It's All About Christ
During one of the adult religious education classes I teach each Sunday, a woman became quite upset with me. Another person in the class had brought up Pope Francis and because it was known in my parish that I had gone to the Vatican and met the Pope in a private audience, we digressed briefly into discussing that visit. We talked about the various things we thought the Pope was doing that we all agreed were good for the Catholic Church and Christianity in general. She became quite incensed and declared loudly that she thought this was a class about Orthodox Christianity (which it was and is) and that we should be learning how to be good Orthodox Christians. I replied to her that I did not care in the least if she or anyone else in this class (or in the Church in general) was a good Orthodox Christian. This surprised her and others. We had this class in the chapel and I pointed to the icon of Christ on the Iconostasis that was over my left shoulder and told her that I what I did care about was that she, myself and everyone else in the Church was becoming more and more Christ-like.
This incident made me recall a story Dr. Tony Vrame, the Director of Religious Education of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, told during a seminar he led at our Church. I emailed him to make sure I recounted it correctly and to my delight he responded with the following:
Dr. Tony Vrame likes to ask audiences, "What makes them Orthodox?" Once he asked his seminary class at Holy Cross to write a short paper in which the student had to name 5 "things" that make them Orthodox. Hands shot up, what do you mean? He responded, "All of you are Orthodox, right?" The students said, "Yes." So, Dr. Vrame asked, "So, what is it that makes you Orthodox? Write it down, tell me what they are, in two pages." For a few days, students would come to his office, asking, "Is this what you want?" Dr. Vrame's response was, "Does this make you Orthodox?" Student would say, "Yes," and Dr. Vrame would respond, "Then go with it."
When the paper was due, Dr. Vrame said, "It's only fair that I give you my list. But since I'm the teacher, I'm not going to give you five 'things' but seven. Number one. What makes us Orthodox is that we believe in Jesus Christ; we are Christians." The students all groaned, "Oh no." Dr. Vrame responded, "Yes. Most of you named things like Liturgies, Fasting, Icons, and Sacraments. All of that is certainly part of being Orthodox. But all of you neglected that we are first and foremost followers of Jesus Christ. Our Orthodox Christianity tells us who Jesus Christ is, through the Councils and all the rest. But it's all about Christ."
It’s all about Christ. Dr. Vrame’s words capture the central message of our faith succinctly. It is not primarily about the what, the how, the where, or the when - it should first always be about the Who (Christ) - period. It is sad how this seems to be all too easily forgotten sometimes. What are sadder to me are the potential implications of this.
The first potential implication of forgetting it’s all about Christ is what I will call deceptive selfsatisfaction that stunts our spiritual growth and actually creates a barrier between us and Christ. It is like having a sickness that we are unaware of because we feel fine. Christ Himself illustrates this in His parable The Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14). Luke 18:11 reads:
“The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. 1 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess”
The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself. He was self-consumed. There was no room for God in his heart due to the self-satisfaction gained through observing the ordinances that were both part of his religious practices and also were the tradition of his ethnicity. Unfortunately, many among us – clergy and laity – put too much emphasis on either the ethnic heritage that comes with our particular brand of Orthodoxy, or Orthodoxy itself as if it is a goal to be achieved or a set of requirements to be fulfilled, as opposed to a means that lead us into an ever deepening union with Christ.
Concerning union with Christ, the second potential implication of forgetting or notunderstanding it’s all about Christ is that we are also missing the very point of Orthodoxy which is theosis.
“The fundamental vocation and goal of each and every person is to share in the life of God. We have been created by God to live in fellowship with Him. The descent of God in the Person of Jesus Christ has made possible the human ascent to the Father through the work of the Holy Spirit. Orthodoxy believes that each Christian is involved in a movement toward God which is known as theosis or deification.”
Theosis, or deification, is what happens to us through living the Christian life. It is the very point of the sacramental lie. Unfortunately, we do not always participate in this life of the Church with the right mindset, or perhaps better said, the right “heart-set.” We often do not do a good job of letting people know about Who sacramental reality leads us to, perhaps even maybe emphasizing too much where it leads you to (e.g., Heaven) of what it leads to (e.g., being a “good Orthodox Christian”).
