I am always struck by how, at least in the Orthodox Church, we are never taken neatly through the life of Jesus. This is especially pronounced at certain times of the year. For instance, during Epiphany (or Theophany), daily readings included Mark 1:1-8, Luke 3:1-18, Mark 1:9-11, and Matthew 3:13-17 to name a few. It is like we progress through Christ by taking a couple of steps down the road, a couple of steps back, and then three more steps in a slightly different direction the next time. The church seems to want us to dance into holiness, and slowly.
A liturgist could probably explain better why the church arranges our “lessons” this way. I am sure repetition has something to do with it, but I have also been struck by the polyphony (example below). We are not many voices telling the same “basic” story. (Anyone who thinks that John and Mark tell the same basic story have not read them.) We are telling complex and at times even competing variations on a theme that comprise a single, mellifluous composition.
The gospels bear witness to Christ with different voices. Sometimes that witness differs only in minor details. Other times it differs drastically. Did the early church spread from Jerusalem (Luke) or Galilee (Matthew)? Did Jesus cleanse the Temple at the end of his ministry (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) or the beginning (John)? Did Paul go immediately to Jerusalem after his conversion (Acts) or did he first go to the Arabian peninsula (Galatians)? One will sometimes find the teachers of the church trying to reconcile one account to another, but on the whole our mothers and fathers do not fret about the details. They preferred four different stories to something like the Diatessaron of Tatian, which harmonized the gospels into one. I think they were more comfortable with contradiction because their faith was greater than ours.
The church is a “big tent.” It has always embraced its own diversity, its own internal tensions, and that can make some people nervous. I am not sure why. Perhaps it is that their religion is something they take pride in, and if someone who is not like them claims to belong to the same religion, then it reminds them that faith is not an accomplishment. It is a gift. There are no gold stars here. Or maybe they love God because they fear hell. That will make people behave, but it is not faith. It is anxiety that wears the mask of piety. As Augustine observed, it is just perverted self-love. Anxious about our own salvation, we wag a holy finger at the failings of others. We can assure ourselves that we are being saved by condemning those who are not like us. Sometimes our zeal to defend the faith can show our lack of it. Personally, I am not sure that our faith is something that needs defending. Or if it is, then it probably looks like martyrdom.
The fathers and mother of the church were smart people. They knew their Bible better than we do, but they did not try to sweep biblical contradictions under the rug. In fact, sometimes the church seems to foreground its internal differences — its inconsistent witness to its one Lord. It pries our eyes open and says, “Look, child! Difference! Variety! Have you paid no attention to the Creed? Orthodoxy draws the circle as widely as possible.”
Orthodoxy is defined as “right belief,” but its meaning is deeper than that. Doxa means “praise.” Ortho-doxy is “right praise.” People are different. Each of us is unique, thanks be to God! Ask people to draw a picture of Jesus, and they will each draw something different. Ask four saints to tell us about Jesus, and they will each tell different stories (especially if one of those saints is John). But the child of God is not called to be a systematic theologian in the sense of one who can explain the faith perfectly. Nobody can do that! God is beyond our understanding. Ask any person to explain God, and in a matter of minutes you will hear some kind of heresy. None of us is going to get our belief “right.” We might confess the same creed, but we all will understand it a bit differently. And that is okay! Orthodoxy is not about accuracy. It is about martyrdom. Jesus said that anyone who follows him must be willing to carry his cross (Matt 16:24). I do not think that cross means a burden or inconvenience of some kind, which is how one hears that passage often cheaply explained. I think it means, well, a cross! As Paul said, we are to be crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20). Maybe even literally.
The word martyro means “I bear witness.” Like an author of the gospel, a martyr directs us to Christ. His life is a biography of Jesus. Every life is unique. Every Jesus we are presented with is unique. That is, I think, what orthodoxy/Orthodoxy is about. It is to make a life that is transparent to Christ. The way we do that is by praising God rightly. A Christian who praises God gives God the glory for all things, takes credit for nothing, and understands that everything he has he has received as a gift. There is nothing to be proud of, nothing to boast about, except the God who has redeemed him and is saving him. Thus an Orthodox/orthodox Christian is not someone who gets all his doctrines right. There are not many people equipped to judge something like that anyway (that is why the church is not only hierarchical but conciliar, which means a hierarchy that is always ready to deconstruct itself). Rather, the truest Christian is the one who bears witness to Jesus. We are most orthodox/Orthodox when people look at us and struggle to parse where it is that we end and Jesus Christ begins, even if those Jesuses are all just a little bit different.
Example of polyphony: