Eastern Orthodox Church
Orthodox prayer rope ©
The Orthodox Church is one of the three main Christian groups (the others being Roman Catholic and Protestant). Around 200 million people follow the Orthodox tradition.
It is made up of a number of self-governing Churches which are either 'autocephalous' (meaning having their own head) or 'autonomous' (meaning self-governing).
The Orthodox Churches are united in faith and by a common approach to theology, tradition, and worship. They draw on elements of Greek, Middle-Eastern, Russian and Slav culture.
Each Church has its own geographical (rather than a national) title that usually reflects the cultural traditions of its believers.
The word 'Orthodox' takes its meaning from the Greek words orthos ('right') and doxa ('belief'). Hence the word Orthodox means correct belief or right thinking.
The Orthodox tradition developed from the Christianity of the Eastern Roman Empire and was shaped by the pressures, politics and peoples of that geographical area. Since the Eastern capital of the Roman Empire was Byzantium, this style of Christianity is sometimes called 'Byzantine Christianity'.
The Orthodox Churches share with the other Christian Churches the belief that God revealed himself in Jesus Christ, and a belief in the incarnation of Christ, his crucifixion and resurrection. The Orthodox Church differs substantially from the other Churches in the way of life and worship, and in certain aspects of theology.
The Holy Spirit is seen as present in and as the guide to the Church working through the whole body of the Church, as well as through priests and bishops.
Are Orthodox Churches the same as Eastern Orthodox Churches?
Not all Orthodox Churches are 'Eastern Orthodox'. The 'Oriental Orthodox Churches' have theological differences with the Eastern Orthodox and form a separate group, while a few Orthodox Churches are not 'in communion' with the others.
Not all Churches in the Eastern tradition are Orthodox - Eastern Churches that are not included in the Orthodox group include the Eastern Catholic Churches.
The Eastern Orthodox Churches
The nominal head of the Eastern Orthodox Churches is the Patriarch of Constantinople. However, he is only first among equals and has no real authority over Churches other than his own.
There are 15 'autocephalous Churches', listed in order of precedence.
Churches 1-9 are led by Patriarchs, while the others are led by Archbishops or Metropolitans:
- Church of Constantinople (ancient)
- Church of Alexandria (ancient)
- Church of Antioch (ancient)
- Church of Jerusalem (ancient)
- Church of Russia (established in 1589)
- Church of Serbia (1219)
- Church of Romania (1925)
- Church of Bulgaria (927)
- Church of Georgia (466)
- Church of Cyprus (434)
- Church of Greece (1850)
- Church of Poland (1924)
- Church of Albania (1937)
- Church of Czech and Slovak lands (1951)
- The Orthodox Church in America (1970)
The Orthodox communion also includes a number of 'autonomous Churches':
- Church of Sinai
- Church of Finland
- Church of Estonia*
- Church of Japan*
- Church of China*
- Church of Ukraine*
- Archdiocese of Ohrid*
* indicates a Church whose autonomy is recognised by only some of the other Churches
Life and worship
Life and worship
Eastern Christianity stresses a way of life and belief that is expressed particularly through worship. By maintaining the correct form of worshipping God, passed on from the very beginnings of Christianity. Eastern Christians believe that they confess the true doctrine of God in the right (orthodox) way.
The Orthodox Bible is almost the same as that found in Western Churches ©
The Bible of the Orthodox Church is the same as that of most Western Churches, except that its Old Testament is based not on the Hebrew, but on the ancient Jewish translation into Greek called the Septuagint.
The wisdom of the Fathers of the Church is central to the Orthodox way of life as today's inheritors of the "true faith and Church" passed on in its purest form. By maintaining the purity of the inherited teachings of the Apostles, believers are made more aware of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit being present both in history and at the present day.
A life of prayer
At the centre of worship and belief is the Eucharist surrounded by the Divine Offices or the Cycle of Prayer. These prayers are sung particularly at Sunset and Dawn and at certain other times during the day and night.
Personal prayer plays an important part in the life of an Orthodox Christian. For many Orthodox Christians an important form of prayer is the Jesus Prayer. This is a sentence which is repeated many times; for example: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." The aim of this repetition is to enable the person to concentrate solely on God.
The strict life of a monk or nun is seen as an important expression of faith.