Being “a good Orthodox Christian” means we are actually participating in the sacramental life as we should, but not with the conscious thought, intent, or goal being as such. Our intent should be our desire to be in relationship and communion with Christ. This is the point I was making to the adults in my class. In a sense, our faith is a means to an end. The means of Orthodoxy is the sacramental life and end is Christ. We mistakenly sometimes act as if the means and the end are the same thing. Christ actually points to this incorrect orientation or mindset a few times. In the Parable of the Rich Young Man2 Christ essentially points out that the young man has “followed all of the rules” but his heart is not right yet. In a dialogue with the Jews, Christ tells them that they search the Scriptures to find eternal life but missed finding Him.
It’s all about Christ should not be confused with an “it’s between me and Jesus” mentality. Our faith is personal and communal, not individualistic. The Cross points vertically as a reminder that we are to love God, and horizontally, as a reminder that we are to love each other. Christ commanded this and we cannot have, nor do, one without the other. We are responsible for loving God so that we become more Christ-like, so people experience Christ through us, and we thus help each other deepen our union with Christ. Father Andrew Stephen Damick describes it as such:
“…we have to get over this clericalist idea that we have a few “religious professionals” whose job it is to serve, to pastor, to educate, and to heal. Clericalism is the natural outgrowth of Pietism—if Christian life is about my private path to God, then I don’t have a duty to be a “professional” in the Church. I just look to be served by the handful of necessary “professionals” we keep around to get the job done. But this is wrong…we all have different roles…everyone is an active servant in the Church. Everyone is here to help equip and perfect one another.”i
A third, and to me the most tragic implication of forgetting or not understanding it’s all about Christ, is simply missing out on the deep peace and joy that comes from believing in and experiencing the reality of a personal God in Christ. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware reminds us that “faith is not the supposition that something might be true, but the assurance that someone is there.”i Do we understand enough about our faith and live it as such as to help us and others feel and experience that Christ “is there?” This is what people want most whether they articulate it or not. They want to know that a loving God exists and is there. So many people try so many different denominations, or religions, or philosophies. They want to make sense of their lives. They want peace and joy. They want happiness. Christ gives this to us if we seek Him earnestly and we in turn need to bring Christ to others. This is one of the reasons in Orthodoxy we revere the Theotokos like we do.
“Mary did what we are all to do as Christians – bring Christ into the world. Mary did it physically… As Christians, bringing Christ into the world is something we are to do also. We are to do it spiritually via our transformation as we grow in Christ and reflect more and more of His nature in what we do and say and how we treat others.iv
Lastly, one of the beauties of our Christian faith is the promise of what is the come, which is eternal life in and with Christ, and the ability to experience a foretaste of that eventuality now. Christ offers us an abundant life here and the peace that comes with it now. But we can miss out on the abundant life that Christ promises (John 10:10) if we are not in union with Him. Christ also says, “My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you” (John 14:27). We also miss out on the peace that transcends circumstance. St. Paul, who suffered for Christ, captured this peace beautifully when he wrote:
“…for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13).
We too can do all things through the Lord and it starts first with the fundamental understanding that it’s all about Christ.
 An organization I am a part of called the Orientale Lumen Foundation - a group of Orthodox Christians, Eastern Catholic Christians, and Latin Catholic Christians led by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware - went on a pilgrimage in October of 2014 and had a private audience with Pope Francis in the Vatican, and one with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in the Patriarchate.
 Matthew 19:16-26, Mark 10:17-23, Luke 18:18-30
 John 5:39
 Rev. Thomas Fitzgerald , Spirituality, http://www.goarch.org/ourfaith/ourfaith7114
 Father Andrew Stephen Damick, “Christianity is Not About Your Spiritual Life” Road to Emmaus Series, Ancient Faith Radio Blogs, January 12, 2016 iii Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, SVS Press, 1999, p. 16. iv Matthew Gallatin, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells, Conciliar Press, 2002, p. 161.