by Father Thomas Hopko
- I have seen the inside of an Orthodox church building. I have attended the Divine Liturgy. It all looks very mystical to me with the vestments, incense, candles, singing…. How would you compare the Orthodox Church to the other Christian Churches of the West?
The Orthodox Church is an Eastern Church in the sense that, at least humanly speaking, it is the product of Middle Eastern, Hellenic and Slavic history and culture. In a word, the Orthodox Church has a historical and spiritual development worked out in almost total isolation from the Christian Churches of Western Europe and
America, namely the Roman Catholics and the Reformed Protestant ChurchesThe formal break between the Christian East and West cannot be easily pinpointed. It may be put formally in the 11th or 12th centuries. However from as early as the 4th century the Christians of the East were already living with very little contact with the Christians of the West.
The liturgy of the Orthodox Church as celebrated today developed within those centuries when the East was already in a certain isolation from the West. The liturgy stands at the center of the church’s life and bears witness to the central experience of the Orthodox Faith, namely that man is created for communion with God in the everlasting life of His Kingdom.
- Would you say that the Orthodox Church is closer to the Roman Catholic Church than to the Protestant churches?
It is hard to answer that question easily without giving the wrong impression. The Protestant churches, as you know, came out of the Roman Church when this body was already separated from the Eastern Orthodox Church. Thus, as one Russian theologian put it in the last century, it is probably true to say that the Roman and Reformed Protestant churches are much closer to each other — historically, spiritually, theologically, culturally, psychologically — than the Orthodox Church is to either.The many events and changes in the various churches in recent days, not excluding the Orthodox Church, makes this question still more difficult to answer. Thus, although we might say that the Orthodox are closer to the so-called “high” churches of the West such as the Roman and Anglican, it might be much safer and more correct to approach Orthodoxy solely on its own ground without too much comparison to others.
- What is the proper name for the Orthodox Church? One sees so many, and of such different variety!
It must be understood first of all that names like Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, etc. are all names for one and the same Church with one and the same faith and practice. Of course within these churches there are cultural differences which do not touch the essence of the faith as such.Sometimes the Orthodox Church is also called the Eastern Orthodox Church, or the Oriental Church, or the Christian Church of the East, or the Orthodox Catholic Church, or the Graeco-Russian Church. But once more, these are all different names for the same Church.
Care must be exercised not to confuse the Orthodox Church with the Eastern Christian Churches in union with the See of Rome: the so-called Uniates, or Byzantine or Greek Catholics. And also there is the distinction to be made between the Orthodox and the so-called Oriental Orthodox or Lesser Eastern Churches such as the Coptic Church, the Ethiopian, Syrian, Armenian, Indian, and other churches which are very close to the Orthodox Church but not part of it.In America it must be noticed that the new autocephalous (self-governing) Church which used to be the Russian Orthodox Church of America is now simply called the Orthodox Church in America.
- This leads one to think of Orthodoxy as a very loosely organized body. How is the Orthodox Church organized and how is it held together as one worldwide Church?
The Orthodox Church as a whole is the unity of what are called local autocephalous or autonomous churches. These words mean simply that these churches govern themselves, electing their own bishops and organizing their own lives.Each of these churches has exactly the same doctrine, discipline and spiritual practices. They use the same Bible, follow the same canon laws, confess the authority of the same Church Councils and worship by what is essentially the same liturgy.
It is nothing other than this communion in faith and practice which unites all Orthodox Churches together into one world-wide body. In this sense, there is no one dominating authority in the Orthodox Church, no particular bishop or see or document which has authority over the churches.In practice, the Church of Constantinople has functioned for centuries as the church responsible for guiding and preserving the worldwide unity of the family of self-governing Orthodox Churches. But it must be noticed that this responsibility is merely a practical and pastoral one. It carries no sacramental or juridical power with it and it is possible that in the future this function may pass to some other church.
- What about all of those titles then: Patriarch, Metropolitan, Archbishop, Bishop? What does all of this mean?
In Orthodoxy, the bishop is the leading church officer, and all bishops have exactly the same sacramental position in guiding the people of God.A bishop of a large and important area of leadership (usually called a diocese) may be called archbishop or metropolitan, the latter meaning simply the bishop of a chief city, a metropolis.
