Back

Archbishop Elpidophoros Address at the National Workshop on Christian Unity

His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of America

“We Saw the Star in the East, and We Came To Worship Him.”

May 4, 2022

National Workshop on Christian Unity

Orange, California

 

Your Eminence,

Your Excellencies and Graces,

Dear Reverend Clergy and Ecumenical Leaders,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

 

Christ is Risen! Χριστός Ανέστη !

It is with this traditional Paschal greeting that I would like to open my remarks, expressing my sincere gratitude to the organizers of the National Workshop on Christian Unity, and especially to the members of the National Planning Committee for their kind invitation. I also would like to recognize His Eminence Metropolitan Gerasimos of San Francisco, as well as His Grace Bishop Spyridon of Amastris and His Grace Bishop Ioannis of Phocaeas, together with the Orthodox clergy and faithful who have honored me with their presence. Last but not least, the participation of so many distinguished ecumenical friends is a real blessing for me.

It is my understanding that this is the first time an Orthodox Christian has offered the Keynote Address during this Workshop. I pray that this meeting will be the inauguration of a stronger Orthodox commitment to this most important labor of love.

This year’s prayer for Christian unity, back in January, was a very special one. Not only because our desire for unity has been remodeled by a new sense of solidarity during this pandemic, but – especially for us Orthodox – because of the current war in Ukraine.

The theme was chosen by our Sister Churches of the Middle East: “We saw the star in the East, and we came to worship him” (Matthew 2:2). These words, as you all know, are taken from the Magi who marvelled as they beheld the miracle of the Nativity of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.

From the Star of Bethlehem to the Light of Resurrection

Our shared Christian vocation is, as Saint Seraphim of Sarov once said, “to acquire the Holy Spirit.” We are called to carry forth the hopeful light of the star of Bethlehem, which shone in the darkness of that miraculous night. Jesus is, simultaneously, that light Divine,  and that which is revealed by the light. Christ, “the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:9) Jesus said: “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). But as Christ is the light, we are also called to become lights, like Saint John the Baptist who “was sent to bear witness of the Light.”(John 1:8)

We are partakers “of the inheritance of the saints in the light” (Colossians 1:12) as Saint Paul wrote and according to Saint Matthew the Evangelist, we, who are his disciples, are “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). Saint Gregory of Nyssa, a Church Father of the 4th Century, wrote in his book The Life of Moses, “For it is not only Peter and John and James who are pillars of the Church, nor was only John the Baptist a burning light, but all those who themselves support the Church and become lights through their own works are called ‘pillars’ and ‘lights’." (II, 184)

In every Paschal Service of the Orthodox Church, we become this light. From the darkness of our churches, in the middle of the night, in the silence of the nave, we hear the hymn invite us:

Δεῦτε λάβετε φῶς ἐκ τοῦ ἀνεσπέρου φωτός, καὶ δοξάσατε Χριστόν, τὸν ἀναστάντα ἐκ νεκρῶν. 

Come receive the light, from the never-setting light; and glorify Christ who has risen from the dead.

We receive the light at the Easter vigil, at deepest dawn on the third day, as we obtained it on the day of our baptism. Then, we sacramentally and spiritually took part in the death and resurrection of Christ, becoming living stones of the Church, the members of the Lord’s Body, wrapped “with light as with a garment” (Psalm 104:2) having “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 13:14).

In the words of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem: “But Jesus was baptized not that He might receive remission of sins, for He was sinless; but being sinless, He was baptized, that He might give to [us] that are baptized a divine and excellent grace.” (Catechetical Lecture 3, 11)

So, let us ask ourselves, if we are still carrying the light we received on the day of Resurrection in our hearts, the same light that guided the Magi to Christ’s Nativity, then our light must shine in the world and reveal the signs by which all people recognize the marks of our loving God.