Mount Athos and Monasticism
Monastery on Mount Athos ©
Monasticism is a central part of the Orthodox faith. Mount Athos in north-eastern Greece is described as the centre of Orthodox monasticism. It is the only place in Greece completely dedicated to prayer and worship of God. For this reason, it is called the Holy Mountain.
Most monasteries are coenobitic: living a communal life. The peninsula is divided into twenty self-governed territories. Each territory consists of a major monastery and some other monastic establishments that surround it (cloisters, cells, cottages, seats, hermitages).
For monk and nun alike, their spiritual life should follow the same way of living that all Christians try to achieve by following God's commandants. While not being against marriage, it is generally accepted that celibacy in the Church allows for a closer understanding of the Christian life away from worldly things.
Fasting and prayer
Fasting and prayer play an important part of the Orthodox Christian life. Orthodox believe that fasting can be the 'foundation of all good'. The discipline of training the body can enable a believer to concentrate the mind totally on preparation for prayer and things spiritual.
There are four main fasting periods:
- The Great Fast or the period of Lent
- The Fast of the Apostles: Eight days after Pentecost until 28th June. The ends with the Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
- The Dormition Fast which begins on 1st August and ends on the 14th August
- The Christmas Fast from 15 November to 24th December.
Also all Wednesdays and Fridays are expected to be days of fasting.
Even though today the call to fast is not always strictly followed, nevertheless many devout Orthodox Christians do undergo a time of genuine hardship and it has been said that:
A discussion of self-denial
Contributors from Opus Dei and a Greek Orthodox church discuss self-denial and corporal mortification with a Muslim chaplain.
Sacred Mysteries (sacraments)
The following seven principal Mysteries or sacraments are at the heart of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Baptism and Chrismation
The first two are Baptism and Chrismation. Baptism of adults and infants is by immersion in water three times in the name of the Trinity and is both the initiation into the Church and a sign of forgiveness of sins.
Chrismation follows immediately after baptism and is by anointing with holy oil called Chrism. Chrismation is followed by Holy Communion. This means that in the Orthodox Church babies and children are fully communicant members of the Church.
Chrism can only be consecrated by the Patriarch, or chief Bishop, of the local Church. Some of the old Chrism is mixed with the new, thus linking the newly baptised to their forbears in the faith.
The Chrism is used to anoint different parts of the body with a sign of the cross. The forehead, eyes, nostrils, mouth and ears, the chest, the hands and the feet are all anointed. The priest says the words, "The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit" as he makes the sign of the cross at each point.
The newly baptised Christian is now a layperson, a full member of the people of God (the 'Royal Priesthood'). All Christians are called to be witnesses to the Truth.
Chrismation is linked to Pentecost in that the same Holy Spirit which descended on the apostles descends on the newly baptised.
The Eucharist, usually called the Divine Liturgy, fulfils the command of Jesus Christ at the Last Supper: "Do this in remembrance of me".
Singing hymns ©
As in many Western churches the Eucharist is a service consisting, in the first part, of hymns, prayers, and readings from the New Testament, and in the second the solemn offering and consecration of leavened bread and wine mixed with water, followed by the reception of Holy Communion.
The Orthodox believe that by the consecration the bread and wine are truly changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Communion is given in a spoon containing both the bread and the wine and is received standing. A sermon is usually preached either after the reading of the Gospel or at the end of the service. At the end of the Liturgy blessed, but not consecrated, bread is distributed to the congregation, and non-Orthodox are often invited to share in this as a gesture of fellowship.
Both parts of the Liturgy contain a procession. At the Little Entrance, the Book of the Gospels is solemnly carried into the sanctuary and at the Great Entrance the bread and wine are carried to the altar for the Prayer of Consecration and Holy Communion.
The prayer of consecration is always preceded by the proclamation of the Nicene Creed, frequently by the whole congregation.
The Orthodox Church lays particular emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist, and in the Prayer of Consecration calls on the Father to send down his Holy Spirit to effect the change of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.
