Friday, February 4, 2011

Saved in Community

One of the truly rich things about Orthodoxy is the idea of community.  By this, I do not mean coffee hour, or potlucks, or Bingo night, or adult social night.  I mean there is a firm belief among the Orthodox that we are not saved in isolation, but rather we are saved in community.

This sense is also present in other communions as well, particularly those who still maintain the historic Western Mass, which notably says in the Preface "....with angels, and archangels, and all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify your glorious Name, evermore praising You and saying, Holy, Holy, Holy......" (the Roman Mass is quite a bit longer than this, but has essentially the same idea at work).  I humbly suggest, however, even in those communions it is still not present to the degree it is in Orthodoxy.  We view salvation not as an intellectual construct or a declaration of our worthiness to be received into heaven, but rather as union with Christ.  We view the Church not just as a gathering of believers, or those who maintain a certain intellectual assent to core doctrines, but as those who are in union with Christ through His Body, the Church.  In this sense, when we say "the Church is Christ's Body," we are not saying it is His Body in a merely symbolic or intellectual sense, but in a very real, physical, tangible sense.  Again, this is not something entirely lost on the non-Orthodox -- I don't mean to say it is.  But in my experience it is uniquely vivid and perceptible in the Orthodox Christian Church.  The iconography, the way the Liturgy is done -- never in isolation, always with at least the smallest of congregation present, and the very real and, in Orthodoxy, visible connection with the departed Saints all demonstrate this view that we are saved not by ourselves, but in community with the Church writ large.  Looking at an iconostasis and the multitude of iconography in the Church, one is struck by how large this cloud of witnesses really is.

It is also a great comfort.  The knowledge that I am not alone, that the Church is there, and will strengthen me where I am weak, that the Saints are not separated by some veil or firmament way up in heaven, but are actually with us, pray for us and strengthen us means I do not have to rely on myself.  It is for this reason, in part, that the too-often repeated charge of Pelagianism against the Orthodox falls flat.  For what is typically meant by "Pelagian" is "you believe you can save yourself."  Rather, I believe the Church can save me, which is no less than to say I believe Christ can save me, for the Church is His Body.  The fact that I am a small, insignificant part of that is therefore no credit to me.  It is a credit to Christ.  Viewed in this sense, I can no more save myself than my thumb can cause the rest of me to live.