By Jim Forest
“Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad.” The Jews then said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”
– John 5:56-58
In Communion isn’t fifty years old, only an adolescent thirteen, but we are, as of this issue, fifty issues old.
Fifty is a number that provides a moment to express surprise – those of us who launched the journal were far from confident it would last this long – and also gratitude.
In Holland, where the journal has been edited since its founding, fifty is a number that has a special resonance due to a local custom rooted in a Gospel verse. Jesus was challenged by his critics for speaking of Abraham as someone he knew personally: “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” The Dutch have taken this to imply that once a person is fifty, perhaps he or she is old enough to have seen Abraham.
Dutch fiftieth birthday parties are celebrated in ways that underscore the possibility. In anticipation of the upcoming event, a special Abraham or Sarah cookie is ordered from a local bakery. Using hand-carved wooden molds that in some bakeries are many generations old, spiced dough is pressed into the shape either of Abraham or Sarah. Almonds are used for decoration. Once baked, the cookie is put in a special box, wrapped and ribboned, to be solemnly presented to the one who has become old enough to see the biblical couple who hosted the three divinely-sent angels under the oak of Mamre.
It’s a large cookie – big enough to be broken into enough pieces so that everyone at the party has at least a taste. (Perhaps we need to order an Abraham cookie and have a little In Communion party sometime in the coming weeks?)
Why did we start In Communion?
From the beginning, it was obvious that the Orthodox Peace Fellowship needed an accessible way of sharing some aspects of the Orthodox tradition that have long been neglected. In the early years this was done on a smaller scale, a publication of much fewer pages, modestly dubbed The Occasional Paper. Indeed it was very occasional, perhaps two thin issues a year. Only in 1993 did we have enough economic support to move to a quarterly schedule and make the journal more substantial and give it its present name.
From the start, we had a fairly clear idea of what we wanted to do.
We Orthodox have remembered how to celebrate the Liturgy in a way that astonishes Christians of other churches; we refuse to make time-saving economies in the way we worship God. We don’t welcome clocks in our churches.
But not everything the apostolic Church meant to pass on to us has been given similar care and attention.
Over the centuries, many Orthodox Christians have made their peace with war in a way our early Christian forebears could not have imagined and would find scandalous. We are also much less noted than they were for paying attention to the needs of poor, neglected and abused members of the society we live in. Too often we are turned in on ourselves, not infrequently along ethnic lines. There are Orthodox parishes in which it must be embarrassing to hear Paul’s words read aloud about the followers of Christ being “neither Jew nor Greek.”
Our mission was not to invent anything, not to propose any innovations, but to jog our own memories, and the memories of our fellow Orthodox Christians, about what had been forgotten. It is mainly a job of dusting off what is already there. So many of the writings of the Church Fathers about our social obligations had been placed in boxes and stored in the Church’s attic, available to scholars but seldom heard of by the ordinary Orthodox believer. So many of the stories of those we see on icons in any parish church are hardly known to those who kiss those icons.
How surprised we are to discover our own past. There were saints who gave up their lives rather than kill in war? St. Basil the Great founded a “city of mercy” to care for the homeless, the abused and the sick that was regarded as one of the wonders of the world? St. John Chrysostom said we would not find Christ in the chalice unless we first found him in the beggar we encountered on the way to church?
If much has been forgotten, then In Communion should be a way of helping resurrect buried memories of forms of sanctity and patristic teaching that are desperately needed in our own day.
And why was the journal named In Communion? It was a suggestion of one of the first members of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship’s advisory board, Fr. Thomas Hopko, now retired but in those days dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary.
“My task,” he wrote in the first issue of In Communion, “is not to decide whether or not I will be in relationship with you but to realize that I am in communion with you: my life is yours, and your life is mine. Without this, there is no way that we are going to be able to carry on.”
A revised, expanded, all-color edition of Jim Forest’s book, Praying With Icons, has just been published by Orbis Books.
Summer 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 50