Seeing Real Christianity
The theme of the Archdiocese Convention that is convened this week is “My House shall be called a House of Prayer for all Nations.” There are many themes that could be developed from this theme: the importance of prayer, and our call to be open to the world. Orthodoxy is apostolic—we have the apostolic faith and we are sent, which is the other meaning of the word “apostolic.” But HOW are we present? How do we go out into a world with our faith, a faith so personal, so profound, it’s often hard to express in words.
Some from our non-Orthodox brothers take a very active approach, which they call witnessing. Many Orthodox criticize this approach, calling for a more passive approach. They quote St. Seraphim who is famous for saying “Save yourself and thousands around you will be saved.” We are sure the beauty of our icons, hymnology and worship is all it will take convince them of the truth of our Faith.
In my family’s time as a missionaries in Mexico, and as a mission priest in this Archdiocese at the beautiful community of Holy Apostles in Bowling Green, KY, I bought into this philosophy. We put up an attractive sign, designed a good looking website, and encouraged our people to be welcoming to visitors. Many came and saw—a few hundred in five years. But surprisingly, few came back.
The reality is, it’s good to do both; both apostolic preaching and Godly spirituality and hospitality have been practiced by Orthodox throughout our history. It’s also important to know each had an important ingredient that in reality is the primary method of opening the doors of our Houses of Prayer to all nations.
What is that essential quality, without which our expression of faith is incomplete? Where do we look for that? No further than to listen to the words of our divine services. In the Vespers service for last night, we begin our annual celebration of St. Paraskeve, the Virgin Martyr of Rome. Born to Christian parents in Rome, when her parents died, she gave away her goods to the poor and, following the example of the Holy Apostles, began walking about the countryside preaching the Gospel and converting many people to Christ. This took considerable courage, because at that time both Jews and Romans were persecuting Christians.
Time and time again, she would be arrested, threatened with torture and death, and was open to receiving whatever God saw fit to allow her to suffer. St. Paraskeve was heedless of any danger and continued her missionary labors, everywhere spreading the holy Gospel. This cycle was repeated several times until she was arrested one last time and when the ruler saw that nothing would persuade her to deny Christ, he ordered that the saint’s head be cut off with a sword. She received her martyr’s wreath in about the year 180.
And in her example, we see that essential quality for authentic Christian witness. That quality which makes the expression of our faith truly authentic: the unmistakable love of a martyr. The love of a Christian martyr is so powerful because the Lord we serve was and is Himself a Martyr. He lived a life and died a death which spoke more loudly and clearly even than His penetrating words. To see the witness of Christ is to see the love of God, and to see the witness of the martrys is to see the love of Christ.
Though the full measure of sacrifice may come to few of us, we cannot deny the witness of history: the blood of the martyrs was and remains, the seed of the Church.
A few months ago, a bus filled with Coptic Orthodox pilgrims was attacked. One by one the pilgrims were threated with death if they didn’t reject their Christian faith. One by one, they all showed their love for God in their willingness to die for Him. We witnessed the power of true faith in the courage and love shown by those New Martyrs
While we mourn the persecution that has come once again to Arab Christians in the Middle East, we must also acknowledge that this tragedy may be used providentially by God to stem the tide of Christianity which had been in decline in many places in recent decades.
Not all of us will be called to offer that measure of sacrifice, but that does not relieve us of the choice to live a martyric Christianity in the ways that the circumstances of our lives provide. Will we suffer past the shame we feel to allow any aspect of our faith be seen? We are open to living lives of luxury. We thank God for His many blessings, but will we be willing to suffer from a generosity so powerful it requires sacrifice? Will we share in the sufferings of the poor, to such an extent that our words of sympathy are backed by deeds that lead us to suffer with them?
St. Paraskeve, like all the saints, drew many to the House of Prayer for all Nations that is the Church. Her love for Christ wasn’t a doctrinal statement, as important as those are. She spoke in words, but more importantly in the deeds that offer the world a true chance to see what those words mean.
We see the saints like St. Paraskeve, and for too long we define them as OTHER; different than who we are. The Saints do not define the exceptions to the norm; they define Christian life as the norm, yes even for us. And it is time we rededicate ourselves and live by that definition.
The work of this Archdiocese, from the ministry of our hierarchs and their clergy, to our departments and organizations, all lead us to live this life of sacrificial love which makes Christ present. How many times do our leaders complain “I cant find anyone to work.” If all we’re doing is business and pushing around reports, what are we doing?
But that is not all we’re doing. Our ministry—when done as it should be—is the living out of our love for God, which is shown in the love of our neighbor, especially the neediest among us. For too many, the world has become dark, lonely, cold. But Christ is light, love, and life. And by loving Him with a martyr’s love, we can bring that light, love and life to all Nations, and invite all to join us in the House of Prayer, the Church, where all people belong.