THE HEART OF OUR CHRISTIAN FAITH
Fred Mark Shaheen
Orthodox Christians, we may be confronted from time to time by inquiries from
the curious regarding the nature of our faith: What exactly do the Orthodox
believe? How is your faith different from that of Roman Catholics and
Protestants? There are several ways to address such questions.
We could recite
the Nicene Creed, which gives a concise summary of the most fundamental beliefs
of the Church; we could refer the individual to some introductory literature
about our faith, such as The Orthodox Church by Kallistos Ware; we might
produce an icon and then
explain what is represented and how we as Orthodox Christians understand the
function of sacred art in our acts of worship. Clearly the most appropriate way
to introduce a neophyte to the Orthodox Faith is to take him or her to church,
because it is impossible to define who we are and what we believe without
taking into account what we do.
Church, it is our corporate acts of worship, primarily the Divine Liturgy, that
have remained inextricably linked to the doctrine of our faith for nearly two
millennia. To the uninitiated, some aspects of those acts, for example, the
lavish decor of our houses of worship; exotic strains of chant and prayers in
unfamiliar tongues; innumerable shifts of standing, sitting, and making the
sign of the cross; watching the entire congregation queue up to receive the
Eucharist from a single cup, might not make much sense without a context of
According to the late Alexander Schmemann, there exist two
essential elements by which we define ourselves as the Church: 1) what we
believe; and, 2) how we worship, i.e., what we do when we gather together. These
two aspects should never be separated from each other because each is an
essential component of the whole. Undue emphasis on creeds alone tends to breed
a kind of pure philosophy devoid of spiritual meaning, while the practice of
elaborate rituals without a context of faith can result in an empty piety.
define our Orthodox Faith simply by creeds is erroneous. It is the unified
acts of the whole Church as a single body, namely what Schmemann calls the act,
the celebration of the Eucharist, that separate it from the tenuous world of
ideas and objects.
The gathering together of one body of believers to partake
of the Lord’s Supper perpetuates the presence in this world of the living Word
of God. The Apostle Peter speaks directly to that body of believers when he
says, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own
people” (1 Peter 2:9). In the life of the Church today, the full implication of
his words is too often neglected.
We falsely believe that priesthood belongs
only to the hierarchical administration. Consequently, the notion of the
Eucharist as an exclusive event between God and the priests flourishes like a
heresy and corrupts the integrity of the Body of Christ.
is, our Church takes on characteristics of a child from a broken home: lacking
the nurturing elements of a rule of faith and a rule of worship, each having
been divorced from the other, she is impaired in her ability to effectively
live out her role in the world. Too often our churches are filled with congregations
whose participation in worship services is rote and ritualistic.
People tend to
relegate attendance at Divine Liturgy to a task, one more hour-and-a-half to
suffer through so they can get on with what is truly important in their lives.
As Orthodox Christians, to say that the Divine Liturgy is merely important is
to deprive it of its rightful preeminence. It is the celebration of the Divine
Liturgy, the regular gathering together of the faithful on the first day of the
new creation to enter as one body in Christ into the Kingdom to come, that is
the act of worship, the sole purpose for our existence as the Church.
the Eucharistic celebration, at the moment of the consecration of the gifts,
the priest calls down the Holy Spirit upon the altar; he beseeches him to
change the bread and wine into the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Theologically, most Orthodox understand and accept that particular aspect of
the Divine Liturgy. In Liturgy and Tradition, Alexander Schmemann presents the
Lord’s Supper from another perspective. He describes the path between this
world and the Kingdom in terms of a two-way street. The priest, on behalf of
the Church, does indeed invoke the Spirit of God at that moment of
Simultaneously, he elevates the entire
Church, stands at its head and lifts it upward as one body, its members united
in Christ, to taste together the Kingdom of Heaven.
this particular understanding of the Eucharist more universally preached, how
many members of the congregation would stand idly in the back of the Church
during the Divine Liturgy? Who among them would be able to resist rushing forward
to be as close as possible to the miraculous advent? How many would willingly
forego participation in such a self-defining act of ascension as is the Lord’s
Supper? Unfortunately, for many, the celebration of the Eucharist is what the
priest does, something to be observed, but kept at a distance, For many, those
words, “holy things are for the holy” translate as “this is between God and the
clergy!” The pathology of mere physical/mental participation in worship reduces
the Eucharistic celebration to a performance, a liturgy of the spectator.
cannot be overemphasized that what we as Orthodox Christians do is inseparable
from what we believe. An overview of the Church’s fundamental beliefs, all of
which are rooted in Scripture and Tradition, are delineated in the Nicene
Creed. To an outsider, then, it might seem sufficient to read the Bible,
memorize the Creed, and study the writings of the Church fathers to understand
what it means to be an Orthodox Christian.
The problem with such an approach is
that it is based on academic theology alone. More precise definition of the
tenets of our faith, the exact shape they take as worship, has been formulated
through centuries of practical application. The Orthodox Church has existed for
two thousand years, not merely on a list of beliefs or an accepted canon of
Rather, her perseverance is a result of her maintaining the
integrity of her purpose: The active participation of the Body of Christ in
this world until He comes again in His glory.
that participation, the miraculous event that happens each Sunday, transcends
intellectual hypotheses. As one body of believers, the Church defines herself
not according to natural laws or philosophy. First, she presupposes the Good
News: that Jesus Christ is Lord.
All else, every sacrament, every doctrine, the
Nicene Creed, the theology of icon veneration, proceeds from this one point
and is contingent on the truth of it.
the faith of the Orthodox must be Eucharist-centered if it is to preserve the
integrity of the very Church our Lord commanded his apostles to establish. Our
rule of faith should reflect the primacy of our acts of worship, particularly
the act, regular participation of the Church in the Lord’s Supper. When Philip,
our Lord’s disciple, was asked if anything good can come out of Nazareth, he
answered, “come and see” (John 1:46). To an outsider who would inquire of us
what exactly Orthodox Christians believe, our reply should be, “come and
Mark Shaheen is a student at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary,