As time goes by throughout the Church age, more and more layers of half-truths and lies rise up to completely burry and surround us. We are left with bits and pieces of the Gospel, whereas to become a completely different Gospel than what was given to us by Christ. Oversimplifications have been innovated to save us from all the confusion, but those too become ghetto gospels, gospels that break off of THE Gospel and huddle in to camps of complete disarray.
In various sectarian Bible groups there is, for instance, a belief, that to be financial wealthy is a sign of godliness. Other Bible groups speak of gaining “assurance” that Christ paid a debt to God for our sins, and that acknowledging this supposed act is, in itself, godliness. Others state that we must have a relationship with Christ and witness much providence in our lives, and this is godliness. Some Bible groups state that we must live a highly moral life “in Christ,” which is supposed to mean morals that are “Spirit led.”
There is no doubt that Christ and the fathers taught much about wealth and poverty, attitude and providence, as well as morals. But under what umbrella was this all taught? Through what lens must we see the Gospel message and what it entails, what it is all about?
Orthodox Christians have traditionally incorporated ‘pilgrimages’ into their lives. They take journeys to historically holy places such as Israel, or Mt Athos in Greece, to experience the Orthodox faith in a very real and personal way. A popular place for Orthodox to pilgrimage to is a monastery! There are a number of reasons for this, but considering the topic at hand, the Gospel message according to Orthodoxy, it seems pertain to speak of what every monastery advocates: the ascetic calling of the Gospel.
Asceticism is the very act (or acts) of dying to the world for the sake of Christ. There are many ascetic avenues of Orthodoxy, which are, of course, rooted in the words and actions of Christ…avenues such as fasting, prayer, meditation, poverty, etc. But there is something that all of these things rest on…something that Christ and the Apostles speaks of very adamantly within the Holy Scriptures. Martyrdom! We become martyrs as we follow the Gospel, dying to the world and its “worldliness.”
The Beatitudes as the Gospel Message
One of the many beautiful aspects of the Slavic tradition is that every Divine Liturgy, the Church prays the Beatitudes. In the Beatitudes, Christ explains that to be blessed is to be:
- Hated and Excluded
Directly following the Beatitudes, the Gospel records Christ stating that we should:
- Bless our enemies
- Do good to our enemies
- Pray for our enemies
- Turn our cheek and give whatever is asked
- Be merciful toward others
To be a Christian is to be a martyr! A martyr is not just one that is physically killed, but one who is also killed spiritually. Our ill-gotten spiritual state dies as we give ourselves to others, as we give up what we could have, for the sake of Christ and His eternal kingdom. As St Paul the Apostle says, we are to die to self and we are to deny the lust of the flesh. He also says that Baptism is symbolic of this death of self.
When St Paul says to us that when he is “weak” he is actually spiritually strong, he is proclaiming the ascetic way. When Christ says “take up your cross,” he is telling us to carry and accept what gives us pain in our lives. In order to embrace these things, we must be humble, which St Peter the Apostle says actually gives us grace. St James the brother of Christ says to “count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.”
All throughout the Gospel message and through the writings of the Apostles and the fathers, we are commanded to die to the world! This does not mean die to creation, rather, it means to die to the worldliness of what is contrary to the ascetic nature of the Gospel.
Modernity Vs Asceticism
As the Church age has progressed through time, we have begun to see a pattern of culture take shape above and beyond the ascetic calling of the Gospel. We call this pattern by the name of ‘modernity.’ Modernity is the progressive nature of Satan within the eschaton. As St John says, Satan knows his time is short, and so he must layer as many complex and confusing cultures, beliefs, etc, into the world as possible, until one day, he has the vast majority of people under his control, believing that life is about feeling good and acquiring things to make us feel good. Life itself becomes reduced to what our senses demand. The ancients called this by the name of ‘Hedonism.’ They were much bolder about embracing sinful patterns, then. Now, hedonism is not a bold endeavor, rather it is something that is embraced by the means of self-righteousness (I earned this or that, etc).
