th week of Pentecost].

But it is not all peace and light in the Orthodox liturgy.

‘Grant victories to the Orthodox Christians over their Enemies’

O Lord save thy people,

And bless thine inheritance.

Grant victories to the Orthodox Christians,

Over their adversaries.

–Octoechoes Troparion in Tone 1

This is a familiar Troparion to most Orthodox Christians since it is sung on many feast days (e.g. Elevation of the Cross, Sept 14th) as well as being part of the standard Octoechoes. But who exactly are the adversaries of Orthodox Christians? This question was easier to answer in the era of the Byzantine Emperors and Russian Tsars (i.e. Caesars). It was taken for granted that the enemies of the state were the personal enemies of the Orthodox people. Victories for the state in battle or diplomacy were victories for Orthodox Christians and preserved the church -simple. However, the era of God supported Byzantium and Holy Russia has passed (if it was ever really present) and with it the theology and all too cozy symbiosis of church and state. Now we have a radically different situation in the religiously pluralistic United States of America and elsewhere in the Western world where the religion of secularism is the imposed state religion. Thus the adversaries or enemies of the Orthodox cannot be identified with the enemies of the state or of its organs of control such as the FBI or KGB. But the hymn remains, and we must make some sense of it. It is in the spiritual sense that we can reap the most from this liturgical gem. For who is the adversary but Satan himself? In the book of Job we find that the word ‘Satan’ literally means adversary. And so the real adversaries of Orthodox Christians are the demons over which we struggle for victory.

The liturgical texts are replete with references to “the enemy” and his defeat by the forces of the Orthodox righteous.

In some cases the reference is obviously to external enemies, for example, ‘In days of old’,Daniel ‘wisely slew the priests of the enemy (the god of the Chaldeans)’ [Canticle 6 first Canon, Matins, Sunday of the Holy Forefathers], and ‘You crushed Rahab like a carcass, / you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm’ [The Praises (tone 8) August 6: the Transfiguration of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ]. But more often the enemy or adversary is the devil or his host of demons. In this respect, the martyrs are particularly notable for defeating demons. Though the martyrs ‘lie in their tombs, they drive away demons,/ and defeat the power of the enemy’ [Apostikha Monday Vespers Tone 3 Octoechoes]; ‘their brave endurance’ ‘defeated the snares of the enemy from whom all evil comes’ [Sessional hymn Matins, Tone 3 Saturday, Octoechoes]. ‘The thrice-blessed Demetrius’, ‘Ever reveals himself to the foe as a two-edged sword, Cutting down the uprisings of the enemy, And casting down the boldness of demons!’ [‘Lord I Call’ (tone 8) Vespers October 23rd]. But even he, ‘ever prays to Christ to grant peace and great mercy to all.’ [Matins Sessional hymn (tone4) October 23rd] St George ‘brave warrior among the martyrs,’ was ‘invincible to his adversaries’ and ‘conquered the hordes of demons’.

Even so, we still ‘ask peace for our souls through your prayers’ [Litya of Vespers (tone 1) April23: Holy glorious great-martyr, victory bearer and wonder worker George (303)]. Saints Barbara and Julianna ‘attacked the enemy and gravely wounded him’ [‘Lord I Call’ (tone 2)Vespers December 4: the Holy Great Martyr Barbara together with Julianna (c.306)] and ‘the evil enemy …./ is put to shame, conquered by a woman!’ [The Praises (tone 2) December 4th]And of course the apostles help too. St Matthew’s words ‘overthrew the deceitful enemy'[Apostikha of Vespers (tone 4), November 16: the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Matthew] by a fiery tongue, St Andrew, ‘fishing with the cross’, ‘leads souls up from the deception of the enemy’ [Post Gospel verses, Matins, November 30: Andrew the First-called Apostle (62)], and the glorious apostles ‘destroyed all the forces of the devil / who had stolen …. the souls of mankind’ [Matins Sessional hymn, Octoechoes tone 4, Wednesday.].

Moreover, we ourselves can be our own “worst enemies”, for ‘since I have sinned by my own choice more than all people / …. / I have become the enemy of my soul’ [‘Lord I Call’, Fifth week of Lent Wednesday Vespers, Triodion] and ‘our unjust deeds have become our enemies’ [Apostikha, Tone 2 Thursday Matins, Octoechoes], nevertheless, with St Seraphim of Sarov’ by the sign of the cross and by prayer’ [Matins Sessional hymn (tone 4) January 2nd] we can defeat the temptations of the enemy.

