Laypersons: Co-Sharers In The Ministries Of The Church

By Albert S. Rossi, Ph.D.

I. Definition

“Come, Lord Jesus” defines the marching orders for every Christian. Our life testifies that the Lord is coming at the end of time, and He is here now. His coming is a future-yet-present event. He is coming yet He is already present, and that defines our life on earth.

Laypersons are members of the “priesthood of all believers” and together, we all constitute the “household of God.”

Since the giving of the Law to Moses, God proclaimed who we are, “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” 1

Each person has his or her own being, calling, mission, task and duty to perform in the service of Christ. Every person has a “voice” in the Church of God, in union with the bishop and the clergy. St. Peter said, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood.” 2

We are united with the priesthood, the royalty of the Crucified and Risen Christ. The rich and clear notion of laos, lay, in the Scripture is that of a universal priesthood of the People of God. This universal priesthood is consistent with the hierarchical structure of the Church.

At Baptism, our “second birth,” we become warriors and priests of God. The anointing by chrism establishes all the baptized in the same priestly order. From this equality of priesthood, some are chosen, set apart and established as bishops and presbyters.

The Fathers emphasize the triple dignity of the laity. St. Macarius of Egypt said, “Christianity… is a great mystery. Meditate on your own nobility… By the anointing, all have become kings, priests and prophets of the heavenly mysteries.” 3

As kings, we have a royal dignity. This is the conquering part of us, the ascetical part of us. This is the mastery of the spiritual over the material, over the instincts and impulses of the flesh, a transforming of passion.

As priests, we offer thanksgiving and sacrifice. We begin by offering our bodies as a living sacrifice, a spiritual service. 4

As priests, we partake in Christ’s suffering as we accept the inconveniences, failures, and pains of our current life. This is our joy and our victory. As St. Peter said, “But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed.” 5

As prophets we are initiated into the great mysteries, according to St. Ecumenius. We are prophets because we see what eye has not seen, according to St Theophylactus. According to the Bible, a prophet is one who sees what are the “designs of God” in the world. 6

The lay person is, by definition, one whose whole being, whose entire existence is a becoming, a living theology, theophatic, a luminous place of the presence of the Parousia, God’s coming again into this world. 7

II. Vocation

My vocation is to become who I am.

Who am I? For starters, I am a unique human being, with a personal name before the Lord, a singular set of fingerprints, a grouping of cells that make my body shape and appearance which are mine alone, a one-of-a-kind voice, an unduplicatable history of childhood experiences and life choices. I am uniquely me, growing and maturing into more wisdom and grace. No one in the history of the world is who I am, or ever will be. God broke the mold after fashioning me into existence.

I am also Jesus Christ. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”8 Christ is within me, and yet is not confused or absorbed into me. Christ and I are separate, yet united. Christ is more present to me than I am to myself, or than my parents or children are to me. Jesus and I are two, yet one.

First, as a human being, I have the same general vocation as every other human being. I am called to be the image and likeness of God. As St. Maximos the Confessor said, “We are called to be by grace what God is by nature.” This is what it means to be a human being.

Therefore, I am called to be the very Presence of God, every moment of my life. As God is patient, compassionate, kindly, loving, so am I called to be, and can be, by God’s transforming grace.

St Gregory the Theologian said that we are all called to be Christ, with a small “c.” Who is Jesus Christ? Jesus is God walking in sandals. I am called to be Jesus walking in size 10 black oxford shoes, in my place and in my time. I am called to live His presence on earth.

Second, I also have a unique vocation. The great task of my life is to discover, not choose, my vocation. I have only two choices. I can choose God’s vocation for me, His will. That is heaven on earth. Or, I can choose my own vocation, which is called hell. The only real freedom I have is choosing His will or my will.

The Lord has a vocation for me to accept, a life to live, which He needs to complete His Church, His Body on earth. My life has a purpose, a Divine meaning given by God, from all eternity. God doesn’t create accidents, or junk. He created me to carry out a specific, awesome set of tasks to work with Him in saving and transforming the universe.

All this is lived out moment-by-moment, one day at a time. My challenge is to live the “duty of the present moment.”9 If I live each moment in His Presence, trying to do His will and not my own, then life unfolds and I discover my vocation as I live out my days.

III. Implications

Jesus Christ, by the total gift of Himself, has shown us the perfect priesthood. Just as He hung on a Cross, we are called to be co-crucified with Him, by accepting the crosses He gives us to bear. The heart of the Christian life is a total love of God and our neighbor, particularly those who live close to us.

We are called to live a life of love, peace and joy. People often feel unhappy and they don’t know why.10 In truth, unhappiness springs from not choosing to live the vocation God has called us to live, and to pray to live the vocation peacefully.

A. Silence and Prayer

We choose to become a prayerful person by becoming silent and open to the Voice of God. Silence is a choice. We choose the things we want to do. These things, then, order and measure our lives. Someone said that Christians “order and measure” their lives from communion to communion. We might also say the Christians “order and measure” their lives from silence to silence.

Silence, at its best, is God-awareness. We quiet down our outer and inner lives, and listen to God speak. Someone said that when God speaks, His words are like the sound of a flutter of a bird’s wings. We need to be attentive if we are to hear anything.

In the silence of our heart we pray our personal prayer, which in fact, is the Holy Spirit praying within us.