Light is active. Even physics tell us this. I recall one particular occasion when His All-Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, along with His Holiness Pope Francis and His Beatitude Archbishop Ieronymos went to Lesvos on April 16, 2016. They went there to call the attention to the tragedy of migrants fleeing from the Middle East. Unfortunately, we see the same challenges as a consequence of the unjust war in Ukraine. In their Joint Declaration, the three Hierarchs insisted: “Our meeting today is meant to help bring courage and hope to those seeking refuge and to all those who welcome and assist them.” During the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, we typically say: “Having prayed for the unity of the faith and for the communion of the Holy Spirit, let us commit ourselves, and one another, and our whole life to Christ our God.” To commit ourselves to one another means to care for one another. This example set by the Lesvos encounter signals the prophetic voice of the Church in the world against fundamentalism and hatred, beyond war and conflict.

It acknowledges the pain and suffering of Humankind to which, as Christians, we are called to respond through prayer and action. As the many tragedies of History continue to unfold in front of our eyes in so many places of the world, but especially in Ukraine, we must draw on the strength of faith and love to fulfill the mission commanded by Christ Himself: “For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in: I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me… Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Mt 25: 35-40)

We continue to lift up our prayers for all the victims of the unjust and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation. The ecumenical response to this crisis has been particularly important. Together, we stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine, but also with those courageous Russians who speak out and protest against this immoral and senseless conflict, often at their own risk. We lament with the families who have lost loved ones, both Ukrainians defending their homeland, and young Russian soldiers sent against their will to slaughter their brothers. We fervently pray that all Christians, and all the people of Ukraine, will seek to build new bridges in order to foster fraternity and solidarity. In the spirit of Holy Pascha, aligning ourselves with the teachings of our crucified and risen Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, we appeal to those perpetrating and perpetuating this aggression to make peace with God and their neighbors.

We also call on all Christians to pray wholeheartedly for the end of this unjust war. In the meantime, we urge all the faithful of our respective congregations to help alleviate the pain and suffering of the displaced people of Ukraine by contributing, for example, to International Orthodox Christian Charities, in support of their Ukraine Relief Fund.

 

Unity and Ecumenical Synodality

Today’s meeting also consists of addressing the principle of unity and communion as the horizon of our ecumenical journey. Being united among ourselves and being united with God, this is the reality of our faith, a mystery of encounter in the emptiness of the tomb. Jesus does not speak to us from outside of humanity; He speaks from within our nature. On the way to Emmaus, Luke and Cleopas experienced a sense of true and genuine happiness: “Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)

The search for unity stretches back through the long history of Christianity. From the first hours of its existence, the Church had to face a fundamental problem: how to preserve her diversity without prejudicing  her unity. From the opposition to Gentile converts by Jewish Christians in the Book of Acts, through the Christological controversies of the first millennium, and the schism of the Eastern and Western Churches in 1054, the council, the synod, has always been the place of unity and a space of reconciliation.

The assembly in Jerusalem, in the days of the Apostles, is a clear sign of this. Unity will only come at the cost of a decision made collectively according to the consecrated expression: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us...” (Acts 15:28) Today, we are called to discover the synodal dimension of the ecumenical dialogue.

In the 20th century, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople constantly linked the process of ecumenical dialogue to the conciliar processes of the entire Orthodox Church. This is how the encyclicals produced by the Ecumenical Patriarchate between 1902 and 1920, which call to invest in what would become the ecumenical movement, should be interpreted.

The denominational alterity that Orthodoxy gradually faced at the end of the Great War determined the interdependence of the ecumenical and pan-Orthodox processes. The movements of Orthodox populations, particularly following the Russian Revolution (1917) and the “great catastrophe” (η Μεγάλη Καταστροφή) in Asia Minor (1923) have profoundly influenced its ecumenical commitment. The presence of a large Orthodox population in Western Europe and North America conditions the rapprochement of Christians. The diaspora became a meeting place, a true ecumenical space. Faithful to her ecumenical commitment, the Orthodox Church, also participated in the creation of the World Council of Churches in 1948.

