The Orthodox Church at the Crossroad of Time, Space and Culture

The Importance of Time, Space and Culture for and upon our Youth

Rev. Dr. Joseph F Purpura. Professor of Youth Ministry, Antiochian House of Studies

Paper Delivered on November 16, 2019 at the Romanian Orthodox Diocese of Canada Symposium on The Orthodox Church at the crossroad of time, space, and culture, Montreal QC

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We hear of “culture wars” as though this is a new phenomenon. It is not.  The culture war began in Paradise when Satan convinced Adam and Eve to live a life different than what God intended for them.  Satan convinced Adam and Eve to live life without God, to live in an inhumane way. Basically, Satan convinced them to live a life that is not rooted in the image and likeness of God.[1]

Time is part of the created world given to us by God. It is a gift from God and, thus, it is essential to us as we work on our salvation and as we live out our place in the story of Salvation—across the span of time we have been gifted.  Since time itself is given by God as part of creation, we would do well to be conscious of the importance of, and how to utilize, this gift of time.  As human beings we are created as physical and spiritual beings who God formed from the earth.  As part of the physical creation we take up volume, we live out our lives in the physical world, we move from place to place and time to time. Thus, understanding the beauty and meaning of time and space is critical to our understanding of who and what we are and what we are meant to be.  Although we were formed from the earth, God, most importantly, breathed Himself into physical man giving man a living soul.  We are not bodiless hosts, nor are we animals without a spiritual soul.  We are unique amongst all of creation. In many ways we live in both the physical world and the spiritual world. We are meant to live as one being intertwined in two realities—physical and spiritual—thus, adding to the complexity of understanding time and space.

Examining youth formation across time and space requires that we consider the specific Scriptural references to time and space, as well as contextualizing them within the culture upon which we find ourselves living and immersed within. Importantly, this culture varies from place to place and time to time.  As we move through this paper, I will highlight critical verses of Scripture, a few of the Fathers, as well as practical experience in youth formation designed to raise youth up as disciples and leaders in the Church—particularly focused on efforts to help youth find their place within the story of Salvation.  Though this effort and task must be more than our youth simply finding their place in the story, it must also be that they are active participants in the story of salvation, where ultimately due to their full participation, in time and in their place in human history and their life in the Church, their names may be written in the Book of Life in Heaven.

Time

Time, as we know it, starts as recorded in the book of Genesis, “In the beginning God made heaven and earth. (Genesis 1:1).

“Then God said, ‘Let there be lights in the firmament of heaven for illumination to divide day from night.  Let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years.  Let them be for illumination in the firmament of heaven to give light upon the earth.’ It was so. Then God made two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night.” (Genesis 1:14-16).

Thus, time as we know it begins in the physical world by the Word of God, by His command.

Understanding that God, Who is before all time, creates time for humans and ultimately for human salvation, compels us to come to an understanding of this part of creation, and prompts us to ask:  Why did God create day and night? Why did He create us to live within days and years?  Why after Adam and Eve ate of the tree of good and evil, did He cast humans into this world so man would not partake of the tree of life at that time? What is salvific about this passage of time and our utilization of each second, minute, hour, day, week, month and year within the scope of our life in this world? Why has God given me life at this moment in human history? Why during this part of the story of salvation am I living in this world, in this country and amid this culture?  What is God calling me to do within this context of this time, this space and this culture?  Why has God decided that this is the best time, place, culture and opportunity for my salvation and how do I utilize this great opportunity for salvation?

From the beginning in Paradise even before Adam and Eve disobeyed God, we read in the Scripture that God acts within time and that humans participate in its flow, “You may eat food from every tree in the garden; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you may not eat; for in whatever day you eat from it, you shall die by death”(Gen 2:16-17).  From the beginning we see a clash of cultures.  God commands humans to live a life rooted in Him. Yet, Satan persuades Eve to turn away and live a different life. Thus, the beginning of the human culture war begins, “Then the serpent said to the woman, ‘You shall not die by death.  For God knows in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil’” (Gen 3:4-5).

We know the great tragedy that Adam and Eve brought upon all of mankind. We read the words from Genesis, “Then the Lord God said, ‘Behold the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil.  Now, lest he put out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever –‘ therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of pleasure to cultivate the ground from which he was taken” (Gen 3:22-23). What was the reason God did not want us to become immortal in paradise, but rather have humans wait until the appropriate time when Christ would enter into human history, become one us, destroy death, and then make way for us to become immortal in the Kingdom of heaven? Surely God’s choice to let time pass was essential to the story of salvation and its outcome for each of us.  The passage of time to this fallen world appears to be the enemy, as we try to avoid aging, yet in terms of human salvation, time becomes healing, restorative and salvific and essential to us becoming beautiful in the eyes of God.

We can bemoan the time, the place, and the culture we find ourselves, yet this is where God has placed us in His infinite wisdom.  He chose not to place us in a different time, a different country, nor a different culture, but this one.  Why?  What is so good and important about this place and time that God has decided it is the best opportunity and the best spot in the history of Salvation for me and for you?  We know that God has sent the saints and prophets to every generation—and this time and place is no different.  The Church is called to sanctify this time, this place, this culture.  The Kingdom of God is at hand now, not just in the glorious past nor just in ancient Byzantium, nor just in Jerusalem, but everywhere and at all times and in every place.  Our Lord said to the Samaritan woman,

“Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall ye worship the Father. Ye worship that which ye know not: we worship that which we know: for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth: for such doth the Father seek to be his worshippers. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:21-24).

Our task as Orthodox Christians here in North America, is to bear witness to the Light and to live as Children of God in this context and in this time.  The task of the Church and of each of us is to rediscover the Truth of the Living God, “to worship Him in Truth and Spirit” (John 4:24) in this context and not to just transpose or impose superficially a culture, from a seemingly glorious past (that may or may not have been so) that was meant for a different time, a different place, and a different people.

Our young people find themselves in a time and culture that is at best confusing and illogical.  Amid this chaos our young people are led astray as were Eve and Adam in Paradise. Our young people are being lied to and told that there are no consequences to their actions. Yet, they discover that what the world offers as life is really death, and what the world offers as truth is distortion and misery and emptiness.  In modern culture, we have replaced the Divine Liturgy with sports, the Internet, online games, television, and general empty business.  Even parents have been deceived to think that such activities, despite their replacing the life-giving banquet, will bring their children joy, happiness, success, and prosperity.  We have replaced the Lord’s Day with work and the so-called play of this world.  Ironically man was cast out of the Garden to work the earth from which he was taken. Yet, we think it is good that our young people miss Sunday worship so they can work and build their resumes and careers.  We have elevated the very thing to which we were condemned, and which was taken away from us as we were cast out of Paradise, where we were once in the very presence of the Living God.  The Divine Liturgy is our participation and restoration to the Kingdom, being in the presence of God, partaking of His very Body and Blood, free from the toil of the soil of this fallen world, a place of peace. Unfortunately, parents often choose the opposite – they choose a life for their children that is opposite from Paradise.[2]

Ecclesiastes tells us,

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.”[3]

We find ourselves in a culture and time that distorts this truth.  We seek ways to avoid time, to avoid the realities of this world.  We attempt to avoid death, avoid mourning, avoid weeping, we fail to plant the seeds that are necessary to life, we avoid silence, peace, and real love and in the end we are prepared for none of life here nor in the world to come and we wonder why we are in such pain and turmoil, why our children turn away from God and life itself and choose death instead.

Our task in whatever time and culture we live is to bring healing through God’s presence, through His Word, and His Truth. Saint Basil beautifully sums up the story of salvation in his priestly prayers of the Divine Liturgy.  He writes,

“When thou hast created man, and hadst fashioned him from the dust of the earth, and hadst honored him with thine own image, O God, thou didst set him with thine own image, O God, thou didst set him in the midst of Paradise of plenty, promising him life-eternal and the enjoyment of everlasting good things in keeping thy commandments.  But when he disobeyed thee, the true God, who had created him, and was led astray by the guile of the serpent, and rendered subject to death through his own transgression, though didst banish him in thy righteous judgment, O God from Paradise into this present world, and didst turn him again to the earth from which he was taken, providing for him the salvation of regeneration, which is in Christ himself.”

And most importantly,

“Yet thou didst not turn thyself away forever from thy creature whom thou made, O Good One; neither didst thou forget the work of thy hands; but thou didst visit him in divers [diverse] manners, through the tender compassion of thy mercy…”, “And when the fulness of time was come thou didst speak to us through thy Son himself, by whom also thou madest the ages…”  “to be born under the Law, that he might condemn sin in the flesh; that they who were dead in Adam might be made alive in thy Christ…” “he loosed the pains of death, and rose again from the dead on the third day, making a way for all flesh through the Resurrection from the dead…”

(Liturgy of Saint Basil p 135-137 Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America Service Book, 2012)