The Fathers tell us that the first thing that often happens is an experience of darkness and resistance. Then, when we persist, peace begins to replace the darkness. The temptations may become more severe, even temptations to stop the praying, but we sin less. The Fathers tell us that, as we continue to pray and live the commandments, go to Church and listen to our spiritual Father, we can expect to become freed from indecision, upset and hesitation. Our will becomes stronger.

We can expect invisible, subtle snares, sent from Satan, precisely because we have up scaled our efforts, and are turning to God. In a sense, we rouse the enemy to action. St. John Chrysostom says that when we begin to pray we stir the snake (living within us) to action, and that prayer can lay the snake low.

We are to “Jump In” and Just Begin

Like swimming, we are to “jump in” and just begin. There is a world of difference between thinking, or talking, about quiet prayer, and actually praying. Like beginning swimmers, we only learn by getting wet.

Bishop Kallistos Ware says that by spending only a few moments invoking the Divine Name each day, we actually transform all the other remaining moments of the day. “By standing in Christ’s presence even for no more than a few moments of each day, invoking His Name, we deepen and transform all the remaining moments of the day, rendering ourselves available to others, effective and creative, in a way that we could not otherwise be.” 11

We are each called to pray, ardently, for our children, family, priest, the Church, country, world. We have a noble and royal vocation, to pray and make an untold difference in the entire cosmos.

Quiet personal prayer, the Jesus Prayer or some other gentle, repetitive prayer, is recommended in the morning, following our prayer rule, for some period of time, perhaps 10 or 15 minutes. If that is impossible, then we pray sometime before noon, or in the evening. This might be called “formal” use of the prayer. The second form of personal prayer is the “free” use of repetitive prayer. This means at any and all other times of the day, or night. This is especially true for the semi-automatic tasks such as driving, doing dishes, walking, being unable to sleep, etc. Quiet, repetitive prayer is notably useful in time of extreme concern or upset.

When we begin to pray, we expend desire and effort. The results are up to God. Real prayer is a gift from God, not the payment for our perspiration.

Every prayer changes the entire universe. Our every prayer, each prayer, actually changes history, the way God created the world, and all else. God is outside time. God is not “waiting up there” for our prayer, and then He acts. All has already occurred in God. We are His co-redeemers.

We don’t pray to get “some benefit.” We don’t pray to reduce our stress, or strengthen our immune system, or lose weight, or add years to our life. On the contrary, we enter prayer to follow Christ, to become open to Him. His way is the Way of the Cross.

Prayer works in the Unseen Warfare as a power/gift from Jesus, given as a function of our ability to receive it. We increase our ability to receive by asking for the increase, and God grants it as He sees fit, in His tender, all sweet and merciful manner.

The layperson is above all a person of prayer, both liturgical and personal. The most repeated prayer in the Orthodox liturgical worship is Kyrie eleison: Lord, have mercy.12 A Christian is one whose entire life cries out for God’s steadfast mercy.

Laypersons are a perpetuation of the epiklesis, the calling down of the Holy Spirit during the Divine Liturgy, sanctifying every inch of the world. Being a layperson, then, is a dignified life, which is messianic, revolutionary and explosive. We are called to transform the world.

Laypersons are eyewitnesses of the Resurrection of Christ. That is the teaching of the Divine Liturgy, and the meaning of the service of Pascha. The Liturgy “re-presents” the death and resurrection of the Lord, making the event present. Before the congregation of laypersons, the mystical death and resurrection occurs. Therefore, we are eyewitnesses of the mysteries of the Liturgy. 13

B. A Life of Peace and Love

Jesus tells us that only by violence can we take the world, but this is a special kind of violence. “The kingdom of God suffered violence, and the men of violence take it by force.”14 This violence is to violently become weak, to violently fight the voice of hatred and retaliation within ourselves. That voice of darkness tells us to hate our enemies, both those on foreign soil and those who disagree with us within our community.

We are called to be violent enough to be able to be gentle and lowly of heart. As it says in Proverbs, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” 15

We are called to live a life of humble love, which is a life lived in heaven, while on earth. That is the opposite of living a life of hell-on-earth. What is hell? Dostoyevsky says that hell is being unable to love. 16 When we are called to choose between using force or not, we can try consistently to choose the path of humble love. There is no greater force on earth than that of humble love, and the proof is Jesus hanging silently, humbly on the wood of the Cross.

We are called to preach the Gospel at all times, everywhere. Sometimes we even need to resort to words, as St. Francis of Assisi said. Our life is our testimony of Christ’s current, vigorous life on this planet, today.

As laypersons, our call is to fully live a life of total, loving union with our loving Savior. Then, when we meet others, for some of them, we will be the only Jesus they will ever meet.

(Reprinted with permission from “Alive in Christ”, magazine of the Diocese of Eastern Pennsylvania, Orthodox Church in America, Spring 2002.)

  1. Exodus 19:6.
  2. 1 Peter 2:9.
  3. Paul Evdokimov, Ages of the Spiritual Life (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), 238.
  4. Romans 12:1.
  5. 1 Peter 4:12.
  6. Evdokimov, 239.
  7. Evdokimov, 239.
  8. Galatians 2:20.
  9. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1975), 14.
  10. Thomas Hopko, The Lenten Spring (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983), 21.
  11. Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Power of the Name (Convent of the Incarnation, Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press, 1974), 27.
  12. Hopko, 61.
  13. Evdokimov, 241.
  14. Matthew 11:12.
  15. Proverbs 15:1.
  16. Dostoyevsky, 338.

Dr. Albert Rossi is Lecturer in Pastoral Theology and Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program, St. Vladimir’s Seminary.