“Why are you an Orthodox Christian?”
Over the years, I’d say I’ve gotten that question asked of me in about every possible way. The person might mean, why are “YOU” Orthodox…since I’m not Greek or Russian. Or they might have wondered why I remain an Orthodox Christian in spite of this or that issue or conflict. But besides that, most people simply want to know why I’m an Orthodox Christian specifically and not Roman Catholic, Eastern Rite Catholic, or one of the varying Protestant denominations.
And when I studied abroad, my Muslim friends were curious how I could know as much about Islam and still not choose their faith. This curiosity as to how one can know intellectually about a religion and chose to reject it has often stumped me as well. How can my non-Orthodox friends come to church with me, experience our worship, hear our history, and still not embrace our faith?
Instead of giving a purely intellectual apology of the Orthodox Christian faith, I’d like to provide my own reflections on not only some of the reasons why I chose to become Orthodox, but why I have remained Orthodox and choose to be Orthodox today. I can’t speak to anyone else’s experience, but I hope some of you can identify with this reflection.
1. Prayer is physical & mystical
The first time I heard Orthodox worship, I was sixteen years old. I had just stepped into the foyer at Sts. Constantine and Helen in Richmond, Virginia, and my first thoughts were, “that sounds like the call to prayer!” I had nothing else to compare it to. It sounded completely different from what I knew, and it was at once jarring and captivating….so I kept coming back.
As a kid, prayer seemed either something intellectual or something emotional. Prayer was something someone says in their thoughts or as a somehow private conversation had out loud. My experience of Orthodox prayer is that while it can be emotional – that is it stirs me, my heart stirs and I might get teary-eyed - but it is especially physical and yet somehow otherworldly.
We light candles, we cross ourselves, we are blessed with a priest’s hand in the sign of the cross, we venerate the cross and icons, we bow and prostrate, we use prayer ropes, we pray more when we fast. And incredibly, it is through the physical motions of prayer that we reach out and grasp at something mystical, completely non-physical, that surpasses emotion and intellect. Perhaps the most striking example is the Liturgy itself. In Liturgy, the prayers of the Church connect all of us regardless of where we are at that moment. I’m just as united with my friend in Pittsburgh when I share in the Eucharist as I am with the person next to me in the Liturgy. There is one Body that is broken for us and one Blood shed for the remission of sins. And that precious gift, a gift surpassing all physical boundaries comes to us from a very physical cup and we taste Jesus as we receive Him.
This connection between the physical and mystical is something we all seem to crave. We’re told our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, so we crave to give our bodies back to Christ in prayer. But we also know that life is more than just this physical world, and our Orthodox prayer connects us not only to our God but to the rest of His Body in a mystical way.
2. The Church as both the Living and the Dead
The Church is the Body of Christ, a community founded by the Holy Spirit - one which each one of us chooses to be part of - a community that is based on a common confession of faith, a shared baptism, and a shared Eucharist. The Orthodox Church is united throughout the world and breaks down boundaries of nationalities, languages, and politics.
The Orthodox Church also gets to one of life’s most fundamental questions of what happens to us when we leave this life. What about our loved ones who have passed away? Various faiths have pondered this same question, resulting in beliefs as varied as purgatory in the Roman Catholic Church to baptism for the dead in the Latter Day Saint (Mormon) movement. In the Orthodox Church, our hope is in Christ to whose Body all baptized Orthodox Christians have been united. Even when a Christian has passed from this life, they remain connected to the Body and are alive in Christ. This forms our entire vision of the saints and of the dead in Christ. We ask holy members of Christ’s Body (the saints) to pray for us, and we pray for our loved ones that they find rest in Christ. To us, this is just as natural and clear as if they were in front of us.
The Orthodox Church doesn’t see life quite as static as the world tells us it is. I’m not alone in my struggle to follow Christ; I’m connected to all members of His Body from the holy ones of the Old Testament through the saints and the members of the Church today. And the dead in Christ are alive.
That brings us to the topic of holiness and what it means to live an Orthodox Christian life.
3. A Life Transfigured
The Christian life is about bringing to Christ all of our life and allowing Him to transfigure it. The saints were broken people like you and me who let Jesus work in their lives, who let Him carry their sins away and give them strength to trust in Him. The saints were imperfect people who chose Christ more than they chose themselves.
The Orthodox Christian life is about striving to know Christ today, to follow His will today, and to see and venerate Him in our neighbor. And if we remember that the Church isn’t limited to those who are alive in this life but embraces those who have gone before us, then we will see that our relationship with Christ continues to grow and flourish even after death and in the Kingdom of God. The Orthodox Church has a Church calendar, a cycle of feasts and fasts, a liturgical day, and times of prayer throughout the day. So even time becomes sanctified. Not only our bodies and our lives are transfigured, but even something as seemingly mundane as time can become holy to God.
Every day that I struggle, every moment I turn away from Christ is an opportunity for repentance. Instead of wallowing in guilt or shame, the Orthodox Church points me to Jesus and guides me to be grateful for this moment to grow closer to Him. So today, as an Orthodox Christian, I don’t have to feel guilty for my imperfections; I can offer them to Christ and allow His power to be made perfect in my weakness (2 Cor 12:9). All of us come to Christ as imperfect people, as we are, but we don’t stay that way. He transfigures us to be more like Him the longer we stay close to Him.
I can’t say that these are the only three reasons why I’m an Orthodox Christian, but I can say that these are part of what informs my daily experience of being an Orthodox Christian. The Orthodox Church provides me with a guide of how to worship God physically and mystically. Through the prayers of the Church, I’m reminded that I am always connected to all Orthodox Christians throughout time and into the present. The Church shows me that God can enter and transfigure all aspects of my life, from my brokenness, to the food I eat, to the time that I chose to set apart for Him in prayer.
And regardless of whether I was raised an Orthodox Christian or if I chose to enter the Church, I have a choice to live Orthodoxy or not, today. It’s working for me so far, so I think I’ll give it a shot again today.
Why are you choosing to be Orthodox? What aspects of the Orthodox Church do you most appreciate? If there is something that you struggle with that the Church teaches, have you spoken about this with a priest or someone you trust?
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Sam is the Pastoral Assistant at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.
Photo Credit: depositphotos