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Our Church is built on joy

24 March 2016

The resurrection is for life, not just for Easter, suggests the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I

Melvyn Longhurst/SuperStock

Leaping to life: the Anastasis fresco in the Kariye Museum (St Saviour in Chora), Istanbul

Leaping to life: the Anastasis fresco in the Kariye Museum (St Saviour in Chora), Istanbul

THE Orthodox Church is the Church of the Resurrection. The entire devotional life of Orthodox Christians, as expressed primarily in Sunday matins and the divine liturgy, resonates with the power and the unspeakable joy of the resurrection.

The lives of the faithful in the world in all its aspects, the personal adventures of our freedom, our responsibilities in society, in short, our “liturgy after the Liturgy”, constitutes a daily Easter.

The life-giving light emanating from the tomb of Christ opens our eyes to the beauty of creation, whose “exceeding goodness” is revealed to us, both in its present and its eschatological truth: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here” (2 Corinthians 5.17).

For Orthodox Christians, then, the feast of Easter is not simply a commemoration of the Lord’s resurrection, but the experience of their own renewal in Christ, and the certainty of their “common resurrection” at the end of time (Apolytikion for Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday).

The communal dimension is a universal Orthodox experience of exceptional intensity, especially within the liturgical congregation. God is our “common good”, and the resurrection of Christ is a revelation and gift of our “common freedom” (Nicholas Kabasilas), and of our “co-sovereignty” — as we hear on Easter Sunday night, in the Catechism Homily of St John Chrysostom.

The life of the Church is the experience of the eschaton in the present, and the vision of the present from the eschata (last things). In this sense, after the resurrection of Christ, all worldly things are not just “in the world” and “of the world”. Instead, all things are moving towards the eschatological perfection of the Kingdom of God, in which the Church already participates.

The world is not only the world of the present, because it remains as yet incomplete. The truth is that the eschatological transformation of the world has already begun in the resurrected Christ. Therefore faith in the resurrection acts as a powerful transformative force in history.

Even if the newer Orthodox theology (during the phase of its so-called pseudomorphosis*) sees eschatology as a discourse about the Second Coming of the Lord, the Orthodox life itself actively experiences the presence of the eschaton, in the divine liturgy, and in the spirituality and benevolent pastoral ministry of the Church. Orthodoxy has preserved its eschatological ethos intact throughout the entire course of its history.

Eschatology, then, is not just a teaching about the end times, but the principal reason for relating both the end times to present events, and these present events to the end times. It does not mean an escape from history; nor does it lead to a devaluation of life; but it is a positive precondition in the struggle for the transformation of the world.

Of course, the fact that the kingdom of Christ is not “of this world”, releases us from the task of transforming the world into an earthly paradise at any price. It also protects us from the cynicism and hard-heartedness that results from capitulation to evil and indifference towards human affairs.

But because of the eschatological spirit that permeates the totality of the Church’s life, I dare say that the Orthodox believer actually risks becoming over-active, rather than becoming indifferent to history and to the world.

WELL before modernist culture established man as the creator of history, the Church called upon the faithful to be co-workers with God on the journey towards the eschatological Kingdom. In the Orthodox world at least, the danger of the Church’s becoming secularised was averted, thanks to her genuine paschal and eschatological orientation. The breath of the resurrection was, in the lives of the Orthodox faithful, the “eschatological antidote” that saved the Church from identifying with the world, and at the same time, preserved her from a dualistic, anti-world spirituality.

All these truths are concentrated in the eucharist, a foretaste of the eschatological perfection of all creation.

The view that the eucharist makes us indifferent to history is a colossal misunderstanding. Instead, it invites us to make a eucharistic use of the world, to contribute to making of a more just and peaceful world.

The resurrectional spirit of Orthodoxy also negates the view of Christian morality as being a “morality of the weak”. On the contrary, the believer who is renewed in Christ is a person who is all alight, bursting with dynamism and creativity.

