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The Fear of God (8)

Pope Shenouda III | 10 October 2009

In the Hours (Agpeya) Prayers,
the Psalms, and the Church Rituals
   The Holy Church teaches and trains us in the fear of God through the Hours Prayers (Agpeya), especially in the Compline, Veil, and Midnight Prayers.
• In the Veil Prayer, we say, "O Lord, how awful is Your judgment! People stand in awe, angels stand ready, books are opened, works are revealed, and thoughts are examined! What condemnation shall I deserve who am caught in sins?!"
   This prayer shows fear of judgment and of being exposed before all.
   Can you imagine when God gathers the whole world and the angels and a tape like that of the cinema passes before them containing all the works and thoughts of people with all their sins and filthiness, revealing all their secrets, emotions and intentions, all their hypocrisy and deceit, and exposing their reality! What shame you will experience that day! What terror you will have when all your hidden sins become known to everybody! For the Lord says, "For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light." (Mk 4: 22; Lk 8: 17)

   If you do not want to be exposed on that day and be put to shame, you can repent, because repentance blots out all sins (Acts 3: 19).   
• The church teaches us to say in the Compline Prayer: "Behold, I am about to stand before the Just Judge in fear because of my numerous sins, for the life that is spent in pleasures deserves condemnation. Repent therefore, O my soul, so long as you dwell on earth … Rise up from your laziness and implore the Savior in repentance, saying, 'Lord have mercy on me and save me.'" "If this life was everlasting and this world eternal, O my soul, you would have had a valid excuse. But if your wicked deeds and repulsive evils are exposed before the Just Judge, what answer would you then give? You are lying on the bed of sin and slow to control the body." 

   In this way a person ought to blame himself every night, reminding himself of death, judgment, exposure, and justice of the Just Judge.
   Such fear leads to repentance, seeking mercy, and leaving slackness and indifference to avoid terror on the Day of Judgment.   

• Also in the Midnight Prayer the church puts a chapter of the Gospel on the Parable of the Wise Virgins who were ready and went in with the Lord to the wedding, while the foolish virgins stood outside and the Lord said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you." (Mt 25: 12) How horrible are these words!

   The Church then reminds us in the Midnight Prayer of the Day of the Second Coming and its awfulness through another chapter of the Gospel and a prayer:
   "Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect." (Lk 12: 40; Mt 25: 13) Following the chapter of the Virgins we say in the First Service of the Midnight Prayer: "Remember my soul that awesome day, awake and light your lamp with the oil of joy for you do not know when the voice will call: 'Behold, here comes the bridegroom'. Watch my soul that you do not fall asleep lest you should stay outside knocking like the five foolish girls." And in the Third Service of the Midnight Prayer we are taught to say: "Wake up, my soul and be careful, your judge is present. Consider the awesome time of judgment. There will be no mercy on those who did not have mercy on others."

   Again in the Midnight Prayer the church calls us to watch and be ready.
   "Let your waist be girded and your lamps burning; and you yourselves be like men who wait for their master, when he will return from the wedding, that when he comes and knocks they may open to him immediately. Blessed are those servants whom the master, when he comes, will find watching." (Lk 12: 35- 37)     

   And in the Second Service the church calls us to repent, presenting to us the example of the sinful woman who washed the Lord's feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head (Lk 7: 38). And following this verse we pray saying, "Give me, Lord, fountains of tears as You did in the past to the sinful woman."
   Not only fear and repentance, but also tears! We say further in the same Prayer, "When I am conscious of my many evil deeds, and think of Your awesome judgment, I fear and tremble and run to You, O God Lover of Mankind, do not turn away from me. Hear my supplications, You who alone are sinless. Have mercy on my humble soul before the end comes and save me."

   Therefore the church teaches us to ask for mercy.
   We cry out saying, "With a merciful eye, O Lord, look at my weakness, for soon my life will end and by my works I will have no salvation. Therefore, I pray You to look with a merciful eye at my weakness, my humiliation, and humbleness, and save me." "Have compassion upon me, Savior, for You alone are Lover of Mankind."