On that note, we are all looking forward to the upcoming general Assembly of the World Council of Churches that is taking place in Germany at the end of summer. And while I don’t have time to list all the various bilateral dialogues in which the Orthodox Church is involved, they are a testimony to our irreversible commitment. A recent document entitled, For the Life of the World. Toward a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church, and approved by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, very accurately captured the vision of the Orthodox Church’s role in the Ecumenical movement:

Our commitment to ecumenical relations with other Christian confessions reflects this openness to all who sincerely seek the truth as the incarnate Logos, Jesus Christ, and who remain true to their conscience, even while we continue to bear witness to the fulness of the Christian faith in the Orthodox Church. (par. 72)

 

Ecumenical Synodality of Dialogue

The experience of ecumenical synodality is embedded in the very nature of dialogue itself. Taken in its most basic definition, dialogue (in the sense of διάλογος) is a simple exchange of words. Immediately, though, the term takes on a theological dimension. For how can there be an exchange of words without participation in the very mystery of the Word, the Word of God, echoing the first verses of the Gospel according to Saint John the Theologian:

In the beginning was the Logos – the Word. And the Word was present to God; indeed, the Word was God. He was in the beginning, present to God. Through Him all things came to be, and apart from Him, nothing that exists came to be. In Him was life, and his life was the light of humanity.  And the light shines on in the darkness, never overcome by the darkness. (John 1:1-5).

 

The document For the Life of the World offers a very well-articulated definition:

Dialogue, in the Orthodox understanding, is essentially and primordially a reflection of the dialogue between God and humanity: it is initiated by God and conducted through the divine Logos (dia-logos), our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Pervading all human life, dialogue takes place in all our encounters, personal, social, or political, and must always be extended to those who adhere to religions different from ours. And in all our connections and relationships, the Word of God is mystically present, ever guiding our exchange of words and ideas towards a spiritual union of hearts in him. (§54)

Therefore, dialogue is a divine mission from which humanity cannot be separated, for dialogue unites. It must thus be understood as something different from negotiation, debate, confrontation, invective, and teaching.

To paraphrase a famous quote from Claude Lévi-Strauss when speaking of civilization, dialogue “implies the coexistence of cultures offering the maximum diversity among them, and even consists of this coexistence.”  Dialogue appears as a paradoxical tension between coherent coexistence and exposure to the maximum of diversity. Isn’t the same true of synodality, this sharing of the road that becomes a true experience of communion?

This lesson applies to us in the ecumenical as well as in the interfaith field, where dialogue is not only theoretical, but also a praxis of coexistence. By this I mean that dialogue cannot only be conceived as a means, since it is also an end in itself, being a transformative participation in the Word of God. Dialogue understood only as a means of conversion loses its effectiveness. But when it becomes transformative and restorative of what we are meant to be, it takes on its full intensity. This is not to say that such a transformative dialogue is without concrete effects. Dialogue makes it possible to combat prejudice.

Plato famously wrote his texts in the form of dialogues, because the transmission of wisdom needs otherness. Dialogue decompartmentalizes and connects; it builds bridges between Churches and across religions. Dialogue becomes a crucial dimension of our ecumenical experience of synodality in our thirst for unity

 

Ecumenical Challenges and Opportunities

Along the historical journey of Orthodox and other Christians towards unity and communion, we have identified spaces where our relations are global. But especially in this blessed country, we must encourage and strengthen our dialogue of charity and truth, an ecumenism of solidarity. Moving forward, we need to acknowledge some of the challenges that our relations are facing. There are several challenges that need our attention, and it seems that this forum will be addressing most of them.

The ecumenical dialogue and the ecumenical movement are going through a crisis, I would say an identity crisis. Some talk about an “ecumenical winter.” Our religious landscape has profoundly evolved, and the quest for unity has gradually become marginalized. Our confessional geography has gained in complexity. The Christian landscape is a real mosaic, to the point that the articulation between unity and diversity is particularly in danger, and with it, our ability to reestablish the link of unity and communion that we desire. Changes and reforms in some Churches and communities have created a new sense of estrangement. Other Churches have embraced a more nationalistic and/or fundamentalist approach.

Furthermore, the legitimacy of institutions is being called into question across societies and nations. Interfaith dialogue has taken on a more important role, especially in a world viewed through the lens of the “clash of civilizations.” It feels like we live together, but in silos. I would call this crisis “the secular age” of ecumenism, to borrow Charles Taylor’s expression.

