What is Orthodox Christianity?
Orthodox Christians affirm that their Church is the living continuation of the Apostolic Church, founded by Christ himself; they believe that it has maintained, without distorting addition or damaging detraction, the ancient faith of the undivided Church. The Orthodox make these claims in all humility, readily admitting the shortcomings of their Christian witness. They have no intention of calling into question the sincerity and integrity of other Christians. But they do assert that "if a person carefully examines the history of Christianity, he or she will soon discover that the Orthodox Church alone is in complete sacramental, doctrinal, and canonical continuity with the ancient undivided Church as it authoritatively expressed itself in the great Ecumenical Councils."
TO BE AN ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN...
Is to experience the Apostolic Faith..
They knew that something was different about him, this carpenter from Nazareth. He spoke with authority. He cleansed lepers. He raised the dead. And through he suffered crucifixion and death, he rose from the dead and appeared to his followers... And now nothing seemed the same! Death had been trampled down by death; the reign of sin and corruption had been shattered. They knew this, those first followers of Jesus of Nazareth, because they experienced it. Their faith was not the by-product of systematic logic or disinterested analysis. These people were not fooled; they were not the gullible bumpkins that we arrogant moderns, so complacent with our self-proclaimed sophistication, often assume they were. These people would not have dropped everything, risked what little security that they had managed to attain, or put their lives on the line had it not been for a convincing experience of the Risen one.
But once Jesus returned to the Father, how could such an experience be conveyed to the next generation? Jesus recognized this problem, so he promised his disciples that he would not leave them orphans. He would send an Advocate, who would bear witness to him, conveying his presence among those who believed. And this Advocate, of course, is the Holy Spirit, whom the exalted Christ, having ascended in glory, asked the Father to send to the nascent community of believers that had gathered around the Apostles.
And so the Spirit was sent to these Apostles and to the Mother of God in the city of Jerusalem, the mother of all Churches. Because of this indwelling of the Spirit, the Church, from the moment of its inception, was "catholic," whole, lacking nothing. The experience that forged the faith of the first believers could now be had by anyone who confessed Christ and, through incorporation into his Body by baptism, entered into the life of the Spirit.
The experience of the Apostolic Faith ... This is what makes a Christian. And that is why the Church is important. Holy Orthodoxy does not claim to be a politically powerful Church or a wealthy Church or a particularly erudite Church. But it does claim to possess the indwelling of the Spirit who bears witness to Christ, the Spirit who fosters the experience of the Risen Lord that enabled the Apostles to believe. To be an Orthodox Christian is to have access to that experience in unmitigated form, for Orthodox Christians, without impugning the goodness and sincerity of other Christians, affirm that it is in the Orthodox Church that the fullness of Christian truth -- and the fullness of the Spirit who bears witness to this truth -- are to be found.
Is to experience the events of salvation...
To be an Orthodox Christian is to live liturgically. One cannot seriously maintain that he or she is Orthodox without participating in the liturgical life of the Church. Why do we Orthodox put such strong emphasis on liturgy? Not because we hold that liturgical participation is legally obligatory. Not because we think that liturgy is a good way to experience an aesthetic "high." Liturgy is for us not just a didactic exercise or a means of historical commemoration. For us Orthodox Christians, liturgy is the means by which we experience directly the saving power of the events of salvation history. To be sure, these are historical events which occurred once and for all at particular points in history. They cannot be "repeated." They cannot be "returned to." But there is no "before" or "after" for God, who dwells in eternity. God is not bound by time as we know it; and in his "time" all things are eternally present. In liturgy the "eternal present" of God's time breaks into our time, and we are confronted personally and directly with the saving impact of all the events of salvation that we celebrate liturgically -- especially the saving event par excellence: the Paschal Mystery, the great mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ. All other events in salvation history point to or refer back to this Passover of the Lord in which death was put to death, the reign of sin overturned, and the Kingdom of God ushered in.
Is to be transformed...and to transform...
The Orthodox Christian is called to transformation. He or she is called to engage in the process as theosis, or deification. That's right: we are meant to be "gods." (John 10.34-35; Ps 82.6) In fact, according to Orthodox theology, it is precisely for this reason that Christ came among us. God became a human being in Christ so that human beings could become gods. This may sound strange, but it is in this doctrine of theosis that the beauty of the Christian proclamation is revealed. To be sure, we human beings can never become divine. We are and always will be human beings. But, Orthodoxy teaches us, the human being was never meant to exist in separation from God. It is only in contact with the divine -- only in being "energized" by grace (which of us Orthodox is never a created commodity but the very presence of the Uncreated One) -- can human nature be what it is truly meant to be. When we speak of deification, we are really speaking of humanization. The Orthodox doctrine of theosis teaches that in order for one to become human, he or she must be energized by the deifying presence of God -- what we normally call grace. We are meant to be "partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).
