On the altar of the heart

BY faith didst thou justify the Forefathers (cf. Heb 11), a betrothal beforehand of the Church gathered from the nations. Let the saints in glory boast, for from their seed there is a glorious fruit, she that bare thee without seed. At their intercessions, O Christ God, save our souls.

Apolytikion at Vespers for the Sunday of the Forefathers. Source.

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TODAY is the Feast of the Forefathers, the saints of Israel before and after the giving of the Law of Moses, but before the birth of Christ.

This seems an appropriate day for St Bede’s reflections on the ways in which the Jewish Temple prefigured the Christian’s life of prayer.

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THE altar of gold signifies the hearts of the perfect who are justified, resplendent in the light of purity and inward brightness.

Even the position of that altar is well suited for signifying their elevated state.

It stood in front of the gate of the holy of holies, as we clearly read in the account of the making of the tabernacle.

On this altar, it seems, they burned sacrifices not of blood, or first-fruits, but of incense, whose smoke rising on high would envelop the Ark, and fill the Mercy Seat with the odour of sweetness.

In this is expressed a symbol of the faithful.

An altar and priest in an Orthodox church

“With the temporal world forgotten, they seek after heavenly things with absolute concentration, just as if they were standing in the precincts of the Mercy Seat.”

With the preoccupations of the temporal world forgotten, they seek after heavenly things with absolute concentration, just as if they were standing in the precincts of the Mercy Seat, and not far from the curtain by which the holy of holies was divided from the temple.

They inhabit the earth bodily, but for the other part, which relates to the whole inner man, they have their converse in the heavens.

And from this altar there ascends into the holy of holies, where the Ark is kept, a smoke of incense, as the prayers of the saints, fanned by the flames of charity, reach up to heaven, where Christ sits at the right hand of the Father.

It is not sacrifices of blood which are burned on this altar, but rather of incense, because what such men offer, like so many priests, in praise to God on the altar of their hearts are not works of flesh and blood.

They offer to him pledges of tears and prayer, for the sake of their longing for the heavenly kingdom.

St Bede, monk of Jarrow (+735). On The Temple of Solomon, chapter 22. My translation.

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THE myrrh-bearing women offered unto thee, O Lord, a morning hymn of tears. For bearing scented herbs of sweet perfume, they made haste to gather at thy grave, there to anoint thine immaculate body. But an angel was seated upon the stone, and unto them gave these glad tidings: Why do you seek the living among the dead? For being God he is risen, trampling down death, pouring out on all the great mercy.

AN ANGEL, lightning-bright, upon thy life-giving tomb said unto the myrrh-bearing women: The Redeemer hath emptied the grave, he hath despoiled hades, and risen on the third day, for he alone is God, and all-powerful.

MARY Magdalen sought thee out, coming to thy tomb on the first day of the week. When she found thee not, she broke into lamentation and cried out with weeping, Alas my Saviour, how canst thou be stolen away, King of all? But two life-bearing angels there within the tomb cried: Why art thou weeping, O woman? I am weeping, said she, because they have taken my Lord from the tomb, and I do not know where they have laid him. But she turned round, and she saw thee, and straightway cried out: My Lord and my God, glory be to thee!

THE Hebrews shut life in the tomb, but the robber opened paradise upon his tongue, crying out and saying: He who was crucified beside me was crucified on my account, he hanged with me upon a tree, and appeared unto me upon his throne, seated with the Father: for he is Christ our God, who hath the great mercy in his gift.

At the Liturgy on Sundays of the Third Tone. Source.

2 thoughts on “On the altar of the heart

  1. I visit this site for comfort and inspiration. You never fail me in this. Thank you. I especially need it now — I am from Connecticut, where so many children were murdered in school. An Orthodox Christian missionary friend summed it up best: “We cannot fathom the unimaginable grief in Connecticut but we recall Herod’s slaughter of the innocents at the time of the Lord’s birth. Never free from sorrows during our time on earth, we are called now as others were over 2,000 years ago to pray, make a ‘manger’ in our hearts, and invite the Christ Child in from the cold and evil of this world.”

  2. Hi ZurichMike. Thanks so much for your kind comment. My heart goes out to everyone in Newtown, not least the family of the brave teacher Victoria Soto who sacrificed her own life to save the children in her care. An interview I saw on Fox also made me aware that parents all over America are now that little bit more anxious seeing their children go off to school.

    I agree entirely with your missionary friend, and was very encouraged to read what he said. Despite all the calls for human action of one sort or another, mostly out of my hands and mostly ineffective anyway, prayer is something even I can do to help. Thank you for reminding me of that.

    As others have said, your State motto ‘Qui transtulit sustinet’ (the One who brought us over sustains us) is something to hold on to.

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