Have you ever wondered why our bishops and clergy are so insistent on our regular Church attendance? Is it for their own benefit that we attend Church? Many of us today, like the Gnostics, despise this form of authority—the authority of “Scriptures, rituals, and the clergy.” We all like the simple Christ without the Church or ritual, sacraments or dogma, clergy, or creed. For the most part, Church has evolved into a place where we may spice up our lives with a social gathering or meet up with like-minded people for the purpose of fun and entertainment. If this does not work, we prefer not to go to Church and find other ways of staying happy. Every event happening at Church especially during this season of carolling is for the very reason of fun. Does anyone who enjoy such fun at Church ever have an answer to the question on the term ‘Economy of God’ or on the question what does ‘Incarnation’ mean to them? Why the Nativity fast; and why the nativity feast is being celebrated in the wee hours of Christmas Day?
Orthodox Church or the term ‘Orthodox’ means only a religious sect for all of us today. Even those who identify themselves as ‘Orthodox Christians’ are not sure why they are called so. Is it that only if the pastor/priest teaches us what it means to be an ‘Orthodox Christian’, will we follow the Orthodox way of life? Many of us are even unaware that there is such a thing as an Orthodox way of life. Hasn’t Christ given us the commandment ‘Seek Ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you’. So, isn’t it a Christian duty for all Christians to seek the Kingdom and discover why the Holy Fathers have paved a way for us to follow?
It is imperative for us to find out why the Church follows a Tradition so that we do not deviate ourselves from the ‘Truth’ and follow the path other than that ‘what is handed down to us (Luke 1:2)’. St. Paul already warns us on heresies and heretical teachings saying that even if it is the angel of light, we should not follow any teaching other than what they taught us (Gal 1:8).
Will we ever accept these kinds of accusations on us? We not only deny these accusations but in turn will always shout out saying, ‘God is the center of our lives. Amid our struggles and challenges, He is the very source of our refuge’. Whereas, on the other hand the reality is that we are seeking to find security in ignorance, pushing away any reality that threatens our own worldview and dealing with it in categories which are meant to be under our control.
The very reason for this (Nativity) season is that ‘The Logos [Word or Reason] became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) What exactly does this imply? Is it that the person Jesus Christ is some historical figure who lived amongst us as man? Is he a global figure like Buddha or Mahatma Gandhi, whose moral ideals and actions sparked revolutions? Or is the Logos simply God who constantly spoke to God the Father, who came down to earth and paid the penalty for every sin that we commit on this earth and that the Christian is assured of his/her salvation if he obeys the only rule that Christ is the only God and Savior of the world.
The events from the Incarnation to the Ascension and Pentecost bring the Church into the world as a liturgical community with a trinitarian consciousness and trinitarian structure to its unity. What does this signify and how do these events become effective in our time? It means that those who become part of this liturgical community is a new family. Jesus did not leave behind Him a new philosophical system, nor did He institute a new religion. He left His body and sent His Spirit. And the Gospel consists of fundamental elements from the life of Jesus and experience of the new community in Christ. However, those things which the world could not contain if they were written (John 21:25) in detail are found, made known and lived in the Church, where Jesus Himself lives. Those who think that they know Christ outside the Church know very few things about Him; those who belong to the Church live “in Him”. Thus, we can say that the Gospel is a “private” book. It belongs to the Church, which has a world-wide mission. Outside the Church the Gospel is a sealed and incomprehensible book. This is characteristically expressed in the way it is placed on the altar in the Orthodox Church, for it is within the Church that the ministry of the Gospel is accomplished. Later when other needs present themselves, the Church will formulate dogma, which is an expression of truth in a different way of the truth which it has embraced on the day of Pentecost. “Having received all the spiritual illumination of the Holy Spirit….” the Fathers who proclaimed Christ “set forth the faith taught by God”. The Gospel and dogma are expressions of the same Spirit of the Church. An Orthodox Christian was identified as one who was initiated into the community of faith and participated in the life of that community. Today we see like the Gnostic Christians many Christians are on their own/want to be on their own, arbiters of their own faith, without Church, ministry, or sacraments. This would have been all right if they could also be faithful to the Apostolic teaching. The Apostolic teaching was not, however, available in Gnostic schools. The Jesus they taught was only in the heart or head of the believer, and not in the life of the community of faith. The Apostolic teaching put all the emphasis on the community and on the Eucharist, and the ministry which was responsible for guarding the teaching of Christ. The Gnostics preferred individualist, interioristic, intellectualistic interpretations of Christianity and did not want to associate with ordinary Christians or community. The Gnostics were anti-church, anti-clerical, anti-sacramentarian as many Christians are today.
St. Ignatius of Antioch testified to the Apostolic community that to be Christian is neither to have a special experience in one’s heart nor to have lofty ideas about Christ; to be a Christian one’s whole life has to be drawn into unity with Christ and with His body the Church; and one has to participate in the death and resurrection of Christ through baptism and Eucharist: through specific acts, through being incorporated into a specific community with its own structure as prescribed by the Apostles. Christ is flesh and Spirit, man and God-not just Spirit or pure God. Life in Christ must therefore have its fleshly and human elements-what Western rationalists uncomprehendingly mock as ‘rituals and ceremonies’ The Gnostics, like many modern Christians, had no use for Church or its life in community.
To conclude, the Physician has provided His aid. He has provided us the Church; His Body, so Christ lives in it. The purpose of Incarnation was to plant within the realm of perishing history, the imperishable ‘my Father’s house’ where God in His glorious grace is manifested. It is Christ’s body, the Church, in which Christians live. The gift of Resurrection is the restored human nature. Such things God gives us freely. He forms us without us willing it, so He forms us anew though we have contributed nothing to it. This gift of Resurrection is common to all men that we all will live in immortality. But there is a difference between ‘life of blessedness’ and ‘to live in immortality’.
The ‘life of blessedness’ is the kingdom and vision of God and union with Christ. As for the things which depend on human willingness such as choosing that which is good, the forgiveness of sins, uprightness of character, purity of soul, love of God—their reward is final blessedness. We have the power to accept or to shun these things. They are thus possible only for those who have been willing to receive them and have loved them and longed for them. H.G. Dr. Paulose Mar Gregorios says, “to believe in Christ is more than acceptance of Christian message or surrender to Him. Both are necessary; but to believe is also continuing experience of daily death to oneself, daily experience of revealing Light, daily re-establishment in the Person of Christ, daily acceptance of the Father’s accepting and forgiving Grace”. For such it is fitting to enjoy the presence of the things which they longed for, for the unwilling it is impossible. For e.g., The Baptism becomes the cause only with such a life in Christ. How can one be capable of enjoying and finding delight in the presence of things for which one had no longing when they were absent? Let us thus inquire what ‘Incarnation’ means to us and what life in this world is for us?
Wishing you all a Great Feast of Our Lord’s Nativity!
Christ is born! Glorify Him!
Mar Gregorios foundation @1992; A human God by Dr. Paulose Mar Gregorios
St. Vladimir Seminary Press @1974; The Life in Christ by Nicholas Cabasilas (14th c)
St. Vladimir Press @1984; Hymn of Entry by Archimandrite Vasileios