The relations between our Churches too often seem to be shaped by today’s culture wars. These, coupled with recent geopolitical developments, prevent the Orthodox Church from speaking with one voice. Very unfortunately, this is what we have seen unfolding with the crisis in Ukraine. Fr. John Meyendorff, in one of his articles, gives us an insightful view of today’s situation:

“As the culture of the contemporary world has become universally secular, it is not the medieval model of symbiosis between culture and religion which is applicable, in practical terms, to our situation, but rather the model of early Christianity, when the Church was conscious of its ‘otherness’ and its eschatological mission. Let us remember that it is this consciousness which made the Christian mission truly universal.”

During his recent Apostolic Visit to the United States, His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew had the opportunity to reflect on the future of the ecumenical dialogue at an event organized by the National Council of Churches. He said: “The 20th century was a time for growing restoration of relationships. The 21st century should become the century of the restoration of unity. The path to Christian unity has been neither peaceful nor painless. Unity is a task that remains difficult to fulfill. But the bonds of friendship among divided churches and the bridges by which we can overcome our divisions are indispensable, now more than ever.”

Instead of looking to sow disunion, the pursuit of unity will always lead to a witness of interdependence that is foundational to the mystery of communion. While our witness of interdependence may be predominantly understood as inter-personal, we must also not neglect to acknowledge and examine the need for restoring a harmonious and loving relationship with the environment. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has been a pioneering force in the protection of creation for over thirty years and in the Encyclical of the Holy and Great Council in 2016 one finds the justification for such service as it states that:

The roots of the ecological crisis are spiritual and ethical, inhering within the heart of each man. This crisis has become more acute in recent centuries on account of the various divisions provoked by human passions – such as greed, avarice, egotism and the insatiable desire for more – and by their consequences for the planet, as with climate change, which now threatens to a large extent the natural environment, our common “home.” The rupture in the relationship between man and creation is a perversion of the authentic use of God’s creation. (par.14)

The close attention of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the ecological crisis is grounded on the principle that we cannot have two ways of looking at the world, one religious and one secular. If we value each individual as being made in the image of God and if we value every particle of God’s creation, then we, by necessity, are called to love each other and to care for our world.

Caring for the environment that gives us the space to achieve communion within is a great act of love for our neighbor. With this in mind, we must remember that the way we relate to nature directly reflects the way we relate to God and our fellow human beings. 

Today’s ecological challenge is not only related to globalization, it is also (geo-)political, economic and philosophical. What about the spiritual challenge? Are we not misled by seeing ourselves as masters and possessors of nature, and thinking that nature exists only to serve us?

According to the Scriptures, we confess the world as God's creation, in which thrives life and one can sense the divine (Genesis 1:1-2:25). We therefore believe that we are an integral part of this good creation and recognize that the destinies of nature and humanity are intimately interrelated. In this regard, the biblical texts teach us that God has given us the “faithful and prudent” (Luke 12:42) stewardship of creation. To protect humanity is to protect creation, and to protect creation is to protect humanity.

That is why Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios of blessed memory, sent, on September 1st, 1989, the very first Encyclical to all the Orthodox Churches throughout the world, instituting the first day of the ecclesiastical year as the Day of Prayer for the Protection of Creation. This initiative was quickly followed by the Conference of European Churches, the World Council of Churches, and more recently in the Roman Catholic Church.

I should also mention here the recent joint statement on climate change issued by Pope Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who, in September 2021, joined for the first time in an urgent appeal for the future of the planet.

Moving from contemporary actions to examining the foremost symbol and declaration of Orthodox faith, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Orthodox Church identifies our relation to nature by confessing and glorifying the “one God, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” Therefore, we should agree that a Christian perspective on the natural environment originates in the basic principle that this world was created by God, as so beautifully stated in the papal Encyclical Laudato Si: “All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents.” (par. 14)

From this fundamental belief in the sacredness and beauty of all creation, the Orthodox Church articulates its crucial concept of cosmic transfiguration. Moreover, the emphasis of Orthodox theology on personal and cosmic transfiguration is especially apparent in its liturgical feasts. Thus, the Feast of Christ’s Transfiguration, celebrated on August 6th, highlights the sacredness of all creation, which receives and offers a foretaste of the final resurrection and restoration of all things in the age to come.

