January 2, 2008
St. John’s Gospel, written somewhere in the latter years of the 1st century, by the Apostle John (the disciple whom Jesus nicknamed “the Beloved Disciple”), opens with a lyrical meditation on Christ (whom he calls the “Word” or “Logos” when he speaks of Him in this theological manner). Nothing could better set the stage for our looking at Christ, the Revelation of God.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.
In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.
That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:1-14).
It is interesting that we use this Scripture as our starting point. This passage is also the Gospel reading for the Liturgy of Pascha (Easter), making it the most important reading of the Christian year. It is, indeed, a starting point.
It is one of the few gospel passages that sounds at all like a philosophical statement, though it is not. It affirms first that Christ is the “Word” of God. The Greek word for this is “Logos” (the New Testament was written in Greek). The richness of this one simple statement is probably far more than we can explain in this setting. But several things are important for us.
First, it speaks of God (its readers understood this to be God as traditionally understood by the people of ancient Israel), but then adds that God has a Logos. Not only that God has a Logos, but that this Logos is also God and that everything that God created He created through His Logos.
Something that Christ introduced into the world in His revelation and teaching of God is this “plurality.” Christ constantly referred to God by the name, “Father,” or “My Father.” This was new in the speech of man. In using this term, Christ isn’t speaking in a figurative manner, but is indeed saying that His relationship to God is that of a Son to His Father. Indeed, He will point to several important characteristics of this relationship:
1. There is an identity of character.
Speaking to His disciples, Jesus said, “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father…” (John 14:1-9).
2. Christ has come to do “the will of my Father who sent me.”
Once Jesus’ disciples asked Him if He was hungry (they had gone into town to buy food). His response to them was this: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34).
3. Christ “makes known” the Father.
From St. John’s prologue (the first chapter of his Gospel): No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18).
Thus, in Orthodox Christianity, if we wish to know God, or to know the truth about God, we believe that this truth will be shown to us by and through Jesus Christ.
But what do we mean by knowing God?
At the very heart of the Orthodox understanding of the faith is the belief that Christ came to make possible a living communion between God and man. He came that God might dwell within us and that we might dwell within God. This mutual in-dwelling is frequently spoken of in Scripture as “knowing” God, though it does not mean “knowing” simply in an intellectual sense – as in the way we “know” the multiplication tables or some other fact. When we speak of knowing God, we mean a living relationship in which the Life of God becomes our life, just as He took human life to be His own when He became a man. Thus there is an inner awareness of the presence of God, even though we may not always be able to put this awareness into words. We are aware of Him and aware of His will in our lives, of His work in our lives, and of our union with Him in all that we think, say or do. We are also aware that we frequently violate this relationship and damage our living communion with God. But God has promised that He will never leave us or forsake us or reject us for our failings. Thus when we fail, we turn back to God and ask His forgiveness and for His healing of the damage we have done to ourselves and our relationship with Him.
There is a place where this relationship with God is lived: the Church.
And here, in speaking of the Church, we mean more than the Church building or its services (though these are very important). The kind of life Christ introduces us to is one that is lived not only in relationship with God, but also in relationship with other people who believe in Him. It is fairly common, particularly in our modern world, to view our lives as an individual matter. We speak in very glowing terms about individual rights, and our ability as individuals to be free and to make our own choices and decisions. These things are true to a certain extent, but in another way can also be deeply misleading.
It is the understanding of the Church that human beings were not created to live as individuals. Indeed the entire idea of individualism is a fairly modern concept. It is obvious that none of us came into existence through our own free choice. Someone else is the cause of our existence. Neither do we choose many of the most important aspects of our existence: our race, our language, our family, our position within society, and many (indeed virtually all) other aspects as well. It is true that we are unique, and God treasures that uniqueness. In the Church we refer to this uniqueness as person. But to be a person is more than being an individual. In the understanding of the Church, to be a person is to be someone who is both unique, but also uniquely living in relationship with God and with other persons. The Church also understands that these relationships are the very truth of our existence. If we did not have these relationships or if those relationships were severely damaged, our own existence as a person would be endangered.
