An Orthodox Handbook

by Protopresbyter Fr. Anthony Alevizopoulos (1931 – 1996)

Dr. of Theology, Dr. of Philosophy

Chapter 17 – Congregating the scattered ones

1. The salvific unity of the faithful

Just prior to Christ’s crucifixional sacrifice, in that agonized prayer of His for all those who would believe in His name, the Lord asked the Father to safeguard them in a divine unity:  «that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me… that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect, into one…» (John 17:21-23). 

With these words, Christ did not invite the faithful to an external unity but an inner one – an absolute one, similar to the unity between the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, from which Man had fallen away through his fall.  One unity, whose basis and whose goal are the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, which signifies man’s redemption and his perfecting:  «I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect, into one…» (John 17:23).The unity therefore which Christ speaks of, is not “the road to salvation”; it is salvation itself.

2. The divine Eucharist : the realization of one’s union in Christ

In what manner can we attain that unity?  Undoubtedly, the completion of this unity is linked to the triumph of the Church in the end of Time, during the Coming of the Lord and the final Judgment.  However, even in this life there is a foretaste of that perfect unity for the faithful. It is the event of the divine Eucharist.  The Apostle Paul characteristically says: «For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread» (1 Cor.10:17). The Lord Himself – when referring to the divine Eucharist – links man’s participation to it with that very event of salvation and life, whereas He links man’s abstention from the Eucharist, to a spiritual death: «“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day”.» (John 6:53-54)

After the Fall, people lost the unity between each other, which was dependent on God’s love; they became internally alienated and so they dispersed.  With His incarnation, Christ assumed the whole of mankind which was necrotized with Christ’s death and was resurrected with Him into a new life, united once again within God’s love. This is how Christ restored man to his former unity with God.  

When the faithful congregate to perform the divine Liturgy, when they partake of the divine Eucharist, that is when they are once again reunited into one body – the resurrected and deified Body of Christ.  That is when they «come together as a Church» (1 Cor.11:18) – when they comprise and reveal once again the Body of the Lord, that is, the Church. That is when the basic and essential Mission of the Incarnation and the Sacrifice of Christ is fulfilled, by which the Lord sought to «He would gather together in one the children of God who were scattered abroad.» (John 11:52).

This event of “gathering into one” all the scattered children of God is an excellent portrayal of the liturgical texts of our Church. One of the beautiful blessings of the Divine Liturgy of the first Christians expresses this with the following words: «Just as this portion was scattered over the mountains and being gathered became one, thus may Your Church be gathered from the ends of the earth, into Your kingdom”…  In other words, “just as this piece of bread (which is used for the divine Eucharist) used to be wheat that was spread over the mountains and after being gathered became one, likewise during the performance of the divine Eucharist, may Your entire Church be gathered into one, from the ends of the earth, into Your kingdom.”

And in the divine Liturgy of Basil the Great, the priest prays that:  «…join all of us, who commune from the one bread and the one chalice, to each other, in the communion with the one Spirit… so that we might find mercy and grace together with all the Saints who had pleased You from the beginning».

In this manner, holy Communion gathers the scattered members of Christ which – together with Him, Who is the Head – comprise His Body and are an organic unity.  This is the reason we can unreservedly relate the Church to the event of the gathering of the faithful, to the performance of the divine Eucharist and to the event of consuming the Body of the Lord and the drinking of His Precious Blood.

No-one can be a Christian outside of the divine Eucharist (that is, on his own), for a direct union with God.  Christ had said that whosoever did not eat of His Body and drink of His Blood would have no life within him (John 6:53). Outside of the divine Eucharist, man can have the Holy Bible, the kerygma, prayer, and a moral life. But outside of the divine Liturgy, he cannot have the Body and the Blood of the Lord, which would grant him salvation and the true life.  This is necessary for us to be aware of, because there are some who incorrectly believe that they are supposedly Christians, without participating in the Eucharistic gathering of the faithful – that is, in the divine Liturgy.

Apart from the above, we need to underline that in the divine Liturgy, it is not possible to have mere spectators among the faithful; that is, people who have not come for the sacred mystery.  This however does not signify that any one can come unprepared (1 Cor. 11:27-29). Saint Ambrose says on this matter very characteristically: «Receive on each day that which is useful for that day. Live in a manner that makes you worthy of it».


3. “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father…”

“Liturgy” in the Greek language implies “the function of the people”. And from what we have mentioned, it now becomes obvious what the divine function is, which takes place in the Eucharistic gatherings of the faithful.

In the divine Liturgy, the faithful comprise the Church and they reveal to the world the Body of Christ. They proclaim that with Christ’s death and resurrection, the scattered ones have once again reassembled “into one” and that they are now participating in this synaxis of God’s children (John 11:52; 1 Cor.10:16, 11:26).

«Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit», the Priest announces at the beginning of the divine Liturgy. Thus, the kingdom is no longer an event that belongs exclusively to the future, and which mankind cannot have any foretaste of.  The kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit has already commenced, from this life, and it is the divine Liturgy and our participation in it (Matth.12:28; Luke 17:21; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27).  It is the event of man’s communion in the life of the Triadic God, which is realized with the consuming of the Lord’s Body and the drinking of His Blood, as well as the event of the unity of all the children of the Kingdom within the one Body of the Lord.


