Sunday, March 14, 2021

Letters to My Children - Letter 5: Importance of Holy Tradition and The Nature of Sin

Let’s continue with the topic of Orthodox phronema. As I began to overcome my attitude of “I am supposed to,” regarding the practices of the Church, I began to understand the idea and importance of Tradition and appreciate how the Orthodox Church has struggled to protect Tradition. In the Orthodox Church all theological discussions reach back to ancient sources for guidance. It’s rare to find an innovation that comes out of a philosophical approach. We have modern commentators to help us relate Tradition to our times, but they all draw on ancient sources. 

You can have confidence in this unchanging nature of the Church grounded on unchanging Tradition. There is no deeper truth to be discovered than what has already been revealed. The fullness of our faith was revealed at the time of the Pentecost where the Apostles were empowered by the Holy Spirit. They had the full knowledge. They experienced the resurrected Christ, were taught by Him, and were empowered by the Holy Spirit. Based on this, they established the Church on earth. This is why the Tradition they established is so important. You can have confidence when you surrender to the way of the Church that it is unchanging and consistent with what the Apostles taught.

An example is found in a central theme of the Orthodox way of life, repentance. Repentance is about seeking God’s forgiveness and His help for you to change your mind, or inner orientation that makes it difficult for you to live up to the ideal of His love. It is important to understand the nature of sin and the need for repentance in the Orthodox view. I initially had a wrong idea about sin, being influenced by the common teaching in Western churches. I had thought sin was about violating a rule for which you would be punished by God if anyone found out. Like being caught in a crime. Consequently, I was resistant to admit any sinfulness. Sin was a bad word. I felt I was a “good” person. But, eventually I learned that my way of thinking was wrong and not consistent with Holy Tradition.

In the Orthodox Church sin is like missing the mark, not living up to what we are capable of. This is the root meaning of the Greek word “ἁμαρτία “, translated as sin. We are called to live a life like Christ, but Christ being fully human, in His Church He knows this is difficult to do. Our nature is filled with passions that affect our soul. We all miss the mark from the ideal of our creation.  We are therefore all sinners. We inherit this condition from Adam and Eve who ignored God’s direction and were cast out of Paradise to struggle with a mortal life. We are not responsible for their sin, but we inherit the human passions that lead us to sinful actions. The Church is a place we go for the nurturing and healing of our soul. It is like a spiritual hospital. The Church is filled with God’s love. He only wants us to grow spiritually, to become closer to Him, to become evermore like Him, so we can become worthy to be eternally united with Him. God does not want to punish us for our errors, for all the ways we miss the mark, but wants to help us improve, to develop a healthy soul capable of living His love. Sin is not a bad, word but a beautiful one. As we discover the nature of our sinfulness we grow spiritually and find we become closer to God.

I learned quickly that you grow spiritually when you confess and seek help in the Church. Initially this takes courage and an understanding that our God is a loving God who knows our weaknesses and wants to help us, not punish us. We learn that He made us all in His image so we all have the potential to become like Him. He desires that we return in love to be one with Him.

The primary way we do this is called repentance, a change of mind. This is where we uncover our weakness in the eyes of God and out of our love for Him and our desire to overcome them. There are many ways the Church can help us in this never-ending process. There is the sacrament of confession that is very powerful. This is where we confess our shortcomings in the church, facing the icon of Christ, and ask for forgiveness and healing. The priest stands at our side as our witness, and, if moved by the Holy Spirit and by the powers given him in his ordination, he transmits God’s acceptance of our confession and as he recites the prayer and makes the sign of the cross over our head as we kneel, lifting all burdens of sorrow or any guilt we may feel. Through this sacrament, in God’s loving eyes you are unconditionally forgiven. The priest may offer suggestions to help you. These suggestions are called penances. They are not a form of punishment, but aids to help you overcome whatever you confessed. The priest acts like a medical doctor giving you what will be helpful for your healing. Remember always that God is love and that you are created in His image.

This is all a part of Holy Tradition and an example of how Christ in His Church helps you once you surrender to His way. All the sacraments and how they are performed come under the category of Holy Tradition as are all the ascetic practices that help us grow spiritually. There is nothing that is in violation of Holy Scripture. Holy Tradition helps actualize what Christ teaches in Holy Scripture.

Accepting Holy Tradition without question or hesitation is part of the Orthodox mind or phronema.

Ask yourself if you think holy Tradition is important. Have you thought properly about the idea of being sinful, or do you have misconceptions like I did? Have you ever been to confession? Why is it so difficult? Can you see how we can have a mistaken view of sin?  Why is it throughout our services we constantly say, “Lord have Mercy”?  

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