Update: 28/01/10 - As the title suggests, this post reflects my infancy in the Orthodox Faith and may not necessarily reflect accurately my current understanding.
I believe in one God: the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth and of all things, visible and invisible.
And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds: God of God, Light of Light, very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost, of the Virgin Mary, and was made man. And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried. And the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father. And He shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord, and giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spake by the prophets.
And I believe one, Holy, Catholic and Apostolick Church. I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins. And I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.
This is the Faith of the Church: the Truth to which we have been led and guided by the Holy Spirit, and affirmed by the first oecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 AD and the Oecunenical Council of Constantinople in 381 AD. This is the Creed that is sung by the Church week by week and day by day at her Altars throughout the world.
This is the result of the Holy Tradition of the Church, which goes hand in hand with Sacred Scripture, which is part of that Tradition. Sacred Scripture is subject to the authority of Holy Tradition, for it by that Holy Tradition that Sacred Scripture was compiled.
The Holy Spirit did not cease to work in the church when the last full stop of Scripture was written, but the Church has grown and matured, having been guided by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, it was the Church that compiled the Bible, deciding which books ought and ought not to be included, and so the Bible is under the authority of the Church’s Tradition, and has become a part of that Church’s Tradition.
The Father sent the Son, by the power of the Spirit, to earth in human form. Here was the eternal God, the Word Supreme before creation began, humbling himself, condescending (in the truest sense of the word) to be human – fully human, yet remaining fully God. The Creator of the world became part of creation. This is best highlighted in the well-known Christmass carol, The Great God of heaven is come down to earth:
O wonder of wonders, which none can unfold!
The Ancient of days is an hour or two old.
The Maker of all things is made of the earth.
Man is worshipped by angels and God comes to birth!
The Word in the bliss of the Godhead remains,
yet in flesh comes to suffer the keenest of pains.
He is that he was and for ever shall be,
yet becomes that He was not, for you and for me. (H. R. Bramley)
This is the Mystery of the Incarnation, the very centre and basis of the Christian Faith. If the second Person of the Holy Trinity were to redeem humanity, then the second Person of the Trinity had to become human – and he did, in the person of Jesus Christ, taking his human flesh from a young girl, called Mary.
Out of all that He had made, in all time, Mary was the one whom God chose, from whom He would take flesh and become human, and without her ‘yes’, none of this would have been possible, for God, the God who gives us free will, does not force our choices.
Mary is the model and image of us, the Church, in our perfect state. At our Baptism, we, like Mary, give our yes to God. The Holy Spirit descends on us, as it did Mary, and we are given the charge of all Christian people to read and digest God’s word and to take it to the world. This Mary did, in a very literal sense. For nine months, the supreme Word of God grew within her, and she brought him forth to the world. She was present as He was sacrificed on Calvary, as is the Church as this same Sacrifice is made truly present at each and every celebration of the Mass. She died and was gloriously assumed into heaven, which is the promise made to each of us in our Baptism. Mary has gone before us, showing us the way. Thus, the Church is prefigured in Mary and her destiny is ours:
Wherefore let all faithful people
tell the honour of her name.
Let the Church, in her foreshadowed,
part in her thanksgiving claim.
What Christ’s mother sang in gladness
let Christ’s people sing the same!
As we sing, her prayer is rising
for her heart with us is one.
We with confidence will ask it,
that the mother from her Son
will obtain the full perfection
of his work in us begun
Hail Mary, hail Mary, hail Mary, full of grace!.
(Ye who own the Faith of Jesus: Fr V.S.S. Coles)
This is not because of anything that Mary earned, but very simply because God chose Mary and gave her the grace to perform this role in his plan of salvation, not because of anything that she said or did, but simply because it was God’s will - and so she is rightly called Theotokos, for she bore God. There are Christians who deny this, with little justification. Such objections have no grounding whatsoever in the Christian Faith, and ignore even the most basic of human relationships between a mother and her child. When Jesus was hungry, it was Mary’s breast that fed him, when, as a child, he fell and cried, it was Mary’s arms that embraced him, when he soiled himself, it was Mary who cleaned him, yet this was God! God made himself completely dependent on Mary for his very survival in the world that he himself had made. This is Incarnation! If God has given Our Lady such a place of honour, how can denying this be anything but blasphemy on our part?