Our youth need to know the story of salvation, what man did in paradise, and its consequences, so we do not continuously repeat this rejection of God.  Most importantly our youth need to know that God “did not forget the work of His hand” and that He has done all things to bring us back to Him and to the life that was meant for us in Paradise.  Understanding what has passed in time (The Old Testament Prophets and Saints, God Himself becoming one of us, The decent of the Holy Spirit and the establishment of the Church, the Saints and Holy Fathers and Mothers of the Church) through the ages is essential to our youth living their life today in this present age and in the life to come.  Our culture in so many ways is not different from every culture before where man rejects God and seeks life outside of God and outside of Paradise. Saint Peter reminds us as Christians, “But you are an elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that ye may shew forth the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. “(1 Peter 2:9). We have been called to live as though in paradise, despite living in this fallen and broken world.  It becomes our task as Church, as a people of God to enable and equip our youth to live as Children of the Light in this current age and in this current culture that on many levels not only seems foreign to the Orthodox world but on many levels seeks to purge itself of Christ and Christians.  When asked what the Church could do for them, one of our young people who recently entered Canada seeking refuge from war torn Syria stated, “help me to keep my Orthodox Faith in this culture and new country.”  Our youth are ridiculed for their faith and love of Christ and His Holy Orthodox Church by their peers and adults in their schools and the culture at large.  Our youth are encouraged to turn away from God, to reject our Orthodox Culture and way of life, and if they do, often it is so that they may feel as though they fit in with and are accepted by their peers and to please the adults in their life of whose acceptance they crave.  Yet this attempt to fit in with those who reject God just brings more loneliness and suffering.

In so many ways this cry to preserve one’s faith and trust in God in the face of persecution and brokenness is an opening to the heart to seek and understand God.  In the forward to the book, Orthodox Spirituality by Dumitu Staniloae, Alexander Golubov writes,

“Human yearning for salvation and redemption, which springs out of knowledge of the depths of human ‘dis-integration’ and brokenness, responds to Divine kenosis, flowing out of Divine phianthropia, and comes to focus on the Person of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son and Word of God.  It is from here, in one’s personal recognition of Christ as the unique Savior and Redeemer of the world, that faith, indeed, becomes possible, and that an intentional and inspired Christian spiritualty becomes a purposeful and integrative inner journey to the ultimate healing of the ‘old’ and ‘fallen’ human nature, through perfect union with the ‘resurrected,’ hence ‘re-imaged’ and ‘glorified,’ divinely-human (theanthropic, bogochelovecheskaia) nature of Christ.”[4]

Here in so many ways lie the heart of recognizing the preciousness of time.  That time allows us to recognize our human condition, our brokenness, our sorrow and at the same time this brokenness softens our heart and opens our eyes and ears to hear and see the gentleness and mercy of the Living God who takes, “no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11).  This allows for true repentance which can only take place across time and only through and because of Jesus Christ.  It is in this dying to the “old man” Adam, and rising to the “new man” Christ, that time brings about healing and life.

Time is a precious gift from God and we would do well for our youth to understand that it is finite in this world and that each of us will need to give account for what we have done with the time God has gifted us.  Saint Paul emphasizes to us the importance of utilizing and not wasting time,

“Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is a shame even to speak of the things that they do in secret; but when anything is exposed by the light it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it is said, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.”  Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, 16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil.”[5]

In 2 Corinthians, we are likewise called to work with God and in doing so become partakers of life everlasting gaining salvation:

“Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, “At the acceptable time I have listened to you and helped you on the day of salvation.” Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. We put no obstacle in any one’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watching, hunger; by purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love,truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left;in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”[6]

Time is sacred because it allows God and others to flow in and out of our lives over a span to days, weeks and months, giving us the needed time and references to open our hearts and minds to God and to others.  This process of working out our beliefs, feelings, emotions, pain, suffering and the like over a span of time (hours, days, weeks, months and even years) allows for movement from one mind set to another, from pain and sorrow, to understanding, to forgiveness, and ultimately to healing and life through God’s Grace.  One of the great gifts we can give to this generation is a restoration of the preciousness of time, its importance to us as human beings, its sacredness, its healing grace, and opportunity of moving closer to God and healing the wounds of our brokenness.

Space

Much like the loss of our understanding of the sacredness of time, our culture has lost its understanding of the sacredness of space.  When Moses approached the burning bush God reminded him of the sacred space, of holy ground,

“And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said,

“I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here am I.” Then he said, “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:2-5)

As I watch our youth and adults enter Church, so many enter as though it is just another place.  People enter the Church temple as though it is just a building, just a place they may go on Sunday, rather than understanding, feeling and seeing that they are entering the very temple of the Living God.  Seeing the Church as a calm harbour, as a place of peace and God’s presence has been lost in this time and culture.  The world it seems sees everything as profane, and nothing as sacred.  Such an emptiness pervades our world and leads to great poverty of mind and spirit and ultimately to death.  Yet at the same time God and the Church see the world very differently.  God and the Church offer Life, joy and hope and this is the Good News that needs to be brought to our people and lived out in our families.  We enter God’s Holy Temple as a sacred and holy place.  We enter the Church as the Temple of the Living God, as the Kingdom of God present here and now on earth.  When we enter it in humility and with awe of this sacred space, our lives are transformed.  We find peace, joy, hope, salvation, and the very presence of the Living God.

