WHAT IS ORTHODOXY?
by A. Woronen
A Discussion of the Orthodox Church’s World Outlook …
An Orthodox Christian senses and is filled with joy and hope of the Resurrection not only during the holy Paschal night — he is never without it. Even during the Great Fast, when an Orthodox Christian concentrates on the test of his deeds and penitence, with his whole spiritual entity, with all his heart, soul and thoughts — even then while prostrate before the Cross, he glorifies the Holy Resurrection of Him Who was crucified thereupon: even on Good Friday morning, he sings, “We bow down to Thy Passion, O Christ; show us Thy glorious Resurrection” (Antiphon 15).
Christ’s Resurrection is the triumphant fulfillment of the Lord’s descent to earth. The victory of Christ over the power of the Devil indicates liberation from this power for those who believe and follow Christ. His conquest over death in His Resurrection is a guarantee of the future Resurrection and Eternal Life for those who believe in Him. It is because of this reason that the Resurrection of Christ occupies such an important place in the world-outlook of the Orthodox Church. The Resurrection is the basis of our faith and hope, as well as the source of the spiritual life of Orthodoxy.
We have shown above that the coming of the Son of God upon earth opened the road to salvation and eternal life for us. However, neither salvation, nor participation in the higher, more beautiful life in Christ, nor the restoration and transfiguration of a human being are given to a person automatically, externally, or in a wholly objective manner without the participation of the individual himself. In all truthfulness, the flow of a beautiful life came into the world with the coming of the Saviour, and it permeates the world whether we accept it or not. But the union of individual with the communal living in this life comes into being only through a free and inner act on the part of the individual himself. Similarly does the sun send down its life-giving rays upon the earth, but it is our choice, as to whether we take advantage of its warmth and light, or, whether we do not allow its rays to enter our home, in which we hide ourselves after closing the windows and doors. First of all, we must have the desire to stand upon the path of salvation, and secondly, we must have the will to travel along this road. When these two suppositions are deeply rooted in the inner convictions of an individual, then there will be no doubt of receiving God’s help along the way toward acquiring all the results of union with the beautiful life.
What is the meaning of eternal life in Christ? In the Orthodox understanding, this ideal state cannot present itself in the form of a subjective assurance in which merely faith is lacking in the efforts for salvation, or which is attainable by belonging to one or another denomination. The ideal also cannot be one of exactness alone, e.g., the formal fulfillment of all decisions and laws of the Church, etc. It was due to such an understanding of piety that Our Heavenly Saviour bitterly rebuked the Pharisees. The ideal of true Christian life is a road of sacrifice, the participation in Christ’s sufferings, the bearing of His Cross, the constant battle against sin and the sinful nature of man, the incessant striving for perfection — the highest ideal being the perfection of the Father (Matt. 5:48). In this life we observe the harmonious union of faith, hope, love, good deeds, sincere prayer, and a deeply organic (but not externally formal or rationalistic) Christian participation in the life of the Body of Christ — His Church.
The voluntary abasement of the Son of God, His maltreatment and suffering on the Cross, and death, preceded Christ’s Resurrection. The radiant joy of Pascha is preceded each year by the spiritual act of the Great Fast, when an Orthodox Christian bows his head and bends his knees in humility and piety before the Crucified One. Utilizing much self-control and with all humility, he renounces many comforts of life and subdues his passions and cravings, crucifying within himself his “old man.” that is, his sinful nature, making himself dead to sin (Rom. 6:6) — for without being crucified with Him we are not able fully to enter, accept and become participants in the joy of the Resurrection. This may be applied to the entire life of an Orthodox Christian. The source of true Christian joy, and the anticipative participation in His Life lies only in Christ, in participation in His Sacrifice and in being crucified with Him (Matt. 16:24). All of the Church’s teachings cry out to the Orthodox Christian to deny himself and voluntarily take up His Cross.
As he travels along his thornlike path, man alone is powerless and impotent — being unable to achieve anything through his own efforts in his battle against sin and the evil doings of the Devil. We may be saved neither with the exertion of our own efforts, nor with the help of others, but only through God’s Grace. We are merely able to entreat God for His help and Grace. As a Christian travels upon his road to perfection, he gains a better understanding of his deep inability and insignificance, and becomes more conscious of God’s power.
God’s love never leaves a Christian without sustenance and help. One of the greatest gifts of God’s Grace is faith, which, even in the most trying times, gives endless strength for life’s battle. We approach God through our deep and sincere faith: we unite ourselves with Him in an indivisible union, becoming filled thereby with His strength, against which no deed of evil intention may prevail. Another virtue which is of no less importance in the life of a Christian is hope, the basis of which is Our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 1:1). It is this hope that fills us with the assurance that God is with us,” that He is ever looking after us and our salvation, bestowing upon us all things which in faith we ask of Him. (Matt. 21:22; John 14:l3-14).
