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BASIC DOGMATIC TEACHING

An Orthodox Handbook

by Fr. Anthony Alevizopoulos

 

 

Chapter 29 - The Orthodox Ethos

1. The Eighth Day

When the Apostle Paul speaks of true godliness, he refers to it as a "great mystery":

...great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, Justified in the Spirit, Seen by angels, Preached among the Gentiles, Believed by the world, Received up in glory. (1 Tim.' . 3,16).

As we can see, the mystery of godliness that the Apostle speaks of, relates to the event of Christ's Incarnation. This must not seem strange to us, because Christ's Godmanhood comprises the salvation and the glory of human nature (1 John 4:9-10, 14; Gal.4:4-5).

Godliness therefore has nothing to do with any attempts by man, but with the mystery of the love of the Triune God, Who actualizes salvation through the event of the Son's Incarnation. The true nature of man, his true life, does not have its source in earthly elements, but in the very Triune God Himself, because man is an image of God.  Consequently, if we want to seek man's true life, we must approach God - we must savour the life of God.

With the above, we can perceive how only a life near God can be characterized as a natural life - that is, a life that responds to man's true nature - whereas a life far away from God is an "unnatural" life.  We need to mention here that what people characterize usually as a life according to "nature" does not refer to man's true nature, but to the one that is under the rule of sin - under the rule of corruption and death.

This is not an exaggeration. It is a simple consequence of the true nature of man, who is an image of the divine nature; a simple consequence of the true life of man, which is an image of the life of the Triune God. The Person of the God-man Christ is the image of the invisible God (Colos.1:15), subsequently, with His Incarnation, Christ revealed God's pure image of God, and with His life, the image of the life of the Triune God.

In the Person of the Lord, divine nature became joined to human nature, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably (4th Ecumenical Synod), so that Christ would be the partaker, not only of of the divine but also of the human life; in other words, a true god-man (John 1:1, 14). Consequently, when man - through Baptism - "puts on Christ" (Gal.3:26) and through the divine Eucharist becomes "one with His Body and His Blood" (cmp. 1 Cor.10:16-17, 11:24-25; Matth.26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:9-20; John 6:51-58), and once again attains the communion and the unity with the Triune God, which he had fallen away from.  Thus man's salvation becomes a reality, for which the Lord had prayed: that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, [...] that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; (John 17:21-23). This is the way that man's participation in the divine life - that is, in salvation - becomes possible.

The above prove why it is not possible for man to be saved when he rejects this salvific faith in the "great mystery of godliness" (1 Tim.3:16) - in the fact of Christ's godmanhood.  If Christ is a creation - as blasphemously proclaimed by people of delusion - then man cannot be saved. One creation cannot save another creation (cmp. Psal.48:8). We, however, know from the Holy Bible that the Lord is not a creation, but the "beginning of the Creation of God" - that is, the cause of all Creation (Revel.3:14). "For in Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible..." (Colos.1:16. cmp. John 1:3-4). We also know that the Lord "...Who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery (usurpation) to be equal with God"; instead, albeit having pre-eternally a "divine existence" (being in the form of God), "made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant..."  (Philip.2:6).  With the Incarnation, therefore, of the Son and Logos of God and through the rebirth of man "in Christ", man is once again rendered an image of the Trinitarian God; his life once again becomes an image of the Trinitarian God's life.

In this manner, with his way of life, the truly spiritual person brings back to the surface the image of the Trinitarian God that he hides inside him (Rom.14:8; 2 Cor.5:15; Gal.2:20; Philip.1:21); not the one that has become vile on account of sin, but the restored image, which he has regained thanks to his union with Christ.

This, therefore, is the reason the Apostle Paul characterizes piety as a "major mystery" and links it to the mystery of Christ's incarnation and man's glory to the God-Man Christ (ascended in glory); that is to say, the nature that Christ had assumed, was elevated - thanks to His Ascension - as far up as the Throne of God ("...and ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father..."). Therefore, during the Lord's glorious Ascension, each person who has put on the incorruptible Body of the Lord has been "co-resurrected" and "co-glorified", "in Christ" ( cmp.1 Cor.15:40, 53, 10:16, 12:12-13, 27) and has become "a new man", reconciled with God "in one body, through the Cross" (see the entire passage: Ephes. 2:11-22; cmp 1:18-23).

