A lot of Americans are not acquainted with Eastern Orthodox Christianity at all. In my childhood, it was assumed that Christians were either Catholic or Protestant. The Eastern Orthodox existed in the U.S for a long time isolated in ethnic (Greek, Russian, Serbian) conclaves, usually in big cities. Rural and suburban Americans seldom came into contact with them.
In recent years many young people from other traditions have found a home in Eastern Orthodoxy. It has happened in my own family. One of my sons, raised as a mainline Protestant, and his wife, raised in a Pentecostal denomination, have joined the Eastern Orthodox.
The first of the Four Views on Christian Spirituality comes out in an essay by Bradley Nassif. He calls it Orthodox Spirituality, a Quest for Transfigured Humanity.
Every Eastern Orthodox Church in the world has a book of the four gospels right in the middle of its altar. There is an engraving of the crucifixion on one side of the cover and an engraving of the resurrection on the other side. This means that Orthodox spirituality and worship have the story of Jesus as their center.
This story of Jesus is the gospel, but it is a gospel with a depth. Nassif describes it this way:
“The good news of salvation comes from his eternal Trinitarian relations, his life, his death, his resurrection, his exaltation, the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church at Pentecost, his ascension, his intercession, and his second coming. As Messiah and Savior, he is preeminently the crucified and risen Lord and Son of God.” (Four Views on Christian Spirituality (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) (Kindle Locations 466-469). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.)
From this Nassif says that Orthodox spirituality focuses on Jesus in his Trinitarian relations. He goes on to talk about how this gets expressed in a lived spirituality through worship, theology, monastic life, and mission.
Let us go back to the idea of a spirituality focused on Jesus in his Trinitarian relations, because I am sure this phrase is obscure to a lot of us. The doctrine that speaks to God coming to earth in Jesus is the doctrine of the Incarnation. This arises from John 1:14 where the gospel says that “the Word became flesh.” Incarnation means becoming flesh. Orthodox spirituality is incarnational. In practice this means that spirituality has a bodily expression. Particularly it gets expressed through the use of all five senses.
There is a part of the essay where he explains why the Orthodox have historically stood up against certain heresies. One of the heresies was iconoclasm, the idea that we should not use images in worship. Graven images was forbidden in the Hebrew Scriptures. There were some who, therefore, wanted to forbid the use of any kind of image in Christian worship or spirituality.
While condemning the worship of images, the Orthodox affirmed the “making and reverencing” of icons. Icons are artistic representations of the gospel. The Orthodox use them because they are consistent with the enfleshment of Christ. Since God entered the material world in Christ, it is now appropriate to use material icons to aid spirituality.
This incarnational use of the material and the sensual goes way beyond just icons and will impress those who visit Orthodox worship services. The impression will be that of the beauty of their worship.
The highlight of the essay for me was his description of an Orthodox resurrection service. Just before midnight before Easter Sunday the priest leads a procession. He and the people sing a hymn that looks forward to the triumph of Christ as march around the church building three times. Finally they stop before the closed front door.
The priest bangs the door three times with the cross and calls out in the words of Psalm 24 for the gates to open. A voice behind the doors, representing Satan who has the keys to the grave, responds. The priest strikes the door again. Satan responds again and the doors stay closed. Finally the priest speaks again,
“(again striking the doors): ‘Lift up your heads, O you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in!’ Satan: ‘Who is this King of glory?’ Priest (opening wide the doors of the church and declaring the last line): ‘The LORD of hosts — he is the King of glory!’ The people reenter the sanctuary, led by the priest, who is holding a lighted candle and the Book of the Gospels as they all sing the triumphal hymn. . .” (Four Views on Christian Spirituality (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) (Kindle Locations 557-562). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.)
Nassif discusses the sacraments and how these material things and actions also show the incarnational nature of the gospel. He discusses how the church calendar and seasonal cycles of intense fasting and prayer contribute to Orthodox spirituality. He talks about how the use of prayer manuals at home integrate private spirituality with community life. He calls Orthodox spirituality a “holistic spirituality.”
OK, that is enough for now. I will have to do another post to talk about a little more of his essay and the three responses to it.