JESUS CHRIST AND THE EARLY
AM THE DOOR," said Christ. "By me if any
man enter in, he shall be saved." Christ is the Door to the Kingdom
of Heaven, which we can find within us even during this life and which continues
for eternity. But how do we find that Door amidst thousands of different
sects and philosophies, all of which present a different image of Christ?
If we look into the history of the Church He founded, we find one unbroken
line in which His image has been kept pure and undistorted. That line is
ancient Orthodoxy, the measuring-stick of true Christianity.
Come to the Door! Find it through the ancient historic
T A TIME IN HISTORY when mankind
had fallen far away from Paradise and was in desperate need of God, the very
God Who created man took flesh and became man. This was Jesus Christ, the
One Whom the prophets had foretold and the One Whom the whole world was anticipating.
Until then all religions were only man's fragmented attempts to understand
God. In Christ, for the first time in history, God Himself became man. One
of the many things that Christ revealed while in this world was the possibility
of a personal relationship with God for those who believe. He brought those
believers together and promised that nothing would ever prevail against His
Church (Matthew 16:18). This Church was founded first upon the sufferings
of Christ, then upon the sufferings of His Apostles, and finally upon the
sufferings of the martyrs throughout the ages (I Peter 2:21, Colossians 1:24).
Thus began Christianity.
Annunciation Cathedral in
the ancient Kremlin, Russia
After Christ's crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension
into Heaven, His disciples were gathered together with thousands of people
from all over the known world for the feast of Pentecost. Then, just as the
Holy Scriptures had prophesied and just as Christ had promised, suddenly
there came a sound from Heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and the disciples
were filled with the Holy Spirit
(Acts 2:2-4). They began to preach the
Way, the Truth and the Life to all those present at the feast in their native
languages. Those who received this revelation and followed Jesus Christ began
to be known as Christians.
From that day forward Christianity was endowed with power
and began to spread to the ends of the earth. From Jerusalem the disciples
of Christ traveled all over the known world: the Apostles Peter and Paul went
to Greece and Rome, Andrew went to Russia, Mark went to Egypt, Simon went
to England and Africa, Thomas went as far as India, and Matthew went to Ethiopia.
Although they were in different parts of the world they were of one heart
and one soul
(Acts 4:32) and taught one Lord, one Faith, and one baptism
(Ephesians 4:5). Everywhere they went they appointed bishops, presbyters and
deacons and ordained them, by the laying on of hands, to be shepherds of Christ's
flock. In a short time the Apostles brought multitudes of pagans to Christsimple
people as well as philosophers, beggars as well as kings. Although the Apostles
experienced persecution, torture and even death for their beliefs, nothing
could stop the Faith from spreading like fire to the ends of the earth. Nearly
every Apostle died a martyr's death, and many of their remains are preserved
in Orthodox Churches to this day.
Icon of the Apostles of Christ.
It was during these difficult martyric times that the
early Church was formed and established, and where the worship, the arts,
and the music of the Church found their beginning. These naturally sprang
out of the Old Testament and flowed into the New. The form of worship began
in the time of Moses, as it was revealed to him by God. The arts originated
in the mosaic depictions in the Temple of scenes from the Old Testament,
and in the pre-Christian arts. This tradition of sacred art was continued
by the Apostle Luke, who painted the first iconographic depictions of the
Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child. The music (chant) had its beginning
in the Psalms of David. Even the Liturgy (communion service) finds its beginning
in the Old Testament, Christ's Body and Blood being the New Testament sacrifice
(John 6:48-58). The first communion service composed by the Apostle James,
the brother of the Lord, was based on the Apostles' experience at the Last
Supper, and is still used in the Orthodox Church today.
THE APOSTOLIC SAINTS
One of the original icons of the
Virgin and Christ painted by the Apostle Luke which is preserved in
the Iveron Monastery on Mount Athos, Greece.
FTER ALL THE APOSTLES had died, the believers looked to their successors to
continue their work. These successors were those disciples who had actually
traveled and preached with the Apostles and held fast to the Traditions
that had been given to them by word or epistles
(II Thessalonians 2:15).
One of these successors was a disciple of the Apostle John named Ignatius
(106). He was a little boy at the time of Christ. It is recorded that
he was the little child that Christ set in the midst of the disciples when
He said: Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall
not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Whosoever shall humble himself as this
little child, the same is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven
When Ignatius grew up he became the Bishop of Antioch, the city where the
disciples of Christ were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). Eventually
he was imprisoned for refusing to worship the pagan gods. Although he was
a prisoner facing death, he wrote several epistles to the churches to which
Paul had written earlier, such as the Ephesians and the
Icon of St. Lazarus, portraying
him in bishops' vestments.
Romans. Soon afterwards he was taken to the arena where he was eaten alive
by wild beasts, and gave his soul into the hands of God.
Another of the Apostles' successors was Lazarus, whom Christ
raised from the dead (John 11:1). After the day of Pentecost, Lazarus traveled
with his two sisters, Mary and Martha, throughout the Mediterranean and settled
on the island of Crete. Here he spread the Christian faith as one of the first
bishops of the Church. Later he and his sisters went to preach the Gospel
in France. Lazarus was known to have said that ever since he was raised from
the dead he had a bitter taste in his moth that reminded him of death and
the final judgment, which every soul will face. He died peacefully as a saint,
no longer tasting any bitterness, for there is no bitterness in Heaven.
Mary Magdalene was another disciple of Christ who became
an equal to the Apostles. After the day of Pentecost she traveled to Rome
and appeared before the Emperor Tiberias Caesar, greeting him with the words:
"Christ is Risen!" referring to the resurrection of Christ from
the dead. She then presented him with a red egg as a symbol of the new life
that was given to the human race through the crucifixion and resurrection
of Christ. From that day on eggs were always used in the celebration of the
great feast of Pascha (commonly known as Easter). Before the Emperor she also
Icon of St. Dionysius.
denounced Pontius Pilate for his unjust condemnation of Jesus Christ. Caesar
heeded her and transferred Pilate from Jerusalem to Gaul, where he died from
a terrible illness. Leaving Rome, she traveled to Ephesus and helped the Apostle
John. Here, she peacefully went to the Lord Whom she had served so faithfully.
Other disciples who continued the work of the Apostles
were St. Clement (Philippians 4:3) of Rome and St. Polycarp. St. Clement was
brought to the Faith by the Apostles Barnabas and Peter, who later appointed
him bishop of Rome, where he died a martyr's death. St. Polycarp was a pagan
who had been brought to the Faith and baptized by the Apostle John. Both Clement
and Polycarp wrote many epistles that still exist today.
Also at that time there was a man named Dionysius in Athens,
Greece (Acts 17:34). When Christ breathed His last on the Cross, St. Dionysius
beheld the sun darkened although he was miles away, and said: "Either
God the Creator of the world is suffering or the world is ending." Years
later the Apostle Paul was in Athens and saw that
Icon of St. Ignatius depicted with the lions
in the Roman arena.
the people there had an altar to "the unknown God." Paul then openly
said to those gathered: The One Whom you ignorantly worship, Him I proclaim
(Acts 17:23), and began to tell them about the One True God Who
gave His life for the world. Dionysius happened to be present and was moved
in his soul to embrace the Christian Faith. He was then baptized by Paul and
became a bishop of Gaul (France), residing in Paris.
Through these holy men and women the continuity of the
Orthodox Church was preserved, even during those times of great persecution.
HE FIRST CHRISTIANS were rejected by the world and were persecuted unto torture
and death, fulfilling Christ's prophecy: If the world hate you, know that
it hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would
love his own, but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you
out of the world, the world hates you
(John 15:18). To escape persecution
Christians fled to the catacombsunderground caves where they buried
their deadand conducted their secret prayer services there in hiding,
totally cut off from the world. They lived in constant expectation of martyrdom
Picture of one of the underground catacombs in
and so were always vigilant, preparing themselves for the other world. Earthly
wealth, comfort, and honor had no meaning for them since suffering stripped
them bare of such things. The spread of the Christian Faith among the pagans
provoked persecution against the early Christians because they refused to
worship any God other than the One living God. Thousands of men and women
died by courageously undergoing the cruelest forms of torture imaginable.
They were beheaded, burned, drowned, lacerated and crucified for their Faith;
the countless records and histories of the martyrs attest to their undying
love for God. The early 4th-century historian Eusebius wrote: "I myself
was an eyewitness of it. The iron implements would become blunt and broken,
and the executioners themselves would become wearied and have to take turns
to relieve each other."
The call to a violent death was a great reality for those
who believed in God and His Christ. Martyrdom was considered the ultimate
act of renunciation of the world and the highest form of confession of one's
Faith. While in the world's eyes it was total dishonor, in the eyes of the
believers it was the greatest glory. For the early Christians, the body, which
is a temple of God, could also become a sacrifice for God in enduring unto
death for the Truth. Only God and His Spirit dwelling deep within the martyrs
enabled them to overcome a death that was for them True Life.
Icon depicting martyrs undergoing torture for
From the world's point of view it seemed that the Christian
Faith was dying along with its martyrs, but this was not so. Many pagans,
seeing the faith and confession of the martyrs and the miracles that they
performed were themselves convinced of the Truth of the Christian Faith and
became Christians. The more the Christians were persecuted, the more the Christian
The earliest account of martyrdom is that of St. Stephen
who was a deacon of the Church (Acts 6:5). He was stoned to death for preaching
in the Jewish temple that Jesus Christ was the Messiah. As he was about to
die he looked up towards Heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing
on the right hand of God
Another account of a martyr of the catacomb period of Christianity
is the life of St. Catherine (305). She was the daughter of a ruler
in Alexandria, Egypt. From childhood she was well educated. She loved the
wisdom of this world until she encountered Christ, Who is True Wisdom. She
then became a Christian and fearlessly taught others of the one true God Who
became incarnate to save the world.
For this she was placed under heavy guard to be tortured.
When the arena was filled with spectators, she was brought out before the
wisest men of the empire in order for them to challenge her in her Christian
Faith. Her answers left everyone speechless, and many believed her words,
becoming Christians themselves. This enraged
Icon of St. Catherine portrayed with the wheel
of torture that was used on her and other Christians.
the emperor to such an extent that he had everyone burned alive who was found
to be a Christian. After imprisonment St. Catherine was taken to the place
where she would be executed. She then prayed: "Stretch out Thy hand,
which was nailed to the Cross for my sake, and receive my soul." After
enduring much torture she was finally beheaded.
The number of martyrs who died in these first centuries
of the Church is endless, attesting to the power that is within the Christian
faith. Many of the actual accounts of the lives and deaths of these martyrs
still exist thanks to the believers who courageously preserved their memory
in the catacombs.
THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE
HEN SUDDENLY, in the midst of all the sufferings of the early Church, the
persecution ceased. In the year 312, Constantine the Great, the emperor of
the Roman empire, which comprised all of the civilized world at that time,
was conquered by the sign of the Christian Faith. Just before a decisive battle,
he and all of his soldiers saw a Cross of light in the sky with the inscription,
"By this sign you will conquer." The
Icon of St. Constantine.
following night Christ appeared to him with the Cross in His hand and told
him that by this sign he would defeat his enemy, directing that each soldier's
shield bear the sign of the Cross. The emperor fulfilled the command of God
and conquered. Seeing the power of the Cross he abandoned paganism and embraced
the Christian Faith, placing his entire empire under the protection of Christ
and His Cross. Constantine legalized Christianity and then moved the seat
of the empire from Rome to Constantinople to make a new beginning, calling
this city the second Rome. Thus arose the Byzantine empirethe first
Christian society that was governed by Christian principles.
Now that the Church was free to come out of the catacombs,
churches began to be built above ground. Some
The Church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) in Constantinople
of the first churches constructed were over the holy sites in Israel where
Christ had lived. Also, later on in the sixth century a monastery was built
on Mount Siani over the site of the burning bush (Exodus 3:2), near the place
where Moses received the Ten Commandments. Most of these churches still remain
to this day as Orthodox churches and monasteries.
