It is really no strange phenomenon that the Orthodox Church continues to offer the rich traditions that have been handed down over the centuries. Although, I have heard many Orthodox and non-Orthodox speak as if many of our traditions are optional and that they are not necessary to walk in the Spirit of Christ; not that they are useless, but that they are mere helps if one needs them -The iconostasis, head coverings, incense, etc. – all of the externals that many consider not to be rooted in pre-Nicea Christianity. But they do indeed have roots in pre-Nicea Christianity, and they also have roots in the Old Covenant people of God. Much of what we see in the Old Testament was prophetic to the New Covenant. The Apocalypse, called Revelation, verifies this in many areas, as well as does the writings of Saint Paul and other Apostles. But there is something particular to how our age has grown directly as a result of the incarnation and baptism of Christ that I would like us to relate to, and that is, how persecution and spiritual dominion has birthed the very traditions of the Orthodox Church.
Prior to Saint Constantine’s blessing to the Church, which many refer to this era as “pre-Nicea,” the Church worshipped ‘underground’ and was heavily persecuted within the entire Roman Empire. In many ways this persecution actually protected the Church from the influence of modern culture. There was a stark contrast between the culture of paganism and the culture of the Church. It was very clear as to whom the Church was and what they were about, albeit it was not always easy to literally find them; they had to hide within caves and houses for many decades in order to escape the pagan death penalties. Nonetheless, from this persecution, the Church was forced to be dedicated to their cause of worship and service to the oppressed. The persecuting culture at the time acted as a literal guide back to the Church. There was a visible dichotomy between the Church and the culture!
After Emperor Constantine blessed the Church by legalizing Christianity within the ‘civilized’ world – the Roman Empire – what had already been growing within the tradition of the Church, began to fully take on its pivotal role! While the Church inherited many blessings, it also took on a “world of hurt.” It needed much protection now that the entire culture would be flooding the doors of the narthex.’ The Church no longer had the protection of seclusion from Hedonistic , Paganistic, aspects of the culture. She already had her internal battles over the nature of Christ: which letters to read as Holy, and which apostles to honor, etc. Now she had to somehow prevent the Church from becoming a part of a culture in which she did not represent.
We walk in the Spirit of Christ through “taking up our cross,” as Saint Paul says. All throughout the Scripture Christ and the Apostles teach us this concept of drawing close to Christ through struggle, through hardship, through things that bring our soul to a very humbling and meditative state. Hardship does this; it brings us to a point where we see the negative as the predominant aspect of our lives. This is basic psychology, that when we are in our darkest moments, all things seem to blend together, becoming grey and impossible to conquer. God desires that we be in this state in order to clean up this grey matter, all the aspects of our lives that are influenced by demonic forces.
So do the traditions of the Church bring us to the dark valleys? No, they bring us to the top of the valley so as to look down into the valley to see our shame. The fasts, the prostrations, lengthy readings and prayers standing on our feet, venerations before icons, reception of the Holy Mysteries, etc.; these are all things that place us in the pre-Nicene spiritual state. Think about how the pre-Nicene Church worshipped in the catacombs for even days at a time, how they surrounded themselves with simplified icons of Christ and His dedicated people on the catacomb walls, and how they really had no choice but to live a very ascetic lifestyle.
As we begin to experience what the early pre-Nicene Church experienced we shall see the glory of God; not because it was a golden era that we need to somehow venerate, but simply that the pre-Nicene Church had what we need to have: ascetics, suffering for Christ’s sake and forsaking one world for another world!
This is what the traditions of the Orthodox Church give us: What the early Church acquired from Christ. The more we shed off the traditions of the Church, the more we become vulnerable to the enemy. The traditions of the Apostles are let go and the traditions of modern-man squeeze in, resulting in what is now known as Evangelicalism, where nearly all of the ancient traditions that were implemented to protect us and guide us to see our shame; to see the Holy Spirit work in our lives, are gone.
When we wake up in the morning, make the sign of the cross, pray our morning prayer service, fast during the appropriate days (half of the calendar year), serve where we are needed, and revolve our lives around the OTHER world, the Kingdom, then, yes then, we will walk in the Spirit and conquer the lust of the flesh. But to turn away from the traditions is great error, especially when they are needed the most, when temptation lurks all around us in the culture. The traditions are “Holy culture” so as to take dominion over the opposing, secular culture.