What it means to follow Jesus in the Orthodox tradition
Due to space limitations, I can only offer here a glimpse into the profound and boundless glory of what it means to follow Jesus in the Orthodox tradition—a path of belief and practice that’s been followed with remarkable consistency by millions of Orthodox Christians through twenty centuries. The spirituality, doctrines, liturgical life, and the conciliar/hierarchical structure of the Orthodox Church have remained unchanged at their core, beginning in the Apostolic age, with more “rings” of amplification and enrichment being added to the same “tree” through the centuries.
So in the Orthodox understanding, the way to follow Jesus that’s been faithfully passed down to us is a truly time-tested, proven path. More importantly, it’s a path that’s God-inspired and God-directed, confirmed through the prayer—and all the spiritual experience—of countless people of every social, political, and economic background in every era, in a great number of cultures. Yet within the guidelines provided by the Orthodox Tradition for how to follow Jesus, there is flexibility for each person to do so uniquely, depending upon one’s unique needs and abilities.
Christians who are recognized as premier examples of this way of life are the Virgin Mary and the Saints—those men, women, and children who most faithfully, fervently, and fully lived in vibrant communion with our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, many of whom gave their lives for Him in martyrdom. Numerous Saints are commemorated in our Church every day of the year—the day we particularly honor them, asking for their prayers and being inspired by the holiness and fruitfulness of their lives.
Of course, not every Orthodox Christian follows Jesus with the same degree of faithfulness, fervency, holiness, and fruitfulness as the canonized Saints have done. But there is, nevertheless, one basic way of following Him that is the ideal, the hope and expectation for every Orthodox Christian—the path of aspiring to live in ever-closer, direct communion with Him; being filled with His Love, Joy (John 15:11), and Peace (John 14:27); striving to live in purity of thought, word, and deed; and ever trusting in His limitless mercy in anticipation of His Second Coming (Rev. 22:20), the Resurrection of the Dead, the Last Judgment, and eternal life in Heaven, our true home (Phil. 3:20-21; cf. Phil. 3:7-14).
For this endeavor, the Orthodox Church provides many resources for spiritual growth, including daily study of the Holy Scriptures, being guided by the Church’s long-standing interpretation of them; time-honored prayers for many occasions; rich liturgical life, replete with psalmody, and including hymns filled with devotion and sound doctrine; the Sacraments—especially the Eucharist, celebrated at every Divine Liturgy, and the Sacrament of Confession; celebration of the many great holy days (Feasts) of the Church Year; the writings of the Church Fathers; the Lives of the Saints; the doctrinal proclamations and canons of the Ecumenical Councils—especially the Nicene Creed; veneration of the Holy Icons; the sign of the Cross; the connection with one’s Patron Saint and Guardian Angel; and the spiritual direction of one’s spiritual father.
Even the great numbers of monastics through the centuries, who have, generally speaking, most entirely given their lives to following Jesus in direct service to Him and His Church, do not follow Him in a way that’s substantially different from how everyone else follows Him in our Tradition—except that, most likely, they pray, fast, and attend services more, and live more simply than the rest of us! And, of course, they live in sexual abstinence, while the married enjoy their God-given marital relations. But in both cases, we’re called to live in sexual purity—total abstinence for the monastics, and total faithfulness to one’s spouse for the married (with marriage understood as between one man and one woman, mirroring Christ the Bridegroom’s love for His Bride, the Church – Eph. 5:23-32).
To say a bit more about particular features of the Orthodox way of following Jesus:
Worshiping Him “in Spirit and in Truth” (John 4:24)—participating regularly in the prayer-filled and Scripture-filled liturgical/sacramental life of the Church; entering with humility and awe into the majesty and beauty of the communal worship of God in church services; participating in the alternating rhythms of feasting and fasting according to the patterns designated in the Church Year.
Being in vibrant communion/fellowship with His Saints—the living, the departed, and in a very special way, the glorified (those canonized by the Church as Saints): “God is wondrous in His Saints” (Ps. 67:36, Septuagint); “I believe in . . . the Communion of Saints” (the Apostles’ Creed); “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1; Heb. 12:23); being surrounded by the Saints in their grace-bearing icons (“windows to Heaven”) in Church and at home (particularly in the icon corner); asking for their prayers; reading their Lives and their writings.
