Jesus Christ in Ancient Christianity
Come to the Door! Find it through the ancient historic path…AT A TIME IN HISTORY when mankind had fallen far away from Paradise and was in desperate need of God, the very God Who created man took flesh and became man. This was Jesus Christ, the One Whom the prophets had foretold and the One Whom the whole world was anticipating. Until then all religions were only man's fragmented attempts to understand God. In Christ, for the first time in history, God Himself became man. One of the many things that Christ revealed while in this world was the possibility of a personal relationship with God for those who believe. He brought those believers together and promised that nothing would ever prevail against His Church (Matthew 16:18). This Church was founded first upon the sufferings of Christ, then upon the sufferings of His Apostles, and finally upon the sufferings of the martyrs throughout the ages (I Peter 2:21, Colossians 1:24). Thus began Christianity.
Annunciation Cathedral in the ancient Kremlin, Russia
From that day forward Christianity was endowed with power and began to spread to the ends of the earth. From Jerusalem the disciples of Christ traveled all over the known world: the Apostles Peter and Paul went to Greece and Rome, Andrew went to Russia, Mark went to Egypt, Simon went to England and Africa, Thomas went as far as India, and Matthew went to Ethiopia. Although they were in different parts of the world they were of one heart and one soul (Acts 4:32) and taught one Lord, one Faith, and one baptism (Ephesians 4:5). Everywhere they went they appointed bishops, presbyters and deacons and ordained them, by the laying on of hands, to be shepherds of Christ's flock. In a short time the Apostles brought multitudes of pagans to Christ—simple people as well as philosophers, beggars as well as kings. Although the Apostles experienced persecution, torture and even death for their beliefs, nothing could stop the Faith from spreading like fire to the ends of the earth. Nearly every Apostle died a martyr's death, and many of their remains are preserved in Orthodox Churches to this day.
Icon of the Apostles of Christ.
It was during these difficult martyric times that the early Church was formed and established, and where the worship, the arts, and the music of the Church found their beginning. These naturally sprang out of the Old Testament and flowed into the New. The form of worship began in the time of Moses, as it was revealed to him by God. The arts originated in the mosaic depictions in the Temple of scenes from the Old Testament, and in the pre-Christian arts. This tradition of sacred art was continued by the Apostle Luke, who painted the first iconographic depictions of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child. The music (chant) had its beginning in the Psalms of David. Even the Liturgy (communion service) finds its beginning in the Old Testament, Christ's Body and Blood being the New Testament sacrifice (John 6:48-58). The first communion service composed by the Apostle James, the brother of the Lord, was based on the Apostles' experience at the Last Supper, and is still used in the Orthodox Church today.
One of the original icons of the Virgin and Christ painted by the Apostle Luke which is preserved in the Iveron Monastery on Mount Athos, Greece.
Icon of St. Lazarus, portraying him in bishops' vestments.
Another of the Apostles' successors was Lazarus, whom Christ raised from the dead (John 11:1). After the day of Pentecost, Lazarus traveled with his two sisters, Mary and Martha, throughout the Mediterranean and settled on the island of Crete. Here he spread the Christian faith as one of the first bishops of the Church. Later he and his sisters went to preach the Gospel in France. Lazarus was known to have said that ever since he was raised from the dead he had a bitter taste in his moth that reminded him of death and the final judgment, which every soul will face. He died peacefully as a saint, no longer tasting any bitterness, for there is no bitterness in Heaven.
Mary Magdalene was another disciple of Christ who became an equal to the Apostles. After the day of Pentecost she traveled to Rome and appeared before the Emperor Tiberias Caesar, greeting him with the words: "Christ is Risen!" referring to the resurrection of Christ from the dead. She then presented him with a red egg as a symbol of the new life that was given to the human race through the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. From that day on eggs were always used in the celebration of the great feast of Pascha (commonly known as Easter). Before the Emperor she also
Icon of St. Dionysius.
Other disciples who continued the work of the Apostles were St. Clement (Philippians 4:3) of Rome and St. Polycarp. St. Clement was brought to the Faith by the Apostles Barnabas and Peter, who later appointed him bishop of Rome, where he died a martyr's death. St. Polycarp was a pagan who had been brought to the Faith and baptized by the Apostle John. Both Clement and Polycarp wrote many epistles that still exist today.
Also at that time there was a man named Dionysius in Athens, Greece (Acts 17:34). When Christ breathed His last on the Cross, St. Dionysius beheld the sun darkened although he was miles away, and said: "Either God the Creator of the world is suffering or the world is ending." Years later the Apostle Paul was in Athens and saw that
Icon of St. Ignatius depicted with the lions in the Roman arena.
Through these holy men and women the continuity of the Orthodox Church was preserved, even during those times of great persecution.
