Orthodox Christianity is the last preserve of the ancient Christian faith in the world today, a snapshot of the Church from late Roman times, modified locally over the centuries but maintaining with a flexible conservatism the ethos, or environment, of early Christianity. Unlike sects that have tried to revive the apostolic faith on the basis of their reading of scripture, which has produced dozens (maybe hundreds) of variations over the past five centuries, Orthodoxy is remarkably uniform, even when liturgically seeming quite diverse. What unites the joyous yet solemn worship of the Ethiopians and the solemn yet joyous worship of the Russians is the quality of merciful love, a childlike trust, not only in God but in each other, and a subtle retreat from divisiveness. These people want to stay together so badly that they—I should say we—will put up with almost anything to fulfill the high-priestly prayer of Christ to the Father ‘that they all will be one, even as you and I are one.’ Though one encounters pockets, even strongholds, of intensely fundamentalist mentality, as well as spiritual scuffles and even battles from time to time and in various places, the mainstream of Orthodox Christianity flows smoothly, quietly, reflectively, and, best of all, dependably, from age to age.
These characteristics have been called both the strength and the weakness of Orthodoxy. In reality, what the Holy Church is cannot be weighed in the scales of human judgment any more than what Christ is. She is the Bride, and He the Bridegroom.
For the first three evenings of Holy Week, we celebrate Christ the Bridegroom, as we have done for centuries, in the wedding pavilion of the Lamb which Holy Church has erected and into which she invites us. There we behold the holy prophet Joseph the all-comely who, by his blameless life and senseless betrayal and sale into slavery by his own brothers, foreshadows Jesus the Messiah. And the wise and foolish virgins too are there, and we are shown the choices we make to be momentous. They matter, and we matter, but the Son of God cannot do for us what only we can do for ourselves, that is, make sure we have plenty of oil for our lamps, so that they will continue to shine brightly to the end. Our faith is not magic, nor is it like a machine that can be set to run on automatic. Like the material universe in which we find ourselves, everything erodes and must be maintained, on purpose, or else not. This is our part in the synergic relationship each one of us shares with the Creator. Not just the first Adam, but even the Second, even us, He places in the Garden, to tend it. Though the Garden may have been overrun with weeds, if we are diligent, and if we follow the Gardener and do what we see Him doing, it is revealed to be Paradise.