In the area of human sciences, laws of genetics and laws of behavioral interactions as well as rich descriptions of the processes that lead to sickness and to health are accepted by all as incontrovertible givens. Humanity conforms and acquiesces with nary a murmur or complaint. And yet with respect to moral values, the spiritual life, and liturgical practices, people feel that it is permissible, perhaps even desirable, to adjust and even discard the givens of faith, the givens of revelation, and even the givens of sin and holiness. It is as though the claims of science have such a hold on us that the claims of history and tradition may seem to be too much. And yet, the givens of faith can free the human spirit and open up horizons that scientific causality could never imagine.
That is why the desire to re-fashion Christian teaching or find a “new way” of doing things is a temptation. When we hear comments such as “I worship God in my own way, I don’t need the Church or her teachings,” the tempting thought has been accepted and already acted upon. And although contemporary society might make this temptation appear more alluring and arise more frequently, it is not a new idea. Christ Himself spoke of that temptation when He said, “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”
Saint Gregory Palamas in commenting on this Scripture passage wrote, “But this, you might say, is from the old law. What bearing does it have on us, the people of the new covenant? Have you not heard Christ, the Lord and lawgiver, saying, ‘I am not come to destroy the law but to fulfill’, and ‘One jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled’. If this is the case, anyone liable to the sentence of death and the other threatened punishments on account of sin, will of necessity be put to death, be shamefully defeated and delivered up to his enemies, and suffer every terror. There is only one remedy invented by the wisdom and grace of the only God and Savior Christ: to make ourselves dead to sin through repentance.” The givens of the Law guide one to a transfiguration in which what should be dead is in fact deadened and what should be alive is indeed made to live. Without that Law, however, one loses one’s moorings and wanders in one’s own personal pathless desert in which the dreamed of oasis is but an illusion of one’s own making.
The path to salvation is the same path trod by the holy martyrs of the early Church and the same path of its saints throughout the ages. To reject that path or adopt other paths is to begin a journey whose final destination is no longer sure. In fact, Saint Theophan the Recluse wrote a letter to his flock concerning the unchanging nature of the path towards salvation in 1863 when he received word of people grumbling about the strictness of his sermons. He wrote, “It reached my ears that, as it seems, you consider my sermons very strict and believe that today no one should think this way, no one should be living this way and therefore, no one should be teaching this way. ‘Times have changed!’ How glad I was to hear this. This means that you listen carefully to what I say, and not only do you listen, but you are also willing to abide by it. What more could we hope for, we who preach as we were ordered and as much we were ordered? Despite all this, in no way can I agree with your opinion. I even consider it my duty to comment on it and to correct it, since – even though it perhaps goes against your desire and conviction – it comes from something sinful, as though Christianity could alter its doctrines, its canons, its sanctifying ceremonies to answer to the spirit of each age and adjust itself to the changing tastes of the sons of this century, as though it could add or subtract something. . . If the saving power of this teaching depended on our opinion of it and our consent to it, it would make sense for someone to imagine rebuilding Christianity according to human weaknesses or the claims of the age and adapt it according to the sinful desires of his heart. But the saving power of Christian law does not at all depend on us, but on the will of God, by the fact that God Himself established precisely the exact path of salvation.”
The spiritual laws handed down through Moses and the prophets and fulfilled in Christ are not similar to civil laws, which may be adjusted or rescinded depending upon circumstances or the needs of the times. In a sense, they are more like the natural laws in which precise consequences follow when certain conditions are met. In other words, spiritual laws are not followed to please the crowd, but to heal the sick. And if health is identified as a good, it only makes sense to follow advice that leads to that good. Saint John Chrysostom’s explanation of the Church as a hospital is particularly apt and provides us with the keen insight as to the purpose of the Law and the prophets. They show us the way in which we should walk. They show us how to become healthy and how to be whole. They lead us to repentance. And in so doing, they lead us to that place where we can know the God of our hearts. This is the law of the freedom, this is the law of grace, and “until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from” it, thanks be to God.