Picture of one of the underground catacombs in Rome.
The call to a violent death was a great reality for those who believed in God and His Christ. Martyrdom was considered the ultimate act of renunciation of the world and the highest form of confession of one's Faith. While in the world's eyes it was total dishonor, in the eyes of the believers it was the greatest glory. For the early Christians, the body, which is a temple of God, could also become a sacrifice for God in enduring unto death for the Truth. Only God and His Spirit dwelling deep within the martyrs enabled them to overcome a death that was for them True Life.
Icon depicting martyrs undergoing torture for Christ.
From the world's point of view it seemed that the Christian Faith was dying along with its martyrs, but this was not so. Many pagans, seeing the faith and confession of the martyrs and the miracles that they performed were themselves convinced of the Truth of the Christian Faith and became Christians. The more the Christians were persecuted, the more the Christian Faith grew.
The earliest account of martyrdom is that of St. Stephen who was a deacon of the Church (Acts 6:5). He was stoned to death for preaching in the Jewish temple that Jesus Christ was the Messiah. As he was about to die he looked up towards Heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing on the right hand of God (Acts 7:55).
Another account of a martyr of the catacomb period of Christianity is the life of St. Catherine (†305). She was the daughter of a ruler in Alexandria, Egypt. From childhood she was well educated. She loved the wisdom of this world until she encountered Christ, Who is True Wisdom. She then became a Christian and fearlessly taught others of the one true God Who became incarnate to save the world.
For this she was placed under heavy guard to be tortured. When the arena was filled with spectators, she was brought out before the wisest men of the empire in order for them to challenge her in her Christian Faith. Her answers left everyone speechless, and many believed her words, becoming Christians themselves. This enraged
Icon of St. Catherine portrayed with the wheel of torture that was used on her and other Christians.
The number of martyrs who died in these first centuries of the Church is endless, attesting to the power that is within the Christian faith. Many of the actual accounts of the lives and deaths of these martyrs still exist thanks to the believers who courageously preserved their memory in the catacombs.
THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE
Icon of St. Constantine.
Now that the Church was free to come out of the catacombs, churches began to be built above ground. Some
The Church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) in Constantinople
With the Church above ground, Christianity began to flourish. The Christian religious art of iconography began to be redefined, church music (chant) began to thrive and the amount of Christian literature began to grow. In short, the Church became the center of every aspect of life. This period of freedom and rest for the Church became the time to articulate the beliefs of the Christian Faith and to choose the books that would comprise the standard of Scripture.
Emperor Constantine called a council of bishops to gather
Gold case preserved in an Orthodox monastery on Mount Athos, Greece, that contains a piece of the actual Cross of Christ.
Icon of St. Athanasius the Great
With the founding of the first Christian empire—the Byzantine empire—came the Bible, the Creed, and a whole Christian experience that would change the face of the world forever.
THE MONASTIC IDEAL
Icon of St. Anthony the Great.
Although it was in the fourth century that monasticism developed, its origin is in the Old Testament times when God revealed to Moses the vow of the Nazarite—a vow of celibacy, the consecrating of one's life to God (Numbers 6:2). Then from Elijah to John the Baptist, the prophets set examples of this vow. Later this was perfected in the life of Christ. After having witnessed Christ's example, the Apostle Mark, who established the Church in Egypt, started the first ascetic communities which continued this way of life. These communities had as their models the prophets of the Old Testament, and operated on the principles set forth in Acts 4:32. They came to be known as monasteries, and their inhabitants began to be called monks. The term "monk" was derived from the Greek word monos, which means single or alone—one who chooses to be
The sixth-century monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Siani, Egypt, where Moses received the Ten Commandments.
One of the earliest records of a monk is the life of St. Anthony the Great (†356). When he was young his rich parents suddenly died and left all their wealth to him. Saddened by their death, he went one day into the church and heard the priest read from the Scriptures these words: If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give it to the poor, and
Icon of St. Mary of Egypt, a former prostitute who went into the desert to live a life of repentance.
Photo of monks at a monastery on Mount Athos, Greece.
THE GREAT SEPARATION
Icon of the First Ecumenical Council of bishops, in 325 A.D.
Although there were hundreds of bishops throughout Christendom, there were only five Patriarchs—one for each of the five important cities in the empire: Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Rome. All took counsel with one another, having Christ as the head, and there was no one person who ruled the Church. All significant decisions were made only in council (Acts 15), no one patriarch or bishop having absolute superiority over another, but all working together in equality. Through this hierarchy the Church had succeeded for centuries in maintaining unity.
