JESUS CHRIST IN ANCIENT ORTHODOXY
JESUS CHRIST AND THE EARLY CHURCH
AM THE DOOR," said Christ. "By me if any man enter in, he
shall be saved." Christ is the Door to the Kingdom of Heaven, which we can find
within us even during this life and which continues for eternity. But how do we
find that Door amidst thousands of different sects and philosophies, all of
which present a different image of Christ? If we look into the history of the
Church He founded, we find one unbroken line in which His image has been kept
pure and undistorted. That line is ancient Orthodoxy, the measuring-stick of
Come to the Door! Find it through the ancient historic path…
AT A TIME IN
HISTORY when mankind had fallen far away from Paradise and was in desperate need
of God, the very God Who created man took flesh and became man. This was Jesus
Christ, the One Whom the prophets had foretold and the One Whom the whole world
was anticipating. Until then all religions were only man's fragmented attempts
to understand God. In Christ, for the first time in history, God Himself became
man. One of the many things that Christ revealed while in this world was the
possibility of a personal relationship with God for those who believe. He
brought those believers together and promised that nothing would ever prevail
against His Church (Matthew 16:18). This Church was founded first upon the
sufferings of Christ, then upon the sufferings of His Apostles, and finally upon
the sufferings of the martyrs throughout the ages (I Peter 2:21, Colossians
1:24). Thus began Christianity.
Annunciation Cathedral in the ancient Kremlin, Russia
Christ's crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension into Heaven, His disciples
were gathered together with thousands of people from all over the known world
for the feast of Pentecost. Then, just as the Holy Scriptures had prophesied and
just as Christ had promised, suddenly there came a sound from Heaven as of a
rushing mighty wind, and the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit
(Acts 2:2-4). They began to preach the Way, the Truth and the Life to all those
present at the feast in their native languages. Those who received this
revelation and followed Jesus Christ began to be known as
From that day forward Christianity was endowed with power and began to spread to the ends of the earth. From Jerusalem the disciples of Christ traveled all over the known world: the Apostles Peter and Paul went to Greece and Rome, Andrew went to Russia, Mark went to Egypt, Simon went to England and Africa, Thomas went as far as India, and Matthew went to Ethiopia. Although they were in different parts of the world they were of one heart and one soul (Acts 4:32) and taught one Lord, one Faith, and one baptism (Ephesians 4:5). Everywhere they went they appointed bishops, presbyters and deacons and ordained them, by the laying on of hands, to be shepherds of Christ's flock. In a short time the Apostles brought multitudes of pagans to Christ—simple people as well as philosophers, beggars as well as kings. Although the Apostles experienced persecution, torture and even death for their beliefs, nothing could stop the Faith from spreading like fire to the ends of the earth. Nearly every Apostle died a martyr's death, and many of their remains are preserved in Orthodox Churches to this day.
Icon of the original Apostles
It was during these difficult martyric times that the early Church was formed and established, and where the worship, the arts, and the music of the Church found their beginning. These naturally sprang out of the Old Testament and flowed into the New. The form of worship began in the time of Moses, as it was revealed to him by God. The arts originated in the mosaic depictions in the Temple of scenes from the Old Testament, and in the pre-Christian arts. This tradition of sacred art was continued by the Apostle Luke, who painted the first iconographic depictions of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child. The music (chant) had its beginning in the Psalms of David. Even the Liturgy (communion service) finds its beginning in the Old Testament, Christ's Body and Blood being the New Testament sacrifice (John 6:48-58). The first communion service composed by the Apostle James, the brother of the Lord, was based on the Apostles' experience at the Last Supper, and is still used in the Orthodox Church today.
One of the original icons of the Virgin and Christ painted by the Apostle Luke which is preserved in the Iveron Monastery on Mount Athos, Greece.
