“Beloved, you know the achievement of Christ and the glorious victory of the Cross … Now let me tell you something even more remarkable, the manner in which he gained his victory, and you will marvel all the more. Christ conquered the devil using the same means and the same weapons that the devil used to win. Let me tell you how this occurred. The symbols of our fall were a virgin, a tree and death. The virgin was Eve (for she had not yet known man); then there was the tree; and death was Adam’s penalty. And again these three tokens of our destruction, the virgin, the tree, and death became the tokens of our victory. Instead of Eve there was Mary; instead of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the wood of the cross; instead of Adam’s death, the death of Christ. Do you see, then, that the devil was defeated by the very means he used to conquer?” (St. John Chrysostom, Daily Readings from the Writings of St. John Chrysostom, pgs. 127-128)
Within the Christian household, Orthodox also experienced serious divisions. The efforts to produce a unified Christianity beginning in the 4th Century CE did produce a remarkable amount of agreement among a very diverse Christian movement. However the heavy handed practices of the Byzantine Greek empire ultimately led to many of the non-Greek Christians splitting away from the Imperial Church. With the rise of Islam in the 7th Century CE, these non-Greek Christians hoped they could maintain their regional and ethnic differences under Islamic domination which also meant shaking off Greek Imperial Christianity. The formation of the “Oriental” Orthodox Churches such as the Coptic church, the Nestorian and Jacobite Orthodox churches can partly be explained by the intermixture of theology and ethnic political rivalries.
The biggest split in Christendom as far as Orthodoxy is concerned however occurred between the Greek Christians of the Eastern Roman Empire and the Latin Christians in Western Europe, which under the Greeks eventually was for all practical purposes beyond the control of the Empire. Latins and Greek maintained their unity in the face of monophysitism and Nestorianism. However, the linguistic, cultural and geographic separation of the Eastern and Western Christians led to an increasingly separated Catholic Christianity. The differences in custom and practice led to serious debates between Greek and Latin Christians. With the movement of the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople, the Greek Christians became increasingly less concerned about the problems of their Latin co-religionists. Eventually with four of the ancient patriarchates being Greek speaking, and only Rome being Latin speaking, and with the rise of Charlemagne (800 CE) and the development of Western Christian kings who challenged the sole claims to Christian imperialism of the Greeks, Rome turned to these new Kings for help in defending Western Christendom. With theological and liturgical differences, the support of Western Emperor claimants, Rome as the unrivaled patriarchate of the West claimed supremacy over the Greek bishops. This eventually led to further fights about theology and ecclesiology, and a permanent division in Christendom between the Greek East and Latin West. The Western Crusades of the 11-13th Centuries brought a Latin Christian army into military conflict with Greek civilians and the Byzantine army. Ultimately the sacking of Constantinople by the army of the 4th Crusade in 1204 was seen by most Greek Orthodox as the permanent divide between Greek and Latin Christians.
This conflict in Christendom now escalated to open warfare led Christians both East and West to see the others as enemy to their faith. This division in Christendom continued through the centuries and remained hostile and militaristic especially between the Russian Orthodox and Polish Catholics, and throughout the Balkans where Serbian Orthodox battled Croatian Catholics.
In the modern world, the Orthodox deprived of the defense of their kings and emperors have often felt neglected and abused by Christians of the West especially as they suffered under first Islamic rule and then later under atheistic communism.
Modern dialogue between Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Church leaders has led to a reduction of animosity, at least on paper, as the two sides agreed to withdraw mutual excommunications. But little has been accomplished, especially among the Orthodox in terms of church union because the Orthodox continue to suspect Roman Catholicism does not seek unity with the Orthodox but rather domination over the Orthodox.
“You cannot have God for your Father unless you have the church for your Mother.” (St. Cyprian of Carthage, d. 278, On the Unity of the Catholic Church)
“We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” (Nicene Creed)
The Episcopal Assemblies, the new effort to establish hierarchical unity for the Orthodox in America, accepts the assumption that there is a division within the universal Church between “mother” churches and then some form of immature/infant churches. The immature churches in this thinking apparently do not hold the fullness of the Faith, and are somehow less full or less catholic than the mother churches and so must keep a dependency on the mother churches.
