The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (19)

At long last we are coming to the end of our reflection on the Symbol of Faith, i.e., the Creed sung at every Divine Liturgy. We remember that this symbol of Faith was adopted at two ecumenical (general) councils in the years 325 and 381 AD. This Creed was adopted to avoid error concerning Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity and to proclaim the Orthodox faith.

The Creed begins with the words “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” In other words the Creed begins with the creation of the world by God. The Creed ends with the end of the world: “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

What does all this mean? Sometimes people think that Christianity despises the material world allegedly thinking only of heaven. This is not true. In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, after the creation of the world it says: “And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.” (Gen 1:3) In other words, the world as created by God is good. However, the world as we experience it now is not totally good.  In addition to the horrible things which human beings do, there are natural disasters, disease, famine and so forth. Somehow the world is not as God had created. The Church tells us that the world is fallen just as humanity is fallen. In other words, the world was wounded by the sin of Adam and Eve. We do not know clearly how this has happened and this is not provable by science but the Church has the firm conviction that the human race and the world are fallen together. As Saint Paul puts it in his Epistle to the Romans:

“…. for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now…” (Rom 8:20-22)

People sometimes think that Christians are concerned only with the soul and heaven, but this is not the case. Just as we believe that the dead will rise at the end of time so we believe that the material world will be restored at the end of time. As the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, tells us:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  (Rev 21:1-5)

In other words, the whole created cosmos will be renewed and returned to the state in which God created it.

Although we do not know when all this will take place, we participate in this renewal of the world in the church. In the Church we are reborn through the water of baptism, we receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine. We see and venerate icons and we smell the fragrance of incense.  In other words, the material world is participating in the process of salvation giving us a foretaste of the transformed world to come. Finally, on theophany when we go to the harbor to bless the waters, we ask the Holy Spirit to sanctify (make holy) this water and all water and finally all of the creation. We are participating in the coming renewal of creation.

However, in the Bible we sometimes encounter verses that seem to say that the end of the world will be a total destruction of it. For example:

“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.” (2 Peter 3:10)

But this passage does not predict the total annihilation of the world, but rather the world and all of humanity must go through a change which will be painful. Or to put it another way, we go through the horror of death to attain the joy of resurrection. This is true of humanity and of the material world.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (18)

In the Creed we say we “… believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” Those four words are called the four marks or notes of the church. Many volumes have been written about each of these marks or notes, but here we will look at these most easily understood of these words, that is the word catholic.

When most people hear the word catholic they assume it refers to the Roman Catholic church, the church headed by the Pope, the Bishop of Rome. (It should be noted, although this church is called Roman it includes many Eastern Catholic churches, churches that use the same Liturgy as the Orthodox Church but who are under the jurisdiction of the Pope.)

Because so many people understand catholic to mean Roman, some Orthodox who are used to the Creed in Slavonic are surprised or even scandalized to hear the word catholic in the English translation of the Creed. This is because the Creed in Slavonic does not have a word which is exactly the equivalent of catholic. So we can see that the word catholic can be misunderstood.

The word catholic is often understood to mean universal. In other words, the fact that the Church is spread all over the world, and of course has a message for every time, place and people, which is why the church is always a missionary church. Although of course, it is universal in the sense that it is spread all over the world, the word catholic has a deeper meaning than this. The word catholic also means full, complete, lacking nothing. This means that even the smallest isolated church is catholic in the sense that it has all the things necessary for salvation. In New Testament times, the church of Jerusalem, or even Antioch or Rome, were rather small in terms of membership and size, but each was fully catholic. It lacked nothing. So for example, there is a small Orthodox Church at the Russian base in Antarctica. When the Liturgy is being celebrated when a bishop or priest gathers together with the laity, the church is fully catholic. The whole of Orthodox doctrine, ministry and sacrament are present in that small, isolated church.

According to the late Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko, dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, catholic refers to quality rather than quantity.

This is why when Roman Catholics, even Roman Catholics friendly to the Orthodox Church, say that the Orthodox Church is not “fully catholic”, to be truly catholic in the sense they mean the Orthodox Church needs to be under the Pope. The Orthodox reply is that each and every Orthodox Church, no matter how small or isolated is fully catholic and lacks nothing.