The patriarch is the bishop of the most important city and diocese in a local church and is normally the leading bishop of a country (patria means country). This is especially the case when within the self-governing church of which the Patriarch is primate there are other bishops with metropolitan sees. For example, in Russia the bishop of Moscow is the patriarch; the bishops of Kiev and Leningrad are metropolitans; and there are other archbishops and bishops within the local church.However, once again, it cannot be over stressed that all bishops, regardless of their title or the size and importance of their diocese, are identically equal with regard to their sacramental position. None is higher or greater than the other; none rules over another.
- Speaking about the clergy, what are the clerical offices in the Orthodox Church and what is their significance?
The Orthodox Church has the three classical Christian offices: bishop, priest (or presbyter) and deacon.The bishop is the highest office since the bishop is the one responsible to guide the life of the church, to guard the faith and to preserve the unity of the churchly body in truth and love. Bishops are traditionally taken from the monks, and by a regulation dating from the 6th century, must be unmarried. A widowed priest or any unmarried man can be elected to the office of bishop.
The priests (or presbyters) carry on the normal pastoral functions in the Church and lead the local parish communities. They are usually married men. They must be married prior to their ordination and are not allowed to marry once in the priestly state. Single priests or widowers may marry but in this case, they are no longer allowed to function in the ministry.At the present time, the diaconate in the Church is usually a step to the priesthood, or else it exists solely as a liturgical ministry. The deacon may also be a married man, with the same conditions as those for the married priesthood.
- You mentioned monks. Does the Orthodox Church have monks and nuns?
There are both monks and nuns in Orthodoxy, and monasticism has traditionally played a very important tole in the life of the Orthodox Church.The monastic men and women in Orthodoxy are usually restricted to monasteries and do not normally participate in the active ministry of the Church. This is so since the monastic vocation of contemplation and prayer is considered to be a unique calling quite different from that of being a pastor, teacher, nurse, or social worker. Normally the monastic vocation is a lay vocation with each monastery having just one or two priests to care for the sacramental life of the community.
In America there are few well-functioning monastic communities. In the old world, however, recent years have seen a renewal of monasticism particularly among the more educated members of the Church.
- Your explanation until now makes the Orthodox Church look like a highly clerical body with strong hierarchal control. What about the laymen in the Church? Do they have a role?
First of all, it has to be understood that all members of the Church are full members, each with his own calling and responsibility.The clergy are those members who have a special service within the body, and not over it or apart from it. They are chosen from the people and are ordained within the community with the special sacramental function to lead and to care for the life of the faithful.
The clergy, however, are in no way infallible. They also have no “personal” rights or powers. Their entire service is organically carried on in and for the Church. If they fail in their service and prove themselves unworthy, they may be challenged by the lay people and by procedures clearly indicated in church laws they may be removed from their ministry. There are many examples in Orthodox Church history when lay people have preserved the Christian Faith in opposition to unworthy hierarchs.Also it must be seen that there are conciliar bodies on every level of church life in which lay people participate. The majority of theologians and teachers in the Orthodox Church, as well as church administrators and workers of various sorts, are lay people and not clergymen.
Thus, although the clergy have their own particular function of leadership, and that by sacramental grace and not merely by human choice or selection, the lay people have their functions as well. All, however, are responsible for the integrity of the Church. This traditional Orthodox position has the official confirmation of the famous Encyclical Letter of the Eastern Patriarchs of 1848. In this letter it is clearly expressed that the entire body of the Church is the bearer of the Orthodox Faith and Life, with each member bearing full responsibility before God and men for Christian unity in the truth and Love of God. Thus if we can speak about any infallibility at all, or of any power or authority, it must belong to God who lives and acts in all of His People, led by the sacramental hierarchy.
- You talk about the Church as unity in the truth and love of God. What do you mean by this?
We Orthodox believe that the life of the Church is life in communion with God Himself, in the Truth and Love of Christ, by the Holy Spirit.We believe that Christ is the Son of God. We believe that He reveals the truth about God and man. We believe that we can know this truth by the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit, that He gives to us.The greatest truth shown to us by Christ is that God is Love, and that the only true way of living is by following Christ who called Himself, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.Christ gave the great commandment and the great example of perfect love. Thus the greatest truth is love. This is our conclusion. And life in this truth which is love, is the life of faith, the life of the Orthodox Church.
