Orthodox Christianity is not so much a religion as it is healing for the soul, the Church not so much a temple as it is a hospital for sinners. This is what has been handed over to us by the Fathers, to whom it was handed over by the Apostles, to whom Christ Himself handed it over. Religion, or rather what men have embraced as religion, is a sickness, and Christ is both the healer and the cure.
At the end of every orthros service we sing from Psalm 41:4, Ιασαι τήν ψυχήν μου ότι ήμαρτόν σοι, ‘Heal my soul, for I have sinned against You.’ Our approach to God is always to the Divine Nature as יְהוָה רָפָא Yahweh Repha (Exodus 15:26), ‘the LORD [our] Healer.’ Christ Himself is the physician of souls (Matthew 9:12). Even to this day, the pious among the Jews sing incessantly, ‘I want Mashíach,
I want Mashíach now!’ They too are sick; they too know that not religion, but only Christ, Mashíach, is the cure.
Yes, but Orthodoxy is still a religion. That is how it is experienced by most of its adherents. Indeed, Christianity in general is experienced as a religion. How and why is this possible?
To begin with, every people has a religion, and all religions begin as myths, that is, stories and traditions that convey truths without themselves being the Truth, providing some relief to the human condition, but never able to cure us. Even the people to whom the Divine Nature revealed Himself, taking up their myths and fulfilling them by signs and wonders, instituting the only divinely revealed religion, even the Law given to them as an incapable covenant, even that could not heal them. ‘If a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law’ (Galatians 3:21). Of course, this people is Israel, which now fills the world as Jews and as Christians.
Christianity is a religion because it is the co-heir with Judaism of that ‘only divinely revealed’ worship of ‘the Being’, in Greek ο Ων, ho Ón, in Hebrew יְהוָה, Yahweh. Into this religious heritage Jesus of Nazareth was born and raised, of this people He has been acclaimed Lord and Christ, proven by His resurrection from the dead and all that follows from it, and nothing that He did while He walked the earth as a Son of Israel ever refuted or denied this religion. Instead, everything He did fulfilled and perfected it.
Worship of the Father is no longer ceremonies alone, and it never was. The Only-Begotten Son of the Father had to come, in person, to settle once and for all every dispute among the children of Israel on this and all other points. Those who worship the Father must worship in spirit and in truth. And He is the Truth.
There is only One Israel, and yet there is the Church and the Synagogue. In the first, Christ is revealed, in the second, He is hidden. ‘Truly, God is hidden with you, the God of Israel, the Saviour’ (Isaiah 45:15). What tender and pitiful love the Messiah, the Christ of God, Jesus of Nazareth, must have for His people, to have suffered through the centuries hidden within them, as they have maintained their faithful watch over the holy things of God! How faithfully He has stood by them through their every persecution and suffering, even to the gates of She’ol, to near annihilation. He who prays, ‘Father, forgive them,’ has made good His prayer, becoming the Father’s answer, having emptied She’ol for all humanity, for all time, till the last human creature passes into the brightness of His mercy.
And what of the Church, the Bride of Christ, even His Body on earth, visible sign of His presence, home to fugitives and exiles of earth? This is the Israel of God, religion her mainstay, hemmed in by walls the world builds to protect itself from her, though she is its place of healing, and her food and drink its best medicine, no less than the Bread of heaven, and the Blood by which the whole universe was restored before it ever began. He has come and lives in her midst, who says, ‘It is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick.
I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners’ (Mark 2:17).
Knowing Him as He is, for who He is, and why He has come, the Church has more than mere opportunity, more than promises only, but possibility. Faith is fulfilled in obedience, sickness cured in love, slavery dissolved in faithfulness, and death, finally, overcome in mercy. ‘And there will be princes dancing there. All find their home in you’ (Psalm 87:7).