We must take notice of this especially, because there are deluded people who preach "another gospel", which they unashamedly call "The Good News".  We, however, of all that has been previously outlined, have understood that hope for our salvation is based on the event of Christ's Godmanhood, in the Gospel of "reconciliation through Jesus Christ" (2 Cor.5:18-19; Rom. 5:11). This was the gospel that was delivered to us by the Apostles (the ministry of reconciliation, 2 Cor.5:18; evangelizing peace, Rom.10:15; see also 1 Cor.1:18, 23; Rom.10:8-9; 1 John 5:11-13; 1 Cor.15:3; Acts 20:21; also cmp. Gal.1:8). This was the gospel that Christ Himself had preached (Eph.2:17; also cmp.John 17:21-23). Consequently, whoever does preach "another gospel" falls into the anathema of the Holy Bible (Gal.1:8).

Following the above, we can now understand the salvific words of the Holy Bible:

"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full." (1 John 1:1-4).

This, therefore, is the "good news": the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and this is where the secret of our piety lies - the mystery of the Orthodox ethos :  Each Christian acquires spiritual hypostasis and a spiritual life, based on their personal partaking of the mystery of the God-Man Christ.

 

2. The

When referring to the spiritual life, the Apostle Paul says that the beginning of man's hypostasis is his living faith in the truth: "For we have become partakers of Christ if we keep the beginning of our hypostasis certain, to the end"; that is, we shall be partaking of Christ, if we actually preserve to the end the faith by which we received our true hypostasis and were reborn in Christ (Hebr.3:14).  And this is because (as the Apostle himself mentions) "without faith, it is impossible for one to please God"  (Hebr.11:6; cmp.Rom.3:22-23; 5:1; 10:8-9).

It is obvious that here we are referring to the upright faith, to the Logos of God, Who is the Truth that sets man free (John 8:32), sanctifies him (John 17:17) and opens the path towards life (John 14:6).

"Faith is definitely demanded"  says Saint Cyril of Alexandria, "but before all else, the upright one", he adds.  However, this is not about a faith in theoretical truths; it is about our faith in the Person per se of Christ (John 14:6, 1:17; Hebr.1"1).

When Saint Maximus speaks of the faith, he implies the "hypostatized faith" - the Logos of God - Who is incarnate within us; a fact tha is revealed in our entire life ("by incorporating the commandments").  That is what the Apostle meant, when he preached - unhesitatingly - that he himself had ceased to live, and that Christ Himself was incarnate and living within him (Gal.2:20. cmp. Rom.14:8; 1 Cor.5:15; Phil.1:21).

In what manner will the God-Man Christ be incarnate within us, so that our life becomes once again the image of the Triunal God?

" ... whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; but the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life," says Christ in John 4:14.

And what water is that? There is no  doubt that it implies the teaching of Christ, independently of His Person. It is about the incarnate Truth - the fleshy Logos of God, the hypostatized faith; that is, the faith in the Person of Christ, which has become hypostatized within us.

The Apostle Paul writes with sorrow to the Galatians: "My little children, for whom I labor in birth again, until Christ is formed in you" (Gal.4:19).

 

3. Love

"If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; My Father will love him also, and We will come to him and shall make a dwelling with him." (John 14:23).  The Lord, therefore, gives us the reassurance that the one who loves Him will keep His words.  The result of this love in practice shall be the union of man with the Triune God's love, and his partaking of the life of the Holy Trinity: "My Father will love him also, and We will come to him and shall make a dwelling with him." (John 14:23)."

God is entirely love, and God's love is the revelation of the divine life.  This is why a person's life - when it is a life of love - becomes an image of God's life. That is when man partakes in the life of the Holy Trinity and becomes the dwelling place of the Triune Gode. "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him." (1 John 4:16).

