Church History is Family History

I was asked on another blog how much the Orthodox know about Church history. When I first read the question, my reaction was to say that the Orthodox are extremely well versed in Church history and that it plays an important part in the life of our Church. But, upon reflection I decided that this is not a fully accurate description.

The typical Orthodox believer knows significantly more about the Theotokos and all the Saints of the Church than any other grouping of Christians tends to know about their group. But, that does not mean that the Orthodox know Church history per se. When I think of knowing Church history, I think of having a structured dispassionate overview of various major events, how they connect to other major events, and some of the personages involved. But, that is a different way than the way in which we know the Theotokos and all the Saints.

Many of those who are Orthodox from childhood would know as little about Western Church history as the typical American Christian knows about Eastern Church history. And, many Orthodox would not be able to give you a summary of Church history in any type of organized fashion. But, the typical Orthodox would have fixed in his or her mind many vignettes about many Saints. Moreover, the typical Orthodox would be able to give you a rough overview of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Church and of Pascha (Easter). And, they would be able to speak to you about Our Lord and His salvation, how to worship, how to pray, and how to live their lives in the fear of God and with faith and hope. But, not in an organized systematic historical fashion.

Rather, they would know Church history in the same way that most people know their family’s history. Most people can tell you many vignettes about Aunt Sophie or crazy Uncle Harry or Grandma Mary or Great-Grampa Vladimir or about Cousin Jeff and the time that he fell from his bicycle and broke his arm. Most people could place every one of their relatives in a rough time-line and tell you funny or sad or happy or angry tales about their family. They could even make some of the connections between the different figures in the family, but there would be much that they would not know. But, they know what they need to know in order to feel connected to their relatives and to have a sense of where they and their relatives fit into the family.

This is the way in which most Orthodox know the Theotokos and all the Saints. We hear about them all the time, but generally only the important events of their life. We ask them to intercede for us. Every Sunday, several of the troparia tell us of the Resurrection and something about the events of that Sunday and of the Saints that are celebrated that Sunday. We know them as family. We know their vignettes, the important point in their lives, have a rough idea of the timeline in which they fit, and how we are related to them. That is, we know what we need to know in order to feel connected to the relatives and to have a sense of how we fit into the family.

I cannot in any way imagine an Orthodoxy devoid of these connections. It would no longer be Orthodoxy. Part of what has enabled Orthodoxy to survive wars, invasions, a militant Islam, communism, etc., has been precisely those connections. We know our family history. We know the major members of our family. We know why they are important. We know how we fit into the family. I am in no way diminishing the role of the Holy Spirit in preserving the Church. But, His job is significantly easier and more certain when the family connections are in place. It is not Church history; it is holy family history.

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