The Orthodox Church understands the human person as having been created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26). To be made in God’s image is to be made for free and conscious communion and union with God in Jesus Christ, inasmuch as we are formed in, through, and for him (Colossians 1:16). St. Basil the Great tells us that, of all animals, the human being was created upright so that it might look up to and see God, worshipping him and acknowledging him as his source and origin. Instead of “being dragged down to earth . . . his head is lifted high toward things above, that he may look up to what is akin to him.” And as we are made to be in communion with God in Jesus Christ, Irenaeus of Lyons writes that the human being was made in “image of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4). This service through prayer and action is derived from loving praise and reverent gratitude for life and for all the gifts that God imparts through his Son and in his Spirit. Our service to God is fundamentally doxological in nature and essentially Eucharistic in character.
To say we are made to serve God is to say we are made for loving communion: communion with the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; and through communion with God as Trinity, human beings are also called into loving communion with their neighbors and the whole cosmos. Our actions are to flow from love of God and loving union with him in and through Christ, in whom we meet and treat our brother and sister as our very life. This communion with Christ in the face of our neighbor is what lies behind the first and great commandment of the Law to love God with one’s whole heart and one’s neighbor as oneself (Matthew 22:37–39).
Being made in the image and likeness of God, each person is unique and infinitely precious, and each is a special object of God’s love. As Christ taught, “even the hairs of [y]our head are all numbered” (Luke 12:7). The immensity and particularity of God’s love for each of us, and for all of creation, surpasses human understanding. It is imparted to us with an absolute generosity, by a God mindful not of our sins but of his own will that none should perish (2 Peter 3:9), but rather that all should be saved and come to know the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). Hence it is a love that seeks to form each of us into ever greater conformity with God’s own goodness, and that therefore tirelessly enjoins us to seek to cultivate in ourselves—in thought, word, and deed—a love for our neighbor, and for all our fellow creatures, as unstinting as God’s own (Matthew 5:43–48). It calls us to an ever greater communion with one another, with all those whose lives we touch, with the fullness of creation, and thus with him who is the creator of all. The ultimate destiny, moreover, to which we are summoned, is nothing less than our theosis: our deification and transformation by the Holy Spirit into members of the body of Christ, joined in the Son to the Father, whereby we become true partakers of the divine nature. In the words of St. Athanasius: “The Son of God became human so that we might become divine.” But, then, this must be a corporate destiny, as it is only through our participation in the community of Christ’s body that any of us, as a unique object of divine love, can enter into full union with God. Our spiritual lives, therefore, cannot fail also to be social lives. Our piety cannot fail also to be an ethos.
The world we inhabit is a fallen order, broken and darkened, enslaved to death and sin, tormented by violence and injustice. Such is not the condition God wishes for his creation; it is the consequence of an ancient estrangement of our world from its maker. As such, it is a reality that can in no way dictate or determine the limits of our moral responsibilities to our fellow creatures. We are called to serve a Kingdom not of this world (John 18:36), in service to a peace that this world cannot give (John 14:27). We are called, therefore, not to accommodate ourselves to the practical exigencies of the world as we find it, but instead ever and again to strive against evil, however invincible it may at times appear, and to work for the love and justice that God requires of his creatures, however impractical that may at times prove. On the path to communion with God, it is humanity’s vocation not merely to accept—but rather to bless, elevate, and transfigure—this world, so that its intrinsic goodness may be revealed even amidst its fallenness. This is the special purpose of human life, the high priestly calling of creatures endowed with rational freedom and conscience. We know, of course, that this work of transfiguration will never be complete in this life, and can reach its fulfillment only in the Kingdom of God; still, however, our works of love bear fruit in this life, and they are required of all who would enter the life of the age to come (Matthew 25:31–46). The Church knows that such efforts are never in vain, moreover, because the Holy Spirit is also at work in all the labors of the faithful, bringing all thing to their fruition in due season (Romans 8:28).
As the requirements of Christian love are unremitting, those who are joined to Christ may on many occasions be called to pursue God’s goodness even to the point of self-sacrifice, after the model of their Lord. The work of transfiguring the cosmos is also a struggle against everything distorted and malignant, both in ourselves and in the damaged structure and fabric of a suffering creation; and this means that, inevitably, this work must be an ascetical labor. To a very great degree, we are called to strive against the obstinate selfishness of our own sinful inclinations, and to undertake a constant effort to cultivate in ourselves the eye of charity, which alone is able to see the face of Christ in the face of our every brother and sister, “the least of these,” whom we meet as though each of them were Christ himself (Matthew 25:40, 45). Hence the Apostle Paul’s use of the image of the athlete in training as a metaphor for the Christian life (1 Corinthians 9:24–27). But this labor should also be undertaken in common, as the corporate effort of a single body whose many members sustain and support one another in a life of shared love and service. This is truly a work of love, not of fear. It is the natural expression of a life transformed by the Holy Spirit, a life of joy, at whose communal heart stands the Eucharist, the ever-renewed celebration of God’s lavish self-donation, the sharing of his very flesh and blood for the life of the world. In giving himself always anew in the Eucharistic mystery, Christ draws us forever to himself, and thereby draws us to one another. He also grants us a foretaste of that wedding-feast of the Kingdom to which all persons are called, even those who are at present outside the visible communion of the Church. However great the labors of Christians in this world, out of obedience to the law of divine love, they are sustained by a deeper and ultimately irrepressible rejoicing.
The surest warrant for and charter of an Orthodox social ethos is found, before all else, in the teachings of Christ. No feature of our Lord’s Gospel is more pronounced and constant than his absolute concern and compassion for the poor and disenfranchised, the abused and neglected, the imprisoned, the hungry, the weary and heavy-laden, the despairing. His condemnations of the luxuriance of the wealthy, of indifference to the plight of the oppressed, and of exploitation of the destitute are uncompromising and unequivocal. At the same time, the tenderness of his love for “the least of these” is boundless. No one who aspires to be a follower of Christ can fail to imitate either his indignation at injustice or his love for the oppressed. In this regard, Christ’s teachings confirm, while making even more urgent, the largest and most universal moral demands made by the Law and the Prophets of Israel: provision for the destitute, care for the stranger, justice for the wronged, mercy for all. We find the most resplendent examples of Christian social morality, in fact, in the life of the Apostolic Church, which in an age of empire created for itself a new kind of polity, set apart from the hierarchies of human governance and all the social and political violences, chronic and acute, upon which those hierarchies subsist. The earliest Christians were a community committed to a radical life of love, in which all other allegiances—nation, race, class—were replaced by a singular fidelity to Christ’s law of charity. It was a community established in the knowledge that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor any division in dignity between man and woman, because all are one (Galatians 3:28). And so, also, it was a community that shared all things in common, that provided for those in need, that permitted those with means to return to the common good the bounty they had reaped from creation (Acts 2:42–46; 4:32–35), and that required no laws and no powers of enforcement except those of love. Though the Orthodox Church knows that society as a whole operates upon different principles than these, and that Christians have it in their power to remedy social ills to only a limited degree at any time and in any place, still it holds up the ideal of the Apostolic Church as the purest expression of Christian charity as a social logic and communal practice, and judges all human political and social arrangements in light of that divinely ordained model.
All peoples possess some knowledge of the good, and all are able to some degree to perceive the requirements of justice and mercy. Though the children of Israel were especially blessed in receiving the Law of Moses, and though the Church enjoys a special knowledge of the love of God as revealed in the person of Christ, still the deepest moral commandments of God’s law are inscribed upon every human heart (Romans 2:15), and speak to the human intellect and will as the promptings of conscience. Thus, as Irenaeus says, the divine precepts necessary for salvation are implanted in humankind from the beginning of time; and these laws, “which are natural, and noble, and common to all” were then amplified and enriched and deepened in the new covenant of liberty imparted by Christ to his Church. These precepts are “the law of the mind”; they are among the deepest rational principles, the eternal logoi, written upon the foundation of creation and residing eternally in the Logos, the divine Son. Hence, in many cases, “conscience and reason suffice in the Law’s stead.” But in Christ we have received a new outpouring of the Spirit and have become a new holy priestly people, under this new covenant of liberty—a covenant that does not abolish the natural law, but rather enlarges its range and makes its demands upon us absolute. This means that Christians are permitted, and in fact obliged, to act as a prophetic presence in the world, speaking not only to the closed company of the baptized but to the whole of creation, recalling human beings everywhere to the decrees written into their very nature, and summoning them to the sanctifying labor of justice and mercy. And we take the Mother of God as our great exemplar here, for it is she, in her freely given assent to become the place of the advent of divine love in person—in her cooperation (synergeia) with God—who has bequeathed to us the purest model of true obedience to God’s law: a willingness to give ourselves entirely to the presence of God’s Son, to become the shelter and tabernacle of his indwelling in this world, to receive God’s Logos as at once the highest vocation and the greatest fulfillment of our nature.
Source: Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America