It would seem pretty hard to defend this idea based in the Scriptures or in the idea of the church professed in the Nicene Creed in which there is only one Church – holy, catholic and apostolic – not different kinds of churches – mother, daughter and infant.
Indeed should not Jerusalem rather than Constantinople be considered the mother church of Orthodoxy?
When in the Acts of the Apostles, the Jerusalem Church learns of new Christian communities being formed (especially since they didn’t found these new communities, but only learned about them after they existed), the “mother of all churches” does send apostles to investigate the new communities, but then they are given the full hand of fellowship and not treated as somehow lesser, daughter or infant churches (see Acts 8:14ff, 11:19ff, 15:22ff). The Holy Spirit gives each local church the fullness of the faith, not the mother church whose role is to recognize the work of the Holy Spirit and to welcome into the Communion of believers the new congregations.
The Church is our mother, not the Russian Church or the Greek Church, but the Orthodox Church. The notion of “mother churches” creates an artificial division between churches, as if there is more than one church or more than one kind of church! We claim to believe in ONE church, not an extended family of churches with mothers and daughters of unequal rank (Ephesians 4:4-5). If anything, the OCA is a sister church to the Russian Church. Either the Russian mission brought the fullness of the faith to America or it did not. For the OCA to accept the idea of the Russian Church being our mother, rather than the Orthodox Church as our mother is to deny what we profess in the Creed about the Church, to deny the Eucharist fullness of each and every local church, to deny that there is any real ecclesial unity among all local churches, and to deny the Catholicity of each local Eucharistic assembly. When any Orthodox “jurisdiction” acts as if it is a dependency on a “mother” church rather than the fullness of faith incarnate in its locality in North America, then it is denying Orthodox ecclesiology. Parishes and dioceses and bishops which are in communion with the rest of Orthodoxy are fully Orthodox.
The working ASSUMPTIONS being made by those who want to emphasize that only the so called mother churches are fully Orthodox and Catholic are not ones that we should readily accept. Why betray the Creed’s clear belief in ONE church? The fullness of the faith is found wherever an Orthodox bishop is, and wherever an Orthodox Eucharistic assembly exists.
Questioning the autocephaly given to the Orthodox Church in America by the Russian Church, questions whether any Orthodox bishop or Church in fact is fully or truly Catholic and/or Orthodox; for such questions really are doubting the Orthodoxy and Catholicity not only of the Orthodox Church in America but of the Russian Orthodox Church as well.
In America, we Orthodox must wrestle with what it means that autocephaly has been give to the Church in America (not just to the OCA, but to the Orthodox in America). Let us wrestle with what the creedal proclamation of ONE church really means for that is the key to understanding autocephaly.
The unity of THE ONE Church lies in mutual love, in the oneness of the Eucharist, in the common mind of the one true faith, not in who was founded by whom, nor in who lords it over whom (Matthew 20:25-28, Mark 10:42-45, Luke 22:25-27).
See also my blog Autocephaly, the OCA, and the Episcopal Assembly
The new effort to bring about Orthodox ecclesial (hierarchical) unity through the Ecumenical Patriarch’s plan of regional Episcopal Assemblies, has presented a challenge to the Orthodox Church in America. The OCA (even if only in its own “self mythology”) saw the autocephaly created by the Russian Church as a means to eventual Orthodox jurisdictional unity in America. That dream has yet to materialize and so some see the autocephaly as a dead issue.
I think this may be a premature obituary for the autocephaly.
For what I think should become clear to all Orthodox in America is that autocephaly was given not just to the OCA, but to all of us – all Orthodox Christians living in North America: converts, Russians, Canadians, Greeks, Romanians, Serbs, Antiochians, Bulgarians, Americans, Albanians, etc. Autocephaly is part of the mix of Orthodoxy in America which should be used to the glory of God. It is the gift from God that the OCA received and thus has the responsibility to bring to the North American Episcopal Assembly because autocephaly is part of the Tradition of Orthodoxy in America.
The re-visioning that has to be done (a paradigm shift if you want) is one very similar to what I think Christ called the Jews to consider about themselves. The Jews believed they were given Torah to make them the chosen people, elect by God and separated from all the nations of the world. They came to see their mission as maintaining their separateness as proof of their election. Jesus revealed a new vision for Israel – actually an ancient one: Israel was to be a light to the world, not separated from it to judge it, but a light to attract all people to God.