Of course there are deviations and betrayals and sins all around. Clergy and laymen alike are guilty. But the Church itself, despite the sins of its members, is still the union with the Truth and Love of God given to men in Jesus Christ, made present and accessible in the Holy Spirit, who lives in those who believe.
- You will have to be more specific than. You called Christ the Son of God. This is a common phrase. What do you actually mean by it?
The faith of the Orthodox Church is that Jesus Christ is fully human, that He is a real man. But we believe as well that Jesus is not a “mere man,” but that He is the eternal, divine Son of God.By this we mean that from all eternity, before the creation of everything that exists, God Himself existed without beginning, in a manner incomprehensible to men, completely outside the bounds of time and space. In this perfection of divine existence, God the Father always had with Himself His divine Son and His Holy Spirit. Both the Son and the Spirit are exactly what God the Father is, namely perfect, unchanging, every-existing, timeless, spaceless, beyond human comprehension, etc. In a word, whatever can be said or understood about God the Father can be said and understood about the Son (also called the Word, Logos, Wisdom, and Image of God) and the Holy Spirit.
Thus there are Three who are divine, each being what the other is and each being in perfect union and unity with the other. These are the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit: the Holy Trinity.Now we believe that it is the eternally divine and perfect Son of God who was born as a man from the Virgin Mary and lived on the earth as Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah (Christ) of Israel and the Savior of the world.
Thus it is the Orthodox faith that Jesus is fully human and fully divine; the Son of God and the Son of Man, one and the same Son.
As the unique divine-human person, Jesus saves the world by teaching the absolute truth of God; by forgiving the evils of all men and the whole world; by suffering and dying in innocence, voluntarily and unjustly on the cross in order to be with all who suffer and die; by rising from the dead in a new and glorified form; by taking our humanity to God in order to make it divine forever; and by sending the Holy Spirit of God to men who believe so that they could teach and do the very things which Jesus Himself both taught and did…that they could, in a word, be sons of God in Him.
- You talk as if only the Orthodox who believe these things can be saved. What about other Christians and all other men in the world?
In the first place it must be made clear that it is not enough for anyone merely to believe these things, or merely to be a formal member of the Church. In order to be saved one must live by the truth and love of God.It is the common teaching of the Orthodox Christian tradition that the Church has no monopoly on grace and truth and love. The Church teaches on the contrary that God is the Sovereign Lord who saves those whom He wills.The Church believes as well that salvation depends upon the actual life of the person, and God alone is capable of judging since He alone knows the secrets of each mind and heart. Only God is capable of judging how well a man lives according to the measure of grace, faith, understanding, and strength given to him.The Orthodox would insist, nevertheless, that an honest seeker of truth and love will see these things perfectly realized and expressed in Jesus Christ and will recognize God, the end of their seeking, in Him.
We all know, however, that our image of Christ is deformed both by the lives and the doctrines of those who claim him, and thus His truth and love and His very person remain obscure and hidden to those who might follow Him if they could see Him clearly.
But once again, let it be clear that every man is judged by God alone according to the actual truth and love in his life. This goes for Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike. And although the Orthodox confess that the fullness of truth and love is found in the life of the church, nominal church membership or formal assent to some doctrines does not at all guarantee salvation.
- You have mentioned Christ, the Holy Spirit and God the Father. Can you say something more about the Trinity?
According to the Orthodox teaching, God is always and forever unknowable and incomprehensible to creatures. Even in the eternal life of the Kingdom of God — heaven , as we say — men will never know the essence of God, that is, what God really is in Himself.But we believe and confess that God the “ineffable, inconceivable, incomprehensible, ever-existing God,” to use the words of the Orthodox liturgy, has made Himself known to creatures. He has revealed Himself in the creation of man and the world, in the Old Testament Law and the Prophets, and fully and perfectly in Christ through the Holy Spirit in the New Testament Church.
