Orthodox Survival Course
St. Irene Orthodox Church
Rochester Hills, Michigan
Class 1 – A.D. 33 – A.D 313, The Early Church, The Era of the Catacombs
Evening worship do we offer Thee, the Unwaning Light, Who in the end of the ages, through the flesh as in a mirror, hast shined upon the world; and hast descended even unto Hades, and dispelled the darkness there, and hast shown the light of the Resurrection unto the nations. O Giver of light, Lord, glory be to Thee.
The Octoechos, Plagal of the First Tone,
Great Vespers of Saturday (the vigil of the Resurrection)
Preface – Where to begin?
To summarize what we discussed last week: Our “Orthodox Survival Course” will be primarily a study of an Orthodox understanding of history, how God has acted upon man in history, and especially the history of the Church as being, after God, the most important agent in human history.
But when did the Church begin? We could have begun our course before the beginning of the world, or with the beginning of the world, or with Adam and Eve in Paradise, or the formation of the Old Israel. We have chosen to begun with the New Testament Church for the sake of keeping our course a manageable size. But let us say a few words in preface, concerning what came before the New Testament Church.
A. When did the Church begin?
The Synaxarion for Pentecost in the English language Horologion from Holy Transfiguration Monastery, on p. 633, contains an important paragraph on the nature and origin of the Church. In a sense, the Church was created before the visible universe, because the angels have always been part of the Church. The Church existed in Paradise, her members being Adam and Eve. She always existed among the remnant who believed in the true God, and most clearly in the Israel of the Old Covenant, a “priestly people” set apart by God through the Law given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. So we can speak of the Angelic Church, the Paradisical Church, the Church of the Patriarchs, and the Church of Old Israel, as well as the Church of Jesus Christ, of the New Testament. The reality is one and the same, but it reaches its fulfilment in Christ.
B. History as preparation for the Messiah: The entire Old Testament is a record of history as a preparation for the coming of the Savior. This is true in the historical process itself, in the words of the Prophets, and in the types of the New Testament figures and events which occur throughout the Old Testament. Even before the history of the visible creation, there are the endless aeons of angelic “time.” These are followed by the thousands of years of human history, from Creation until the Incarnation.
C. The Kingdom of Satan, the Kingdom of God: After the Fall of our First Parents, all of the visible creation comes under the dominion of Satan and his fallen angels. This world becomes their “territory,” their “kingdom.” History, before Christ, is the progress of the ages towards their consummation, which will be the Coming of the Kingdom, the breaking in of God’s Kingdom into the world, and the destruction of the devil, death, and hell.
I. The Kingdom of God
The first words we hear the Lord Jesus Christ say in the Gospels as He begins His ministry after His Baptism and Temptation in the desert are, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand (Matthew 4:17). “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel (Mark 1:15).” The Lord has come to end the dominion of Satan and to inaugurate the Kingdom of God. Before, the Old Testament Church was on the defensive, doing a “holding action” on the territory of Satan as they awaited their deliverance. Now the Deliverer has come, and, especially after the Resurrection of Christ, His Ascension, and the Giving of the Holy Spirit, the Church goes on the offensive: She is to go forth and “…make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28: 19).”
II. The End of the Ages
Why, in the hymn we read at the beginning of the class, does St. John of Damascus write that the Lord shone upon the world “…at the end of the ages”? This world is obviously still here; in what sense did Christ come “at the end of the ages?” What this means is that mere time, time that marks the degeneration and corruption of creation, time “winding down” to the end, the old time of corruption and death, is over. The time we live in now, the time inaugurated by the Lord’s Resurrection, is not “mere time” but time redeemed by the Lord. In a sense, the New Testament Church has always lived after the end of the world. We are simply waiting for the Lord to return. In a sense, then, our Orthodox understanding of the entire history of the Christian era is an understanding that the Lord has already taken care of “history,” and we are living betwixt and between time and eternity. We live in time, but already, in virtue of our Baptism, we are living outside of time; we are not determined by time. This gives us great spiritual security and freedom.
The early Church had an intense awareness of this, and therefore we can characterize her life as intensely eschatological, bound up with the acute sense of being at the very edge of eternity. Being eschatological, the Early Church set the “tone” for the entire life of the Orthodox Church until now, which is characterized by four related traits: The life of the Church is eschatological, other-worldly, martyric, and ascetical.
The early Christians expected the Lord to return any minute. The fact that He did not return in their lifetimes, or the lives between them and us, does not dim the reality that He could return at any minute.
Thus the entire life of the Church is characterized by an other-worldly attitude. Our life is not “here” but “there.” St. Paul says that our life is “hid with Christ in God.” Since it’s not “here” but “there,” the Christian is therefore not afraid to be a martyr, to die for his faith. And while he is waiting to die, either by martyrdom or otherwise, or to “meet the Lord in the air” at the Second Coming, he lives an ascetic life, denying the flesh in order to keep vigil for the Second Coming, to live according to the laws of the Heavenly Kingdom which is not of this world, and to be prepared for martyrdom.
The Catacomb Church and Us
Though we lament the destruction of Christian, especially, Orthodox, nations and cultures, we must realize that a. This is allowed by God, and He places us in this position for our salvation. b. That the Church was born in the catacombs and that She knows how to survive in the catacombs. c. Ultimately, Orthodoxy is not about anything in this world, which is passing away, but about the Kingdom which has come, comes now among us, and will come.
All of our study of history must have this as its background and foundation. What we see as historical processes, no matter how vast or grand, are really just the tiny tips of the unseen mountains of spiritual processes, of the spiritual warfare that will end only with the Second Coming.
He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. – Revelation 22:20
You an listen to an audio recording of this class at