In 2002 I was blessed to participate in an OCMC short-term mission trip to Chevogere, Kenya. It was an intensely life-changing experience. Our team was assigned a variety of responsibilities including catechizing school children, constructing a new school building, painting a health clinic, and beautifying St. Mark’s Orthodox Church. A physician and nurse also joined our team and provided medical services to long lines of village residents who rarely, if ever, were able to travel to urban centers to see a doctor.
There were a number of “fringe” activities associated with the planning of St. Mark’s Church Consecration by Archbishop Makarios of Kenya and Patriarch Petros VII of Alexandria of blessed memory. The whole village was flurry with activity. A bull was purchased to feed all who might join the celebration, the church building was cleaned and the donated icons we brought with us on our journey began to adorn the once bare interior of the edifice.
The floors of the church were refinished with the unsolicited help of local “angels” who saw us working, and swept through our activity like a beautiful whirl of shimmering wind! Before we knew it or could order it otherwise, their little hands carried us through our task like an angelic host ushering in a holy offering to the altar of the Lord.
A few of us were assigned the literal task task of providing bread offerings for the Altar of the Lord. We had to bake 20 to 30 loaves of prosphora to be used during weekly Divine Liturgies, and mostly for the actual Church Consecration. So many villagers were expected to attend!
Now in the US, this task of baking prosphora is usually carried out in the comfort of a pleasantly temporate home, accompanied by Orthodox Chant playing melodically on Spotify in the background, setting an idyllic tone for a holy endeavor.
Not so in rural Kenya. There is no A/C. There is not even electricity or gas to power a modern oven. We used an old tire rim laid horizontally over coals, with a heavy steel pot in which one loaf of bread baked at a time. The entire contraption required fanning the coals with dishtowels for the duration it took to cook each loaf. This made a convection oven of sorts, circulating the warm air more evenly to help the bread cook uniformly. I marveled at the ingenuity of it, but I confess that the task was less than pleasant. It was in the middle of the summer in Kenya. Temps were 100+ F every day. Simply kneading the dough made for a sweaty workout, let alone hovering over coals for hours as we baked.
My dear friend Jenny and I had cheerful company to help us. Two or three native women who were known for their baking skills joined the effort. They were Christian, but not Orthodox, so they were unfamiliar with The Jesus Prayer. We taught them the prayer and we all recited it as we kneaded and fanned. In this, the profuse heat became almost imperceptible.
Alas, there were the finished products. An interesting collection of rustic loaves each with their own unique form resulted, despite our efforts to fan the hot coals well. Some were very small, some had fine-looking seals but were darkly singed in spots, and some were quite obviously asymmetrical. We did our best with what we had to work with, and it should be mentioned that we were not expert bakers to begin with – even in ideal baking conditions.
To make matters more difficult, there was no refrigeration to preserve the fruit of our labors. Though stored in the coolest, driest space we could find, by the end of our nearly one month stay, the loaves began to get moldy. They were all we had because of schedule constraints. Our dear group leader, Fr. Gerasimos, patiently cut away any decaying portions to make them more suitable offerings.
I do not recall in which Divine Liturgy the “epiphany” came, in fact I believe it was during one of the first liturgies celebrated upon my return to the US at Hellenic College/Holy Cross that Fall semester. What I do remember clearly is this: the arms of the priest lifted the Lamb, the heart of the prosphoro bread offering, up high on the paten proclaiming “Thine own of Thine own, we offer to You, on behalf of all, and for all!” and it all came to me: The Body of Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, was made up of many members: many “imperfect” offerings.
The priest commemorates the names of the dead and living members of His Body in the Proskomide prayers. These are not just names, these are people: each with his or her own beauty, talent, personality, as well as blemishes, uneven growth, and moldy spots on their souls. Jesus is willing to become so very small for us, and even more unfathomably, He is willing to become, us; and so we offer Him the best we have. It can never be perfect but it is all we have to give. In return He joins us to His own Precious, Perfect Body. We become perfectly one, and, “Behold, (He) makes all things new”(Rev 21:5).
Now, almost 20 years later this Mercy of Christ has born new meaning in my life as a mother who advocates for a marginalized child and all those of His members who likewise appear outwardly to be blemished, misshapen, “imperfect.” No disability whether mental, physical, or psychological has ever disassociated a person from their innate dignity in the eyes of their Mother, the Church. In our spiritual shortsightedness many times we members of the Church do not recognize this dignity – but this is inconsequential to God’s truth.
Because, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom 8:35,38,39).
He is willing to take on all our “imperfection,” as Isaiah proclaimed, “Surely He has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases” (Is 53:4). The Christ is indeed Holy and Blameless, despite what our fallen, physical sight tells us about the shape, size and symmetry of the members of His Body. Not one of us is too marred to be a part of His Body. Not one of us – if we believe in and accept His love that is. “With the Fear of God, Faith and Love (we) draw near!” and our Beautiful God assumes our flesh. He becomes present to us in the sanctified Bread and in partaking, we become beautiful too. Our moldy sins are consumed in His Holy Fire, our scars and blemishes become apertures through which His Light can shine, and our apparent insignificance becomes united with The Most Important Thing in the Universe!
“Because (in Him) the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:21), we are made holy. We are made whole – One Body more glorious than any temporal beauty, a collection of infirm members all becoming aglow in His splendor, more wonderful than we could ever imagine or hope for on our own. The Body of Christ.
Presvytera Melanie DiStefano is the Resource Coordinator for the GOA Center for Family Care.