Orthodoxy has preserved this understanding of the sacredness of space, in the temple of God, in the prayer space of our icon corner at home and work, at the dinner table, and most importantly in our own bodies which are “temples of the Holy Spirit.”[7] When one walks into the Church, one should immediately know and sense, as Moses did, that something is radically different.  As one enters the Church, seeing that we are surrounded by the multitude of saints and holy ones and especially Christ and the Theotokos, this should give one a sense that they are among giants, people of great power and love of God, people for whom we would do well to place amongst our friends in working on our own salvation  As we approach and stand before the Icon of Christ and stand in His presence, in His peace, we should feel God’s love that He would send His own Son to become one of us, so that we might be saved.  We should be overwhelmed that God has kept His promise that He would not forget the work of His hand.  As we stand before the icon of the Theotokos, our hearts should be filled with grace and peace and love.  We should feel and know what she has offered in her suffering at the cross, but also her joy at the Resurrection and in her obedience and purity before God.

In the presence of Christ, His mother, the Saints, in this sacred space the outside world should melt away, giving us the opportunity to feel, see, hear and be immersed by the embrace of God Himself.  No other space can do this for us.  Our young people are robbed each time we as parents choose to bring them elsewhere.  Each empty place and promise we bring our youth to on Sunday morning and Feast days instead of God’s temple robs our young people of God’s immense strength, healing and life-giving presence.  If we fail to immerse our young people in God’s temple from the earliest days of their youth the less and less likely they will feel at home in this life-giving temple and more likely that they will prefer the darkness and sorrow of this world over the Light of and Life in Christ.

Our task in each home we dwell is to make a sacred space, an Icon corner for each person or the family as a whole, so that the grace and peace of that space permeates the entire home and lives of those who dwell within and enter that home each day.  Our dinner table likewise should be a sacred space where food is received as a gift from God in prayer and in thanksgiving.  Restoring not only the sacredness of that table and that space but all who sit around that table that they see what is laid upon and consumed upon that table as a sacred gift from God.  That we and they see upon that table that life has been sacrificed and given from the plants and animals which lay upon that table and will soon be eaten by us so that we may live.

Most importantly, that we understand that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, we ourselves are a sacred space and temple of God and a member of the “Body of Christ.”[8] We are made and formed in the Image and Likeness of God.[9]  “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people…”[10]  This is what sets us apart from all of creation.  Mankind alone was created to be in the image and likeness of God.  Human beings were created to be sacred, a sacred space, a sacred temple of the living God.  As beings created in the image and likeness of God we are called to become more and more like God and in so doing we are called to sanctify ourselves, all those around us, as well as our culture and our time.  We are the vehicles by which time, space and culture are transformed and sanctified.  We are not bystanders but active participants in the story of salvation that is a movement of a people towards God and with God.  As members of the Body of Christ, we are called to work on our own salvation, sanctifying the space, time and culture we touch so that we may transform and restore to God, the time, space and culture in which we live.

Conclusion

In Conclusion, the question “Why has God decided that this is the best time, place, culture and opportunity for my salvation and how do I utilize this great opportunity for salvation?” is really what lies at the heart of this topic. We would do well for our young people to ask themselves this question as they move through life.  This topic and question should urge us to ask; what God is calling me to think, to feel, to see, to hear, and most importantly to do.  The Church and each of us are tasked with fulfilling the time we have been given, making it sacred not only for us, but also for those who come into our presence.  We are called to receive and treat all that God has given us as sacred.   We must see the Church, the world as created by God, and all that is in it as sacred.  Time and Space are given to us in this culture to help us see, witness and participate in God’s work of love and salvation.  We must ask, where do we fit into this story of salvation, what is our place, our purpose, and our responsibility at this time in our life and in this time in the history of salvation.  If we live in this sacred time and space, we will transform the culture we reside in and make it more sacred and more pleasing to God.

[1] Genesis 3:1-24

[2] “So He cast out Adam, and made him dwell opposite the garden of pleasure.” (Gen 3:24).

[3] Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

[4] page 17 Forward of Orthodox Spirituality, Dumitru Staniloae, 2013

[5] Ephesians 5:11-20

[6] 2 Corinthians 6:1-10

[7] (1 Corinthians 6:19)

[8] 1 Corinthians 12:27

[9] Genesis 1:27

[10] 1 Peter 2:9

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