In the ninth century, however, the East and the West began to drift apart. The Patriarch (Pope) of Rome began to introduce new and foreign ideas into the Faith. One of these ideas was the supremacy of the Roman Pope over the rest of the Orthodox Church. The other four patriarchs of the Church in the East, knowing that having one supreme ruler over the entire Church would divide and corrupt the Church, unsuccessfully pleaded with the Pope of Rome not to introduce this new idea.
Another new idea that the Pope of Rome began to introduce was the changing of the age-old Christian Creed that had been established by the early Church. The Creed is a summary of the beliefs of the Christian Faith, established since the times of the Apostles and based on the Scriptures. The Church in the East warned the Western Church of the dangers of changing any part of the Faith and especially the very Creed itself. But the changes were already in full swing, and the bishops in the West had already began to adopt these new ideas, even though the believers resisted.
In these difficult times of division much dialogue took place between the Eastern Church and the Western Church in an attempt to work out their difference. Since the Orthodox Church would not compromise and allow any changes to be made in the Faith, in 1054 the Roman Patriarchate officially severed itself from the rest of the Church.
The division was based on issues of authority and theology, and underlying both these issues was the following dividing factor: In the East the Church was always looked at as something otherworldly which pointed believers towards Heaven, while in the West the Church began to become this-worldly, pointing believers towards an earthly organization rather than the one spiritual organism of the Body of Christ. Thus began "Organized Religion."
Throughout the years after this devastating schism, the West experienced tremendous turmoil and corruption. The Crusades began, which evolved into an attack on the Church in the East. Then came the Inquisition, then the Renaissance which brought back pagan ideals and mixed them with Christianity, and finally the Protestant Reformation. The West experienced the "Dark Ages" or "Middle Ages," which marked the gradual transition between the ancient Christian world-view and the modern godless one. The East experienced no such Middle Ages, since there the Orthodox Church preserved the Christianity of the Apostles and the early Church.
Orthodoxy continued to endure martyrdom and persecution from the world—this time from the yoke of the Muslims. As with the persecution under the pagan Romans, suffering at the hands of the Muslims kept the Church pure by not allowing for lukewarmness of faith.
THE THIRD ROME
Icon of Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius.
Although Sts. Cyril and Methodius brought the Gospel to the Slavic nations, the full conversion of the Russian people took place one hundred years later. Russia was almost totally pagan at that time, although there were small pockets of Christianity thanks to the labors of the Apostle Andrew. Apostle Andrew had preached throughout the land of Russia and placed crosses both in Kiev and on the Lake Ladoga island of Valaam in the north.
Almost a thousand years after St. Andrew, in 988, the Russian Prince Vladimir decided that an official religion was necessary for his country. In search of the true faith he then investigated all the major religions of the world, sending an envoy to visit their churches and temples. After having observed different religions, the envoy returned to the Prince and said, "When we went to Greece and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, we knew not whether we were in Heaven or on earth. For on
Icon of Saint Vladimir, Prince of Russia.
Photo of the St. Sergius Lavra in Russia.
It was not long before the entire Russian land became a bastion of Christian spiritual life filled with many saints. Soon churches covered the land, monasteries filled the vast wilderness, and golden domes were seen towering over every city and village.
Then in 1453 a great tragedy occurred. The seat of the Byzantine Empire of Constantinople was overtaken by the Muslim Turks who had been warring against Christian nations for hundreds of years. The fall of Byzantium led to the rise of the New Byzantium—Holy Russia. It seemed as if Russia was called upon to preserve the Orthodox Faith. The first Rome had departed from Orthodoxy and the second had fallen. Thus, Moscow became the third Rome.
Just as in Byzantium, every aspect of life in Russia was centered around the Church and Christian spiritual life, yet there still arose the need for a much deeper, God-centered life that only the desert can offer. In Russia the harsh wilderness became the desert that offered solitude and austerity for the God-centered life called monasticism. The founding father of Russian monasticism was St. Anthony of Kiev (†1073). After having been formed as a monk on Mount Athos, Greece, he returned to his homeland and settled in a cave in Kiev. In a short time a whole monastery arose around that cave. Soon the monastic ideal spread throughout all of Russia, even to its deepest wilderness.
Icon of Saint Seraphim.
THE ENDS OF THE WORLD
Icon of Saint Herman.
After the death of St. Herman the legacy of Orthodox Christianity in the New World was continued by St. Innocent (†1879). He was a simple priest from Siberia who had an unquenchable longing to give his whole life to the service of God. This longing was met when he sailed to the wilds of Alaska. There he traveled throughout this frontier just as the Apostles did in other lands so long ago, living in hardships and difficulty, suffering extreme poverty and battling the harsh elements of nature with the sole purpose of making Heaven accessible to as many souls as possible. St. Innocent had to create a written language for the natives of Alaska just as Sts. Cyril and Methodius had done for their native people so long ago, so that these new Christians could have the word of God in their own language.
