Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Love, respect, and awe

All Saints Orthodox Church, Bellis, Alberta
When I set foot in an Orthodox church for the first time probably as a young man of about 22 or 23 years, it was a small, rustic country church in the Ukrainian village of Bellis – ‘White Woods’ – Alberta, and I was overcome at first by the utter simplicity of the house of God itself. Then, the service began, and from behind an ikonostasis made of white-painted garden trellis a deep voice chanted in a Slavic tongue that reminded me of my native Polish, and a sweet fragrance and clouds of smoke emanated from there as well.

Holy Gospel Book
As the service continued, my earthly eyes saw many things that were strange, though beautiful. At one point the priest emerged with two covered golden vessels and walked carefully through the small crowd of farmers and their families kneeling with heads deeply bowed or down on the floor. As he passed through them, he seemed to hover the cups over each of their heads, and he looked at them with love, respect, and awe, as if to say by his actions, ‘these are the people for whom Christ died.’ Throughout the rest of the service, that was what struck me the most—love, respect, and awe—not just for God, but for one another. This was before I had even come to that point where I was ready to follow Jesus. To me up till now Christianity had been nothing more than a religious exercise with little meaning. I remember thinking to myself, ‘If Christ is real, and if Christianity is true, this has to be it.’

Fr Elias
At the age of 24 years, I ‘accepted’ Christ, or rather, accepted His will for me, and promised to follow Him. At the age of 37 years, I ‘returned’ to the Orthodox Church. Returned? What is that supposed to mean? Well, that's what Fr Elías said to the congregation by way of introducing us on the morning we were chrismated. He said we had struggled hard to get back here. I never forgot his words.

What was I doing between the ages of 24 and 37 years?
Well, let's just say that I was a catechumen for 13 years. Actually, right from the beginning I believed myself to be an Orthodox Christian, identifying with that radiant cluster of Christians I had seen worshipping the living Christ in the village of Bellis, and I hadn't yet grasped that Orthodox Christians belong in the Orthodox Church. I thought the Episcopal church was as close to Orthodoxy as I could get. After all, there were even Greeks going there (at my first parish, Good Samaritan, in Corvallis, Oregon). So the Lord was patient with me. He didn't mind waiting 13 years for me to gradually come to my senses.

But back to the topic.
What I experienced when encountering Orthodoxy for the first time was not a ‘one time’ event. The same thing hit me when I entered the Greek church of Aghía Triás (now my family church) for the first time, an incredible sense of mercy, experienced as—love, respect, and awe—not just for God, but for one another. This initial impression became the foundation of what Orthodoxy essentially means to me.

After being joined to the Church, and growing up in it, as it were, I came to realize what everyone does who becomes an Orthodox Christian—it cannot be learned from books: only in living the life can it be truly comprehended in all its mystery. Theology is a practical science. A trinitarian God may be incomprehensible to the mind, but He can be experienced and understood by the heart of one who lives in the Body of Christ. It is because Christ is in our midst that the Holy Triad also is. Praying for the Church, Jesus says,

May they all be one, Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me. I have given them the glory you gave to me, that they may be one as we are one. With me in them and you in me, may they be so completely one that the world will realise that it was you who sent me and that I have loved them as much as you loved me.
John 17:21-23 Jerusalem Bible

Veneration of an ikon, by kissing the picture, is a testimony of one's faith.
Sometimes brethren who are not Orthodox are surprised, even put off, by the kind of love and respect that we show not only to God and the saints of old by venerating (bowing towards and kissing) their ikons and the book of the Holy Scriptures, but also by the fact that we bow down in front of, embrace and kiss one another. Sometimes, even our language seems ‘a bit too much’ for them, as we address the saints that have gone before, as well as the ones that are living now in words and gestures that seem ‘over the top.’ Why are you doing that? Don't you know that only One is worthy of worship, only One is Lord? Well, yes, we do. We are not doing to them and to each other what can be offered to God alone, no, we're really not. But what we are doing, loving one another in Christ, and loving Christ in one another, accounting all that Christ has redeemed by His precious Blood to be worthy, everyone and everything worthy, is the preparation for, and the proof of, our divine worship.

The relationship that the brethren share in the Body of Christ with one another is in fact and must be the primary qualification of the Church. This is what we learn from overhearing the high-priestly prayer of Christ recorded in the 17th chapter of the gospel according to John. How we are to treat one another with love, respect and awe is found throughout all the apostolic writings of the New Testament, but particularly in the first letter of the evangelist John. Yet, even in the Old Testament we are taught how to love one another.

We read of Jonathan entering into a covenant with David (1 Samuel 18:1-8). This is a prophetic image of what relationship should be like in the body of Christ. ‘Jonathan's soul was knit to the soul of David.’ The word for ‘knit’ (נקשרה, niksheráh, ‘was knit’) is the same root word (קשר) used in Nehemiah 4:6, which describes the wall of Jerusalem being built (ותקשר, vatikashér, ‘was joined’) so there were no gaps in it. Jonathan's heart was knit with David's without a gap—no space between their hearts for the enemy to come through. Jonathan loved David as himself. This is our calling in the body of Christ too, ‘that they may be one as we are one,’ such that there is no gap between us of misunderstanding, jealousy, or suspicion through which satan can slip to divide us.

Jonathan made a covenant with David and, as a symbol, removed his royal robe and placed it on David. This act symbolized Jonathan's desire to die to himself as the next king of Israel and to make David king. The holy apostle Paul writes, ‘Love each other as much as brothers should, and have a profound respect for each other’ (Romans 12:10 JB). We are to die to ourselves and sincerely long that our brothers will be regarded as greater and higher than ourselves—we even take our "robe," if necessary, to cover a brother's nakedness, wherever it is seen. Thus can we make our brothers glorious in the eyes of others. This is the kind of relationship we should have with one another in the body of Christ.

If we can have this kind of relationship, by all means we must.
Love, respect, and awe—because Christ is in our midst.

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