Monday, April 17, 2017

The Rhythm of Salvation (Why I Am Orthodox, part 2)

This Bright Monday marks one year since my chrismation and entrance into communion with the Orthodox Church. I finally got to experience the Church's Paschal (Easter) services in full, and they were everything I had hoped and so much more (more on that later). On Holy Saturday I got to witness and photograph the baptism and chrismation (respectively) of two of my friends in the parish. In the past year I have grown in love for God and his Church; I have started teaching Sunday school again (where I'm probably learning more than most of my students); I've started building friendships that I hope will bear fruit for many years to come. I've never been happier to say: Christ is risen! Glorify him!

Two related things I love about my church have risen to the surface in the last year; neither was a significant motivator during my conversion (which was initially driven by doctrine) simply because they have only become clear as I've gotten more integrated into my parish. Consider this an addendum to my post from last January on why I am Orthodox.

Orthodoxy gives me something to do

I should clarify. Evangelical churches like my old one certainly give you plenty to do: worship services and Bible studies to attend, worthy causes to volunteer for or donate to, inspirational books to read or talks to listen to. But there is a very real sense, which is intentionally reinforced through the prevailing teaching, that these things don't matter. Good works serve only as manifested evidence of our salvation, the total inner transformation wrought in us by conversion to Christ, without contributing to it in any way. Avoiding "works-righteousness", the sin which lurks in everyone's heart of trying to earn one's freely-given salvation, is a constant concern. And for fear of people just "going through the motions" of the Christian life while lacking the heartfelt, authentic faith which alone saves, prescriptions of what this life "should" look like are generally kept vague, more adjective than verb or noun, to be worked out between the individual believer and God.

Compared to this, Orthodox spirituality (never more so than during Great Lent) feels distinctly concrete. There are numerous things that we are expected, more or less strongly, to do as we prepare to celebrate the Lord's Pascha. We fast, at a minimum from meat, eggs, and dairy, to train ourselves to master our desires and deny ourselves (Mat 9:15, Rom 13:14). We confess our sins to Christ with a priest as witness and advocate, that we might receive forgiveness and be healed (Jas 5:16). We regularly say prayers (especially the Prayer of St. Ephraim) and read spiritual writings (patristic or modern) to train ourselves in godliness (1 Cor 9:24-27). And perhaps most of all, we attend the services and observances of the Church, journeying through Lent together (more on this in a bit). There are definite ways set out before us in which to grow in obedience to the Lord, and not just as individuals but as the body of Christ. I find this to be a great aid.

Yet in all of this I am not seeking to "earn" anything, or prove anything. The services and practices of the Church invite us to strive for holiness in a thoroughly orthodox, not Pelagian way, following the example of St. Paul among many, many others in the ascetic tradition. We are working not as the authors of our own salvation, but to be open recipients of grace; there is no anxiety that everything depends on us. One piece of good news I found in Orthodoxy is that there is a definite place for effort, for my active participation in the Christian life, and I am increasingly getting to see what this looks like in practice.

The more I do them, the more I find that these practices are complementary, not detrimental, to the authentic, heartfelt expressions of faith I so valued as an evangelical. We are encouraged to add our own requests and intercessions when praying, and I actually find praying within such a framework easier than ad-libbing everything; for the first time I've started keeping a list of people I pray for daily (not being confused about whether prayer actually does anything also helps). Besides the actual sacrament of confession the prayers we say before and after Communion, humbly examining ourselves, confessing our unworthiness, and boldly asking for the grace that makes us worthy to partake in the very body and blood of the Lord, powerfully lead me toward reflection and repentance. This is because the relationship between the state of one's heart and one's actions is not strictly one-way after all. Actions teach us, change us; we learn by doing, not just as children but throughout life. In the book I just finished reading for Lent, St. Nicholas Cabasilas wrote that "It is by actions that the soul is disposed towards one habit or the other, so that men may partake of goodness or wickedness, just as in the case of crafts we acquire skills and learn them by becoming accustomed to their exercise." (The Life in Christ, 7.15)

The liturgical calendar

My appreciation of the liturgical and devotional practices of the Orthodox Church is inseparable from my love for the liturgical calendar. Fragments of it have persisted in popular American Christianity (Christmas, Good Friday and Easter, maybe some observance of Advent and Lent), but throughout the Orthodox church year we walk through virtually all of the events and episodes in the gospel accounts as if following after Christ. All of the Church's feasts and fasts are centered around and intended to lead us towards Great and Holy Pascha, the feast of the resurrection of the Lord, which we just celebrated yesterday morning. Orthodox view this singular event as the very foundation of the gospel, the ground and substance of our faith, the ultimate triumph of God over all the powers of darkness. It was absolutely worth staying up until 4 AM on Sunday morning, and I already can't wait to do it again next year.

