We spent a thankful Thanksgiving with family. As we gathered around enjoying the company of my siblings who I see woefully infrequently, the topic of Orthodoxy came up. To my Protestant family, Orthodoxy is foreign, especially since they all live in areas of the country where Orthodoxy is a limited or non-existent presence. Whenever I try to explain the Faith, I find myself feeling inadequate. Afterward, I have a long list of things I wish I had said. Orthodoxy is not something I can explain in a list of what-it-isn’ts, even though it’s easier in some ways to describe it that way. I feel like I left so much out in our conversation.
I decided to write a series of posts about the Orthodox life. It is not a battle against the Protestants or the Catholics. It is not intended to offend. Rather, it is intended to answer questions. To dip into how and why the Ancient Faith is lived.
It is Sunday. The Day of Resurrection. I enter the nave of the church slightly dead myself, wearied by travel and lack of sleep. When I open the door, I am welcomed by a wave of peace. The gentle drone of the chanting of the prayers of the Hours fills the air, the smell of the incense greets my nostrils, and instantly I am transported to Heaven.
Over a thousand years ago, Prince Vladimir sent out envoys to explore the religions of the world, desiring to find one religion for his new empire, Russia. His ambassadors visited virtually every conceivable religion, but they said they found no glory there. However, when they came to Greece, they experienced the Divine Liturgy in an Orthodox Church. The envoys recounted to Vladimir that when they were in the Liturgy, they knew not whether they were in heaven or on earth. They did not understand everything about the Faith, but they said that in an Orthodox Church, they could see that God dwelled among men. Vladimir converted an empire based on the description of the service I am about to participate in.
In my hand is a beeswax candle. I approach the icon of Christ and light my candle beside it. As I fit the candle into the holder, I say a prayer. The desire that weighs on my heart this day. Today, I pray, “O, Lord, as the fire illumines this candle, so also illumine me. Fill me with the fire of faith.” Then, I cross myself, bowing before my God, and kiss the image of Christ. The glass protecting the icon is cool against my lips, and my heart is humbled by the knowledge of how great and marvelous is this God. Orthodoxy does not accept just my mental assent to the Gospel. It is not satisfied with part of me. Orthodoxy demands all of me. In Orthodox prayer, I use all of my senses. My human mind wanders, is misled, and easily confused. Orthodox worship uses my entire body to reach my soul. I cross myself, bow, prostrate and stand in prayer. I smell the incense. I hear the prayers. I touch and kiss and breathe in holiness. It is not the image of Christ that I worship. It is not the paint that I adore. It is God who I worship. Through my actions I show Him that He is more than a mental exercise. I offer myself to Him…mind, body and soul.
Orthodox Churches are modeled after Heaven. Every description of the Temple in the Old Testament. Every prophecy of Heaven in the Scripture. All are repeated and true in this space I stand in. The placement of the altar. The vestments of the priest. A thousand different symbols that are more than symbolic. They are the links between the human and Divine. They are God in us. As the service begins, the priest proclaims that, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” We are no longer just in a building in Northeast Ohio on a chilly day in November. We stand in the Kingdom. We stand before God.
There is a book with the words to the service, but I do not need it. I have it memorized. These are the same words said every time we celebrate the Liturgy, except for a few portions that change depending on the day. These are ancient words, written long ago and filled with worship and Truth. As I sing, I think of the millions of Orthodox who have said these same words throughout the centuries. I think of the other Orthodox in parishes down the street praying the same prayers at this moment, as well as those across the oceans who celebrated Liturgy in their time zones as I slept last night. I think about the angels in Heaven, who will continue to sing the prayers after we finish. I am overcome by our unity in the Faith. This is not just me. This is not an individual faith. It is a faith of community. Of all mankind.
I have prayed the prayers many, many times before, but every time, there is something new. There is no risk of boredom. In God, all things are new. I did not come here for myself. It is not about music with a good beat that moves me to an emotional high. It is not about eloquent words in a sermon making me feel good or bad; guilty or glad. It’s not about feeling at all. It’s about worship.
