WHAT DETERMINES whether someone is a Christian? In our society there are a number of groups which claim the name although they do not believe that Christ is the Son of God or One of the Holy Trinity. Like the Jehovah’s Witnesses they may believe that He is a son of God or a God, who is Michael the Archangel incarnate, but does this mean they are Christians? Mormons believe that Christ is the son of God the Father and His wife, the heavenly Mother, but does this mean they are Christians? Many Unitarians call Jesus “the dearly beloved son of God” because they believe He was a man led by the Spirit of God more constantly and entirely than anyone else, but does that mean they are Christians? Others, like Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson espoused the moral teachings of Jesus as the greatest human philosophy while denying His divinity and miracles, but does that mean they were Christians?
There is another group which believes that Jesus was conceived by the Spirit of God and born of the Virgin Mary, that He is the Messiah who ascended into heaven and will come again as Judge. Are they Christians? They call themselves Muslims.
The historic Churches of East and West uphold the view of Jesus as described in systematic terms in the Nicene Creed which we recite at every Divine Liturgy. Its vision is in turn based on passages from the Scriptures such as the selections from the Epistle to the Hebrews read at the Divine Liturgy on the Sundays of the Great Fast. These selections focus on different aspects of the Church’s understanding of who Christ is for us. Read to us during this season they remind us of the wondrous greatness of the life we receive through Him.
Image of the Father
Within the first two chapters of this epistle seven Old Testament texts are cited as proof that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. He is, we are told, God’s “Son whom He has appointed heir of all things” (Heb 1:2). Christ is “the brightness of [the Father’s] glory and the express image of His person and upholding all things by the power of His word” (Heb 1:3). Christ is far superior to the angels because He is begotten of the Father (see Hebrews 1:5), the One who “in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth” (Heb 1:10) and who is seated at the Father’s right (Heb 1:13).
The high view of Jesus expressed here echoes the words of St Paul to the Colossians that the incarnate Lord Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, for by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist” (Col 1:15-17).
We find the same depiction of Christ in the first chapter of St John’s Gospel. There He is the eternal Word who was “with God” and who “was God” (Jn 1:1) “All things were made through Him,” the Gospel continues, “and without Him nothing was made and without Him nothing was made” (v. 3). “The only-begotten Son, the One Who Is in the bosom of the Father” (v. 18) is “the Word [who] became flesh and dwelt among us” (v. 14).
The Scriptures are not presenting doctrine in the abstract. The authors do not seek in presenting this picture of Christ, simply to say what they believe He is. Knowing Christ must lead us to action. Christ is not just another teacher, not even just another prophet, they argue, so do something: believe in Him wholeheartedly. This is not just another preacher, not even a holy man, or a living saint – this is the Son of God. Put everything else on a back burner and listen to Him!
The climax of this vision of Christ as the eternal Word of God is the conviction that this Word has come for us, to remake our nature. God is not aloof, removed from us, but present among us and doing the ultimate work of God for us. “Pay even more attention… Don’t neglect so great a salvation” (Heb 2:1, 3), we are reminded, but grab hold of it by uniting yourselves to Christ.
Approaching the Fast
During the Fast, as we know, catechumens are readied for baptism in a more intense way. “Pay even more attention,” they are told, “you are at the entrance to the baptistery where you will receive eternal life. Don’t neglect so great a salvation.” The push is also on for penitents to be reconciled before Pascha and these words apply to them too: “Here’s the chance to wipe the slate clean and start over – Don’t neglect so great a salvation.”
As for the rest of us, we were told after our baptism, “You are baptized, you are illumined, you are anointed with chrism. You are sanctified, you are washed in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” You have become the temple of God – the Spirit of God dwells within you. And so the Church also applies these words to all of us the faithful: “Don’t neglect so great a salvation” by letting the Fast slip away without drawing closer to your Savior during this season.
Discussing our state after baptism Nicholas Cabasilas wrote, “Once we have received our new existence through baptismal washing, it is by this Bread that we live and by the Chrism that we are moved…The Bread of Life Himself changes the one who feeds on Him, transforming and assimilating him into Himself.” (The Life in Christ 1.6; 4.8). You have the possibility to be transformed in Christ – “Don’t neglect so great a salvation.”
In most parishes the Great Fast is a time when people have more frequent opportunities to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. The Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is generally served on Wednesdays and Fridays during the Fast as well as some other days. In it we are given the Eucharist in the midst of our fasting as a pointer towards the “inheritance of the heavenly kingdom” that is ours through the death and resurrection of Christ.
Uniting with Christ in His Eucharistic Body and His Body, the Church, deepens our life in Christ and calls us even further in our relationship with Him. Christians ought always to pray and fast and read the Scriptures, but those who receive the Eucharist with increased frequency during the Fast should expect to do so more so in response. Don’t neglect the chance to root yourself more deeply in Christ who makes Himself so accessible for your sake.
Even many who are not comfortable with prayer or fasting find that they come closer to the image of God within themselves through almsgiving. As we open ourselves to others, sharing our material gifts or our inner selves with them, we are encountering the One who identifies Himself with the least of His brethren. Don’t neglect the great salvation of serving Christ in others.
Increasing these or any other aspects of our Christian life demands that we make time in our schedules to do so. Don’t neglect to cut down on your hours before the TV or other entertainment activities – not as a deprivation – but to make room for the One whose great work for our salvation gives meaning to all that we do in response.