My recent articles on the Church drew attention to the topic of union and its importance within the life of the Church – indeed, it is the life of the Church. Orthodox theology, when rightly considered, has a “seamless” quality: everything fits and one thing enlightens another. Perhaps the single most important thread in this seamless quality can be summed up in the term union.
The word for union (ἕνωσις) does not actually occur in the New Testament, though it is common in the Eastern Fathers. It literally means “the process or product of being one.” There are other words related to the concept: communion or participation (κοινωνία), frequently and incorrectly rendered as “fellowship” in English translations. And by far the most frequent expression of this foundational understanding can be found in the phrases “in Christ,” “in the Lord,” “in Him,” etc. These expressions occur 216 times in St. Paul’s letters and another 26 in St. John’s works.
But what is union in Orthodox thought?
It does not mean being blended into God, losing our identity. We do not become “one” in the sense often described in Far Eastern religions. Rather, we become one in the sharing of a common life. It is classically stated by St. Irenaeus of Lyons (2nd century): “God became man so that man could become God.” This thought is repeated in a variety of forms by a large number of early Fathers, becoming perhaps the single most succinct statement of Orthodox theology.
To a degree, this expression of union (God with us and us with God) is a description of how we are saved, and even an expression of why we need to be saved. It is an expression as well of the meaning of worship and the whole of the sacramental life. In a word, it is the Orthodox faith.
Sin, at its root, is the lack of union with God. God, who is the Lord and Giver of life, is also the source of human existence and our well-being. In our brokenness, we have fallen from true communion with God, and so we die. “The wages of sin is death.” Instead of moving towards greater and greater communion with God, we move further from God and all things around us. We experience alienation, death, corruption and Hades.
It is for this reason that God became man. He united Himself with us, taking our very own human nature into Himself (the Hypostatic Union). His union is so complete that, “emptying Himself” of Divine privilege, He enters into our death and the very depths of Hades, filling all things with His divine life. He makes possible our saving union with Him.
The sacraments are best understood within this account. In Baptism, we are united with Him.
Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, (Rom 6:4-5)
In Holy Baptism, we become what He became. His death becomes our death, and His life becomes our life. This new birth is the restoration of communion and the way of eternal life.
That same union is found in the Holy Eucharist:
“He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me.” (Joh 6:56-57)
This is the whole of our life. It is the foundational reality and understanding of the Christian faith. It should also be the foundation and understanding of the life we call the Church. For the Church is expressed in the same terms of union. It is His Body. It is not an institution doing things in His name, nor an organization with a God-given mission. It is the communion of life in Him and in one another.
Such an understanding of our Christian life provokes problems for us. The boundaries of the communion cup are, in Orthodox understanding, the boundaries of the Church, for the very reasons described above. These boundaries are reflected in St. Paul’s admonition:
Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be liable of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and then let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. (1Co 11:27-30)
This practice (the Cup as the boundary of the Church) was once a universal practice of all Christian groups. As recently as the 1960’s, “closed communion” (so-called) was the normative practice across all denominations with only minor exceptions. And it had been the single practice of Christians since the beginning.
It is not a denial of union – it is the profession of belief in union. If there is no true union, then there is no danger in the Cup. Indeed, the modern practice of “open-communion” is a denial of union and of any possible danger in the Cup. It becomes the anti-communion.
This same understanding of union is also inherent in Christian marriage. A man and a woman “become one flesh.” That union is sacramentally consummated in their sexual union, and seen as fruitful and particularly blessed in the conception of children.
And the marriage union has boundaries. The communion of a man and a woman in marriage is not open to “hospitality” or “sharing.” Their union is guarded by chastity, by faithfulness and by steadfast love. In the practice of “open communion,” no chastity is required (any doctrine may be held by the one who approaches the Cup); no faithfulness is required (people may come and go at will and accept no mutual responsibility or discipline); no steadfast love is expected. Communion becomes ecclesial politeness.
Of course, much of this recent change has been driven by the triumph of individualism within contemporary Christian life. The modern believer sees all statements of Christ and every promise directed to himself as an individual. The Church is, at most, a convenient place for learning, for sharing, and for fellowship. It is little wonder that this same period of time has seen the collapse of Christian marriage and the exploding phenomenon of casual sex. We now have “committed relationships” instead of unions. And the so-called “personal relationship with Christ” largely takes its meaning from this contemporary distortion.
The union of the Church has, of course, become historically problematic. Rampant schisms and ecclesial entrepreneurship have created a landscape of choices and decisions that believers find completely bewildering. This is made all the more problematic by the dominance of “churches” that have no sense or commitment to a “churchly existence.” The sacraments themselves, once the most intense expression of union, are reduced to religious tokens with vague psychologized meanings. It is a path of increasing “dis-union.”
But there is a path towards union. It is not a map of ecumenical diplomacy. It is the map of ecclesial faithfulness. Those who stand outside of Orthodoxy and point to the schisms between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, or the schism with the Roman Catholics, fail to understand what they see. Those schisms are real and they are indeed problems. But in each case, those involved have not renounced the reality of the One Church, nor the sacramental life of the One Cup. The schisms are something to be healed and are treated with great seriousness. But there can only be a true restoration of communion and union in the One Church. It is the very nature of that one life is being preserved and proclaimed, even in the face of schism.
If you will, the language and grammar of the One Church is spoken fluently in those ancient groups. Conversations are therefore possible. If, for example, a path of union were found between the Oriental and Orthodox Christians, it would not involve re-teaching the entire nature of what it means to be a Christian and what the character of that life looks like. Both speak the language of union.
It becomes virtually impossible, however, to have such conversations with those who reject the very notion of a visible Church that is One, or with those who have reduced the sacraments to statements of private devotion.
The path towards union requires the reacquisition of the common language and grammar of the Christian faith as given and spoken by the Apostles and the Fathers. It is, first and foremost, the language of union itself. The reacquisition of “language and grammar” means more than words. It is the grammar of our existence. Modern Christians need to renounce modernity and learn to live a Churched existence. Learn the discipline of the Cup and the life of God-given boundaries. Return to the life of asceticism and the way of the Cross.
God is in charge of history, not us. But we can live faithful to what He has given us and let Him make the path of union clear. We must be committed to the life of union with Christ. His life is our life, and our only life.