Taking the Name “Christian”
As I read the Gospel for this week I noticed that in the title, “The rich man and Lazarus,” the rich man has no name. Names are so important. One of the very first things we do when we meet someone is to ask their name. Names are much more than letters that have been strung together. Ben. . .David. . .Mary. . . John. Names indicate who we are. So, for the rich man not to have a name is very significant. He has lost his humanity. There are many lessons to be learned from the rich man and Lazarus but we need to be clear about our name in order to make progress on the path.
To claim the name Christian means that we accept and embrace what the name implies. We are followers of Christ. When we are the ones who define what that means, then the result is as different as there are people in the world.
When we take the name of Orthodox Christian, we are saying that we embrace the definition of Christian that the Orthodox Church has consistently embraced for over two thousand years. And then we do our best to conform our lives to Christ in the context of our particular community and do our best to only use the definitions as a tool to live the Christian life and not a goal in and of themselves.
The book definition of “Orthodox” is right belief or right praise. But when I first started to ask questions about Orthodoxy, I only heard variations of the same thing: “It’s hard to explain, one has to live it,” or “Orthodoxy is a way of life.” Today, I find myself giving those same kind of answers to people because I have found that those answers are the most accurate. Our life in Christ is certainly more than just having the “right belief”.
So I will attempt to give a more complete explanation. Some things stand out more than others. In Orthodox worship we cross ourselves a lot, we sing Lord have mercy a lot, we stand, we bow, make prostrations, we process, women wear head coverings, we fast, we kiss icons and relics—all of which appears very strange to first timers. In addition we participate in a sacramental life. These things come across as nothing more than externals. But they are essential to our worship and life. It is tempting to try and explain these things by saying that we are focusing on the inner spiritual experience that these outward acts support. But that would be more than a lie. We define our humanity through the lens of our Trinitarian God. There is a physical side to being spiritual. We cannot live a Christian life in our minds alone. We can begin to understand these things in a rational way by being around Orthodox Christians, or reading the Church Fathers, or the lives of the saints. But our goal is so far beyond a cognitive understanding of Christianity that there are no words to express the thought. Our goal is to live the Gospel, our goal is Christ our King and our God. We are not content just to get through this life so we can enjoy heaven. We believe that we have access to the Kingdom here and now. We believe that is a great battle raging all around us for the possession of our souls. We believe that we are engaged in a great spiritual war and that we are not alone in that battle, in fact we believe that we are saved together and that we make our way to hell as an individual. Our Lord has won the war by His voluntary death burial and resurrection, but the battle rages on. We not only have our visible brothers and sisters to help in the battle but also all the saints and the angels.
So Orthodox Christianity is not just a liturgy, or belief, or pattern of behavior. If that’s all a person has they will end up spiritually dead; Orthodox Christianity is a reality or power that transforms us and gives us the strength to live in the most difficult and tormenting conditions, and prepares us to depart with peace into eternal life. But in order to be exposed to this transforming power we use belief and liturgy and patterns of behavior. As we live our life we do our best to conform everything we do and everything we are to our Lord and savior. The essence of a true Orthodox life is godliness or piety which is, “holding what is God’s in honor.” This is deeper than just right doctrine; it is the entrance of God into every aspect of life. It is a life lived in trembling and awe of God.
This attitude produces the Orthodox Way of Life which is not just the outward behaviors that most associate with Orthodoxy, but the whole conscious struggle for Theosis. This conscious struggle, this way of life is centered on the Liturgy, which should be celebrated every day. This produces a genuine Orthodox community. This community is known by its feeling of lightness, joy, and inward quietness. Non-Orthodox people can’t even imagine what this experience of community might be, and almost always dismiss it as something “subjective” but no one who has wholeheartedly participated in the life of a true Orthodox community, monastic or lay, will ever doubt the reality of this Orthodox feeling.
An orthodox lifestyle does not happen automatically it must be created by us with the help of God’s grace. Even if this potential is seldom realized it must still be our goal and desire. Wear a head covering, ask for a blessing, come early to church and just pray silently for a few minutes, cross yourself in public. Participate in the sacrament of repentance more than just a few times a year.
Unfortunately there is no “formula” or program for the truly God-pleasing Orthodox life; anything outward can become a counterfeit; everything depends on the state of the soul, which must be trembling before God, having the law of God before it in every area of life, every moment keeping what is God’s in honor, in the first place in our life.
Even if we lived in an “orthodox country” this goal would not be easy, but we live in a place and time when man has become a god unto himself. This way of life is called secular humanism. I quote from their website:
Because no transcendent power will save us, secular humanists maintain that humans must take responsibility for themselves.
Human happiness and social justice are the larger goals of the secular humanist ethics. Ethics are a systematic inquiry into the conditions (of the world, of individual persons, and of groups of persons) that permit humans to flourish.”7 These conditions include freedom from want and fear, freedom of conscience, freedom to inquire, freedom to self-govern, and so on. Undergirding all of these is a keen commitment to individualism. Secular humanism takes upon itself the Enlightenment project of emancipating individuals from illicit controls of every type: the political control of repressive regimes; the ecclesiastical control of organized religion; even the social controls of societal and family expectations, conventional morality, and the tyranny of the village. This does not mean that anything goes but rather that social and political limits on human freedom must be justified by the individual and social benefits they confer.
In my opinion, this is the greatest danger to the Orthodox way of life in our time. Because secular humanism does not think that going to church is wrong, or having faith is wrong, what is wrong is believing that there can be any transformation or change in our life. Their message is go to church pray to your God believe what you want, but in the end, you will blend in with the rest of society because our society tells us what is true and what is false. I believe that secular humanism is alive and well in every part of Christianity including Orthodoxy. I am a secular priest, but I want to change. I believe that the rich man in the Gospel was a secular humanist. The danger is that this kind of philosophy leads men away from God, not by a conscious intellectual attack on God or the “value” of faith, but by an attitude of laxness and unawareness when it comes to the spiritual life or a visible concrete difference between us and the world. The Orthodox answer to a secular life is a conscious Orthodox philosophy and way of life. Just being poor and hungry like Lazarus does not guarantee a life in Christ, it was the condition of the heart of Lazarus that made a difference, humility patience, and love.