Third Sunday After Pentecost

After the Holy Communion takes place, during the Divine Liturgy, the Priest and people pray:

PRIEST: O god, save thy people and bless thine inheritance.
CHOIR: We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, worshipping the undivided Trinity: for He hath saved us.

That response of the choir, and all the congregation, seems to us, in our day of divided Christendom, at best triumphalistic, and at worst terribly judgmental. One certainly doesn’t make comments like that among polite ecumenical company.

Who, after all, can really claim to have finally arrived at the truth? At best we can only claim to have made the best possible guess that we can. And to claim that one has the “true faith”! What about those who disagree? Do they not have the true faith?

But this liturgical hymn is the Faith of the Church, and has been sung for centuries.

Of course, one can claim all sorts of things . . . without any basis whatsoever. We see this all the time in partisan politics . . . and fishing. But of course, Orthodoxy doesn’t make this claim in a vacuum. There is a wealth of history, writings of the Fathers, Scripture, various Church liturgies, and so forth, with which Orthodox evidence the veracity of their claims.

And having found the true Faith, the Orthodox have worked hard to keep it. The lives of the Christian martyrs under Nazi Germany and Communist Russia alone, in the twentieth century, far exceed the number of martyrs through the preceding centuries. And the stories of Christian martyrs under Islamic persecution in African nations continue to filter into the West. Never have so many people died for the Christian Faith.

But Orthodox also are painstaking about ensuring that what they teach, the customs they practice, and the lives they live are in concert with those that have gone before them. More so than some, Orthodox give a vote to their forebears in the Faith, who are for a time no longer with us in the flesh. This takes great effort in a world bent on the latest new thing. It is difficult enough to keep the Faith; it is ever more difficult to keep from being seduced into the ahistorical life of the world and maintain that Faith.

But as hard as it is to labor as an Orthodox, I cannot but think how much harder it is to chase the present in reference to a future that is undetermined because it is not grounded in history, or, rather, the historical Life of the Church.

I look around me and I see my Protestant friends, I read em-church bloggers, and so forth, and I have to ask: “Why all this hard work at reinvention?” It must be exhausting to start over from scratch every new generation.

If you think about it, for most Christians today much of traditional Christianity has to be reinterpreted in light of changing mores (which entails keeping up with the mores) and/or ignored (which entails constructing ever more complex arguments for why ignoring certain doctrines is both Christian and in the spirit of the historic Church, whose doctrines are being ignored). Whether that be headship in the home (as Tripp and I, with others, have been discussing on his blog–first part here), or the undertanding of what we believe and how we are to speak about what we believe (as is going on over at James’ and Justin’s blogs–Karl has an excellent response).

Or, think about all the new ecclesiology that has to be created. Actually, there was never really quite the effort at ecclesiological theory with the Boomer seeker churches and the church growth movement as is taking place within the em-church crowd. There are a plethora of models and paradigms–though the similarities on main points are fairly obvious–but all of them having a common anti-institutional, ahistorical (despite appeals to specific aspects of the Tradition), non-sacramental bent. A lot of mental and emotional energy is expended on books, conferences, and media to try to come up with something fresh and new that just captures what it is for the Church to be the Church. And often with the up-front admission that something new will have to come along to replace what’s currently going on.

All this is often romanticized as something like a “chasing after the Spirit,” or “following the trail of grace,” or some other adventuresome metaphor in which the Holy Spirit plays hide and seek with us, giving us only tantalizing hints and clues about what He’s doing, but never giving us full knowledge. “Relationships are too complex to fully understand; we need to be open to the Spirit.” “The Church is greater than our understanding; we need to be open to the Spirit.” And so on.

This is all well and good, insofar as those brothers and sisters of mine in Christ are offering them in true and sincere attempts to follow God.

But I have to ask: Is this what the Spirit really does: endlessly tantalizes us with continued ignorance and partial understanding? Didn’t Jesus say to his Apostles, “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will lead you into all truth?” (John 16:13). What sort of God is that, Who promises us to lead us into all truth, but never lets us have anything but part of the truth?

Don’t misunderstand me. It’s not as though I think that since we have the Tradition (Scripture, Liturgy, Canons, Church Father, and the lives of the Saints) that we don’t need to think any more, nor that we don’t need to work hard at keeping the Tradition. There will always have to be work to understand the Tradition because our times and circumstances will change. It will not be the Tradition that will have moved; it will be us. And because we’ve moved, we will have to refocus our lenses on the Tradition. It won’t be new insights we’re after, it will be a right understanding of the unchanging Tradition, which is the very Life of the Trinity in the Church.

But that’s a far different cry from starting from scratch to piece together a quiltwork of new theories and “-ologies.”

If one goes back to that liturgical hymn in Orthodox worship, one cannot but get a feeling of joy and thanksgiving. What has happened in the Liturgy? We’ve been reminded of our sin and Christ’s sacrifice. We’ve been told again and again of God’s love for us. We’ve been promised the Kingdom. And then we commune with God. Once all this is done, we sing with joy at what we have found. This is not a song of judgment. We don’t here glory in our being right and other Christians being wrong. Rather this is a hymn sung in the full knowledge and awareness that what we have is a gift we don’t deserve. We have found the true Faith–we who are not worthy of it. We have seen the true Light–whose minds were darkened by self-will and sin. We, who have done nothing to deserve Him, have received the Holy Spirit, partaking by grace of the Life of the Holy Trinity.

We have been saved from death and destruction of our own making. And having given all, we receive more than our all back. This is the Pearl of Great Price. If there is a note of triumph, it is directed at the Devil from whose bondage we have been liberated. If there is a note of triumph, it is because our Conqueror has trampled down death by death, granting us life and great mercy.

So, today, I sang this hymn with as much gusto as I could. Because I was so grateful.

3 thoughts on “Third Sunday After Pentecost

  1. Nice post. I was thinking about this earlier today because I was reading a little about the movie “What the Bleep Do we Know”. The thought occured to me that it won’t be long before there is a “Christian” version of the film. I agree that chasing pop culture is a very exhausting (and depleting) business. It makes me appreciate the blood, sweat, and tears of the holy martyrs, confessors, ascetics, and Fathers all the more.

  2. Good post. But the fact that it’s exhausting to “re-invent” as you (mistakenly, I think) put it, is no reason not to do it, is it?

    What language do you sing the liturgy in? I try to sing in “post-modern.”

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