This means that to leave the church for some reason is to leave the catholic church. The church may suffer many things from human sins on the part of those inside and outside the church, no matter how many seemingly negative things appear in the church, the church is always the “pillar and bulwark of the truth,” as Saint Paul wrote in Timothy (I Tim 3:15).

In conclusion, we can say that human beings may sin and do terrible things, the church will always remain catholic. Give us all we need for salvation.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (17B)

In the church, Pentecost is a beginning and end. It is an end in the sense that it is the fulfillment of Christ’s mission on earth. In fact, it is the fulfillment of all the prophesies and predictions about the coming of the Messiah which run through the whole Old Testament. But Pentecost is also the beginning of the Church. In fact, Pentecost is often called the “birthday of the Church” because the Church could not begin without the Holy Spirit.

Christianity is a historical religion and is not based simply on philosophy or ideas. Rather it is based on God’s actions in history. To give some examples, God called Abraham to leave his homeland so he could become the father of many nations; Moses led the Jewish people out of captivity in Egypt; Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, died and rose from the dead in Jerusalem.

However, our faith is not based simply on historical events. One has to see the meaning in historical events. For example, many historians would admit that the Jewish people escaped from Egypt but would say the parting of the sea was a natural phenomenon of winds and tides, not believing that God had worked a miracle. Many critics would accept that the Myrrh-bearing women and the Apostles could not find Christ’s body in the tomb on Easter morning. However, they do not accept that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. They offer alternative interpretations.  They will say that the Apostles stole the body of Christ so that they could start the Church. Others have said that the women and the Apostles went to the wrong tomb. Still, others would say that the Apostles were hallucinating. It is only we who accept that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God will understand that Jesus came into the world to die and rise again to destroy the power of death. This is the Christian confession of faith and without this faith, the story of the empty tomb is just a story.

For these reasons, icons are not simply naturalistic portraits about events in history. Rather, they explain the meaning of what happened through the language of symbols. This is true in the case of the Pentecost icon. In this icon we see the Apostles gathered on Mount Zion and the Apostles sitting in a semi-circle. At the top of the icon, there is a semi-circle with rays coming from it. The semi-circle symbolizes the Holy Spirit sending the rays as tongues of fire signifying the descent of the Holy Spirit. In the center of the semi-circle of the Apostles, there is an empty place. This is the place of Jesus Christ, the head of the Church. It is unoccupied of course because Christ had ascended into heaven and is no longer visible in this world. St. Paul is also found in the icon. St. Paul was not present on the day of Pentecost and was not even a Christian at the time. However, though is preaching and writings he is an important part of the foundation of the Church. The four Gospels writers – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – are present holding their Gospels, although they had not yet been written at the time.

In another semi-circle at the bottom, we see a figure of a king in a dark place. He is cosmos, representing the whole world as it was bound by sin. His presence reminds us that Christ came to save the whole universe in addition to saving humanity. In some icons, he is shown coming out of the darkness into the light, showing Christ’s victory over the darkness of sin.

So we can see the icon of Pentecost give us the Christian meaning of what happened on the day of Pentecost.

To summarize, our faith is based on God’s actions in history, but we wouldn’t understand this without our faith. In this way, icons such as the Pentecost icon, show us the true meaning of the events.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (17A)

One of the most frequently used prayers of the Orthodox Church is:

O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere and fillest all things. Treasury of blessings and Giver of Life, come and abide in us and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.

Most Orthodox services begin with this prayer. But interestingly enough, it is not  prayed from Pascha (Easter) to Pentecost. Easter, of course, is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Forty days later the feast of Ascension, which commemorates Christ’s Ascension into heaven. Fifty days after Easter is Pentecost (Pentecost means fifty in Greek). As during His earthly ministry Jesus Christ prophesied the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (John 7: 37-19):

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, `Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.'” Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

In other words, the Holy Spirit would not be given until after Christ had been glorified, i.e., until Christ had risen from the dead. Christ is predicting the coming of the Holy Spirit fifty days after His resurrection. As mentioned above, Pentecost is the Greek word for fifty. Originally it was a Jewish feast day. It was the fiftieth day after Passover. In the Greek Old Testament it is called the “Feast of Weeks”. In Judaism Pentecost was a harvest festival. It was celebrated seven weeks after the beginning of the wheat harvest. On Pentecost, the first fruits of the harvest were offered in the temple of Jerusalem as a thanksgiving to God for a successful harvest. After the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple the first fruits could no longer be offered in the Temple, so that Pentecost was celebrated as the giving of the new law to Moses on Mount Sinai.