The Church of Christ, founded by Our Heavenly Saviour for the attainment of our salvation, is the crown of God’s love and the guide for His creation. It is only through the Church, and by no other means, that one is able to attain the fullness of a transfigured life. Our presence in the Church makes us members of Christ’s Mystical Body. We are thereby in deep organic union with Jesus Christ, the Church’s Supreme Head. This union is manifested with unusual power in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist which is the center of Church life. Through the Church a Christian also unites himself with his brethren in Christ, who are all members of the great ecclesiastical organism headed by the One Eternal Head. They all acknowledge the same Faith, partake of the Life-giving Body and the Precious Blood of Christ, and are animated by the very same Gifts of the Holy Spirit through the Holy Sacraments. The aim of all Christians is identical: It is the acquirement of eternal life. Through the Church a Christian also binds himself with his brethren in communal prayer with those righteous Orthodox — the Saints, and with the highest and most Orthodox of all Creation, the exceedingly blessed Mother of God and Ever-virgin Mary. It is in the Church and through the Church that a Christian is able to perceive the Eternal, which unveils itself in the fullness of the Body of the Church and in which the Holy Spirit abides and remains without change.
The source of comprehension for the Church is the Holy Spirit. As the human spirit gives man the possibility of comprehending himself, the Holy Spirit, Who is of God, enables us to perceive God and Eternity (I Cor. 2:11-12). The Holy Spirit is infallible by nature, and for this reason the Church, which is animated and blessed by the Holy Spirit, and in which the Holy Spirit resides as the basis of the Church’s existence, is sinless and infallible. It must be stressed that it is the Church in its entirety that is sinless — the whole of its Mystical Body bound with love, and not an individual member or a group of members of the earthly Church, even though some authority may have been bestowed upon them. Due to this very factor the Orthodox Church will never accept the Roman Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope of Rome in things concerning faith, as well as the Protestant view about the subjective infallibility of the individual in comprehending the truth.
The Orthodox Church regards unity with the ancient Tradition of the early Church as of great importance. The present-day Church is governed by the doctrine which is accepted and embodied within the unchangeable Tradition by the “undivided” Church. Our Church has always retained the deep conviction that the possibility of comprehending the truth is given only to the whole of the Church. When an epistle of the Eastern Patriarchs was sent in reply to an epistle of Pope Pius IX in 1849 it was formulated exactly in accordance with this conviction. Its contents were as follows: Only the Church, as the living organism comprised of all the faithful — both laity and ecclesiastical hierarchy — may maintain its infallibility, guard against the changing of dogmas, and uphold the purity of the Liturgy. The Church lives by the truth and has the truth within itself; a believer is not able to understand it merely by learning or by the acceptance of a arbitrarily announced doctrine, but by living in communion with the Body of the Church.
In order that we may be able to understand Orthodoxy in general, we must first have a proper understanding of the essence of the Church. It should be noted at this point that Roman Catholic theology has greatly strayed from the teachings of the Universal Church, as is also the case, in varied degrees, with the teachings of Protestantism. For this reason let us consider the most important moments of the essence and life of the Church as they are contained in the teachings of the Orthodox Catholic Faith.
As was mentioned above, the Church of Christ is the Mystical Body of Christ, the Head and Chief Cornerstone of which is Our Savior Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:22; 2:20-22; 4:15, 5:23; Col. 1:18; 1 Cor. 3:11; Matt. 21:42). All who acknowledge their faith in Him, and who through the Holy Sacrament of Baptism enter into the life of rebirth in Christ, and are joined together in the Body of Christ’s Church, are members of the Church (Eph. 1:23; 4:16; 1 Cor. 12:27; Col. 2:17, 19). The life of the Church is the continuation of the Incarnate Life of Christ in His Faithful. After fulfilling the Mystery of our salvation, Our Saviour ascended into Heaven, but He remains perpetually within the Mystical Body of His Church in His Divine, Life-giving and all-regenerating Entity.
We may then conclude that the Church of Christ cannot be considered as similar to an organization or a union in the ordinary worldly understanding of these words. It is a living organism in which God and man are united in profound inner spiritual union. Within it the goal of our understanding, salvation, love, joy and blessing is born, developed and achieved. The Church is a new life which we are unable to comprehend unless we are born again of water and of the Spirit (John 3:3, 5) into the life in the Church’s Mystical Body, and partake of the Holy Sacraments which are so generously extended by the Church to all its Faithful.
How could we comprehend the essence of human life if we were not humane ourselves? We would only perceive the outward appearance of this life, i.e., the actions, language, laughter, the various facial expressions, etc. But we know that these are not the only things of which we are conscious. It is the same with the life of the Church. Only when we have organically entered into the life of the Church, can we understand the true essence of all the visible external occurrences: The Divine Services, prayer, church ritual, and the full significance of the invisible things they indicate.