Endeavoring to live without sin in thought, word, and deed, in purity in mind, soul, and body, including sexual purity (Matt. 5:48, Heb. 12:14, 1 Thess. 4:3, 1 Peter 1:15-16, Lev. 11:44-45). Growing in communion with Jesus is accomplished in large measure through keeping His commandments (John 15:10; also 15:14 and 14:15). And we remember that avoiding sin requires careful attentiveness to the voice of our conscience, ongoing ascetical effort to control and properly direct our passions, and repenting for our sins. We endeavor to be watchful over our thoughts and feelings, trying to be quick in rejecting deleterious thoughts and feelings (called logismoi) that disrupt our relationship with Jesus.
Endeavoring to surrender our own will to His will (Luke 22:42); this includes surrendering our own will appropriately as we self-sacrificially serve others, placing their needs and desires ahead of our own.
Endeavoring to maintain our trust in Christ no matter what happens—no matter what cross He may ask us to bear in terms of personal hardships and the hardships of those close to us (Matt. 16:24; Luke 9:23). We offer our hardships, sufferings, and sorrows to Him, linking them with His suffering on the Cross, knowing that He often allows them as a means for us to grow in faith and trust in Him, and for us to grow in virtue (James 1:2-4, Romans 5:3-4, 1 Peter 1:6-9). Yet we also pray to Christ for deliverance from afflictions, mindful that miracles often happen, but always concluding with asking that His will be done.
Endeavoring to maintain a regular rule of prayer, developed and sustained, ideally, under the guidance of a spiritual father/director (often the priest of one’s parish), before whom one confesses one’s sins to God regularly in the Sacrament of Confession, and from whom one receives spiritual counsel during that Sacrament; praying, as appropriate, the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (this has been—and still is—the principal devotional prayer of the Orthodox for many centuries; cf. Luke 18:13); and being alert in spiritual warfare (James 4:7), ever aware of the possibility of demonic delusion (2 Cor. 11:14; 1 Peter 5:8).
Endeavoring to be engaged in self-sacrificial service to one’s fellow human beings, with deep respect, love, and compassion for each one, all “made in the image and likeness of God” (cf. Gal. 6:2; Romans 12:15).
Endeavoring to live in respectful, awe-filled harmony with Nature; seeing everywhere our Creator’s miraculous craftsmanship and providential care; understanding that the innate goodness of Creation undergirds our entire sacramental world-view; being always thankful for, yet not being overly attached to, the good things of this world.
Witnessing to others about Christ and the glory and richness of life in His Holy Church, especially through living an exemplary life of faith and virtue—through the holiness, quiet joy, and peacefulness of our Christ-filled lives; and through inviting people to Church services.
Every endeavor to follow Jesus more closely is accomplished through synergistically joining our will with His will (Phil. 2:12-13), and with the grace of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19).
Key elements of the Orthodox ethos and way of life are conveyed in the prayers normally prayed in preparation for receiving Holy Communion. For example, from the Prayer of St. Basil the Great (Archbishop of Neocaesarea, central Asia Minor; later 4th century):
“Receive me, O Lord Who loves mankind, as You received the sinful woman, the thief, the publican, and the prodigal son. Take away the heavy burden of my sins, O You Who takes away the sins of the world, and heals our infirmities, and calls to Yourself all who are weary and heavy-laden and gives them rest. O You Who came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance, cleanse me from all stain of body and soul, and teach me to fulfill holiness in reverent fear of You, so that with the witness of my conscience pure, I may receive a portion of Your Holy Gifts, and be united to Your holy Body and precious Blood, and may have You, with Your Father and Your Holy Spirit, dwelling and abiding in me.”
I have one question that would help me better understand your emphases. When many Protestants think about following Jesus they ask themselves the question “What would Jesus do?” (with the name Jesus usually referring to the historical figure Jesus of Nazareth). What role does Jesus of Nazareth specifically play in the Orthodox understanding of following Jesus in distinction from following Jesus as the glorified Christ? Does this question even make sense from an Orthodox perspective?
Ford, on the Divine Personhood of Jesus
Thank you very much for this very important question, Dr. Jacobsen! It gets right to the heart of a foundational difference in emphasis concerning who Jesus is between Eastern Christianity and much of Protestantism (and perhaps, to some extent, contemporary Roman Catholicism as well). It’s such a rich and deep question, I’d like to give a fairly lengthy reply—though really, I can only begin to reflect upon it here.
