ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS firmly believe that they belong to the Church established by Jesus Christ Himself almost two thousand years ago. Unfortunately, however, there are many persons who have received the grace of Baptism and Chrismation in the Eastern Orthodox Church who seem to have forgotten, if they ever realized, what membership in Christ’s Church means. Membership in any society brings with it both privileges and obligations. Yet, too many Orthodox Christians fail in availing themselves of the benefits the Church offers and they become lax in fulfilling the obligations the Church requires. Just what are these privileges and obligations? It might be well for us to examine them carefully.
Privileges and Benefits
The Orthodox Church teaches that Christ established a divine society on earth when He gave the Apostles and their successors power to govern, to teach and to sanctify the souls of men. It is one of the chief functions of the Church, therefore, to help us to discover the will of God, to understand His teachings as they are contained in the Holy Scriptures and in the Sacred Tradition. At a time when so many people are confused about what they should believe and how they should live in order to please God and earn eternal salvation, members of the Eastern Orthodox Church have the infallible voice of their Church to lead them unerringly along the path of truth to eternal life. Our Lord Himself insists that if we follow the teachings of His Church we will gain eternal salvation, but if we obstinately refuse to believe what it teaches, we will be condemned (MARK 16:16). When we obey the Church we obey Christ as He clearly states (Luke 10:16).
In addition to this certainty and security within our Faith, there are other sublime benefits our membership in the Church bestows upon us. Most of all, we are members of Christ’s Mystical Body and through the Sacraments we receive an abundance of God’s graces. In Baptism we are made children of God, heirs of the kingdom of heaven and cleansed from original sin: in the Sacrament of Chrismation (Confirmation) we receive the gifts of the Holy Ghost for growth and strength in the spiritual life: in the Sacrament of Penance, after contrite confession of our sins and a determination to avoid committing them in the future, we receive the priestly absolution given in God’s Name and are cleansed of our sins and restored to friendship with God. Most holy of all the Sacraments is the Eucharist in which, under the appearance of bread and wine, we receive the actual, living, most pure Body and Blood of Christ so that He is intimately united with us and dwells within our souls. What a privilege this is! The Sacrament of Holy Orders provides us with the bishops and priests who continue, in an uninterrupted line of succession, to receive the grace and power to preach, teach, and administer the Sacraments and to be our guides to salvation. Our priests are not simply ministers or preachers. By the grace of their ordination they have become representatives of Christ Himself, for Our Lord said of them, “He who hears you (the bishops and priests of the Orthodox Church) hears Me” (Luke 10:16). The Orthodox Church administers the Sacrament of Matrimony and blesses the union of husband and wife so that they may be an image of Christ’s union with the Church. Grace is asked for them to live together in peace and love and that they may procreate children who will be a crown of glory to their advanced years.
In the Sacrament of Holy Unction, the priest anoints the body of the sick with oil and invokes God’s grace upon him so that he may be healed of spiritual and bodily infirmities. When the dread hour of death approaches, the priest, like a kindly father, administers to us the Body and Blood of Our Lord and prays for the eternal peace of our souls. In time of trouble the Church always stands ready to help us, and she does not forget her faithful children even after death, for at the altar prayers and liturgies are offered that God will grant us rest.
Are there any further privileges or benefits we derive from being active members of the Eastern Orthodox Church? Who can enumerate the Christian Faith; our daily lives are greatly enriched by the aesthetic beauties of the music and hymnody that are treasures handed down to us from ages past; we are inspired by the glories of Eastern Orthodox architecture, iconography and liturgical rites: we are made members of the oldest, the original, the only Church which our Blessed Savior founded on earth. How sad it is that there are many lax Orthodox Christians who take these privileges so lightly or neglect to avail themselves of these benefits! By doing so they impoverish the brief span of their earthly lives and seriously endanger their eternal salvation.
God wants us to serve Him not only for the benefits we receive but because He is our Sovereign Lord. Simply because He has created us we owe God our love, obedience, and worship. If we fail to obey the Ten Commandments and the regulations of the Church, we commit serious sin and set ourselves in opposition to our Creator. If we refuse to tender Him our worship, we neglect one of the most fundamental obligations of creatures toward the One who made us. We worship God best when we participate in the Divine Liturgy in our parish churches for the Liturgy is an offering of Christ Himself to His eternal Father. If we would be true members of the Church we must fulfill this obligation to worship by participating in the Divine Liturgy every Sunday and major holy day.
Membership in the Church further obligates us to contribute to the best of our ability to the material needs of our parish and the requirements of our bishops who are burdened with the financial worries and duties incidental to the extension of Christ’s Kingdom on earth. In the Old Testament days, Jews were expected to contribute one-tenth of their income to the Temple. How few of the Orthodox people give even a quarter of that amount to support their Church. Yet the work of the Church cannot advance unless we provide it with the financial means to do so. We cannot expect the Church to have the schools, seminaries, orphanages, monasteries, convents, radio and television programs, printed literature and audio-visual materials we need unless each of us makes the financial sacrifices to make them possible. The work of the Church will not be promoted unless we bear our obligations promptly and generously. The educational, social, missionary and charitable work of the Eastern Orthodox Churches can be no stronger or more active than is the financial support given to the Church by the laity.
Christ had the sad experience of living among weaklings who found His doctrines difficult to accept and too demanding to follow. Many of these poor weaklings turned their backs upon Him and walked no more with Him. The Orthodox Church has had the same distressing experience during her two thousand year history. Thousands today resist the appeal and the authority of the Church simply because they do not realize the munificence of the spiritual, educational, aesthetic and social benefits the Church can bring them, and because they lack the courage to live the heroic life the Church expects of them. As a consequence, their lives are barren and empty, lacking in the peace and inner security which only the Faith of Christ can bring.
Only the man who has experienced the deep peace that can flood the soul after a sincere confession, who has received Christ in his heart in the Holy Eucharist, who has felt the presence of God in his heart and the certainty of immortality in his soul, who has experienced the reassurance of a God who is a loving Father and the assistance of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints who are our heavenly brethren, who has freely melted himself into the Mystical Body of Christ which is the Orthodox Church and shared his faith with other members of that Church — only such a man can tell you how completely and wonderfully the Church fills the needs and desires of modern man in the atomic age. Only such a man has understood what membership in the Eastern Orthodox Church really means.
From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America