Dear Friends in Christ,
September 2009 marks the first anniversary of Nativity of the Holy Theotokos Orthodox Church here in Greenville! On September 20 of last year we gathered for that first Vespers service, and joined together again the next morning for our first Divine Liturgy. Since that time, we have become an active part of the Greenville community, and I am proud of what we have accomplished so far.
In November, for instance, we held a fundraiser to benefit the Ronald McDonald House, and at Christmas we provided for a needy family in the area so that they would have a good meal and some toys for the children. We also have opened our Clothing Closet to the public on the third Saturday of each month, where members of the community can obtain free clothing.
Besides our charity work, we have maintained a strong schedule of liturgical worship and fellowship. Despite the fact that I have to travel in from Raleigh, we have been able to have a Divine Liturgy one Sunday and two Saturdays a month, and during the “off” week there is a Prayer Service to keep the community together. During Holy Week, we were able to have services on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday/Sunday. Many small mission Churches are not able to maintain such a regular and rigorous schedule, so we are indeed blessed. Our website is regularly updated with written content as well as select videos of sermons. If you haven’t checked it out recently, you may have missed some interesting information, so I encourage you to check it out.
On this anniversary of the founding of our parish community, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the nature of the Church itself. We often think of the Church in its external aspects: a building, a place where we worship, a group of people with like-minded interests and views, etc. We might think of the Church as our local parish community, but we also know that it exists as a collection of Churches together under a bishop, and then as the bishops themselves gathered in Synod. These things are part of what the Church is, but the reality of the Church is far greater than this, and reflecting on the true nature of the Church will help us improve our perspective.
When we think of Heaven, we think of a place where God is. One common idea of Heaven is a place “up there” where God lives; He is often imaged as an old man with a long white beard who looks out for us and answers our prayers. Heaven is seen as a future reward for a life spent well on Earth, or it is seen as the place where we go if we believe in Jesus as our Savior as opposed to Hell being the place where we go if we do not have this belief. The Church exists as a place on Earth where people gather who share a belief in God, and they gather to read the Bible, pray together, and fellowship. All of these images are partially true, but they do not represent the full picture.
Heaven, while being a place, is also a state of being—the state of being one with God. Being one with God is a state of blessed perfection where our human nature is filled with God’s grace; gone is our subjugation to sin, and the effects of sin including pain, suffering, and our estrangement from God and our fellow men. While this state will exist in its perfect sense after the Final Judgment, when time ceases and history is fulfilled, our movement towards it begins now. God became man as Jesus Christ, and drew a body of believers to Himself. His Death and Resurrection restored the full potential of man, and after His Ascension He sent the Holy Spirit to indwell in the Apostles. Our baptism is our participation in the Death and Resurrection of Christ, while our chrismation (anointing with holy oil) gives us this same gift of the Holy Spirit as the Apostles received. The Church, in Greek ekklesia, from the verb “to call out” is the assembly of those called out of sin and the world and in to this body, which St. Paul calls the Body of Christ in his Epistles.
The Church then is not just a place where like-minded believers congregate for fellowship and worship, but is the very place where the life with God is made possible. Being the Body of Christ, being the place where union with God is made possible, the Church can thus be said to be Heaven on Earth, life with God, the foretaste of eternity. The liturgy that we celebrate is modeled off of the prophetic visions of Isaiah and John (in his book of Revelation, which shows the heavenly worship of the angels).
The person who enters the Church may enter a building, and may fellowship with other people, but he or she also is taking a step towards Heaven if he or she approaches in faith. He or she fellowships with men and women, but also worships with the angels, who surround the earthly altar just as they surround the heavenly. The hurting soul can be cured in the Church through the grace of Christ. This spiritual reality underpins all that we do; the liturgical worship prepares us to go out and share this love and spiritual joy with all whom we meet through our outreach programs and charity.
As we celebrate the anniversary of our founding, we thank God for allowing us the great privilege of serving here in the Greenville community. If you have not attended any of our services yet, we invite you to come and see for yourself the blessings that God is working!