Orthodox Church of the Mother of God

Joy of all the Sorrowful - Mays Landing, NJ (f. 1966)

Pastoral Letter of SCOBA Hierarchs

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What, then, is his prayer and how does he make it? He asks "that they may be one, as you, Father are in me and I in you, so that they may be one in us" (John 17: 21) So, he prays for the bond of love and harmony and peace which brings those who believe onwards towards the unity of the Spirit, as if it were, a natural and substantial unity. Clearly, we are to imitate the characteristics of the unity we understand to exist between the Father and the Son, a unity that means agreement in all things and mutual progress towards unity through undivided oneness of mind ? In order that we might go forward towards unity with God and with one another, and might ourselves be mingled together, even though we differ, considered in the particularity of soul and body, by the features that we know make us distinct, the Only-Begotten contrived a certain strategy through the wisdom that is his own and by the will of the Father. By providing a blessing for those who believe in him in the form of a single body, namely his own, through mystical communion he formed them as a single body with himself and one another. For who could tear apart, who would alienate from natural union with each other those who are bound into union with Christ through his holy body? (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:17) Christ, after all, can not be divided. For this reason the Church is called Christ's body, and each of us his members, according to the mind of Paul (cf. Ephesians 5:30). But if we are a single body in Christ, not only with each other but even with him, who has come to be within us through his own flesh, how is it that we are all not clearly one, both in each other and in Christ?  [St Cyril of Alexandria  - Commentary on the Gospel of John, XI, 11]

The Community that Remembers

"Do this in remembrance of me." (Luke 22:19)

125. The Lord, "on the night when He was betrayed" (1 Corinthians 11:23), gathered His Apostles together to celebrate the Passover. He was aware of what was about to happen to Him, and wanted not only to prepare His Apostles for His coming death, but also wanted to show them the real significance of His death and resurrection. During the meal He took bread and wine, blessed them and gave them to the Apostles saying, "Do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24). He told them that this bread and wine were now His own body and blood; that by partaking of them, they were partaking of Him. From that night on, over the last two thousand years, the Orthodox Christian community has remained faithful to the Lord's charge. Orthodox Christians have gathered to celebrate the Holy Eucharist in times of persecution and in times of freedom, and it is this remembrance that has shaped who we are.

126. Memory is the key to identity. In remembering where we were born, who our parents and family are, the school where we studied, our friends and our neighbors, we know who we are. There is a basic psychological function at work upon which rests our self-consciousness and even our health. Those of us who have had the experience of a loved one who has been afflicted with Alzheimer's Disease, know that the most painful aspect of the disease is the loss of the memory of the person despite continuing life.

127. Human culture is largely a product of memory. Even before the written word people transmitted their collective memories through epic poems and myths. The invention of writing allowed the preservation of experience and knowledge. By recording our memories - and today we have many means available to us in addition to writing - we also hope to make available our wisdom and experiences to future generations. Memory links us to both the past and the future.

128. Implicit in the idea of memory is relationship. Our personal memories are linked to people and the events in our lives shaped by those people. Our communal memories operate in the same fashion. Nations or peoples have a common remembered history that ties them to one another, as well as to those who preceded them. If a national or ethnic identity is to endure, it must be successfully transmitted to the next generation.

129. Memory, then, is dynamic. New events shed light on old ones. New persons deepen our experience of others. Time can cause memories to fade or even disappear. And of course, choice, our choice, is clearly a factor. As the Psalmist says: "In bed I remember you, as I lie awake I reflect on you, mindful of how you helped me" (Psalms 63:6-7).(19) As Americans, we pride ourselves on being able to "remake" ourselves. This altering of our identity is accomplished by deciding what we will remember and what we will choose to forget.

130. Our survival is entirely dependent on our remembrance of God, and God's decision to keep us in His memory. Our identity as God's people is tied to the remembrance of the saving acts of God. "You shall remember," God told the Hebrews, "what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt, the great trials which your eyes saw, the signs, the wonders, the mighty hand, and the outstretched arm, by which the Lord your God brought you out" (Deuteronomy 7:18-19). This liberation takes on new meaning, perspective, and dynamism for us in the person of Jesus Christ. The Passover (Pascha) from slavery to freedom becomes the Passover (Pascha) from death to life. We remember the saving acts of God, and this remembrance grounds us as it renews us.

131. The remembrance to which we are invited brings together past, present, and future in one movement of thanksgiving and hope. As Orthodox Americans we remember the Orthodox mission that evangelized native peoples of Alaska more than two hundred years ago, bringing the Gospel of Christ in a manner in which it respected their cultures while showing love for the people. We remember the immigrants who came to America seeking religious freedom and economic opportunity, and building Orthodox communities and institutions. We remember the men and women who entered the Orthodox Church by their own free choice and decision, seeking the apostolic faith brought to our own time without interruption or dilution.

132. All liturgy is intended to continually re-present to us the saving works of God. When you participate in the holy services of our Church, listen carefully to the prayers as they are being read. One of their essential characteristics is how they draw upon examples from the Holy Scriptures to recall in detail the saving works of God. God has no need to be reminded of what He has done for us. We are the ones who need our memories refreshed. We are the ones who need to be reminded that God's promise is forever. Think how powerful it is when the celebrant says: "as You were present then, so also be present now!"(20) By remembering God's saving power we are assured of His love for us.

