ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A House of Prayer

Icons, crosses, incense and other sacramentals imbue Byzantine Christian homes with the sense of God’s presence.

According to the age-old tradition of the Byzantine Churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, the home is an extension of the church. Even before a new house is occupied, the priest performs the “consecration,” anointing the four walls with holy oil and sanctifying the house with holy water and incense. Psalms are chanted, and the Gospel story of Jesus’ visit to the house of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) is proclaimed. At the conclusion, the traditional prayer for “Many Years” is sung by the priest, mentioning all the family members by name.

When the family moves into the new dwelling, they choose an eastern wall, preferably in the living room, for the icon corner. The corner is furnished with icons of Christ, the Theotokos, the holy cross, and the patron saints of each member of the family. Some families preserve heirloom icons, handed down for centuries, of special clan or family patrons. The icon corner usually includes a lectern or small table upon which are placed a cross, a small incense burner, and the prayer books.

Since icons are considered to be sacraments of the special presence of the holy ones depicted in them, oil lamps are burned before them. At the door of the house, one finds a special icon of the Theotokos, known as the “Doorkeeper,” guarding the dwelling from all harm.

When one enters a Byzantine home, one goes directly to the icon corner and greets the holy icons with a kiss, even before greeting the people, just as one does when entering church.

In Oriental Christian tradition, all prayers, both public and private, are said facing the East, looking towards Jerusalem. Churches are always built with the apse pointing East, towards the rising sun, symbolic of Jesus Christ, the Sun of Justice. In church, the priest, deacon, and people worship standing up, facing the direction of Jerusalem; the priest is the New Moses, leading the New People of God through the wilderness of life to the heavenly promised land of the New Jerusalem. In their homes, therefore, Eastern Christians unite themselves with their brothers and sisters throughout the world and pray standing up, facing the East.

The custom of standing at prayer can be traced both to the Old Testament and to pagan antiquity. God commanded His people to eat the Passover meal “standing, loins girt and staves in their hands” (Exodus 12:11). The pagan Greeks always stood while praying before their idols.

Early Christians imitated the Greeks, reasoning that man, the only animal that walks erect and is created in the image and likeness of God, should pray standing to exemplify his dignity as a child of God. Kneeling was done only as a sign of repentance for sin. In addition, early Church councils forbade kneeling on Sunday, commanding the faithful to stand as a testimony to their belief in Christ’s resurrection. Consequently, Oriental Christians do not kneel at prayer in their homes, as Western Christians often do.

With icons, crosses, incense, and other sacramentals, all imbued with the sense of God’s presence, Byzantine Christian homes can truly be called miniature churches. Those who dwell within are reminded that God lives with and in them, and they recall the words of St. Gregory the Theologian: “It is better to remember God than even to breathe.” On rising in the morning, before and after every meal, in the evening, and before going to bed, all the members of the family stand before the icon corner to pray.

The many liturgical books of the Byzantine Church offer a limitless treasury of prayers for every day, every feast, and every season of the year. In addition to the hours of the Divine Office, there are numerous acathists and canons which are recited. When one receives Holy Communion, for example, the Canon of Repentance to Our Lord Jesus Christ is recited the night before. The next morning, before leaving for Church, one says the Canon of Preparation for Holy Communion.

Before any of these prayers are said, the one who is praying makes the “seven metanies” or bows before the icons, while reciting a prayer in which he declares his sinfulness and begs God’s mercy. During the Paschal season, this prayer is replaced by the troparion of the resurrection:

Christ is risen from the dead, and by His death He has trampled upon death and has given life to those who were in the tomb.

There are also prayers for each meal of the day; all of them include this blessing:

Christ God, bless the food and drink of Your servants, for You are holy at all times, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Before Christ left his disciples, He promised that they would one day dwell with Him: “And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to Myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:3). The Eastern Christian home reminds all who enter therein of the promise of Christ, and the heavenly home that awaits them.

Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what things God has prepared for those who love Him. (I Cor. 2:9).

Father King is Chancellor and Executive Secretary of the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy of Newton, Massachusetts.

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