With the Church above ground, Christianity began to flourish.
The Christian religious art of iconography began to be redefined, church music
(chant) began to thrive and the amount of Christian literature began to grow.
In short, the Church became the center of every aspect of life. This period
of freedom and rest for the Church became the time to articulate the beliefs
of the Christian Faith and to choose the books that would comprise the standard
Emperor Constantine called a council of bishops to gather
Gold case preserved in an Orthodox monastery
on Mount Athos, Greece, that contains a piece of the actual Cross
from the four corners of the world. This council, held in 325, was the first
of seven Ecumenical Councils in the history of the Church and was modeled
after the council in the time of the Apostles (Acts 15). This council of Constantine's
Icon of St. Athanasius the Great
articulated the Creed of the Christian Faith so that there would be one confession
of the Faith and not different interpretations. Before this council there
was no universally accepted New Testament canon of Scripture, and, thus, no
Bible. There were simply the accounts of Christ's life by the Apostles Matthew,
Mark, Luke and John, and many epistles (letters) from several of the Apostles
such as Paul and Peter. There were also the letters and writings of the disciples
of the Apostles such as Sts. Ignatius, Clement, Dionysius and others. One
of the persons who was instrumental in this council was St. Athanasius of
Alexandria. He was the one responsible for the canon of Scriptures that comprise
the New Testament that we have today.
With the founding of the first Christian empirethe
Byzantine empirecame the Bible, the Creed, and a whole Christian experience
that would change the face of the world forever.
THE MONASTIC IDEAL
HIS TIME OF FREEDOM in the Church gave rise to one vital problem. Without
the suffering of persecution and martyrdom as a means to Christian perfection,
many of the Christians began to conform to this world. In their freedom and
wealth they began to forget that the Christian life is about leading the soul
from this world to the Kingdom of Heaven. It is a path of suffering in this
life in order to obtain peace in the next. Consequently, men and women seeking
spiritual perfection instead of the pleasures of this world, fled into the
deserts and wildernesses of Palestine and Egypt. Like the walls of the catacombs,
the wide expanses of the desert isolated them from the influence of the world
and provided the opportunity for a more God-centered life.
Icon of St. Anthony the Great.
Through a life of prayer, fasting, self-denial, chastity and vigilance these
ascetics became voluntary lifelong martyrs and were known as monks and nuns
Although it was in the fourth century that monasticism
developed, its origin is in the Old Testament times when God revealed to Moses
the vow of the Nazaritea vow of celibacy, the consecrating of one's
life to God (Numbers 6:2). Then from Elijah to John the Baptist, the prophets
set examples of this vow. Later this was perfected in the life of Christ.
After having witnessed Christ's example, the Apostle Mark, who established
the Church in Egypt, started the first ascetic communities which continued
this way of life. These communities had as their models the prophets of the
Old Testament, and operated on the principles set forth in Acts 4:32. They
came to be known as monasteries, and their inhabitants began to be called
monks. The term "monk" was derived from the Greek word monos,
which means single or aloneone who chooses to be
The sixth-century monastery of St. Catherine
at Mount Siani, Egypt, where Moses received the Ten Commandments.
alone with God. From these communities arose the great monastic saints of
One of the earliest records of a monk is the life of St.
Anthony the Great (356). When he was young his rich parents suddenly
died and left all their wealth to him. Saddened by their death, he went one
day into the church and heard the priest read from the Scriptures these words:
If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give it to the
thou shalt have treasure in Heaven: and come and follow Me
Icon of St. Mary of Egypt, a former prostitute
who went into the desert to live a life of repentance.
19:21). Hearing this his heart began to burn for Christ. He then went home,
gave away all his inheritance to the poor and went off into the Egyptian desert
to be alone with God. He lived there until he was over a hundred years oldpraying,
fasting, denying himself normal pleasures and reading the Holy Scriptures
( Mark 8:34-38). Hearing of his way of life, thousands of others followed
his example, and monasticism began to spread far and wide. After St. Anthony
died, the bishop of Alexandria, St. Athanasius the Great, who was close to
him, recorded his life for the inspiration of others. This was the same Athanasius
who was responsible for the Holy Scripture known as the Bible that we have
today. Athanasius brought this life of a saint throughout the world and changed
the face of history with the story of St. Anthony, the illiterate monk who
lived in a cave.
