Mystical Union with God

from “Introduction to Orthodoxy” – a Presentation at Boston Trinity Academy

by Fr. Romanos Karanos

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

a Greek Orthodox priest

Dear students, faculty, and staff of Boston Trinity Academy, it is a great honor for me to be with you today. I was asked to deliver a presentation entitled “Introduction to Orthodoxy” and I have dressed as fully as I could for the occasion. Inner cassock, outer wide-sleeved cassock, and the funny hat. There are two reasons I dressed like this. The first reason is for you to see what an Orthodox priest looks like and not be too scared next time you see one. The second reason is that people often mistake this look and the outward cultural elements of Orthodoxy for its essence. Several communities here in the United States, such as the Lebanese, the Russians, and the Greeks, use Orthodoxy as a banner under which they unite to project their cultural heritage and distinctiveness. Some think Orthodoxy is about the glory of Hagia Sophia, the iconic cathedral of Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul. Or they think it’s about long robes, beards, intimidating monks, and Byzantine Chant. Some believe Orthodoxy is an ethnic religion. “Are you a Greek priest?,” they often ask me. “When is Greek Easter this year?” “Can I come to your church if I am not Greek or Russian?” More tragically, Orthodox nations sometimes exploit their religious heritage to promote political agendas and even wage war on neighboring countries. OK, I’ll take off the funny hat now, so it doesn’t mess my hair!

It is true that Orthodoxy has a lot of exotic cultural trappings, but Orthodoxy is not about what separates us from others. On the contrary, it is a celebration of what unites us with others and with God. And what or Who unites us with others and with God? God Himself accomplishes this union in the Person of Jesus Christ. The true meaning of Orthodoxy is captured in a hymn chanted on the first Sunday of Lent: “A cornerstone was cut out without hands from a never-quarried mountain. […] The stone is Christ, who joined the disparate natures.” The Son of God became the Son of a Virgin, in order to unite what was previously disjointed and at enmity. This is Orthodoxy. This is the ὀρθὴ δόξα (orthi-doxa), the right belief. And this right belief leads to the right action, which is the restoration of unity in our broken world through peace-making, forgiveness, and repentance.

Icon of Christ Enthroned at Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

At the very outset, I would like to establish three core aspects of Orthodoxy: the holistic nature of our relationship with God, the centrality of the Divine Liturgy, and our mistrust for rules. First: the holistic nature of our relationship with God. Everything we believe and do is based on the Incarnation of Christ and expressed in that “Come and see” Philip told Nathanael in the Gospel. Remember the story? Philip tells Nathanael: “We have found the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.” Nathaniel is in disbelief: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And Philip responds: “Come and see!” Come and see the Lord. See Him with your eyes! The Lord is no longer invisible. He is no longer only up there in distant heaven. He is also here among us and we can see Him! And if we can see Him, we can portray Him. We can paint images of Him. If Christ were around today, we would be uploading pictures of Him on Instagram! The fundamental Orthodox doctrine is that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, He lived among us, was crucified for us, He rose and ascended into heaven with His Body. He is now sitting with His Body on the throne of God.

Consequently, we are materialists. Not in the sense of placing matter above spirit, but in the sense of truly honoring it. We consider matter holy because God created it, but also because He was clothed in it. And so our worship is not only spiritual, but also material. We do not simply pray to a distant God in an intellectual fashion. We experience God with our body, with all our senses. We see God in the icons. We hear the sound of God in the words of the Gospel. We smell the grace of the Holy Spirit through the fragrance of incense. We touch and taste God with our lips and tongue whenever we partake of His Body and Blood.

This brings me to the second core aspect of Orthodoxy: the centrality of the Divine Liturgy. We live for the Liturgy and we simply cannot live without it. Every Sunday we come together as a family to worship Christ, to listen to His words in the Gospel, to hear the interpretation of His words in the sermon, but above all, to become one with Him and with each other through the sacrament of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is a mystical union, like the marital union of a husband and wife, which has a spiritual and a physical side. We read in John’s Gospel: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” We eat this bread every Sunday because we want to live forever and everything we do has the Liturgy as its beginning, center, and ultimate goal. Every Monday we have a burning desire for Sunday to come because on the Lord’s day we will become one with Him. And when we have become one with Him, we say along with the Elder Simeon: “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have truly seen your salvation.”

A third core aspect of Orthodoxy is our mistrust for rules. Now, sure, there is a voluminous body of canons in the Orthodox tradition. We have this huge book, called the Rudder, which regulates every single aspect of our life. This is to be expected for we believe that Christ took our life and we are now called to conform our life to the way He lived His life. But all these canons are not meant to restrict our freedom or make us feel guilty when we break them. They are meant as traffic lights and signs on our road to heaven. When we break the rules, i.e. when we sin—and who can live and not sin?—, we do not let guilt drag us down because we know that down the road there is always another sign that takes us back to our original destination. And that road is called metanoia. Metanoia is usually translated “repentance,” but that is a rather inadequate translation because “repentance” is derived from the Greek word “ποινή,” which is the root of “punishment” and “pain.” So when we hear “repentance,” we subconsciously think “pain,” “suffering,” “punishment.” In the Orthodox understanding, God does not punish. He is pure and infinite love. Metanoia means a reorientation of our mind from our egotistical selves to God. It means constantly turning our back to sin and towards the light. Even when we break the rules, we take comfort in the fact that Christ has already nailed all our sins on the Cross. He rose from the dead, in order for us to be free and to always rejoice, as St. Paul exhorts us.

Allow me now to address some more specific questions that often arise when one first encounters Orthodoxy. If one were to visit an Orthodox church, the service might appear exceptionally unfamiliar. This is because, as I hinted before, the key elements of our worship are not teaching or ethical improvement, but rather mystical union with God. We certainly have an ancient and intellectually rich tradition and our hymnography, which consists of 50,000 hymns, has a rich symbolism and can be very moving. But the intellect is not the primary means of contact with the divine and receiving a moral lesson is not a primary goal—rather a side effect.

The first thing that one is bewildered by upon entering an Orthodox church is the presence of icons. There are icons on the wall that separates the altar from the nave, on the walls, and on various stands. Why? Because of that “come and see.” God became a man, so we can now see and depict Him. And we do it with icons, which are symbols: they signify and communicate. They signify the heavenly reality and they express our desire to communicate or partake of that reality. We think of icons as “windows into heaven,” but also as sort of a “family album” that helps us remember people and events, but always points back to the prototype of all images, Jesus Christ who is the image of the Father. 

Icon of All Saints

Now icons depict not only Christ, but also the saints. Our relationship with the saints is another characteristic feature of the Orthodox tradition, derived from our conviction that a person is making his or her journey of salvation not in solitude but in companionship. Saints have run the race and thus make for perfect companions. They can teach us how to run our own race. Last week I found myself in the extremely painful situation of serving at the funeral of my best friend in Greece. He was also a priest. He may not be a saint, but I know that he is with God. I still talk to him and of course I ask him to say a good word to the Lord on my behalf. And if I believe my friend can talk to God, I certainly believe saints can do so too, especially the Virgin Mary who became the gate through which we received Christ in our midst. We thank Mary because she was free to say no to God, but she chose to submit to God’s will. She is our Mother and a role model par excellence.

Dear students, we are currently in the penitential period of Lent. A striking element of Orthodoxy is that during Lent, but also outside of it, we fast. We fast a lot! We essentially become vegans for extended periods of time. But why do we do this? Because we trust the words of Christ. When His disciples asked why they could not heal the possessed man, He responded: “This kind does not come out except by prayer and fasting.” Fasting give us power over the devil. We also fast, in order to cut off our passions. Our struggle against our temptations and addictions is very difficult, so we start with the easier things. By exercising self-control over our desire to eat certain foods, we develop the spiritual muscles that will help us control our desire for the things that kill our spirit. It’s like sports. An athlete must exercise daily and do warm-ups and daily routines that are easier to accomplish than winning a big game against a strong opponent. The same thing applies to our spiritual life. The fight against rage, envy, selfishness is extremely hard. So we start with warm-ups and easy routines. We cut down on food, so that we can then cut down on what is truly harmful. Above all, we fast in order to overcome our attachment to the material world, to empty ourselves, in order to be filled with Christ. A full stomach can make us lazy and lull us into the illusion that we are complete, that we lack nothing, whereas an empty stomach helps keep us vigilant and increase our desire to unite ourselves with the Lord through prayer, studying the Bible, and partaking of the Eucharist.

Orthodox Altar Gospel

Let me conclude with a few words about the Orthodox understanding of the Bible, since most students at BTA come from traditions, in which the Bible has a central place. This is true in the Orthodox Church as well. The Bible is the foundation of everything we believe and do. Much of the content of our worship services consists of readings from the Scriptures, especially the Psalms. Readings from the Gospel occur at most services, along with regular readings from the Epistles. One of the most common spiritual practices priests recommend to their parishioners is to read the Bible daily. We do not believe that the Bible is the only source of doctrine, but we do believe it is the measuring stick that must be applied to all doctrine. Before there was a Bible as we know it today, there was the Church. So we value other elements of the Church’s tradition as divinely inspired, but no tradition or doctrine can ever contradict the Scriptures.

To sum up, we Orthodox believe in a God that truly loves us. He loves us so much that He took our own form and suffered our own pain, our own loneliness, our own mortality. He is not a lofty idea or a supreme power out there beyond the edges of our vast universe. He has our own flesh and blood and He physically comes to us every time we celebrate the Liturgy. To Him be all glory, honor, and worship to the ages of ages. Amen.

Christ our God, You are the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. You have fulfilled the Father’s entire plan of salvation. Fill our hearts with joy and gladness always, now and forever and to the ages of ages.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. Amen.

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