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|Fr. Theodore G. Stylianopoulos|
Gospel, spirituality and renewal in orthodoxy
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In the last chapter we examined the life and thought of Saint Paul in relationship to Judaism and Hellenism. We reflected on the dynamics of early Christianity as a renewal movement emerging from Judaism and adapting to the new cultural milieu of the Graeco-Roman world. In this process of development the early Church struggled to define and express its own identity, distinct from both Judaism and Hellenism, by foundational beliefs and ritual acts, for example, the proclamation of the Gospel, the initiation act of Baptism, the sacred meal of the Eucharist, and new perceptions of moral conduct. The powerful impetus driving forward the new Christian movement was the experience of the risen Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit, events by which the entire ministry of Jesus was interpreted and proclaimed as the decisive arrival of the new age in fulfillment of the Old Testament promises. The central focus was the person of Christ Himself, not simply as a great figure of the past but as living Lord present and active through His Spirit. Saint Paul counted all things as a “loss” and “refuse” for the “sake of Christ” and “the surpassing worth of the knowledge of Christ” (Phil. 3:7-8). The Apostle applied these words not only to his personal religious achievements but also to his rich Jewish traditions. Centered on Christ and inspired by the Holy Spirit, he “pressed forward to what lies ahead” as he carried himself and the early Church to new horizons of faith and life. He did so in vigorous conversation with both Judaism and Hellenism, yet always in uncompromising faithfulness to the truth of the Gospel of Christ.
Twenty centuries later the Orthodox Church, now spread throughout the globe, finds itself in a situation both similar to and different from that of Saint Paul and the early Church. Now the Church is no longer a nascent community seeking to define its developing identity through distinct beliefs and forms of expression. Its theology is highly defined. Its worship is greatly elaborated. Its religious life, for example fasting, is specified down to minutiae. Its canonical order, although not without disputes, is established by a host of laws. Nevertheless, the Church still struggles with its sense of self-understanding, unity, identity and mission. Theology as concepts and definitions cannot reach ordinary people unless theological principles and themes are simplified and applied to daily life through inspirational preaching and teaching. Worship in its traditional forms and language is enjoyed as sacred ceremonies but without sufficient impact on the actual life of worshipers. The religious life of the faithful in terms of customs and morals is in a dire state because the majority of the baptized are influenced more by the world than by the Church’s traditions. Canonical harmony itself seems always debatable in view of rival claims regarding jurisdictional authority and the long-standing divisions over the ecclesiastical calendar. Historically, these are facts and facts must been seen with realism.
The radical cultural changes of the last century, as well as the internal developments within Orthodoxy itself, make the Church’s need for self-assessment more urgent. The task belongs not only to Church leaders and theologians, but also the entire body of the faithful as a whole. And the challenge is not to achieve a revision of the abiding essentials in terms of dogma, worship, canonical order, ethical values and the spirituality of Orthodoxy. Rather the challenge is to achieve a sense of renewal of hearts and minds, resembling that of Saint Paul and the early Christians, in order to see the treasures of the tradition in their appropriate light and function. The challenge is to attain to a level of trust and unity among all Orthodox leaders and theologians, clergy and laity alike, to the extent that the Church can present a clear and powerful message to its own people and the world. Such a task cannot be accomplished apart from our personal conversion to Christ and our existential appreciation of the centrality of Christ in the Orthodox tradition. In what follows, we present reflections for further meditation on the subject of renewal based on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the great liturgical celebration of Christ and the Orthodox Faith.