In every way that God reveals Himself, He does so through His Son (or Word-Logos) and through the Holy Spirit. It is the same Son and Spirit through whom God made the world, through whom God revealed Himself in the Old Testament, through whom God enlightens and makes alive every man in the world … that come to us personally in the New Testament Church. The Son comes as a man in the person of Jesus Christ — we have discussed this already. The Spirit comes to those who believe in Christ in order to make them sons of God in Him.Thus we have always and everywhere God the Father, the Son of God who comes as Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. In the Orthodox Church we confess that these three are not three competitive gods, divided, and separated from each other. On the contrary we believe that the Father, who is the Source of all that exists, always has His Son and His Spirit who are not creatures, Who were not made like everything and everyone else, but Who exist eternally with Him; from, in and by His very own divine being.
Thus what God the Father is, the Son and the Holy Spirit also are, namely: eternal, perfect, good, wise, holy, timeless, spaceless … divine and worthy of the title GOD.
We believe as well that each of the three divine persons is divine in his own unique way, yet always living and acting in the perfectly absolute unity of the divine truth and love. Thus the Three are one not only because what they are is one and the same, but because their divine union allows of no separation or duality or division whatsoever.
We must hasten to point out here that the Orthodox teaching about the Holy Trinity is not an “abstract dogma” thought up by some clever minds. It is the expression on the level of words — which are always and of necessity inadequate to reality — of the loving experience of God in the Church. The doctrine of the Trinity is the product of man’s living communion with the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit.
- You also keep speaking about the experience of God and communion with God. Do you really believe that these things are possible for men?
If communion with God is not possible, then there is no Christian Faith and certainly no Orthodoxy.The entire faith of the Church is built on the fact that “God is the Lord and has revealed Himself unto us.” This biblical line is solemnly sung at every Morning Service in the Orthodox Church.God has revealed Himself! He has not merely told some things about Himself, or communicated some data about His divine existence and purposes. He has shown forth Himself and has given Himself to men for divine communion.According to Orthodoxy, there is no other meaning to the life of man except in communion with God. God is the end of all longing, the fulfillment of all desires, the source and the goal of man’s very humanity made in God’s divine image and likeness.
Through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit, man comes to living communion with God the Father Himself. There is no other meaning and purpose to the Church and to life itself.
Man and all creation with him must come to be divine by sharing the being and life and action of God Himself. All of the attributes of divinity — as one saint put it — must become ours; eternal life, truth, goodness, holiness, purity, joy … all perfections summed up in the greatest which is Love. For God is Love! This is the meaning of life, and it is certainly possible for men to attain it. At least, once more, according to the Orthodox Faith.
- If this is so, how do you understand life in this world right now? What is it that men should do?
The purpose of life right now is for men to become saints; to begin to share, right here and now, in the divine life of God; to become “holy as God is holy.”With this as the goal, however, men must know that this effort is total. It is both personal and social. It is both inward and outward. It works within the soul of man as well as within the life of the world. And men must know that this effort, as a total one, ultimately requires a total self-sacrifice. It inevitably brings pain and suffering and perhaps even physical death. This is what “bearing the cross” means, and why it is at the heart of the Christian ethic.The pattern here is Jesus Himself. There is no rule of Christian morality except the life of the Lord. The rule therefore is total love, the greatest expression of which is the laying down of one’s life for the other in obedience to the truth and love of God. The rule therefore is also nothing other than the cross, which cannot be “taken up” except by the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit.This Christian view of what man should do is, at bottom, the fundamental morality for all men. Every ethic must be the expression of what is true and good. All men must live this way. And inevitably, when they do, whether they are consciously Christian or not, their actual goodness and righteousness leads them to some sacrificial suffering on behalf of others. In this world where evil abounds, the Cross is certainly the rule.
- You mentioned this evil world. What is the relation of the Orthodox Church to this world? What about such things, for example, as the Church and the State?
The Church first of all is the experience of the Kingdom of God on earth. It is a mystery, as we call it; a sacramental experience and vision of reality. It is that reality itself within which we can come to a knowledge of God and Communion with Him and all things in Him.In this sense then, the Church is not merely a human organization or institution. Although it has organizational and institutional aspects — a “human form” — the Church cannot be reduced to these things, and essentially it is really none of them. The Church is not a human organization or institution at all. It is the gift of divine life in this world.As far as this world is concerned, the Orthodox believe that although it is essentially “very good,” created this way by God, it is ruined and spoiled and in the power of evil. It needs to be healed and purified. In a word, the world needs salvation in order to be what God made it to be.Because this world is, in its present ambiguous form, both good and evil at once; and because it requires salvation in order to be the perfect dwelling-place for God and man that it was made to be, it will always remain a world of relative values until being finally transformed by God at the end of the ages.
