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What is the Orthodox Church?
One Church, one faith, one tradition, and one history began in Jerusalem, ca. 33 AD on Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles (Acts 2). This was the beginning of the Orthodox (i.e., ‘right-believing’) Christian Church. We are the Church that wrote and handed down the New Testament. It was written in Greek, and Greek Orthodox churches still read it in the original language.
Christ’s apostles and disciples established communities wherever they proclaimed the good news throughout the world. Many of these still exist, for instance in Athens, Antioch, Thessalonica, and Corinth. Eventually five major centers emerged— Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem— and the bishops of those cities became known as ‘patriarchs’ or ‘popes’, a title that means ‘grandfather’. Except for Rome, those are the churches we hail from, sometimes via places like Russia or Serbia. Today, there are fifteen such local churches, all forming one Orthodox Church. We don’t have a single leader; all bishops are equal, although within a system of seniority, and they work together in councils.
In terms of faith— well, the New Testament tells about Jesus Christ, in continuity with the Old Testament. That is our basic book, and we worship Jesus as our Lord, God, and Savior.
In terms of practice, we maintain the same sacraments, patterns of worship, and organizational structures that are found in the New Testament. Of course, beginning from roots that are still discernable, the forms of each of these have developed over the past 2000 years, but in essence, we still do the same today as the first Christians did.
In the course of history, doctrinal disputes occasionally flared up over the nature of Christ and of salvation. Such disputes were eventually settled at councils of bishops who gathered from all over the world to consider them in view of what the Church had always taught. The seven most important of these councils— starting with that of Nicea in 325 AD— are called ‘ecumenical’ (i.e., world-wide). They are a kind of ultimate authority for us. Guided by the Holy Spirit, they articulated in changing times the unchanging, undivided faith of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, which we continue to teach and to practice in all its wholeness even today.
Are you the same as the Catholics?
Western European society fell into decline after Constantine transferred the capital to the East in 324 AD, and the West developed in some isolation from the main cultural centers of the world from then until the 1000s. None the less, for a thousand years, the churches of both East and West shared the common faith we’ve just described. But when Pope Gregory VII tried to assert the prerogatives he enjoyed in the West over the entire church by changing the Creed that all the churches had been reciting every day since the Council of Nicea in 325, the other churches could not of course accept such a change in fundamental teaching. The pope’s efforts led to a formal breakdown of communion in 1054, although the division was not really sealed until the Crusaders plundered their way through the East en route to Jerusalem a couple hundred years later.
That change in the Creed is known as the Filioque. We have no space to discuss it here— but that, and the later doctrines of the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary (1854) and of papal infallibility (1870)— are the main theological differences between the Orthodox and the Roman churches today. But differences of culture have also taken root, which are in some ways even deeper and harder to solve.
The 1500s brought the Protestant Reformation, arguably in response to the same kinds of papal claims. We view the Reformation as having had positive aspects— notably in fostering renewed appreciation for the Bible— but unfortunately it has led to further losses of continuity with the original apostolic faith.
But most of the history that took place in Western Europe left the East untouched. There, the Church was struggling with Islam. But the eastern patriarchates— including new ones like Moscow and Serbia— remained steadfast in the life and faith handed down through the apostles. We have problems of our own, of course— but without judging anyone, we thank God that we have remained faithful to the authentic faith of the original Church— and we invite everyone to ‘come and see’ (John 1.39, 46).
What do you believe?
One popular account of salvation (not the story we tell) starts from sin: Every human being has sinned and offended God, and calls forth his infinite wrath. This wrath has to be appeased, or God’s perfect justice will not be satisfied, but of course we puny human beings could never appease God’s infinite wrath, so we deserve only Hell. But God sent Jesus to pay the price for us and to reconcile us to himself by dying in our stead, so that if we believe in him, we can escape our just condemnation.
We wonder, though, what kind of God would harbor such murderous rage? Why couldn’t he freely forgive, as Jesus taught us to do? ‘God so loved the world’, says John 3.16, ‘that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life’— but didn’t God so hate the world, if he wanted to kill it, but killed his only Son instead? Let’s be honest about this— if any human father acted like that, we’d lock him up for murder. And if God is really like that, then doesn’t the spiritual life become a matter of fear, of making sure we never, ever displease him again?
That may be a popular way to speak of salvation, but it’s not the way we see it.
