How would you describe Orthodox Christianity in one word?”
This question was posed to a panel of scholars at a Theology conference several years ago. A few of the panelists gave their answers—offering responses like “Liturgy,” “Authentic,” “Theosis,” and “Traditional.” Then the final panelist, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, gave his reply: “Freedom,” he said, “Orthodoxy is freedom.”
“Freedom” certainly wasn’t the answer that most of us were expecting. Oftentimes, Orthodox Christianity seems like the opposite of freedom…it seems firm, rigid, full of canons and long services. It seems conservative, not liberal, unchanging, not free-flowing. Especially during Lent, many Orthodox feel burdened by the restricted diet, the heavy schedule of services, and the increase in philanthropic activities.
Yet, I’ve become more and more convinced that “freedom” is the best one-word description of Orthodoxy, and that, properly understood, Lent is Liberation.
For starters, the “40-Day” journey of Lent is inseparable from the “40 years” that the ancient Israelites journeyed through the wilderness under Moses’s leadership, and the “400 years” of slavery in Egypt that preceded it.
As recounted in the Book of Exodus, God’s people had lost their freedom. They were under the rule of an oppressive foreign King, the Pharaoh, and living in a foreign land—far from the land promised to Abraham. On the one hand, the ancient Israelites knew that they ought to be free, and, on the other, they knew that they weren’t truly free.
Moses, as God’s representative, confronts the Pharaoh, requests that God’s People be set free, and after the series of refusals, plagues, further requests, and miracles, the Israelites are liberated, beginning their 40-year pilgrimage in the desert and their eventual arrival in the Land of Caanan.
Recall the Lord’s words in Exodus 3:7-8: “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of the slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
While much could be said about the connection between Moses, the Exodus, and Lent, perhaps the most significant point for us is that the entire Lenten journey is framed, or structured, as a process of liberation, as a movement from slavery, through the desert, to the Promised Land.
Great Lent’s message, therefore, is clear: our God is a God of liberation; God does not desire the suffering, oppression, or captivity of His people; and God does not abandon us. Instead, God acts decisively—through Moses for the ancient Israelites and through Christ for all of humanity—entering into history to restore freedom.
While liberation from slavery and socio-political oppression is fully in line with God’s will and plan for salvation, it is not freedom’s only dimension.
Orthodox tradition affirms that part of what sets humanity apart, as beings created in the “divine image” (Gen 1:26), is our freedom to choose. We were created with free will, the capacity referred to in many patristic sources as “το αυτεξούσιον,” or self-determination.
This capacity is perhaps the most significant characteristic that God gave us. It is a god-like capacity, an expression of personal existence. It is also why conditions of slavery and oppression are fundamentally dehumanizing, striking at the core of our identity. But free will, as we know from the history of the Israelites as well as recent history, and from the story of Adam & Eve as well as our own stories, is also risky.
St. Makarios of Egypt writes,“You are created in the image and likeness of God; thus just as God is free and creates what He wants…so are you free. Therefore our nature is well-capable of accepting both good and evil; both God’s grace, and the enemy’s powers. But it cannot be forced.”
St. Makarios’s words highlight three basic claims, each of which is further developed during the Lenten dynamics of liberation:
- God created human beings with the freedom to choose either good or evil, either communion with God or rebellion against God.
- God respects human freedom. And,
- God, as Himself free, did not have to create human beings with freedom, or respect human freedom once it was given.
The first of St. Makarios’s claims brings us all the way back to the beginning, to the creation and Fall narrative recorded in Genesis 1-3. We all know how this scenario plays out…Adam and Eve’s freedom provides the condition for the possibility of their temptation and rebellion, the introduction of human death and suffering, and humanity’s exile from the paradisal Garden. It is the ultimate story of freedom’s misuse leading to a state of bondage and alienation.
On the very last day before entering Great and Holy Lent, the Orthodox Church commemorates Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God and expulsion from Paradise. It is striking that the ‘last message’ communicated to Orthodox faithful as we enter Lent is about freedom’s misuse, and the devastating effects that follow.
