The Sweet Mystery of the Parish



            Every aspect of our faith, each thing in it is concrete and tangible. This is true also of the mystery of the Church. The Church is not something theoretical and unclear, rather it is concrete and tangible. The infinite and unseen God manifests Himself and appears in that which is concrete and tangible. He did not ask that we love mankind, an abstract and unapproachable idea, but that we love our neighbor, a specific person, a definite individual that we can see before us. The Church is not some ethereal idea, lost in history and eternity, rather it is a specific congregation or synaxis of persons known to one another. They come together to worship God, as Christians have always done, in a specific temple, surrounded by the holy icons. Their worship is led by their bishop, as a descendent of the apostles, or by his designated representative, the presbyter.

            The sweet mystery of the parish is the specific, concrete local church. And this specific local church or parish is the whole fullness of the Catholic Church. In our Orthodox Christian vocabulary, the Catholic Church is the whole fullness of  the Body of Christ and catholicity is the fullness of God's gift of grace. Thus, in that specific, small, local church (parish), the entire treasure of the grace of God exists, with nothing missing. The parish is not simply a part or piece of the Church, completed by connection with other parishes, but the fullness of the Church itself. Any other Orthodox parish, whether near or far away, is not simply another part, a "completion" of the first parish, rather it is an identical replication of this fullness in space and in time.

            In each small parish, a person is catechized and learns the faith of Christ. In it, he is baptized, communes the Body and Blood of Christ, he confesses the faith and is sanctified. There he finds the triumphant Church in the sacred icons, the holy relics and in the commemoration of the saints. What is missing then, from the grace and blessing found in this small parish? Nothing is missing, for the parish is the catholic Church in the same way that a specific person is a human being. In each individual person, the totality of the human nature is to be found, and not just a part of it. Any other person is equally a human being, with nothing of the human nature missing. They are both composed of the same nature, and they together do not make the human nature bigger or more complete. Whether there is one human being or a thousand, each one is the complete human nature. The same pertains to the mystery of the Church. Each parish is the Church of Christ, complete and in all its fullness.

            In the parish is to be found the fulfillment of the very purpose of our creation - for us to live participating with equal honor in the life of the Holy Trinity. The life of the Holy Trinity is the life of love. The same is also the life of the parish. There is no life or love among persons who do not know one another. In the parish all are known and loved by one another according to the measure of their personal sanctification. The parish is the workplace of love and its activity is not restricted to worship alone, but extends to all aspects of life. All rejoice with him who rejoices and all grieve with him who is grieved. Each one helps the other spiritually and materially. Each one forgives and tolerates the other and all try to make sure that no bitterness and misunderstandings grow up among them. Every member of the parish struggles together for the faith, studies the holy father is order to insure that they hold and profess that faith which the Church has always held.

            In the first century of Christianity, the great majority of Christians were conscientious and the boundaries between parishes were obscure. In our days, however, one can no longer be indifferent in the choice of which parish one will worship in. There are many parishes which are Christian and Orthodox in name only, and even where Orthodoxy is professed , the people are often strangers among themselves, hardly even speaking to one another. In such instances, our consciousness of the mystery of the parish has become diminished or vanished altogether. The principal reason is the lessening of the bond of love among the people and the gradual loss of an understanding and consciousness formed by the Church. Under such circumstances, the meaning of the Church becomes a theoretical abstraction. The concrete, tangible meaning of the Church as a parish is not found.

            Orthodoxy cannot actually be lived without the parish. The athlete cannot compete outside the stadium, and if he were to compete outside, he could not receive a crown or award. The parish is the stadium of Orthodox life and even in monasticism, the monastery is the parish. The Christian life is always centered around the community where the Christian strives to love his neighbours as distinct, concrete personalities, with all their virtues and their faults. to accomplish this, he must confess the same faith in concord with them, both forgiving them and seeking forgiveness from them.

            Most of the parishes today center on the priest and the parish council. The parishioners who circulate around them are often disconnected and nameless. The few who are truly pious are lost in the indifferent crowd. How can the Christian life be attained under such circumstances? Where is the communion of love and the brotherhood of the soul? Is this not the reason why so many Orthodox people are lured into sectarian and non-Christian organizations with such sorrowful consequences?

            The person is found in the parish from the time of his birth. Even as an unbaptized baby, he absorbs the first impressions from the chanting, the candles and the icons. His childhood experience is blended with the life of the Church. There are his parents, his brothers and sisters, children of his own age. Rich and poor, children and seniors, educated and uneducated, strong and weak, clean and unclean, stand and pray side by side, equally bound before the impartial, eternal truth.

            The parish is the family in Christ, and it is here that each person grasps and understands that he is related to another person precisely because in the veins of each, the blood of the risen Christ circulates. In the same way, each household is a church in miniature, and this family unit, this small church, is a cell in the body of the parish.

            Between any truly Orthodox parishes, there are bonds of love and common identity. Each one is fully the Church of Christ and while the persons are different, the essence is the same.

            "In this they will know that you are my disciples: that you have love for one another" (Jn. 13:25). Love among the members of the parish, love among the parishes: this is the only way in which the life in Christ has flesh and bones. It is not possible to live in Christ as only a visitor or casual attender in the Church. We must truly be members of the body of Christ.



From the journal EPIGNOSIS, Issue 68 - Winter 1998-1999

Translated from the Greek by John Kalomiros