Recently I had a fascinating conversation with a childhood friend of mine who is an atheist. He asked me, “What is the core essence of Orthodox Christianity?” and “Why do you live and pray the way you do? Why does this stuff matter to you?”
Here is my reflection after our encounter.
The Heart of the Faith
How does one begin to try to truly understand what Orthodox Christianity is, let alone describe the faith and life of the Church to someone else? There are so many things Orthodoxy is often said to be that it is not, so many absurd or dark caricatures or reductions, but if a non-Christian is to glimpse at its core, to peek at its essence, more than anything else it is a love story. In fact, Christianity remains the most enduring love story of the ages. It is the story of ἀγάπη (agape), the reciprocal, mutual love between the Triune God and mankind, and the love between the eternal Persons of the Trinity, of the life and love within God Himself, and His love outpouring to and for Man.
Orthodox Christianity is both a visible and an incorporeal, spiritual communion of love. On earth, we can point tangibly to the ‘ecclesial communion’ of the Church’s bishops and the laity in communion with one another and partaking of a common Eucharistic life together, but in terms of the theandric qualities that bind and characterize the Church in heaven and on earth—the things of God and of men—the Church is a living communion in this world and the next which is sustained and deepened by blood.
Whose blood constitutes the life of the Church? The blood of the Lord Jesus Himself, shed for mankind’s ultimate reconciliation to that life which the Father always intended us to live in Him. It is also the blood of millions of martyrs over the centuries who have spent themselves and shed their blood out of love for Christ when pressured or ordered to forsake Him. This blood of the martyrs—the sign and seal of a sacrifice so foreign and nonsensical to the secular world today, which ridicules the idea of dying for a belief—has watered the life-spring of the Church for centuries. It is the offering of countless men and women who—with their heroic embrace of the ultimate Cross and their lion-like faith—endured thousands of earthly tyrants and the scourging hatred of so many nonbelievers and haters of God, and, in doing so, overcame this world.
How can one begin to grasp at God’s love for mankind? It is a product or emanation, truly a reflection, of the absolute selflessness and radiant self-giving which the Persons of the Trinity hold in common in their eternal inner life. That God exists in a community of unity, and a unity of community in the Trinity is the inexhaustible mystery which to this day confounds all those who dare not accept it or begin to appreciate its beauty.
The Beauty of the Trinity
How is this eternal love of the Trinity borne out for mankind? We see it above all else in the life, ministry, suffering and death of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. In the moment of the Incarnation, the Lord God and Father of the ages condescends to allow His eternal Logos, His Word, to enter into His own creation as Man, calling humanity up and back to the ancient divine hope and glorious, pre-lapsarian design for us before the Fall.
The Incarnation—literally, the “coming into the flesh” of Jesus the Christ, makes a spiritual and historical reality the depth of God’s love for mankind, and shows and manifests His hope that we become—in everything save our nature as created beings—just as He the Lord is, in perfect and eternal union with Him.
Then, in the moment of the Crucifixion, Jesus the Christ—God the Son, He who is both God and Man—freely sacrifices Himself for us out of that same ineffable love. This is the love which raises us up to the promise of an undying death, an eternal life which renders bodily death only a passing stage or transition. We in turn here on earth are called and blessed by the Church—as She has taught for centuries—to give endless sacrifice to the Lord of our outpoured love for Him and for each other through prayer, repentance, fasting, the loving doing of charitable and good works and making all of our love a Mystery or sacramental reality by which we participate ever more deeply in an ongoing, beautiful offering of our talents and labors to God on behalf of our families and loved ones.
