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The Tradition of Laying on of Hands

Dionysius the Wise. Ordination of St. Nicholas as Bishop (fragment). Cathedral of the Nativity of the Theotokos, Ferapontov Monastery, beginning of the 16th c.

Dionysius the Wise. Ordination of St. Nicholas as Bishop (fragment). Cathedral of the Nativity of the Theotokos, Ferapontov Monastery, beginning of the 16th c.

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In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit! Christ is Risen!

Dear brothers and sisters, what a wonderful passage we have had the pleasure of listening to today! It’s a short and simple one, but at the same time contains such a lot of points upon which one is tempted to stop and think, so that our ears don’t miss hearing and our lives miss reflecting the word of God, as unfortunately so often happens in our church.

The passage is about the first years in the life of the Church, perhaps even the first decade, after Pentecost and the descent of the Holy Spirit. The number of Christ’s followers, the number of believers, was growing. At first, thousands came into the Church, including people who had been searching for a particular virtuous and godly life in various sects. They were already suspicious of “temple order” and priests, and even sometimes stopped recognizing them altogether. But these were people of great faith, capable of great spiritual accomplishment and of living in very difficult conditions. Afterwards, of course, things slowed and fewer than whole thousands came in at a time, but the word of God nevertheless continued to spread rapidly.

And then the simple, everyday life of the church begins. And where there is simple life, there are simple problems. And, the growing array of Christ’s followers also had problems of this sort. Thus, we hear that there was discontent amongst the Hellenistic Jews – those who came not from Judaea, not from Palestine but from the greater Jewish diaspora – because their widows were being passed over in the daily distribution of food. You will remember that the early church lived a life of communism: perhaps not in the scientific sense of the word, but in the spiritual sense, without question. They lived together, putting all their property into the community, and together distributing everything between everybody. After all, people need to eat every day in order to support their life, but also to be sufficiently free to serve God. This is not an easy thing to organize. And, in general, it isn’t easy to live in community or brotherhood and be a true disciple of Christ – all the more so if you aren’t alone, but if there are many of you.

And so it happened that the widows of the Hellenistic Jews were passed over in the daily distribution. And then something interesting happened, which had an enormous effect on the whole life of the Church, thereafter. The twelve – that is the same twelve who were with Christ – said that their main business was prayer and evangelism. They were to bring the word of God to others, and that they didn’t like leaving this service to do something which was of secondary importance, even if this was the necessary everyday work of serving tables. Although it is always pleasant to serve another person if you love that person. And precisely this relationship of love existed between Christians, who served each other with enjoyment. They strove not to free themselves of this service but, on the contrary, to enter into it, because they had real love and not just love on the level of words, as we often encounter in our own time – when word and deed don’t seem to match. And so the apostles proposed that seven men of good reputation be found, who could take upon themselves the service of feeding the gathered community. Not just “good people” who were outgoing, pleasant, smart and wonderful, but people who were filled with the spirit and wisdom from on high. It turns out that in order to serve at table one needs wisdom and strength of spirit. Without that it won’t work – you might want something good, but it will come out all messed up.

And so they found the necessary people and put them to work, because the word of the apostles was well received by the entire Church, and everyone liked the idea. And who is this “everyone”? It is the Church – all of her members in a particular community. Without any hierarchical relationships, as you see: they made the decision without any meeting of the apostles or a resolution of deacons. I image what would happen in any given church if an apostle suddenly appeared there. He would either go entirely unnoticed or be run out of the church. The same thing is often said of Christ himself, that if He were to suddenly appear among modern Christians He would either be totally misunderstood or simply chased out. And even if He were understood and accepted, then what? People would start to kowtow to Him and praise him. Not to speak of what they might call Him…what could be higher than “most holy”, “most blessed”, etc.? They’d find something. Where there is really a desire, a solution can always be found. So we read here that there were no hierarchical relationships in the Church: neither apostles, nor deacons, nor presbyters established hierarchical relationships between each other. Although there were apostles, and they, of course, were senior within the community, and there were presbyters, who were, of course, elders. And deacons appeared, who were full of the spirit and wisdom, as well as being charitable people with strong excellent voices – and all this without any kind of hierarchical power-vertical.

Thus, in the apostolic community they chose (προχείρισις) seven people filled with the Holy Spirit and faith. Among them was Stephan, who later became the first Christian martyr. In later tradition he is referred to as the first deacon. In that same group of first deacons, who are listed by name in Acts, is also someone called Nicholas of Antioch. He was a proselyte, which means that his origins were pagan, not Jewish, and that he had turned to faith in God. This is interesting, because it turns out that a recently converted pagan could be among those filled with the spirit and wisdom.