Photo of monks at a monastery on Mount Athos,
This way of life called monasticism quickly spread throughout
the world, preserving the same genuine spirit of the early Church. Entire
cities and societies found their beginnings in the simple poverty of these
monks. First a monk would settle in some uninhabited place, then people would
settle nearby to be close to him, and in time villages would grow. In this
way, monasticism and civilization spread throughout Egypt, Israel, Ethiopia,
Greece, Italy, Ireland, France, Romania, Serbia, Russia and to the ends of
THE GREAT SEPARATION
N THE VERY BEGINNING of the Christian Church the Apostles appointed successors
to guide and guard the Church. These leaders were called presbyters, bishops
and patriarchs. Presbyters were appointed as pastors of single churches, bishops
were appointed as pastors over geographical areas that encompassed often hundreds
of churches and patriarchs were spiritual advisors over the bishops and presbyters
and all the churches. This form of hierarchy was carried over from the Old
Testament times of Moses (Exodus 18:13-21, II Timothy 2:1-7).
Icon of the First Ecumenical Council of bishops,
in 325 A.D.
Although there were hundreds of bishops throughout Christendom,
there were only five Patriarchsone for each of the five important cities
in the empire: Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Rome. All
took counsel with one another, having Christ as the head, and there was no
one person who ruled the Church. All significant decisions were made only
in council (Acts 15), no one patriarch or bishop having absolute superiority
over another, but all working together in equality. Through this hierarchy
the Church had succeeded for centuries in maintaining unity.
In the ninth century, however, the East and the West began
to drift apart. The Patriarch (Pope) of Rome began to introduce new and foreign
ideas into the Faith. One of these ideas was the supremacy of the Roman Pope
over the rest of the Orthodox Church. The other four patriarchs of the Church
in the East, knowing that having one supreme ruler over the entire Church
would divide and corrupt the Church, unsuccessfully pleaded with the Pope
of Rome not to introduce this new idea.
Another new idea that the Pope of Rome began to introduce
was the changing of the age-old Christian Creed that had been established
by the early Church. The Creed is a summary of the beliefs of the Christian
Faith, established since the times of the Apostles and based on the Scriptures.
The Church in the East warned the Western Church of the dangers of changing
any part of the Faith and especially the very Creed itself. But the changes
were already in full swing, and the bishops in the West had already began
to adopt these new ideas, even though the believers resisted.
In these difficult times of division much dialogue took
place between the Eastern Church and the Western Church in an attempt to work
out their difference. Since the Orthodox Church would not compromise and allow
any changes to be made in the Faith, in 1054 the Roman Patriarchate officially
severed itself from the rest of the Church.
The division was based on issues of authority and theology,
and underlying both these issues was the following dividing factor: In the
East the Church was always looked at as something otherworldly which pointed
believers towards Heaven, while in the West the Church began to become this-worldly,
pointing believers towards an earthly organization rather than the one spiritual
organism of the Body of Christ. Thus began "Organized Religion."
Although the rest of Christendom tried to call Rome back
to the orthodox understanding of Christianity, Rome had already made its decision
to part ways and would not turn back. This was the first denomination (division)
in Western Christendom, which later proved to be the first of thousands.
Throughout the years after this devastating schism, the
West experienced tremendous turmoil and corruption. The Crusades began, which
evolved into an attack on the Church in the East. Then came the Inquisition,
then the Renaissance which brought back pagan ideals and mixed them with Christianity,
and finally the Protestant Reformation. The West experienced the "Dark
Ages" or "Middle Ages," which marked the gradual transition
between the ancient Christian world-view and the modern godless one. The East
experienced no such Middle Ages, since there the Orthodox Church preserved
the Christianity of the Apostles and the early Church.