The movie, Matrix, seems to display this message with clarity: The entire world is bound to their senses, everyone enjoying many things in life, unaware that their adversary has taken a hold of their very chemistry to program the people to only react positively to pleasure and the pursuit of pleasure. Interestingly enough, to break out and leave this life of being controlled by the enemy, means living a very sacrificial life apart from much luxury, so as to become a part of redeeming all of creation to the final battle against this enemy. Sound familiar? Sounds like the Gospel, and how we are to turn from Satan’s domain and join the fight against him and his demons.
The Power to Fight
Orthodoxy, unlike western Christianity, does not teach that God killed Christ because man owed God a payment of some sort. Orthodoxy teaches that Christ’s death was a ransom, rather than a payment to God. It was a ransom from the devil, who had a hold of God’s people. Christ set us free from that bondage of sin and the devil, and, as St John the Apostle states, Christ was manifested in order to “destroy the works of the devil.”
When St Paul says “O Death, Where is your sting,” and “O Hades, where is your victory,” He is stating that there is a new way to travel in this life, and that is through the power of “the cross.” The weight and force of sin no longer has power over us, IF (and when) we chose to follow the Gospel. St Paul says that we “bear the image of the man of dust [Adam], we shall also bear the image of the heavenly man [Christ]. This means that we will be able to become as God was incarnate, we will be able to live as he lived, not perfectly, of course, but through his same Spirit, through his same motive and even, action.
Christ gave the pre-Nicene Church the power to be killed, daily, and that power was manifested into an entire empire, known as the Byzantine Empire. To understand historical victory we must understand that these victories are from the ascetic call of the Gospel, and not strategic placement of clergy, parishes, or political figures. The victory of Christendom is through the praxis of the Church, including the Holy Mysteries, which are also ascetic calls: The Eucharist and the very preparation for receiving it; Marriage, and the very servanthood that comes with it, as well as the other mysteries where we turn from what the world says we need to what Christ and His Church says we need. Do you need healing? Go to the Church to be prayed over! Yes, see a doctor, but also see a priest so that the doctor does not lead you astray, and perhaps, through the grace of God, you will not even need to see the doctor.
St Paul the Apostle says that “For He made Him who knew no sin to BE sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God IN Him.” This means that Christ took on the very negative effects of sin so as to enable us to be able to deal with them.” When we actually embrace the pains that God gives us, including those painful ascetic callings of the Church Calendar, such as fasting, we are able to obtain his power and conquer the devil. This is the Gospel message…That we turn from the hedonistic and self-centered calling of Satan to the rather painful, yet joyous, calling of Christ!
It is no coincidence that Christ spoke of money as a primary topic within the Gospel accounts. The love of money, says St Paul, is the root of many evils. Financial gain is a fine test for a Christian’s soul. When we gain, financially speaking, do we attempt to live a more luxurious life, with more hobbies, more meaningless vacations, and perhaps even more debt? We could go on with examples of hedonism, but the truth of what Christ teaches is that we cannot “serve two master,” we cannot serve both “God and mammon,” as he puts it. An even more radical statement is the one where He says that it is near impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. This is so clearly a call to a very ascetic gospel, a gospel that is simply not taught by very many in our consumer driven age.
The Church of Acts is our primary example of the ascetic call. In Act, Chapter Two, we see how the Christians gave everything they had to the Church so that the entire Church would have “all things in common.”. This eventually evolved into an entire empire, where the Gospel was promoted in such a way so as to pave the way for all mankind of our modern age to be able to receive this same power. It is a sort of paradox: The Church gave away their lives, only to find them more abundantly!
To follow Christ is to follow His teachings, and His teachings are clear: The Gospel is about giving up the way of “modernity” (the self-seeking way) for the way of the cross. Through this we find joy, through, what many in the world consider, rather depressing things. But we are actually to find joy through these ‘ascetic’ ways, through these pains, oddities, sacrifices, and even tribulation. We are here, on this earth, to be refined for a greater place, a place that our Father has been preparing for us.