|To the Arrowhead Interfaith Conference in Duluth, MN: The Orthodox Christian Faith, A Summary - November 15, 2007|
My assignment is to attempt a synopsis of the Orthodox Christian Faith; and then to explain how our theology guides our engagement of the world and more specifically, our engagement of non-Orthodox Christians and those of other religious faiths.
The First Church
Imbedded in the writings attributed to St Clement, Bishop of Rome at the end of the 1st Century AD, is a sermon of some unknown hierarch in which we find reference to the early Christian understanding of the Church:
“If we do the will of God our Father we will belong to the first Church, the spiritual one, which was created before the sun and moon…. The Books and the Apostles declare that the Church not only exists now, but has been in existence from the beginning. For she was spiritual, as was also our Jesus, but was revealed in the last days in order that she might save us.”
To say that she was spiritual, as was also our Lord Jesus, isn’t to say she was immaterial. It’s to say that she was of the Spirit and that her life is not the “fruit” of the body’s “living fluids” but it is of the Holy Spirit of God. Following the lead of this sermon, we turn to Genesis 1 in the hope of finding this “Church” that was from the beginning and that was created before sun and moon, to which this unknown preacher refers. In Gen 1:3, we find the Word of God saying, “Let there be light, and there was light.” This light is the very first thing God creates. It is created on the first day of creation. It is created before sun and moon, which were not created until the fourth day. What’s fascinating is that God causes the plants to grow on the third day. Plants need light to grow; but sun and moon have not been created yet. The light in which the plants of the field are growing is this light that God created on the first day, before sun and moon. I believe there is good reason to believe that our unknown preacher in 2 Clement is referring to this light as the Church that was in existence from the beginning. In this light, God proceeds to create and organize his world. In this light, things are alive and grow. Already there is movement, what we would call time. But this primordial movement of “time” is not measured by the movements of sun and moon – they’ve not been created yet – but by the movements, as I will explain in a moment, of this light.
One can see in the Genesis account how this light is “called” into being by the Word of God, who, as it were, “calls it out” from the darkness. The Greek word that we translate as “Church” is ekklesia: “to be called out from.” Perhaps we begin now to see why the Orthodox Faithful feel intuitively that the Orthodox Church is not an ordinary religious community. The Orthodox Church is this primordial light of creation called out from the darkness of the void. The Church, then, did not begin to exist with the coming of Jesus, the Word of God made flesh – because it has been in existence from the beginning, from the First Day – but in these last days was revealed with the coming of Jesus as the primordial light of creation that saves us by calling us out of the darkness of the abyss and into the light of God.
The Holy Scriptures say that God clothes himself with light as with a garment. St Paul calls the Church the body of Christ, the fullness of Him who is all in all (Eph 1:21). In antiquity, garment is a metaphor for body. Now, there is the “uncreated light” of God that emanates from his essence. This, obviously, would not be the light that came into being by the call of the Word of God on the First Day of creation. We need help to understand how the light with which God clothes himself as with a garment might be related to the primordial light of creation.
Sun and Moon
Origen of Alexandria, in the 3rd Century of Our Lord, I believe is drawing from the imagery of the Church’s hymnody when he takes the sun as an icon of Christ and the moon as an icon of the Church. For, in the hymnody of the Church, we speak of Christ our God as the Sun of Righteousness. The imagery of sun and moon unites the imagery of light with another image used to describe the relationship of the Church to God: that of the Church as the bride of God. Sun and moon in the religions of the Ancient Near East are quintessentially images of the god as bridegroom and the goddess as the bride in the cult of the “sacred marriage”. In the prophets, the bride of God is not some Goddess but Israel. In the New Testament, the bride of God is the Church, the new Israel. The significance of this is given when it is seen against the backdrop of the religious imagery of ancient pagan religion. For pagan religion, the movements of life and of time are measured by the movements of sun and moon. For the ancients, those movements are living movements because they are rooted in the nuptial union of sun and moon, or god and goddess, in the rites of the “sacred marriage.” From that union, the earth and the heavens and all the children of the earth are born.
I am referring to the symbology of antiquity as a way of helping me provide for you a synopsis of Orthodox Christian Theology. The Church as the body of Christ is the primordial light of creation with which God the Word, the Sun of Righteousness, who clothes himself in the uncreated light of his divinity, clothes himself in his many empirical manifestations as recorded in the Holy Scriptures. He is empirically manifested in the Word he speaks to the patriarchs. This is the same Word by which the heavens and the earth were created. He is empirically manifest in the Word of the Mosaic Law, and in the Word of the prophets. Finally, he is empirically manifest in the Incarnation, in which he received from the Holy Virgin Mary Theotokos (Birthgiver of God) the substance of our humanity and became flesh and dwelt among us. His incarnation in the flesh continues in his Holy Church, the Orthodox Church. In the final Incarnation, when the Word of God becomes flesh and dwells among us, there is a “nuptial union” of Christ God with his bride, the Church. There is a union of uncreated light with the created light; of the Sun of Righteousness with the Moon of the Church, the light that was called into being from out of the darkness on the First Day. This union is manifested before the three disciples on Mt Tabor, when his face shone like the sun (He is the Sun of Righteousness) and his garments(symbol of his body) became white as light (like the moon, symbol of the Church).