4. The external characteristics of the Orthodox synaxis

If the principal significance of the divine Liturgy is our salvation, then it is imperative that we underline the characteristic features of the true divine Liturgy so that we can distinguish it from the congregations of heretics, which do not contribute towards the unity, but rather the division of the Lord’s Body and are a threat to the event of our salvation (cmp.1 Cor.1:13; 11:18-34). This is a necessity that we must be familiar with, when travelling to foreign lands and are not familiar with the details of the life of the Christian communities that exist there.

As mentioned earlier, the Bishop of a region represents the image of Christ and is the guarantor of the unity of the faithful in the One Body of the Church.  In the ancient Church, the divine Eucharist was performed only by the Bishop or by a Presbyter (Elder) who belonged to the “presbyterium” of that Bishop and had received the bishop’s authorization to perform that function.  This was the way that the Bishop constituted the guarantee of Christ’s presence, which is necessary for the performance of the divine Eucharist, given that Christ is “the offerer and the offered” (cmp.Hebr.7:23-28).  “Wherever Christ is, there the Church is”, according to Saint Ignatius, who also notes that where the Church is, there the Bishop also is.  It is not a portion of the Church there, but the “catholic” (=entire) Church, in whole – that is, the Orthodox Church.  The presence therefore of the Bishop constitutes a guarantee of the genuineness of the Orthodox Liturgy.

The Bishop is not a self-titled personage.  He ascribes his Priesthood – through Apostolic succession – to the Apostles and from there to Christ Himself.  The canonical, therefore, and genuine Bishop of the Orthodox Church must be found in that succession, otherwise, he does not have the Priesthood that Christ had instituted.  This Priesthood is conferred by the Bishop to all the remaining clergymen – to the Presbyters and the Deacons  whom he himself has ordained. With this practice, the dependence of the Presbyters and the deacons on the Bishop as the centre of the unity among the faithful is revealed, with the performance of the divine Eucharist as the basis.

We are aware of course that in various parishes today the divine Liturgy is not performed by the Bishop but by the Priests, who are assisted in this ritual by the Deacons as well.  However, these Priests belong to the “presbyterium” of one Bishop. They furthermore necessarily commemorate the name of the Bishop during each divine Liturgy that they perform. In fact, not only the name of the Bishop who had ordained them, but also of the Bishop in whose jurisdiction the divine Liturgy is performed.  In the Orthodox Church there is no priest who does not come under a canonical Orthodox Bishop, nor without belonging to the “presbyterium” of a Bishop.  Nor is an Orthodox divine Liturgy ever performed without the commemoration of the Bishop’s name.

Thus, it is a basic matter to note which Bishop is commemorated in a divine Liturgy, and whether he is a canonical Bishop of the Orthodox Church in that region.  Just as every Presbyter needs to belong to the “presbyterium” of the local Bishop, likewise, the canonical Bishop must belong to the order of Bishops of the Orthodox Church.

But, how can we determine if a Bishop is canonical? That is, if he belongs to the Orthodox Church?

For a Bishop to be Orthodox, he must be in communion with the other Bishops in the same land, who, together with the Orthodox pleroma (fold) comprise the Orthodox Church of that land (for example, the Church of Greece, the Church of Cyprus, etc.).

We should know that in order to be an Orthodox Church, every autonomous Church must also be in communion with the other Orthodox Churches in all the world.  All the Orthodox Churches combined comprise the one body of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. And all of the Bishops “appointed far and wide, are of the mind of Jesus” (Ignatius).

In this way, while we may have many parishes in one place, and while we may perform the divine Liturgy in many places, the Bishopric is one.  While the Bishoprics may be many in one land, they together comprise one, autonomous Church.  Finally, while the autonomous Churches may be more than one, they are allunited in the Faith and in the divine Eucharist, and they all comprise the One, Orthodox Church – the One Body of Christ, and they all reveal “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor.2:16; Acts 15:28).

This Church may be scattered throughout the world, but She is congregated in a mystical way with the performance of the divine Liturgy, just as the grains of wheat are gathered to comprise the one bread of the divine Eucharist, which is transformed into the Body of Christ.

What, then, should we look out for in order to ensure that a synaxis – a divine Liturgy – belongs to the Orthodox Church and guarantees us salvation?

As mentioned earlier, we must find out to which Bishop the officiating priest of the divine Liturgy belongs. Then, it is imperative that we find out to which Church that Bishop belongs. If that Church is united with our Orthodox Church – where we have been incorporated through our Baptism – then we can be sure that divine Liturgy is a synaxis of the Orthodox Church and can guarantee our salvation.

As to how basic this matter is, Saint Cyril of Jerusalem reveals it to us. When addressing travellers and migrants, he says that they must be careful to not enter a congregation, nor participate in a liturgy, if they have not previously ascertained that the synaxis is not a conventicle of heretics and people who have seceded from the canonical Bishop. «And should you perchance migrate», he says, «do not only seek where the Temple is, because the heresies of the impious dare to name their (predatory) caverns Temples. Do not seek only where the Church is, but rather, where the Orthodox Church is» (Catech.16:26).

How misled indeed are those people who abandon the Orthodox Church – that is, the Orthodox worship – and resort to other congregations!  They risk losing that which Christ was sacrificed for: the salvation of their souls.  Because salvation is possible, only through unity with the Church – that is, with the Eucharistic synaxis of the Church. And the criterion for that synaxis is its union with the canonical Orthodox Bishop of that region.

All of the above prove just how far we must flee from the congregations that do not belong to our Church and that are not taking place with the knowledge and the approval of the Bishop to which we belong, and who is for us the guarantor of unity with Christ and a guarantee of His presence there.