In my understanding, Eastern Orthodox thinking about Jesus Christ has always begun, so to speak, with understanding Him to be the pre-eternal Word of God, the Logos (John 1:1-2; cf. John 8:58), the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Who always was the Son of the Father, fully sharing the Father’s Divine essence, as the Nicene Creed (325 A. D.; the quintessential creed of historic Christianity) asserts: “And I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-Begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages, begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father, by Whom all things were made” (John 1:3). He is the Very One, as the Creed continues, “Who, for us and our salvation, came down from Heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man.”
We see the fully Divine Personhood of Jesus also revealed in Mark 2:1-12, with the healing of the paralytic lowered through the roof, when Jesus says, “That you may know that the Son of Man has power to forgive sins . . .”, knowing that His fellow Jews were thinking, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (v. 7).
In the Synoptic Gospel accounts, Jesus’s full Deity is powerfully revealed on the Mount of Transfiguration, when He allows His inner, radiant, divine glory, which He’s had all along, to be temporarily seen by Peter, James, and John. One of the two main Orthodox hymns for the Feast of the Transfiguration (August 6; these hymns have been in continuous usage since at least the 8th century) says it this way:
“On the Mount You were transfigured, O Christ God, and Your Disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it; so that when they would behold You crucified, they would understand that Your suffering was voluntary, and would proclaim to the world that You are truly the Radiance of the Father.”
St. Paul most strongly asserts the Divine Personhood of Jesus when he says that if the rulers of this age had known the wisdom of God, “they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8; also 1 Tim. 3:16 and Rom. 9:5).
And in Revelation 1:12-18, St. John describes Jesus with many terms used for God the Father in the Old Testament.
Of course, all Trinitarian Christians believe (at least in theory) in the full Deity of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, Who came down from Heaven and took upon Himself human nature for our salvation. But for many reasons, through the centuries, in Western Christianity this central focus on Jesus as being the Lord of Glory, the Creator and Sustainer (along with His Father and the Holy Spirit) of the Universe, Who is always the Lord of Glory, even while He’s in His Mother’s womb, gets muted, diminished, and obscured, so that the central focus comes to be more on Jesus as being a man, the carpenter’s son, who was a prophet from Nazareth—more than as the Word of God Who took to Himself human flesh (and every aspect of human nature), becoming man, while fully remaining the God He always was.
The very gradual over-emphasis upon Jesus’s humanity in the West, perhaps beginning with St. Francis of Assisi in the early 13th century, and getting very much amplified in the Renaissance with all its emphasis on humanism (as seen quite starkly in the humanistic/realistic turn in religious art in the West in the 15th century), gets greatly accelerated with later 19th century German higher criticism in Biblical studies (which sweeps into most of the main Protestant seminaries beginning in the 1870s), linked with the “search for the historical Jesus.” While a reaffirmation of Jesus as a real historical figure was necessary at that time, over and against the emphasis on natural revelation and Deism in the Enlightenment era in the West, the traditional central focus on His full Deity as the Second Person of the Trinity gets minimized.
The Sacrificial Theory of Atonement, originated by Anselm of Canterbury, England, in the later 11th century, which comes to carry much weight in Roman Catholicism and later in Protestantism, also reinforces the tendency to minimize the full Deity of Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity. For that theory more or less places the Son in a certain opposition to the Father, with the idea that Jesus must die on the Cross to satisfy, propitiate, appease, and mollify the wrath of God the Father. Whereas in the traditional understanding, the Three Members of the Holy Trinity always work in total synchronization; their will and activity is one, totally unified (cf. John 5:16-26; John 10:30). So for the Orthodox, it appears nonsensical to imagine Jesus appeasing the wrath of God the Father, because Jesus is God the Son, being just as much God as the Father is!
A clear sign of this growing over-emphasis on Jesus’s humanity in Western Christianity is how we find most Protestant prayers ending with the words, “In Jesus’ Name,” while Orthodox prayers almost always end, “In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” From the Orthodox perspective, saying “In Jesus’ Name” isn’t wrong, but it would seem to allow people to think of Him in any way they like—typically, mostly as the carpenter’s son from Nazareth. Whereas if we’re always praying “In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” we’re constantly being reminded that Jesus is, was, and always will be (Heb. 13:8) God Himself, the Second Person of the Trinity.
This understanding is reinforced by the frequent exclamation in Orthodox worship services, “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.” It’s also reinforced by the traditional placement of a large icon of Christ the Pantokrator (meaning “the All-Powerful One, Ruling over All”; Jesus calls Himself “Pantokrator” – “the Almighty” – in Rev. 1:8) in the center of the interior of the dome in traditional Orthodox church architecture.
