Ships and Saints and All the Company of Heaven

vasnetsovvirgin1.jpg

I offered a quote from Charles Taylor in a previous posting – as a small reminder I offer it again.

One of the central points common to all Reformers was their rejection of mediation. The mediaeval church as they understood it, a corporate body in which some, more dedicated, members could win merit and salvation for others who were less so, was anathema to them. There could be no such thing as more devoted or less devoted Christians: the personal commitment must be total or it was worthless…. for Protestantism there can be no passengers. This is because there is no ship in the Catholic sense, no common movement carrying humans to salvation. Each believer rows his or her own boat.       From Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity

My thoughts in my earlier post were focused on the corporate character of our existence – we are persons who partake of a common substance – we are consubstantial with one another. “If one member suffers, then all the members suffer,” as St. Paul says.

I add a further thought in this post – that of the role of the saints – for it was particularly the saints that the Reformers had in their crosshairs – with the battlecry, “There is but one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus!”

It is certainly the case that in Holy Baptism we are not asked, “Do you unite yourself with the Theotokos and all the Saints?” but rather, “Do you unite yourself to Christ.” For union with Christ is the very definition of salvation. Everything else flows from that union.

But being united to Christ also means that we are united to the Theotokos and all the Saints – because they are in Christ. You cannot have a Christ apart from them because there is no such Christ. St. Paul (whom I am sure knew the implications of his statements) said: 

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” (1 Corinthians 12:21)

I recall reading this very carefully as long as 35 years ago, long before my conversion to Orthodoxy, and being struck that St. Paul, in using the analogy of the body as an image of the Church, had just said that the “head” cannot say “I have no need of you,” knowing full well that it is Christ who is the head of the body. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (12:12).

This is the Church revealed in its true character. As the Church has defended the title Theotokos for the Mother of God, we must always be mindful that there is no incarnate Christ apart from her. We are not merely traveling together in a common ship – we are living together in a common life – which life is Christ.

I began to be aware of the saints as a young Anglican. The stained glass windows bore witness to their presence, much in the same way that icons do in an Orthodox Church. But in Orthodoxy the role is clearer and the presence always there. Taylor noted that the Reformers wanted no one other than Christ to gain salvation for us by their merits. Of course, this kind of language is foreign to Orthodoxy in the first place. But the corporate character of our salvation is not in the least foreign to Orthodoxy. We are saved together. Not first a hand, then a toe, later an arm or leg – the whole body works together as we grow into the head – into the fullness of the stature of Christ.

I frequently think that we contemplate our salvation in the commercial terms of our modern culture. It’s not that we think that we are “buying” our salvation – but we do see ourselves as great “choosers.” We choose to sin or not to sin and with our choices we are choosing Christ. But, of course, he first chose me. And the choices of so many around me mean that when I have to make a choice I am not standing alone. Were I to show up week after week at Church and no one else were there (what an odd thought!), doubtless something in me would begin to waver, as it would in all of us.

I have served in start-up missions, where fingers and toes are sufficient to count the congregation. You know when someone is not there and their absence is felt like an ache. The same ache is present with me as I pray over the names of each member of our congregation in preparing the bread and the wine on Sundays, particularly if it is the name of someone “missing”. In some manner I am diminished in their absence – we are all diminished.

I give God thanks for the untiring faithfulness of so many – who like icons take up their place within the worshipping Church. They stand as witnesses to Christ, but also as those who pray for me, as I pray for them, as all of us are uplifted in the risen Christ. And this is salvation. I know nothing of merits or the like – but I know prayer and that through your prayers and that of all our holy fathers and mothers we will find the grace necessary to live as a Church – a Ship bearing Saints and All the Company of Heaven.

14 Responses to “Ships and Saints and All the Company of Heaven”

  1. Michael Bauman Says:

    The American culture and ethos is so indivdiual, competitive and commercial. What does the commonalty of Orthodox Christian life look like in such a culture as ours. It has to be more than “doing church” or having festivals or good works. I was just talking with a dear friend who lives many miles away. Someone I just met a little over six months ago and yet someone who has, somehow, always been in my life. We both ache for a real living experience of community in Christ, in the Church and there seem to be so many barriers.

    The community of Orthodox bloggers on the internet–how do we incarnate that. I’m probably just rambling, but the sense of commonalty is one of the important features that drew me to the Church. Individualism is simply an illusion. We do nothing alone. Everything we do effects everyone else.

    The challenge of your posts Father, are welcome to me.

  2. nancy Says:

    I spent two three month periods in Sitka, Alask, located on Baranoff Island, where the image of the ship (used, of course, in many instances and in many eras)), in the context of fishing and even ships lost at sea was a powerful one, not just in a figurative sense, but in a literal way.

    Concern and caring for one another can sometimes be a difficult effort in Orthodox Churches with parishioners of diverse backgrounds, and it seems to me to be one of the most important issues in American Orthodoxy today.

    In the fall, St. Michael’s Orthodox Church in Louisville, Kentucky will be addressing issues of cradle and convert parishes at a conference entitled “Root and Branch,” as an effort to find ways to bring the two closer together and to nurture the “caring community” that is so important to believers. More about this later.

  3. Fatherstephen Says:

    Michael,

    We don’t always have to know the answers (we’re not Protestants, inventing something), but we have to know Christ and love the brethren. God has done so much among the Orthodox in the past decade or two, I feel confident of new things in the future. If there are things your heart aches for that are good things, then don’t quit aching, but pray through the ache. Not to make it go away, but that God bring it to fruition.

