There are generally three approaches that Christians have taken when it comes to their surrounding cultures:
- 1) Rejection, resistance, and hostility: This approach sharply distinguishes the Church from the world, emphasizing that the Church is so much “not of this world” that the world must be fled and an alternate community established. It is a posture that is fully closed to the world — neither in the world nor of the world.
- 2) Accommodation, adaptation, and merger: This approach asks the world what its problems are and then revises Christian faith and practice in order to bring care and comfort to those around the Church. It is a posture that is fully open to the world — both in the world and of the world.
- 3) Engagement, selection, and transfiguration: This approach sees what is good in the world and highlights that, seeking to interpret all things so that all might be pointed to Christ, so that everything might be baptized and transfigured to reveal Christ. It is a posture that has a discerning openness to the world — in the world, but not of the world.
I believe that #3 is the authentic Christian witness, the one witnessed to in the Scripture and the Church Fathers. Both #1 and #2 have truth in them, and what truth they have should not be ignored. But the best of what they have to offer is already in #3, and the worst of what they have to offer is really based in fear — #1 is afraid of the world, and #2 is afraid of the Church.
One of our great difficulties these days is that #3 is invisible to so many Christians. Those burned by #1 say that #2 is the only response. Those alarmed by #2 feel security only in #1.
But Christianity is precisely on a mission to this world, which means that the Church enters the world and brings Christ into it.
The Church does not (#1) stand inside a fortress on a high hill and, like those taunting French knights in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” ridicule the world because they’ve already got everything that the world can only hope to attain.
And the Church does not (#2) go into the world and ask how the Church can become more palatable, more accommodating to the world, seeking to do “whatever brings them in,” whatever appears to be the thing that the culture needs.
No, the Church is on a mission (#3), which means entering the world and bringing Christ, engaging with what the world is doing and showing how all creation is meant to point us to Christ, even in its fallen state, even in mankind’s broken and basest desires. Those desires are ultimately for Christ, but they are misdirected into addictions and failures.
If there is anything our Christmas celebrations teach us, it is that this world is not so low or base that God would not Himself become part of it, taking on even its materiality so that God would be revealed.
And if there is anything that our Theophany celebrations teach us, it is that the power of the cross goes forth into creation, that the blessing of the Jordan flows into this world and transforms it.1
And if there is anything that our Pascha celebrations teach us, it is that our Savior and God Jesus Christ will invade even the gates of Hades, that darkest, most Godforsaken place, and shine the light of truth and love even into death itself.
- In traditional Orthodox Christian practice, the service of the Outdoor Blessing of the Waters finds its climax in the throwing of a cross into a body of water. The blessing of water (even indoors) also includes dipping a cross into the water and making the sign of the cross in the water. Theophany is the feast of the Baptism of Jesus.