Orthodoxy continued to endure martyrdom and persecution
from the worldthis time from the yoke of the Muslims. As with the persecution
under the pagan Romans, suffering at the hands of the Muslims kept the Church
pure by not allowing for lukewarmness of faith.
THE THIRD ROME
T ABOUT THE TIME of the falling away of the Roman Church, the Orthodox Church
was enlarged by the conversion of an entire nation. This was the Slavic nation
of Russia. The steps towards this conversion first began in the year 863 when
two missionary monks from the Byzantine Empire, Sts. Cyril and Methodius,
set foot in the Slavic lands of Bulgaria and Serbia. Through their labors,
Christianity eventually reached Russia. Though they were from distant Constantinople,
they were familiar with the Slavic people and language from their
Icon of Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius.
childhood. Since the Slavic people had no written language, St. Cyril devised
the Slavonic alphabet from Greek in order to translate the Holy Scriptures.
Hence the alphabet used in Slavonic countries today is called the "Cyrillic"
Although Sts. Cyril and Methodius brought the Gospel to
the Slavic nations, the full conversion of the Russian people took place one
hundred years later. Russia was almost totally pagan at that time, although
there were small pockets of Christianity thanks to the labors of the Apostle
Andrew. Apostle Andrew had preached throughout the land of Russia and placed
crosses both in Kiev and on the Lake Ladoga island of Valaam in the north.
Almost a thousand years after St. Andrew, in 988, the Russian
Prince Vladimir decided that an official religion was necessary for his country.
In search of the true faith he then investigated all the major religions of
the world, sending an envoy to visit their churches and temples. After having
observed different religions, the envoy returned to the Prince and said, "When
we went to Greece and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship
their God, we knew not whether we were in Heaven or on earth. For on
Icon of Saint Vladimir, Prince of Russia.
earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to
describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men and their service
surpasses those of all other nations." The Prince accepted the Orthodox
Christian Faith, was baptized, and ordered that all the idols of the
Photo of the St. Sergius Lavra in Russia.
nation be destroyed.
It was not long before the entire Russian land became a
bastion of Christian spiritual life filled with many saints. Soon churches
covered the land, monasteries filled the vast wilderness, and golden domes
were seen towering over every city and village.
Then in 1453 a great tragedy occurred. The seat of the
Byzantine Empire of Constantinople was overtaken by the Muslim Turks who had
been warring against Christian nations for hundreds of years. The fall of
Byzantium led to the rise of the New ByzantiumHoly Russia. It seemed
as if Russia was called upon to preserve the Orthodox Faith. The first Rome
had departed from Orthodoxy and the second had fallen. Thus, Moscow became
the third Rome.
Just as in Byzantium, every aspect of life in Russia was
centered around the Church and Christian spiritual life, yet there still arose
the need for a much deeper, God-centered life that only the desert can offer.
In Russia the harsh wilderness became the desert that offered solitude and
austerity for the God-centered life called monasticism. The founding father
of Russian monasticism was St. Anthony of Kiev (1073). After having
been formed as a monk on Mount Athos, Greece, he returned to his homeland
and settled in a cave in Kiev. In a short time a whole monastery arose around
that cave. Soon the monastic ideal spread throughout all of Russia, even to
its deepest wilderness.
Icon of Saint Seraphim.
During the thousand years of Russian Christianity there
were always saints who continued the spirit of the early Christian Church.
For example there was St. Seraphim of Sarov (1833), a monk who from
childhood lived a very pure life. He had the gifts of healing and unceasing
prayer, and was seen surrounded by a magnificent, unearthly light. This was
the same Divine light that Christ shown upon His Apostles so long ago and
that His Apostles brought to the ends of the world (Exodus 34:29-35, Matthew
17:1-2, Acts 9:3).