THE APOSTOLIC SAINTS
FTER ALL THE APOSTLES had died, the believers looked to their successors to continue their work. These successors were those disciples who had actually traveled and preached with the Apostles and held fast to the Traditions that had been given to them by word or epistles (II Thessalonians 2:15). One of these successors was a disciple of the Apostle John named Ignatius (†106). He was a little boy at the time of Christ. It is recorded that he was the little child that Christ set in the midst of the disciples when He said: Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Whosoever shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 18:2). When Ignatius grew up he became the Bishop of Antioch, the city where the disciples of Christ were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). Eventually he was imprisoned for refusing to worship the pagan gods. Although he was a prisoner facing death, he wrote several epistles to the churches to which Paul had written earlier, such as the Ephesians and the
Icon of St. Lazarus, portraying him in bishops' vestments.
afterwards he was taken to the arena where he was eaten alive by wild beasts,
and gave his soul into the hands of God.
Another of the Apostles' successors was Lazarus, whom Christ raised from the dead (John 11:1). After the day of Pentecost, Lazarus traveled with his two sisters, Mary and Martha, throughout the Mediterranean and settled on the island of Crete. Here he spread the Christian faith as one of the first bishops of the Church. Later he and his sisters went to preach the Gospel in France. Lazarus was known to have said that ever since he was raised from the dead he had a bitter taste in his moth that reminded him of death and the final judgment, which every soul will face. He died peacefully as a saint, no longer tasting any bitterness, for there is no bitterness in Heaven.
Mary Magdalene was another disciple of Christ who became an equal to the Apostles. After the day of Pentecost she traveled to Rome and appeared before the Emperor Tiberias Caesar, greeting him with the words: "Christ is Risen!" referring to the resurrection of Christ from the dead. She then presented him with a red egg as a symbol of the new life that was given to the human race through the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. From that day on eggs were always used in the celebration of the great feast of Pascha (commonly known as Easter). Before the Emperor she also
Icon of St. Dionysius.
denounced Pontius Pilate for his
unjust condemnation of Jesus Christ. Caesar heeded her and transferred Pilate
from Jerusalem to Gaul, where he died from a terrible illness. Leaving Rome, she
traveled to Ephesus and helped the Apostle John. Here, she peacefully went to
the Lord Whom she had served so faithfully.
Other disciples who continued the work of the Apostles were St. Clement (Philippians 4:3) of Rome and St. Polycarp. St. Clement was brought to the Faith by the Apostles Barnabas and Peter, who later appointed him bishop of Rome, where he died a martyr's death. St. Polycarp was a pagan who had been brought to the Faith and baptized by the Apostle John. Both Clement and Polycarp wrote many epistles that still exist today.
Also at that time there was a man named Dionysius in Athens, Greece (Acts 17:34). When Christ breathed His last on the Cross, St. Dionysius beheld the sun darkened although he was miles away, and said: "Either God the Creator of the world is suffering or the world is ending." Years later the Apostle Paul was in Athens and saw that
Icon of St. Ignatius depicted with the lions in the Roman arena.
the people there had an altar to
"the unknown God." Paul then openly said to those gathered: The One Whom you
ignorantly worship, Him I proclaim unto you (Acts 17:23), and began to tell
them about the One True God Who gave His life for the world. Dionysius happened
to be present and was moved in his soul to embrace the Christian Faith. He was
then baptized by Paul and became a bishop of Gaul (France), residing in
Through these holy men and women the continuity of the Orthodox Church was preserved, even during those times of great persecution.
HE FIRST CHRISTIANS were rejected by the world and were persecuted unto torture and death, fulfilling Christ's prophecy: If the world hate you, know that it hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love his own, but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you (John 15:18). To escape persecution Christians fled to the catacombs—underground caves where they buried their dead—and conducted their secret prayer services there in hiding, totally cut off from the world. They lived in constant expectation of martyrdom and so were always vigilant, preparing themselves for the other world.
Picture of one of the underground catacombs in Rome.
