Recently I was asked, “Does Orthodoxy have as many rules as the Catholic Church?” I thought this to be an interesting question, not to mention a quite common one—coming from an outside perspective. At least from a Protestant point of view it looks like we have a faith based on a long list of “don’ts”. Don’t eat meat, dairy, wine, or oil on Wednesdays and Fridays. Don’t marry during the fasting periods. Don’t wear shorts in church. Don’t, don’t, don’t.
But is the Orthodox faith full of ‘rules’? As always, the answer is both yes and no. We do have canons (church ‘laws’) which define certain boundaries. Yet in truth, so many of those were established because Christians had lost their zeal and their faith, falling back into sinful or lazy behavior. So, for example, in the OCA, one cannot be a member of a Church without confession and communion ‘no less than once a year’. In this case, folks had either neglected to confess their sins (“I am not that bad, really.”) or neglected to receive the True Food and Drink which keeps us alive (often “I am not worthy enough.”) These are both distortions of the truth and needed some correction.
In short, though, we are governed by only one ‘rule’, the command which our Lord Himself gave us, “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12, among others). I believe it was Augustine who said something like, “Love God and do whatever you want.” If we truly love God, then everything we do will be holy. But we must define what “truly” means as well as what “love” means.
But do we have “obligations”? Consider the question by comparison to the [Roman] Catholic Catechism (to return to the original question): “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass. The precept of participating in the Mass is satisfied by assistance [attendance] at a Mass which is celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the holy day or on the evening of the preceding day” (Image/Doubleday 1995, p. 583). Many Catholics believe, as the Catechism implies, that ‘going to church’ is a matter of a check in a box according to certain categories. “Did I go?” “Was it Catholic?” “Was the priest validly ordained?” “Have I satisfied my obligation?” (Sadly, any number of Orthodox view this the same way!)
At the heart of the matter, the Orthodox question is not “did I attend Church Sunday?” Nor is it “Did I receive communion this week?” We do not approach any part of life in this manner, really. Rather, we ask, “Do I love God?” or “Am I in communion with God?” If I love God, I don’t ask “do I have to go to Church this Sunday?” Neither “Can I arrive after the Gospel and still take communion?” Nor “Do I have to stay until the end?”
How ludicrous would it sound if we use as a comparative example a dinner date between a man and a woman. What if the man said, “you go ahead of me and order supper for me. Call me when the waiter puts it on the table, and I’ll come eat with you.”? This happens, then promptly after dessert, the man wipes his lips and walks out the door. End of ‘date’.
From the man’s perspective in this example, dinner is about “me” and its about filling my belly and getting on with the rest of “my” plans. (And for so many, church is viewed the same way!) Scandal! This is surely not a relationship that will last. What about a nice walk in the park before supper? The pleasure of holding hands and chatting over a glass of wine while the meal is cooked? Supping together and then giggling over memories at dessert? Then a movie after? This sort of a date is one involving love, a relationship, a sincere and deep interest in the other. And this, to return to the question about ‘rules’ and the example of communion is how we view all of Christian life.
Sometimes we have to eat and run. Or we can only stay for a short time. But this is the exception, not the ‘rule’. And so, for love of God, we make every effort to begin Sunday quietly, peacefully, prayerfully on Saturday evening at Great Vespers. We arrive Sunday morning, early, expecting to meet God (if I may be so crass) “for a date”. We praise Him, listen to His mighty acts in the readings from the Scriptures. We pray to Him, we offer Him gifts of bread and wine, which He returns to us as His very Body and Blood, by which we receive our strength. We thank Him, and then we show our joy in community together after.
These are the signs of love, not ‘rules’ which ask what minimum amount I can do to ‘satisfy an obligation’, but rather the signs of a fullness of faith which put my own ‘earthly cares’ aside in order to meet the Living God.