BEAR WITNESS TO THE LIGHT – Almoutran
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BEAR WITNESS TO THE LIGHT

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Word Magazine October 1989 Page 4 – 7

“BEAR WITNESS TO THE LIGHT;

BRINGING ORTHODOXY TO AMERICA”

by Dr. Daniel Sahas

In the theme of your Convention, “Bear Witness to the Light; Bringing Orthodoxy to America,” you have com­bined, in an enlightening and delight­ful way, the Biblical injunction with the American quest:

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear wit­ness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light. (John 1:6-8)

Metropolitan Philip, Your Eminences, Your Graces, Reverend Fathers, Your Excellency, Beloved sisters and brothers in Christ, dearest Orthodox in North America:

A true man and a Christian, in the generic and essential sense of the words, is a being who is constantly “sent from God”. You, Antiochian Christians, have put flesh on this Christian understand­ing of the human nature. You reverted the name “Christian”, employed origi­nally as a derogatory appellation for the unlettered and the underprivileged, and used in jest for “the follower of some charlatan who claimed to be the Messiah”, to a way of life and a role model. “Christian”, then, came to mean the Christ-like person, the imita­tor of Christ, the living and vibrant member of the mystical body of the in­carnate Logos, the Light par excellence! And your third bishop, Ignatius of An­tioch, incarnated and sealed this defi­nition with his baptism of blood, in Rome, 1885 years ago!

“Light” is not a figurative expression; as Christ is not an abstraction, either. Ignatius did not witness to, nor did he become an imitator of an abstraction. Light is the definite state of existence that dispels darkness; the quality that makes things manifest. Light is the Way and power which transforms or, actually, transfigures the world. No surprise, therefore, that Christianity was originally called, even by its fiercest opponents, “the Way” (Acts 9:1-2; 19:9, 23; 24:14, 22). Paul makes a distinction between life as a set of “laws of our fathers” and “the Way” (Acts 24:14) as a living ex­perience, which he persecuted in the person of concrete men and women, and to which “Way” he, himself, was converted! Pliny the Younger, in the be­ginning of the second century, report­ing to the Roman Emperor about Christianity, described a particular mentality and behaviour, a certain kind of witnessing and conduct; a charac­teristic way of life by the Christians! And, centuries later, the envoys of Prince Vladimir, looking for a Faith, reported a particular conduct and way of liturgical life, which triggered the conversion of the Rus to Byzantine Orthodoxy.

What are, then, some of the ingre­dients and characteristic “ways” of the light which Orthodox are called to in­culcate and bear witness to them in America? Allow me to mention, briefly, four of them.

1. Light as a way of convention and communion

Light brings people together. One puts the light on a stand “that those who enter may see the light” (Lk. 8:16). Light enables people to see and face each other as persons. This is, precise­ly, the meaning of the Greek word prosopon: the ability to face, and the quality to treat each other, not as num­bers, units, bodies, denominations or masses, but as persons, with personal, unalienable and unrepeated charac­teristics; men, women and children for each one of whom Christ has died!

Thus, for example, conventions such as this, are opportunities to “enter”, to come together, to see each other under the same Light, and face each other as persons. Convention and light are inter­woven categories. What the primitive man discovered was that one stone alone can produce neither light nor fire. Two of them, striking each other, can. That is why where two or three are gathered in His name, there is Christ in the midst of them (Cf. Mat. 18:20). Individualism (and this is not a numerical, but a men­tal category), dogmatism, absolutism, authoritarianism, egocentricism, spiritual or cultural imperialism, are characteristics alien to Orthodoxy; and these must be seen and treated as idi­osyncracies, inclinations, preferences, that is, heresies! Coming together, be­ing in communion with each other, challenging, talking, facing issues with each other and acting together, is an ex­perience which is at the heart of our Christian Faith. Being in communion with each other (as members of an Or­thodox community and as a family of Orthodox communities), is not a mat­ter of choice in Christianity; it is a fun­damental of faith. Our belief in a per­sonal God speaks, precisely, of this no­tion of a communion of distinct persons in the Holy Trinity, in an eternal move­ment of love, according to Maximus the Confessor. The fact is not coincidental that in our Orthodox tradition, authori­ty and truth are not manifested through any single person, or even through a concilium of ecclesiastical dignitaries

