Change is at the heart of our Christian faith
Change for the better: Ecumenism and the Orthodox concept of salvation was the subject addressed by Dr Michael Kennedy as part of a service during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at the Orthodox Chapel of St Mary and St Felix, Babingly, West Norfolk.
When one thinks of the Orthodox Churches, maybe the last thing that comes to mind is the word ‘change’. Orthodoxy seems to be the epitome of that which is changeless. Orthodox worship can appear timeless, perhaps because the Orthodox Liturgy generally continues far longer than most Western church services, but there is also a sense of timelessness in that the ancient liturgical forms are preserved and cherished.
A visit to an Orthodox monastery, for example to one of the Coptic monasteries in the Egyptian desert, prompts feelings of going back in time, of nothing really changing, of a deeper more ancient life of prayer and worship. It is, of course, an illusion, a comforting one, but an illusion nonetheless. We only have to open our Bibles, almost anywhere, to demonstrate this: from Genesis to Revelation Christianity is all about change.
This is not to argue that we ourselves must now rush around changing everything; change is not always a good thing. We need to understand where and what change is needed, and how best we can effect it before we get caught up in change for change’s sake, in a mistaken quest to modernise or get up to date.
What change can we identify that might be required of all Christians? The theme for this year’s week of prayer affirms that ‘change is at the heart of our Christian faith’, and cites St Paul’s argument that ‘anyone who is in Christ is a new creation’. I would like to examine that from an Orthodox perspective and to reflect on how it might help us in our quest towards ecumenism.
An important part of the Orthodox theology of salvation is the concept of theosis or ‘deification’. These are very precise theological terms and I use them here with some hesitation as they can be easily misunderstood or misinterpreted, often wilfully so by people intent on causing division and distress. Put simply theosis means that we come to share in the divine nature; as St Athanasius the Apostolic memorably expressed it, ‘For the Word of God became a human being that we might become God . . . . ‘(1) This is the final goal to which all Christians without exception should aspire.
But before turning to the means by which this goal is to be achieved I think it prudent to list some of the caveats, as this concept may easily be distorted and misunderstood. First, partaking of the divine nature must not be confused with sharing in the divine essence. Again these are very precise theological and philosophical terms which need careful distinction. Sharing in the divine nature means that we share in the divine energies, energies being expressed in a number of different ways in scripture, among others, ‘glory’, ‘life’, ‘love’, light and ‘virtue’. ‘Believe in the light’, says our Lord, ‘that you may become sons of light’. (Jn 12:36)
Second, it follows that union with God is not a blurring of the distinctions between Man and God, as some oriental religions argue, in that we are eventually going to being swallowed up in the godhead. Nothing could be further from Orthodox Christianity. The anticipated mystical union between God and Man is a genuine union but one in which we retain our identity and our integrity. Third, theosis is not anticipated for an exclusive elect but rather for all faithful people and furthermore it is not a solitary, individual process but a social one: we are transformed in community; we are saved in the Church.
His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, Pope and Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, has written very extensively on our salvation and he offers clear and reliable guidance. (2) It’s worth noting in passing that he rarely, if ever, uses the terms theosis or deification, although these are found widely used by many fathers of the church, in particular St Athanasius. ‘For therefore the union was of this kind’, writes St Athanasius in his Second Discourse against the Arians, ‘that he might unite what is man by nature to him who is in the nature of the godhead, and that his salvation and deification might be sure’. (3) His Holiness prefers instead always to talk of salvation, which he notes is inconceivable apart from our close relationship with God and outside our knowledge of Him, as distinct from merely intellectual knowledge about Him.
