by Dr. Paul Samuel
“Beloved while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the FAITH which was ONCE FOR ALL delivered to the saints” Jude 1:3
Many times we hear the term ‘Faith’ in Christian gatherings and preaching sessions and when it comes to our own MOTHER CHURCH, the term more in use would be ORTHODOX FAITH or the The Faith of the Syrian Orthodox Church. What does this mean? Does it simply mean the faith in Jesus Christ, as put forward by the Protestant and Pentecostal fellowships or does it carry a meaning more than that? Set aside the Protestant and Pentecostal definitions, WE, the Syrian Orthodox have a larger, divine and meaningful definition for the faith we call as Orthodox faith. This essay is an attempt to comprehend the Orthodox faith and if possible to define it in a nutshell without omitting any fundamental component of it.
The word ORTHODOX means TRUE FAITH. So Orthodox faith is a true faith. It is for this faith that St: Jude exhorts the faithful to contend, because he felt it was more important than to speak of Common Salvation. This Orthodox faith was delivered once and for all to the Saints and because of its sanctity he exhorts us to contend it. So the basic duty of a Syrian Orthodox faithful is to preserve it, practise it and to hand it over to the next generation without any adulteration. So for us to contend it we must know what is the Orthodox faith and what we should do with it.
Jesus Christ, the incarnated Holy Son consecrated Our Mother Church upon St: Peter, Chief of all Apostles and this is recorded in the Bible. And it was at Antioch that the first throne was consecrated by St: Peter and it was here Jesus disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). So we can see that the Throne of Antioch was the oldest one and the Church based on this throne, our own Syrian Orthodox Church can rightly be called the MOTHER OF ALL CHURCHES IN THE WORLD. It was from here St: Peter travelled to Rome and other places. So upholding the faith of this ancient Church becomes all the more important since this is the ancient of all faith and purest of all.
What constitutes this Orthodox faith? To put it in a nutshell, it constitutes the following things
1. The Holy Trinity
2. The Incarnated Holy Son
3. The Holy Church, its tradition and its divine rituals
4. Holy Sacraments –of which Holy Qurbono the most important
5. Prayer and fasting
6. Holy Sleebo or Cross
7. Saints and Holy Fathers of the Church
8. The Faithful Departed
9. The Second Coming and the Day of Judgement
We will see the salient points regarding each of the above
1. Holy Trinity
The worship of the Syrian Orthodox Church is centred on the Holy Trinity. The Trinity that consists of the Holy Father, the Holy Son and the Holy Spirit doesn’t have any individual significance as far as the worship is concerned. We worship the Holy Trinity as a whole. Whenever they are considered individually, they are referred together as in the Liturgy of the Day of Pentecost where three separate parts are there for each of them. The methods by which Pentecostal fellowships invoke Holy Spirit are taboo as far as our worship is concerned. In fact some of the prayer groups who claim to be under the SOC have such practices, which should be deemed unorthodox by our faithful.
The fact can be ascertained in our prayers like the Basic Koumo, which starts with the praising of the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit. If we carefully scrutinize we can see this in all our prayers written by the Church’s Holy fathers.
One more point worth noting is that the invoking of Holy Spirit as in Holy Qurbono is a right, which a full priest (Kassiso) and clergy above that level should do. It shouldn’t be done by anyone below his rank. If at all anybody attempts it, the evil spirits only be invoked. That’s why the momentary appearance of ‘spirit’ happens in Pentecostal conventions. The cohabitation of Holy Spirit can never be momentary. In fact it is an eternal thing in the life of a faithful, which starts, with the faithful getting Holy Baptism in the Church (not in ‘ponds’) and will be there till he/she upholds the spiritual traditions dictated by the Church.
2. The Incarnated Son
Holy Son of the Trinity took flesh from the Holy Virgin for the salvation of mankind. With the exit of Adam, the whole mankind itself were denied the right to enter the Paradise and that’s the reason why God appointed Cherubs with the revolving swords as guards to paradise. The Holy Son as per the will of the Holy Father came to earth to make us re-enter the forbidden paradise. And this is effected through the Holy Church by partaking in the Holy Sacraments. The fruit which Adam couldn’t taste in the Paradise is available to the faithful members of the Church and this is the Holy Qurbono (quoted from the songs of Pesaho Thursday).Adam and Eve took the fruit of only one of the two trees which were forbidden. God banned them from the Paradise lest they will take the fruit of the other one i.e. Tree of Life also. So the members of the Church by partaking the flesh and blood of Christ is partaking the fruit of life also. This became possible because of the incarnation of the Holy Son.
Jesus Christ was God and human at the same time. There were divinity and humanity in him at the same time. It never mixed up or one lessened because of the other. Many people both Christian and non-Christian try to portray our Lord just as a historical figure, a man of good virtues, an emancipator of the oppressed, a true socialist, a miracle man and what more. But for a true faithful he is more than a historical figure because he is GOD. This aspect even the Protestant, Pentecost and to some extent our own Church’s preachers omit carelessly. Jesus is GOD, and he is the Holy Son. This is the Orthodox faith. Along with it one more point needs emphasis. There is no JESUS worship, only WORSHIP of the TRINITY as a whole is our Church’s worship.
3. The Holy Church, its tradition and its divine rituals
The Holy Church is the bride of the incarnated Son. She is our Spiritual mother. The place of Church in the life of a faithful is very important. St: Kuprianose, the noted theologian says, ‘For those without Church as mother, God cannot be their father’. Just as father is needed for a person so too is mother. So Holy Church should be deemed as our own mother. Whenever she is in trouble the sons and daughters should protect her, uphold her and preserve her. That’s why all the martyrs of the Church died fearlessly and courageously. Because they fought for the Church and shed their blood to nurture the Church. The Holy Son respected them by giving them the crowns of glory and that’s why Church remembers them in her prayers. So the true faithful should be the guardians of the Church. They shouldn’t watch with folded hands when the Church is in trouble or complain that the Church is not in a path of peace. All the struggles we fought till now were for the Church and we were in the path of peace till now. We should defend our Church at any cost, rather than standing dumbfolded. Because the reward for doing it is not in this earth,it will be there in the heaven above.
We should not only be the guardians of its property but also to the rich tradition and divine rituals of our Church. This we should uphold and without modification should hand it over to the next generation. The tradition and rituals of our Church is one of the oldest in the world dating back to the Apostolic times. The rituals and practices also date back to those times. Many of these were taught by our Lord himself and through visions to Apostles and Holy Fathers. In fact in this aspect our mother Church is well ahead of other sister Churches. Even the Catholic Church is far way behind when our rich theology is taken into account. So what we are practicing inside the Church is not simply man-made but all are divine and divinity is hidden in it. Alas, the modern so called ‘neo-theologians’ and neo-preachers fail to recognize and they consider many of them as foolish and unchristian.
The Holy Bible is part of the Church’s tradition. The Church has many books and Bible is only one of them. It doesn’t contain everything because in Bible itself is written even all the teachings and acts of our Lord is beyond the scope of a single book. But it contains many spiritually vital things .The rest of the things you get from Church’s teachings. Also Bible should never be interpreted by a faithful himself. It should be studied with the help of the Church. The Holy Church gave us the Bible and so she will teach us how to read it. If not, fallacies will creep in sinking the spiritual ship. That is what created all the heresies and originated the so-called Pentecostal fellowships. This can be understood crystal clear by the fact that along with the advent of printing media and more literacy came the origin of umpteen numbers of Pentecostal fellowships at the beginning of the last century.
Holy Church is a community also and we are the members of it. Not only we the earthly mortal faithful, but all the Saints, Holy Fathers and all faithful departed are also members of it. It is with them that we pray to God at Church.
4. Holy Sacraments –of which Holy Qurbono the most important
Of the divine rituals in the Holy Church the Holy Sacraments hold a very significant place. Of the Holy Sacraments, Holy Qurbono holds the place of the QUEEN. Holy Sacraments are the divine acts through which the salvation reaches the faithful from the God through the Church. The process of getting the salvation begins with Holy Baptism where in the individual is born again, thereby becoming the son/daughter of Church. The salvation in us needs to be rejuvenated as time passes, by partaking in the other sacraments also till the end of life. So all Holy Sacraments are essential and necessary except Holy Priesthood and Holy Matrimony which the Church has given it’s faithful the right to choose or not.
So Partaking in the Holy Qurbono is more important than participating. The effect of attending a Holy Mass is fulfilled only by partaking the blood and body of Christ
5. Prayer and fasting
The spiritual life should be enriched by prayers and fasting. The faithful should pray the way the Church teaches him/her to pray. It shouldn’t be the way in which one desire himself. The Church has dictated the time, the way and the manner in which its faithful should pray. It shouldn’t be emotional or verbal blabbering. The Church teaches its faithful to pray at the level of spirit. It shouldn’t be in the bodily level like the gentiles and Pentecostal do clapping hands and dancing and shaking their bodies as if possessed of spirits (‘evil’).The faithful should face East, stand up, fold his hands, keep it close to his body and should meditate about divine things and only his lips and tongue should move to chant the prayers and sing the hymns. His/her mind shouldn’t hover around worldly things and nothing should distract him/her from his meditation including the musical instruments or anything of that sort. This is the way in which the Holy Fathers of the Church has asked us to pray. Self-prayers should be kept after the prescribed prayers.