The Lover of Mankind
Orthodoxy Christianity is thus, at its very foundations a love story, and we hymn Christ as the dearest friend and the Lover of Mankind (He is “O Philanthropos“, with ‘philia’ meaning the deepest, loving kind of friendship) and the Prince of Peace, whose sacrifice conquered Death. In fact, that we call Christ the ‘God-Man’ (“O Theanthropos”) is inextricably linked to our being able to call Him the Lover of Mankind. He so loved mankind that He became incarnate, remaining fully God while also taking on fully our humanity. What does it mean for us that ours is a God who we believe—and, more deeply, know—conquered Death itself? It means that in all things we are to remember that our Lord is one who, above all other things, loves each one of us with the deepest, incomprehensible yet all-consuming love, and that He willingly suffered death for our sake out of this love.
This is why one of the most common Greek abbreviations which adorns all our icons and churches is “IC XC NI KA”—”Jesus Christ Victor”. Thus, for the Orthodox Christian, love itself becomes not mere emotional sentiment or the animus behind a contractual partnership, or simply a vehicle for a shared, common life between two people, but the highest actor and noblest force in the world of Man. This is why the Church so highly praises and blesses both marriage and monasticism, two different kinds of communities of self-giving, sacrificial love, and views them as Mysteries which convey soul-healing, fortifying and real, divine grace.
For the Christian, the highest way we can relate to each other is thus through living and showing the deepest spiritual love (agape). Love itself conquers all because Christ, the Conqueror of death, is the all-loving One, and because God in Trinity relates to His creation as a loving Father does to his beloved children. Thus, as the Church has taught since Her very inception on earth, the chief way human beings are to relate to each other is by and through love.
It is because of these things that we can and must say that Christianity is the highest ontological view of mankind, for no other faith or belief system prioritizes that God’s core relational emotive force, will, or feeling toward mankind is that of love. No other system claims that God Himself deigned to participate directly in His creation and take on the fullness of the summit *and* the vulnerability of His own creation, the core essence of man, in order to redeem man from the ancient power of death.
In our daily spiritual struggles, it is a tremendous comfort and consolation to remember that God the Father sent His Son to live and die for us, but also to be a warrior, to conquer hell by fooling the Evil One into accepting the undying, immortal God past his gates. May we remember this always, and in all our trials, challenges, and sufferings remember that Christ fights with us in these trials and suffers alongside us. Let us strive to treat every single moment, and especially every encounter with another person, as a priceless opportunity to live, incarnate, and show Christ’s love to those around us, that through our words and actions we may manifest Him to the world.
Saint Ephraim the Syrian here expounds on this theme of Christ the conqueror of death (which is also the name of a beautiful akathist hymn):
Death trampled our Lord underfoot, but he in his turn treated death as a highroad for his own feet. He submitted to it, enduring it willingly, because by this means he would be able to destroy death in spite of itself. Death had its own way when our Lord went out from Jerusalem carrying his cross; but when by a loud cry from that cross he summoned the dead from the underworld, death was powerless to prevent it.
Death slew him by means of the body which he had assumed, but that same body proved to be the weapon with which he conquered death. Concealed beneath the cloak of his manhood, his godhead engaged death in combat; but in slaying our Lord, death itself was slain. It was able to kill natural human life, but was itself killed by the life that is above the nature of man.
Death could not devour our Lord unless he possessed a body, neither could hell swallow him up unless he bore our flesh; and so he came in search of a chariot in which to ride to the underworld. This chariot was the body which he received from the Virgin; in it he invaded death’s fortress, broke open its strong-room and scattered all its treasure…
… He who was also the carpenter’s glorious son set up his cross above death’s all-consuming jaws, and led the human race into the dwelling place of life. Since a tree had brought about the downfall of mankind, it was upon a tree that mankind crossed over to the realm of life. . .
. . .We give glory to Thee, Lord, who raised up Thy cross to span the jaws of death like a bridge by which souls might pass from the region of the dead to the land of the living. We give glory to Thee who put on the body of a single mortal man and made it the source of life for every other mortal man. Thou are incontestably alive. . .
. . . Come then, my brothers and sisters, let us offer our Lord the great and all-embracing sacrifice of our love, pouring out our treasury of hymns and prayers before Him who offered His cross in sacrifice to God the Father for the enrichment of us all.
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