THE ENDS OF THE
HILE RUSSIA was at its spiritual height, a group of Orthodox missionaries
was sent eastward across Siberia to the New World in order to spread the treasure
of the Byzantine Christian Faith. In 1794, a mission team of ten monks was
gathered from the Monastery of Valaam, the island where Apostle Andrew had
preached the Christian Faith centuries before. In the spirit of the Apostles,
these Russian monks sailed to Alaska, and through love and self-sacrifice
brought thousands of the native peoples to the Christian Faith. One of
Icon of Saint Herman.
these missionary monks met a martyr's end while another began monastic life
in the New World, in the spirit of St. Anthony the Great and St. Anthony of
Kiev. This was St. Herman (1836), who became the first saint of the
land of America. Thus, through Russia, the Christianity of the Apostles, of
the catacombs, and of Byzantium was planted in American soil.
After the death of St. Herman the legacy of Orthodox Christianity
in the New World was continued by St. Innocent (1879). He was a simple
priest from Siberia who had an unquenchable longing to give his whole life
to the service of God. This longing was met when he sailed to the wilds of
Alaska. There he traveled throughout this frontier just as the Apostles did
in other lands so long ago, living in hardships and difficulty, suffering
extreme poverty and battling the harsh elements of nature with the sole purpose
of making Heaven accessible to as many souls as possible. St. Innocent had
to create a written language for the natives of Alaska just as Sts. Cyril
and Methodius had done for their native people so long ago, so that these
new Christians could have the word of God in their own language.
St. Innocent was later chosen to be the Bishop of Alaska
and continued to sacrifice himself for his flock. Then in old age he returned
to his homeland where he was chosen to be the head of the Church of Russia
(a position equal to that of a patriarch). While the head of the whole Russian
Church he started missionary societies with the aim of spreading the Gospel
to the ends of the world. After having lived a full life in the service of
God, St. Innocent died in his homeland and found his rest with the saints
Less than twenty years later, a great luminary of the twentieth
century was born in St. Innocent's homeland, who would one day continue the
apostolic work in America. This was St. John Maximovitch. From childhood he
loved Christ and His Church more than anything else in this world. This love
was tested when his homeland of Russia became communist/atheist and underwent
one of the bloodiest persecutions in the history of Christianity. The Church
once again had to go into the catacombs in order to survive. In these difficult
times God preserved St. John's life and he escaped to the Orthodox country
of Serbia, where he later became a monk; and soon thereafter was made a
Photo of Saint John Maximovitch.
As a bishop and successor of the Apostles he went to China,
where he founded Orthodox churches. Here he started an orphanage and took
care of unwanted children. He would even go to the slums and find babies in
garbage cans and take them home. Later he was asked to be the bishop of San
Francisco in the United States where he continued his work of living and spreading
Although he lived in the city, his way of life was like
that of the desert monks of old. He prayed without ceasing, ate very little
only once a day, slept only three hours a night, and wholly sacrificed himself
for God and for his fellow man. He voluntarily chose this difficult way of
life for the simple reason that Heaven was more important to him than the
comforts of the earth. Through this he attained such heights of Christian
perfection that he was seen several times surrounded in an unearthly light
that emanated from him, and he was given the gift of working miracles. In
1966 St. John died and was laid to rest in San Francisco. To this day, along
with St. Herman, St. Innocent, and all the saints of the Orthodox Church,
he is revered for bringing the light of Christ to the ends of the world.
ROM THE TIME of the saints of the early Church to the saints of our own day
and age, the original Church of Christ has been preserved as a treasure given
to mankind by God Himself. Throughout the centuries this universal Orthodox
Church has maintained the fullness of the Christian experience in continuity,
theology, and spirituality. It has given us the Liturgy, the Creed, the Bible,
monasticism, and the whole of the Christian world-view.
Icon of God in Trinity as He appeared to Abraham
in the form of three angels (Genesis 18:1). In the middle Christ is
represented in a chalice, formed by other angels, which symbolizes
This may come as a surprise to those who thought that the
divided and fragmented Christian experience of the west was the only expression
of the Church. Others, however, who have discovered the Eastern Church find
relief for their souls, which are hungering for the ancient, historical Christian
Church that the Apostles began, and which still exists in our own times.
