Archive for May 7th, 2008

A Stranger in a Strange Land

May 7, 2008

The Old Testament has a very discernible type within its stories: that of the stranger in a strange land. Joseph the patriarch is such a character in Egypt. Daniel is such a character in Babylon as are the Three Young Men. To a degree, Jacob is such a character in the house of his father-in-law. In each of these cases the stranger is seen to be faithful to God despite many incentives to do otherwise. He is also seen as uniquely blessed by God, and those around him, who are kind to him, are uniquely blessed as well.

These strangers, are a type of Christ, who is the qentissential Stranger within the strange land. Though he came to his own, his own received him not – the sin of man had rendered our planet “strange” to God. And yet he is faithful at every moment to his Father, and those around him find themselves blessed (in the New Testament measure of the Cross). Lazarus is raised from the dead; others receive children and servants raised from the dead; the blind see, the lame walk, etc.

Today Christians, particularly Orthodox Christians in the West, are strangers in a strange land. We say we are “Orthodox” and others, even other Christians, look at us with puzzlement. “Jew?” they ask. Byzantium is barely mentioned in American textbooks. And Russia only comes under discussion as an adversary. The rich culture of Byzantium and Eastern Europe, the resiliency of Orthodox Christians under persecution is a story not told in this strange land.

We live in a land of automobiles in which commuting to grocery stores and Church are commonplace. In a faith which seems to have been designed to exist best in a small village, Orthodox are turned into American religious commuters. Some of my parishioners come from 75 or more miles away.

Of course, the commuting Christian is a world away from normative Orthodoxy, and brings pressures to make of the parish little more than an Orthodox version of the commuting Protestant world. Our traditionally long services are hard for those commuting. The cycle of services frequently are shortened or changed in order to accommodate the American way of life. And yet the American way of life is only designed to make us consumers – not the image of the living Christ.

How do we live as faithful, Orthodox Christians in a strange land?

There is a Biblical model for this – it is not the first time we have met such trials.

First, we must remember Zion – that is, we must remember what the Church is and how it is when it is not in this strange land. We must not forget “where we came from” (even for us converts who came from consuming America – we must remember the shape and life of an Orthodox parish we never knew).

Daniel, estranged from the normative life of a Jew in Jerusalem, became a faithful Jew in Babylon. Like his friends, the Three Young Men, he faithfully turned his face to Jerusalem and prayed three times a day. In like manner, even 75 miles from our parish, we must turn our faces to the East, stand before our icons and pray. We must do this faithfully, particularly because the land outside is strange.

That and many other things that belong to the Orthodox home are utterly essential in this strange land. St. John Chrysostom describes the home as a “little Church.” And, interestingly, our homes are not a commute away from where we live. At the same time, parishes need to provide more material in guiding people in keeping a “little church” in the home. We need help.

Since we have the freedom to travel to the Church – we may need to budget to be there (especially in our present oil crisis). But attending the cycle of services – particularly surrounding the major feasts is important. We should pay as much attention to these days as we do to scrambling for the prime vacation days. We are strangers in a strange land, and we must assemble ourselves together as Church often. There we are fed by grace and manifest who and what we are to an even greater extent by the goodness of God.

God honored Daniel, the Three Young Men, Jacob and Joseph. He will honor us as well as we struggle to remain faithful strangers. We must, however, recognize the nature of our situation and not suggest that since the Church lives in Babylon it must do as the Babylonians do. I would gladly argue that this would be our worst mistake. Orthodoxy has a life that bears a shape, formed in a crucible, that we should not lightly change in the culture we now find ourselves in.

None of this is to suggest that the Church should not speak English or exist as an ethnic enclave. These matters are not inherently Orthodox. We do, however, need to practice patience in such things.

It is not unlike God to place someone as a stranger in a strange land. He has done it before. Thus we should not be frustrated with His providence but trust that we were born for such a time as this.

We would do well to ask the intercessions of the faithful strangers. They will hear and intercede, as will the many thousands of martyrs of the 20th century who offered themselves to God in order to remain faithful.

May the faithful God keep us faithful and strengthen us precisely where we need strength.