People have surprised my wife Susan at her workplace, when they find out we are Orthodox Christians, with comments like “Oh so you’re Russian?” or “I didn’t know you were Jewish” or the puzzled “What’s Orthodox?”
People insist on knowing if we belong to a Russian or a Greek Church because in the public mind Orthodoxy remains clothed in its ethnic dress. In the Mesilla Valley, Orthodoxy is practically unknown – which is why we came here last year with the blessing of the Archbishop of our national church.
Churches grow three ways: by immigration, by family growth, and by conversion. Only in this generation has Orthodoxy finally focused on conversion, offering its message to people with no historic connection to the faith. People are only now discovering the alluring power and beauty of the faith and life they find within this most ancient Christianity.
Orthodox comes from Greek, and its literal meaning is “right-praising”. Orthodoxy focuses on the proper worship of God, but this means that you have to be very clear about the God whom you worship. Our worship is directed to the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One in essence and undivided. This is the “faith once delivered to the Saints” (Jude 3) that blossomed from the time of Christ as the Orthodox Church.
Orthodoxy has witnessed to this faith, often under severe persecution, through the ages. In the 20th century, between 25 and 50 million Orthodox Christians died as a result of war and persecution in Russia, Ukraine, Greece, Albania, Armenia, Egypt and other countries. Only through God’s power did the faith survive in some lands.
Orthodox Christians are not great statistics keepers, so the estimate is that there are between one and five million in America. Worldwide the usual figure is 275 million, or about 12% of world Christianity, but numbers don’t concern us. The faith is more important.
The Church came before the New Testament. The church gathered and dispersed to proclaim and to teach the message of the risen Christ, and from that proclamation grew the New Testament. Early Christians were called “the Way,” which indicates the importance of living the faith rather than talking about it. We move from information to formation.
We are formed by sacraments, though we call sacraments “mysteries” to connect them to the mystery of Christ Jesus, in whom God will “unite all things in heaven and on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10).
We are formed by discipline. Archimandrite Hierotheos, a contemporary, says Orthodoxy stands on two legs: sacramental life and ascetic discipline. Asceticism involves prayer, fasting, acts of charity and good will, service to others in love, practicing virtues and working to overcome vices. Discipline and mysteries together form a whole Christian life.
Formation leads to transformation. God shapes the raw material of our lives as we embrace discipline and sacrament. We are a people coming home to the Father, like the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable. Orthodoxy is dynamic: we are always growing into the next phase of life together with God. St Gregory of Nyssa said that God, who draws near to us in Christ, is endless beauty and goodness. So our movement toward God only reveals greater beauty and goodness to us. With such a goal, why not grow?
Father Alexander Schmemann, of blessed memory, was a great teacher of the American church. When asked how you explore the Orthodox faith, he often gave the answer St Philip made in the Gospel, “come and see.” He thought that people should experience the church and only then ask questions. Immersion is more important than investigation because Orthodoxy is a Way, not a set of teachings or a discipline. Come receive the Light; come and see.