Earthly wealth, comfort, and honor had no
meaning for them since suffering stripped them bare of such things. The spread
of the Christian Faith among the pagans provoked persecution against the early
Christians because they refused to worship any God other than the One living
God. Thousands of men and women died by courageously undergoing the cruelest
forms of torture imaginable. They were beheaded, burned, drowned, lacerated and
crucified for their Faith; the countless records and histories of the martyrs
attest to their undying love for God. The early 4th-century historian Eusebius
wrote: "I myself was an eyewitness of it. The iron implements would become blunt
and broken, and the executioners themselves would become wearied and have to
take turns to relieve each other."
The call to a violent death was a great reality for those who believed in God and His Christ. Martyrdom was considered the ultimate act of renunciation of the world and the highest form of confession of one's Faith. While in the world's eyes it was total dishonor, in the eyes of the believers it was the greatest glory. For the early Christians, the body, which is a temple of God, could also become a sacrifice for God in enduring unto death for the Truth. Only God and His Spirit dwelling deep within the martyrs enabled them to overcome a death that was for them True Life.
Icon depicting martyrs undergoing torture for Christ.
From the world's
point of view it seemed that the Christian Faith was dying along with its
martyrs, but this was not so. Many pagans, seeing the faith and confession of
the martyrs and the miracles that they performed were themselves convinced of
the Truth of the Christian Faith and became Christians. The more the Christians
were persecuted, the more the Christian Faith grew.
The earliest account of martyrdom is that of St. Stephen who was a deacon of the Church (Acts 6:5). He was stoned to death for preaching in the Jewish temple that Jesus Christ was the Messiah. As he was about to die he looked up towards Heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing on the right hand of God (Acts 7:55).
Another account of a martyr of the catacomb period of Christianity is the life of St. Catherine (†305). She was the daughter of a ruler in Alexandria, Egypt. From childhood she was well educated. She loved the wisdom of this world until she encountered Christ, Who is True Wisdom. She then became a Christian and fearlessly taught others of the one true God Who became incarnate to save the world.
For this she was placed under heavy guard to be tortured. When the arena was filled with spectators, she was brought out before the wisest men of the empire in order for them to challenge her in her Christian Faith. Her answers left everyone speechless, and many believed her words, becoming Christians themselves. This enraged
Icon of St. Catherine portrayed with the wheel of torture that was used on her and other Christians.
the emperor to such an extent
that he had everyone burned alive who was found to be a Christian. After
imprisonment St. Catherine was taken to the place where she would be executed.
She then prayed: "Stretch out Thy hand, which was nailed to the Cross for my
sake, and receive my soul." After enduring much torture she was finally
The number of martyrs who died in these first centuries of the Church is endless, attesting to the power that is within the Christian faith. Many of the actual accounts of the lives and deaths of these martyrs still exist thanks to the believers who courageously preserved their memory in the catacombs.
THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE
HEN SUDDENLY, in the midst of all the sufferings of the early Church, the persecution ceased. In the year 312, Constantine the Great, the emperor of the Roman empire, which comprised all of the civilized world at that time, was conquered by the sign of the Christian Faith. Just before a decisive battle, he and all of his soldiers saw a Cross of light in the sky with the inscription, "By this sign you will conquer." The
Icon of St. Constantine.
following night Christ appeared
to him with the Cross in His hand and told him that by this sign he would defeat
his enemy, directing that each soldier's shield bear the sign of the Cross. The
emperor fulfilled the command of God and conquered. Seeing the power of the
Cross he abandoned paganism and embraced the Christian Faith, placing his entire
empire under the protection of Christ and His Cross. Constantine legalized
Christianity and then moved the seat of the empire from Rome to Constantinople
to make a new beginning, calling this city the second Rome. Thus arose the
Byzantine empire—the first Christian society that was governed by Christian
Now that the Church was free to come out of the catacombs, churches began to be built above ground.
The Church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) in Constantinople
Some of the first churches
constructed were over the holy sites in Israel where Christ had lived. Also,
later on in the sixth century a monastery was built on Mount Siani over the site
of the burning bush (Exodus 3:2), near the place where Moses received the Ten
Commandments. Most of these churches still remain to this day as Orthodox
churches and monasteries.
