The Orthodox Church is not primarily an institution. Orthodox Christianity is not a series of rules to live by, nor is it a particular structure of church government. Orthodoxy is not a theological system, nor is its fullest expression limited to any particular period of history or cultural environment.
Orthodoxy is nothing less than a relationship with God. Orthodoxy is the expression of the way God interacts with His people. In other words, Orthodoxy is the way God relates to the Church as the Body of Christ, the way He relates to each individual within it, and conversely, a way by which people may interact and interrelate with God.
Orthodoxy begins at or before birth, and it does so as an impersonal relationship between a Creator and His creature. However, when the person participates in the Mystery of Holy Baptism, that relationship enters a new dimension: it becomes personal. In a personal relationship, each person has a name and is recognized when called by that name. Jesus talks about this when He says that He, the shepherd, calls His sheep by name, and they recognize His voice. In the Mystery of Baptism, just as the person dies and rises again in the water, God’s name is revealed, but so too is the name of the person being baptized. God now has a way of getting our attention: He can call us by name. (Archimandrite Meletios Webber, Bread, Wine & Oil, pp. 29-31)
A brother came to see Abba Poemen and while several of them were sitting round, he praised a brother for hating evil. Abba Poemen said to the one who had spoken, ‘What does it mean to hate evil?’ The brother was surprised and found nothing to say in reply. Getting up, he made a prostration before the old man, and said, ‘Tell me what hatred of evil is?’ The old man said to him, ‘Hatred of evil is to hate one’s thoughts and to praise one’s neighbor.
A brother went to see Abba Poemen and said to him, ‘What ought I to do?’ The old man said to him, ‘Go and join one who says “What do I want?” and you will have peace.’
Abba Joseph related that Abba Isaac said, ‘I was sitting with Abba Poemen one day and I saw him in ecstasy and I was on terms of great freedom of speech with him, I prostrated myself before him and begged him saying, “Tell me where you were.” He was forced to answer and he said, “My thought was with Saint Mary, the Mother of God, as she wept by the cross of the Savior. I wish I could always weep like that.”’ (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 187).
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, andlike living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. . . . But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:4-9)
It is St. Peter who tells all of Christians to be a holy priesthood and who says we are a royal priesthood. It is where we get the notion of the priesthood of all believers. So how can we all be priests? We can do with our lives what priests do in the Liturgy.
We can make everything and anything we do an offering to God. Each of us offers to God daily whatever it is we do in our lives…
Whatever we think
Whatever we say
Whatever we do
These are our offerings to God. If we remember that every moment of our life is an offering to God and stay consciously aware of this, we can actually transfigure all we do into something holy. Our “Christian” life is not opposed to our daily or secular life. We have only one life we live. Every aspect of our lives – what we do in our bedrooms, in our living rooms, in our kitchens as well as our workshops and garages – becomes our offering to God. We can transform any minute and every minute into prayer and into a spiritual sacrifice. The spiritual sacrifice is what St. Peter tells us we are to offer to God. This is not some ritual act, but rather we turn everything we do into prayer and an offering to God.
In today’s Epistle (Galatians 6:11-16), we hear the words: “what counts is a new creation.” That is what we are trying to do. We come to church and see the icons, these are people, scenes and events transfigured by God into holy events and holy people. We come here and experience bread and wine transfigured into the Body and Blood of Christ. We come here as individuals and are transformed by the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ, God’s own church.
What we experience here, we can do in our own homes and lives as God’s priests. We can transfigure and transform every moment into an iconic moment. The icons shouldn’t just be on the walls of the church, we can make our lives iconic . In fact we are each an icon of God – we each are created in God’s image (icon) [Genesis 1:26-27]. When we live as Christians, when we live in God’s likeness, we make each moment and each event iconic because we make God’s image present in us.
“For God so loved the world…” (John 3 – today’s Gospel) –
Fr. Schmemann points out it is this world God loves. It is this life God loves. No other.