  4. Alyssa Says:

    Father,
    What is this icon you chose for today?

  5. Coroebeus Says:

    “If there are things your heart aches for that are good things, then don’t quit aching, but pray through the ache.”

    Thanks for this, Father. Words to live by.

  6. Jfred Says:

    Hebrews 12:1 is a troublesome verse for protestants, as it was pointed out to me that it is written in the present tense: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses……”

    This is another one of those verses that has prompted me to explore the OC.

    Thanks for this post. This subject is not often discussed.

  7. Margaret Says:

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for posting this. I have tried to thank as many members of our Antiochian Orthodox Church as I can, priests, deacons and lay people, for their faithfulness in attending to the worship and service of God. You see, we visited this church 18 years ago and it was beautiful! But we stayed within the Anglican communion and relocated home geographically several times. When we returned to our “home town” we were blessed by God that as we prayed for Him to show us how to worship Him, He reminded my husband of the Orthodox Church we had visited so many years ago. In 2005 on the Sunday of Pentecost I attended with my husband and I have never looked back. This precious body of worshippers had “hung in there” and God blesses their efforts. The kneeling vespers and the prayers upon prayers for everyone! The saints present! How wonderful to be able to bring our children here! May God bless you as you minister to your flock, and thank you for your service to Our Lord and His Church! And I thank God for, and pray His blessings on, all Orthodox Christians everywhere; and pray all Christians join in praising the One Holy God!

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    Alyssa,

    Isn’t that just an incredible work of art? It is actually the Virgin in the Apse above the Sanctuary in St. Vladimir’s Church in Kiev, Ukraine. Most of the frescoes there are the work of Vasnetsov, a late and early 20th century artist. His school of work, though more “Italian” than the classic Byzantine, nonetheless moves in the direction of the impressionists, but for my Western eyes, looks more or less like the “Pre-Raphaelite” work that was done in the 19th century or so in the West.

    Nesterov is another such Russian artist.

    The best site for viewing such work is Olga’s Gallery.com (or something like that). It has an amazing collection of work (and dancing ads, etc.). click on the artist by letter (N) for Nesterov, etc. And then on the artist name and it will have one or two pages of their art. It’s really incredible.

    I have to say I owe my accidental discovery of Vasnetsov to the Blog Kristensdottir, that is on my blogroll. She posted a couple of things from Vasnetsov and I was smitten by it. I encourage you to go look for it. Quite moving. Not classical in the proper iconographic model, but quite moving.

  9. handmaidmaryleah Says:

    The interesting thing is that it hurts when Orthodox “go wrong” or are perceived to do wrong. In a way we are having this discussion on my blog, during war bad things happen, there was a war 10 -12 years ago in Serbia an Orthodox country and there are accusations of massacres, the pogroms in Russia, these are hard issues for those who want to believe that when we become Orthodox we all become irenic and cease to do horrible things.
    As if there are no criminals in Greece, even though that is an Orthodox country.
    This is an interesting realization especially for converts to Holy Orthodoxy in the beginning. When do people cease to be Orthodox Christian? Or do they, is that a false construct?
    Christ is Risen!
    the handmaid,
    Mary-Leah

  10. handmaidmaryleah Says:

    Forgive me I forgot to put this in front of my post:
    Michael writes: “The community of Orthodox bloggers on the internet–how do we incarnate that. I’m probably just rambling, but the sense of commonalty is one of the important features that drew me to the Church. Individualism is simply an illusion. We do nothing alone. Everything we do effects everyone else.”
    M-L

  11. Michael Bauman Says:

    handmaidmaryleah asks: “When do people cease to be Orthodox Christian?

    Fr. Stephen will correct me if I’m wrong, but in one sense, never all of us have the Seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit and we will be held accountable. That does not mean we act as we are called to act, i.e. with humility, love, mercy, compassion and long suffering. In another sense, we will always be becoming Orthodox Christians. The Church is fully human which includes a great deal of sin, she is also fully divine which allows for the sin to be healed should we want it to be.

    Although I’m sure many will disagree, my son has an interesting take on the issue of war which is worth reading: http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles7/BaumanWarrior.php

  12. fatherstephen Says:

    God does not take back the gifts He gives. Stalin was an Orthodox Christian, though it would be appropriate to say he had become an apostate (i.e. he had fallen away from the faith). Canon law says that we should commune at least once a year – so it certainly would be possible to sort of drift away from the faith through neglect. But returning would not mean rebaptism or chrismation – but rather penance and confession. In very serious cases, probably a lenghty period of penance before absolution and communion were given. I have at least twice been involved in receiving people back into the Orthodox faith who had “wandered elsewhere,” shall we say.

  13. handmaidmaryleah Says:

    See now that is interesting because I receved a different answer from my parish priest after church this morning and I remember this answer from another priest I had spoke with onece before… If someone leaves the Orthodox Church for another faith they are re-Chrismated, now I would assume some economia is applied here, did they fall into serious error and become non-Christians or just wander away. That is where the mercy and discretion of the Bishop comes in, correct?
    That said, we sure do hurt when fellow Orthodox go astray, not just in embarrassment or pain at what they may do, but we ache that our brothers and sisters fall away, it is our loss too, as if something has been cut away from the Body of Christ.
    Christ is in our midst!
    the handmaid,
    Mary-Leah

  14. fatherstephen Says:

    Indeed, it does vary according to the seriousness of the apostasy, and the economia of the Bishop.

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