With the Church above ground, Christianity began to flourish. The Christian religious art of iconography began to be redefined, church music (chant) began to thrive and the amount of Christian literature began to grow. In short, the Church became the center of every aspect of life. This period of freedom and rest for the Church became the time to articulate the beliefs of the Christian Faith and to choose the books that would comprise the standard of Scripture.
Gold case preserved in an Orthodox monastery on Mount Athos, Greece, that contains a piece of the actual Cross of Christ.
Emperor Constantine called a council of bishops to gatherfrom the four corners of the world. This council, held in 325, was the first of seven Ecumenical Councils in the history of the Church and was modeled after the council in the time of the Apostles (Acts 15). This council of Constantine's articulated the Creed of the Christian
Icon of St. Athanasius the Great
Faith so that there would be one confession of the Faith and not different
interpretations. Before this council there was no universally accepted New
Testament canon of Scripture, and, thus, no Bible. There were simply the
accounts of Christ's life by the Apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and many
epistles (letters) from several of the Apostles such as Paul and Peter. There
were also the letters and writings of the disciples of the Apostles such as Sts.
Ignatius, Clement, Dionysius and others. One of the persons who was instrumental
in this council was St. Athanasius of Alexandria. He was the one responsible for
the canon of Scriptures that comprise the New Testament that we have
With the founding of the first Christian empire—the Byzantine empire—came the Bible, the Creed, and a whole Christian experience that would change the face of the world forever.
THE MONASTIC IDEAL
HIS TIME OF FREEDOM in the Church gave rise to one vital problem. Without the suffering of persecution and martyrdom as a means to Christian perfection, many of the Christians began to conform to this world. In their freedom and wealth they began to forget that the Christian life is about leading the soul from this world to the Kingdom of Heaven. It is a path of suffering in this life in order to obtain peace in the next. Consequently, men and women seeking spiritual perfection instead of the pleasures of this world, fled into the deserts and wildernesses of Palestine and Egypt. Like the walls of the catacombs, the wide expanses of the desert isolated them from the influence of the world and provided the opportunity for a more God-centered life.
Icon of St. Anthony the Great.
Through a life of prayer, fasting,
self-denial, chastity and vigilance these ascetics became voluntary lifelong
martyrs and were known as monks and nuns (Mark 8:34).
Although it was in the fourth century that monasticism developed, its origin is in the Old Testament times when God revealed to Moses the vow of the Nazarite—a vow of celibacy, the consecrating of one's life to God (Numbers 6:2). Then from Elijah to John the Baptist, the prophets set examples of this vow. Later this was perfected in the life of Christ. After having witnessed Christ's example, the Apostle Mark, who established the Church in Egypt, started the first ascetic communities which continued this way of life. These communities had as their models the prophets of the Old Testament, and operated on the principles set forth in Acts 4:32. They came to be known as monasteries, and their inhabitants began to be called monks. The term "monk" was derived from the Greek word monos, which means single or alone—one who chooses to be alone with God. From these communities arose the great monastic saints of fourth-century Egypt.
The sixth-century monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Siani, Egypt, where Moses received the Ten Commandments.
One of the earliest records of a monk is the life of St. Anthony the Great (†356). When he was young his rich parents suddenly died and left all their wealth to him. Saddened by their death, he went one day into the church and heard the priest read from the Scriptures these words: If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give it to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in Heaven: and come and follow Me (Matthew 19:21).
Icon of St. Mary of Egypt, a former prostitute who went into the desert to live a life of repentance.
Hearing this his heart began
to burn for Christ. He then went home, gave away all his inheritance to the poor
and went off into the Egyptian desert to be alone with God. He lived there until
he was over a hundred years old—praying, fasting, denying himself normal
pleasures and reading the Holy Scriptures ( Mark 8:34-38). Hearing of his way of
life, thousands of others followed his example, and monasticism began to spread
far and wide. After St. Anthony died, the bishop of Alexandria, St. Athanasius
the Great, who was close to him, recorded his life for the inspiration of
others. This was the same Athanasius who was responsible for the Holy Scripture
known as the Bible that we have today. Athanasius brought this life of a saint
throughout the world and changed the face of history with the story of St.