‘Reconcile the Two in a Single Body to God through the Cross’

[Ephesians 2:16]

So how can we reconcile loving our enemies with victories over them? How can we account for a God of peace who nevertheless orders the massacre of the Amalekites? [“Then Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord, at Gilgal” (1 Samuel 15:33). The story of Saul’s disobedience to God’s command to utterly destroy the Amalekites, every man, woman, child and living thing, is well known (I Samuel chapter 15). But it’s hard to understand why God would punish the Amalekites in such a final way unless they were so wholly evil that this was the only option. When I asked the pastor of my former church whether he had any explanation for this state of affairs, his reply was one which I think is symptomatic of many Christians today. He just said, “they were wrong. God didn’t tell them to do that”. Well, of course, that denies the essence of God’s covenant with Israel and therefore His subsequent covenant with us too.]

We get a clue from the Postfeast of the Elevation of the Cross (September 20th). For:

The sign of your cross was revealed beforehand!

Mightily driving away the hordes of demons,

Casting down the pride of the devils

By the power that conquered Amalek, the enemy!

–‘Lord I Call’ of Vespers (tone 2) September 20: Postfeast of the of the Elevation of the Cross

Thus, the same power that drives away demons also conquers evil. By the cross ‘we are empowered to crush the heads of invisible enemies’ [Matins stichera (tone 2) August 1: the Procession of the Holy and Life-giving Cross of the Lord]; the cross is ‘the might of the Church’, ‘the enemy of demons’ [Apostikha of Vespers September 13: Prefeast of the of the Elevation of the Cross], as ‘the invincible weapon of godliness’ it is also ‘the invincible weapon of peace round which the angels stand in fear’ [Apostikha (tone 5) of Vespers of The Elevation of the Life-giving Cross (September 14th)]. It is a weapon of godliness, an invincible weapon of peace because ‘it vanquishes the arrogance of demons’ and ‘Now it declares the resurrection of the Saviour and saves all who cry / Grant peace to the world, and enlighten our souls!'[“Lord I Call” (tone 4), Vespers August 1: the Procession of the Holy Cross]. ‘When you were nailed to the tree of the cross, / the power of the enemy was slain! [The Praises the Octoechos Tone One Sunday Matins] , you ‘destroyed the corruptible dragon, the enemy of mankind'[Sessional hymn, Matins tone 1 Octoechoes], but ‘now your Church, O Christ, has put forth your cross as a flower, / making life spring up for the world!’ [Apostikha Octoechos Tone 8Wednesday Matins].

Why is this so? Because the cross is the symbol, nay, the reality, of sacrifice. And as the symbol of Christ’s sacrifice for us it is also the symbol of His death-defeating resurrection. By this we are saved, by this was the Comforter sent, by this ‘joy has come into all the world'[Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, immediately after communion of the faithful]. The cross is thus the instrument of peace and because Christ’s sacrifice conquered the final enemy death we say that the cross is the ‘weapon of peace’. And it is our weapon too, for it is by carrying our own cross given to us by God that we are able to become peacemakers and be blessed. Peace and sacrifice! Peace and the Cross! The invincible weapon of peace! The angels stand in fear around it since they cannot offer themselves in sacrifice on the cross. Peace and godliness! By ‘acquiring inward peace’ as St Seraphim said, we acquire godliness, we renew the image of God within ourselves. The uncircumcised Gentiles have been made full inheritors of God’s covenant to Israel through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross (Ephesians 2:12-15),because He Himself is our peace. Christ proclaimed the gospel of peace to those near and far(v17), and by His own sacrifice he has annulled the law (v15), and brought Gentiles into full communion with God’s covenant thereby establishing peace and unity and a new church. What an awesome thing. The fullfilment of Christ’s mission on earth was the creation of peace!

Shining with pure rays, the Holy Cross sheds its divine light

upon the nations darkened by the beguilement of error,

and it reconciles them to Christ who was crucified on it

granting peace to our souls.

–Matins Canon Canticle 5 / September 14: Feast of the of the Elevation of the Life-giving Cross [September 14: Feast of the of the Elevation of the Life-giving Cross]

Apostikha

Tone 5 to the special melody

Rejoice O life-bearing Cross

Rejoice, O life-bearing Cross!

The invincible weapon of godliness;

The gate of paradise, the protection of the faithful!

The Cross is the might of the church.

Through it corruption is abolished.

Through it the power of death is crushed

And we are raised from earth to heaven!

The invincible weapon of peace!

The Cross is the enemy of demons,

The glory of the martyrs,

The haven of salvation

Which grants the world great mercy!

Verse: Extol the Lord our God: worship at his footstool for it is holy!

Rejoice, O Cross of the Lord!

Through you mankind has been delivered from the curse,

Shattering the enemy by your exaltation!

O Cross, worthy of all honor,

You are a sign of true joy;

You are our help, you are the strength of kings.

You are the power of the righteous.

You are the majesty of priests.

All who sign themselves with you are freed from anger.

O rod of strength, under which we like sheep are tended.

O weapon of peace round which the angels stand in fear!

O divine glory of Christ our God,

Who grants the world great mercy.

November 26, 1996 (St Innocent of Irkutsk)

Mark Isaac Pearson, a longtime member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, directs the Computer Center at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana.

Updated June 23, 1997