Originally Published: August 20, 2020
Thank you, again, to those who shared their initial journeys to the Orthodox faith. These experiences raise the question: What is it that draws us to God?
Alexander Kalomiros provides one perspective on this in his work Nostalgia for Paradise:
The Christian life is a nostalgia for Paradise, a deep knowledge that we are foreign travelers in a passing and vain world, far from our true Fatherland. The saints dwelt in Paradise even in this life. When we read their writings, we feel as if they are taking us by the hand and leading us to a fragrant garden of beauty, of tranquility, of eternal life. This is how nostalgia for Paradise is born in us.
Nostalgia is a great force. It contains something of sorrow, something of love, and something of joy. The Fathers make us nostalgic for God. Anyone who is nostalgic for God labors to return to Him. This is the labor of Christians. They stand before the angel's flaming sword and, weeping like infants whose milk has been taken from them, they wait for the angel to step aside. Exiled from two paradises, the paradise of men and the Paradise of God, they are strangers and sojourners, transients in this world.
In contrast with the animals, man has an infinite thirst. For within him lives the memory of the grace he received with the Breath of Life but lost by his disobedience. This is why absolutely nothing can satisfy him except the Infinite One. Without Him he will always thirst.
To quench this thirst, to know God, is eternal life. For this to be possible for each of us, we have to leave the world—its cares as well as its passions and lusts—and run to the Lord. We do not run, however, in a self-guided direction or after some Jesus as we might understand him from our own reading of the Gospel. Instead, we seek refuge in the Church which He Himself founded and which continues to this day, the Body of Christ which is the Holy, Catholic, Apostolic, Orthodox Church.
Kalomiros, in the quotation above, references the Fathers of the Church as a source of our nostalgia for God. While there have been many holy people that we consider Fathers of the Church from different parts of the world, there are a group of twelve and a group of seventy special Fathers that we especially revere: the Holy Apostles. While it is important for us to read all of the holy books of Scripture including the five books of Moses, the books of the Law, the Kingdoms, and the Prophets, we now have the fulfillment of those writings of the Old Testament in Jesus Christ, preached to us by the Apostles of the Twelve (Matthew, John the Theologian, Peter, and in a special way Paul) and of the Seventy (Mark, Luke, and James the Brother of the Lord) in the books of the New Testament that bear their names.
For this reason I've asked you to take time to read the Gospel according to St. Luke and the Church herself appoints daily readings from the Epistles and Gospel accounts for every day of the year. But reading itself is not sufficient. In order to acquire a heart that can receive God, we have to live our lives as members of the Church. How can we learn to live as members of the Church? To start, we need to attend the Divine Services, pray and fast as the Church does, and practice lives of temperance, chastity, and love for God and those near us.
These activities are communal. We commune with God and each other in Christ. We absolutely cannot do it alone.
Consider this excerpt from an introductory text about the Orthodox Church by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, who quotes Fr. Georges Florovsky extensively:
The Church is synonymous with Christianity: one cannot be a Christian without being a member of the Church. "There is no Christianity without the Church," writes the hieromartyr Hilarion (Troitsky). Archpriest Georges Florovsky noted that "Christianity is the Church." Christianity has never existed without the Church or outside the Church. Following Christ has always meant joining the community of his disciples, and becoming a Christian has always meant becoming a member of the body of Christ:
Christianity was from the very beginning a corporate reality, a community. To be a Christian meant belonging to this community. No one could be a Christian by himself, as a separate individual, but only together with "the brethren," only in conjunction with them. Unus Christianus, nullus Christianus (one Christian is not a Christian). Personal convictions and even one's way of life do not yet make one a Christian. Christian existence assumes inclusion and implies membership in the community.
Christianity can be reduced neither to moral teaching, nor to theology, nor to church canons, nor to liturgical services. It is also not the sum of these parts. Christianity is the personal revelation of the theanthropos (God-man), Christ, through his Church:
The Church preserves and imparts its teaching and the 'divine dogmas"; it proposes the "rule of faith," the order and statutes of piety. But the Church is something immeasurably greater. Christianity is not only the teaching on salvation but salvation itself, accomplished once and for all by the theanthropos...In the Orthodox consciousness Christ is first and foremost the Savior, and not only a "good teacher" or a prophet. He is above all King and High Priest, "the king of peace and the savior of our souls." And salvation consists not so much in the good news of the heavenly kingdom as in the theanthropic person of the Lord himself and in his deeds, in his "saving passion" and "life-giving cross," in his death and resurrection.
The Church is the keeper of Christ's teaching and the continuer of his saving mission. It is the site of Christ's living presence, the receptacle of his grace. But it is not so much the Church that saves people through Christ's grace as it is Christ who saves people through the Church. Through the Church, Christ continues his saving work, which, having [been] accomplished once in the past, does not cease to be accomplished in the present. He did not grant his body and blood to his disciples only once, but ever nourishes the faithful in the [mystery] of the Eucharist. Not just once did he save humanity by his suffering on the cross, death, and resurrection—he always saves. And the Church perceives the events of Christ's life not as facts of the past, but as acts of enduring significance that have no end in time.
This time around, I'm providing two separate writing prompts and you can choose to reply to one or both of them:
Prompt 1: Many people who believe in God as Trinity and Jesus as the Son of God also believe they are members of the Church as described in the Scriptures. How can the Orthodox claim to comprise the One Church? Consider both historical and theological perspectives.
Prompt 2: Each of the Gospel accounts begins differently. Why might St. Luke have decided to begin his account with the nativity of John the Baptist? What are some of the special names that we give to St. John? What is his relationship to the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ?
May God grant all of you an abundance of His grace during this beautiful, short lent with its daily services, the glorious feast of the Lord's Transfiguration which we just celebrated, and the impending feast of His mother's Dormition!