The sacred task that faces Orthodoxy today, and in particular its youth, who are often lost in the liberalism of past generations, is the rediscovery of the Paschal victory in the daily life of the Church. The common faith and worship of the Apostles and the Fathers remains essentially unchanged in our liturgical and canonical books, but in practice, in the spirit of clergy and faithful, there is great confusion, no doubt due to a lack of spiritual understanding of the very nature of the work of Christ in the Church. Thus many people who claim to be Orthodox and who sincerely want to be, conceive of the life of the Church according to vague personal sentiments and not according to the spirit of the Apostles and Fathers of the Church. What is lacking is a living acceptance (acceptation vivante) that presupposes the sacramental life of the Church.
This lack of understanding explains to a large extent the weaknesses of the Church in the Western world and, in particular, characterizes its attitude toward various schisms and heresies. Those who cannot understand that “The Spirit itself bears witness to our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:16) cannot preach the truth, but must ask themselves the question: Are not they themselves outside the Truth and, therefore, dead members of the Church?
1. Presuppositions of Sacramental Life
In contrast to most Western religions that generally accept death as a normal phenomenon, or even regard it as a result of a legal decision of God to punish the sinner, the Patristic Tradition of the [Christian] East takes very seriously the fact that death is intrinsically linked to sin (I Cor. 15:56) and that it is under the power of the Devil (Heb. 2:14). The Fathers of the [Christian] East rejected the idea that God is the author of death, that the world is “normal” in its current condition, and that man can live a “normal” life solely based on following natural laws that are assumed to govern the universe.
The Orthodox conception of the universe is incompatible with a static system of natural moral laws. The world is, on the contrary, seen as a field of action and struggle of living persons. A living and personal God is the originator of creation in its entirety. His omnipresence does not exclude, however, other wills, themselves established by Him even with the power to dismiss the will of their Creator. Thus, the Devil is not only able to exist, but also to aspire to the destruction of works of God. He does this by trying to lure the creation toward the nothingness from which it was formed. Death, which is a “return to nothingness” (St. Athanasius, Incarnatio Verbi, 4-5), constitutes the very essence of demonic power in creation (Rom. 8:19-22). The resurrection of Christ in the very reality of his flesh and his bones (Luke 24:39) not only serves as proof of the “abnormal” character of death, but also designates it as the true enemy (I Cor. 15:26). But if death is an abnormal phenomenon, there can be nothing resembling a “moral law” inherent in the universe. The Bible, at least, does not know of one (Rom. 8: 19-22). Otherwise, the Lord Jesus Christ gave himself in vain “for our sins so that we might uproot this present evil age.”
The destiny of man has been perfection since his origin, and is the same today: to become perfect, as God is perfect (Eph. 5:1, 4:13). The achievement of this perfection was rendered impossible by the coming of death into the world (Rom. 5:12), for “the sting of death is sin” (I Cor 15:56). Once submitted to the power of death, man can only concern himself with the sufficiency of the flesh (Rom. 7:14-25). His instinct for self-preservation saturates his everyday life and often leads him to be unfair to others for personal gain (I Thes. 4:4). A man subjected to the fear of death (Heb 2:15) cannot live the life of love of the Creator and be an imitator of God (Eph 5:1). Death and the instinct for self-preservation are at the root of sin that separates man from unity in love, life, and divine truth. According to St. Cyril of Alexandria, death is the enemy that prevents man from loving God and neighbor without anxiety or concern for his own security and his own comfort. For fear of becoming valueless and meaningless, man seeks to demonstrate to himself and to others that he is really worth something. He is then obliged to make himself appear, at least from a certain point of view, superior to others. He loves those who flatter him and hates those who insult him. An insult profoundly affects a man who is afraid of becoming insignificant! Whoever the world sees as a “natural man” almost always lives a life of half-lies and of disappointments. He cannot love his friends who give him a sense of security, while his instinct for self-preservation, both moral and physical, causes him to hate his enemies (Matt. 5:46-48; Luke 6:32-36).
Death is the source of individualism: it has the power to enslave the free will of man completely to the “body of death” (Rom. 7:18). It is death which, by reducing mankind to self-centeredness and egotism, blinds men to the truth. And the truth is rejected by many, because it is too difficult to accept. Man always prefers to accept a truth that satisfies his personal desires. Mankind seeks security and happiness rather than the sufferance of a love that is a self-offering (Philip. 1: 27-29). The natural man seeks a sentimental religion of security in moral precepts and simple rules that generate feelings of comfort, but require no effort at self-denial in “death with Christ to the elements of the world” (Col. 2:20). The Apostles and Fathers do not transmit to us a faith accomplished in “feelings of piety or comfort”. Instead, on every page they raise a cry of victory over death and corruption. “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is your victory? …Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 15: 55-57).
The victory of Christ over the devil has destroyed the power of death that separated man from God and neighbor (Eph. 2:13-22). This victory over death and corruption has been accomplished in the flesh of Christ (ibid. 2:15), as well as among the just ones who have died before (I Pet. 3:19). “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life” (Paschal Hymn). The Kingdom of God is already established, both beyond the grave and on this side of it (Eph. 2:19). The gates of hell cannot prevail over the Body of Christ (Mat. 16:18). The power of death cannot seize the kingdom of life. Each day the Devil and his kingdom moves a little closer to their final defeat (I Cor. 15:26), which is assured in the Body of Christ.
