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|Fr. Theodore G. Stylianopoulos|
Gospel, spirituality and renewal in orthodoxy
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We begin with a story about the jewel and the jewel box. Many ages ago, so the story goes, a family clan acquired a jewel of priceless value. Its beauty and power were of unsurpassed quality. In order to safeguard it, the family placed this jewel in a jewel box crafted with exquisite care. The next generation marveled not only at the jewel but also at the beautiful jewel box. For safekeeping, it made a larger jewel box in which it put both the jewel and the first jewel box. As ages passed, generation after generation saw the making of more and ever larger jewel boxes until at last a great and magnificent treasure chest had been built — itself adorned with intricate carvings, precious stones, artful symbols, and mystical paintings. The family clan, now grown quite large, was very proud of its noble inheritance. Outsiders, too, would come and admire the antique beauty of the enormous treasure chest. “How fortunate you are,” they would often say, “to possess such a truly rich tradition.” Then one day someone asked: “By the way, what is in the treasure chest?” No one could offer a clear answer. Few seemed to know for sure.
As we celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy each year, we rejoice in the treasures of the Orthodox Faith. We delight in the veneration of icons, our symbolic windows to heaven that unite us with the communion of saints. We proclaim the truth and glory of Orthodoxy. We triumphantly declare: “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 that upholds the universe!”
But what is the content of this Faith? What is the essence of our celebration? What is the center of our joy? What is the priceless jewel? Let us recall the words of the Gospel lesson recited on the Sunday of Orthodoxy. The Gospel lesson recounts the conversion of the first disciples of Christ. Philip proclaimed: “We have found Him of whom Moses and also the Prophets wrote!” And Nathaniel cried out: “Teacher, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Commenting on this passage, Saint John Chrysostom writes: “See how Nathaniel’s soul is filled with joy? See how he embraces Christ with his words of faith? See how he leaps and dances with delight? So should we all also rejoice, who have been made worthy to know the Son of God.”
And, surely, the Sunday of Orthodoxy invites us to do just that: to embrace Christ with fervent faith; to delight in Him with true joy; to glorify Him as our Lord and Savior; and to see that, above all, He Himself is the good news, the beauty and truth, the grace and glory, behind all the treasures of our Orthodox Faith. He and He alone is the priceless jewel of Orthodoxy. Let us be clear: Orthodoxy is Christ and Christ is Orthodoxy. Without Christ, that is, without His living presence among us, Orthodoxy is but a historical ornament fit for a museum. But with Christ, that is, with His empowering grace and love in our hearts and lives, Orthodoxy is a living and vibrant witness to God, a burning bush glowing with the fire of the Holy Spirit, a bright beacon shining the path to a lost but ever seeking world.
What would you reply if someone asked you: “What’s in the treasure chest”? Would you say, “Christ our Lord, the Leader of our Church, the One who said, ‘I am the light of the world’ (Jn 8:12) and who taught us, ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ (Jn 13:34). But what more could you say about the importance of Christ for Orthodoxy? What else could you say to answer more clearly and convincingly? And what if you were asked, “What does Christ really mean to you? What difference does Christ really make in your life?” What would you say then to a potential convert to Orthodoxy?
Let us draw three lessons from the New Testament and see what we can learn about Christ, the eternal Word and Wisdom of God, “who became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:12). His first disciples testify: “We have beheld His glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father” (Jn 1:12). And again: “That which we have seen with our eyes, and touched with our hands — the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us — we proclaim to you, so that you may have communion with us. And our communion is with the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ. And we are writing this that your joy may be complete” 1 Jn 1:1-4).
Here we have the first great lesson of what the mystery of Christ means to Orthodoxy: Christ reveals to us the life of God, indeed, the fullness of God, the very character of God as light and life. The most magnificent words ever written are the opening words of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word. . . . He was in the beginning with God and all things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of humanity. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:1-5).
The marvelous good news of the Gospel is that the eternal Son who, united with the Father and dwelling in the bosom of the Father, “has made Him known” (Jn 1:18). The Greek verb behind the expression “has made Him known” is exegesato. From this verb also comes the word exegesis which scholars use for the interpretation of the Bible. Exegesato means that Christ has shown to us the full meaning of God. As no one else before Him or after Him, Christ has clearly explained or interpreted for us the mystery of the true and living God. Why? In order that we may have communion with God, that we may share God’s personal life, that we may live in the same spiritual realm of the Father — the Kingdom of light, life, truth, love, grace and glory.
