THE HEART OF OUR CHRISTIAN FAITH
By Fred Mark Shaheen
As Orthodox Christians, we may be confronted from time to time by inquiries from the curious regarding the nature of our faith: What exactly do the Orthodox believe? How is your faith different from that of Roman Catholics and Protestants? There are several ways to address such questions.
We could recite the Nicene Creed, which gives a concise summary of the most fundamental beliefs of the Church; we could refer the individual to some introductory literature about our faith, such as The Orthodox Church by Kallistos Ware; we might produce an icon and then explain what is represented and how we as Orthodox Christians understand the function of sacred art in our acts of worship. Clearly the most appropriate way to introduce a neophyte to the Orthodox Faith is to take him or her to church, because it is impossible to define who we are and what we believe without taking into account what we do.
As the Church, it is our corporate acts of worship, primarily the Divine Liturgy, that have remained inextricably linked to the doctrine of our faith for nearly two millennia. To the uninitiated, some aspects of those acts, for example, the lavish decor of our houses of worship; exotic strains of chant and prayers in unfamiliar tongues; innumerable shifts of standing, sitting, and making the sign of the cross; watching the entire congregation queue up to receive the Eucharist from a single cup, might not make much sense without a context of understanding.
According to the late Alexander Schmemann, there exist two essential elements by which we define ourselves as the Church: 1) what we believe; and, 2) how we worship, i.e., what we do when we gather together. These two aspects should never be separated from each other because each is an essential component of the whole. Undue emphasis on creeds alone tends to breed a kind of pure philosophy devoid of spiritual meaning, while the practice of elaborate rituals without a context of faith can result in an empty piety.
To define our Orthodox Faith simply by creeds is erroneous. It is the unified acts of the whole Church as a single body, namely what Schmemann calls the act, the celebration of the Eucharist, that separate it from the tenuous world of ideas and objects.
The gathering together of one body of believers to partake of the Lord’s Supper perpetuates the presence in this world of the living Word of God. The Apostle Peter speaks directly to that body of believers when he says, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Peter 2:9). In the life of the Church today, the full implication of his words is too often neglected.
We falsely believe that priesthood belongs only to the hierarchical administration. Consequently, the notion of the Eucharist as an exclusive event between God and the priests flourishes like a heresy and corrupts the integrity of the Body of Christ.
As it is, our Church takes on characteristics of a child from a broken home: lacking the nurturing elements of a rule of faith and a rule of worship, each having been divorced from the other, she is impaired in her ability to effectively live out her role in the world. Too often our churches are filled with congregations whose participation in worship services is rote and ritualistic.
People tend to relegate attendance at Divine Liturgy to a task, one more hour-and-a-half to suffer through so they can get on with what is truly important in their lives. As Orthodox Christians, to say that the Divine Liturgy is merely important is to deprive it of its rightful preeminence. It is the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, the regular gathering together of the faithful on the first day of the new creation to enter as one body in Christ into the Kingdom to come, that is the act of worship, the sole purpose for our existence as the Church.
During the Eucharistic celebration, at the moment of the consecration of the gifts, the priest calls down the Holy Spirit upon the altar; he beseeches him to change the bread and wine into the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Theologically, most Orthodox understand and accept that particular aspect of the Divine Liturgy. In Liturgy and Tradition, Alexander Schmemann presents the Lord’s Supper from another perspective. He describes the path between this world and the Kingdom in terms of a two-way street. The priest, on behalf of the Church, does indeed invoke the Spirit of God at that moment of consecration.
Simultaneously, he elevates the entire Church, stands at its head and lifts it upward as one body, its members united in Christ, to taste together the Kingdom of Heaven.
Were this particular understanding of the Eucharist more universally preached, how many members of the congregation would stand idly in the back of the Church during the Divine Liturgy? Who among them would be able to resist rushing forward to be as close as possible to the miraculous advent? How many would willingly forego participation in such a self-defining act of ascension as is the Lord’s Supper? Unfortunately, for many, the celebration of the Eucharist is what the priest does, something to be observed, but kept at a distance, For many, those words, “holy things are for the holy” translate as “this is between God and the clergy!” The pathology of mere physical/mental participation in worship reduces the Eucharistic celebration to a performance, a liturgy of the spectator.
It cannot be overemphasized that what we as Orthodox Christians do is inseparable from what we believe. An overview of the Church’s fundamental beliefs, all of which are rooted in Scripture and Tradition, are delineated in the Nicene Creed. To an outsider, then, it might seem sufficient to read the Bible, memorize the Creed, and study the writings of the Church fathers to understand what it means to be an Orthodox Christian.
The problem with such an approach is that it is based on academic theology alone. More precise definition of the tenets of our faith, the exact shape they take as worship, has been formulated through centuries of practical application. The Orthodox Church has existed for two thousand years, not merely on a list of beliefs or an accepted canon of holy writings.
Rather, her perseverance is a result of her maintaining the integrity of her purpose: The active participation of the Body of Christ in this world until He comes again in His glory.
And that participation, the miraculous event that happens each Sunday, transcends intellectual hypotheses. As one body of believers, the Church defines herself not according to natural laws or philosophy. First, she presupposes the Good News: that Jesus Christ is Lord.
All else, every sacrament, every doctrine, the Nicene Creed, the theology of icon veneration, proceeds from this one point and is contingent on the truth of it.
Truly, the faith of the Orthodox must be Eucharist-centered if it is to preserve the integrity of the very Church our Lord commanded his apostles to establish. Our rule of faith should reflect the primacy of our acts of worship, particularly the act, regular participation of the Church in the Lord’s Supper. When Philip, our Lord’s disciple, was asked if anything good can come out of Nazareth, he answered, “come and see” (John 1:46). To an outsider who would inquire of us what exactly Orthodox Christians believe, our reply should be, “come and taste.”
Fred Mark Shaheen is a student at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, Crestwood, NY