My husband and I currently attend a non-denominational Christian church that we like, but I have known for awhile that if I were ever to convert to an actual denomination of Christianity, it would likely be the Orthodox Church. I am intrigued by the Orthodox church because of it’s ability to be both extremely tangible and yet elusive and ethereal. I am one of those people who is able to simultaneously embody two extremes. On one hand, I am extremely ritualistic. I love set prayer times, a specific pattern of worship, and set fast or feast days, these rituals give me a feeling of connection to the entire church – both present and ancient. It was the same when I was a Muslim. I loved making salaat, knowing that every Muslim in my time-zone was making salaat with me. I also loved fasting during Ramadan, knowing that every Muslim in the world was fasting with me. There’s such a tangible connection to faith that can be found in rituals.
At the same time, I understand that rituals can become very dangerous when we don’t pause to contemplate the reason why we are performing the rituals. And for that reason, I also love it when faiths have a certain amount of freedom in them. We shouldn’t think that just because we prayed at a certain time or fasted for lent that we are spiritually ‘in the clear.’ Our hearts have to continuously be examined in order for us to make sure that we are always living out the commands of God in every life-situation. To me, the Orthodox church is the very definition of a group that has found a way to be both spontaneous and ritualistic in their worship of and love for God. They keep to the rituals, but they don’t neglect the heart.
That said, today begins the Lent season for the Orthodox Church! I am not fasting along with the Orthodox, but I am following their more casual lectionary that I found in the back of my Orthodox Study Bible. Today’s readings were Isaiah 1:1-20, Genesis 1:1-13, and Proverbs 1:1-20. But I’ll just be focusing on Isaiah 1:1-20 as it relates to other religious texts that I am reading.
In Isaiah 1:1-20, God is angry with the Israelites because they are living an ungodly lifestyle. Many of them have turned away from their God – YHWH – and are worshiping idols. They have stopped caring for the orphans and the widows, they are murdering, slandering, and stealing – and yet they continue to practice the rituals that YHWH instituted for them in the Law of Moses. In other words, their rituals are in tact, but they have neglected their hearts. God is warning them, he is fed up with their observance to his ceremonial laws when they do not observe his moral laws. If they do not repent and do better, they are going to be in big trouble.
I feel that God speaks this same message through many different faith groups.
-“The Master said, ‘A man who is not humane, what can he have to do with ritual?'” – Confucian Analects.
-“Even three times a day to offer three hundred cooking pots of food does not match a portion of the merit acquired in one instant of love.” – Buddhist text, Nagarjuna, Precious Garland.
-“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth.” – Jesus, Matthew 15
-“It is not piety that you turn your faces in prayer to the East and to the West. True piety is this: to believe in God, and the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the Prophets, to give of one’s substance, however cherished, to kinsmen, and orphans, they needy, the traveller, beggars, and to ransom the slave, to perform the prayer, to pay the alms…” Qur’an, Sura 2
-“What is Shinto? Not in the shrines the wordly minded frequent for gifts in vain, but in good deeds, pure of heart, lies real religion.” -Shinto text, Genchi Kato.
And finally another one from the Bible:
-“Religion that God our father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27
As a believer in Christ, I believe that Jesus came to regenerate our hearts. Many of us are religious in the sense that we try to follow religious rules, but our hearts aren’t in it! We don’t have to numbly follow the rules without understanding why the rules are there or without knowing the God who made them! No matter what faith tradition one follows, it is such an appropriate start to the Lenten season (or any season of life, really!) to renovate your heart by getting in touch with the heart of your faith and the heart of God!