Now this deifying presence of God is none other than the Holy Spirit, who, as we saw, dwells in the Church. It is for this reason that we Orthodox Christians affirm the importance of the Church. We are all meant to be "deified." This deification is the work of the Holy Spirit. And that Holy Spirit is found in the Church. Our lifelong process of acquiring the Holy Spirit can thus be achieved only within the Church.
Nor is the process of theosis isolationistic. In being deified, the Orthodox Christian is not called upon to avoid others or to sever all ties with the world. The Christian is not only to be transformed; he or she is called upon to make the deifying presence of God operative in the world around us -- to transform this world. To be sure, this transformation will not be complete until the Kingdom is fully revealed on the Last Day, but we Orthodox Christians must work to manifest the Kingdom which is already partially actualized among us. Thus, social action and political responsibility must be taken extremely seriously by the Orthodox Christian.
Is to assume responsibility for the Christian Tradition...
The Orthodox Church is the Church of Tradition. Notice the capital "T". This Tradition is absolutely not to be equated with the transient cultural and other merely human aspects of the Church. Tradition, in the Orthodox view, is not a specific thing or set of things. It is, rather a critical faculty, a discerning sense, which enables the Church to assimilate some things as consonant with genuine Christian experience and to reject other things as contrary to Christian authenticity. Tradition is simply the faculty present in the Church by virtue of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who gorges the "mind" of the Church. Tradition is the expression of this Spirit-formed "mind".
Tradition has crystallized in a number of forms: in Scripture, of course, the primary deposit of Tradition; in patristic writings (the writings of the Church Fathers); in church art; in conciliar decrees; in liturgical texts; in the example provided by the saints .... All of these are testimony to the operation of the Spirit in the Church.
And this Tradition is not a relic, locked away be ecclesiastical authorities for safekeeping. It is a living, vital force accessible to each of us. In fact, every Orthodox Christian is responsible for discerning, preserving, enriching, and passing on this precious deposit of Tradition. How? Above all, by acquiring the Divine Person who forges and maintains it -- namely the Holy Spirit. Thus theosis is crucial not only to the transformation of individuals and of the world, but for the health of the Church as well. In Orthodoxy, it is not an authoritative magisterium which safeguards the Faith; it is the faithful themselves! For the faithful to be able to assume this responsibility -- and privilege -- they must immerse themselves in the life of the Spirit through prayer, sacramental participation, and spiritual training.
Is to proclaim the Faith of the undivided Church...
Orthodoxy believes that it has maintained, without distorting addition or damaging detraction, the Faith of the Apostles, the Faith of the undivided Church. It rejoices in this Faith and feels the urge to proclaim it to all. Orthodoxy is not just for Greeks or Slavs or Arabs or Romanians. It is for all who would receive it as the most appropriate expression of the Christian experience. For this reason, the Orthodox Church is a missionary Church, and we Orthodox Christians are called to be missionaries. To be an Orthodox Christian is to respond to this challenge.
GREEK, RUSSIAN, OR WHAT?
You may have heard of the Greek Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, and perhaps some other Orthodox Churches such as the Antiochian, the Serbian, the Romanian, etc. Are they different Churches? No, they are all Orthodox Churches. The national name associated represents the country where they are established, just as "Presbyterian, USA" identifies a Presbyterian Church in the United States, as opposed to its sister Churches in Scotland and England.
But then, why are all these Orthodox Churches in America? The answer is that whenever Greeks or Russians or Serbs or Romanians immigrated to America they brought their own Church with them, just as the Scots brought their Calvinist Presbyterian Church, the Germans their Calvinist Reformed Church, and the Dutch their Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church. The same thing happened with the Lutherans - until recently there were Lutheran Churches in America that thought of themselves (in addition to being American) as Swedish, Danish, or German. And, just as it took over a hundred years for most of the Lutherans to become one Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the process of uniting the Orthodox Churches in America is a slow process, but one that is gradually occurring.
The various Orthodox Churches are all sister Churches, all part of the One, Holy, Orthodox Catholic Church. Members of one are recognized as fellow Orthodox by the others, and welcome to receive the sacraments at the other Orthodox Churches and to become members of whatever Orthodox Church is convenient for them. Most Orthodox churches in America now have as members people of all ethnic backgrounds, including many converts, regardless of what "nationality" the parish has in its title.
by Rev. Dr. Theodore Pulcini