What Is Distinctive About Our Tradition?
As Eastern Christians we have a particular style of Christian living all our own. We especially stress:
- A belief in our call to be divinized
- Union with God through the Holy Mysteries
- A “public” life of worship, fellowship and service
- A “secret” life of prayer, fasting and sharing
- The need for spiritual warfare.
Our most important belief is that we are called “to become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Not just to be saved from sin. We see ourselves as invited to live the very life of God, to become intimately related to God, to be physically united to Christ and to have the Holy Spirit dwell within us. The Church Fathers saw this as the reason for Christ’s coming: God became man so that man might become God (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation).
This relationship comes about when we receive in faith the Holy Mysteries (what western Churches call sacraments). In Baptism we are made one with Christ as we reenact His burial and resurrection. This reliving takes place when we are buried (immersed) into the water and are raised from it. We immediately receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The first of God’s gifts (Romans 8:23) in Chrismation (Confirmation). In receiving the Eucharist, we recognize that our mortal bodies are united to the Body and Blood of Christ as a token of the life to come, when they shall be united to Him in glory forever. Thus we see these Mysteries not merely as pious devotions, but as encounters with God, actually producing the effects they symbolize.
Communal and Private Dimensions
As members of God’s family, we belong to one another, and so we live an active Community Life as Church. Most importantly, we join one another in worship. Our style of worship in the Eastern Churches reflects the presence of the risen Christ among us in glory and joy. All the senses take part in our worship to express this glory. We see icons, vestments, candles; we smell incense and perfumes; we hear continual singing; we taste blessed foods and use physical gestures such as bowing, prostrating and crossing ourselves to express our wonder at the glory of God.
Another important aspect of our community life is our joy in each other’s company, expressed in the frequent meals and social times we share. Finally, we open ourselves to support one another in the trials of daily life. In this way the unity we celebrate at the Eucharist is lived out day-by-day.
Besides this public Christian life, the Eastern Churches also stress a Personal Spiritual Life “in secret, so that your Father, who sees all in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:6). Chief of these is Personal Prayer in the silence of our own hearts, where we can speak honestly with God. Thus, one of the most popular prayers in the Christian East is the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner"), which sums up our need for God’s love.
In addition, Eastern Christians are called to fast and to share their goods in secret as Jesus commanded (Matthew 6:18). By refusing to gratify ourselves endlessly whenever we want, we reflect our need to continue our daily conversion. Though we are called to be divinized, we realize that this process is long: The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life (Matthew 7:14).
The most difficult obstacle to our growth is the weakness and brokenness of our personalities. This is why the Eastern Churches call on their members to engage in a Spiritual Warfare in the arena of their hearts, learning to subject their weaknesses to the divinizing power of the Holy Spirit working within them. Eastern Christians are urged to conduct this warfare with the help of a Spiritual Guide. Counseling, then, is not something for those with problems, but for all of us who seek to grow in our relationship with God.
All these beliefs and practices date from the earliest days of Christianity in the Holy Land. By continuing to observe them, we maintain a living connection with the early Church. We cherish our Tradition as a continuous stream flowing from the first Christians to us under the guidance of the Holy Spirit: truly the ‘old time religion’ in a new land.
What Eastern Christians Believe
The mystery that God is with us is a fact in our lives. His presence has been experienced by people from the beginning right to our own day. People have reflected on this mystery and tried to express it in words: what we call Theology. Some of these teachings have been recognized by the Church as authentic reflections of its experience of God. These are the doctrines of the Church, which serve much like route markers for us, keeping us along the right road to God. Chief of these are the core teachings of our Church summarized below.
The Mystery of God
God’s inner life is unknowable, because it is beyond our capacity to understand Him. He is the Holy One: so unique and perfect that He cannot be compared to others. Using our own reasoning, we can only assume that He is the most excellent perfection of everything we know to be holy, true, good and beautiful. But how He is we do not know, because He is beyond all our experience, even beyond existence as we know it. As the Divine Liturgy expresses it, He is “beyond our grasp or understanding, beyond sight or comprehension”.
God Reveals Himself
God, who is so far beyond us, has reached out to us, revealing to us something of Himself. Everyone can look about and see in the wonders of nature the Creator whose very Word causes them to be. More especially we catch a glimpse of Him by looking at people, made in His image and likeness. But we get our clearest picture of God in what we call Divine Revelation, in which God has directly communicated Himself to us. He has freely opened Himself to us so that we may share in His divine life. Forming a people, Israel, God dealt with them through judges and kings, priests and prophets. He fed them, protected them, liberated them, loved them, corrected, punished and forgave them. He taught them that He alone is God, compassionate and true to His promises. He showed Himself not only as the Holy One, but as our Father as well.
God Acts in Christ
These signs of God’s presence and revelations of His love find their climax in the coming of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, into the world. “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him may not die, but may have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the supreme expression of God’s revelation to us. In Christ we see God as the Lover of mankind, emptying Himself for us. We see Him as the victorious Lord, trampling upon Death and giving life to those in the tomb of separation from God. We see Him as the King of glory, fully alive and in union with His Father the definitive and irrevocable communication of God to us.
The Holy Spirit: God With Us
At the close of His earthly ministry Christ promised His followers that He would send them Another in His place who would be with them forever, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father (Jn 15:26). This Spirit came upon the Church at Pentecost and remains with us as the Seal and Guarantee of the Kingdom to come, the power of God working among us. It is the Holy Spirit who “provides every gift. He is the One who inspires prophecy and perfects the priesthood; it is He who grants wisdom to the illiterate and turns simple fishermen into wise theologians. Through Him divine order comes into the organization of the Church” (Vesper Hymn for Pentecost).
The Holy Trinity
And so God the Unknowable has reached out to us in love, revealing Himself in the process as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thus mankind’s deepest experience of God has shown us something of the Living Reality of God that we could never have discovered on our own. We see that God is One, and yet at the same time Three. He is one in essence and being, one in activity and power, but three in person. The Fathers of the Church described this mystery as the Holy Trinity, the sacred Community calling us to share in the riches of God-life. They recognized that by God revealing Himself in this way, we have been given a glance at the very nature of the Unknowable One, so that we might desire fellowship with Him.
This fellowship with the Holy Trinity comes to us in the Church, the assembly of those whom God has called to be His people. While the Holy Spirit is the continuation of Christ’s divine presence among us, the Church is His Body, the extension of His physical presence in the world. The Church is thus the Temple of God in which the Spirit dwells, as the human body is the dwelling place of the human spirit. The Fathers called the Church the communion in the Holy Spirit, the fellowship He builds which joins us to God in a divine community. Our mission as Church, our purpose for being, is to proclaim the wonderful acts of God (1 Pt 2:9); to be a witness of God’s revealing love to all mankind. As members of the Church, we are part of Christ’s Body, inseparably joined in Him to the Trinity, the living stones which make up God’s temple. In this is our life.
The Mother of God
The special honor continually given to the Virgin Mary in our worship is not simply a matter of pious devotion. In honoring her as Theotokos (Mother of God), the Church confirms two basic aspects of Christian faith: that Jesus is truly the Son of God and that He dwells in our midst as true Man. Only if these two concepts are true can we call her Theotokos. Because we believe in the true incarnation of the Son of God become man in Jesus, we give His Mother the honor we do. One of the most prominent examples of this reverence is the fact that we always place the icon of the Theotokos containing Christ in her womb high on the rear wall behind the Holy Table (Altar) of the church building. This image, placed between ceiling and floor, recalls that Mary bridges the gap between God and us by carrying the Son of God in her womb.
The Holy Mysteries
We take this life in the Church through many ways. Most prominent of these ways in which the Spirit enlivens us are the holy mysteries or sacraments. A mystery is a prayer of the Church in which we ask the Lord to transform a natural element into a vehicle of His saving grace: a prayer which, because it is made in His Body’s name, is unfailingly answered. Thus water and the reenacting of Christ’s death and resurrection become a way of entering into an intimate relationship with Christ (baptism). In the same way, invoking the Holy Spirit over bread and wine enable us to achieve a physical union with Him in His Body (Eucharist). Through all the mysteries and the Church’s other prayers of blessing, every aspect of our life can be transformed and set apart as a means of praise to the One who calls us to share His life.
The greatest gift of God to us is the gift of sharing His very life. We have been made partakers of the divine nature (2 Pt 1:4): a process begun in us at our christening. When we live a life of faith, this relationship is deepened, furthering the process of our divinization or theosis. This movement continues in us through life and death and will not be complete until the resurrection of all mankind on the last day. Then our risen bodies as well as our spirits will share in the resurrection life and partake in glory. We know we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is (1 Jn 3:2). We have been brought to experience God’s self revelation and to become sharers in His very nature. This is our glory and our joy. This is also the core of the Christian message, the Good News we proclaim at our christening and reaffirm whenever we confess the Nicene Creed. This is the heart of our faith and the source of our confident assurance and trust in God who will complete what He has begun in us as He leads us to a greater and greater intimacy with Him.