Christ’s Church is both visible and invisible. It is visible in its organic forms, which are imperative for its activity upon the earth. It is also visible in its form of worship, as well as in all the outward appearances of its activity. The Church is invisible in the mystical existence of Our Saviour within it; in the life of the Holy Spirit, and in the spiritual union of the Faithful with their Creator.
There is only one Church just as there is One Body of Christ. Therefore, no individuals or groups of people, who are separated from the Church, may live in truth — for the creation if new “churches” and other schisms, lacking unity with the Church of Christ, contradict the teachings of Our Saviour (John 15:4-7) and the very nature of the Church. Unity and love are the basis and the essence of the Church’s existence. We are able to take an active part in the Eternal Life of the Church and develop toward perfection only in the love that binds us with God and with all our brethren in Christ. Only within the Church by binding ourselves to one another with the unconquerable power of prayer and love, may we comprehend the Eternal which is revealed to us by the Holy Spirit. St. Paul writes the following on the subject: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father … that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:14, 17-19).
The comprehension of the Eternal comes about by our inner, spiritual and organic acceptance of it through our participation in the life of the Church, and not in an external or formal manner. This may also be said about the nature of the Church in general. The Church is not an external organization or union apart from its members, nor an external authority or external legislative power — but a profound inner life in which those united in the One Body of the Church live. Thus, we may clearly understand why the Orthodox Church does not expand its influence across the globe by forcing its ideals upon men’s minds and consciences and by enforcing a formalistic law — but only through permeating with its eternal teachings the souls of persons, who, having accepted these teachings for their own, become indivisible parts of the Church. The idea of an earthly empire, with a hierarchy playing the role of an absolute civil authority, is foreign and unacceptable to Orthodoxy. It is the Roman Catholic Church which has accepted to a great extent this form of organization, a form very similar to the state governmental system with its legislature, formalism and rationalism. This is one of the reasons that the Roman Church broke away from the One Catholic Church — for the Church of Christ “is not of this world” (John 18:36, 17:14). Its Kingdom is the kingdom of the spirit; its authority is that of love, and its only foundation is Our Saviour Jesus Christ.
The inner spiritual life of the Church unveils itself with exceptional constancy in Orthodox Divine Services and Sacraments. The Divine Liturgy is based not only upon the idea that the Church commemorates the life of Christ, glorifying Him and preaching His Word at the same time; the true essence and basic meaning of the Liturgy is that the Mystery of our salvation, the inexpressible greatness of Christ’s mission upon earth, definitely takes place in the Divine Services and in the Christian life. During the Divine Liturgy a Christian actually experiences the whole of the Mystery of the God-Man’s Incarnation — from the Old Testament prophecies, the Annunciation to the Resurrection, the Ascension and Pentecost. The union of Christ with His Church takes place not only in a spiritual sense, but also in conscious form, through the immediate presence of the Saviour’s Body and Blood in the Holy Sacrament, the Eucharist. The mystical union of the Faithful with the invisible Eternal Life takes place at the moment the Precious Gifts are given — and this reception serves to strengthen the participants in the many difficult battles of life.
This mystical union of the members of Christ’s Church with their Creator takes place also in the other Sacraments of the Orthodox Church. These Sacraments are the direct action of the Holy Spirit, Whose Grace is bestowed upon those of the Faithful who wish to receive it. They are acts of the Holy Spirit’s force of life-giving, invigoration, strengthening and blessing. These, are neither merely symbols of Grace, nor only the confirmation of the subjective assurance of our justification and salvation, nor a mark of faith in salvation, as is propagated by the Protestants in their teaching concerning the Holy Eucharist (Communion) — they are the actual presence of the Holy Spirit’s regenerating power in the blessing of the Faithful through the Holy Sacrament. Neither may we conclude that a Sacrament is merely an external act of ritual performed over a Christian in accordance with the tradition of the Church, without bringing to light its profound basic content.
Fellow Christians! how many are the various sects in our day, which, speaking from their own shallow wisdom, disregard the commands of Christ’s Apostles. They maintain that there is no need for the Holy Tradition of the Christian Church. They walk along false paths, being guided by their ego and making a laughing stock of the words of St. Paul the Apostle: “One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism” (Eph. 4:5). These sectarians do not recognize the Pastors instituted by God, do not acknowledge the Saints, condemn Icons, ignore the Cross and disregard the Fasts.
Dear brethren in Christ! do not listen to these sectarians. Remember the instruction of St. Paul the Apostle, who commanded us to “withdraw from every brother who lives irregularly and not in accord with the tradition” of the Apostles (2 Thess. 3:6).
From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America