2. Sacramental Participation in the Victory of the Cross
Participation in the victory of the Cross is not only a hope for the future, but a present reality (Eph. 2:13-22). It is given to those who are baptized (Rom. 6:3-4) and grafted into the Body of Christ (Jn. 15:1-8). There is nevertheless no magical guarantee of salvation and of continued participation in the life of Christ (Rom. 9:19-20).
Christ came to destroy the power of disunity, uniting those who believe in him in his own Body. The external sign of the Church is unity of love (Jn. 17:21), while the center and the source of this unity is the Eucharist: “Since there is one bread, we who are several, are one body, because we are all part of one Bread” (I Cor. 6:19-20). Baptism and Confirmation grafts us to the Body of Christ, while the Eucharist keeps us alive in Christ and united with each other by the inhabitation of the Holy Spirit in our body (I Cor. 6:19-20). Faith is insufficient for salvation. The catechumens who were already “believers” had to stay vigilant before receiving baptism in rejecting anything that the world sees as “normal life” in the corrupt body of sin and death, to be resurrected in the unity of the Spirit, that is to say, to be united with other members of a local community in Christ and the communal life of love. Orthodoxy knows nothing of a sentimental love for humanity. It is with concrete individuals that we must be united to live in Christ. The only way that leads to the love of Christ is that of a real love for others. “I tell you the truth, whenever you have done these things to one of these, my brethren, it is to me that you have done them” (Mt. 15:20).
Love in the Body of Christ does not consist in vague abstractions expressing the need to serve ideologies or human causes. Love, according to the image of Christ, consists in being crucified to the world and is the liberation of the self from all vague ideas in order to live in the complexity of communal life, seeking to love Christ in the body of brethren who have a very real existence. It is easy to talk about love and goodness, but it is very difficult to enter into sincere and intimate relationships with people of diverse origins. It is, however, the death and resurrection in Christ that has established a community of saints who think not of themselves, nor of their own opinions, but continually express their love for Christ and other men, seeking to humble themselves as Christ was humiliated. What was not possible under the law of death has become possible through unity in the Spirit of life.
3. How We Today Achieve the Victory of the Cross
Throughout its history the Church has had to fight sin and corruption within its own members, and often within its clergy. However, in every epoch She knew how to implement the appropriate means, as She always remained able to recognize the enemy. The Church exists in the truth not because all its members are without sin, but because the sacramental life is always present in Her and against Her the Devil is defenseless. “When you often assemble in one place (epi to auto), the power of Satan is destroyed” (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians, 13). Whenever members of a community gather to celebrate the Eucharist and are in the condition to exchange the kiss of peace to commune together in the Body and Blood of Christ, the devil is defeated. However, when a member of the Body of Christ communes unworthily, he eats and drinks damnation (I Cor. 11:29). When a Christian does not commune at all with the Body and Blood of Christ in every Eucharist, he is spiritually dead (Jn. 6:53). The Church has categorically refused to endorse the practice whereby a large number of Christians attend the Eucharist, while a few commune. Guidance, participation in prayer and communion are inseparable (7th Apostolic Canon; St. John Chrysostom, 3rd Homily On Ephesians). “Let no one be deceived: if somebody is outside the sanctuary, he is deprived of the Bread of God…he who does not gather together with the Church has shown his pride and has condemned himself” (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Eph. 5). The Biblical and Patristic tradition is unanimous on one point: The one who is a living member of the Body of Christ is one who is dead to the power of death and who lives in the renewal of the Spirit of life. For this very reason, those who denied Christ during persecution, even after hours of torture, were considered excommunicated. Once a Christian died with Christ in baptism, he was expected to be ready to die anytime in the name of Christ. “Whoever denies me before men I will deny also before my Father in heaven” (Mat. 10:33). The 10th Canon of the First Ecumenical Council does not merely prohibit the ordination of anyone who has denied Christ during the persecution, but declares the automatic invalidation of any such ordination, even if it took place in ignorance of the ordainer. All who have performed such an ordination are themselves deprived of the priesthood. What serious breakers of the vows of baptism are those who are too lazy to go to church. The approval that our clergy today gives our sacramental practice is even more unacceptable! If the Christian was excommunicated for having denied Christ after hours of physical torture, those who week after week excommunicate themselves are all the more condemnable.
The character and methods of the Devil have not changed. He has remained similar to himself, as Paul described, capable of “transforming into an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:15). The power of death in the world remains the same. The means of salvation, the death of baptism and the life of the Eucharist, have thus remained the same (at least in the liturgical books of the Church). The canons of the Church were never changed. We always read the same Scriptures approved by the Fathers. How then can we explain our modern weaknesses? They have never been so evident.
There can be only one answer to this question. The members of the Church are not fighting evil in the spirit of the Bible. Too many Christians employ the Church for their own interests and interpret the doctrine of Christ according to their own feelings. The essential task of the Orthodox youth today must be to return to the truth of the Apostles and the Fathers and to not walk according to the laws of the prince of darkness and the elements of this world. It is for this reason that Christ died. To deny this is to deny his Cross and the blood of martyrs. Before criticizing the “inflexibility” of patristic doctrine, the modern Orthodox must return to the presuppositions of life in Christ in Scripture and be careful not to pervert the doctrine of Christ.