By Fr. Stephen Freeman, April 10, 2007
We approach things so differently in our modern world (as opposed to the ancient world). All of us have access to a great deal of information, although the information that comes to us when we are in the passive mode is less than useless (here I mean television and popular media). Thus I would paraphrase Our Lord and say, “How hard it is for a couch potato to enter the Kingdom of God!”
Having said that by way of introduction – how was the approach to things different in the ancient world? (I confess to thinking of several things said by Mel Brooks at this point but I will resist that temptation). For one – the Christian faith was not presented as an argument most of the time – and was not even presented in its fullness until after someone had been Baptized.
Thus we have the ancient phenomenon of “Mystagogical Catechesis.” This was the training and teaching that was given to the newly Baptized and Illumined members of the Church. By and large this was done in the season after Pascha (which was also the season when the Gospel of John was read in the Church). We have examples of such catecheses in the preserved Mystagogical Catechesis of St. Cyril of Jerusalem and other writings.
Generally, what makes these catecheses “mystagogical” was that the teaching led the newly initiated members of the Body of Christ into an understanding of the “mysteries,” that is, of the sacramental life of the Church. This is more than simply lectures on the sacraments or the correct approach to receiving communion, etc. (although there are references to such), but rather a deeper understanding of God in Christ as known in the life of the Church (which is primarily expressed in the Church’s worship and thus is sacraments or “mysteries” as they are more commonly called in the Eastern Church).
What separates this approach from our modern world is that it presumes that you can only know God by living your life in a certain manner and through worship and the inner life of the Church’s mysteries. Our modern world, particularly the American modern world, presumes that knowledge, like all of our modern culture, is a consumable product. If I want to know something, I deal with the “sales pitch” and then decide to purchase it. Much of modern Christian evangelism is given in this consumerist approach. Many understand this to be taking the culture seriously on its own terms, but fail to consider that a consumerist approach may be a false presentation of the Christian gospel.
Many have commented when approaching the Orthodox Church that it seems almost “uninterested” in new members. This is not true – but the Church is properly reluctant to engage in sales.
I recall my own approach to the Orthodox faith. The priest with whom I had most of my conversations over a seven-year period, never once tried to “close the deal.” I asked him about this after I was received into the Church. “Oh,” he laughed, “I assume that everyone who comes through the doors of the Church is called to be an Orthodox Christian – but that’s God’s problem. My task is to practice hospitality.” And so he did. I was always made to feel welcome and my questions were always treated seriously. But there was never the pressure to “make a decision.” In time everything came together and my family and I were received into the Church. There was serious preparation (confessions, renunciation of false doctrine, etc.), but not until we were making ourselves ready to be received.
I wrote earlier of a “last minute word to catechumens.” In truth, the preparation for Baptism or Chrismation is only a preparation for catechesis. The “longer catechism” (to borrow a term from Protestant history) is the catechesis of the mysteries – which in one way or another lasts the rest of your life. Now we enter into the day to day participation of the life of the Church in its fullness, which is a path deeper into the knowledge of the Living God.
There are no arguments that can make the knowledge of God known for God is not a syllogism. We must finally know Him as a Person alone can be known: in freedom and in love. This is the mystagogical life of a Christian. In freedom and in love we yield ourselves constantly to God – who has Himself already yielded the same to us. In our mutual union with Him, we come to know Him, “even as we ourselves are known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
~Fr. Stephen Freeman, Glory to God for All Things, https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2007/04/10/knowing-god-after-pascha/.