I was getting gas the other day and at the pump next to me was a church van from a Protestant church in town. Painted beneath the name of the church on the side of the van was their motto: “church the way it used to be”.
Now, Orthodox Christians are well aware of the irony here. “The way it used to be”, in this case, means a period of only about a century or so in a small corner of Protestant Christianity in America. The apparent appeal to history and tradition here – “the way it used to be” – is a bit shallow.
But before we get too smug, particularly as Orthodox Christians who might better make the claim to do church “the way used to be”, maybe we should think about this reflex to be old-fashioned or traditional. I have heard more than a few converts to the Orthodox Church give this very phrase, “the way it used to be”, as their reason for joining the Orthodox Church. Amidst all the changes and upheaval in the modern world, to which Christianity is not immune, some take comfort in joining the Orthodox Church primarily because it is the THE traditional church.
I would like to suggest to you, however, that this is not really a very good reason to join the Orthodox Church. If becoming Orthodox is primarily a conservative response to the modern world in crisis it is simply reactionary. And if our notion of tradition is rooted in nostalgia or sentimentality about an imagined past then we are probably kidding ourselves.
I was recently listening to a lecture by the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart who related a story told him by his brother. It seems that while traveling in Istanbul his brother overheard an American tourist and convert to the Orthodox Church with a deep southern accent lamenting that “Westerners” will never understand how deeply “we Orthodox” still feel the betrayal of the Fourth Crusade…in 1204!
The simple truth is that our faith must not be rooted in some imagined past or mere sentimental or nostalgic notions about Russia, or Byzantium, or even an early church that we fancy ourselves inhabiting in a sort of pretend way. Christ did not come into the world to create a historical epoch or golden age for us to preserve. He came to establish the Kingdom of God in our midst and open the way into that Kingdom through his own flesh and blood. We enter that Kingdom every Divine Liturgy and the more our hearts are purified through the keeping of the Commandments the greater our perception of it will be.
Rather than simply trying to recover a sentimental or nostalgic past, we should instead strive to perceive, to realize, and to attend to the presence of the King and the Kingdom which is in our midst. Less, that is, “church the way it used to be” and more “on earth as it is in Heaven."
With love in Christ,
The house of my soul is narrow;
enlarge it that you may enter in.
It is ruinous, O repair it!
It displeases Your sight.
I confess it, I know.
But who shall cleanse it,
to whom shall I cry but to you?
Cleanse me from my secret faults, O Lord,
and spare Your servant from strange sins.
~St Augustine of Hippo