St. Innocent was later chosen to be the Bishop of Alaska and continued to sacrifice himself for his flock. Then in old age he returned to his homeland where he was chosen to be the head of the Church of Russia (a position equal to that of a patriarch). While the head of the whole Russian Church he started missionary societies with the aim of spreading the Gospel to the ends of the world. After having lived a full life in the service of God, St. Innocent died in his homeland and found his rest with the saints in Heaven.
Photo of Saint John Maximovitch.
As a bishop and successor of the Apostles he went to China, where he founded Orthodox churches. Here he started an orphanage and took care of unwanted children. He would even go to the slums and find babies in garbage cans and take them home. Later he was asked to be the bishop of San Francisco in the United States where he continued his work of living and spreading the Gospel.
Although he lived in the city, his way of life was like that of the desert monks of old. He prayed without ceasing, ate very little only once a day, slept only three hours a night, and wholly sacrificed himself for God and for his fellow man. He voluntarily chose this difficult way of life for the simple reason that Heaven was more important to him than the comforts of the earth. Through this he attained such heights of Christian perfection that he was seen several times surrounded in an unearthly light that emanated from him, and he was given the gift of working miracles. In 1966 St. John died and was laid to rest in San Francisco. To this day, along with St. Herman, St. Innocent, and all the saints of the Orthodox Church, he is revered for bringing the light of Christ to the ends of the world.
Icon of God in Trinity as He appeared to Abraham in the form of three angels (Genesis 18:1). In the middle Christ is represented in a chalice, formed by other angels, which symbolizes Communion.
This Church extends from the saints in Heaven down to the believers here on earth in order to raise us from earth to the heights of Heaven (Hebrews 12:1, 22-24). Thus, the true essence of the Church cannot be found in its earthly institution but must be sought in the spiritual life of the Church which takes place in the heart; for it is within the heart that Christ reveals Himself.
Once Christ reveals Himself to a soul, the heart becomes a battleground where the Christian fights his way towards Heaven (Philippians 2:12). This battle, which is the lifelong struggle of good over evil and virtue over vice, is called Unseen Warfare (Ephesians 6:12), and is the essence of the spiritual life of a Christian. In conducting this struggle the soul becomes purified in order to make a place for the living God to come and dwell in it. This is the true and ultimate purpose of the Church. Everything else in life is only secondary.
It was in order to establish this Church that God came down to earth, became a man, suffered, died, resurrected from the dead, and ascended into Heaven. Through this God showed mankind the way from earth to Heaven, and gave us His Holy Church to be the place where Heaven and earth meet, and where communion with God begins (Ephesians 3:21, Matthew 16:18-19, John 20:19-23).
TO ENTER THE DOOR TO PARADISE:
Christ said: Whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? (Luke 14:27-28). Many people do not take up the Cross of Christ because they see that it will require too much of them. Others take it up, but then, not having counted the cost, put it down when it gets too heavy. Still others, on becoming Orthodox, do so with worldly motives: the desire to be more "correct" and historically authentic than Protestants and Roman Catholics; the desire to experience the beautiful aesthetics of Orthodox liturgics, etc. In so doing, however, they never enter into the essence of Orthodox Christianity. Not having really taken up the Cross of Christ, they never really taste the unearthly joy of His Resurrection.
"He who wishes to serve God," says St. Basil the Great (4th century), "must prepare his heart for tribulations." The Orthodox Christian faith is a suffering faith (II Timothy 3:12), because through suffering we can at last wake up to our true condition, repent, be purified by Christ, and in that purification become a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. The great fourth-century theologian, St. Gregory Nazianzen, described true Christianity as "suffering Orthodoxy." To take it up is to take up the most radical, demanding, all-or-nothing life possible. All false motives must fall away, burned up in the fire of suffering for Jesus Christ. You must taste, to the degree of which you are capable, the suffering, persecution, and crucifixion that the Orthodox saints have experienced throughout the ages. To enter into their heavenly company, you must pay the price. Christ said: Straight is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it (Matthew 7:14). That narrow way is found through pain of heart and years of repentance. According to your yearning and your striving, you will enter; you will taste the fruits of Paradise even in this life, and Christ will fill your sufferings with His presence. Then you will know the joy of the Resurrection, for you will have experienced a resurrection in you own soul. You will be a new being on the inside, and you will find the Kingdom of Heaven within you (Luke 17:21).
Though the Sacraments, the Scripture, the spiritual discipline and the ascetic teachings of the Orthodox Church, you will find the Door to Paradise. And then, in your own heart, your own inward being, you will find Paradise itself. You will find what true prayer is, and you will find Him who has been calling you all your life: Christ, the Bridegroom of your soul.