This Church extends from the saints in Heaven down to the
believers here on earth in order to raise us from earth to the heights of
Heaven (Hebrews 12:1, 22-24). Thus, the true essence of the Church cannot
be found in its earthly institution but must be sought in the spiritual life
of the Church which takes place in the heart; for it is within the heart that
Christ reveals Himself.
Once Christ reveals Himself to a soul, the heart becomes
a battleground where the Christian fights his way towards Heaven (Philippians
2:12). This battle, which is the lifelong struggle of good over evil and virtue
over vice, is called Unseen Warfare (Ephesians 6:12), and is the essence of
the spiritual life of a Christian. In conducting this struggle the soul becomes
purified in order to make a place for the living God to come and dwell in
it. This is the true and ultimate purpose of the Church. Everything else in
life is only secondary.
It was in order to establish this Church that God came
down to earth, became a man, suffered, died, resurrected from the dead, and
ascended into Heaven. Through this God showed mankind the way from earth to
Heaven, and gave us His Holy Church to be the place where Heaven and earth
meet, and where communion with God begins (Ephesians 3:21, Matthew 16:18-19,
TO ENTER THE DOOR
ECAUSE Orthodoxy is the fullness of ancient, apostolic Christianity, becoming
a true Orthodox Christian requires being a Christian in the fullest sense
of the word, and that is not easy. It takes a lifetime of constant unseen
warfare, ascetic discipline, self-denial, self-crucifixion, and active, selfless
love. To be truly Orthodoxy, you will have to die to yourself and "hate
your life" (Luke 14:26)that is, the life of your own ego. You must
die to self-love and sensual pleasure, which as the Holy Fathers teach are
the primary results of the Fall and the root of all sin. You must look into
yourself and face your sin, not just as separate acts but as your condition.
Then you must go about rooting out all of the most subtle passions which separate
you from God. You must overcome resentment by forgiveness, which can only
happen through the grace of Christ. You must cut off all desire for popularity,
acceptance, recognition, approval and "love," even from other members
of the Orthodox Church.
Christ said: Whosoever doth not bear his cross, and
come after me, cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build
a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient
to finish it?
(Luke 14:27-28). Many people do not take up the Cross of
Christ because they see that it will require too much of them. Others take
it up, but then, not having counted the cost, put it down when it gets too
heavy. Still others, on becoming Orthodox, do so with worldly motives: the
desire to be more "correct" and historically authentic than Protestants
and Roman Catholics; the desire to experience the beautiful aesthetics of
Orthodox liturgics, etc. In so doing, however, they never enter into the essence
of Orthodox Christianity. Not having really taken up the Cross of Christ,
they never really taste the unearthly joy of His Resurrection.
"He who wishes to serve God," says St. Basil
the Great (4th century), "must prepare his heart for tribulations."
The Orthodox Christian faith is a suffering faith (II Timothy 3:12), because
through suffering we can at last wake up to our true condition, repent, be
purified by Christ, and in that purification become a dwelling place of the
Holy Spirit. The great fourth-century theologian, St. Gregory Nazianzen, described
true Christianity as "suffering Orthodoxy." To take it up is to
take up the most radical, demanding, all-or-nothing life possible. All false
motives must fall away, burned up in the fire of suffering for Jesus Christ.
You must taste, to the degree of which you are capable, the suffering, persecution,
and crucifixion that the Orthodox saints have experienced throughout the ages.
To enter into their heavenly company, you must pay the price. Christ said:
Straight is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and
few there be that find it
(Matthew 7:14). That narrow way is found through
pain of heart and years of repentance. According to your yearning and your
striving, you will enter; you will taste the fruits of Paradise even in this
life, and Christ will fill your sufferings with His presence. Then you will
know the joy of the Resurrection, for you will have experienced a resurrection
in you own soul. You will be a new being on the inside, and you will find
the Kingdom of Heaven within you (Luke 17:21).
Though the Sacraments, the Scripture, the spiritual discipline
and the ascetic teachings of the Orthodox Church, you will find the Door to
Paradise. And then, in your own heart, your own inward being, you will find
Paradise itself. You will find what true prayer is, and you will find Him
who has been calling you all your life: Christ, the Bridegroom of your soul.