talking to each other; but rather through God-the-Holy Spirit in synod, in action, with the Church (men, wom­en, children, clergy and laity) walking together towards their Emmaus. This is the extraordinary synodical ethos by which the Church has been constitut­ed, fed and characterized, and to which we in North America need to become more committed, rather than superflu­ous and diplomatic. Time is never suffi­cient to speak adequately about the blessing and the enriching qualities of the synodical ethos and character of the Church; that mentality and way of life of “walking together” with Christ and with each other, finding our unity and mutual fulfillment, and recognizing Christ “in the breaking of the bread” (Lk. 24:3 5). Of course, we have been walking, making significant strides within our own borders and, to a lesser extent, in North America at large — but as individual ethnic Orthodox con­claves. Jesus was constantly “walking” — but never alone. Consider all the walking He did, and its accomplish­ments. Don’t be afraid to use your im­agination, and allegorize the Biblical circumstances, if you want to make Christ a living, contemporary American reality. He walked with a few select dis­ciples but also, and with them, with crowds, with people in distress, with people in need, with people searching for meaning. He walked even with peo­ple with whom he was in disagreement on fundamentals of faith and conduct! He walked teaching, visiting, healing people, sharing their sorrows and joy; He walked carrying His own cross. He even walked through. . . closed doors! And there are lots of “closed doors” around us. In all instances Jesus walked with a single purpose; the glory of His Father in heaven, by witnessing to His wisdom and truth, in flesh and as Light!

2. Light as a revealing way

In the doxology of the daybreak serv­ice of the Orthros, rejoicing in the new day we sing “in your light we may see light”. As only under the light of the day can one experience light, so under the light of Christ one can see light and become “the light of the world” (Mat. 5:14, 16). The light of Orthodoxy is not a spotlight that one directs selectively upon himself, or upon a specific event or object. It is a light which, like the in­ner lighting of Byzantine iconography, transpires and illumines the whole; one’s own words, works, conduct, dispo­sition towards life, society, history and its welfare.

Light itself is not a decoration. It il­luminates things and shows their true being. As it makes things manifest, light speaks of itself. Light is “for reve­lation to the nations (lit., to the gen­tiles) and for the glory of the people” who receive it (Cf. Lk. 2:32). A Christ­ian is glorified because of and while wit­nessing to the Light. Orthodoxy is not some kind of a status title; it is a burden of responsibility. Thus, bearing witness to the light means also crying in the “wilderness”; roaming in the “desert”; being the unpopular voice of moral consciousness; standing against in­justice, personal whims, ecclesiastical politics, and offering one’s own head on a platter; going up to one’s Calvary, carrying even one’s own cross . . . All these, too, are ways of self-revelation and of bearing witness to the Light.

Light, by definition, has a critical quality and disposition. Orthodoxy, as a witness to the light must be self-critical, and critical towards things and people who claim to be substitutes for God. Self-complacency, emotionalism, pietism, triumphalism, idle (supposed­ly “traditional”) thinking, or uncritical adaptation of man-made modes of sal­vation, just because they seem to be popular, easily accessible, fashionable, convenient or, worse, serving political, ethnic-tribal or other experiences, are not characteristics of Orthodoxy.

3. Light as a transfiguring way

Light does not change the shape or form of things; it transfigures them. God-the-Word, the Light par excel­lence, “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). “He came to his own home. . .” and to those who believed in Him “He gave power to become chil­dren of God” (John 1:11-12). Christ transfigured Himself in front of His disciples, “His face shone like the sun, and His garments became white as light” (Mat. 17:2), but He always re­mained recognizable by them. He was crucified and risen, but He continued conversing and eating fish for breakfast with them! He ascended into heaven, but He is tangible and He lives in our midst. As His feet, He left our feet; as His hands, our hands; as His mouth, our mouth; as His smile our smile….