Let’s be specific. Recall the Parable of the Prodigal Son, particularly the image of God as a loving Father. What an unusual Father Jesus presents to us: a Father who utterly respects the freedom and dignity of each human person; a Father who shared with his young rebel son His own property and let him go to squander it without questions! I can well imagine if one of my two sons came to ask me for his share of the family property. I would say: “Wait a minute, I am still living and want to manage my household. Besides, what are the reasons for your considerable request? Is it for college or a graduate program? Is it to get married, or buy a house, or start a business?” Anything else would hardly count. But not for God who freely gives of His attributes and possessions to His sons and daughters. And it is of course God who is pictured as the Father in that parable. God gave His property, freely and generously, even though He knew it would be squandered. What an unusual Father, a Father of generous freedom, impressive dignity, and incomparable love.
We may ask: What “property” does God give to each one of us? For He truly does give and has given to us of His “property” — that is His very life and likeness. God has given us the capacity to be free, the capacity to know what is true and good, the capacity to think and decide, the capacity to create and build things, the capacity to love and show compassion toward others, the capacity to forgive and begin anew, the capacity to bond and create friendships, the capacity to enjoy family relationships and to live in loving and supportive communities. All these are His enormously generous gifts to us — all packaged in what we call the gift of the image and likeness of God in which we have been created. In other words, we too have the inner capacities, just as Christ did, to show who God is, to explain and interpret God the Father by how we live and use His gifts. One of the Church Fathers has said that of all things in creation it is a human being herself or himself who can provide by word and action the most glorious testimony to the goodness, greatness and wisdom of God.
Yet we often squander God’s property by in fact abusing His gifts. Freedom becomes arbitrariness. Knowledge becomes cunning to gain advantage over others. Creativity becomes the tool of pride, or greed, or other wicked passions and evil imaginations. Love is shortchanged by selfishness. Compassion is hamstrung by short-lived emotions. Forgiveness seems impossible. Friendships, family relationships, and social ties are scarred by human petty weaknesses and unrepentant sins. What is sin but the abuse of gifts, the abuse of people, the abuse of things, the abuse of relationships. Sin is the corruption of what is good; and we know that everything that God has created is good.
What is the result? We often live in resentment and anger. We find ourselves in conflict and alienation from God, ourselves, and others. We cannot make peace even with the natural environment in which we live. Not infrequently we abuse our very bodies which are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Thus, in various ways, we share the misfortune of the Prodigal Son — being away from home, experiencing exile in a foreign land, and living like slaves to the evil passions and the wrong choices which lead us to abuse God’s gifts.
But the loving Father is waiting as He waited for the Prodigal Son. When the young son utterly crashed and hit bottom, he remembered home, the plentitude of home. Surely, he also remembered the goodness and the love of the Father on which he counted to be accepted at least as a servant, if not a son again. He had prepared a speech of repentance, but his very decision to return for a new start was sufficient. The waiting Father ran out to him, embraced him, and welcomed him as a son. He would not hear of any words of lament or long explanation. Rather, he commanded: Bring a new robe, bring new shoes, bring a ring as a sign of restored sonship, prepare a banquet and let’s have music and dancing. “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (Lk 15:24).
See what a glorious image of God our Lord Jesus has shown to us? See what hope the loving Father who is revealed to us through the Son inspires in us? See what good news the gospel announces to us? No matter how far we have departed from the Father, no matter how deeply we have fallen, no matter how much we have abused His gifts and have been enslaved by the wretchedness of evil — there is the path of return and recovery, there is the path of going home, there is the path of true renewal and joy! And what is this path, or better, who is this path, but Christ Himself, who said: “I am the way and the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6). The way to what? The way to the Father, the way to communion with Him, the way to share again the Father’s fullness of property — life, light, love, grace and glory.