We believe that Christ not only came to give us a living relationship (communion) with God, but also to give us living relationships with other human beings. All of these relationships together are the Church (God and man). Thus the Scripture sometimes uses the image of the Church as a “body,” with Christ being the “head” and humanity being the remaining parts of the body. This is a very strong image of our relationship with God and others. If a hand is cut off from a body, it will die. The parts of our body continue to live and be healthy only so long as they remain in relationship with the rest of the parts of the body. We cannot live without each other.
Thus, to be a member of the Church does not mean that we are members in the sense that someone can be a “member” of a club. Rather, it means that we are members in the sense that a hand or foot is a member of a body. We share a common life – the Life of God. The heart of this common life can be summed up in a single word: love. Read how St. John describes this common life:
Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him (1 John 4:7-16).
September 24, 2007
No matter how we may think about catechesis (our Christian learning) we always have to begin with God. All that we say or do as Christians relates to God and what we know of Him.
Oddly, though, the first thing we must say about God is that He cannot be known (with the reminder that Fr. Thomas Hopko says, “But you have to know Him to know that.”) This is extremely important in any beginning understanding of the Orthodox faith and what it has to say about God.
It is certainly true the ancient philosophers (as well as modern philosophers) posited ideas about God – even that there was one God. They posited (at least some of them) that God was all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good, etc. But these are only ideas about God and are never the place we begin as Orthodox Christians. God cannot and could not be known through the rational efforts of man.
There is something of God that can be known, or inferred, from the things that exist. Classically, this is known as natural theology. For some, just looking at the world around them tells them that there is a creator. But it is hard to say more than that, or even to say what sort of being (thing?) the creator is.
For us as Christians, our knowledge of God does not even begin with reading the Old Testament. There is a certain knowledge of God given to the people of Israel within those writings, and within their historical experience, but this is not the place where we begin as Christians. We believe that what is seen and known of God in the Old Testament writings is not perfectly clear, nor can it be read alone and thus reach proper conclusions.
As Christians, the place we begin is with the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
Although this may seem to be beginning in the middle – it is precisely where we begin if we are to know God. The most essential claim of Orthodox Christianity is that God became man and dwelled among us. Thus Christ is the revelation to man of who God is, of how God is, and of everything there is to know in our relationship with God. He is also the key to understanding the Old Testament, as He Himself said (St. John 5:39-40). Speaking to the religious rulers of Israel during his ministry, Christ said:
You search the scriptures [the writings known today as the Old Testament], because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.
Thus the wonder of Christ is that He made known to us the God who could not be known. He is the revelation of the only true God. Our method of understanding in this small teaching will be to follow this same pattern. We will begin with Christ and from Him will look at the various aspects of our life and faith as Orthodox Christians.
September 21, 2007
I have served eight-and-a-half years as an Orthodox priest – pretty continuously in an American mission setting. I have used everything in English I can get my hands on for catechesis – introducing inquirers and catechumens to the Orthodox faith. Many books, such as Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Church, and Fr. Thomas Hopko’s The Orthodox Faith, will always be indispensable. And yet, I am always looking for something more. Sometimes I am looking for something more because nothing currently written says some things that I find need to be said to inquirers and catechumens – at least in my situation. I am increasingly finding the need to take people back to something like ground zero – to erase previous assumptions. The foundations laid in other traditions simply will not work in building an Orthodox structure. Even the word “God,” frequently has to be redefined, if not always.
I am also thinking about Orthodox Christians who, though not converts to the faith, have never been taught the faith (there are many who were born so in America, and many more who have migrated here from elsewhere). They need a very basic introduction to the faith on many levels. We cannot assume a knowledge of Scripture or even of very much Tradition.
My purpose and plan is to work on this project as I have time and to post it in progress as a blog. Comments are more than welcome and will, doubtless, prove helpful. I cannot promise speed. My life stays pretty full – but the need seems worth spending time on, along and along. Thank you for your patience and your help.