133. We see something similar in the liturgical use of the word "today." At Christmas we hear the choir sing, "Today the Virgin gives birth " At Theophany we hear, "Today the Master hastens toward baptism " On Great Friday, standing before the precious Cross, we hear, "Today is hung upon the Tree " And on Great and Holy Pascha (Easter) we hear, "It is the day of Resurrection " Our remembrance of God's saving acts is not nostalgia. Through remembrance we ourselves become participants in God's saving work. With David we say: "How can I repay the Lord all his favors to me? I will lift the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord" (Psalms 116:13-14).

134. The center of our remembrance is the Eucharist, the Divine Liturgy. In the Divine Liturgy, we, the eucharistic community, call to mind the entire economy of God in the person of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. We remember "all that came to pass for our sake, the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the enthronement at the right hand of the Father, and the second, glorious coming."(21) We ask that the Holy Spirit, as at Pentecost, descend upon us and the presented Gifts. The saving work of God moves from the remembrance of the past event to the present; from "theory" to actuality; from then to now. We are made holy. We are made into the Body of Christ. It is for each of us a personal, as well as communal event.

135. It should be clear from what we have said that this remembrance belongs not in our head, but in our heart - the center of the spiritual faculty. We remember not in order to dwell on the past but to know where we are going. We said above that one of the remarkable aspects of the American character is the openness to remake oneself. For Christians this idea echoes the newness we find in Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17). But remaking oneself without a grounding in true existence is a recipe for confusion and even disaster. The newness that we desire can only be found in God. Forgetting one's past is not the same as forgiveness given by accepting God's grace. Re-inventing oneself is not the same as being renewed in the Holy Spirit.

136. The Church is not a museum and we are not Her curators. The Church is a living and breathing community, the Body of Christ. Liturgy as remembrance is not slavish adherence to particular forms. Rather, we remember God's saving work to know who we are so that we can act in the here and now. We remember as a community and in a community, because we know that we are joined with Christ along with our brothers and sisters, and are not unconnected individuals. It is not accidental that the Church is organized around local eucharistic communities charged with remembering and acting.

137. We should keep in mind that when the Apostles went out from Jerusalem to the four corners of the earth to proclaim the Good News, they established churches - communities - that became the living repositories of the Gospel of Salvation. We have become used to thinking about the Church in restrictive institutional terms. This is a valid observation - institutions are vital to human existence. But we can forget that the Church is not bricks and mortar, hierarchies and clergy, departments and committees. She is not even, strictly speaking, particular rituals and forms. She is first and foremost the community that remembers the mighty actions of God.

138. Look closely at the language we use when we describe this reality. We speak of communion between us and God. But we also speak of communion between churches. And finally we see this manifested concretely in the communion which we share when we partake of the Bread and Wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. The word "community" shares the same root as "communion," because it is a manifestation of the same reality. Through the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the community becomes one with all those who preceded, and with all those who are yet to come. It is present at once in the here-and-now and in eternity. The true community maintains this communion with God and with all those who keep His remembrance.

139. On the American continent, this communion of the Orthodox Churches has been concretely embodied in the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA) for forty years. Of course, the question of how to organize the Church here in a more traditionally canonical way has preoccupied us - bishops, priests, theologians and lay persons - for longer than that.

140. We should not forget that many practical steps toward that end have been and are being taken. We can point to a number of cooperative efforts under SCOBA. There is the Orthodox Christian Education Commission that helps to coordinate religious education. There is the Orthodox Christian Mission Center, the official mission and evangelism agency of our Churches. There is the Orthodox Theological Society in America. There is the International Orthodox Christian Charities that stands as a model for world Orthodoxy in the realm of international relief organizations. There is the cooperative effort to train Orthodox youth workers and the efforts to bring our young people together. We spoke above about the variety of theological dialogues and consultations with other Christian churches that are coordinated and overseen by SCOBA.

141. On the regional and local level, we could speak of the projects and endeavors that parish clergy and lay people of all of the Orthodox dioceses, have undertaken to manifest visibly the mission and unity of our Church.

142. We are planning to invite all of the beloved brother bishops, the hierarchs of the member Churches of SCOBA, to gather in the spring of 2001 to discuss matters of local pastoral concern.

143. Let us remind ourselves that unity - all unity - is a gift from God to us. It is not our own doing. We prepare ourselves to accept this gift by our spiritual disposition, by our openness to one another. The work we have done until now and the work that remains to be done, help us to open our hearts continually.

144. None of us yet knows how a future Orthodox Church on the North American continent will be organized. We must discover how to balance the richness of our diversity with the need for a cohesive administration. This discussion will have to continue until a consensus is reached by all those concerned.

145. The future of our Church lies in our willingness to work together. There is probably no better place for us to center this activity than the local parish. Our parish is the place where each of us, from bishop to smallest child, was taught and nurtured in the bosom of the Body of Christ. This local parish has many faces. It is a grand cathedral with thousands of participants and it is a small hut with a dirt floor. Given our missionary experience in America, it is a store front and it is a warehouse space. What makes it heaven on earth is that there, in that place, the Church gathers to remember the saving acts of God.

146. The truth is that parish life in North America is very different than in traditionally Orthodox countries. Parishes are organized differently. The activities that are centered in them are different. There are ethnic, cultural, and charitable aspects to parish life that simply are not emphasized in other places, or perhaps are irrelevant or not needed there. We take special note of the involvement of laypersons in our parishes. This is consistent with Orthodox ecclesiology, and also reflects the American spirit of activism and volunteerism. The challenge for us is to learn what keeps our communities vital while remaining faithful to what has been entrusted to us. It is remembrance that allows us to do this.


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