Audio length: 11:32 minutes
During this Nativity season, Molly reflects on what it means to love our Neighbor - even if they have different beliefs, moral standards, or no belief at all.
I can tell by the way her eyes bore into my own, she is seeking my approval. My daughter believes earnestly that her suspicion of the kids in her school who worship other gods, or no god, or our God but in a different way than we do, is what I desire of her because she dwells in that grayless, adolescent realm of black and white. “He’s nice and all,” she says to me about a classmate, “but I don’t think he’s a Christian,” she adds as a caveat.
I know exactly what she means by that: I like him (isn’t that generous of me?) in spite of this flaw. I should be pleased, I suppose, that she is taking her beliefs so seriously, but internally I find myself squirming a little at her well-intentioned presumption that it’s, “us” vs. “them” – that until that wayward individual converts to our specific worldview he or she must primarily be seen as a potential conquest if any viable relationship is to be formed.
This is dangerous and tricky territory - the narrow divide between humility and the compromising of our convictions. It can be challenging to live out one’s faith within this great melting pot of atheists, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Catholics, Protestants, conservatives, liberals, homosexuals, pro-lifers, pro-choicers (and that’s just the tip of the iceberg). What exactly does it mean, I want to know, to, in the Good Samaritan sense of the phrase, love my not always like-minded neighbors?
It being December, my thoughts automatically are drawn to Christmas. Like every other aspect of the Christian faith, the Incarnation provides plenty of fodder for head scratching and reflection. What is one to do with a God-man born as a baby or with the unlikely VIPs chosen to first hear the news (via a legion of trumpeting angels, no less) of His birth? The entire premise of our salvation demands we surrender that obdurate predilection for having our T’s crossed and I’s dotted. God’s mercy purposefully defies formulism and tidy answers.
Why, for instance, was it necessary for Mary’s pregnancy to be shrouded in controversy? Why did her obedience require that she be misunderstood, slandered, whispered about for the rest of her days? It would have been hard to not point fingers or question her purity, considering the circumstances. I’m sure there’s a big old lesson there (about not being so quick to jump to conclusions) for all of us.
Thirteen years ago, my husband, Troy, and I became members of the Orthodox Christian Church. By doing so, we acknowledged Her validity as the original Christian Church established by the apostles and embraced her teachings and Traditions as Truth. Bishop Kallistos Ware, in his classic and comprehensive book, The Orthodox Church, describes succinctly our adopted credence this way:
Orthodoxy, believing that the Church on earth has remained and must remain visibly one, naturally also believes itself to be that one visible Church. This is a bold claim, and to many it will seem an arrogant one; but this is to misunderstand the spirit in which it is made. Orthodox believe that they are the true Church, not on account of any personal merit, but by the grace of God. They say with Saint Paul: “We are no better than pots of earthenware to contain this treasure; the sovereign power comes from God and not from us” (2 Cor. 4:7). But while claiming no credit for themselves, Orthodox are in all humility convinced that they have received a precious and unique gift from God; and if they pretended to men that they did not possess this gift, they would be guilty of an act of betrayal in the sight of heaven.
Yes, we are certain; we would have never made so many sacrifices on account of a hunch. Every fiber of my being believes the Orthodox Church contains within her the absolute Fullness of the Faith. This assuredness has filled my grateful spirit with a degree of contentment and determination I had never experienced previously. No, the question I’m asking presently isn’t, “What do I believe?” but rather, “How do my Orthodox beliefs effect my interactions with others?” Do they, in fact, promote within me meekness or vanity, generosity or the tendency to conjecture about the state of another’s soul?
It is awfully tempting to consider it our duty, as Orthodox Christians, to keep those fellow human beings with wholly different theologies, political views, morals and ideals at arm’s length until, God-willing, we can convince them to see the light. It can be so confusing, you know? Because on the one hand, befriending, without such an agenda, individuals opposed or apathetic to what I view as sacred and holy, can send mixed messages. Right? You know, like an, “I’m OK, you’re OK,” kind of vibe. But then again, when asked point blank, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus answered this way:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Period. That’s it. You will not go on to find in the book of Matthew any addendum to that statement outlining its loopholes or conditions. That being the case, as naïve and potentially risky as it may sound, I have to trust that offering an unconditional, non-judgemental, no questions asked type of love to any man, woman or child created by God is my first and foremost priority.
Saint Mary of Paris (Mother Maria Skobtsova) did just that when she made the very difficult choice to hide, and provide fake baptismal certificates for, persecuted Jews within her unconventional refugee-filled convent during WWII, knowing her life would be in grave danger for doing so. Eventually, she was indeed arrested by the Gestapo and in 1945 Mother Maria was cruelly executed in a gas chamber. I am in awe of her courage and altruistic boldness on behalf of those who, yes, held different beliefs but nonetheless were created in God’s image and were just as precious in His sight as the rest of us.
Maybe it wasn’t such a complicated decision after all. Perhaps she merely asked herself, “If I was in danger of being imprisoned, tortured, murdered, would I long for someone to help me?” and when that answer was, “yes,” moved forward with her plans to treat others as she, herself, would like to be treated.
What if I consistently proceeded likewise when interacting with my family, those in my community, those with whom I dialogue online?
“Would I like to be presumptuously summed-up and categorized based on circumstantial evidence and hearsay?” I might inquire of myself.
“Would I like to be viewed as a “project,” rather than respected as an honest to goodness friend?”
“Does being harshly criticized and condemned for having differing opinions inspire me to keep my own mind open or to shut and lock it tightly?”
I think the answers are pretty obvious, don’t you?
Not long from now, we’ll drop everything to gather at the manger.
Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One, we Orthodox Christians will sing, so triumphantly, and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One! Angels, with shepherds, glorify Him! The wise men journey with the star! Since for our sake the Eternal God is born as a little child (Kontakion).
I like to imagine those lowly shepherds and the wild with wonder expression on their faces upon receiving the message that the long awaited Messiah had finally come, upon worshipping Him only hours after his arrival. Their delight and uncontainable elation must have been exceedingly contagious. See, that’s the thing about arguments and explanations – they never quite have the same impact as a deep and abiding sense of joy when it comes to evangelism.
Now seems like a perfect time for sharing the hope and brightness, found within Christ and His Church, this Feast of the Nativity is igniting within us! Glory to God in the Highest! we exclaim clearly and reverently when preparing a meal for a harried new mother, when responding to anger with restrained considerateness, when forgiving those who have wronged us or sincerely apologizing when our actions have hurt or embarrassed someone else. ‘Tis the season for advancing peace upon this earth and good will toward all men! Rejoice! For God is with us.