Have you ever wondered why there are so many Christian churches? Where they’re all going? Where they all came from? And where – among so many choices – Christ is lovingly calling you to find your true and lasting home?
Once upon a time, for a thousand years after the birth, death and resurrection of Christ, there was one Christian Church throughout the known world. Like a great and noble tree, this Church, springing forth fresh and alive from its original planting by our Lord when He dwelt on earth, spread its branches far and wide in east and west, north and south. This great tree flourished, being full of the life and wisdom flowing into it from Christ Himself. Occasional storms troubled its branches, but essentially it remained strong and whole.
Then, after a thousand years, one branch of this tree – a vast and leafy limb – broke away from the main trunk planted by Christ, but pretended to itself that nothing had changed: that it was still alive, still part of Christ’s tree, still rooted in the faith and teaching He gave to His Apostles. It even, after a while, forgot it had broken away and came to think of itself as the one true tree planted by Christ. Unwilling to acknowledge its separation from Christ’s original Church, this separated branch, living off the residue of life that remained in it, enjoyed for a time an illusion of life, prosperity and growth – like a branch full of buds still putting forth blooms for a season after being cut off from the mother tree.
Still, all was not well with this broken-off branch, and soon it was remarked how it had lost its original life and had begun to change and wither. This branch was the western – or Latin, or Roman Catholic – church. And those who first noticed the change and decay were the Protestant reformers. These men and women, protesting the changes and decay, sought to regain the true faith and spiritual health that had been lost. They in turn broke away from the diseased limb, but neglected to regraft themselves onto the original Church whose existence they had forgotten. Instead they themselves continued to divide and break up into countless smaller branches – the thousands of denominations we see today – none of them grafted onto the living Church of Christ.
Meanwhile firmly rooted and planted by Christ Himself, the original tree of the true Church grew and flourished – just as He said it would – watered and nourished by the undiminished stream of life and truth flowing into it from Christ. This tree – the only one planted by Christ Himself -- is known today as the Orthodox Church. (Orthodox means holding right beliefs and worshipping in the right way.) Despite persecutions and martyrdoms throughout the centuries (including the twentieth century as one of the fiercest and bloodiest in its history), this original and true Church has remained alive and strong to this day, rooted in the soil of ancient truth and wisdom and holy tradition. By an accident of history and geography, this Church continued to grow and flourish almost exclusively in eastern countries – Greece, Rumania, Russia, etc. Its presence in the western world was minimal and obscure – largely forgotten – until the end of the second millennium.
As the twentieth century unfolded, countless eastern Christians, driven by political and social upheavals (such as the Communist revolution in Russia), emigrated to the western lands of Europe and America, bringing with them their ancient Christian faith and tradition, the original true Church of Christ – the Orthodox Church.
Unlike the western (Latin or Roman Catholic) church which, until very recently, had forbidden liturgical services in the local languages of its people, the Orthodox Church almost invariably has used local languages (e.g., Greek, Russian, Arabic). In the original countries this use of a “homely” language brought people into a close relationship with their Church and its services. When these people came to the west, bringing their Church with them, the varied languages and cultural forms sometimes suggested to westerners that Orthodoxy was a foreign and exotic faith.
In reality, beyond the unfamiliar externals of language and different rites, westerners have begun to recognize – after a thousand-year absence – the true Church that had existed once in the western world: the ancient Orthodox Christian Church as it had existed in England, Ireland, Italy, France, Scandinavia and all of Europe before the breakaway in 1054AD of the Roman church and its subsequent alterations of the original faith and the invention of new and erroneous teachings.
In the twentieth century westerners began to experience – and to deplore – the withering and decay of their familiar western churches. Some also began to look more closely at the Orthodox Church, now present among them, and to find there what they thought had been lost: the true faith of the Gospels and the authentic and original Church founded by Christ and preserved by His grace for two thousand years.
Today the western denominations seem to be collapsing in a moral vacuum, torn by controversies which are the stuff of daily news: rejection of traditional morality and teaching, loss of the devotional life and spiritual disciplines such as fasting and abstinence, rampant sexual scandals, feminist and politically correct revisions of Scripture, abandonment of the ideals of holiness and the spiritual life, as well as of its traditional heroes – the saints and martyrs who lived and died wholly for love of Christ and His Church. All these phenomena reflect the decay and withering that follow upon separation from the one true tree of Christ’s Church, a process of withering that has gone on now in the west for a thousand years.
Some western Christians, sincerely seeking the true Christian faith, and desperate to restore order, work and hope for a reform within the western churches and denominations. But the whole branch of western Christianity, once cut off from the trunk of Christ’s true Church, cannot be made healthy and alive again except by being regrafted onto the living Church, abandoning all false teachings, and returning gladly and humbly to the authentic faith and tradition of Christ’s one true Church – the Orthodox Church.
Slowly but steadily, Orthodox Christians, now transplanted into all western lands, have begun to recognize their missionary task of awakening their western brothers and sisters to their lost Christian heritage, summoning them to return home to the Church their fathers had lost a thousand years ago.
True to its tradition, Orthodoxy has translated its services and prayers into most western languages (in the USA, English) in order to make the faith fully accessible and “homely” to all who seek the true and original Church of Christ found in the pages of the New Testament. Some Orthodox groups in the United States still cling to their old world culture and languages, but for the most part Orthodoxy in America stands ready to welcome its western brothers and sisters home to the family of Christ’s true Church.
Orthodoxy has also begun to recognize that westerners, despite their thousand-year separation from Christ’s Church, possess in their ancient worship a rich and holy tradition from the first millennium when all the west was still fully Orthodox – in Ireland, England, France, Italy, Germany, Spain and all of Europe. One of the great saints and wonder-workers of the twentieth century, Saint John of San Francisco, blessed and encouraged this recognition: “Never, never, never let anyone tell you that in order to be Orthodox you must also be eastern. The west was fully Orthodox for a thousand years, and her venerable Liturgy is far older than any of her heresies.” This western-rite Orthodoxy, with its traditional liturgy of the Mass and the Sacraments, restores to westerners in a homely and familiar form the Orthodox faith and worship they lost a thousand years ago.
Today at the dawn of the third Christian millennium, westerners are awakening to the spiritual bankruptcy of their churches and denominations. Amid the dark and stormy tumult of our times, the bright beacon of Christ’s true Church beckons with a welcoming light. Like a venerable and ancient tree, planted by Christ Himself, and now, after a long absence, replanted in western lands, the Orthodox Church is still full of sap, still fresh and green and flourishing with the only food that can satisfy the hungry hearts of modern men and women.
If you have felt yourself tossed about in the tumult of the modern world, hungry for the light and truth and wisdom of Christ, come and explore Orthodoxy – the real “faith of your fathers, living still.” Come and find your true home – and your eternal salvation – where Christ wants it to be found – in the true Church where He promised He would remain for all time, even to the end of the world.
Discover the true faith of your fathers – come home to Orthodoxy!
(copyright, 1998 Christ the Savior Monastery)