This world and this life are to be communion with God. God offers this to us, but we can also strive to make it so.
It is this world where there are hurricanes, and earthquakes and war and political strife and financial struggle – this is the very world into which Christ became incarnate. He chose to enter into this world because of His love for us.
Mt. Saint Helens Volcano
There is something about this world which God loves and is not willing to give up on . He wants to transform this world, not replace it with some other world.
God loves this world
God wishes to save this world
God can transfigure this world.
Even with all the problems of this world – natural disasters, human made disasters, sin, evil, human hubris, God still loves this world because He sees the goodness in it and He still sees His image in us! God has entered into this world and share our human nature because God loves us and this world.
We can cooperate with God by being God’s priests and transforming our lives and what we do into a daily spiritual offering to God. We can make ourselves image bearers of God and can make our lives, our homes, our time on earth to be iconic and to reveal the presence of God to everyone.
And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. (Acts 5:42)
“In the Orthodox worldview, the home and the family constitute the first and most important area of Christian life, of application of Christian principles to daily existence. It is certainly the home, the very style and spirit of family life, and not the school, not even the Church, that shapes our fundamental worldview, that shapes in us that fundamental orientation of which we may not even be aware for a long time, but which ultimately will become a decisive factor. Dostoevsky’s “staretz” Zosima – in The Brothers Karamozov – says: ‘A man who from his childhood can remember good things is saved for his whole life.’” (Alexander Schmemman, Great Lent, p. 100)
“Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the LORD!” (Psalm 31:24)
There are so many divisive issues in our society today, many of which discourage or threaten Christians. Sexual immorality, big government, Islam, secularism, fascism, communism, anarchy, dictatorship, Obamacare, catastrophic illness, ruthless capitalism, poverty, war, aimless hedonism, global warming, unemployment. From every side and every one looks, one can find issues that threaten our existence with uncertainty, chaos, suffering, persecution and nihilism.
How are we to respond? With faith, hope and love. That is what we are taught in Christianity. No suffering in this world is ever viewed as the end all or final word on anything. The final word, like the first word, belongs to God. All things happen within God’s universe, and within God Himself. For those who believe, this is to be of comfort. No matter how bad things may seem, God and God’s plan are still outside of the control of this world and greater than the world.
St. Paul told the members of the nascent church which was threatened with persecution and extinction: “Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous(Gr: literally, “play the man” – see 2 Sam 10:12), be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:13-14). Their situation was not better than ours. They were a tiny minority without any political support or power. The established religions all opposed them, as did the rich, the educated, the powerful, the empire. St. Paul tells them and us the same words that God’s prophets and kings had been telling the people of God throughout history.
So God tells Moses:
“Be strong and of good courage, do not fear or be in dread of them: for it is the LORD your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.”
Then Moses summoned Joshua, and said to him in the sight of all Israel,
“Be strong and of good courage; for you shall go with this people into the land which the LORD has sworn to their fathers to give them; and you shall put them in possession of it. It is the LORD who goes before you; he will be with you, he will not fail you or forsake you; do not fear or be dismayed.” (Deuteronomy 31:6-8)
After Moses, death, God said to Joshua:
“Be strong and of good courage; for you shall cause this people to inherit the land which I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law which Moses my servant commanded you; turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened, neither be dismayed; for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:6-9)
King Joab facing war told Israel:
“Be of good courage, and let us play the man for our people, and for the cities of our God; and may the LORD do what seems good to him.” (2 Samuel 10:12)
King David used the same words to strengthen his people:
“Then you will prosper if you are careful to observe the statutes and the ordinances which the LORD commanded Moses for Israel. Be strong, and of good courage. Fear not; be not dismayed.” (1 Chronicles 22:13)
And again King David encouraged his son, Solomon with these words:
“Be strong and of good courage, and do it. Fear not, be not dismayed; for the LORD God, even my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you, until all the work for the service of the house of the LORD is finished.” (1 Chronicles 28:20)
In Daniel’s vision he is told while in captivity:
“O man greatly beloved, fear not, peace be with you; be strong and of good courage.” And when he spoke to me, I was strengthened and said, “Let my lord speak, for you have strengthened me.” (Daniel 10:19)
There are numerous other such examples sprinkled throughout the Old Testament – often before a battle,or before some struggle, God’s people were reminded to be courageous. Even against superior odds, even when defeat seemed inevitable, even when the people suffered great loss and defeat, they were called to courage. St. Paul in his words to his flock is simply copying the words of his ancestors and trying to get the nascent Church and struggling Christians to be courageous even in the face of opposition. He is invoking the memory of their forefathers. Today is our turn to hear the call and heed the words to be courageous, no matter what is happening in history. Courage is not folly. We are not being called to the reckless abandon of super heroes, nor to go on some ravaging offensive to destroy others. We are called to be courageous no matter what else is happening – to be people of faith, hope and love. Courage is faithfulness to God.
