Questions & Answers: Teachings of Orthodoxy
Teachings Of Orthodoxy
What does `Theotokos’ mean?
Although this term refers to the Virgin Mary, it is in fact a statement of conviction about who we believe Christ to be.
The Greek term ‘Theotokos’ literally means ‘the one who gave birth to God’. We thereby confess our faith that Christ is not simply an enlightened teacher or prophet. Nor is He a human being who somehow ‘achieved’ divinity through His life and work. Rather, He is God in the flesh. He became a full human being, like us, without for a moment ceasing to be fully divine.
The Holy Mother of God is therefore always seen in relation to Christ Whom she brought into the world, through the will of the Father, in the Holy Spirit.
It was through her that the Incarnation took place. The eternal Son of God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, became human and entered time, born as a human Child.
Thus, He who is born beyond time from the Father without a mother, was born in time from a Mother without a father.
It is an incomprehensible mystery. And it is a cause for the faithful to glorify God. In every Church Service, we hear this term of honour repeated time and again whenever the Mother of God is referred to.
It is worth recalling that Elizabeth pre-empted the title Theotokos when she greeted Mary as “the mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43) soon after the Annunciation. The Holy Virgin then prophesied that “all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). This scriptural passage magnifying God’s divine plan is joyfully chanted at every Orthros Service to this day.
In short, to describe the Holy Mother of God as ‘Theotokos’ is not a ‘diversion’ from Christ, but a re-affirmation of our devotion to Him.
How does one enter the Orthodox Church?
It is a matter of fact that more and more people in the Western societies, from all walks of life and mostly intellectuals, become interested in Orthodoxy. Incarnating the original message of the Gospel and exploring it within various historical, cultural and geographical contexts, the Orthodox tradition exerts ineffable attraction upon those looking for more spiritual ways. The secret of its success lays in the fact that Orthodoxy ultimately is, if anything, the ‘newness of life’ (Romans 6:4), the supreme celebration of life and restoration of its fullness in light of the traditional apostolic criteria, in Christ’s Holy Spirit. Its message, consequently, is not exhaustible by any ideological statements or ethicist commandments, since within the frame of Orthodoxy both faith and life are being intricately interconnected. Paraphrasing the words of St John Chrysostom, Orthodoxy illustrates excellently the application of the following principle: ‘your life should reflect your teachings; your teachings should preach your life’.
This characteristic is reflected in the preliminary instruction (catechism) received by the converts (catechumens). And in fact, during their catechetical instruction, the converts to Orthodoxy are introduced to our way of living which combines the doctrinal and ethical aspects into a complex synthesis. Given this complexity, coming to Orthodoxy unfolds as a process of gradual assimilation. Inaugurated by an act of personal decision, this process takes the effort of conversion, of reshaping or μετάνοια, engaging the change of one’s mind and life in accordance with the ecclesial criteria. Along this journey, an essential aspect is represented by the relation of the convert with the spiritual father, who is a true embodiment of tradition and the one able to introduce wisely the convert to the rhythms of the Church’s life. This is the meaning of His Eminence Archbishop Stylianos’ statement, that ‘Christian faith is basically the result of communion between two persons’.
With respect to the process of ecclesially incorporating converts, various Orthodox Churches follow different patterns. The major differences occur with the reception of the adults whose upbringing has taken place within other Christian denominations. In this respect it is to be noted that while some Churches baptise again all heterodox coming into Orthodoxy, the majority of Orthodox Churches (including the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia) receive them by chrismation, or anointing (the equivalent of the heterodox ceremony of confirmation), after passing the necessary stage of the catechetical instruction. Also, a few Orthodox Churches ask the converts to abjure the heretical teachings and practices they professed before their conversion to Orthodoxy, as a prerequisite of either the catechetical instruction or the reception of the holy mysteries (sacraments) of baptism and/or chrismation.
The policy is, however, more clear with respect to receiving to Orthodoxy the converts coming from non-Christian backgrounds. For such cases, the converts should all pass the catechetical stage of instruction and after to receive all the sacraments of initiation: baptism, chrismation and communion.
After the reception of the holy mysteries (sacraments), the converts are considered full members of the Church, enjoying all the blessings of partaking with the people of God.
What is Religious Faith?
There can be no better description of the meaning of true Faith than that given by the Apostle Paul.
«Faith is that, that gives substance to our hopes, and makes us certain of things we do not see» (Hebr. 11, 1).
This means that Faith is the absolute certainty and unshakable conviction, that I the believer, will partake of future blessings which do now exist, which appear not to exist, but which I hope and wait for them to be realized and expect to enjoy them.
Such blessings are the second coming of Jesus Christ, the day of the final judgement, the resurrection of the dead, and life in the eternal Kingdom of God. The Christian also believes that he will be freed from the tyranny of sin, he will receive help to become a sanctified individual (theosis), and he will be protected from the many dangers which threaten the integrity of his soul.
And what of the «things we do not see» ? – such as, the creation of the World, the birth, life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the angelic hosts, the spiritual world of the souls, and of one’s own soul. All these are unseen, but the Christian is so convinced of their existence, as though he has seen them with his own eyes.
The ultimate purpose of such true faith is to accept Jesus Christ as my own personal Saviour, as well as that of every one else in the World, and to unquestionably accept and believe all His teachings and live my life according to them. It is such faith that transforms this earth into heaven and this life into a veritable paradise.
If God loves us, why does he allow suffering?
Firstly, we must remember that many times we all worry over things that we do not need to worry about. We may think we are suffering, whereas in reality we are worrying unnecessarily. It has been said: “If someone throws a dagger at you, it makes all the difference if you catch it by the blade or catch it by the handle.” Two people may be going through the same illness or other hardship, one may see it as a catastrophe, and the other may be a lot more patient and at peace.
Secondly it needs to be acknowledged that a lot of suffering occurs because of the faults and shortcomings of others. Some people are difficult to live with, cannot accept that they are wrong, have a huge temper, are selfish, greedy, etc. If God had pre-programmed all of us to be considerate, loving, humble etc, there would be a lot less suffering in the world. In response we need to explain that God has created us free, and that there is an enormous beauty in freedom.
On this issue of the trials we go through due to others we need to point out that the Fathers of our Church encourage us to actually see these trials as a type of blessing. For example if someone criticizes us we could respond with anger, or by becoming depressed. It is better however to realise that by being criticized we are being helped to achieve something we all desperately need: humility. If someone does something very unfair to us, again this has the potential to help us grow spiritually. We can struggle to forgive them, and have the faith that God will bring justice. In general, if we are patient and tolerant with difficult people we are on the road that the saints walked on, a road that leads to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Why does God, who loves us so much, allow suffering? A number of points need to be raised:
1. We have been assured by the Bible that if God has allowed us to go through suffering, He knows that it is not greater than our ability to cope with it. “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
2. God knows better than us what is good for us.
3. A few years of suffering, even decades of suffering, is very tiny compared to eternity of happiness in Heaven, and if our patience helps to lead us to heaven, then it is worth it.
4. We can grow through suffering.