I once had a conversation with a heterodox fellow about Church attendance. He related to me that he attended church for a variety of reasons ranging from the desire to associate with like-minded individuals, to feel a sense of community, spiritual encouragement & fulfillment, one should worship God, one should attend church to, ultimately in true heterodox fashion, God commands it in the Bible. He naturally asked why I attended Church. My answer startled him: To meet God. Meet God? Yes, meet God.
For the Orthodox salvation is union with & in God, i.e. relationship. Therefore, God is to be encountered & experienced. My heterodox friend did not understand how this can be possible because God is “out there” while we are “here”. God is Holy Other & therefore separated from us. Christ ascended into heaven & sits at the right hand of the Father. Eventually He will return, but for now He is not “here”; He too is “out there”. Most heterodox agree with the proposition that God is everywhere present & filling all things, but not to the extent that we can really encounter or really experience Him. In other words, it is a concept agreed with in principle, but not in reality.
This mindset I do not understand as the Holy Scriptures are replete with those who met God. Adam & Eve as well as their children Cain & Abel met God. Noah & his 7 family members met God. Job met God. Moses met God in the burning bush. Abraham, Isaac & Jacob met God. Pharaoh met God. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Joel, Hosea & all of the prophets met God. The 3 Holy Youths met God in the fiery Chaldean furnace. Kings David & Solomon met God. Joachim & Anna met God as did their daughter Mary, the Theotokos who even gave birth to our Lord. Simeon & Anna met God when the Theotokos & her husband Joseph, in obedience to the Mosaic Law, brought our Lord as an infant into the Temple. St. Simeon’s prayer after his meeting God became a song that the Orthodox still sing.* Two thieves met God as our Lord was dying on the Cross. The apostles, including Judas, met God as did all of Christ’s followers. Mary, Martha & Lazarus met God. St. Paul met God. Those venerated today by the Church as saints also met God. Because of the testimony of Holy Scripture across 4,000 years as well as the testimony of the Church (Holy Tradition) across 2,000 years, why do the heterodox not believe that those of us living in the 21st c. AD might also meet God?
Christ Himself declares, “Lo, I am with you always”. He did not declare, “Lo, I have been with you in the past” nor “Lo, I will be with you in the future”, instead He declared, “Lo, I am with you always”. Therefore, the Orthodox believe that everywhere present & filling all means exactly that. It means that God is truly present here & now. If we are not aware of this reality (& usually we are not) it is because of our own limited & fallen nature. Through Adam & Eve’s sin in the Garden corruption, sickness, disease, violence & death entered our reality. We lost the ability to fully perceive true reality, to fully meet God. In essence our reality became un-reality. Sadly, we lost the ability to perceive even that. They & we, their descendents, ceased to be persons becoming individuals instead through sin.
The terms person & individual have both changed meanings as time has progressed, so much so that in our modern usage they are virtually interchangeable. However, the Church has always maintained & taught otherwise; person & individual are actually opposites of each other. It is to the Church in the thought & writings of the Church Fathers, specifically the Eastern Greek Fathers, that we owe this distinction between person & individual; a distinction that has been lost in our modern era. A person is a being that has certain capacities or attributes constituting personhood. The defining capacity or attribute for personhood in the early Church Fathers was that of relationship with others & was part of the image of God in which we were created. By contrast an individual is a being separate from other beings possessing individual & unique needs or goals constituting selfhood.
For the Church Fathers the sin of Adam & Eve caused not only sickness & death, but also caused a change in mankind’s capacity for relationship, not only with God, but also with each other. Our true nature, our true being, as relationship-oriented persons became deformed into that of self-oriented individuals. In essence, we became less than human & unnatural. Just as the image of God was not totally lost (for how can the eternal & divine cease to exist?) in this change of state, so also our natural capacity & ability for relationship (personhood) was not totally lost. Fallen mankind still possesses a diminished ability for relationship, but now relationship is used as the means to further our individual selfhood; our own needs, desires & goals. But any such relationship is relationship in title only. Instead it is individuality which is thus separation; separation from God, separation from each other & separation from creation.
However, God the Father, Who is Holy Other, is no longer separated from us, & He never truly was. Jesus Christ, Son of God & God the Son, was fully-God/fully-Man—fully-divine/fully-human. St. Gregory of Nazianzus declared, “What is not assumed is not saved”. Through Him, through His dual natures, through His Incarnation, Crucifixion & Resurrection, we are now eternally connected to God & our ability for relationship with God has been restored. By the God the Holy Spirit our ability to perceive, encounter & experience (i.e. to meet) true reality—the Holy Trinity—has been restored.
We meet God in many ways. We meet God when we interact with other humans because all are created in His image. We meet God when we interact with nature which is also created by God & displays His omnipotence & omniscience. We meet God in prayer & worship. We meet God when we gather together & manifest as the one Body of Christ. We meet God in the Divine Liturgy, the Heavenly Banquet, when we receive the Body & Blood of our Lord in Holy Communion. We meet God when we venerate the holy icons, those windows to heaven, more properly those windows to reality. We meet God in the Holy Mysteries of Baptism, Chrismation & Confession when we repent of our sins that have reduced us to mere individuals & His forgiveness, mercy & love restores us to our proper state as persons.
Our salvation is a change in state, not a change in status. As I stated earlier, our original & true nature as relationship-oriented persons became deformed into that of self-oriented individuals; this is a change in state. Through Christ we do not cease being guilty of committing sins & become pardoned for committing sins; this is merely a change in status. Such a change in status cannot alter our ability to perceive true reality. It cannot enable us to meet God. It cannot restore our capacity for relationship. It cannot restore us as to our natural state as persons. Only a change in state can restore our deformed capacity for relationship. Through Christ we cease being individuals & we begin being persons. Through Christ we become holy by striving to be holy; we are not merely dubbed holy & then told to go behave in a holy manner.
As persons we can perceive God Who is everywhere present & filling all things. As individuals we cannot. As persons we can declare “Thou God of my salvation”. As individuals we cannot. As persons we can perceive “God is love” throughout the Holy Scriptures. As individuals we cannot. As persons we can enter ever deeper into God’s presence. As individuals we cannot. As persons we can perceive true reality—God. As individuals we cannot. As persons we can perceive that we are persons. As individuals we cannot. As persons we can meet God. As individuals we cannot.
* St. Simeon’s Prayer:
Lord, now let Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word,
for my eyes have seen Your salvation,
a Light to lighten the Gentiles, the Glory of Your people Israel.
Enjoy it in:
Church Slavonic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q7bORmonw6s