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The Essence of Orthodox Mission

by Fr. Michael Oleksa


What is it that we Orthodox Christians—as the faith community of the first millennium, upholding the beliefs, doctrines, traditions, liturgy, spirituality, piety, and morality of the thousand years of the predenominational Church—have to offer America, and for that matter, the inhabited Earth, in the 21st century? What can we claim is not only our own unique identity, but our contribution to the society in which we live?

The paradigm our Lord provided us for mission is most clearly stated in the parable of the Sower and the Seed. Some seed produces a harvest, but the harvests vary: thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold, depending, it seems, on climatic and soil conditions. If the ground is not prepared, if there are weeds, rocks, or too many birds, there's not much chance for the seeds to germinate. We need to prepare the ground—or look to areas where others have already cleared it.

I would submit that the other Christian traditions in this country have plowed the field. We are not, in America, entering an illiterate or pagan culture, where the Church needs to educate, to introduce the written or published word, nor even philosophy or theology. All these arrived long before Orthodoxy. Most citizens also identify themselves as Christian. None of the original disciples enjoyed such advantages. The soil is ready, receptive, and fertile, and while there are still rocks and weeds, the potential for a great harvest lies before us.

The seed is the same seed the Church has always scattered, nurtured, and brought to maturity: the fullness of the Gospel of Christ as the Church has always believed, preached, proclaimed, and celebrated it. What is different from all previous eras is the sowers themselves.

The developed or First World will not receive the message with joy from alien preachers who condemn, defame, denounce, and demonize its culture. There is certainly much in modern society that tempts us to react negatively to its sins, faults, defects, and distortions, but no Orthodox mission has ever succeeded by using this strategy.

There were aspects of Unangan Aleut, Alutiiq, Tlingit, Athabaskan Indian, and Yup'ik Eskimo cultures that were incongruent with and even abhorrent to the early Alaskan missionaries as well. But St. Innocent Veniaminov, in his instructions to his clergy, advised them to refrain from any direct attack on these customs, beliefs, or behaviors. He considered this approach harmful and counterproductive, for even in the unlikely event this method should convert anyone, it will have done serious harm to their self-identity, their souls. Preaching that all that has preceded Christianity is evil, demonic, and worthy of eternal damnation necessarily consigns all the ancestors to hell. How can any people receive such "good news" or accept it "with joy"?

Our task is to love America. You cannot save what you do not love. And to love all requires total humility. Christ comes in love to all, because despite His moral, ethical, liturgical, theological, spiritual, and ascetical perfection, He condemns none except those whose formal religious status or conceit tempts them to disdain others. Christ alone has every reason and right to critique, judge, and condemn us all, for He, as Perfect Man, has succeeded where we have all failed. His holiness, His sanctity, His perfection are manifest in meekness, self-emptying, in humility.

We have found the True Faith. We affirm and celebrate this most emphatically every Holy Week and Pascha. There we enter into an eternal, otherworldly joy, the realization here on earth of the love, joy, and peace, the brightness and glory, the celestial beauty of the Kingdom. We are overwhelmed by this gift, coming unexpectedly but drenching us in an experience in which we know not whether we are in heaven or still on earth. This is what we have to offer America, the fullness of Paschal joy.

But America cannot hear our message as long as we present it in alien and unintelligible languages, enshroud it in ethnic customs or politics, or withdraw from modern society in disdain or disgust. Our immigrant parishes will adapt and acculturate. Eventually, we expect our administrative and canonical situation to normalize. But none of these necessary developments will guarantee success unless we embrace this land and its people, its culture, its life, with love. And that love, if it is to be truly Christian and truly Orthodox, must arise from the context of a deep humility, presenting Christ not unto judgment or condemnation, but unto the healing of the soul and body of America—unto its sanctification, transfiguration, and eternal salvation—and our own.