(a continuous transfiguration of the hu­man nature!) for us to be His “witnesses in Jerusalem and all Judea and Samar­ia”, in Antioch, Syria, Lebanon, Ameri­ca, Canada, “and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Witnessing to the light does not mean becoming what we are not; it means rather discovering, exploring, celebrating, reflecting and sharing what we truly are, our ontological being: the image of God in us; the breath of God in us; the holiness of God in us; the life of God in us; our humanity, restored by the incarnation of the Logos.

Bearing witness to the light means celebrating and manifesting the theosis of the human nature, which makes us conscious sharers of the divine life and beauty, and at one with the world. Be­cause, the worst human tragedy is the alienation of man from his source of be­ing; the self-exile from his creator; his subjugation to the material creation for which he was meant to be its master and curator; the fear of his fellow men with whom he was meant to live in commun­ion . . This, too, is the quest of America today: to shed off the spiritu­al poverty in the midst of material plen­ty; to experience an inner confidence and security in spite of an unprecedent­ed armament; to enjoy the richness and the beauty of the material creation in­stead of an impending environmental holocaust; to find meaning in life as an alternative to oversimplified and glori­fied ways of death. This, too, is the quest of the Christian America: to taste “the unity of faith and the communion of the Holy Spirit” in the midst of an unguarded denominationalism; to ex­perience the balance of the Christian Faith in the midst of a polarization of its claims; to feel the security and the sin­cerity of Christianity in the midst of a commercialization and exploitation of its message.

4. Light as the outer of the inner way

One of the most fascinating, but for­gotten, admonitions of Jesus to His disciples was the following antinomy:

“What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim upon the housetops” (Mat. 10:27).

In the Orthodox tradition and ethos, mysticism and mission do not find each other in tension, but rather in a con­stant state of interplay. The one is the other side of the other. We Orthodox, especially in secular and moralist North America, are becoming populists and superfluous with our mystical tradition. For public relations and for stressing our “uniqueness”, we theorize only about the mystical character of our Orthodox theology and ethos, while forgetting the inherent witnessing character of spiritu­ality — thus diluting the essential char­acter of Orthodoxy itself. The mystical character of Orthodoxy derives from the experience of the divine gnofos. True mysticism is living, reflective and, thus, witnessing, as true witness is one that derives from the inner, bubbling, springs of the spirit. Not from big mouths, but from thirsting souls; not from fat lips, but from pure hearts; not from verbose declarations aimed at public relations, but from the depths of prayer; not with loud voices, but with that thundering eloquence of the silent icon; not from emotional pulpits or glaring cameras, but from the transpar­ent flesh of Christ on earth — that con­scious spiritual parish life at the grass roots; those iconographed walls of an authentic church; that sensitive celebra­tion of our feasts and services; that monastic community of spiritual renewal, that synodical love and consen­sus . . . to mention only a few manifestations of our spiritual treasures.

History and cultures have created a number of seemingly self-contained, cocoon-Orthodoxies — trees which more often that not obscure the sense of the forest. But the essence of Or­thodoxy is the property of every Christ­ian; and this must be witnessed to, returned to and shared by everyone. Be­fore becoming Greek Orthodox, Rus­sian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lu­theran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Epis­copalian, Disciple of Christ or Men­nonite we were all “Christians”, in the Antiochian sense of the word, as well as “Orthodox” in the sense which the one undivided Church experienced, as the upright, balanced faith and life against peculiarities and individual preferences.