I WISH to emphasise the essential connection of the eucharist with the resurrection and the end times in the life of the Orthodox Church. This is the reason why the eucharistic liturgy of the Orthodox Church is always celebratory, full of light and joy.

The eucharist does not take us to Golgotha in order to stay there. As the Elder Metropolitan of Pergamon, John Zizioulas, taught, the the eucharist leads us beyond, to the never-ending glory of God’s Kingdom.

Redemption in the Orthodox tradition is understood as “deification” or theosis by grace, a term that emphasises the communal and cosmic nature of salvation, and its reference to the eschaton. Through the eucharist, the Church is revealed as “a community of deification” for humankind, and as the source of renovation of the entire creation.

Karl Barth recognised the Orthodox Eastern Church as having a more highly developed sensitivity towards the resurrection than either Roman Catholicism or Protestantism. In an interview on 15 April 1965, Barth said that, in his Church Dogmatics, he described as “embarrassing” for Westerners the fact that the Eastern Church has not ceased to see, and take seriously, that which the “gloomy Westerners” on the whole should have continuously looked upon, and approached, with an ever-new and different outlook.

Barth explained that he meant that, unlike the Western Churches, the Eastern Churches considered the human being in its totality. . . Consequently, there is amongst them a more highly developed sensitivity to the resurrection than there is for us. Ultimately, we Westerners have too much of a theologia crucis [theology of the cross]. A little more of a theologia gloriae [theology of glory] of the Eastern Church would not hurt us at all.”

Hans Küng declared that, in the study in his home in Tübingen, Germany, he has not hung a crucifix, which, in his view, unilaterally refers to the Passion, and the suffering that caused the misunderstanding and abuse of this most exalted of Christian symbols.

Instead, he has a “Greek” icon of Christ, which, for us Orthodox, like every one of our authentic images, is always an expression of the resurrection and eschatological glory.

THE Orthodox Church today reminds all Christians of the importance of Christ’s resurrection, in which the essential meaning of the cross as the core of Christian witness in the world is revealed. The “amazement” of the myrrh-bearers when, “entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe” (Mark 16.5), exemplifies the essence of our faith as an experience of amazement and awe, when we stand before the Holy.

This is a deep reality taking place at the borderline of experience. Humankind is faced with a mystery that deepens all the more as the believer approaches it.

It is no accident that the gospel of the resurrection is the greatest challenge for the modern secular person, who finds it difficult to accept that the denial of this mystery not only does not liberate, but instead diminishes, humanity, and enslaves it to a set of unyielding and unequivocal “certainties”.

The feast of Easter, as the victory of life over death, also raises fundamental questions for all those who today preach and commit violence in the name of religion and God.

Nothing in the evangelical narrative of the resurrection appears to limit or annul the freedom of believers. All things are conjoined to our free acceptance of the divine gift. If we were driven to Paradise by force, then this would not be our longed-for homeland, but hell instead. The cornerstone in the life of Orthodox believers is freedom.

Above all, in the light of the resurrection, Orthodoxy is revealed as the Church of freedom.

At Easter, the Orthodox faithful experience their ecclesial identity, as a communion with the Risen Christ, who lives in them and among them. The words of the Holy Apostle Paul apply here completely: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain” (1 Corinthians 15.14).

For all these reasons, when at Easter, “the gates of Paradise have been opened unto us”, it is not just a matter of a religious holiday, nor even the biggest celebration of Orthodox people, everywhere. The resurrection is the whole faith, ethos, and culture of Orthodox Christianity.

His All-Holiness Bartholomew I is the current and 270th Archbishop of Constantinople and Ecumenical Patriarch. He is the spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians.


* Georges Florovsky (1893-1979) used the word “pseudomorphosis” to describe and criticise the effects of a period when Orthodox educational institutions, and their theology, relied largely on Roman Catholic and Protestant sources, rather than the patristic tradition, particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries, the so-called period of “Western captivity” — Editor.

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