In the New Testament in the book of Acts we see Pentecost described. Present were the twelve Apostles (after Judas had betrayed Christ Matthias was elected to take his place). Also present were the 120disciples and Mary, the Mother of God. It is described in Acts 2:1-5:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven.

Tradition tells us that this took place in the Upper Room on Mount Sinai where Jesus had celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples. Further on we see that St. Peter and the other Apostles began to preach in various languages they had never spoken before so that people from any different places heard the Apostles preaching in their own language. This is the true “speaking in tongues”. In modern Christianity there are some Christians who speak in tongues. However, they are saying meaningless syllables. This is different from the true speaking in tongues at Pentecost. Some people thought the Apostles were drunk but St. Peter told the crowd that they were not drunk but filled with the Holy Spirit. He tells the people that the words of the prophet Joel were being fulfilled:

“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” (Joel 2:28)

St. Peter preached that Jesus Christ was the Messiah promised in the Old Testament.

The crowd was so impressed with the preaching of St. Peter that about 3000 people accepted faith in Jesus and were baptized. Pentecost is the birthday of the Church.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (16c)

As we have seen, we now have the Creed that we sing at every Liturgy and Baptism. It was composed at the 1st and 2nd Ecumenical Councils in 325 and 381 AD. Furthermore, the 3rd Ecumenical council (431 AD) forbade any changes to the Creed.

We seem to be set. The Creed was believed by the vast majority of the Christian Church from East to West, from Rome to Constantinople and beyond. However, in the 6th century in Spain the Creed was changed by a decision of a local Spanish church council. The change is as follows: the original Creed says that we believe in the “Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father, who together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified…”  This is based on Christ’s statement that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (John 15:26). However, the change is that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the “Father and the Son” and this is known as the filioque. This whole issue is referred to as the “Filioque Controversy”.

Why did the Spanish church decide to change this? Evidentally in Spain at that time Arianism was still prevalent. We remember that Arius’ teaching is that Jesus Christ is not God, but rather the greatest creation of God. The first part of the Creed was adopted to show that Arianism was wrong. However, due to the still strong Arianism in Spain the church there decided to add the new words to emphasize that Christ was truly God.

At first the Filioque was a local matter. However, its usage became widespread in the Emperor Charlemagne’s time (743-814 AD). Emperor Charlemagne even tried to force the Pope to authorize this addition to the Creed. At first the Pope refused and even ordered that the Creed without the filioque be engraved on large silver tablets to be displayed in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. However, the Roman church needed the support of Charlemagne and his successor, so the Pope finally accepted the addition to the Creed and it has remained part of the Creed used by most Catholics and Protestants.

The idea that the Pope could authorize a change to the Creed on his own authority without consulting the other Patriarchs or Councils was a sign of the growing tendency of the Roman Pope to believe that they are the supreme authority in the Church. This authority is not accepted by the Orthodox (and Protestants) and this is one of the factors that keep the Catholic West and the Orthodox East separate to this day.

There were attempts to heal this schism between Catholic and Orthodox. Reunion councils were held in 1274 and 1439. However, no lasting union was reached.

In the Orthodox Church there is at least two ways of looking at the filioque. Although all Orthodox agree that the Pope did not have the authority to change the Creed there are some theologians (most well-known is St. Maximus the Confessor) that think that the filioque can be interpreted in an Orthodox manner, whereas many important church fathers and theologians regard the filioque as a heresy which cannot be understood in an Orthodox manner.

In the middle of the 20th century there have been official discussions about overcoming the barrier to trunnion. Much has been achieved but the Orthodox Church will never accept Papal authority over all other Christians, as is evident in this controversy.

Ultimately, we can hope and pray that the differences can be reconciled, and schism will be healed, but with all human goodwill, they still remain in the hand of God.

Fr. John