Journey to the Kingdom: An Insider’s Look at the Liturgy and Beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Churchy by Father Vassilios Papavassiliou
Having never set foot into an Eastern Orthodox Church I was a bit intrigued by the title of this book. Growing up in my childhood in a Roman Catholic Church, I was aware of the similarities in both the Roman and Eastern churches. Yet, I was not aware of the rich liturgy, iconic usage and focus on the journey to the kingdom of God that we find drawn out in this book. The destination on this journey is none other than the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Trinity which finds it purpose in the Eucharist (9-10). Early on in the book, Father Vassilios explains that both Christianity and the Divine Liturgy are separate from the natural world in that they require a perspective from the inside to fully grasp their meaning.
What was most enjoyable about this book on the Orthodox faith was the clear presentation of certain concepts or practices in the church. For instance, on p. 22 Father Vassilios explains the reason why members kiss the icons as they enter the church and also a theology of the icons by writings, “A traditional Orthodox Church is normally full of icons, frescoes, or mosaics. The icons depict Christ, His mother, and His saints. The theology of the icon is rooted in the doctrine of the Incarnation: since God became a man-flesh and blood like you and me-and was seen by human eyes, He can be depicted” (22). I had no idea that this was the driving force behind the presentation of icons, but now I can understand how the icons are used in the church. At a different point in the text, Fr. Vassilios writes about candidates for baptism by saying, “It may seem strange to people nowadays that baptism begins with the renunciation of Satan. But becoming a Christian means entering into a spiritual war” (124). The more I think about this point the more I see the truth in renouncing the powers of darkness and Satan at baptism. There is practical value here also, because if we continually remember our baptismal vows, than temptations will not besiege us without our knowledge.
The chapters on preparing for holy communion and the specific elements of Apostle’s creed were very good also. Fr. Vassilios takes great pains to illuminate the Trinitarian character of Orthodox theology and practice, from the prayers to the Eucharist and every part in between. He writes, “The Church is a paradigm of the Trinity: different persons, but one body. Thus only when there is love and unity between us can we make a true confession of faith in God the Trinity” (99). The kind of mutual self-giving love relationship of the Trinity is part and parcel of how the people of God should live, not disconnected from one another as separate individuals but as one communing body. I thought his teaching on each person of the Trinity was both very biblical and practical, which provides commonality for my faith as a Protestant believer.
There were a few criticisms I had of the book, understanding the differences I have being a Protestant Christian. One, his discussion of prayers for the dead in the Appendix is based upon two reasons: “We love them (the dead) and Christ has destroyed the power of death” (178). Now I understand in Orthodox thought that in the Liturgy the whole host of the Church, both living and departed are “remembered” by God, but I don’t find Fr. Vassilios providing much biblical support other than quoting from Romans 8 , which does not prove his point. I hope that Fr. Vassilios would have provided a better reason why the church offers prayers for the dead. Secondly, I follow the author’s train of thought when he says Communion is the result of Christian unity and only that only those baptized in the Orthodox church can partake of Communion. Yet, I would argue that Communion is much more than a renewal of our baptismal vows, but a remembrance of Christ’s atoning work on the cross and a nourishing meal for the strength of believer’s faith and unity. If we exclude those from the Supper who have already experienced the grace of God in Christ, we are saying in effect that they are not full participants in the kingdom.
I think this book provides a great theological and practical understanding of the Eastern Orthodox Church. I hope pastors, teachers, and students will greatly benefit from the work of Fr. Vassilios.
Much thanks to Paraclete Press for the review copy of this book in exchange for review.
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