St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

Patriarchate of Antioch


by Patriarch Ignatius IV of Antioch
Member of the WCC's Central Committee, and Moderator of the Sub-unit on
Renewal and Congregational Life.

Patriarch IgnatiusTo understand our situation, it may help to know a little about the history of the Middle East from which I come. The region has not known much peace throughout its history. The first crusade - that is, the first war of a religious nature - came in the seventh century from the south; the second from Europe. The third, which has probably just started, comes again from the south. We will thus have had three movements: Islam coming to the Church, the Oriental churches; then, in the so-called Christian crusades, the West adding a new element; and, as some believe, the third crusade, the strong thrust of the ancient Jewish religion. We have always been in a state of turmoil; we have been for long years, for centuries, the battlefield of various crusades.

SITUATION OF THE MIDDLE EAST REGION

The See of Antioch includes Lebanon, Syria and Iraq - and reaches out even to Australia and North America. So when I speak of my Church, I do not set it in a country, but in a region. We are a minority in that region; this fact has psychological as well as ecclesiastical, or rather ecclesial, repercussions.

The Church in our region is face to face with other religions, and by religion I do not mean just Islam but also the political religions. One sometimes forgets that these religions are over against ours. And it is necessary to take some sort of position vis-a-vis them but not against them.

It seems that everyone has the right to speak out openly against the Church, against Christ and Holy Scripture, but the Church and Scriptures do not have the same right to express themselves in face of, or over against, the others. Many seem to find this normal, but we do not; we in our region would like to be able to speak out because we believe that our long history shows that we are truly rooted there, that we are authentically there, an integral part of it and at home there by the will of God and not by some historical accident. We are called to witness, therefore, in a certain way.

HOPE FOR THE FUTURE

We have the great hope that God is not just behind us in history but also ahead of us. He is an object of hope. We believe deeply that the future belongs to God. For us, witness is carried on in the community and through the community, by grace, modestly, and in humility. We sow and then leave to God the time of harvest.

The Church belongs to the very heart of God's intentions. Every Orthodox believes that the Church is an expression of God's will on earth. That is why we take it very seriously and do not regard it as a kind of committee, an office, an administration, or a rigid body. That which is understood by the word "Church" is exactly that which is understood by the word "community." Whenever an Orthodox speaks of community he is ipso facto speaking of the Church and if the Church is not that, it has no raison d'etre at all. It could be replaced by other agencies established to fulfill certain practical purposes. For me, what we call the confessing community, the Church, is made up of three components.

THREE COMPONENTS OF THE CHURCH

The first, and very important, is the family. I know that the family is not very important in some western societies. For us the concept of the family is absolutely essential for the life of the Church. Why? Because above all, life in a community is existential; it is not something rational and conceptual. It is a way of living that involves one's whole being in relationships with other human beings who are the members of the family. What are some of the characteristics of this family life which foreshadow for us the full life of the Church? There is first of all love, that love of which we talk much but which is not often lived. This love gives rise to a faith and trust in others; it gives rise to hope in the total family life and manifests itself in both sacrifice and joy.

Another component of the Church, one that is related directly to the family, is the religious community. This religious community is a model for the community at large in that the relationship between the community members is founded on forgetfulness of self. We are often self-centered, concerned about our own interests. In the religious community personal interests, when they exist, take second place and the interests of the other have first place.

We often regard ourselves as infallible and are encouraged in this attitude by the systems under which we live. In a religious community one admits that "my sin is the cause of all this in the world". Then the question of purification becomes very important and this purification can only take place through our Lord Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, through the relationship to the Holy Trinity.

In the religious life we refuse to recognize any other saviour than the Lord, any other spirit than the Holy Spirit, and any other god than the Father. This is a very radical position, radical enough to hold its own over against the radicalism of this world; that radicalism in which, to a large degree, we share.

The third component is more serene. It does not have the tensions that exist between the reality of this world and the reality that is asked by God and Holy Scriptures; it is the community of the saints. We forget the saints. They are heroes; they are fools. In their spiritual life for God they are people who are ready to be called crazy. The saints who contemplate God do not have the kind of split personality that many of us have. One of our biggest problems is that we are so split apart, so disoriented, that we no longer see the relationship and the unity between the many divisive elements that we try to hold together. A very important element in the community of the saints is unity. They are one in the Lord; they are one around the Lord. They prefigure the Kingdom which we hope and pray for.

This element of unity so necessary in the unity both of the family and of the life of the religious community is the unity of the community of the saints; that is what we are really looking for. This unity is an expression of love. Where there is disunity there is a failure of love. Those who love each other do not find that their differences lead to schism, to division, to separation and to antagonism. Here, it seems to me, are the components of the life of the confessing community; together they show us the confessing community at its most dynamic and in its truest form.

The Word Magazine, September, 1981 Page 6-7