Jesus didn’t come to save us from God, but to rescue us from death and sin. In fact, God is like Jesus— he is Jesus’ Father, whom Jesus loves— and Jesus wants what the Father wants. God sent his only-begotten son to be with us, to suffer with us, even to suffer at our hands, in order to go down with us into the death that we all die— to go down with us to the grave— in order to share his life with us, to rescue us and give us the very life of the Father himself, in the very grave into which we had fallen.
In doing this, he didn’t come just to save individuals. He came to raise, to renew, and to sanctify God’s entire cosmos, by restoring the human race to its true vocation as God’s living Image and as high priest of creation. That’s what Christianity is about, and what we teach and celebrate.
‘If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit dwelling in you. . . . [and] creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of God’s children’ (Rm 8.11, 21).
Sanctifying the entire Cosmos
Like ancient Israel and following from it, we observe daily, weekly, and yearly cycles of worship. Each day, at the transition from light to darkness and from darkness to light, and about every three hours between, we sanctify the passage of time with the memory and praise of God. This daily cycle of seven services meshes with a weekly cycle of seven days centered on the Divine Liturgy, which is the living heart of the Church’s life, manifesting Christ’s death and resurrection. We celebrate the Liturgy every Sunday (the day of the Lord’s resurrection) and on other feasts as well. All of this takes place in two yearly cycles, the moveable lunar cycle revolving around Easter, and the solar cycle of fixed feasts, including Christmas. In conjunction with these, we also observe periods of purification (fasting) and celebration (feasting) for the healing of soul and body.
Of course, only monasteries and major churches manage the full program, but every community participates in it as fully as it can.
The temple of God’s glory
The space in which this cosmic liturgy takes place is the temple, which is designed to express and to draw us in to the whole story.
Vertically, an Orthodox temple is typically some form of a cube surmounted by a dome. Here we stand where the earth with its four directions connects with infinite heaven above.
Horizontally, the temple normally has three parts— a ‘narthex’ (vestibule), a ‘nave’ (main body), and an ‘altar’ (sanctuary), and is oriented toward the east, the light, the dawn. Narthex, nave, and altar reproduce the Court of Israel, the Holy Place, and the Holy of Holies of the Old Testament temple. The narthex represents the world created and blessed by God in the beginning and still ‘very good’ (Gen 1.31), even if it is fallen— and sometimes we paint ancient philosophers, representing human culture, on its walls. The nave presents the world as redeemed in Christ, his mystical body, the Church itself, including all who have lived or ever will live in him, the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ (Heb 12.1) seen in the icons that surround us there. The altar represents the throne of heaven, where the cosmic liturgy of reconciliation and acceptance by God takes place.
The altar is joined to the nave by a gate and a screen of icons or ‘iconostasis’, and separated from it by a veil. The iconostasis has three doors (nos. 12, 20, and 21 in the picture below), of which the central one is the ‘Beautiful Gate’, the Gate of Heaven.
To its left (11) is an image of the first coming of Christ— that is, of the Virgin and Child. To its right (10) is an image of Christ in glory as King and Lord, as he will appear on the Last Day. Between them, the Beautiful Gate is the gate of the present, where Communion is possible— and here, ‘with complete assurance, we share in the body and blood of Christ. For it is in the image (‘type’) of bread that the body is given to you, and in the image (‘type’) of wine, the blood; so that, having participated in the body and blood of Christ, you become a single body and a single blood with Christ. As a result, we become Christ-bearers, since his body and his blood spread throughout our members. In this way we become, as Blessed Peter says, “partakers of God’s own nature”.‘ (St Cyril of Jerusalem, quoting 2 Peter 1.4).
As we enter the temple, then, we journey from darkness to light, from earth to heaven, from the past, through the present of the Church, to the age to come, from which the Divine Communion is brought forth. At the Beautiful Gate between the first and second comings of Christ, where Heaven and Earth, Past and Future, Time and Eternity connect, the Church leaves behind the darkness of sin and death and receives the Light of the Dawn from on high— the rising and never setting Sun of Justice (Malachi 4.2), and enjoys perfect Communion with Jesus Christ, her Bridegroom— the One ‘Who Is, Who Was, and Who Is Coming’ (Revelation 1.4 etc). That’s what Orthodox Christianity is all about.
By all means come and experience it yourself!