If the mystery of piety - the content of the Orthodox ethos - relates to the life of love which partakes of the life of the Holy Trinity, it is essential to examine how man can become love.  The Apostle Paul says that love - just as all of spiritual living - cannot be achieved with human volition and human labour alone; it is a gift of God, the fruit of the Holy Spirit, Who is poured into every person who is "endued with power from on high. (Luke 24:49) and is reborn spiritually (And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,Your young men shall see visions, Your old men shall dream dreams - Acts 2:17).

"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christs have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires." (Gal.5:22-24). They were crucified and died together with Christ, and were resurrected unto a new life, "Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old person was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord."  (Rom.6:4-11).

In order, therefore, to attain love, we need to have overcome all of the passions and the desires of the flesh; that is, to have died along with Christ and be resurrected unto a new life "in Christ". Then, the Holy Spirit - Who blows through and invigorates everything within the Body of Christ - shall render our own heart a dwelling place and will grant us His most valuable gift - love - which constitutes the partaking in the divine life.

There are people with incorrect beliefs, who confine the labours of Christian love to the proclamation of a new gospel, which, as we have seen, leads to perdition (Gal.1:8). Apart from this cacodoxy of theirs, they are also confining their works of charity between "brethren" - that is, between those who have the same conscience as their own. But in order for love to be the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal.5:22), it must be an image of the love of the Triune God, Who is "decent,to the ungrateful and to the wicked (Luke 6:35-36; cmp. Matth.5:45). Only then will love be the fruit of the life that is "in-Christ" - Who "passed through, benefiting and healing all..." (Acts 10:38; cmp. James 2:14-26; Matth. 25:34-40; Luke 10:25-37; Isa.58:7-10).

 

4. Repentance

To reach the fullness of love, we must overcome the old person inside us - the person who had fallen into Satan's enticements and had ceased to have God as his point of reference.  That person must first die, in order to make way inside him for the god-human body of Christ.  That is why the essential prerequisite in order for man to regain the life of love - which is his true life, the life that corresponds to his nature as the image of God - is repentance.

Man cannot reach the end - perfection - (which is love: Rom13:10), and in fact, the incarnate love - that is, the Person of Christ (Matth.5:17), unless he overcomes his own confinements and every trace of self-complacency and self-understanding to which he had been subjected by Satan.  He must realize, deep inside him - that no matter how much he tries to respond to God's love with his actions, those actions are inadequate and he will always be unworthy of the divine love (cmp.Rom.3:9-31). This is the deep realization that a Christian has to acquire in order to become a person true repentance.  It is characteristic, that the Saints of our Church lived with a deep realization of their inability to respond worthily to God's love, and regarded that enduring repentance was the sole matter of their entire lives. Case in point here, is the following, truly moving incident mentioned in the "Gerondikon" (Book of Elders' narrations):

"It was said of Abba Sisoe, that when he was nearing his death, and as the other fathers were seated near him, his countenance began to shine like the sun.  And he said to them: "Look, Abba Anthony has arrived!" And after a while he said to them: "Look - there's the chorus of the Prophets!"  And again his countenance lit up, even more. And he said: "And there is the chorus of the Apostles!" And his countenance became doubly bright once again. Then -lo- it was as though he was talking to someone.  Then the other elders begged him, saying: "With whom are you speaking, father?"  He replied: "Look, angels have come to take me away, and I am beseeching them to leave me a while longer so that I may repent."  Then the other monks said to him: "You have no need to repent, father."  Then the Elder said to them: "Truly I say to you, I do not know if I have even made a start..."  And then the others knew that he had indeed become perfect.  Suddenly, his countenance again began to shine like the sun and everyone stood in fear. And then he said to them: "See - the Lord has come now, and He is saying "Bring Me that vessel of the desert."  Then he immediately delivered up his spirit and something like lightning occurred.  And the entire abode was filled with fragrance."

This incident truly hides an immense power. A saint - at the moment of his death and even though his very countenance was radiant with the Uncreated Light - still believed he hadn't even begun repentance.

This profound repentance that we notice in the life of the Saints is - in the opinion of the Fathers of our Church - the commencement of spiritual living. (cmp.Ezek.33:10-15; 1 Cor.10:12; Philip.2:12, 3:8-12).

 

5. The rending of the heart and the abyss of Divine love

Those who seek vindication with good deeds, with the observance of the commandments or even with any activity whatsoever, will have already departed from Christ.  They will have fallen away from Grace and as such, cannot expect salvation (Rom.3:20, Gal.5:4 e.a.).  That is why, in the New Testament, only those who confront their sinfulness face to face and look to Christ with complete trust will be saved.  They are the "tax-collectors and the prostitutes" as Christ had said: they are the people who will "precede" - will go into the Kingdom of God before those who are certain of their own sense of justice and are relying on that (Matth.21:31; Luke 7:36-50, 18:9-14).

"Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much, Christ characteristically says, about the prostitute (Luke 7:47), and places all the weight on the reciprocation of love, and on the transition of physical love, of selfish love, to divine love.  This is expressed in an unprecedented way by our Church, in the Troparion of Holy Tuesday (the hymn written by Kassiane):

"Woe is me!  Within me is an unending night, a maniacal passion for debauchery... Please accept my inexhaustible tears... bend, to the sighs of my heart... I shall zealously kiss Your immaculate feet; I shall wipe them with the braids of hair on my head... o my soul-saving Saviour, who shall examine the multitude of my sins, and who the unfathomable depths of Your verdicts?"

This transition of man;s phronema (conscience), who confronts the edge of the abyss where he stands - that rending of his heart and at the same time the awareness of God's abyss of love, is the characteristic sign of the Orthodox conscience.  This truth is conveyed in a unique manner by the troparia of the Great Canon:

"I have sinned; like the whore I cry out to You; I alone have sinned before You... accept, o Saviour, my tears also..." "Have mercy... like the tax-collector I cry out to You, o Saviour, have mercy on me, for no-one of Adam but You alone, Saviour, my God, can grant it."

"Let the humbled ones who have been conquered by passions take courage" says Saint John of the Ladder, "for, even if they fall into all the pits, and even if they become entrapped in every trap, and even if they are afflicted by all illnesses, they will - after being healed - become physicians to everyone and teachers and lamps and governors: they will teach the character of the illness and with their experience, will rescue those who are in danger of falling."

And elsewhere, the same saint says:

"I saw unclean souls which were possessed by an insatiable carnal love and, based on the experience of that love which they acquired, had turned that same love around towards the Lord, and thereafter became grafted in an insatiable love for God.  This was the reason that the Lord did not say to that sensible whore to be afraid, but instead, told her that because she had loved so much, she was able to fend off carnal love with divine love."

Based on the above, we can now easily understand why Saint Isaac the Syrian had said that "Whosoever is capable of seeing his own sins, is better than one who can raise the dead."

Words like these give hope and certainty to each and every sinful soul that will abandon sin and become flooded with divine love:

I will rise now and go about in the city, in the market-places and in the streets, and I will seek him whom my soul loved. I sought him but found him not. The sentinels who go about in the city found me. 'Have you not seen him whom my soul loved?'  Scarcely had I passed from them until I found him whom my soul loved. I took hold of him and would not let him go until I brought him into my mothers house and into the chamber of her who conceived me." (Song of Songs 3:2-4).

 

6. The Christification of man

Divine "eros" (love) - the union of man with the God-man - takes place within the very Body of Christ, which is the Church (Eph.1:22, 5:23; Colos.1:18, 24).

The descent of the Holy Spirit during the hour of the Divine Eucharist transforms the bread and the wine into Body and Blood of Christ. This god-human Body and Blood then becomes food and drink for the entire congregation of the faithful. This god-human Body then ceases to be a simple congregation of people; it becomes "Church".  The Church is not a human institution. It is a god-human institution, which is "assembled" - joined internally into a harmonious whole - by the Holy Spirit, as the hymn of our Church says.

Each person in the Church is "Christified" and becomes one with all his other brethren.  Better still - in that god-human union, he, along with his brethren, actually becomes the god-human Body of Christ.  (Gal.3:28; 1 Cor.12:13; Colos.3:11). The centre of the Christians' unity is not, consequently, a certain common objective, or certain common aspirations; it is the Triune God Himself - the image of God, which constitutes the true nature of man.

In this way is man's purpose fulfilled; man's salvation is realized, for which Christ had sacrificed His Blood.  God's children, which were scattered after the Fall, are once again gathered together as one whole (John 11:52) and regain the true meaning of their life, which is man's partaking of the life of the Holy Trinity.

"For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread".  The bread is one and we, the many, are one body, because we all partake of that one bread  (1 Cor.10:17).

As such, piety, the mystery of man's salvation, the Orthodox ethos, are not a personal matter, but a liturgical praxis. And the personal piety of each faithful is analogous to the degree of his personal partaking of the Body of Christ - his organic and conscientious participation in the Body of the Church.  By means of this participation in Christ's life, man is once again rendered a participant in the life of the Triune God. It is on this fact that our salvation relies.

 

7. The battle against the devil

When we say that the Orthodox ethos is a liturgical one - that it involves partaking in the Body of Christ - we do not imply any passive state, but rather, man's entry into a spiritual arena.  It is the Christian's battle "against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age,against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Eph.6:12).

The devil is a "homicidal murderer" and "a liar and the father of lies" (John 8:44). He never ceases therefore to wander about "like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour" (1 Pet.5:8).

A Christian must never forget this for even one moment. The demonic element is a reality and the faithful is called upon to remain vigilant. "Be sober, be vigilant!", says the Word of the Lord (1 Pet.5:7). "Be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might." (Ephes.6:10 onwards).  Remain firm in the faith, "knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world." (1 Pet.5:9). "Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are modest, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are dear, whatever things have a good report or any virtue or anything praiseworthymeditate on these things. The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you." (Philip.4:8-9).

Satan always tampers with our senses and strives to generate passions in order to enter us and become our overlord from within.  This is why a Christian is called upon to confront the adversary fully equipped and obeisant to God. The life of repentance, of humility and of ascesis leads the Christian to the forsaking of his personal will and the adoption of God's will. It leads him to the death of his self and into the life "in Christ". Whoever wants to live, he must first die; "...whoever loses his life for My sake will find it," says the Lord characteristically (Matth.16:25, 10, 39; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24, 17:33; John 12:25).

 

8. Ascesis

"However, this kind does not depart, except by prayer and fasting." (Matth.17:21; Mark 9:29). This species does not leave, except only through prayer and fasting...

With these words, the Lord revealed to us how we can resist Satan's dominance victoriously. It is upon this basis that ascesis finds vindication in the life of the faithful.  With his disobedience, the first human had transferred the centre of his life from the Triune God to his own person.  This was the serpent's lure to which Adam had succumbed and had thus fallen under Satan's dominance (Gen.3:1-7).

With an ascetic way of life, the Orthodox Christian no longer places himself at the centre of his life; he no longer has his personal will as motive. On the contrary, his objective is to transcend his personal evaluations, his entire self, and surrender himself wholly to Christ, in body and soul, completely, and unconditionally.

"We become the body members of Christ; our limbs are Christ, and the arm is Christ, and the leg is Christ, of me, the wretch... both my arm is Christ and my leg is Christ; I, the wretch, move my arm, and Christ is my entire arm. For, in my mind, God's divinity is indivisible."

The fact of man's Christification fills the heart of Saint Simeon with wonder, but also with absolute respect for the human body; it renders him vigilant, so that he may be proven worthy of the greatest honour:

"And I am amazed at myself, when I realize who I have become miraculously, from who I used to be.  And I respect and am modest about myself, and honour and am in awe of my self as though it is You, and I wonder, entirely ashamed, where I can sit, and whom I can approach, and where I am to lay my limbs; in what labours, in what such acts could I make use of the fearsome and divine?" 

 

THE END

 

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Article published in English on: 1-7-2013.

Last update: 4-11-2014.

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