We find a similar message in the quintessential Lenten parable, the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32). The prodigal’s story can be read as an extended commentary on freedom. First, exercising his free will, the prodigal demands his inheritance from his father; he chooses to leave home; he chooses to pursue his own vision of the ‘good life;’ he chooses again and again—until the money runs out—to act on his passions. And what is the result of all this “freedom”? Slavery and exile, a state of miserable oppression in ‘a distant country’ (cf. Lk 15:13). This dynamic, which parallels both the Exodus and the Fall narratives, is described well by St. Justin Martyr, “To yield and give way to our passions is the lowest slavery, even as to rule over them is the only liberty.” And the recently canonized St. Paisios puts it tersely, “It is not freedom when we say everything is permitted. This is slavery.” Thus, while human beings are free to choose good or evil, choosing evil leads us away from freedom, alienating us from God and our true selves.
A second basic claim drawn from St. Makarios’s words, that God respects human freedom, is also developed throughout the movement of Lent. God respects human freedom. God does not force humanity to obey, or force us to accept His will. Notice the behavior of the prodigal son’s father: he does not respond to his son’s request by saying, “you will stay right here, young man!” He doesn’t lock the gates or put guards at the door. He doesn’t chase after his son, or threaten him, or go and find him in the ‘distant country’ and drag him home. No. He allows his son to leave; he respects his child’s freedom; he runs to meet his son only after his son has freely chosen to return home.
Perhaps the most extraordinary example of God respecting human freedom comes in a feast that falls during Lent every year: the Annunciation (March 25th). Here we witness the all-powerful God waiting for a young woman, Mary, to choose whether to accept His invitation to bear the savior of the cosmos. Just imagine the depths of God’s humility—God sends the archangel to communicate the offer, and then waits for Mary to exercise her will freely, voluntarily accepting the role of Theotokos (Lk 1:38). The message is clear: humanity’s liberation comes only through respecting human freedom.
St. Makarios’s third claim brings us to the central message of Lent and the core of the Gospel. Since God is Himself free and, thus, was obligated neither to create human beings with freedom, nor to respect human freedom once it was given, why would God do so? Why would God allow us to rebel, allow us to reject, allow us to hate and destroy one another, and allow us to fall deeper and deeper into a hell of our own making? Why take the risk?
The answer, we know, is love. Without true freedom, there can be no true love. And with true freedom, comes both the possibility of loving communion and the risk of rebellion. There is no other way. In the words of Paul Evdokimov, “God can do anything except compel us to love Him, for love is free and thus where there is no liberty of choice there is no love.”
If true love is God’s ultimate aim for all of us, then true freedom is God’s penultimate aim. Put differently, if Lent’s purpose is Liberation, then Lent’s fulfillment is a wedding. And this is precisely the message of Holy Week, as proclaimed in the hymns of the “Bridegroom” services, “Behold the bridegroom is coming, in the middle of the night…” and again, “I see your bridal chamber, all decorated my Savior…”
From this interplay between freedom, love, and ‘the marriage of the Lamb’ (Rev. 19:7) arises the great paradox and mystery of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter: the revelation that true freedom lies in loving communion.
As a closing thought, consider the following from Archimandrite Sophrony’s work, St. Silouan the Athonite (p. 106): Men seek their own freedom, that is to say, freedom outside God, outside true life, in ‘outer darkness’ where there is, and can be, no freedom, for freedom can only exist where there is no death, where there is authentic eternal being—in God, that is.
In the end, Orthodoxy is freedom and Lent is liberation because, after crossing the desert of the 40-day fast, we encounter the Risen Christ. Pascha is a wedding. Victorious over death, Christ invites us to enter the bridal chamber, and to experience the fullness of freedom, of love, and of life in Him.
Rev. Dr. Perry Hamalis is Cecelia Schneller Mueller Professor of Religion at North Central College (Naperville, IL). A deacon of the Orthodox Metropolis of Korea, he teaches, writes, and lectures on Christian Ethics, and is the co-editor, with Valerie Karras, of the book, Orthodox Christian Perspectives on War (University of Notre Dame Press, 2018).
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.