I am often confronted with the reality of a divine mystery. This all-powerful, all-knowing God whom we serve chooses to “work in mysterious ways.” (Isa 45:15). The particular “way” that I have in mind is His working through material people and objects rather than doing everything Himself.
Even God’s greatest intervention in the history of humanity, the incarnation of the Logos, was completed through the willingness of a pious young virgin.
When God wanted to free His people, he called Moses to confront Pharaoh. How much more efficient would it have been if he had simply sent an angel to Pharaoh in a “shock and awe” sort of method? And when the children of Israel were wandering through the wilderness and grumbling with ungratefulness in their hearts, they were stricken with “fiery serpents.” The Israelites then turned to Moses and asked him to pray to God on their behalf. Moses did so and was instructed by the Lord to make a bronze serpent that would heal anyone who gazed upon it.
In the book of Job chapter 42, we see that God’s anger is kindled against Job’s friends for slandering the character of God by misrepresenting him through their words. God then instructs them to bring an offering to Job that he can offer to God on their behalf.
In the book of Acts, it is recorded that people were healed through the prayers of the apostles, the simple passing of Peter’s shadow over people, handkerchiefs that Paul touched being delivered to the sick, and the laying on of hands (which many Christian denominations still practice).
These examples are just a few of the many places we see in scripture where God works through the intercessions of others and brings his healing presence through materials objects and people.
WHY MATTER MATTERS
But why would an all-powerful God choose to work indirectly every time He wants to complete some work? I don’t really know, but it does seem that God is not concerned with doing things in the most “efficient” manner, humanly speaking.
Today, the Orthodox Church still recognizes that God has chosen to work through people and material objects. For that reason, we have priests and bishops who pray for the people and conduct our divine services. We also pray with the saints, recognizing the Christian and biblical tradition of asking holy people to intercede on our behalf.
Perhaps most importantly, we have the holy mysteries (sacraments) which include the Eucharist (communion), confession, anointing with oil, baptism, marriage, etc. We recognize these not as nice little religious procedures or ceremonies, but as the method that God has given His Church to receive His grace. That is why we baptize our infants, because the holy mystery of baptism is an encounter with God Himself. Who wouldn’t want that for their child?
It is true that God can and does operate outside of these holy mysteries, but just as he gave Moses the bronze snake in the wilderness, so He has bestowed upon us the mysteries of the Church so that we might receive His healing and saving grace.
SUPERSTITION AND INDIVIDUALISM
Due to the influence of the reformers, many of the mysteries were removed from Protestant life. The reformers thought themselves too grown up and mature to dabble in silly superstitious practices. Christianity became an intellectual idea, which is why the church services changed dramatically at the time of the reformation. They went from being mostly singing for the first 1500 years to revolving around a sermon.
It was inconsistently assumed that God no longer works through people or material objects, that God has suddenly changed His methods and now wants to bestow His grace and salvation through intellectual and philosophical means.
The scripture “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” was misinterpreted to mean that we are all isolated individuals before Jesus who intercedes by Himself to the Father. In other words, we don’t need anyone else. It’s just me, Jesus, and my Bible.
WHEN THEOLOGICAL SAND CASTLES COLLAPSE
I used the word “inconsistently” above because that is how this theology is applied. Cracks in this broken theological structure can be seen when people ask for prayers from one another, when they anoint the sick, when they baptize believers, when they take communion, and when they lay hands on others (either for healing or ordaining someone to the ministry).
They can proclaim that they are simply following particular Bible passages as if these were written as some kind of dry instruction manual. And that is fine, but the Bible is leading them to Orthodox practices. Their beliefs, however, have yet to catch up.
What we see here in western Christianity is a fierce intellectual independence in theology that is not practiced well. Christians proclaim they don’t need anyone or anything except Jesus, and yet they ask one another for prayer.
GOD’S GRACE UPON US
I believe that the Holy Spirit is moving within every person who sincerely wants to follow Jesus Christ. Because of that, we see that despite false beliefs, there is an instinctual understanding that we are all in this together and that God has always bestowed His grace upon His people through material objects and holy men and women.
The Orthodox Church has received from the Apostles the particular material ways in which God has chosen to lavish His grace upon us. It is not as if God needs these things to operate, it is that we need them. And when we humbly accept the ways and wisdom of God, and we stop trying to reinvent Christianity every few years, we will find that our lives are deeply enriched with His grace.