There are four different liturgies used throughout the year:
Greek Orthodox priests ©
- The Liturgy of St John Chrysostom (used on Sundays and weekdays)
- The Liturgy of St Basil the Great (used 10 times a year)
- The Liturgy of St James, the Brother of the Lord (sometimes used on St James' Day)
- The Liturgy of the Presanctified (used on Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent and on the first three days of Holy Week)
Although the Church is a self-governing community the Church recognises the diaconate, the presbyterate or priesthood and the episcopate (bishops).
The Bishops in the Orthodox Church are considered to be the direct successors of the original Apostles and they are very much a unifying focus in the Church. Priests in the Orthodox Church are permitted to be married but may not marry after ordination. Bishops must always be celibate. Orthodox priests normally do not shave their beards, in accordance with the Bible.
All Orthodox Churches use the Mystery of Penance, or Confession, but in Greek speaking Churches only priests who have been blessed by the Bishop as 'Spiritual Fathers' are allowed to hear confession. Children may be admitted to the sacrament of Confession as soon as they are old enough to know the difference between right and wrong.
Through this sacrament sinners may receive forgiveness. They enter into confession with a priest often in an open area in the church (not in a confessional as in the Roman Catholic tradition nor separated by a grille).
Both priest and penitent stand and a cross and book of the Gospels or an icon is placed in front of the penitent with the priest standing slightly apart. This stresses that the priest is simply a witness and that forgiveness comes from God not the priest.
The priest will then hear the confession and perhaps give advice. After confession the penitent kneels before the priest, who places his stole on the penitent's head saying a prayer of absolution.
Anointing of the sick
In Greek-speaking Churches this is performed annually for the whole congregation during Holy Week on the eve of Holy Wednesday. Everyone is encouraged to come forward for anointing with the special oil whether they are physically ill or not. This is because it is generally held that all are in need of spiritual healing even if they are physically well.
Anointing of the sick can also be performed on individuals. People sometimes keep the blessed oil of the sick in their homes.
The Church anoints the sick with oil, following the teaching of St James in his Epistle (5:14-15), "Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the Church, and they should pray over him and anoint (him) with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins he will be forgiven."
Marriage is celebrated through the rite of crowning, showing the importance of eternal union of the couple. Although marriage is seen as a permanent commitment in life and in death, remarriage and divorce are permitted in certain circumstances.
Calendar and Christmas
The Orthodox calendar
After World War I various Orthodox Churches, beginning with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, began to abandon the Julian calendar or Old Calendar, and adopt a form of the Gregorian calendar or New Calendar. The Julian calendar is, at the present time, thirteen days behind the Gregorian Calendar.
Today, many Orthodox Churches (with the exception of Jerusalem, Russia, Serbia, and Mount Athos) use the New, Gregorian Calendar for fixed feasts and holy days but the Julian calendar for Easter and movable feasts. In this way all the Orthodox celebrate Easter together.
The Orthodox Church calendar begins on September 1st and ends on August 31st. Each day is sacred: each is a saint's day, so at least one saint is venerated daily.
Christmas is celebrated by Orthodox Christians in Central and Eastern Europe and throughout the world on the 7th of January in the Gregorian Calendar - 13 days after other Christians.
In the East, Christmas is preceded by a 40 day fast beginning on November 15th. This is a time of reflection, self-restraint and inner healing in the sacrament of confession.
Usually, on Christmas Eve, observant Orthodox Christians fast till late evening, until the first star appears. When the star is seen, people lay the table ready for the Christmas supper.
On Christmas Day people take part in divine liturgy, after which many walk in procession to seas, rivers and lakes. Everyone gathers around in the snow for outdoor ceremonies to bless the water. Sometimes rivers are frozen, so people make holes in the ice to bless the water. Some take water home to bless their houses. Then a great feast is held indoors where everyone joins in to eat, drink and enjoy themselves.
A Orthodox Russian custom is to serve Christmas cakes and to sing songs. The tradition is mixed with other pagan traditions of ancient Russia such that people may visit their neighbours in disguises, dance, sing and ask for presents, similar to trick-or-treating.
There are similarities, as well as differences, between the Eastern and Western celebration of Christmas. The Eastern Christmas has a very strong family and social appeal just as it does in the West. It brings people of all generations together to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
Unlike the West, where Christmas ranks supreme, in the East it is Easter, centred on the cross and the resurrection of Christ, which is the supreme festival of the year. Eastern Orthodox Christmas also lacks the commercial side that is typical of the West.