We have come to the second lesson from the New Testament about why Christ is the jewel of Orthodoxy. Christ leads us to the Father not only by His teaching such as in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but also through His example of humility and sacrifice, particularly His sacrifice on the Cross. Our hymns and prayers often mention the death of Christ as a sacrifice for forgiveness and redemption. The main hymn of the Sunday of Orthodoxy does the same: “We venerate Your pure icon, O Good One, asking for forgiveness of our sins, Christ our God. For by Your own free will you deigned in the flesh to ascend on the Cross to save Your creation from the bondage of the enemy. Therefore, we cry out to You in thanksgiving: You have filled all things with joy, O Savior, having come to save the world.”
Christ came not only to teach but to save the world. Christ is not only the supreme example of love and goodness, He is also the only Savior and Redeemer. He is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). Recall the night before His death when He ate the Last Supper with His disciples. With certain solemn words and actions, Christ signified the meaning of His death. He broke the bread and said: “Take eat; this is my body.” Then He took the cup and said: “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:26-28).
In modern times we can hardly fathom the profound meaning of ritual sacrifice in the religion in which Jesus grew up. By way of analogy, we might catch a glimpse of its significance when we hear or read in the newspapers that someone gives a kidney that someone else might live; or that someone jumps into a burning house to rescue another, and then himself perishes. Christ died on our behalf. Although sinless, He became a curse, a sin, that is, a sacrificial sin offering according to the Jewish tradition. He died that we might be cleansed, sanctified, and have full access to the mercy and forgiveness of God.
Do not ask now for an exegesis of the paradox of how our loving Father in heaven both offered and accepted as sacrifice His beloved Son on the Cross. Rather, receive the mystery in faith and rejoice in the blessings which flow from it. In the Old Testament, God stopped Abraham from offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice. However, out of his boundless love for the world, God did not spare His own Son to establish the New Covenant and reconcile a sinful world to Himself. In the words of St. Paul: “God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. . . . We rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our reconciliation” (Rm 5:8,11). And again: “If God is for us, who is against us? If God did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, will He not also give us all things with Him” (Rm 8:31-31)? St. Paul goes on triumphantly to proclaim that no one and nothing can separate from the love of God in Jesus Christ — neither tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or anything else saint or sinner, prodigal or righteous can suffer. Why? Because Christ died and rose again for our salvation. Through His Cross and Resurrection, Christ the Victor, defeated the powers of evil, sin, corruption, death and the Devil. He liberated humanity from these evil forces and ushered in the new age of grace — a new time in which we can return home and share the life of our Father in heaven.
The third lesson from the New Testament about why Christ is so decisively important and absolutely central to our Orthodox life and tradition is that Christ is the Giver of the Holy Spirit. Christ promised His disciples: “I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, [and] He will bear witness to me” (Jn 15:26). In Christ we come to know not only the Father but also the gift of the Spirit through whom all of God’s gifts and mercies are energized and become effective in the Church as well as our personal lives. In other words, Christ has shown to us the fullness of the mystery of God, the eternal three-foldness of the one, true and living God, namely, the great mystery of the Holy Trinity which is the alpha and the omega of all things.
Recall how during His earthly ministry, Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit as God’s finger or power by which Christ taught, healed, and cast out demons. On one occasion Jesus said: “I came to cast fire on the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled” (Lk 12:49)! He was speaking of the fire of the Holy Spirit that the flock of His faithful followers were to receive on Pentecost. They were about 120 of them, including Jesus’ mother, the other women followers, and the brothers of Jesus according to the Book of Acts (1:12-15). On that awesome day, as the little Church had gathered for prayer, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon them from heaven “like the rush of a mighty wind . . . and there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them” (Acts 2:1 On that day the risen Christ became a fire starter and His Church became a burning bush ablaze with the grace of the Spirit.
What does all that mean for us today? The gift of the Spirit on Pentecost means that we, the body of believers who are the Church, are not so much an institution defined by so many forms and regulations. Rather we are a spiritual movement alive with the presence and power of Christ. We are the body of Christ. We are God’s holy people. We are the community of the Holy Spirit. We are the keepers of holy fire. And our vocation is to be united together and to form a mighty torch of fire witnessing to the world the light and the glory of God.
Why is Christ the precious jewel of Orthodoxy? He is the eternal Word of God who reveals to us the loving Father. He is the Son who offered His life on the Cross for our redemption. He is the Lord who gives the Spirit to empower us in the life of new creation. In Christ we know and worship the Holy Trinity. In Christ we transcend human boundaries and conventions to witness to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, “the Church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).