Let us now return to Gen 1:3 to look again at the mystery of the first days of Creation. We see on the Second Day the waters above and below being separated, moving, at the command of the Word of God in the light that was called into being from out of the darkness on the First Day. We see plants on the Third Day coming to life and growing at the command of the Word of God in the light that was called into being from out of the darkness on the First Day. We see now a movement of time whose movements are measured by lights that are deeper than, more primordial than, the time whose movement is measured by the movements of sun and moon. We see a living time whose movements are measured by the movements of that light that was called into being from out of the darkness on the First Day – the Church, the ekklesia, the body of Christ, the light of creation with which the Lord of all, in the Uncreated Light that surrounds him, clothes himself in a nuptial union of Light with light – a union infinitely higher, infinitely deeper than the “sacred marriage” of antiquity that was a union of the male and female “psychic” fluids of the belly. The theological Tradition of the Orthodox Church has called it from early on the Spiritual Marriage of Christ and his Church, a union of the “psychic” fluids of the cosmic “god” and “goddess” (creation) with the “living waters” of God’s Holy Spirit. From the union of Christ and his Church, children are born. They are born “from above” (anwqen). In other words, they are not born from out of the “psychic” union of sun and moon, not out of the biological, psychic life of the belly (represented by the Tree of Good and Evil); but from the union of the uncreated Sun of Righteousness with the primordial light of creation that was before sun and moon, the Church that was called into being from out of the darkness of the abyss. This life of the Church is hidden beneath the movements of sun and moon. It is made manifest in the liturgical worship of the Church, in the structure of her liturgical feasts, which mark the movement of a time that is marked by the movements of the Sun and Moon that were before the sun and moon; Christ the Sun of Righteousness, and the Church, the primordial light of creation that was called into being from out of the darkness on the First Day, before sun and moon – in a movement of nuptial union that brings forth not children of this worldly time marked by the movements of sun and moon, but children of God, raised up into the life that is illumined in the union of Light with light in the mystery of the Spiritual marriage of Christ and his holy Church.
Baptism the Gate
The gate by which one enters “beneath” the movement of time marked by the movements of sun and moon is the Cross of Christ. One ascends the Cross in Holy Baptism (called the “womb of the Church” – uterus ecclesiae). Descending into the waters of the font, one dies to the emptiness and barrenness of the life that is produced from out of the movements of sun and moon, and one is raised up into the Spiritual Life of the uncreated Sun of Righteousness with the primordial light of his bride, the Church, as a child of God. Through holy baptism, one is incorporated into the Church, the body of Christ, by dying in Christ to the life of the world in order to “pass over” to the primordial life that is the fruit of the union of God the Word with his bride, the Church. Immediately after one is brought up from the baptismal waters, one is clothed in a white garment called the “robe of light.” Following the sacrament of Chrismation, the newly “illumined” one takes his first steps in the new life of the Church. He walks around the baptismal font three times. To “walk” in the bible can also mean “to live.” The baptismal font is the “font of illumination.” Walking around the font three times is symbolic of walking in the Light as he is in the Light, for one is walking in the Name – or in the very being, the uncreated light – of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In the Church, one has died to the aeon, the life, of this world that is animated by the spirit of disobedience (Eph 2:2), and one has been born to that life that is made light in the love of Christ and his holy Church.
In Holy Scriptures, the Lord’s commandments are said to be a light upon the earth. They illumine the path that leads away from the Serpent’s Tree to the Tree of Life. All of this is highly suggestive that the Church is the light that gives life and light to the creation, and that the commandments of Christ, the Lord (or Husband) of the Church are the “structure” of that light in which creation was “called” to life; so that by keeping the commandments of Our Lord Jesus Christ, we are walking in the light and living the original life of creation, the life of God’s Holy Spirit. This is why the light and life of the Church are “spiritual.” Her life is the Spirit of the Word of God who was in the beginning, who was “embodied” in the Word of the Mosaic Law, then in the Word of the prophets, and finally, in these last days, in the flesh, born of the Holy Virgin Theotokos (Birthgiver of God).
How We Engage The World
On the foundation of this very cursory synopsis of the Orthodox Christian Faith, we can address the question, how our theological vision guides us in our engagement of non-Orthodox Christians.
We ascend the Cross with Christ. That’s what it means to ‘marry’ Christ as his bride. It means to ascend the Cross with him, to die with him to the greed and enmity of this life. The Cross is the Tree of Life. In the Syriac Tradition – which has made its way into the liturgical texts – Eden is a mountain, and the Tree of Life is at the top of the mountain. When we ascend the Cross with Christ, we are elevated above the world. We are looking down on the world, not in the sense of disdaining the world, but in the sense of having been raised up and out of its warring factions. We no longer belong to this group that is opposite that group. We belong to Christ, who having died in the flesh to the world, has destroyed the wall of enmity that separates us from God and from our fellow man. Up on the Cross, we are dying to greed and to enmity. Up on the Cross, we partake no longer of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (the life of this world that is the fruit of the belly), but we partake of the fruit of the Tree of Life (the life of the heart that is the fruit of the living waters of the Holy Spirit). We die to hatred and anger and we are born to the mercy and love of the Holy Spirit in which we are able to love our enemy, to do good to those who hate us – for we do not live for the things of this world. We live for the things of the Spirit, and in the Spirit of Christ, we offer our living and our dying to the Father as a prayer of intercession “on behalf of all and for all.”