by H.H. Pope Shenouda III
Worthiness of the Kingdom of Heaven
We sometimes hear within some of the sects someone who says: "I am demanding my rights of Christ’s blood, I am asking for my inheritance!" First, we say to such people: "What rights do you have? All that you take is a gift from God that you paid nothing for." Paul the apostle confirms: “Being justified freely by His grace” (Ro 3:24).
Second, Christ’s blood is sufficient for the salvation of everyone on the whole earth, but not everyone deserves salvation. Though the blood is sufficient for salvation, and it has unlimited power to save people, it did not save Caiaphas and Herod nor Judas. It also did not save the non-faithful, atheists, or those who die in their sins. So, we should not say "my rights"! But ask: who is worthy and who is not? Who will be redeemed? Who are those having their names written in the book of Life?
Salvation is given for free to all. But there are conditions to deserve it. Among these conditions are: Faith, Repentance, and Baptism…
Therefore it was said that “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” (Mk 16:16), “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” (Jn 3:36). It was also said “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Lk 13:3, 5).
Salvation was made for everyone. But it is only worthy for those repenting baptized faithful who do good deeds. Thus, the Foolish Virgins were not worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven although they cried saying “Lord, Lord, open to us!” (Mt 25:11- 13). Also those who say to the Lord on the Last Day: “’Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’. And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Mt 7:22, 23). So salvation was made for everyone, but it is never gained except by those who are worthy.
You say: Isn’t it one of my rights to be called son of the Lord? Theoretically speaking, you might say so. But are you worthy? Jews used to have pride in that they are sons of Abraham. But the Lord answered them saying: “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham.” (Jn 8:39). What about you? What are the deeds that show who you are? The apostle says: “Whoever has been born of God does not sin… and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.” (1Jn 3:9). “In this the children of God are manifest” (1Jn 3:10) “he who has been born from God keeps himself, and the wicked one does not touch him” (1Jn 5:18). Do these aspects apply on you?
Therefore, the Prodigal Son – in his going back – said to his father “I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Lk 15:19). And so we say in our prayers, “Make us worthy of saying: Our Father in Heaven…”. You say you are a son, but is it a true title you are holding? Here, the apostle says: “If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him.” (1Jn 2:29). Are you like this? Let not sonship be a matter of vain pride from us, while practically we do not deserve it. The son is similar to his father. Are those sinning similar to their father?!
God – out of his humbleness – allowed us to pray. But are we worthy of standing in front of God to talk to Him?! Our father Abraham in his humility said: “I who am but dust and ashes have taken it upon myself to speak to the Lord” (Gn 18:27). Therefore we say: "Make us worthy to pray"; "may my prayer come to Your presence". We also say in the ninth hour absolution, “May our prayers at all times and the prayer of this hour… be acceptable in front of You”. We also say during parts of the ninth hour prayer: “May my supplication come before You, Lord, as You said make me understand. May my prayer come to Your presence; as Your word bring life to me.” And in the absolution of the third hour we say: “Bring our prayers to You…”.
The subject of worthiness includes communion. It appears clearly in the first Epistle to Corinthians, where the Apostle warns from taking communion when unworthy. He says: “Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep” (1 Co 11:27-30). Communion is offered to all people, but it is not acceptable for the unworthy to seek it. We pray in the Holy Liturgy saying: “Make us worthy, O our Master, to partake of Your holies unto the purification of our souls, our bodies and our spirits”. We also say: “Make us worthy, O our Master, to partake of Your holies unto the purification of our souls, our bodies and our spirits and for the forgiveness for our sins and iniquities”. And that’s why the priest – before the Holy Liturgy – washes his hands and says: “I wash my hands with purity and not with water”. And he also says to the Lord: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me and I shall be whiter than s now.” White clothes that priests and deacons wear to the Holy Liturgy is symbol of their internal heart purity.
As was said in Revelation, “Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and on the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white robes;” (Rev 4:4). “For the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints” (Rev 19:8). Therefore, angels appeared in white clothes (Jn 20:12). And so were the righteous (Rev 3:4) (Rev 7:9). It is a serious statement when St. Teji said: "he who partakes communion should have an interior as pure as the interior of St. Mary where she conceived the Lord."
It is not a simple phrase at all. But it gives us an idea of preparing for communion or worthiness of it. It shows us what level of self-inspection St. Teji considered for worthiness of communion. Purity of body and soul and fasting are also conditions to deserve communion. Also, making peace with people as much as possible is a condition. St Paul the Apostle said about this: “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (Ro 12:18). And as the Lord said: “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother” (Mt 5:23, 24). Therefore we pray the Reconciliation Prayer at the beginning of the Liturgy so that we be worthy of communion and we say in it: “And make us all worthy, O our Master, to greet one another with a holy kiss, that without falling into condemnation, we may partake, of Your immortal and heavenly gift in Christ Jesus our Lord”. Believe me my brothers: If all people partaking communion each and every one of thousands and tens of thousands are worthy, the Lord would have been doing wonders with people and grace would have been prevailed in the church.
Alas, so many people are partaking communion without true repentance. Evidence of that is that each of them comes out of communion with his same nature, same mistakes and same used expressions he used to say! And you ask that person: what did communion change in you?! Or has it just become a habit for you?! Without inspection of whether you worth it. When Prophet Samuel planned to offer a sacrifice in Bethlehem said to the house of Jesse: “Sanctify yourselves, and come with me to sacrifice” (1S 16:5). The phrase that this great prophet said reminds us of the priest crying at the liturgy saying: “The holies for the holy.” That’s why we call the communion liturgy the “Holy Liturgy” to distinguish it from the “Catechumens Liturgy”.