In this perspective, some form of government is necessary to care for life in this world in its present relative condition. Christians traditionally have held that there must be some form of state government with real power to care for the common good. The state can never be absolute however, and it may even be evil, in which case it must be resisted by men who love truth.
There have been in history many alliances between Church and state in Orthodoxy. These alliances have not always been happy ones and not seldom have been damaging to the Church and have required resistance from the Church in the persons of the prophets and saints. Nevertheless, the Orthodox would insist that for the relative life of this world, there must be some form of government with equally relative powers to preserve good order. And the Orthodox should be ready to be loyal to any such government which does not assume what belongs properly to God.
- This sounds awfully other-worldly! Doesn’t the Church have any more direct relationship to the life of this world and the good of the human society right now?
We have already said that the Church is the experience of the life of the world and of human society as it should be in God. At the liturgy, for example, we are given the “vision” of what life and society are all about; what they should be when perfect, filled with the Presence of God.However, although it has to be clearly understood that the clergy are strictly forbidden direct involvement in the life of this world, according to Orthodox canon law, because their sole function is to stand for the Kingdom of God which is not of this world, Christian people are not only the clergy, and the Church is not only those who are in “holy orders.”The Church is the whole body of faithful. We have talked about this before. And the body of believers in God are certainly in the world bearing witness in every possible way — social, political, economic — to that very Kingdom which is not of this world.And if, as we have said, the purpose of man is to become holy and godlike and to suffer for truth and love in communion with Christ Himself, then it must be seen that there is no other place for man to do these things than in this present world right here and now.
Thus, although the church as the church cannot possibly be reduced to the relative categories of this world, the Christians who live in this world must certainly use every means available to make this world as much as possible the expression of that Kingdom of God which is to come in the final revelation of Christ. They must know as well that they will never succeed absolutely in their efforts and will usually be greatly resisted. We come once again to the significance of the cross.
Also it must be mentioned that since the values of this world are always relative, and the concrete action of witnessing to the Kingdom of God is not always that simple and easy to determine, each individual Christian must be left free to make his political decisions and actions according to his own conscience. The Church can give principles and provide the vision of perfection, but it cannot dictate concrete policies and actions in this or that given instance.
- What about the Orthodox relation to war? The fact that the Orthodox have blessed the military seems to contradict your entire position, not to mention the teaching of Jesus about non-violence.
On the contrary, we would hope that the Orthodox position relative to the military supports what we have already discussed.Christ taught that perfection requires the love of enemies and the absolute renunciation of resisting evil by evil. Thus if a man will be perfect he will renounce the relative values of this world totally and will not participate in any act which is morally ambiguous. In this way, for example, the Church forbids the bearing of arms to its clergy and does not allow a man to continue in the ministry who has shed blood, theoretically even in an accidental way!However, the Orthodox Church follows Christ and the apostles in teaching that the relative and morally ambiguous life of this world requires the existence of some form of human government which has the right and even the duty to “wield the sword” for the punishment of evil.In the Gospels, for example, we do not find Christ or John the Baptist of the apostles commanding the soldiers which they met to cease being soldiers. Even the early Christians bore the arms of the pagan Roman state for the welfare of society in this world.
But still, if a man will be perfect and give his life totally to Christ, he will of necessity renounce military service as well as any political service which always and of necessity is involved with relativistic values and greater and lesser evils and goods. Such a man will also renounce his possessions and follow Christ totally and in everything.
Thus total pacifism is not only possible, it is the sign of greatest perfection, the perfection of the Kingdom of God. According to the Orthodox understanding, however, pacifism can never be a social or political philosophy for this world; although once again, a non-violent means to an end is always to be preferred in every case to a violent means.
When violence must be used as a lesser evil to prevent greater evils, it can never be blessed as such, it must always be repented of, and it must never be identified with perfect Christian morality.
Also, one final point of great importance is that Christians who are involved in the relativistic life of this world must resist military conscription when the state is evil. But when doing so they must not yield to anarchy, but must submit to whatever punishment is given so that their witness will be fruitful.
- How do you reconcile this position of not only with the past history of the Orthodox Church which seems to have violated it, but with the Orthodox participation in ecumenical groups as the World and National Councils of Churches which have taken positions on concrete political issues?
