On the first Sunday of Great Lent, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, we commemorate the returning of the icons to the churches in 843, after they had been banned for a 150 year period prior to that time. A procession is held in every Orthodox parish. Icons are carried around the church, choirs chant hymns, priests offer prayers and petitions. A statement called the Synodikon (or Synodical Statement) is read as it has been every year since 843, and the congregation confesses their faith by reciting the Nicene Creed.
One of the statements in the Synodikon proclaims: "This is the faith of the Apostles. This is the faith of the Fathers. This is the Faith of the Orthodox. This is the faith that sustains the universe." What does this statement mean?
Some see it as an elitist statement -- "This is the Faith of the Orthodox" -- It is this faith, as opposed to some other faith, that sustains the universe. Some see it as a nostalgic statement -- "This is the faith of the Apostles, this is the faith of the Fathers"--This is a faith of yesteryear, and this one of the occasions during the year that we take that faith from the shelf and dust it off. Some see it as an irrelevant statement -- "This is the faith of the Apostles, this is the Faith of the Fathers" -- therefore it is not a faith for me, it is not a faith that is relevant in the 21st Century. And some see it as a statement of identity -- this is the faith of the Apostles, preserved by the Fathers and saints of the church to this very day. This is the faith, the prayer, the love, the moral backbone that sustains the universe. At least it is supposed to be.
The Orthodox faith is not the faith of the Apostles of yesteryear, or the faith of the Priests and Hierarchs of today, but it is a collective faith of everyone. And the Orthodox Faith is not just collective, but it is personal. That's why when we confess our faith and recite the Creed, we don't hide behind a collective "we" but confess what we believe in a very personal way, "I believe."
And what is it that we believe? Do we believe in a culture? Do we believe in the church building? Do we believe in the icons? No. We believe in God, the way we confess Him in the Nicene Creed. And we believe that the Apostles, the Fathers and the Saints of the church have been guided by the Holy Spirit to establish Orthodox Theology and Tradition that is practiced in the same way throughout the world. The Canon of Scripture, the Holy Bible, was codified in the Fourth Century, and since that time, has served as a guidebook for what Christians believe and how they are supposed to live.
The Divine Liturgy of St. Basil, which is celebrated on the Sundays of Great Lent, was written in the Fourth Century. Later in the Fourth Century, St. John Chrysostom edited the Liturgy into the service we celebrate on most other Sundays during the year. The Nicene Creed which we recite at every Divine Liturgy, was last edited by the Orthodox Church in the year 381 -- it is the oldest Christian Creed of any church. And so the Traditions and Practices of Orthodoxy have been in their present form for a long time -- they are timeless, they are legitimate. Imagine how powerful and Spirit-inspired these things are that they haven't been changed in 1,600 years!
Some people comment, why doesn't the church change to conform with the times we live in? Because the Message of Christ, His Saving work, His purpose in redeeming the world, hasn't changed at all, one bit. So why is it that churches continue to change and reconfigure themselves to fit the world? The world, our world, and our individual lives in it, are supposed to configure themselves around the Gospel, not the other way around.
At a recent gathering of priests and parish council members from throughout our Metropolis, a priest asked a question: "How many people in our churches can recite the Creed from memory?" The answer was a staggering few. In my experience, most people who serve as Godparents can't. Many don't even know what the Creed is. I've heard so many people say that Jesus was "Incarcerated" by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, rather than "incarnate," and crucified by Pontius Pi-LA-te (pronounced like the women's exercise) that it's not funny, it's sad.
The Creed is not just a basic statement of faith. It is the proclamation of what it means to be an Orthodox Christian. If someone asks me what do I believe about God, I recite the Creed for them. Before receiving Holy Communion, I confess and I affirm what I believe by reciting the Creed. How can one dare to approach to receive the Body and Blood of Christ without a convicted affirmation of a sincere belief in God?
If we believe, collectively as a church, and if we as its individual members confess honestly, "I believe," then the Creed should have a profound impact on each of our lives. We say, "This is the faith that sustains the universe," and yet in many churches, it is a faith that can barely hold up the roof.
The faith of the Apostles is what St. Paul refers to in the Epistle lesson read on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, people who "through faith conquered kingdoms, worked righteousness, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, became valiant in battle. . .others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, others had trials of mockings and scourgings, trials and imprisonments, they were stoned, sawn in two, destitute, afflicted." (Hebrews 11: 33-37)
This is the witness of authentic faith. Faith is not ducking into church in time for the sermon, or waiting for the fourth stewardship reminder to send in a meager offering, or not being able to recite the 200 words of the Creed from memory. Faith is something that is dynamic and life changing. It is both challenging and exciting.
The last line of the Creed says, "I look to the Resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come. Amen." If the Creed is the statement of belief of the Orthodox Christian, then its last phrase is the mission statement, if you will, of each Orthodox Christian life. The life of the age to come, the age that will never come to a close, this is the end point, the destination, the goal for each Orthodox Christian. If this is the goal, then what is the plan that will insure the goal is attained?
One basic step in the plan is to memorize the Creed. It's not very long -- our children memorize baseball statistics and lyrics to rap music, why can't they memorize the Creed? And in its roughly 200 words, it captures the essence of what it means to be an Orthodox Christian. I'm not an expert on what other churches believe, only on this Creed that I have confessed from childhood. And if this is what I claim to believe, then I am not open to the possibilities of believing something else, or changing this Creed in any way. This statement of "I believe" is rock solid for me, the way it has been for millions upon millions of Orthodox Christians who have confessed it since 381.
Memorize the Creed -- examine it word by word, learn what things like "Incarnate," Resurrection, "Light of Light," and "of one essence with the Father," learn what these things mean. And most importantly, take this Creed, take this faith, which sustains the universe, and superimpose it over your life, allow it to sustain your life. Allow it to shape your life. So much of the world has changed in the past hundred years, in the past 10 years, even in the past 6 months. But the Creed hasn't changed since the fourth century, neither has the bible, neither has the Divine Liturgy, neither has the goal for our lives.
We've dumbed down morality, but God hasn't changed the meaning of what is righteous. We've worked hard to take God out of society, but he still wants us to come back in repentance so He can lead us to heaven. We've compartmentalized the faith that has upheld the universe, the faith that survived 400 years of Ottoman Oppression and a generation of Communist tyranny. We've made faith into a convenience, a possession, a company, a drive through fast food joint.
This is not the faith of the Apostles, the Fathers, the Martyrs and the Saints -- theirs was a faith that led them from sacrifice to glory, not from convenience to confusion. And that's what God wants for us -- believe, understand, live, sacrifice, glory, triumph.
Prayers, services, scriptures, Traditions, the church, the sacraments, witnessing for the faith -- these are the plans that achieve the goal of salvation, these are the tools that build a solid faith, first on an individual level, then on a collective level, and then on a cosmic level. This is the faith of the Apostles. This is the faith of the Fathers. This is the faith of the Orthodox. This is the faith that sustains the universe.
Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis is the Priest of St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL and is the Director of St. Stephen's Summer Camp for the Metropolis of Atlanta.