“When Orthodox are asked at contemporary inter-Church gatherings to sum up what they see as the distinctive characteristic of their Church,” Kallistos Ware writes in his book, The Orthodox Church, “they often point precisely to its changelessness, its determination to remain loyal to the past, its sense of living continuity with the church of ancient times.”
We cherish our two thousand year-old tradition, handed first from Christ to his Disciples, precisely for its fullness, for in the great variety of practices we find healing and clarity on the path to Communion with God. For we Orthodox believe that the purpose of our lives as humans is Communion, to become more and more like the Triune God and to enter deeper and deeper into a relationship with the Trinity, ultimately hoping to purify our hearts so that we may be granted full union with God. When we proclaim the Nicene Creed, we essentially proclaim this purpose to be final and complete.
In our journey toward Communion we begin and end with worship, which in the church is best modeled in its liturgy, the service of Communion. Each Sunday we, along with all the Orthodox around the world, participate in the “Mystical Supper” of Christ, in which, like the Disciples two millennia before us, we are given by God His Body and Blood to eat. “The Divine Liturgy is truly a heavenly service upon earth,” wrote St. John of Kronstadt, “during which God Himself, in a particular, immediate, and most close manner, is present and dwells with men…”
The long tradition of Christianity is immediately visible in our worship in the icons which adorn the walls of our church. These icons remind us of those particular predecessors who we know achieved the true Communion we all seek. The icons are “windows” through which we see quite literally the triumph of Love. An icon depicts particular humans called saints, those who, as Metropolitan Hierotheos writes, “partake of the deifying energy of God,” our ultimate hope. Above all, however, in the dome of the church, is the icon of Christ as High Priest, who is the head of the Church. Below that and above the altar, where the Body and Blood of Christ are set out for us, is an icon of Mary, the Mother of Christ, the greatest of “mere humans,” and the one who bore God in her womb (and thus we refer to her as the Theotokos, or Mother of God.)
The services are filled, too, with songs and prayers that prepare our hearts for the Mystical Supper. These prayers and hymns are part of the tradition handed to us: in the fourth century St. John Chrysostom wrote the liturgy we use today; the words of St. Symeon, who held the Christ Child, echo through our Vespers services; King David’s Psalms are read aloud daily; the story of the Myrrhbearing Women—the first humans to see the risen Christ—is sung in the prayers preceding Liturgy. Along with the spoken prayers at home, we have also received from our predecessors in the faith a long tradition of stillness, or hesychia, in which prayer of the heart helps to free us from wounding thoughts. “Our life depends on the kind of thoughts we nurture,” Elder Thaddeus said.
“We did not know if we were in heaven or on earth.”
Along with weekly services, the church year contains a cycle of wonderful feasts and beautiful fasts. Easter, which the Orthodox call Pascha, the Feast of Feasts, is celebrated in a beautiful midnight service, in which the priest acts as the Light of the World emerging from the Tomb—Christ risen from the dead—which Metropolitan Hierotheos calls the “greatest event in history,” and which, St. Paul tells the Corinthians, is the very center of our faith, for in Christ’s triumph over death, “Death, the last enemy, is to be abolished.” Whether we’re remembering in awe Christ’s Nativity at Christmas or His Ascension into Heaven, or commemorating, for example, the saints of North America or an important event in Church history, all feasts are celebrations of God’s love for us and his desire for deep relationship with humanity.
We Orthodox fast, too, for the same reason. Though as a community we might be fasting from certain foods, we do so out of love, not out of obligation or a desire for control. “Whatever is done must be done with love,” St. Porphyrios wrote. “Love always understands the need to make sacrifices.” Thus we strive to be like St. Mary of Egypt, who said, “When I only reflect on the evils from which Our Lord has delivered me I have imperishable food for hope of salvation.” Several fasting seasons, the longest two being before Christmas (the Nativity Fast) and before Pascha (Great Lent) sustain us on our journey through the church year.
Because of its long history and deep theology, Orthodox is difficult to outline even in a few paragraphs. In Santa Fe, we at Holy Trinity continue to press forward in the knowledge of the church’s tradition, but we also hope to live it out, to be not only aware of it but to be the vessels of its transmission to the next generation. In fact, the Apostle Philip, in responding to Nathaniel’s questions about the truth of what Philip was telling him about Christ, gave the final word to all of us who want to see Christ. “Come,” the Apostle said, “and see.”