Pascha comes as the culmination of a journey begun over two months earlier. The Lent cycle begins with several pre-Lent Sundays, usually in February, commemorating Zacchaeus (Luk 19:1-10), the publican and the pharisee (Luk 18:9-14), the prodigal son (Luk 15:11-32), the Last Judgment (Mat 25:31-26), and the expulsion from Eden; on this last Sunday we also seek forgiveness from all our neighbors before beginning the fast, in fulfillment of Mat 5:23-24. Each of these themes is intended to lead us toward reflection on our sin and repentance.

Then begins the Great Fast itself. The point of fasting is not to become proud or to satisfy some legalistic requirement (Mat 6:14-21, which is read at the start of Lent), but to lead us to repentance, to the cessation of sin and the beginning of holiness. In accordance with the character of Lent, the presanctified liturgies we hold during the week in place of the regular, joyous Divine Liturgy are instead penitential in character, and the vestments and candle coverings are changed to somber, darker colors. We say the aforementioned Prayer of St. Ephraim, ideally on a nightly basis. The Sundays during Lent continue to highlight themes of repentance, purification, and the pursuit of holiness as our goals during this seasons of preparation.

Great Lent technically ends on the Friday nine days before Pascha, through the fast continues until then as we enter Holy Week. Our devotional preparation for Pascha is most intense after Lent has ended, and we start following the last days of Christ's ministry in "real time": that Saturday is Lazarus Saturday (Jhn 11), followed by Palm Sunday (Jhn 12:12-19); each of the days of Holy Week has its own theme, based on gospel readings from Christ's last week. Unfortunately, my own observance of Holy Week was interrupted by illness this year, and I resumed attending on Holy Saturday. This is traditionally when catechumens are received into the church, just in time for Pascha, and so it was with my friends this year. The vesperal Divine Liturgy that morning includes 15 Old Testament readings, all of which look forward to Christ's resurrection as the summation of God's plan of creation and salvation. The resurrection is constantly in view during holy weekend; even on Holy Friday we commemorate the crucifixion of the Lord with hope, looking forward to his impending triumph. The victory has already begun; to signify this, the vestments and candle coverings are changed to pure white in the middle of the Saturday liturgy.
My church after Bridegroom Matins (as we await Christ's resurrection like the bridegroom coming in the night; Mat 25:6) on Holy Monday.
And then, finally, the triumph comes. As if unable to wait any longer, Orthodox begin celebrating Pascha at the stroke of midnight Sunday morning, if not even earlier. After finishing reading the Psalms and Acts of the Apostles over Christ's tomb, we sing the nocturne services in a darkened church, then leave the church and process around it three times, recalling the procession of just-baptized catechumenates to church. Then, at midnight, the priest announces the resurrection of the Lord from the church doors and we enter a church flooded with light. The bells are loudly rung in celebration, and we constantly greet each other with "Christ is risen!" "Indeed he is risen!" in various languages and sing the Paschal troparion: "Christ is risen from the dead/Trampling down death by death/And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!" It is the resurrection of Christ that gives us all our hope, joy, and life, and the whole church year seems focused on it, intended to direct us toward it and prepare us along the way.

I love how, through the liturgical calendar, we experience the gospel and the Christian faith, not just hear and believe them; as consisting in historical events, as story, not just doctrine. And not only the events of the gospels, but the outward rippling of the gospel through history, human lives, and the Church, a story still being written by the Spirit even to this day. (So we also commemorate events in the lives of the Theotokos and hundreds of other saints; the season of Advent becomes a sort of "mini-Lent" leading up to Christmas) There is a profound sense of continuity with the rest of salvation history, with our fathers and mothers who came before us in the faith, an unbroken chain back to the apostles. The unity of the liturgy is spatial as well as temporal; as we celebrate these same things together with Orthodox around the world, it feels as though the whole Church is striving, journeying together toward communion with the Lord. When I was home sick, unable to attend the Holy Thursday and Friday services, I more fully appreciated how communal our faith is: "And you [plural] are witnesses of these things." (Luk 24:48) And all of this in a single year, letting us revisit the readings, fasts and feasts of the church year repeatedly, each time as if for the first!

If I were asked if my church has a "statement of faith", I might point to the Nicene Creed, though obviously it presents the faith in a greatly distilled, propositional form. More accurately, the liturgical journey of the church year is our unabridged statement of faith, for "the rule of prayer is the rule of belief". For one curious to know what Orthodoxy is all about, explanations of doctrine have some benefit, but the best advice comes from the apostle Philip (Jhn 1:46): "Come and see."

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