Some try to diminish Our Lady's part in God's plan of our salvation by separating the natures of Christ, even going so far as to imply that there were two Christs – one human and the other divine, and that God cannot be born as humans are, that God cannot bleed and die, and so only the human Christ died on Calvary – not the divine Christ. They argue that Mary was the mother only of the human Christ and not of the divine Christ, and therefore cannot be said, in any true sense, to have given birth to God.
This was the same heresy that was presented by Nestorius so many centuries ago in 429 AD, and was quashed by the Third Oecumenical Council the following year.
This idea opposes the statements in the Creed, that Christ was:
very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father… who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost, of the Virgin Mary, and was made man. (The Nicene Creed)
St John tells us the same thing in his Gospel, when he writes:
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1: 14).
The human Christ and the divine Christ were one and the same. Therefore, it is nonsense to say that Mary did not give birth to God, the divine Christ.
If one does not acknowledge Mary as Theotokos, he is estranged from God.
(St Gregory Nazianzus)
God’s entire plan of salvation rests on the basic premise that it was God, who became human, who died on the Cross and rose again, so that when he would again ascend to heaven, he would take our human nature with him.
Jesus had to be both God and human in order for this to work: he had to become human in order to share in and redeem fallen humanity, and he had to be simultaneously God, so that when he returned to the heavenly state, he would take our human nature with him, thus opening to us the gate to eternal life sharing in God's divine nature. This is the second half of the mystery of the Incarnation. Yes, God became human, but through Christ’s Ascension, humanity also becomes deified, living eternally in the divine nature. This is our destiny and it begins with the Sacrament of Baptism. Christ has condescended to our level already. We die with him as we drown in the waters of Baptism, we rise with him from the waters of new life, and we gain eternal life by the merits of Christ’s Ascension. Birth, death, resurrection and ascension – the Mystery of the Incarnation.
It is through human flesh that God wrought salvation, and it is through elements of the created order that God gives us Sacramental grace: the waters of baptism, the sacred Chrism, made from the oil of the olive, the laying on of hands, simple bread and wine. Through the use of these simple creatures, which become sacred symbols, dedicated for divine use, the soul receives grace, and all made possible through the Incarnation. Under the Old Covenant, the focus was on the transcendence of God. Physical representation of God was forbidden. Contact with holiness meant sure and certain death at certain times in the Old Testament. However, in the New Covenant, the old order is done away with, God has condescended to become man, to become part of the created order, elements of the created order are used as windows into the spiritual in the holy images. God has opened up the way for our sanctification through that created order. Tertullian writes about this in the 3rd century, in chapter 8 of The Resurrection of the Flesh:
The flesh is washed, that the soul may be cleansed: the flesh is anointed, that the soul may be consecrated: the flesh is signed with the cross, that the soul may be defended: the flesh has hands laid upon it, that the soul may be illuminated by the Holy Ghost: the flesh is fed on Christ’s Body and Blood, that the soul may be nourished by God.
St Etherius writes:
We eat his Body and drink his Blood, that as it passeth visibly into our inward parts, so we may be inwardly united to him and transformed. For it is a sacrament and a mystery.
The pinnacle of this is the Divine Liturgy; the holy Eucharist, by which the entire saving work of God is made present.
Jesus, the Christ, called his Apostles, and gave them the solemn charge to preach to the peoples of the earth, to take to them the Good News of salvation, and to baptise them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. He gave them the Sacramental power to forgive sin in his name, and to be his Church in the world.
On the night before he died, Jesus performed for the first time, the fourfold action that the Church repeats at every Eucharist. He took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and shared it. He did this within the context of the greatest commemoration of God’s saving work for his people: the Passover meal. This fourfold action he performed, and taught us that by repeating it, the saving work of his Incarnation, death, Resurrection and Ascension would be made present, when he gave us the command: ‘Do this in remembrance of me’.
The word that we poorly translate as ‘remembrance/memory’ in English, in the Greek scriptures, is anamnesis. This is not a simple remembering, such as remembering where one has left one’s keys, but actually means a making present in the here and now, events of the past. This was a popular concept in Jewish/Greek culture, and would have been instantly understood to those present. It is this anamnesis that was believed to be taking place at each and every celebration of Passover, which is why every food, every word, every prayer has a symbolic meaning. The Jewish people celebrating Passover believe themselves to be really and truly present with their forefathers as the angel of death passes over them - they truly and really tread with the ancestors as they cross the Red Sea. This is the same word that Christ used in his command to us. It is not a simple "remembering" in the common understanding of the word in the English language today. Sadly, this concept has never really featured in western culture, and so we have never had a word for it in the English language. "Remembrance" is the best that we can manage, but we must understand that it is a linguistic shortcoming and not indicative that the Eucharist is a mere "calling to mind".