The OCA often acted as if autocephaly was given to it, and it alone. What is being revealed, I think, is that though the OCA received autocephaly, it didn’t receive this gift to separate itself from all the other Orthodox jurisdictions. Instead it received the gift of autocephaly, like the Jews received the oracles of God, on behalf of all Orthodox jurisdictions, missions and people in America.
The OCA may not have done much with the autocephaly, but that doesn’t mean it is invaluable. For what the OCA did was to preserve this gift from God and now it realizes its calling by faithfully bringing autocephaly to the table at which all Orthodox bishops in America sit in assembly.
Autocephaly is part of the mix that God has given us to establish His Church in America. The OCA must faithfully bring the autocephaly to the Episcopal Assembly table and never allow others to dismiss it for it is part of the God guided history of the Orthodox Church. Autocephaly is to be used by the Church in America (currently we have to admit “churches” since the Orthodox do accept jurisdictional divisions) to help it grow and be the Church, not the Russian Church in America, or the Greek Church in America, but to be THE Church in America, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of the Holy Trinity. Autocephaly may have been originally gifted to the OCA, but it is for all Orthodox Christians who reside in North America. All Orthodox, in whatever jurisdiction they find themselves, should realize the gift as part of our history in America, and come to value it as much as they value their own current jurisdictional attributes.
The oracles of God were given to the Jews long before they could understand their importance. When the Christ came, the Jews did not recognize Him, despite their having the Torah and the prophecies which pointed to the Christ and whose meaning was revealed in Christ. The oracles were nevertheless essential for salvation. Thanks be to God the Jews didn’t discard the words given to them because they made no sense or because they didn’t think they were being fulfilled or because they were suffering in the desert or in exile. Neither should we Orthodox discard the autocephaly given to all Orthodox in America. However little we understand it, however little we imagine it being a key gift to the Church as a whole, we like the Jews must preserve it until we see its treasure revealed to us. It is a birthright granted to Orthodoxy in America by the grace of God.
See also my blog Mother Churches?
This is the 16th blog in this introductory series to the Orthodox Faith. The First blog is Orthodoxy in the World & Light to the World. The previous blog is Orthodoxy in the World: Liturgical Worship.
Christianity has never existed as the only religion around. The very birth of the Christian religion put it in relationship both to the Judaism of Palestine and to the Greco-Roman paganism of the Roman Empire. Christianity’s early experience was that of an unwanted religion which suffered rejection, hostility and persecution. Christianity labored without the protection of any army or king to advance its cause for the first three hundred plus years of its existence.
All of that changed in the 4th Century CE when the Roman Emperor Constantine granted toleration to the Christian religion and then championed Christianity as a means to unifying his empire. The experience of being an oppressed minority did not however lead the Christians to being empathetic with or sympathetic to other religious minorities once the Christians came to power in the 4th Century CE. Christianity and Orthodox Christianity have had a hostile relationship to Judaism throughout the Christian period. By modern Western standards, Orthodox liturgical texts, which are quite ancient, are also sometimes anti-Semitic as well as expressing condemnation of heretics and Judas. In some ways this is strange since Judaism never posed any threat to established Christianity in the Roman Empire or in the modern world. In another sense, Orthodox hymns took on a very “nationalistic” tone, mirroring the values of the empires in which Orthodoxy ruled.
Christianity did aggressively work to convert pagans and Greek philosophers to the Faith. Some of the best early Christian writings are efforts to offer an apology for Christianity to intellectual pagans and philosophers. This led to and was aided by the Christian embrace of the Greek language and often of Hellenistic concepts and terminology. Christianity came to see itself as theologically superior to all other forms of religion and philosophy. The Byzantine Orthodox Empire was a hotbed of religious controversy and debate leading the Orthodox world to produce a sophisticated theology, and to be in constant dialogue with the ideas, religions and nations of the world.