Sometimes I come to church, and I “feel” nothing. It’s like just another service. Just another day. Sometimes I come to church, and I am touched beyond measure. I come either way, though, and in that, I am moved to the core
There is an attitude in our culture. An individualism. This is the attitude that on the one hand has led to much good. It gained freedom for my country and opportunity for my children. On the other hand, this same attitude has led to an arrogant, can-do-no-wrong jumble of modern theology. If every person can come up with their own version of truth, then how do you tell what’s true?
I am not ashamed to say that I do not know everything. I make mistakes constantly. I am not God. I am His creation. It is He who should get to decide how He should be worshiped. There was a time when I thought that I could decide everything about my faith. When, where, why and how. It was all up to me. Lord, forgive my arrogance! Psalm 50 (51) says, “A sacrifice to God is a broken spirit, a broken and humbled heart God will not despise.” There was no brokenness in my worship before Orthodoxy. No humility. I thought there was…I really did. But I was wrong. There was no humility, because there was no authority. I let no one be in charge. Tens of thousands of different versions of the truth added up to one big lie.
God speaks to me as an individual. His love for me is clear and a comforting joy. That is not the end of the story, though. It isn’t just about me. Christ came to the world to save it….all of it. Not just me. It is not about what flavor of God I like best. As if He’s a buffet. Christ established a line of authority through the Apostles. He instructed them and guided them. I am no Apostle. I’m just a simple woman. God does speak to me just as I am. But He also speaks to me through the Church. An example of two thousand years of holy people who fought and died for the Faith. An example of two thousand years of knowledge gained from mistakes, life experience, and moments with the living God. I do not know it all, but I know that God is in His Church. People are imperfect. Even Christian leaders and “good” people. The Faith is perfect, though, and the Church preserves that Faith.
I trust God. I trust that He knows the best way to live. I trust that Christ did not just teach the Apostles for a time and leave them to figure out the rest on their own. Instead, He instructed them to go…to go and make disciples. To establish the Church in unity. To nurture each other and encourage each other. To also not turn a blind eye when someone got a crazy idea or made a mistake, but rather to set them straight and bring them back in line. Much of that was done through what we now call the Scriptures, treasures of knowledge and inspiration. The Scriptures are essential, but they did not come first. The Church came first. It is not just me and my Bible. It is me and the Church. She encourages me and helps me understand. She reins me in and keeps me on the right path. She disciples me. She loves me. Through the Church’s direction, I find the correct interpretation of Scripture. Through the Church’s direction, I see the path of Christ. Through the Church’s direction, I find the Truth.
I have the same Faith as the Orthodox Christians one hundred, five hundred, one thousand, and two thousand years ago. I have them as my family. I rejoice to humble myself to the authority of the Church. We are one in the Faith. We worship the One God.
On the first Sunday of Lent, it is the Sunday of Orthodoxy. On that day, we gather together…Greek, Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Antiochian, American and all the rest. We celebrate our unity in the Faith. Near the end of the service is the moment that always brings me to tears. The moment that I cry out with thanks to God for leading me home to the One, True Church. The choir sings of the martyrs, our history and our future. But then they stop, and everyone in the church shouts in one, loud voice:
This is the Faith of the Apostles.
This is the Faith of the Fathers.
This is the Faith of the Orthodox.
This is the Faith which has established the Universe.
Orthodoxy is a faith of deep individual involvement. I will be writing much of that in the next few days. It is the most personal experience of God that I have ever encountered. Before all that, though, it is a faith of community. It is a family. Brothers and sisters to love. Fathers and mothers to respect and obey. It is this church in my town on this morning. It is the Church throughout time. It is the Ancient Faith of the past. It is the vibrant, living Faith of the present. It is the shining beacon of the future. It is my faith. It is the Faith. One life in Christ.
Next post: The Orthodox Life: Part 2 (Prayer)