In the Catechumens Liturgy they listen to Holy readings from Epistles, Acts, Synexarion, Psalms and the Gospel and then a sermon. They then leave and no one stays at the church other than those who will partake communion, the holy… Then, the veil of the altar is removed and the liturgy of the holy start. If that is what we say about the preparation and worthiness of normal people, then what can we say about the preparation and worthiness of priests the altar servants?
A priest starts his service with (the preparation prayer) in which he says: “You, O Lord, know my unworthiness, my unfitness, and my unmeetness, unto this, Your holy service; and I have no boldness that I should draw near and open my mouth before Your holy glory; but according to the multitude of Your tender-mercies, pardon me a sinner, and grant unto me that I may find grace and mercy at this hour…”. He also says: “O You, our Lord, make us meet, in the power of Your Holy Spirit, to finish this service; so that without falling into condemnation before Your great glory, we may offer up unto You a sacrifice…”
May the priests attending with us gather the phrase “without falling into condemnation” and all similar phrases from the liturgy prayers… A priest also says “O Lord, give me the purity of body and soul, to deserve to come to Your holy altar, and to offer gifts and spiritual sacrifices for my sins and ignorances of Your people”… he also says: “Because of my own sins and the abomination of my heart, deprive not Your people of the grace of Your Holy Spirit”. This last phrase used to be said inaudibly but ever since I started my current service in priesthood, I started saying it audibly so that people hear it.
The problem is that most priests consider that worthiness for the service of the altar is worthiness because of the grade and the job and not because of spiritual life! Truly – from the legal point of view – as long as hands were laid on him and he became a priest, he can pray liturgies. But what about his worthiness spiritually?!
Worthiness of Christ
Our Master, the Lord says: “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Mt 10:37). More than that, he also says: “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate… and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (Lk 14:26, 27).
So how much do we deserve the Lord? How much are we worthy to be his disciples? Do not say then: As long as I have believed and got baptized it is over. No, there is also the condition of having fruits as well!
The gospel says “Every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Mt 3:10).The Lord also says “You will know them by their fruits” (Mt 7:16). And He says “I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain” (Jn 15:16). So what is your fruit, you believer? Is it permanent? Of course deeds are the fruit of faith. There is a serious verse saying: “Him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin” (Jas 4:17). And of course the sin forbids from the Heaven Kingdom. And there is also another condition for reaching the Heaven Kingdom and it is:
Wedding garment is the white clothes; it is the righteous acts of the saints. It is as St Paul the Apostle said “walk worthy of the calling with which you were called…” (Eph 4:1). And we say in the ninth hour absolution: “Grant us to walk as is fit for the call that we were called to. So that if we come out of this body, we are counted among the worshipers whom are worthy of the sufferings of Your Only Son Jesus Christ, our Lord; and we may win mercy and forgiveness from our sins”.
And from the seriousness point of view of the wedding garment, the Lord says in his Parable of the Wedding Feast: “But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man there who did not have on a wedding garment… Then the king said to the servants, bind him hand and foot, pick him away and cast him into outer darkness…” (Mt 22:11-13)
And among the messages that the Lord sent to the seven churches, he said to the angel of the church in Sardis: “You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy” (Rev 3:4).
Wedding garments are white clothes, unclean. Those who wear them are worthy to walk with the Lord in the righteous retinue. Finally, imagine, my brothers, that there are many other matters; matters that we may have never imagined that we can classify under the subject of worthiness. So what are they?
Even life needs worthiness. Thus we say in the sunset absolution: “We thank you, our merciful King because you granted us to pass this day peacefully. And made us worthy of seeing the light till the evening”. This means that God gave use worthiness to continue living till the evening.
Entering the Lord’s House also requires worthiness: In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, we find that the tax collector “standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven” (Lk 18:13) feeling unworthy… He reminds us of what Prophet David said in the psalm “But as for me, I will come into Your house in the multitude of Your mercy” (Ps 5:7). He feels that he is unworthy to enter the Lord’s House. And that his entrance is an act of Lord’s mercy.
Also blessing and peace require worthiness: The Lord said to his apostles: “whatever city or town you enter, enquire who in it is worthy and stay there till you go out. And when you go into a household, greet it. If the household is worthy, let your peace come upon it. But if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you” (Mt 10:11-13).
Even listening to the bible requires worthiness as well. Thus the priest says in the prayer for the Gospel: “May we be worthy to hear and to act according to Your holy gospels through the prayers of Your saints”. So not only acting according to commandments requires worthiness, but also only listening to them requires it… It is a blessing from the Lord to make us worthy to listen to His words…
No doubt that Elder Baptism requires worthiness: Currently, in the case of marriage between different sects, we require from the non-Orthodox side to join in and get baptized. Yet in early ages they used to put baptism seekers among the classes for Catechumens to get lessons in faith. The priest says in the prayer for Cate chumens: “… And in the specific day may they deserve the bath of the new birth for the forgiveness of their sins”. The grace of baptism requires worthiness.
Finally: Feeling of unworthiness is an evidence of humbleness. John the Baptist, who was the greater among those born of women (Mt 11:11), he said about the Lord Jesus Christ “whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose.” (Mk 1:7). Also the Centurion who asked the Lord to heal his servant said to him: “I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed.” (Mt 8:8).