Most importantly of all His Holiness makes it very clear that we have a role to play. Our salvation is dependent upon freely given grace but we must choose to accept it and declare our acceptance through practical faith. In other words there can be no separation between faith and works, no priority of one over the other, for ‘faith without works is dead’. (Jas 2:14) ‘Good deeds’ are important to our salvation but we need to be careful once again about how we interpret this precept. We cannot trust in our own strength or our own righteousness as works carried out in this way are ineffective, and those works which stem from a literal following of the law are equally useless. Works cannot be separated from faith but works cannot be effective without the believer asking for the grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The church, the Body of Christ, is the means of our salvation and it is ‘through the church that God makes known His redeeming wisdom even to the heavenly hosts’. (Ephesians 3:10) We become members of the church through baptism where we receive rebirth and become a new creation in Christ. We die with Him and are raised with Him. Through baptism we achieve a state of union with God through grace. (4) The late Fr Matta El-Meskeen, known in the West as Matthew the Poor, emphasises that ‘this union in its perfect sense of a life with God cannot be fully realised except at the resurrection but we have been granted in this life the means of grace, commandments, and a divine power by which to conquer sin, the world, and the life of this age. We thus have a new door opened before us . . . through which,’ he continues, ‘we can have . . . a foretaste of union with God in communion of love and in obedience’. (5)
The spiritual life that I have tried to describe might, I suggest, be simple in theory but not in practice. It is a counsel of perfection but it is not unrealistic or completely unattainable. It is a life lived in community, in the church, the Body of Christ. I have suggested that it has many facets, including prayer, worship, sacraments, and obedience. All of these are important but one deserves further emphasis here. Prayer is stressed again and again by the Fathers and by the Saints, by our Bishops and fathers today. It is an important means whereby we might seriously and practically further our desire for that mystical union between God and Man.
Fr Matta gives us many different approaches to and reflections on prayer. One of these, the discipline of continual prayer, is very common throughout all the Orthodox churches although it takes subtly different forms at different times and in different places. Most well known perhaps is the Jesus Prayer of the Eastern Orthodox, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’, which is widely practised. Continual prayer goes back to the very beginnings of the church and in its most ancient form, originating with the Desert Fathers, it is a constant repetition of the first verse of Psalm 70 (Septuagint 69): ‘O God make speed to save me: O Lord make haste to help me’. Fr Matta observes that such a discipline requires much determination, perseverance and commitment but what a wonderful expression of our longing for salvation, for union!
Where does this leave us with regard to ecumenism, to the unity of the church? The theme for this year’s week of prayer for Christian Unity reminds us that: ‘Change is at the heart of our Christian faith and also at the heart of the ecumenical movement. . . . When we pray for the unity of the church we are praying that the churches that we know and which are so familiar to us will change as they conform more closely to Christ.’
I would argue that ‘conforming more closely to Christ’ can be interpreted as that sharing in the divine nature that I have tried to outline here. We have to overcome our natural resistance to change and being changed, and we have to persevere. I have many times quoted my favourite aphorism from the lives of the Desert Fathers, of the monk who when asked what he did in his monastery all day replied, ‘we fall down and we get up again, we fall down again and we get up again’. This we must do as well, for we will sin, we will fall down, fall short of what God wants us to become, time and time again.
No one should pretend that there are no practical difficulties to overcome in our quest for unity but prayer is an ideal place to begin. So too is dialogue and a willingness to share our particular beliefs and understandings. May our prayers this week and always bring us ever closer to unity, unity with the divine nature and unity with each other, through the intercessions of St Mary the Mother of God and all the Saints. ‘O God make speed to save us, O Lord make haste to help us’.
1. Louth, A. (1997) Wisdom of the Greek fathers. (Oxford, Lion Publishing, 1997.) p.26
2. Pope Shenouda, H.H. Salvation in the Orthodox Concept. (Cairo, COP n.d.)
3. El-Meskeen, Fr.M. (2003) Orthodox Prayer Life. (Crestwood NY, SVS Press, 2003) p.106
4. Meskeen, op.cit. p.104
5. Meskeen, op.cit. p.107
Subdeacon Michael Kennedy is a member of the British Orthodox Church within the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria. He worked for many years in Higher Education before taking early retirement in 2003. He worships at the Orthodox Church of St Alban and St Athanasios, Chatham, Kent.
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