Anthony, the illiterate monk who lived in a cave.
Photo of monks at a monastery on Mount Athos, Greece.
This way of life called
monasticism quickly spread throughout the world, preserving the same genuine
spirit of the early Church. Entire cities and societies found their beginnings
in the simple poverty of these monks. First a monk would settle in some
uninhabited place, then people would settle nearby to be close to him, and in
time villages would grow. In this way, monasticism and civilization spread
throughout Egypt, Israel, Ethiopia, Greece, Italy, Ireland, France, Romania,
Serbia, Russia and to the ends of the world.
THE GREAT SEPARATION
N THE VERY BEGINNING of the Christian Church the Apostles appointed successors to guide and guard the Church. These leaders were called presbyters, bishops and patriarchs. Presbyters were appointed as pastors of single churches, bishops were appointed as pastors over geographical areas that encompassed often hundreds of churches and patriarchs were spiritual advisors over the bishops and presbyters and all the churches. This form of hierarchy was carried over from the Old Testament times of Moses (Exodus 18:13-21, II Timothy 2:1-7).
Icon of the First Ecumenical Council of bishops, in 325 A.D.
there were hundreds of bishops throughout Christendom, there were only five
Patriarchs—one for each of the five important cities in the empire: Jerusalem,
Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Rome. All took counsel with one
another, having Christ as the head, and there was no one person who ruled the
Church. All significant decisions were made only in council (Acts 15), no one
patriarch or bishop having absolute superiority over another, but all working
together in equality. Through this hierarchy the Church had succeeded for
centuries in maintaining unity.
In the ninth century, however, the East and the West began to drift apart. The Patriarch (Pope) of Rome began to introduce new and foreign ideas into the Faith. One of these ideas was the supremacy of the Roman Pope over the rest of the Orthodox Church. The other four patriarchs of the Church in the East, knowing that having one supreme ruler over the entire Church would divide and corrupt the Church, unsuccessfully pleaded with the Pope of Rome not to introduce this new idea.
Another new idea that the Pope of Rome began to introduce was the changing of the age-old Christian Creed that had been established by the early Church. The Creed is a summary of the beliefs of the Christian Faith, established since the times of the Apostles and based on the Scriptures. The Church in the East warned the Western Church of the dangers of changing any part of the Faith and especially the very Creed itself. But the changes were already in full swing, and the bishops in the West had already began to adopt these new ideas, even though the believers resisted.
In these difficult times of division much dialogue took place between the Eastern Church and the Western Church in an attempt to work out their difference. Since the Orthodox Church would not compromise and allow any changes to be made in the Faith, in 1054 the Roman Patriarchate officially severed itself from the rest of the Church.
The division was based on issues of authority and theology, and underlying both these issues was the following dividing factor: In the East the Church was always looked at as something otherworldly which pointed believers towards Heaven, while in the West the Church began to become this-worldly, pointing believers towards an earthly organization rather than the one spiritual organism of the Body of Christ. Thus began "Organized Religion."
rest of Christendom tried to call Rome back to the orthodox understanding of
Christianity, Rome had already made its decision to part ways and would not turn
back. This was the first denomination (division) in Western Christendom, which
later proved to be the first of thousands.
Throughout the years after this devastating schism, the West experienced tremendous turmoil and corruption. The Crusades began, which evolved into an attack on the Church in the East. Then came the Inquisition, then the Renaissance which brought back pagan ideals and mixed them with Christianity, and finally the Protestant Reformation. The West experienced the "Dark Ages" or "Middle Ages," which marked the gradual transition between the ancient Christian world-view and the modern godless one. The East experienced no such Middle Ages, since there the Orthodox Church preserved the Christianity of the Apostles and the early Church.
Orthodoxy continued to endure martyrdom and persecution from the world—this time from the yoke of the Muslims. As with the persecution under the pagan Romans, suffering at the hands of the Muslims kept the Church pure by not allowing for luke-warmness of faith.
THE THIRD ROME
T ABOUT THE TIME of the falling away of the Roman Church, the Orthodox Church was enlarged by the conversion of an entire nation. This was the Slavic nation of Russia. The steps towards this conversion first began in the year 863 when two missionary monks from the Byzantine Empire, Sts. Cyril and Methodius, set foot in the Slavic lands of Bulgaria and Serbia. Through their labors, Christianity eventually reached Russia. Though they were from distant Constantinople, they were familiar with the Slavic people and language from their childhood. Since the Slavic people had no written language, St. Cyril devised the Slavonic alphabet from Greek in order to translate the Holy Scriptures. Hence the alphabet used in Slavonic countries today is called the "Cyrillic" alphabet.
Icon of Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius.
Although Sts. Cyril and Methodius brought the Gospel to the Slavic nations, the
full conversion of the Russian people took place one hundred years later. Russia
was almost totally pagan at that time, although there were small pockets of
Christianity thanks to the labors of the Apostle Andrew. Apostle Andrew had
preached throughout the land of Russia and placed crosses both in Kiev and on
the Lake Ladoga island of Valaam in the north.
Almost a thousand years after St. Andrew, in 988, the Russian Prince Vladimir decided that an official religion was necessary for his country. In search of the true faith he then investigated all the major religions of the world, sending an envoy to visit their churches and temples. After having observed different religions, the envoy returned to the Prince and said, "When we went to Greece and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, we knew not whether we were in Heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men and their service surpasses those of all other nations." The Prince accepted the Orthodox Christian Faith, was baptized, and ordered that all the idols of the nation be destroyed.
Icon of Saint Vladimir, Prince of Russia.
Photo of the St. Sergius Lavra in Russia.
It was not long before the entire Russian land
became a bastion of Christian spiritual life filled with many saints. Soon
churches covered the land, monasteries filled the vast wilderness, and golden
domes were seen towering over every city and village.
Then in 1453 a great tragedy occurred. The seat of the Byzantine Empire of Constantinople was over-taken by the Muslim Turks who had been warring against Christian nations for hundreds of years. The fall of Byzantium led to the rise of the New Byzantium—Holy Russia. It seemed as if Russia was called upon to preserve the Orthodox Faith. The first Rome had departed from Orthodoxy and the second had fallen. Thus, Moscow became the third Rome.
Just as in Byzantium, every aspect of life in Russia was centered around the Church and Christian spiritual life, yet there still arose the need for a much deeper, God-centered life that only the desert can offer. In Russia the harsh wilderness became the desert that offered solitude and austerity for the God-centered life called monasticism. The founding father of Russian monasticism was St. Anthony of Kiev (†1073). After having been formed as a monk on Mount Athos, Greece, he returned to his homeland and settled in a cave in Kiev. In a short time a whole monastery arose around that cave. Soon the monastic ideal spread throughout all of Russia, even to its deepest wilderness.
Icon of Saint Seraphim.
thousand years of Russian Christianity there were always saints who continued
the spirit of the early Christian Church. For example there was St. Seraphim of
Sarov (†1833), a monk who from childhood lived a very pure life. He had the
gifts of healing and unceasing prayer, and was seen surrounded by a magnificent,
unearthly light. This was the same Divine light that Christ shown upon His
Apostles so long ago and that His Apostles brought to the ends of the world
(Exodus 34:29-35, Matthew 17:1-2, Acts 9:3).
