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What does it mean to be an Orthodox Christian?

By Dr. Maria-Fotini Polidoulis Kapsalis



  I was recently asked, what does it mean to be an Orthodox Christian? Right away, I realized that every Orthodox would answer differently, as each Orthodox Christian views Orthodoxy differently.  Unfortunately, most see it as part of their cultural identity. “I am Greek, or Serbian, or Russian.  Therefore, I am Orthodox.”  Others, who do not identify strongly with their ethnicity, may answer, “Because my parents were Orthodox, and that is what I was brought up as.”  Others may answer, “Because I married someone who is Orthodox, so I became it, too.”


   But for someone who is Orthodox by choice, for someone who either came to the faith or was brought up in the faith, and loves the faith and lives the faith, and practices the faith, because they want to be Orthodox … again there are many possible answers.  Some would say, “An Orthodox Christian is one who is following the True Teachings of Christ and His Church.”  Others, “An Orthodox Christian is someone who worships God correctly.” But there is something more, much more to being an Orthodox Christian than reciting the Creed, or saying “Lord have mercy” and crossing oneself at a particular moment during the Liturgy.  Our orthi-Praxis and orthi-Doxa in order to be truly Ortho-Christian need to be deeply rooted in Christ.


  Being an Orthodox Christian means living one’s life as the Image of Christ.  A true Orthodox Christian is one who oozes with compassion for one’s fellow man, who forgives wrongs without harboring grudges, who puts the needs of others regardless how trivial they may seem before their own.  A true Orthodox Christian is one who lives every breath with Christ in mind, and does acts of kindness so that others will know of their Lord Christ, not to hear any praise for themselves.  


  A true Orthodox Christian…alas, has yet to exist.


   Why do I say this? Because all of us who belong to the Orthodox Church realize that we are on a journey to become Orthodox Christians.  We realize over and over again that we fall into vanity, arrogance, pride, selfishness, and all the vices that take our focus away from Christ and onto ourselves. True Orthodox Christians realize that they are deserving of hell and nothing better, because they do not possess perfect love of God and neighbour.  If salvation is to come at all, it comes only by the grace and love of God.  There is nothing an Orthodox Christian—or anyone else for that matter--can do to secure paradise.  They can give all their wealth to the poor, convert nations to Christ, die a martyr’s death and still be cast out into the fire.  Deeds alone cannot save us.  And yet, they are necessary.  They are necessary not as tickets to get us into heaven, but as the expressions of our love … for God.  A true Orthodox Christian does not do good deeds to secure heaven. A true Orthodox Christian does good deeds to show his allegiance, devotion, commitment and most of all love for their Lord. (1 Corinthians 13)  To be an Orthodox Christian is to live one’s life, like a bride who is madly in love with her husband…Christ.  


  We sometimes hear in sermons how we are to be servants of God, and at other times how we are to be friends of God.  But there is a relationship that St. John Chrysostom proclaimed greater than that of servant or friend.  It is the relationship between spouses, between a husband and wife.  Those who are really in love with each other cannot bear to spend a moment in time not thinking of the other, not trying to find ways to show the other how much they care, to the point of giving their whole selves, body, heart and soul to their spouse out of love.  They have no desire of their own apart from the desire of their spouse, and forsake everything, even the security of their parent’s home to create a new home together.  


  St. John Chrysostom writes that the husband, Christ, is a “manic lover” who suffered greatly and even gave up his life for his bride, the Church.  It is for the love of such a spouse that we live for.  Jesus, the lord of all, is our spouse, our lover, more than a friend, more than a master.  We live for him, and he for us.  But his love is perfect and he will save us if we put our faith in him, trust him, follow him, live for him, and unite with him completely. Our marriage with him must be strong, because salvation is not living in the clouds behind pearly gates.  Salvation ultimately is nothing other than total union with God.  We must love him completely, with no doubts, with no distractions.  


  This is what it means to be an Orthodox Christian.  It is to journey through life to become as madly in love with Christ, as he is with us. And we show this love by being madly in love with others who are created in the image of our spouse, Christ Jesus: our family, our friends, our co-workers, our acquaintances, our neighbours, our foes, our enemies, our nemesis. Love your God like a spouse, and love your neighbour like your God.


  The Orthodox Church’s role and purpose is to help build the relationship between its members who make up the bride (the Church) and Christ, through its proclamation of scripture, doctrines, mysteries/sacraments, prayers, and fasts.  But to participate in these blindly, without placing Christ at the centre, without desiring to have love for the spouse and to live with Him as the centre of your very being and existence, is as meaningless as having a beautifully furnished home and living in it … completely alone.