With the typical Western minimizing (at the practical, popular level) of thinking of Jesus as the Second Person of the Trinity, it may be characteristic of many Protestants, as you say, Professor Jacobsen, to think of following Jesus primarily in terms of reflecting on Jesus of Nazareth as a man, and then wondering what He would do as a man. But it would seem from the Orthodox perspective that perhaps this can lead to people basing their actions on their own speculations about what they think Jesus would approve of, which could lead to an attitude, in essence, of “my will be done.”
In the Orthodox way of principally thinking of Him as God Who’s also become man, we ask Him, within the context of following His Commandments and knowing that He’s the Good God Who loves mankind, what precisely He would have us do to follow Him, through the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, while not trusting in our own speculations about who He is and what He might approve of. We’re taught to always have the attitude, in essence, of “Thy will be done.”
I might add that we are strongly guided by Jesus’ words recorded in John 14:9—“he who has seen Me has seen the Father.” This very much helps us, I think, to believe, at the deepest level of our mind and soul, that God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is, as we hear so often in our Orthodox church services, “the Good God Who loves mankind.” Or as St. John Chrysostom (later 4th century; Antioch and Constantinople) declares, “whatever you may think, God does everything for our benefit.” This deep and solid understanding can be very helpful as we seek to entrust God with every aspect and detail of our lives, no matter how small.
There have appeared in recent times quite a number of books delving into the historical background of this foundational difference in emphasis between Eastern and Western Christianity regarding who Jesus is, written by Protestant and Roman Catholic, as well as Orthodox, scholars. I would recommend Mary S. Ford, The Soul’s Longing: An Orthodox Perspective on Biblical Interpretation; Hans Boersma, Heavenly Perspective: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry; John J. O’Keefe and R. R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible; Michael Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity; and A. D. Alford, The Divine Logos: The Cosmological Significance of Orthodox Christology (Huntington Beach, CA: Fish and Vine Publishing, 2021; https://fishandvine.co/product/the-divine-logos/ ; just published by a recent graduate of St. Tikhon’s Seminary, where I teach).
So much more could be considered, I think, especially concerning how our principal view of Jesus—either as the man Jesus of Nazareth, or as God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity—affects our understanding of how to live the Christian life, how to follow Jesus. But perhaps this is enough for now. Thanks again for your question, Dr. Jacobsen.
Thanks for your insightful and well-written posting of August 1.
In that posting, you make brief reference to the position of the Orthodox Church that “marriage is between one man and one woman.” That prompts me to ask the following questions relative to whether that is a monolithic position within the Orthodox Church, or whether room is provided for some who worship in the Orthodox tradition to dissent:
#1: Do the requirements for membership in an Orthodox church require agreement with the position you note in your essay?
#2: Is there room in the Orthodox tradition for individual Orthodox churches to disagree with the position you note in your essay?
I know that you have gone the 2nd and 3rd … and 13th mile in graciously responding to the August 15 postings of the other twelve conversation partners, for which I am very appreciative. But as the month featuring your Orthodox tradition will soon draw to a close, I think that readers of this conversation would find it helpful if you are able to respond to these two questions.
With thanks for your consideration, Harold
Ford, on the Orthodox understanding of marriage
Thank you for your two questions.
In response, I would first of all observe that all the Orthodox bishops worldwide, as far as I know, are in agreement with the traditional Christian understanding that marriage can only ever be between one man and one woman. This understanding is well expressed in the various episcopal statements given here: https://orthodoxtacoma.com/bishopstatements
Hence, in my understanding, it would be very disingenuous for any priest to knowingly receive someone into the Orthodox Church who does not accept this position.
And hence also, there is no room for any individual Orthodox parish or jurisdiction to disagree with this position.
Certainly there are some Orthodox Christians in North America who are asking for further explanations as to why the Church holds this position. So I think it’s fair to say that in some Orthodox circles, there is lively discussion about this position.
For a book of some 30 essays and other documents on marriage and family life by various Orthodox scholars, clergy, and lay-specialists, I would recommend Glory and Honor: Orthodox Christian Resources on Marriage (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2016): https://svspress.com/glory-and-honor-orthodox-christian-resources-on-marriage/
Also, I shared some thoughts on the Orthodox standards of sexual purity in my reply to Dr. J. Terry Todd’s response to my original post in this Respectful Conversation (he’s the Conversation Partner representing Pentecostalism).
Yours, in Christ,