Further, those people who had been chosen and accepted by the whole gathering were presented to the apostles, who prayed for them and laid hands on them, after which they began to serve as deacons. What does “prayed and laid their hands on them” mean? In our own time the “laying on of hands” (χειροθεσία, in Greek) is also performed, as is dedication by stretching forth of hands (χειροτονία). In our day, χειροθεσία generally refers to dedication of so-called “minor clerics”, and is performed outside of the altar, while χειροτονία is used for so-called “major clerics”, whom we recognize as our usual clergymen. Of course in apostolic times no one had yet made any such distinction, and the prayer with laying on of hands itself only helped, strengthening people in their ministries and showing people that these individuals had actually been chosen by God and that they had agreed to and were capable of serving in their new ministry.

The laying on of hands – whether χειροθεσία or χειροτονία – is, I repeat, not the obligatory establishment of hierarchical relationships. It is not an act of magic, like someone puts his hands on your head and “boom”, your human existence is changed. Of course not. All these Christians were made of the same “stuff” before and after their dedication. The laying on of hands could be very widely used in the ancient church and had only one significance: when it was important to thoroughly, attentively pray in a concentrated and elevated fashion – when something of particular significance was occurring, the laying on of hands was used. It was also a way to reveal the sobornost of the Church gathering. There wasn’t anything especially priestly or sacral in the rite of the laying on of hands, as such. But in the Church we have a tendency to idealize, and perhaps to think up and ascribe properties to such functions, when in fact they really aren’t there. I remember how one time in seminary several people were being ordained, and one of the seminarians – he was really a hooligan – but straight away after his ordination he became all holy – that very same day. And he said, “today I was ordained and I actually felt the grace come down on me.” Of course, having heard these words, I smiled. And it was interesting that many people reacted to this with a remarkable awe and adoration, just as if this were a revelation from on high. This is naive, but there are really people who think this way.

It’s important for us to think and understand what dedication to a church ministry really means. Is the laying on of hands really necessary for this dedication? If we can just pray attentively in a concentrated fashion, then maybe the laying on of hands isn’t really necessary? And this would mean that succession in terms of ordination isn’t necessary, but only the effectiveness and authenticity of the dedication itself. And what is this dedication? Some sort of legal act? Does some sort of a decree need to be written and passed by some sort of leadership? Apparently not. If the business itself is grace-filled and if we are sure about this and bear witness that the Holy Spirit has come down and blessed that which we are doing for one or another person in the community, brotherhood, church, etc. – than this, itself, is dedication. It means that no kind of external continuity of ordination is the important thing – the important thing is the continuity ascending to the Holy Spirit Himself. It is the Holy Spirit who dedicates people to church ministry, as we can see from the words of the liturgy for the dedication of a deacon, during the course of which we hear: “For it is Thee we beseech, O Master of all, and of this thy servant, whom thou hast honoured to take upon himself the ministry of a deacon. Fill him with faith, love, strength and holiness by the inspiration of Thy holy and life-giving Spirit – for not in the laying on of my hands is grace given to those who are worthy in Thy sight, but by the visitation of Thine inexhaustible grace…”.

And so, it is this kind of prayer, this kind of dedication, and this kind of ministry that bore fruit, as we read in the book of Acts. As a result, the apostles had more time and strength for fervent prayer and the service of the word. The deacons, filled with the Holy Spirit, faith and wisdom, continued to gladden everyone at common meals – agapes and Eucharists – which were actually one meal in two parts. As a result, “the word of God spread and the number of disciples increased rapidly”. And you won’t believe it, but “very many priests became obedient to the faith.” (Acts 6:7).

This is beyond our reason, beyond our life experience, but so it was, that despite everything even priests, members of the clergy, became obedient to the faith. Who, exactly, from among them, we don’t know; sadly, no one in particular is named. But it is impossible not to believe this remarkable witness from the book of Acts of the Holy Apostles. This means that there is hope and that there isn’t anyone who is completely hopeless. It means that we can witness in the power of the Holy Spirit even to priests and bishops, and to anyone at all within the church, if they have lost grace, if they still have not found their service, faith and wisdom.

It is often true of our deacons, priests and bishops, that no wisdom, spirit or faith is observable in their words and deeds. Moreover, sometimes they are directly destroying the church, which we can only regret, and we wish that this would happen no more. But how we’ll be able to change this it is hard to say, at this point. But we hope and believe that any person can acquire faith in God, no matter in what state of “burn out” or self-destruction he is engaged with, at present.

So let us be glad that our Lord can overcome any human barrier! Let us be glad that the Risen Lord is Himself the leader of his Church and that the Holy Spirit bears fruit, strengthens, gathers and reveals spiritual mysteries to Her, to the glory of God!


Christ is Risen!