   Reminding us of the Second Coming of the Lord for judgment, the church teaches us to say, "When You come to judge the world, grant us to hear that joyful voice saying, 'Come, you, the blessed of My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you before the creation of the world. Grant us , O Lord, to be at that hour without fear, anxiety or condemnation. Do not judge us according to our many sins, because You alone are Compassionate, Longsuffering, and All Merciful.

   In the Vespers Prayer we are taught to say:
   "If the righteous are saved, where shall I, a sinner, appear?" This prayer is quoted from the First Epistle of St. Peter the Apostle where he says, "If the righteous one is scarcely saved, where will the ungodly and the sinner appear." (1 Pet 4: 18) Do such words not teach us the fear of God and how we ought to exert every effort to deserve to be counted among the righteous?

• We also are taught to say "Lord have mercy" 41 times each Prayer throughout the day.
   We repeat the same words with the same number in each Liturgical Prayer: in the vespers and morning incense prayers, and in every Mass. We ask continually for mercy, and this is an evidence of fear. Or do we ask for mercy without having fear?! Nay, for we say in the Midnight Prayer: "My flesh trembles for fear of You."  (Ps 119: 120)

   Furthermore, the church teaches us to begin our daily and liturgical prayers with the Thanksgiving Prayer which we conclude with the words, "Grant us to conclude this blessed day and all the days of our life in peace and in your fear."
And when we enter the church we kneel down before the sanctuary and say the words of the Psalm, "In fear of You I will worship toward Your holy temple." (Ps 7) These same words are repeated by the father priest while giving incense before the sanctuary.

• It is noteworthy that most of the church rituals and prayers contain words of fear of God.
   In the Vespers Incense Prayers the father priest begins his secret prayer with the words: "O Christ our Great True and Awe-inspiring God".
   And in the Absolution Prayer he says, "Cleanse us, absolve us and all Your people, fill us of Your fear, and lead us in accordance with Your holy will."
   Also before reading the Gospel, the deacon cries out: "Stand in fear of God, and listen to the Holy Gospel", and the whole congregation stand. The chief priest takes off his crown from over his head in reverence and awe before the words of the Gospel as the twenty four priests in the Revelation cast out their crowns and worship Him who sits on the throne and said, "You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power." (Rev 4: 10- 11)

   But why should we listen to the word of God in fear?
   It is because we know very well that unless we obey the word of God we shall be judged and condemned by them. For the Lord says, "He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him – the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day." (Jn 12: 48) Therefore we ask You, O Lord, to grant us to listen and work according to Your Holy Gospel so that we may not be condemned on the last day."

   Again we hear the word "fear" during the reading of the Gospel in the Divine Mass, as well as at the time of the descending of the Holy Spirit, when the deacon cries out, "Worship God in fear and trembling".

   Fear is suitable for the divine presence, as Moses the Prophet while receiving the Commandments on the Mount said, "I am exceedingly afraid and trembling." (Heb 12: 21) St John the Apostle likewise, on seeing the Lord in the Revelation, said, "When I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead. But He laid His right hand on me, saying to me, 'Do not be afraid.'" (Rev 1: 17)

   Fear is related also with the Holy Sacrifice, in offering it or partaking of it "without falling in condemnation", a phrase which the priest repeats often in the Divine Liturgy.
   In the Prayer of Preparation preceding the Offertory the priest says inaudibly, "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 of praise …" And in the Prayer of the Veil following reading the Gospel, the priest says, "We ask You, O Lord, thrust us not behind You when we offer this awesome and bloodless sacrifice … We pray and entreat Your goodness, O Lover of Mankind, that this mystery which You have appointed unto us for salvation may not be unto condemnation unto us or unto any of Your people."

   Here we recall the words of St. Paul the Apostle about condemnation for partaking without being worthy of it (1 Cor 11: 27- 30)
   Therefore in the Prayer of Reconciliation the priest says, "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." And on recalling the Second Coming of the Lord the priest says, "And His Second Coming which shall be from the heavens, awesome and full of glory."

   Fear of death is clear in the Hours Prayers:
   In the Vespers Prayer we seek the intercession of the holy Virgin, saying, "When my soul departs from my body, come to my rescue,  defeat the conspiracies of the enemy, shut the gates of hell lest they swallow my soul."            
 

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