In the first place, relative to the Orthodox past, it is impossible to find any saint or teacher of the Church who would say that Christians can be perfect while participating in the secular, political, and military affairs of this world.In societies where the rulers were Christians, however, the Church would always urge the most humane government, and there have been cases in which saints blessed the national powers to bear arms, as the only alternative to what was understood to be a human catastrophe. Nowhere however can you find the Church itself recruiting soldiers or blessing the use of violence as such.As we have mentioned, there have been intimate alliances of Church and state in Orthodox history, but the number of churchly prophets, saints, and martyrs who have resisted the identity of church and nation is endless and can be easily documented.About the present participation of the Orthodox in ecumenical organizations, we can say generally that the Orthodox have understood the necessity of their participation, or at least their representation, as following from the desire that all men would be united in the truth and love of Christ. There are, of course, unhappy exceptions where some Orthodox participate for less worthy reasons, and these should be lamented.
Concerning the secular policies of these ecumenical organizations, the record is rather clear that all of the Orthodox, regardless of their motives for participation, have been virtually unanimous in their lack of sympathy for this type of political action and have generally made their dissatisfaction known.
It bears repeating also on this point that the Orthodox have never been opposed to statements of Christian principles on any issue: social, economic, legal, military … What has been opposed however is the assumption on the part of churches or ecumenical agencies and organizations of the right to promote or support specific policies, actions, parties, candidates, etc.
- What about such very specific issues as divorce and birth control and abortion? What do you have to say about such things?
These important issues all bear upon the appreciation of the family, and generally we can say without hesitation that the Orthodox understand the family to be willed by God as a created expression of His own uncreated life. Thus, in principle, the family must be preserved and glorified as something divinely and eternally valuable.Regarding divorce, the Orthodox follow Christ in recognizing it as a tragedy and a lack of fulfillment of marriage as the reflection of divine love in the world. The Church teaches the uniqueness of marriage, if it will be perfect, and is opposed to divorce absolutely.If, however, a marriage breaks down and collapses, the Orthodox Church does in fact allow a second marriage, without excommunication, that is, exclusion from Holy Communion, if there is repentance and a good chance that the new alliance can be Christian.More than one marriage in any case, however, is frowned upon. It is not allowed to the clergy, and the service of second marriage for laymen is a special rite different from the sacrament as originally celebrated.
The control of the conception of a child by any means is also condemned by the Church if it means the lack of fulfillment in the family, the hatred of children, the fear of responsibility, the desire for sexual pleasure as purely fleshly, lustful satisfaction, etc.
Again, however, married people practicing birth control are not necessarily deprived of Holy Communion, if in conscience before God and with the blessing of their spiritual father, they are convinced that their motives are not entirely unworthy. Here again, however, such a couple cannot pretend to justify themselves in the light of the absolute perfection of the Kingdom of God.
As to abortion, the Church very clearly and absolutely condemns it as an act of murder in every case. If a woman is with child, she must allow it to be born. In regard to all of the very difficult cases, such as a young girl being raped or a mother who is certain to die, the consensus of Orthodox opinion would be that a decision for abortion might possibly be made, but that it can in no way be easily justified as morally righteous, and that persons making such a decision must repent of it and count on the mercy of God. it must be very clear as well that abortion employed for human comfort or to stop what a contraceptive method failed to prevent, is strictly considered by the canon laws of the Church to be a crime equal to murder.
- What you say sounds super-human. Is it really reasonable to expect the people to do it? Indeed, who can do it?
The question about who can do it was asked a long time ago. St. Peter asked it of Christ when he was listening to His teachings. The answer of Christ was conclusive: “With men these things are impossible. But with God all things are possible.”This is the point. Christian morality is, strictly speaking, not a human morality designed for the happy life in this world. Christian morality is the morality of perfection. “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” These are the words of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount.Such a morality in this world is really open-ended. It is never complete. As a matter of fact, it is the teaching of the Orthodox Church that man’s life is never complete even in the Kingdom of God. Man will always be “on the way.” His very perfection, as one saint put it, is always to grow more perfect.To be as perfect as God is impossible to men. But to move toward this perfection eternally and forever is within man’s possibilities with the help of God. And this is the life and the moral position to which Christians are called.