Orthodoxy, therefore, is for everyone. It is not the making, the privilege, or the property of any individual, or of any one ethnic group in particular. Precisely because of its mystical character, Ortho­doxy breaks down all walls of exclusi­vism, tribalism and provincialism, and it embraces the root of humanity. We can no longer use the mystical charac­ter of the Orthodox Church as a way of veiling Orthodoxy with the unknown, monopolizing it and isolating it from the world, without realizing that, this way, we are diluting its very essence. Nor should we allow Orthodoxy, because of ethnic “Orthodoxies”, to be seen as some kind of a quaint group within the American denominational mosaic. If the major religion in North America is the North American way of life (as Will Herberg has concluded in his Protes­tant, Catholic, Jew. An essay in Ameri­can religious sociology, Garden City, N.Y.: 1960), the precepts and the ethos of Orthodoxy must be witnessed to as the backbone, the marrow and the es­sence of the Christian Way, especially in mainstream America today. That is why Orthodoxy is, indeed, “the best kept se­cret in America”, as Metropolitan Philip has insightfully phrased it (Atlantis May, 1989, p. 30). Not because it has to be unknown, but because it has to become an integral part of American life. Orthodoxy is there, ready to cap­ture the imagination and the life of in­tellectuals, scientists, environmen­talists, doctors, politicians, professors, teachers, technicians, housewives, work­ers, bus drivers, farmers, writers, actors in North America. Orthodox Christ­ianity makes sense; it touches upon the entire life; it enters the human condi­tion through every single pore of its fab­ric; it transfigures and refines life. Or­thodoxy “is patient and kind; it is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude; it seeks not her own; it is not irrita­ble or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right; it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things”. Orthodoxy has the same characteristics as love. We, Orthodox, need to memorize the 13th chapter of I Corinthians, apply it to Or­thodoxy, and offer it back to North America and to the world as an expres­sion of ultimate love.

The Western diaspora of Orthodoxy is not a curse or an exile in the Jewish sense (galuth); it is the greatest, and possibly last, chance and providential blessing which God is offering to us to make the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” Church manifest, in space and time. I fail to see how Orthodoxy can do this better, without the challenges and the opportunities that the Western Orthodox diaspora is offer­ing to us abundantly. While some see in American society moral decadence, I see also profound sensitivity and a sincere quest for goodness and meaning. While some see crude materialism and hope­lessness, I discern also a quest for spiritu­al values and aspirations. While some see rampant individualism and selfish­ness, I encounter also tenderness and an enviable community spirit and social concern. Orthodoxy is not an Eastern religious tradition by some kind of di­vine fiat. By its make-up and essence, Orthodoxy is Eastern, Western, North­ern and Southern, indeed global; and it has been so since day one (Cf Acts 2). If Orthodoxy, as a phenomenon from the point of view of its essence and out­look, is any one thing in particular it is an Easter tradition; that is, joyful, lively, hopeful, trans-historical and, ultimately, eschatological, where the experience of the divine and of the eschaton begins from here, and now. The centre of Christianity is Easter. The miracle that Christianity proclaims is the Resurrec­tion. The message of Christianity is that Christ is risen; “if Christ is not risen, our faith is in vain” (Cf. I Cor. 15:17). The light which Christianity speaks about and offers incarnate, is the event and the light of the Resurrection, which con­venes, reveals, transfigures and makes the mystical and innermost, manifest and lucid. The light of Orthodoxy is a light of hope, joy and life.

1 was asked to limit my remarks to­night to 15 minutes. Regretfully, I have failed in my assignment badly. And this is because of the richness and the chal­lenge of the theme of your Convention, and of your own impressive presence. Both have spoken to me volumes and they will remain with me for the rest of my life. I do not want to steal a single second more from this symposium of our souls and bodies. After all, “Ortho­dox” means orthros, or balanced.

When one is overwhelmed, unable to express that which words and actions cannot express, then silence takes over. Light, too, is silent. We, Orthodox, capitalize on words, on hymns, on mu­sic, on colour, on movement and on outward expressions; but we also find meaning in an inner cleansing and in the constructive silence: our icons are eloquence in silence; our candles are

guidance in silence; our incense is pray­er in fragrant silence; our most crucial, transforming, petitions in the eucharist are inaudible; our activism is social and worldly, but also contemplative and ascetic; our services are triumphant and melodic, but our ceaseless prayer, the Jesus’ prayer, is a “prayer of the heart”!

With your love, your enthusiasm, your vocal and imposing physical pres­ence and with your accomplishments, you have brought me to a crescendo of joy and hope. It is time for me to turn silent and savour that exquisite taste, vi­sion and beauty of an American Or­thodoxy, which you have been shaping up for years. Your children, and Ameri­ca, will be forever grateful to you.

Address delivered at the Biennial Convention of the Antiochian Ortho­dox Christian Archdiocese of North America, Anaheim, California, July 29, 1989.