“…we ourselves have heard Him and we know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world.” (John 4:42)
“Your own, of Your own, we offer to You, on behalf of all and for all.”
“And all mankind.” (From the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom)
“Anyone who does not want the same things for his fellow human beings or pass the same judgement on them as he wishes for himself, is certainly foolish, particularly as this judgement and this wish are an inherent part of our nature. For it is a natural impulse in all of us to want to be loved and well treated by others as much as by ourselves. The will to do good and to be as well disposed towards all as we are towards ourselves is therefore also inborn in us. We were all made in the image of Him who is good. Then when sin entered and multiplied, it did not extinguish our self-love, since it was not at all opposed to that, but it cooled down love for one another, the crown the virtues, changed it and rendered it useless. As a result, He who renews our nature, recalling it to the grace of His own image and putting His laws, as the prophet tells us, in our hearts (Jer. 31:33), says “As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” (Luke 6:31), and “If ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? For sinners also love those that love them. And if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye? For sinners also lend to sinners, to receive as much again” (Luke 6:32, 34).
In this passage, He refers to those who are not called by His name and those who do not order their lives according to the gospel, as sinners, including them all in the same category, for it is of no benefit to us to be called Christians if we act no differently from the heathen. Just as the great Paul told the Jews, “Circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision” (Rom 2:35), so now Christ tells us through the Gospel, “You who are Mine will find grace in My presence if you keep my Commandments, but if you do nothing more than sinners do, loving those who love you and doing good to those who do the same to you, you will have no confidence towards Me on that account.” He does not speak like this to deter people from loving or doing good or lending to those who will repay them, but He shows that such acts do not earn a reward, so they have their recompense here and now, and do not bring any grace to the soul, nor cleanse it from the ingrained defilement of sin.” (St Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, pp. 355-356).
“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:8-12)
“A brother asked Abba Poemen, ‘I am living with some brothers. Do you want me to be in charge of them?’ The elder said to him, ‘No. Do your own work first, and if they want to survive they will provide what is needed themselves.’ The brother said to him, ‘But it is they themselves who want me to be in charge of them.’ The elder said to him, ‘No. You must become their example, not their legislator.’”
An example like that does not draw attention to himself. Only those who wish will follow.
“A young man came to see an old ascetic to be instructed in the way of perfection. But the old man said not a word to him.
The other asked him the reason for his silence. ‘Am I your superior to give you orders? Do what you see me doing if you like.’ From then on the young man imitated the ascetic in everything and learned the meaning of silence.” (Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, pp. 145-146).
St. Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople, preached a sermon on the day the icon of the Theotokos was dedicated in Hagia Sophia, 29 March 867. In the notes introducing the English translation of the sermon, we find this comment:
“In the eyes of Photius, painting is the most direct form of instruction, for a picture that is in agreement with religious truth contains the eidos, or essence, of the prototype, which is in turn apprehended by the faculty of sight and indelibly imprinted upon the mind. A painter is guided by divine inspiration, so that his work is not merely mimetic, but contains an actual share of the prototype. One would look in vain for a better expression of Byzantine art theory.” (Cyril Mango, THE HOMILIES OF PHOTIUS PATRIARCH OF CONSTANTINOPLE, pp 282-283)
For the Byzantine Christians, the icon was even more powerful/truthful than the written texts because the icon shares in the prototype. It is hard for us to imagine a time when the presuppositions and perspective of the people are different than our own. There was a time when people heard the phrase, “the word of God”, it was not the Bible that came to mind, instead they would have thought, Jesus Christ.
Living in the literary culture of the 21st Century, and being shaped by the literary tradition of recent centuries, it is hard to imagine that at one time Christians, like Photius, thought the pictured icon to be “truer” than the written text – a more certain witness to the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Our modern penchant for scholarship has increased this idolization of the text, which, when combined with cultural literalism, proves to be deadly, as St. Paul says. Just read 2 Corinthians 3 in the light of Photius’ idea that the painted text shares in the prototype. Christian don’t have to rely only on a printed text, we have icons – we are icons of God, created in God’s image!
2 Corinthians 3 –
You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. . . . God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life.
St. Paul says the Christian, the disciple is the true scripture because God’s Holy Spirit has written on our hearts. In the beginning, humans were created in God’s image and likeness – we were created in the image and likeness of the Word of God. Now God’s spirit writes on our heart, making us visible images of the Word.
Now if the dispensation of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such splendor that the Israelites could not look at Moses’ face because of its brightness, fading as this was, will not the dispensation of the Spirit be attended with greater splendor? . . . Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not see the end of the fading splendor. But their minds were hardened; for to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
When we turn to the Lord . . . . which we can really do when we turn to look at an icon, we see the splendor of God. Most miraculous of all is that we can look upon Christ in an icon and we do not have to put on a veil, as Moses did to protect the Israelites from the glory of God shining forth in his face. And, we are changed by looking at the icon of Christ into His likeness. This is how the icon serves a better purpose than the scriptures themselves. The incarnation of Christ our God has changed the very nature of the world.
There are many images and metaphors of the spiritual life, some more poetic than others. Sometimes we find even among non-Christians descriptions of the spiritual life that show that indeed God distributes His words to all people on earth.
Mevlana, who lived in the thirteenth century writes:
“Become like the sun in your compassion and generosity;
Like the night, cover up the shortcomings of others;
As the rushing waters, reach out to the entire world;
During moments of anger, at times of rage, become like a dead man;
Become like the earth (humus) so people can stand firm on your foundation;
And either become that whom you manifest, or manifest who you really are.”
“What is more, because purity is a means to be like God, it is a matter of internal disposition rather than of external ritual observance. It must rule a person’s language precisely because, as the Lord says, speech reveals the person within, the heart (Matt . 5:22; 15:18; Paed. 2.6.49). The language of the Christian is free of impurity (Eph. 4:29; 5:3ff; Paed. 2.6.50). It is wrong to be preoccupied with external propriety if the person within is impure. The Scribes and the Pharisees are whitewashed sepulchres. They washed the outside of the cup, but left the inside dirty. It is the impurity of the soul that must be cleansed…
External beauty is very misleading: it does not lead to the love and beauty which are imperishable (Sir. 9:8; Paed. 3.11.83). For Clement, purity is above all a reasonable virtue, which prevents human beings from becoming like beasts and renders them capable of seeing God (Ps. 49:12, 20 [48:13, 21, LXX]; Sir. 33:6; Paed. 1.13.101ff). Many times Clement insists on the fact that only the pure of heart see God (Matt. 5:8; Strom. 2.10.50) The vision of God face to face is the vision of the Truth, and only a small number can attain to it, for only the pure of heart see God. The Savior came down in order to lead us to this purty and definitive vision.” (Matt. 5:8; Strom. 5.1.7) (Paul M. Blowers, The Bible in Greek Christian Antiquity, pp. 120-121)