The Church is always ready to forgive the sinner, since Christ is the Head of the Church and He has come exactly to save sinners. But while condescending to forgive every sort of sin and weakness and necessity to indulge in relativistic and morally ambiguous actions (such as warfare and politics and birth control…), the Church cannot give these actions complete approval and cannot change its gospel which proclaims that man is created for the Kingdom of God and divine perfection.
- You talk about the Kingdom of God continually. What is this Kingdom of God?
The Kingdom of God is what Christ has brought to the world. The Gospel is full of Christ’s insistence that the Kingdom of God is given to men by His coming. It is a Kingdom not of this world, but of God, a Kingdom of everlasting life in union with God, the Trinity.Thus, we define the Kingdom of God as life in and with God. The Orthodox believe that this life is communicated to men in the Church through Christ and the Holy Spirit. It is a life where men worship and obey God and do His will by the presence and power of His spirit.One saint has even defined the Kingdom of God as life in the Holy Spirit, which is the same definition given by Orthodox to the Christian Church itself.What we know in the Church, in the Holy Spirit, of communion with God the Father through Jesus Christ, remains still a mystery. The Kingdom is really here, but in symbol and sacrament. At the end of the ages this Kingdom will come with observation, with power and glory, when Christ will be revealed and God will be “all in all.”
Thus because we Orthodox believe that the Kingdom is already given to those who believe, and that the righteous dead have even a greater access to this Kingdom than we have on earth because of our mixture with the evil of this age, we insist that “heaven” is not a locatable place within the space of our created universe, but a spiritual, divine, condition of existence which will fill the universe at the end of time. It is “eternal life” already revealed to the saints in death and to the holy people of God within the sacramental life of the Christian Church.
- We have not talked much about the Church itself. For example, what about the Bible? Do the Orthodox use the Bible as other Christians do?
For the Orthodox, the Bible is the book of the Church, written by and for those who believe in God and constitute His People. The Four Gospels are the center of the Bible, just as Christ is the center of the Church. For this reason the Four Gospels are always enthroned on the altar in the Orthodox Church building.The Orthodox generally interpret the Bible in terms of Christ. In this sense, the Old Testament is partial in that it prepares for the time of Christ, the Messiah, who fulfills its message and history.The New Testament writings are also centered around Christ and tell of His action in the world and in the Church through the Holy Spirit.Thus the Orthodox position about the Bible, would be that the New Testament is prefigured in the Old, and the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New.
The Bible is central in the life of the Church and gives both form and content to the Church’s liturgical and sacramental worship, just as to its theology and spiritual life. Nothing in the Orthodox Church can be opposed to what is revealed in the Bible. Everything in the Church must be biblical.
The Bible itself, however, not only determines and judges the life of the Church, but is itself judged by the Church since it “comes alive” and receives its proper interpretation and significance only within the life of the Church as actually lived and experienced by the People of God.
This would be the basic Orthodox approach to the Bible. Very sadly however, it must be mentioned that the knowledge of the Bible among Orthodox is not very great. There is a conscious attempt being made today to renew the reading and meditation of the scriptures by the faithful of the Church.
- What about the sacraments? How many are there? How does the Orthodox Church understand them?
First of all we must say that traditionally the Orthodox never counted the sacraments. The number of seven was adopted in Orthodoxy very recently under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church.Traditionally the Orthodox understand everything in the Church to be sacramental. All of life becomes a sacrament in Christ who fills life itself with the Spirit of God.The Orthodox baptize infants as well as adults as the new birth into the new life of Christ. Baptism is understood and celebrated as the person’s participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. It is the person’s Easter as he is born again into life eternal.Chrismation (or confirmation) is the “sealing” of the new life in Christ by the life-creating Spirit. In Chrismation the person receives the “seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit” in order to have the power to live the new life in the new humanity of Christ. In this sense, chrismation is the person’s personal Pentecost just as baptism is his Easter.
Holy Communion is the “sacrament of sacraments” in that it is the banquet of the Kingdom of God, the fulfillment of every other sacrament. In Holy Communion we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, the Eternal Passover Lamb, Who makes us alive and holy with Himself. Through Holy Communion we become sons of God the Father, together with Jesus, filled with the “communion of the Holy Spirit.”
