As an Eastern Orthodox Christian living in the southeast United States, I know and talk to several people who either ascribe to some form of Protestantism or to Roman Catholicism. Although I often get mistaken for a Catholic at first (people tend to think this if they see me cross myself and mistake my prayer rope for a rosary), people seem surprised when I tell them that I am an Orthodox Christian. I most often get some variation of these two questions after telling people that I am Orthodox:
“What exactly is Orthodox Christianity?” and/or “Oh, so you’re Greek or Russian or something?”
The first question takes a great deal of care and precision to answer, and that answer can be quite lengthy. Entire books have been written to answer that question. However, when given a limited amount of time, the answer I generally give is somewhere along the lines of, “Orthodoxy is the oldest form of Christianity in history; it keeps the faith that Christ taught and the Apostles preached. She is the Church, which, ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against…’” (Matthew 16:18). The answer second question takes a bit more of an interesting turn. When I tell people, “No; I converted to Orthodoxy.” people almost immediately respond with the question, “Why?” This is an excellent question, and I will try answer what I can of it in the remaining portion of this article.
The answer begins with my parents, actually. I was raised in a very devout Presbyterian household. I prayed the Our Father, the Apostle’s Creed, and several Psalms on a daily basis with my dad and brother. I had been reading the scriptures since I was able to read. My father, an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church of America, taught me what theology I could understand and gave me books on theology as I became able to read and understand them. My dad loved God more than almost anyone I knew and was very devoted to God and to the church we went to. Then, one day, my dad told me that my family would no longer go to the church we had gone to since we had moved to Atlanta when I was five years old. This both saddened me and confused me. Why would my dad leave the church he obviously loved and cared about so much? What could have caused this to happen?
I would later learn that there were two main answers to those questions. The first answer had to do with some doubts and questionings over theology that had occurred during a prayer meeting at our church. The second answer had to do with my father becoming disillusioned with Calvinist style theology after reading about church history and the writings of an Anglican theologian by the name N.T. Wright.
Although my father tried to explain these things to me, my anger and sadness blinded me to the point where I refused to understand any explanation my father gave for leaving our church. I was upset and refused to forgive. Then, my father started to take me with him to Divine Liturgies (the name for the typical Eucharistic service of the Orthodox Church) on Sundays at the nearest Orthodox Church to our house. I was utterly confused the first time I went to a Divine Liturgy. A language was being spoken that I did not understand. There was a man wearing a funny hat and a robe that led the prayers, who would occasionally swing a bowl with a chain attached to it that had smoke coming out of it (known as a censer, I would later learn). People were crossing themselves and kissing pictures of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints. All of this was foreign to me. I did not know what to think.
The easiest way for me to process this lack of understanding was to get even more upset and blame my father. But my father chose not get upset at me in return, even though I was upset at him. He showed me love and acceptance when I showed him disdain and rejection. He explained as best as he could when I had questions about what was going on. This, in part, is what tore down my defenses of anger and sadness. Eventually, I was able to forgive. And then I began to finally think about the theology that was presented to me in the Orthodox Church.
The first major difference that my father explained to me was the differences in the views of salvation between the Orthodox Church and the Presbyterian view I had previously believed. I had previously believed that once one, “accepts Christ into their heart,” they are “saved,” meaning that God has chosen not to see their sin because of Christ’s death and now they are guaranteed to lead a disembodied life with Christ in heaven after they die. My dad explained to me that this was not how the Church has historically understood salvation. The ancient Christian understanding of salvation teaches that God chooses to become incarnate as a human in order to suffer with humanity. God is rejected by His own creation because their hearts are hard; they do not have ears to hear or eyes to see. Christ (being God, a member of the Holy Trinity) preaches to the multitudes; He heals the sick; He comforts the afflicted; He raises the dead. And when humanity, not being able to stand the Creator in their midst that reminded them of their own sinfulness, had had enough of God, they decide to kill Him. Christ enters into death, and destroys it, rising from the dead as the Conqueror of sin and death and hell, having set the captives free. God offers eternal life to all humanity, which is to, “know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). However, being weakened by our sinful nature, humanity often chooses sin over knowledge of and communion with God. Thus, God sends the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth, to help us put off the old man and clothe ourselves with the new. Thus, a Christian is saved to the degree that he or she becomes like Christ, Who, being without sin, is the truly human One (for humanity, created in the image and likeness of God, became, “less human” so to speak after the Fall, having rejected the image in which they were made). Thus salvation is often called, “theosis” in the Orthodox Church, meaning union with God. And, being united with God, we shall retreat from the possibility of Christ saying to us on the last day, “I never knew you.” for God will recognize us, being like Himself (Matthew 7:23).
What attracted me to this view of salvation is that it insisted that I do something with my life as a Christian; being passive about my salvation because I believed that God had willingly blinded Himself to my own sinfulness was simply not an option. My own sin is real, and if God takes it seriously, then so should I. But this work of being healed from sin in order to become like God is not my own work exclusively. Christ is the Great Physician who heals me of my illness, which is sin. It is simply my job to cooperate and follow the Doctor’s orders and to use the tools He has given me to become well.
And where are the tools that the Doctor has given me? They are in the hospital of the soul, which is the Church. For over twenty centuries the Church has preserved everything a Christian needs to become like Christ: confession for my soul to be healed and forgiven, holy unction for the healing of both my soul and my physical body, the Eucharist so that I may partake of the body and blood of Christ and be strengthened by Christ’s life living inside of me, as well as many other tools that I will need to kill this sickness.
When my heart became open to the ancient Christian understanding of salvation, everything else slowly started to fall into place. I began to see the Divine Liturgy as a beautiful expression of our thanks to God and as participation in the life and suffering of Christ. I began to see iconography and venerating the holy icons as a way for us to show love to God and His Most Holy Mother and all the saints. I began to see confession as a way for me to be assured of divine forgiveness and to root out my own passions and sins. I saw what I had longed for my whole life but had never known I was missing: the fullness of the faith, once for all delivered to the saints.
And so, on Christmas Eve of 2014, I entered the Church and became an Eastern Orthodox Christian along with my older brother. The journey has not been easy since then; the constant struggle against sin and temptation is difficult. But Christ is present and gives me His strength; the Church is present and encourages me to fight the good fight; God’s Mother and the saints are present to pray for me. I have everything I could ever need to become a saint; the only obstacle there to stop me is myself.
And so, on this day, let us give thanks to God, Who has given us everything we need to become like Christ, persevered in His Church unchanged for over two-thousand years. To Him belongs all glory, honor, and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
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