Therefore Christ’s command to ‘do this’ (taking, giving thanks, breaking and sharing) in remembrance of him was not a mere request that Christians should gather together for shared food and think of Jesus. It was a command to celebrate and make present the entire incarnational mystery of God's saving acts throughout history, by joining the whole Church in making the events of our Faith truly present, including Christ's sacrifice of himself on Calvary. The redeeming, salvific moment of the Christ’s Sacrifice of himself on the Cross, his Resurrection and Ascension are made truly present at the Altar at each and every Mass: Christ the Victim is made present (anamnesis) in his Body and Blood, under the appearances of bread and wine, and Christ the High Priest, in the person of the bishop, the successor to the Apostles, (or the priest, his sacramental icon and representative).
This is a celebration of the great benefits that we have gained by Christ’s Birth, death and Resurrection, but the Mass is also eschatological – it celebrates the Ascension of Christ and so looks forward to the end time, when we too, shall be raised to eternal life with Christ in glory.
This is what the Mass is about. There are those who would deny this, and again, with little justification. They claim that the Body and Blood of Christ are not truly present, but that the bread and wine merely represent Christ’s Body and Blood. This heresy misses the point of the last Supper and Christ’s crucifixion, and diminishes the entire work of salvation, and is a grave departure from Sacred Scripture and Holy Tradition, both of which support the Church’s teaching.
The whole of chapter 6 of the Gospel according to S. John supports this, especially verses 48ff, where Christ says:
‘I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ (John 6: 48 – 51)
Those who argue that the bread and wine are merely representations of the Body and Blood of Christ claim that Christ was speaking figuratively, and that he did not actually mean that we are to eat his Body.
However, it appears that those present actually took these words literally, as St John tells us that this statement caused the Jews to question how this could be – how could this Jesus give them his flesh to eat? If Jesus had not meant this to be taken literally, and had concerns that they had misunderstood him, surely this would have been the time to correct their misunderstanding, but instead, when he sees their confusion, he goes on to say:
‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. (John 6: 53 – 56)
Can we be left in any doubt? In the sixth century, St Caesarius of Arles writes:
When the creatures are set upon our holy altars to be blessed by heavenly words, before they are consecrated by the invocation of the holy name, the substance thereof is bread and wine; but after the words of Christ, they are the Body and Blood of Christ. What wonder is it if he can change by his word the things which, by his word, he was able to create?
In case any should think that this was a later teaching of the Church, we have the words of St Paul in his first letter to the Church at Corinth:
…the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves.
(1 Corinthians 11: 23 -29)
The meaning is clear: although the outward appearance is that of bread, we are exhorted to discern the Body of Christ, and to suggest that God is incapable of bringing this about is blasphemy.
After the Ascension of Christ, the Father sent the Holy Spirit to the Church at Pentecost, and it is the Holy Spirit that has led and guided the Church since then, through the oecumenical councils of bishops.
The Apostles and their successors initially established five patriarchates: Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch. These worked together, under the Spirit’s guidance, establishing the Christian Faith, and ordaining bishops and priests to continue this work until, in 1054, the Bishop of Rome broke from the Holy Tradition of the Church, and took it upon himself to accept a change to the Church’s doctrine (her understanding of the nature of God, at that!), without the authority of an Oecumenical Council. None of the other patriarchs was involved in this decision and none of them agreed with it.
This is the famous dispute over the filioque: the phrase in the Creed about the Holy Spirit, which means that instead of the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father, he proceeds from the Father and the Son. The other bishops and their churches did not believe this, but this is not the main issue. The Creed had been thrashed out and formulated according the Sacred Scripture and Holy Tradition, by all of the bishops of the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Now, this one man makes a change, and in addition, states that he has the authority to make such a change. It is this that the rest of the Church primarily took issue with. No one man can change the teaching of the whole Church.
Christ promised his disciples who were to become the Church, the gift of the Holy Spirit, who would guide the Church into all Truth. And so we have Holy Scripture, the Oecumenical Councils, the daily worship of the Church, the writings of the Fathers, and all of the aspects of our Holy Tradition, which we understand to be the revelation of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, a departure from this inherited Tradition is a rejection of the Holy Spirit, and constitutes, not the formation of a separate "branch" within the Church, but a separation from the Church.