Marriage in Christ allows our human love to become divine and unending. There is no “until death do us part”. The point is just the opposite. Christ comes to our human love, frees it from sin and grants it everlasting joy in His Kingdom of love.
By our anointing of the sick in Christ’s name, we consecrate our sufferings with the sufferings of Christ and we are healed by Him; if not for more time in this world, certainly for an eternity in the Kingdom of God. Thus by anointing with oil in Christ’s name, our wounds become the way to Life and not to Death.
In confession, the sacrament of repentance, we come to Christ and receive His divine forgiveness. We are allowed once more to enter into Holy Communion with Him in the Church. We are reinstated into that life which we received in baptism and are renewed with that power which we were given in chrismation.
The one sacrament within the Church which guarantees the identity and continuity of the Church in all times and places is the sacrament of priesthood, the “holy orders,” as they are called. The priesthood exists within the Church as the sign of the certain presence in the community of Christ Himself. Christ is not absent from the Church. He is present as its head and is manifested in the Body through the ministry of the priesthood. Thus the mystical life of the Church is fulfilled.
- Can you say something more about the Divine Liturgy? It is obviously the center of the Orthodox life.
The Divine Liturgy is indeed the center of the Orthodox Christian life. As we mentioned, it is the sacrament of sacraments, or to use the more traditional Orthodox expression, the “mystery of mysteries.” The word for “sacrament” among the Orthodox is usually “mystery.”The central mystery of the Orthodox faith is the service of Holy Communion, called the Eucharist. As words, liturgy means “common action” and Eucharist means “thanksgiving.”The first action of the liturgy is the gathering in common.
The baptized and confirmed gather in one place. After the common prayer of the Church called the Great Litany in which petitions are made for all of the essential elements of life, biblical psalms are sung and the Word of God is presented to the faithful. Here the emphasis is on the epistle, the gospel and the sermon.Then follows the offering of the bread and the wine as the offering of ourselves and our world to God in Christ. We ask God to accept us and our gifts (the bread and wine) as we love one another and confess the Orthodox faith, the Nicene Creed which we, or our sponsors for us, proclaimed at our baptism.
We then offer up ourselves and our gifts to God in Christ in remembrance of all that He has done for us: the cross, the tomb, the resurrection of the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the sitting on the right hand of God the father, and the second and glorious coming again.
We then call the Holy Spirit “to come upon us and upon our gifts” and to make them the Body and Blood of Christ and to give us the experience of the Kingdom of Heaven. Thus we receive back our gifts of bread and wine as the gift of Holy Communion with God the Father through Christ and the Spirit.
Finally we depart in peace to bear witness in the world to the Kingdom of God which has been given to us, calling all men into this unity with God and each other in Him.
The Orthodox celebrate this Mystery of the Kingdom of God, the Divine Liturgy on each Lord’s Day as well as on feasts and special occasions. It is the living experience of what all Christianity, and indeed all of life, is really about.
- We are now back where we started, speaking about the Liturgy and its place in the Orthodox Church. Would you agree then that the Liturgy reveals what Orthodoxy really is?
Yes, of course, the Liturgy is the central revelation of the Christian mystery, and in it the whole of Orthodoxy is somehow contained, remembered and given to our living experience.All the icons, the vestments, the candles, the singing … everything taken together in harmony and unity serve to disclose just one thing: Man is made for God and finds his identity, fulfillment and perfection in Him.
We speak much today about identity and fulfillment. Who am I? What am I doing in this world? What is the sense of it all? Does it have any meeting?The Orthodox Church says that the answer to all these crucial questions lies in Christ, His Cross and His Resurrection. Through Christ the meaning of myself and the world and everything that exists is disclosed and revealed. Through Christ, the Kingdom of God is opened to men and the possibility for my becoming myself is guaranteed. I become myself only in God. My nature finds its meaning in Him. My existence, as an image reflecting His divine reality, is secured. My life as an eternal being is established.
In this life this means that I must put on Christ and take up His Cross and follow him. I must suffer for truth and love and goodness. And yet there is joy in this suffering, for obedience to the Word is fulfilled in the Marriage Banquet of the Lamb of God in the Kingdom of God.
This is the Christian Mystery which the liturgy reveals and for which alone, the Orthodox Christian Church exists in the world.