Beginning in the 7th Century CE, with the rise of Islam, the Orthodox Byzantine Empire found itself facing a new religious and political challenge. Orthodoxy closely aligning itself with the Byzantine Empire faced in Islam a religious giant which also had its own army and its own political designs on the world. At first the Orthodox assumed Islam was a revival of one of the old Christian heresies which did not recognize the divinity of Christ. But as time wore on and the Islamic armies seemed unstoppable in their successes against the Byzantines, the Orthodox developed a more realistic assessment of this new religion. However, they also suffered in their ability to deal with Islam, because their own mythology made them assume they were the God chosen and God protected empire. They struggled mightily with a way to understand the success of Islam, and concluded that it was their own sinfulness which had brought the Islamic scourge to their doorsteps. This thinking often resulted in the Orthodox attempting to become ever more faithful to their own tradition, which was an increased spiral of conservatism and traditionalism (looking to the past for answers) which has been a hallmark of Orthodoxy to this day. Once the Orthodox found themselves under Islamic domination, they became increasingly ossified in their thinking and ways of doing things in an effort to preserve their customs and traditions in a now totally hostile world. This in turn led to increased nationalism among the Orthodox peoples, who had always enjoyed a certain degree of localness in their practice and customs. But the nationalism caused even further divide between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox and among the different ethnic Orthodox churches. Unlike Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy did not have a church structure with one head of the entire church. The various patriarchates of ancient Byzantium led to the various nationalistic churches of the modern Orthodox world.
“But look, O my soul, and see how the King of Heaven was welcomed by His subjects, in what manner they honored their God Incarnate … Who cleansed the lepers, healed the sick, made the paralytic walk and the blind man see; Who straightened the lame and the crippled, Who raised the dead and fed the many thousands who were hungry. Oh, shame covers my face, awe grips my heart, and my tongue trembles to speak! His holy Evangelist cries out in grief: ‘He came unto His own, and His own received Him not’ … Terrible and piteous are these words! … Listen, heaven, and hearken, earth! Men did not accept their God; servants did not receive their Lord; subjects rejected their King! O, my God, all this You knew, and yet You came to save me, perishing; to find me, the lost! You were not turned away by the wickedness and the ingratitude of Your enemies; You surrendered Yourself to Your love and kindness; You were persuaded by my wretchedness … They called You a glutton and a drunkard, the friend of publicans and sinners, and they vomited forth all manner of blasphemies against You, their Lord and Benefactor, against You Who are beyond all glory! Oh, the cruelty and ingratitude of men! … You looked into them, Reader of hearts; yet You suffered in silence … You witnessed this evil design, this iniquitous bargain; and You permitted it, desiring to suffer for my sake, Your unworthy servant, to cleanse me with Your blood, to give me new life by Your death, to honor me through Your disgrace. Glory be to You for all, O my Lover! … They judged You, the Judge of the living and the dead! They insulted and dishonored You, spat upon Your holy face, to which angels dare not lift their gaze! And they buffeted Your cheek and condemned You to death – You, the Life of all! They preferred a robber and a murderer to You, the Son of God, the only good and just One! … Oh prodigy! Oh, fearful and unheard-of crime! (St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, A TREASURY OF RUSSIAN SPIRITUALITY, pp 219-220)
Orthodoxy tends to view the Christian life not as some juridical way to salvation through obedience to law, but rather a way of love through self-denial, in order to re-establish the relationships in the world which were destroyed by human sin. In Eastern Christian piety Christ is more the victor over death, than the victim of justice.
The liturgical worship of the church is essential to all Orthodox Christians, for in this worship we experience community (humanity in relationship to others), the natural life-giving goodness of the created physical world, and the divine love of the Persons of the Holy Trinity. In this worship we experience ourselves as relational beings, the very way in which we were created by God. We come face to face with how evil in the world is real – sin causing separation which is death (physical and spiritual). In worship we also experience the victory of Christ over all forms of separation and death. In worship we realize our soul is not in opposition to our body, but rather for humans we experience the spiritual life through the physical body. We experience the life-giving sacraments which unite us to God. We see the Icons, that particularly Orthodox art form in which lines and colors are used to reveal the truth of the incarnation of God and the deification of humanity. In Orthodoxy salvation is union with God, Theosis. Union with God occurs not in some future heaven, nor merely in the human mind, but rather is both restoration of the wholeness of the human being (body, soul and spirit) and the transfiguration of this life and the created human. Salvation itself is not some juridical overcoming of broken laws so that justice is restored, but is rather the transformation of the separated and broken human being into a relational being in love with God and neighbor.
“The crux of their ‘courage and optimism’ was to make the body the center of their attention, turning their back on the Greek notion that the soul is the essence of personhood. Not so, the medieval held: it is the body … And we do desire it, sensibly or not so sensibly. Having been given the vision of a God whose care for us is so heartbrokenly thorough that he became one of us, suffering what we suffer, dying as we do, to show us that even what we fear most has been conquered by a love we are called to show one another, we can’t help but hope that it is true and try to stake our lives on that hope. Our faith tells us that we have been baptized into Christ’s death and the hope of resurrection. ‘For you have died,’ Colossians tells us, ‘and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory’ (3:3-4). This is the risen Christ who asked Mary not to cling to him, who showed Thomas wounds received on our side of death, and who made breakfast for his friends at the edge of the sea. And if we find this hard to believe, let us hope that our doubt has something in common with that of the apostles when they encountered the risen Christ: ‘While they still disbelieved for joy and wondered, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”’ (Luke 24:41)” (John Garvey, Death and the Rest of Our Life, pg. 87-88)
“There are two creations: the first by which we were made, and the second one, by which were redeemed … Because that old creation had been ruined and blotted out by sin, there had to be a new creation in Christ … For this new creation Christ led the way, being called the first-born, for indeed He was the first-fruits of all men, of those who are begotten unto life, and those who, though dead, were given life through His resurrection.” (St. Gregory of Nyssa, FROM GLORY TO GLORY, PG. 66)
In worship we also encounter beauty, which as Orthodox Christian Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, will save the world. Beauty saves the world because it overcomes humanity’s tendency to rely on its own rationality and reason. Beauty speaks to humanity of a different logic which exists in the universe which is quite beyond human understanding. Everything in creation is not just practical and utilitarian. Beauty speaks of mystery, and the person who experiences beauty is the person capable of also realizing this non-human, non-rational view of the universe. Beauty and mystery speak to us of God.
To help overcome the human reliance on their own intelligence and rationality (in effect to acknowledge the existence of reason and being greater than humanity), scripture (God’s Word) and tradition are given to humanity. Those who accept these guiding forces in the world constitute the Church. Tradition thus becomes an important means for humans to escape the trap and limits of their own time and place by offering a “timeless” wisdom and understanding which has come down to us through time but which are not limited by the contemporary or the “now.”
For contemporary people whose lives are governed by the newest and latest discovery or idea, and who live by a creed of pragmatism and individualism (in other words, whose lives are totally governed by Enlightenment ideals), it might be hard to understand why anyone would be concerned about any kind of tradition. One can gain some glimpse of how powerful tradition can be in people’s lives (for good or ill) by watching the movie, THE FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, or the Israeli movie, USHPIZIN. For indeed in Orthodoxy there is a tendency to want to allow tradition to guide all things in the life of the Church. Tradition can serve as a liberating release from the imprisonment to self and one’s own logic which can be created by extreme individualism and enslaving oneself to contemporary culture.
In the modern world, the Orthodox struggle greatly with the ideals of the Enlightenment and its focus on the individual human. Orthodoxy certainly suspects the over emphasis on individualism in modern Western life leads to further human separation, isolation and alienation, all aspects of the fallen world, and all in opposition to the ideal of love. Extreme individualism is seen as being related to the death of the human who is by nature a relational being. Dostoyevsky’s story “The Onion” is an example of an extremely self-centered woman who not wanting others to be saved chooses to stay in hell rather than allow her salvation to also be the salvation of others. For Orthodoxy, individualism is often seen as the very cause of Eve and Adam’s sin. Individualism, when combined with the human’s reliance on their own rationality, is seen as the cause of so much of the world’s suffering. The Orthodox worldview assumes there is a good and right, and also an evil and wrong way of doing things. Love is what makes the good. We are created to be relational beings, not isolated individuals.
In the same way that the sin of Adam and Eve affected all of humanity, so too the salvation in Christ is done for all the world. There is no salvation which is purely individualistic; we are saved in communion with Christ and as part of the world which God so loves and transfigures in Christ. Salvation does not consist in escaping this world and other people, but in being part of the world which is transfigured by Christ.