Thus, in the eyes of the Orthodox, the Bishop of Rome and the Church of the West went into schism, although the Bishop of Rome taught that it was the rest of the Church that, by not following him, had become schismatic. This western Church became known as the Roman Catholic Church, and it is this church that gave birth to the Protestant reformation, which was theological, political, and bloody and caused nothing but division, but most importantly, has given rise to the idea that any person, in his reading of Scripture, can formulate the Truth.
The Church of Rome rightly denies this position, hence the animosity to this day that exists between the Roman church and Protestant groups, but this idea could have only originated in the church of Rome, because the core reason that the Roman church separated from the East was because its own bishop had done the selfsame thing: he had reinterpreted Sacred Scripture without the guidance of the Church’s Holy Tradition. The only difference was that he had taken a large portion of the faithful with him. There are now numerous Protestant factions, some with their origins in the Reformation, some which have sprung up later, but all of which are based on the idea of primacy of the individual conscience or the individual community. Therefore, an Orthodox Christian, or a Roman Catholic, arguing a theological point, would take both Scripture and the Church’s Tradition into consideration and would argue that ‘The Church teaches…’, whereas a Protestant would read the Bible himself, work out his own version of the ‘truth’, and argue that ‘The Bible says…’.
To my ears, the idea that anybody, or any small group can work out Truth for itself is nonsense. It fails on more than one point.
a/ Firstly, it fails to take account of the Holy Tradition of the Church, and so presumes that Scripture alone can lead to the Truth. The fact that it is often members of protestant communities who argue that we should return to a model of the early Church is testimony to this rejection of the guidance of the Holy Spirit over the past 2000 years.
b/ If one congregation can work out Truth for itself, and so can another congregation, then how is a core difference between these ‘truths’ explained? In ‘Christian charity’, they may say to each other, ‘We believe x, and you believe y, and although they are mutually exclusive, we have both reached our conclusions by prayer and our reading of the Scriptures and so both are the Truth’. No! I cannot accept this. Christ prayed for unity, but he promised Truth. Christian Unity is a noble thing worth striving for, but not at the expense of Christian Truth, otherwise that unity is based on fallacy, and where does thta leave us?
c/ How much more arrogant can mankind be? How can one person believe that his tiny little mind can process and understand the great Mystery that is the eternal God? The Church as a whole does not make this claim, and She has the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
As previously mentioned, the church of Rome rejects this individualistic approach, as it is not Catholic (i.e. not universal, but individualistic). However, the church of Rome has its origins in just this sort of approach, and to this day, retains the filioque as part of the Creed, as do most of the western churches and protestant ecclesial communities.
Not only that, but the church of Rome has made numerous alterations to its teaching of the Christian Faith since the schism of the 11th century, and all without the consultation of the Orthodox churches. The climax of this occurred in 1869, when the Vatican Council of the church of Rome declared that the Bishop of Rome, when pronouncing ex cathedra (from his seat, or rather, by virtue of his office), on matters of faith and morals, is infallible. This further flew in the face of the Orthodox Churches, and caused further divisions in the Roman Church, with the formation of the breakaway group, known as the Old Catholics, which still exists to this day. It also caused further tensions between the Roman church and other ecclesial communities in the west, thus hindering reconciliation.
It would appear that the only Churches that have retained the balance between Sacred Scripture and Holy Tradition, and so have been preserved from doctrinal error, are the Orthodox Churches. Only Orthodoxy appears to embrace the fullness of the Faith that I believe that Christ gave to his Church, with the development and maturity that has been brought by the Holy Spirit.
I initially wrote this, with much difficulty, as a cradle Anglican – a member of one of those churches that have their roots in the church of Rome - but so much of my faith seemed more conversant with that of Orthodoxy than of Anglicanism that I found myself in a position where I no longer felt at home within the church that had nurtured me and my faith from a very young age. Indeed, I could no longer recognise it as part of the Church while retaining any integrity. I prayed and read and studied and spoke with people about this, and with time, the Holy Spirit found me where I was, and moved me to where God wants me to be.
Much of the historical information in the above may not be completely accurate - this was originally written as a series of my musings in one afternoon, and I just typed as the thoughts came to mind. It is only later that I tidied it up a little, but this was never intended to be an essay or for publication. I have updated it over the months as my understanding and journey have developed, and so this is a work in progress. I find it useful to refer people to when they ask for my prspective on certain issues.
I intend to post my musings here as time goes by and as my journey progresses. I hope that those who read it can contribute as they feel appropriate.
Update: 28/01/10 - As the title suggests, this post reflects my infancy in the Orthodox Faith and may not necessarily reflect accurately my current understanding.