THE ENDS OF THE WORLD
HILE RUSSIA was at its spiritual height, a group of Orthodox missionaries was sent eastward across Siberia to the New World in order to spread the treasure of the Byzantine Christian Faith. In 1794, a mission team of ten monks was gathered from the Monastery of Valaam, the island where Apostle Andrew had preached the Christian Faith centuries before. In the spirit of the Apostles, these Russian monks sailed to Alaska, and through love and self-sacrifice brought thousands of the native peoples to the Christian Faith. One of these missionary monks met a martyr's end while another began monastic life in the New World, in the spirit of St. Anthony the Great and St. Anthony of Kiev. This was St. Herman (†1836), who became the first saint of the land of America. Thus, through Russia, the Christianity of the Apostles, of the catacombs, and of Byzantium was planted in American soil.
Icon of Saint Herman.
After the death of St. Herman the legacy of
Orthodox Christianity in the New World was continued by St. Innocent (†1879). He
was a simple priest from Siberia who had an unquenchable longing to give his
whole life to the service of God. This longing was met when he sailed to the
wilds of Alaska. There he traveled throughout this frontier just as the Apostles
did in other lands so long ago, living in hardships and difficulty, suffering
extreme poverty and battling the harsh elements of nature with the sole purpose
of making Heaven accessible to as many souls as possible. St. Innocent had to
create a written language for the natives of Alaska just as Sts. Cyril and
Methodius had done for their native people so long ago, so that these new
Christians could have the word of God in their own
St. Innocent was later chosen to be the Bishop of Alaska and continued to sacrifice himself for his flock. Then in old age he returned to his homeland where he was chosen to be the head of the Church of Russia (a position equal to that of a patriarch). While the head of the whole Russian Church he started missionary societies with the aim of spreading the Gospel to the ends of the world. After having lived a full life in the service of God, St. Innocent died in his homeland and found his rest with the saints in Heaven.
Less than twenty years later, a great luminary of the twentieth century was born in St. Innocent's homeland, who would one day continue the apostolic work in America. This was St. John Maximovitch. From childhood he loved Christ and His Church more than anything else in this world. This love was tested when his homeland of Russia became communist/atheist and underwent one of the bloodiest persecutions in the history of Christianity. The Church once again had to go into the catacombs in order to survive. In these difficult times God preserved St. John's life and he escaped to the Orthodox country of Serbia, where he later became a monk; and soon thereafter was made a bishop.
Photo of Saint John Maximovitch.
As a bishop and successor of the Apostles he went to China, where he founded
Orthodox churches. Here he started an orphanage and took care of unwanted
children. He would even go to the slums and find babies in garbage cans and take
them home. Later he was asked to be the bishop of San Francisco in the United
States where he continued his work of living and spreading the
Although he lived in the city, his way of life was like that of the desert monks of old. He prayed without ceasing, ate very little only once a day, slept only three hours a night, and wholly sacrificed himself for God and for his fellow man. He voluntarily chose this difficult way of life for the simple reason that Heaven was more important to him than the comforts of the earth. Through this he attained such heights of Christian perfection that he was seen several times surrounded in an unearthly light that emanated from him, and he was given the gift of working miracles. In 1966 St. John died and was laid to rest in San Francisco. To this day, along with St. Herman, St. Innocent, and all the saints of the Orthodox Church, he is revered for bringing the light of Christ to the ends of the world.
ROM THE TIME of the saints of
the early Church to the saints of our own day and age, the original Church of
Christ has been preserved as a treasure given to mankind by God Himself.
Throughout the centuries this universal Orthodox Church has maintained the
fullness of the Christian experience in continuity, theology, and spirituality.
It has given us the Liturgy, the Creed, the Bible, monasticism, and the whole of
the Christian world-view.
Icon of God in Trinity as He appeared to Abraham in the form of three angels (Genesis 18:1). In the middle Christ is represented in a chalice, formed by other angels, which symbolizes Communion.
This may come
as a surprise to those who thought that the divided and fragmented Christian
experience of the west was the only expression of the Church. Others, however,
who have discovered the Eastern Church find relief for their souls, which are
hungering for the ancient, historical Christian Church that the Apostles began,
and which still exists in our own times.
