Father Zugger distributes the eucharist. (photo: Cary Herz)
Father Zugger anoints with oil. (photo: Cary Herz)
An altar server prays during the liturgy. (photo: John Maio)
The crowd that gathered for the liturgy. (photo: John Maio)
On a side street in Albuquerque, N.M., stands a small adobe church, actually a chapel. On Sunday, 31 January, like all Sundays, Our Lady of Perpetual Helps lone bell called out to the faithful. However, this was not a typical Sunday. Buses and cars clogged the streets; a crowd of people young and old, some in wheelchairs, others on crutches swarmed through the doors. The church could not hold them all; they spilled out of its doors and into the halls and classrooms. Windows were opened as people strained to see and hear. An assembly had gathered seeking the healing of soul and body.
No one stands alone in life. Nothing is perfect. Most of us are conscious that something is just not right. This void has been defined as emptiness, an emptiness that can be physical, spiritual or emotional. In general, American society seems to cry out for the healing of these voids, to be made whole. I am not exempt from these needs. I too yearn for healing, specifically for the arthritis and other ailments that have stricken me.
In 1988 I attended a healing mass at a Roman Catholic parish. I was not physically healed, but I was touched I was opened to the life-giving Spirit. It was then that I felt called to realize this healing within my own Byzantine tradition.
In Byzantine spirituality, prayers are frequently invoked to Jesus as healer of souls and bodies, fountain of health and divine physician. His biblical role as healer is not forgotten. After consulting numerous ancient texts for prayers and music, a Byzantine healing liturgy was composed and then approved in 1992. It incorporates many of the traditions already familiar to Eastern Catholics and Orthodox.
The liturgy was celebrated twice, first at the request of the Roman Catholic clergy of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, then for our own parish. Both were special moments for everyone involved.
On this day, the feast day of the physician saints, Cyrus and John, we celebrated the liturgy and invited the general public. With the support of the local Roman Catholic clergy, we placed invitations in parish bulletins we expected no more than 130 people. Imagine my surprise when the deacon arrived late because he had to park the car more than a block away; when our ushers lost count after 350; when the banners were removed to make space; and when I peered from behind the iconostasis to see the sanctuary flanked with wheelchairs, crutches and people of all ages. In order to take communion to those outside the body of the church, the deacon had to distribute the eucharist to the crowd to make his way through it.
When the divine liturgy concluded, I invoked the Holy Spirit upon a bowl of simple olive oil and blessed it with holy water. We moved people forward to the steps of the royal doors. I made the sign of the cross on each pilgrims forehead and said, May God give you the healing that you need. I then laid my hands, themselves wrapped in plastic splints to support my arms, and prayed, Receive his blessing, Amen. The deacon placed the opened Book of Gospels on their heads to remind them of the power of the Word. The pilgrims kissed the icon of Jesus the All-Compassionate and clipped a cotton ball into the blessed oil to take home. Finally they received a holy card that featured an icon of the Mother of God and a prayer for the sick.
The number of people in line grew: the blind and the paralyzed, people with cancer and those with private needs, the very old and the very young. We distributed nearly two quarts of oil and hundreds of prayer cards. I prayed a continual litany, asking God to descend in mercy and love.
When the line ended, a new one formed for the blessing of icons, rosaries and medals. God descended yet again.
Prior to the healing liturgy, I exhorted those present to repent, to let go. I encouraged them to follow the example of the tax collector in the gospel of the day: God, be merciful to me, a sinner! (Luke 18:13) I cautioned them to expect not miracles, but the grace of the Holy Spirit to Bless us and sanctify us.
Unlike the land of television, no one jumped from his wheelchair or threw down his crutches to run down the aisle. But I know that healing took place. Pilgrims spoke of feeling God and Gods love and peace. They were touched and moved by the beauty of the liturgy. God descended and touched our souls and bodies and we were made whole.
Father Zugger is the pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Albuquerque, New Mexico.