In the words of the 5th-century Macarian Homilies: “Just as the Lord’s body was glorified, when he went up [Mt. Tabor] and was transfigured into glory and into infinite light … so, too, our human nature is transformed into the power of God, being kindled into fire and light.” (Homily XV)

We have repeatedly stated that the crisis we are facing today is not primarily ecological. It is a crisis concerning the way we perceive and conceive of our world. We are treating our planet in a sacrilegious manner, precisely because we fail to see it as a gift inherited from above. Furthermore, we fail to recognize our obligation to receive, respect and pass this gift to future generations. Therefore, before we can effectively deal with the problems of our environment, we must change the way we see the world. Otherwise, we are simply treating the symptoms, not their causes. We require a new worldview, a spiritual one, if we are to fulfill what the Book of Revelation calls “a new earth.” (Rev. 21:1)

As the Ecumenical Patriarchate never ceases to repeat with other Christians and especially with His Holiness, Pope Francis, along with other religious leaders, the protection of the environment must be a common goal. While some international political leaders reject the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, faith-based institutions have the crucial task of raising awareness of the dangers related to the destruction of our natural environment. An ecological spirituality should be a spirituality of conversion. By conversion, we need to understand the transformation of the inner self as the starting point of an external change.

Scientists tirelessly emphasize the need for a radical change in our lifestyles in order to reduce the polluting activities that affect climate change. This is a reality that Christianity calls “metanoia” (μετάνοια), a reversal of the whole being. In the patristic tradition of the Desert Fathers – those seekers after the spiritual forged through centuries of ascetic experience – this metanoia encourages a clear-sighted way of regarding humanity. It is precisely this vision that was imagined by St. Isaac the Syrian, a mystic of the seventh century, who considered the goal of the spiritual life to be the acquiring "of a merciful heart that burns with love for all creation ... for all of God’s creatures."  

In order to meet the challenge of environmental care, we must also take on a spiritual challenge: that of converting lifestyles. The spirit of conversion, in Christian spirituality, calls for an in-depth mutation, for a conversion of the being that simultaneously touches and goes far beyond environmental issues. Love for one’s neighbor - present and future - replaces selfishness. The collective action of believers will apply pressure to world leaders and global decision makers. Sobriety will respond to the appetites of over-consumerism. Sharing limits inequality.

Finally, charity encompasses the political and the social sphere. Through prayer and commitment, we can be led to a new life, to the possibility of a sustainable, just and peaceful society. As His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has said:

“We cannot separate our concern for human dignity, human rights or social justice from concern for ecological protection, preservation and sustainability. These concerns are forged together, comprising an intertwining spiral that can either descend or ascend.”

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

“It is the duty of the churches which bear the sacred name of Christ not to forget or neglect any longer his new and great commandment of love. Nor should they continue to fall piteously behind the political authorities, who, truly applying the spirit of the Gospel and of the teaching of Christ, have under happy auspices already set up the so-called League of Nations in order to defend justice and cultivate charity and agreement between the nations.”

These words are taken from a one-hundred-year-old document issued on January 1920, by the Holy and Sacred Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in one of its most influential and critical Encyclicals: “Unto the Churches of Christ Everywhere”. We should also recognize dialogue as an ethos by which churches can be prepared to compare and confront their divergences honestly, examining them in light of doctrine, worship, holy Scripture, but also pastoral care. Let us, therefore, process with hope along the path toward our restored unity, especially as we pray for the unity of Christians in the communion of Churches.

In closing, you may know that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its establishment. During the course of this 100 years, our ecumenical relations have been crucial in the shaping of our ministries and in defending our common witness on our way to communion and unity.

It is in the ecumenical arena that Archbishop Iakovos marched in Selma together with Dr. Martin Luther King Junior. Here, it is sure that both men were following the Star in the East, following the Light of Christ.

It is in the ecumenical arena that was developed a common concern for the protection of the environment. It is in the ecumenical arena that our common fight for justice and equity was fostered. Here we must let our light shine before all people, that they may see our good works, and glorify our Father Who is in heaven.

As we work at building the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese for the next 100 years, our ecumenical vocation and mission are all the more essential, because the star has moved from East to West and our common worship is the horizon of our restored unity.

Thank you for your kind attention!

Christ is Risen! Χριστός Ανέστη !