This Church extends from the saints in Heaven down to the believers here on earth in order to raise us from earth to the heights of Heaven (Hebrews 12:1, 22-24). Thus, the true essence of the Church cannot be found in its earthly institution but must be sought in the spiritual life of the Church which takes place in the heart; for it is within the heart that Christ reveals Himself.
Once Christ reveals Himself to a soul, the heart becomes a battleground where the Christian fights his way towards Heaven (Philippians 2:12). This battle, which is the lifelong struggle of good over evil and virtue over vice, is called Unseen Warfare (Ephesians 6:12), and is the essence of the spiritual life of a Christian. In conducting this struggle the soul becomes purified in order to make a place for the living God to come and dwell in it. This is the true and ultimate purpose of the Church. Everything else in life is only secondary.
It was in order to establish this Church that God came down to earth, became a man, suffered, died, resurrected from the dead, and ascended into Heaven. Through this God showed mankind the way from earth to Heaven, and gave us His Holy Church to be the place where Heaven and earth meet, and where communion with God begins (Ephesians 3:21, Matthew 16:18-19, John 20:19-23).
TO ENTER THE DOOR TO PARADISE:
ECAUSE Orthodoxy is the
fullness of ancient, apostolic Christianity, becoming a true Orthodox Christian
requires being a Christian in the fullest sense of the word, and that is not
easy. It takes a lifetime of constant unseen warfare, ascetic discipline,
self-denial, self-crucifixion, and active, selfless love. To be truly Orthodoxy,
you will have to die to yourself and "hate your life" (Luke 14:26)—that is, the
life of your own ego. You must die to self-love and sensual pleasure, which as
the Holy Fathers teach are the primary results of the Fall and the root of all
sin. You must look into yourself and face your sin, not just as separate acts
but as your condition. Then you must go about rooting out all of the most subtle
passions which separate you from God. You must overcome resentment by
forgiveness, which can only happen through the grace of Christ. You must cut off
all desire for popularity, acceptance, recognition, approval and "love," even
from other members of the Orthodox Church.
Christ said: Whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? (Luke 14:27-28). Many people do not take up the Cross of Christ because they see that it will require too much of them. Others take it up, but then, not having counted the cost, put it down when it gets too heavy. Still others, on becoming Orthodox, do so with worldly motives: the desire to be more "correct" and historically authentic than Protestants and Roman Catholics; the desire to experience the beautiful aesthetics of Orthodox liturgics, etc. In so doing, however, they never enter into the essence of Orthodox Christianity. Not having really taken up the Cross of Christ, they never really taste the unearthly joy of His Resurrection.
"He who wishes to serve God," says St. Basil the Great (4th century), "must prepare his heart for tribulations." The Orthodox Christian faith is a suffering faith (II Timothy 3:12), because through suffering we can at last wake up to our true condition, repent, be purified by Christ, and in that purification become a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. The great fourth-century theologian, St. Gregory Nazianzen, described true Christianity as "suffering Orthodoxy." To take it up is to take up the most radical, demanding, all-or-nothing life possible. All false motives must fall away, burned up in the fire of suffering for Jesus Christ. You must taste, to the degree of which you are capable, the suffering, persecution, and crucifixion that the Orthodox saints have experienced throughout the ages. To enter into their heavenly company, you must pay the price. Christ said: Straight is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it (Matthew 7:14). That narrow way is found through pain of heart and years of repentance. According to your yearning and your striving, you will enter; you will taste the fruits of Paradise even in this life, and Christ will fill your sufferings with His presence. Then you will know the joy of the Resurrection, for you will have experienced a resurrection in you own soul. You will be a new being on the inside, and you will find the Kingdom of Heaven within you (Luke 17:21).
Though the Holy Mysteries (the Roman West along with their bastard children known as Protestants limits or calls the Holy Mysteries "Seven Sacraments" in error), the Scripture, the spiritual discipline and the ascetic teachings of the Orthodox Church, you will find the Door to Paradise. And then, in your own heart, your own inward being, you will find Paradise itself. You will find what true prayer is, and you will find Him who has been calling you all your life: Christ, the Bridegroom of your soul.