Fasting is another important thing and a vital aspect of praying. The Holy Fathers say ‘A fast in the flesh is a feast in the soul’. Our Lord fasted for forty days and he conquered Satan. The songs of Mid-Lent says “to conquer the evil, Lord gave us Holy Sleebo and Fast”. So to combat evil both is a must, without which we cannot fight with evil. So, just think about the people who doesn’t have both of these and who still call themselves as Christians. The Church has strict rules regarding the number of Lents and the way in which it should be observed. Thus prayers and Lent are vital things in the Orthodox faith
6. Holy Sleebo or Holy Cross
Worship, adoration, veneration and respect are all different terms and have different meaning but are different degrees of the same sentiment. We worship God and God only. We adore Saints and intercede to them, but don’t worship them. We venerate Holy Cross but do not worship it. We respect and honour our elders. So Holy Cross is not a matter for worship but a matter of veneration and respect. We keep the photo of our loved ones but don’t love the photo, which is a paper only. Likewise, Holy Cross is a ‘photo’ or a matter of remembrance of our Lord. Because when we see a Cross we remember Our Lord who was hung on it and we remember that our Lord rose from it defeating death. When we sign the Cross on ourselves we are keeping him close to us and as said above we keep the evil spirits away from us. Just think about the people who say Cross is part of idol worship and shun away from it.They themselves shun away and keep other people in their fold also away from it. By this they are keeping the faithful away from remembering our Lord and are doing the job of Satan. Only your enemy will persuade to keep away the gun from you so that he shouldn’t be harmed.
7. Saints and Holy Fathers of the Church.
Saints and other Holy Fathers of the Church are important to us. For us they are not dead, but they are living and continue to pray to Lord just as they did when they were in earth. They have Paradise as their abode. Of all the Saints Holy Mother of God, St: Mary holds the position of Queen of the Saints. All the Saints are part of our Church and they are present with us in the Church in all the sacraments we celebrate. This is magnificiently depicted in the song of Morning Prayers of Sunday Mass. The Church respects and pleads intercession to all of them because God is more pleased with the prayers of His Beloved. So we should also respect and venerate the Saints. We respect them in the following ways
· Praying at their tombs and places where their relics are kept
· Conducting feasts in their names
· Intercessory prayers
8. Faithful departed
As already mentioned, faithful departed clergy and laity are also members of our Church. They praise God. It is just to conduct prayers for them. They are waiting for the day of the Judgement which happens on the day of our Lord’s Second coming. Church instructs us to conduct Holy Qurbono and charity in memory of those who are departed. In the song before Kukiliyon in the Sunday mass we sing that we should remember our fathers who taught us faith, in Holy Qurbono and in our prayers. The faithful departed traverse a realm called “Oyar” on their way to the Bosom of Abraham.Oyar is a dark place and it is at this place Satan hides and aims his sharp arrows.We should pray for the departed souls so that they get light to traverse the Oyar and also since they too are ‘living’ we are bound to pray for them.
9. Our Lord’s Second coming
Last of all, our Lord’s second coming is the hope on which our whole spiritual life is based on. The Pentecostal groups convey a sense of fear about the Lord’s second coming and say that he will come today or tomorrow like that and advertise in the media and add people to their fold. In Bible itself it written, the time at which our Lord comes, God alone knows. Then how come the news leaked only to the Pentecostal groups.
We are hopefully waiting for that day and that day Judgement will happen. Our Lord comes from the East and that is one of the reasons why we pray facing the East. We should be worthy of our deeds in this earth. Not only good deeds are worthy, but upholding the true faith also be done. If your ‘dinoro’ was hidden under earth like the servant in the Jesus parable, you will be cast out into darkness.
So these constitute the Orthodox faith in a nutshell. Each part needs explanation in a larger way, which I fear is beyond the scope of this essay.
How should we approach this Orthodox faith? We should have a COMPREHENSIVE approach, not a CAFETERIA approach. Cafeteria approach is the one you do when you go to a cafeteria. You order and eat only the things you need. But for the above said Orthodox faith, it should never be done. You cannot choose from the above said faith like you need the Trinity not the Saints and departed or you need the Church to pray not its Sacraments etc. like that. You must have a comprehensive approach and should uphold all the true values of our faith.
Lets contend our Orthodox faith like the Saints and Martyrs of our Church did. Lets uphold it just as the Apostles and Holy Fathers put it without adultering it. Lets not lend our ears to the neo-preachers who claim to know everything rather lets turn to Church to learn the faith matters. Lets pass on this everlasting flame to the next generation so that they also come to this way of true light, which our Lord has shown to us.