Eastern Orthodox Church
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The Eastern Orthodox Church, officially called the Orthodox Catholic Church, and also referred to as the Orthodox Church and Orthodoxy, is the second largest Christian church in the world, with an estimated 225–300 million adherents,  most of whom live in Eastern Europe (especially Greece and Southeastern Europe), the Middle East, and Russia. It identifies itself as the present-day continuation of the theology and episcopacy established by Jesus Christ through his Apostles. It is the religious affiliation of the majority of the populations of Belarus, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Georgia, Greece, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Russia, Serbia, and Ukraine; significant minority populations exist in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Kazakhstan, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. It teaches that it is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church established by Jesus Christ in his Great Commission to the disciples almost 2,000 years ago.
The Church's structure is composed of several self-governing ecclesial bodies, each geographically (and often nationally) distinct but unified in theology and worship. Each self-governing body (autocephalous jurisdiction), often but not always encompassing a nation, is shepherded by a Holy Synod whose duty, among other things, is to preserve and teach the apostolic and patristic traditions and related church practices. Like the Catholic Church, Anglican Communion, Assyrian Church of the East, Oriental Orthodoxy and some other churches, Orthodox bishops trace their lineage back to the apostles through the process of apostolic succession.
The Orthodox Church traces its development back to the earliest church established by St. Paul and the Apostles, through the ancient Roman Empire and its continuation the Byzantine Empire. It regards itself as the historical and organic continuation of the original Church founded by Christ and His apostles. It practices what it understands to be the original faith passed down from the Apostles (that faith "which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all", namely Holy Tradition), believing in growth and development without alteration of the faith. In non-doctrinal, non-liturgical matters the church has always shared in local cultures, adopting or adapting (conventional) traditions from among practices it found to be compatible with the Christian life, and in turn shaping the cultural development of the nations around it, including Greek, Slavic, Romanian, Middle Eastern, North African, British, Saxon, and Celtic peoples. (For an example, see Yule log).
Through baptism, Orthodox Christians enter a new life of salvation through repentance, whose purpose is to share in the life of God through the work of the Holy Spirit. Christian life is a spiritual pilgrimage in which each person, through the imitation of Christ and hesychasm, cultivates the practice of unceasing prayer (often with use of the Jesus Prayer). This life occurs within the life of the church as a member of the Body of Christ. It is through the fire of God's love in the action of the Holy Spirit that the Christian becomes more holy, more wholly unified with Christ, starting in this life and continuing in the next. Born in God's image, each person is called to theosis, fulfillment of the image in likeness to God. God the creator, having divinity by nature, offers each person participation in divinity by cooperatively accepting His gift of grace.
The Orthodox Church, in understanding itself to be the Body of Christ, and similarly in understanding the Christian life to lead to the unification in Christ of all members of his body, views the church as embracing all Christ's members, those now living on earth, and also all those through the ages who have passed on to the heavenly life. The church includes the Christian saints from all times, and also judges, prophets and righteous Jews of the first covenant, Adam and Eve, even the angels and heavenly hosts. In orthodox services, the earthly members together with the heavenly members worship God as one community in Christ, in a union that transcends time and space and joins heaven to earth. This unity of the Church is sometimes called the communion of the saints.
- 1 Orthodoxy
- 2 Catholicity of the Orthodox Church
- 3 Local customs
- 4 Organization and leadership
- 5 Number of adherents
- 6 Theology
- 7 Eschatology
- 8 Traditions
- 9 Holy mysteries (sacraments)
- 10 History
- 10.1 Early Church
- 10.2 Ecumenical councils
- 10.3 Roman/Byzantine Empire
- 10.4 Early schisms
- 10.5 Conversion of East and South Slavs
- 10.6 Great Schism (1054)
- 10.7 Age of captivity
- 10.8 Russian Orthodox Church in the Russian Empire
- 10.9 Russian Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union (1917-1991)
- 10.10 Other Orthodox Churches during the Cold War
- 11 Relations with other Christians
- 12 Interfaith relations
- 13 Church today
- 14 See also
- 15 References
- 16 Bibliography
- 17 Further reading
- 18 External links
Almost from the very beginning, Christians referred to the Church as the "One, Holy, Catholic [from the Greek καθολική, or "according to the whole"] and Apostolic Church". The Orthodox Church claims that it is today the continuation and preservation of that same Church.
A number of other Christian churches also make a similar claim: the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, the Assyrian Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches. In the Orthodox view, the Assyrians and Orientals left the Orthodox Church in the years after the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451), in refusal to accept some of that council's doctrinal decisions. Similarly, the churches in Rome and Constantinople separated in an event known as the Great Schism (now, sometimes called the East–West Schism), traditionally dated to the year 1054, although it was more of a gradual process than a sudden break. The Church of England separated from the Roman Catholic Church, not directly from the Orthodox Church, for the first time in the 1530s (and, after a brief reunion in 1555, again finally in 1558). Thus, though it was united to Orthodoxy when established through the work of Saint Augustine of Canterbury in the early 7th century, its separation from Orthodoxy came about through the Great Schism.
To all these churches, the claim to catholicity (universality, oneness with the ancient church) is important for multiple doctrinal reasons that have more bearing internally in each church than in their relation to the others, now separated in faith. The meaning of holding to a faith that is true is the primary reason why anyone's statement of which church split off from which other has any significance at all; the issues go as deep as the schisms. The depth of this meaning in the Orthodox Church is registered first in its use of the word "Orthodox" itself, a union of Greek orthos ("straight" "correct" "true" "right") and doxa ("glory" as in Doxa Patri, "Glory to the Father").
The dual meanings of doxa, with "glory" or "glorification" (of God by the Church and of the church by God), especially in worship, yield the pair "correct belief" and "true worship". Together, these express the core of a fundamental teaching about the inseparability of belief and worship and their role in drawing the Church together with Christ. The Russian and all the Slavic churches use literally the title Pravoslavie, meaning "glorifying correct", to denote what is in English Orthodoxy, while the Georgians use the title Martlmadidebeli. Several other churches in Europe, Asia, and Africa also came to use Orthodox in their titles, but are still distinct from the Orthodox Church as described in this article.
The term "Eastern Church" (the geographic east in the East-West Schism) has been used to distinguish it from western Christendom (the geographic west, which was at first the Roman Catholic Church, later also the Protestant and Anglican branches). "Eastern" is used to indicate that the highest concentrations of the Eastern Orthodox Church presence are still in the eastern part of the Christian world, although it is growing worldwide. Orthodox Christians throughout the world use various ethnic or national jurisdictional titles, or more inclusively, the title "Eastern Orthodox".
What unites the Orthodox is the faith, whose base is Holy Tradition, inspired through the operation of the Holy Spirit. That faith is expressed most fundamentally in worship, and most essentially in Baptism and the Divine Liturgy. The faith lives and breathes by God's interaction in communion with the Church. Inter-communion is the litmus test by which all can see that two churches share the same faith; lack of inter-communion (excommunication, literally "outside of communion") is the sign of different faiths, even though some central beliefs may be shared. The sharing of beliefs can be highly significant, but it is not the full measure of the faith.
The lines of even this test can blur, however, when differences that arise are not due to doctrine, but to recognition of jurisdiction. As the Orthodox Church has spread into the west and over the world, the church as a whole has yet to sort out all the inter-jurisdictional issues that have arisen in the expansion, leaving some areas of doubt about what is proper church governance. And as in the ancient church persecutions, the aftermath of modern persecutions of Christians in communist nations has left behind both some governance and some faith issues that have yet to be completely resolved.
All members of the Orthodox Church profess the same faith, regardless of race or nationality, jurisdiction or local custom, or century of birth. Holy Tradition encompasses the understandings and means by which that unity of faith is transmitted across boundaries of time, geography, and culture. It is a continuity that exists only inasmuch as it lives within Christians themselves. It is not static, nor an observation of rules, but rather a sharing of observations that spring both from within and also in keeping with others, even others who lived lives long past. The Holy Spirit maintains the unity and consistency of the Holy Tradition (as well as the faith) within the Church, as given in the Scriptural promises.
The shared beliefs of Orthodoxy, and its theology, exist within the Holy Tradition and cannot be separated from it, for their meaning is not expressed in mere words alone. Doctrine cannot be understood unless it is prayed. To be a theologian, one must know how to pray, and one who prays in spirit and in truth becomes a theologian by doing so. Doctrine must also be lived in order to be prayed, for without action, the prayer is idle and empty, a mere vanity, and therefore the theology of demons. According to these teachings of the ancient church, no superficial belief can ever be orthodox. Similarly, reconciliation and unity are not superficial, but are prayed and lived out.
Catholicity of the Orthodox Church
The Orthodox Church considers itself to be both orthodox and catholic. Due to the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in the west, where the English language itself developed, the words catholic and catholicity are sometimes used to refer to that church itself. However, the general and more prominent meaning is still the one shared by other languages, of breadth and universality, reflecting comprehensive scope. In a Christian context, the Church, as identified with the original Church founded by Christ and His apostles, is said to be catholic (or universal) in regards to its union with Christ in faith. Just as Christ is indivisible, so are union with Him and faith in Him, whereby the Church is "universal", unseparated, and comprehensive, including all who share that faith. Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware has called that "simple Christianity". That is the sense of early and patristic usage wherein the Church usually refers to herself as the "Catholic Church", whose faith is the "Orthodox faith". It is also the sense within the phrase "One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church", found in the Nicene Creed, and referred to in Orthodox worship, such as the litany of the catechumens of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.
With the mutual excommunications of the East-West schism in 1054, the church in Rome and that in Constantinople each viewed the other as having departed from the Church, leaving a smaller but still-catholic Church in place. Each retained the "Catholic" part of its title, "Roman Catholic Church" on the one hand, and "Orthodox Catholic Church" on the other, each of which was defined in terms of inter-communion with either Rome or Constantinople. While Orthodoxy recognizes what it shares in common with the heterodox churches of our time, including Roman Catholicism, it does not see anything short of complete union in communion and faith as able to express the universality of the Church. The Orthodox view of catholicity and its expression within the Orthodox Catholic Church remains unchanged to this day.
Official name and common name
In keeping with the Church's teaching on universality and with the Nicene Creed, Orthodox authorities such as Saint Raphael of Brooklyn have insisted that the full name of the church has always included the term "Catholic", as in "Holy Orthodox Catholic Apostolic Church".   The official name of the Eastern Orthodox Church is the Orthodox Catholic Church.   It is the name by which the church refers to itself in its liturgical or canonical texts,        in official publications,   and in official contexts or administrative documents.  Orthodox teachers refer to the Church as Catholic.    This name and longer variants containing "Catholic" are also recognized and referenced in other books and publications by secular or non-Orthodox writers.     
The common name of the Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, is a shortened practicality that helps to avoid confusions in casual use. In the eastern Roman Empire, and later, the Byzantine Empire, Greek was the most prevalent shared language, and ethnic Greeks were widely dispersed geographically throughout. For this reason, the eastern churches were sometimes identified as "Greek" (in contrast to "Roman"), even before the great schism. After 1054, "Greek Orthodox" or "Greek Catholic" marked a church as being in communion with Constantinople, much as "Roman Catholic" did for communion with Rome. This identification with Greek, however, became increasingly confusing with time. The Byzantine Empire brought Orthodoxy to many regions without ethnic Greeks, where Greek was also not spoken. In addition, struggles between Rome and Constantinople to control parts of southeastern Europe resulted in the conversion of some churches to Rome, which then also used "Greek Catholic" to indicate their continued use of the Byzantine rites. Today, many of those same Roman churches remain, and a very large number of Orthodox are also not of Greek national origin, and do not use Greek as the language of worship. "Eastern", then, indicates the predominance of geography in the Church's origin and development, while "Orthodox" indicates not only the faith, but communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. (There are additional Christian churches in the east that are in communion with neither Rome nor Constantinople, who tend to be distinguished by the category named "Oriental Orthodox".) While the Church continues officially to call itself "Catholic", for reasons of universality, the common title of "Eastern Orthodox Church" avoids casual confusion with the Roman Catholic Church.
The Orthodox Church also has many associated traditions (sometimes referred to simply as customs), compatible with its life and function, but not necessarily tied so closely to the faith itself. These are not generally regarded as a part of Holy Tradition, though no strict dividing line is drawn. As long as compatibility is maintained, general practice often tends to the permissive rather than the restrictive, with the local priest or bishop resolving questions.
Many of these customs are local or cultural, and some are not even especially religious, but form a part of the church's relationship with the people in the time and place where it exists. Where outside customs affect church practices such as worship, a closer watch is kept for guarding the integrity of worship, but suitable local differences are welcomed and celebrated joyfully. The local church customs, especially liturgical ones, are referred to as differences in typica (Style).
Locality is also expressed in regional terms of churchly jurisdiction, which is often also drawn along national lines. Many Orthodox churches adopt a national title (e.g. Albanian Orthodox, Bulgarian Orthodox, Antiochian Orthodox, Georgian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Montenegrin Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, etc.) and this title can identify which language is used in services, which bishops preside, and which of the typica is followed by specific congregations. In the Middle East, Orthodox Christians are usually referred to as Rum ("Roman") Orthodox, because of their historical connection with the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire.
Differences in praxis ("practice") tend to be slight, involving things such as the order in which a particular set of hymns are sung or what time a particular service is celebrated. But observances of the saints' days of local saints are more often celebrated in special services within a locality, as are certain national holidays, like Greek Independence Day. In North America, observances of Thanksgiving Day are increasing.
Members of the Church are fully united in faith and the Sacred Mysteries with all Orthodox congregations, regardless of nationality or location. In general, Orthodox Christians could travel the globe and feel familiar with the services even if they did not know the language being used.
Organization and leadership
The permanent criteria of church structure for the Orthodox Church today, outside the New Testament writings, are found in the canons (regulation and decrees) of the first seven ecumenical councils; the canons of several local or provincial councils, whose authority was recognized by the whole church; the Apostolic Canons, dating from the 4th century; and the "canons of the Fathers" or selected extracts from prominent church leaders having canonical importance.
The Orthodox Church considers Jesus Christ to be the head of the Church and the Church to be his body. Thus, despite widely held popular belief outside the Orthodox cultures, there is not one bishop at the head of the Orthodox Church; references to the Patriarch of Constantinople as a leader equivalent or comparable to a pope in the Roman Catholic Church are mistaken. It is believed that authority and the grace of God is directly passed down to Orthodox bishops and clergy through the laying on of hands—a practice started by the apostles, and that this unbroken historical and physical link is an essential element of the true church (Acts 8:17, 1 Tim 4:14, Heb 6:2). However, the church asserts that Apostolic Succession also requires Apostolic Faith, and bishops without Apostolic Faith, who are in heresy, forfeit their claim to Apostolic Succession.
Each bishop has a territory (see) over which he governs. His main duty is to make sure the traditions and practices of the Church are preserved. Bishops are equal in authority and cannot interfere in the jurisdiction of another bishop. Administratively, these bishops and their territories are organized into various autocephalous groups or synods of bishops who gather together at least twice a year to discuss the state of affairs within their respective sees. While bishops and their autocephalous synods have the ability to administer guidance in individual cases, their actions do not usually set precedents that affect the entire Church. Bishops are almost always chosen from the monastic ranks and must remain unmarried.
There have been a number of times when alternative theological ideas arose to challenge the Orthodox faith. At such times the Church deemed it necessary to convene a general or "Great" council of all available bishops throughout the world. The Church considers the first seven Ecumenical Councils (held between the 4th and the 8th centuries) to be the most important; however, there have been more, specifically the Synods of Constantinople, 879–880, 1341, 1347, 1351, 1583, 1819, and 1872, the Synod of Iaşi (Jassy), 1642, and the Pan-Orthodox Synod of Jerusalem, 1672, all of which helped to define the Orthodox position.
The ecumenical councils followed a democratic form, with each bishop having one vote. Though present and allowed to speak before the council, members of the Imperial Roman/Byzantine court, abbots, priests, monks and laymen were not allowed to vote. The primary goal of these Great Synods was to verify and confirm the fundamental beliefs of the Church as truth, and to remove as heresy any false teachings that would threaten the Church. The Pope of Rome, at that time, held the position of “first among equals”. And while he was not present at any of the councils he continued to hold this title until the East-West Schism of 1054 AD.
According to Orthodox teaching the position of “First Among Equals” gives no additional power or authority to the bishop that holds it, but rather that this person sits as organizational head of a council of equals (like a president). His words and opinions carry no more insight or wisdom than any other bishop. It is believed that the Holy Spirit guides the Church through the decisions of the entire council, not one individual. Additionally it is understood that even the council’s decisions must be accepted by the entire Church in order for them to be valid.
One of the decisions made by the First Council of Constantinople (the second ecumenical council, meeting in 381) and supported by later such councils was that the Patriarch of Constantinople should be given equal honor to the Pope of Rome since Constantinople was considered to be the "New Rome". According to the third Canon of the second ecumenical council: "Because it is new Rome, the bishop of Constantinople is to enjoy the privileges of honor after the bishop of Rome." This means that both enjoy the same privileges because they are both bishops of the imperial capitals, but the bishop of Rome will precede the bishop of Constantinople since Old Rome precedes New Rome.
The 28th canon of the fourth ecumenical council clarified this point by stating: "For the Fathers rightly granted privileges to the throne of Old Rome because it was the royal city. And the One Hundred and Fifty most religious Bishops (i.e. the second ecumenical council in 381) actuated by the same consideration, gave equal privileges to the most holy throne of New Rome, justly judging that the city which is honored with the Sovereignty and the Senate, and enjoys equal privileges with the old imperial Rome, should in ecclesiastical matters also be magnified as she is."
The Pope of Rome would still have had honorary primacy before Constantinople if the East-West Schism had not occurred. Because of that schism the Orthodox no longer recognize the primacy of the pope. The Patriarch of Constantinople therefore, like the Pope before him, now enjoys the title of “first among equals.” This is not, however, meant to imply that he is the leader of the Orthodox Church. Also, this is not an official title of any sort, just a way of describing the seniority of the "imperial" bishops with respect to all other bishops.
Number of adherents
Based on the numbers of adherents, Orthodoxy is the second largest Christian communion in the world after the Roman Catholic Church. The most common estimates of the number of Orthodox Christians worldwide is approximately 225–300 million. The numerous Protestant groups in the world, if taken all together, outnumber the Orthodox, but they differ theologically and do not form a single communion.
Orthodoxy is the largest single religious faith in Greece (98%) and in Eastern Europe, including Moldova (93%), Serbia (85%), Georgia (84%), Romania (82%), Belarus (80%), Cyprus (78%), Russia (75%), Montenegro (72%), Ukraine (67%), Macedonia (65%), and Bulgaria (59%). Orthodox adherents represent significant minorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina (31%), Albania (7%), Lithuania (4%), Latvia (15%), and Estonia (16%). The dominant religion in northern Kazakhstan, Orthodoxy accounts for 24% of Kazakhstan's total population. Orthodox minorities live in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary (Romanian and Serbian minorities), Turkey and Azerbaijan.
Large Orthodox Christian communities have existed in Mediterranean countries since ancient times, although some have been subject to conditions of war, oppression, or suppression. The modern numbers of Christians there have sometimes dwindled rapidly through death, dislocation, and emigration. Some large Orthodox communities with ancient histories have been completely removed forcibly from some of their ancestral homes and therefore no longer have a presence in those locations, specifically Anatolia and Cappadocia. Significant communities remain in Lebanon (8%), Jordan (2%), Syria (10%), Hatay Province of Southern Turkey (Antiochian Greeks), Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip (Palestinian Christians), with some families able to trace their ancestry to the earliest Christians of the Holy Land.
In the last 400 years, immigrations from Eastern Europe and Western Asia have transplanted Greek, Romanian, Serbian, Macedonian, Albanian, Bulgarian and Russian Eastern Orthodox communities into the rest of Europe, and also into their former colonies or trading places in Africa, Asia (see the Orthodox Church of Japan), Australia, and North America. Modern expansion continues into new areas on all continents. Revitalization of Orthodoxy where it was persecuted under former Communist rule is rapid, although suppression is still the norm under Communism (see the Orthodox Church of China).
Orthodoxy first entered North America through Alaska, while it was still a part of Russia. Today, in the USA and Canada, the Orthodox minority is growing and at present comprises between 1% and 5% of the total population. Through both immigration and conversion, Orthodox Christianity is rapidly becoming one of the fasting growing religions in many Western countries, such as the United States and the Republic of Ireland (doubling in five years, quadrupling in ten). Recent growth of Orthodoxy in Guatemala has been nothing less than explosive, with hundreds of thousands of converts in the last five years, making it the most Orthodox nation (in proportion to its population) in the western hemisphere.
Orthodox Christians believe in the Trinity. The Holy Trinity is three, distinct, divine persons (hypostases), without overlap or modality among them, who share one divine essence (ousia Greek ουσία)— uncreated, immaterial and eternal. These three persons are typically distinguished in by their relation to each other. The Father is eternal and not begotten and does not proceed from any, the Son is eternal and begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit is eternal and proceeds from the Father. Orthodox doctrine regarding the Holy Trinity is summarized in the Nicene Creed (Symbol of Faith).
In discussing God's relationship to His creation, Orthodox theology distinguishes between God's eternal essence, which is totally transcendent, and His uncreated energies, which is how He reaches us. The God who is transcendent and the God who touches us are one and the same. That is, these energies are not something that proceed from God or that God produces, but rather they are God himself: distinct, yet inseparable from, God's inner being.
In understanding the Holy Trinity as "one God in three persons", "three persons" is not to be emphasized more than "one God", and vice versa. While the three persons are distinct, they are united in one divine essence, and their oneness is expressed in community and action so completely that they cannot even be considered separately. For example, their salvation of mankind is an activity engaged in common: "Christ became man by the good will of the Father and by the cooperation of the Holy Spirit. Christ sends the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father, and the Holy Spirit forms Christ in our hearts, and thus God the Father is glorified." Their "communion of essence" is "indivisible". Trinitarian terminology- essence, hypostasis, etc. - are used "philosophically", "to answer the ideas of the heretics", and "to place the terms where they separate error and truth." The words do what they can do, but the nature of the Trinity in its fullness remains beyond our comprehension and expression, a Holy Mystery that can only be experienced.
Sin, salvation and the incarnation
At some point in the beginnings of human existence man was faced with a choice: to learn the difference between good and evil through observation or through participation. The biblical story of Adam and Eve relates this choice by mankind to participate in evil, accomplished through disobedience to God's express command. Both the intent and the action were separate from God's will; it is that separation that defines and marks any operation as sin. The separation from God caused the loss of (fall from) his grace, a severing of mankind from his creator and the source of his life. The end result was the diminishment of human nature and its subjection to death and corruption, an event commonly referred to as the "fall of man".
When Orthodox Christians refer to Fallen Nature they are not saying that human nature has become evil in itself. Human nature is still formed in the image of God; we are still God's creation, and God has never created anything evil. But our fallen nature remains open to evil intents and actions. It is sometimes said that we are "inclined to sin"; that is, we find some sinful things attractive. It is the nature of temptation to make sinful things seem the more attractive, and it is the fallen nature of humans that seeks or succumbs to the attraction. Orthodox Christians reject the Augustinian position that the descendants of Adam and Eve are actually guilty of the original sin of their ancestors. But just as any species begets its own kind, so fallen humans beget fallen humans, and from the beginning of our existence we lie open to sinning by our own choice.
Since the fall of man, then, it has been mankind's dilemma that no human can restore his nature to union with God's grace; it was necessary for God to effect another change in human nature. Orthodox Christians believe that Christ Jesus was both God and Man absolutely and completely, having two natures indivisibly: eternally begotten of the Father in his divinity, he was born in his humanity of a woman, Mary, by her consent, through descent of the Holy Spirit. He lived on earth, in time and history, as a man. As a man he also died, and went to the place of the dead, which is Hades. But being God, neither death nor Hades could contain him, and he rose to life again, in his humanity, by the power of the Holy Spirit, thus destroying the power of Hades, and of death itself. Through God's participation in humanity, Christ's human nature, perfected and unified with his divine nature, ascended into heaven, there to reign in communion with the Holy Trinity.
By these acts of salvation, Christ provided fallen mankind with the path to escape its fallen nature. The Orthodox Church teaches that through baptism into Christ's death, and our death unto sin in repentance, with God's help we can also rise with Christ into heaven, healed of the breach of our fallen nature and restored to God's grace. To Orthodox Christians, this process is what is meant by "salvation", which consists of the Christian life. The ultimate goal is theosis – an even closer union with God and closer likeness to God than existed in the Garden of Eden. This very process is called Deification or "God became man that man might become 'god'". However, it must be emphasized that Orthodox Christians do not believe that man literally becomes God in His essence, or a god in his own nature. More accurately, Christ's salvific work enables man in his human nature to become "partakers of the Divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4); that is to say, man is united to God in Christ.
Through Christ's destruction of Hades' power to hold humanity hostage, he made the path to salvation effective for all the righteous who had died from the beginning of time – saving many, including Adam and Eve, who are remembered in the Church as saints.
The Orthodox reject the idea that Christ died to give God "satisfaction", as taught by Anselm, or as a punitive substitute as taught by the Reformers. Sin (separation from God, the source of all life) is its own punishment, capable of imprisoning the soul in an existence without life, without anything good, and without hope: hell, by any measure. Life on earth is God's gift, to give us opportunity to make our choice real: separation, or union.
Resurrection of Christ
The Orthodox Church understands the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus to be real historical events, as described in the gospels of the New Testament. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was in his humanity (that is, in history) crucified, and died, descending into Hades (Sheol), the place of the dead, as all humans do. But He, alone among humans, has two natures, one human, one divine, which are indivisible and inseparable from each other through the mystery of the incarnation. Hades could not restrain the infinite God. Christ in His divine nature captured the keys of Hades and broke the bonds which had imprisoned the human souls who had been held there through their separation from God.
Neither could death contain the Son of God, the Fountain of Life, who arose from death even in his human nature. Not only this, but he opened the gates of Hades to all the righteous dead of past ages, rescuing them from their fallen human nature and restoring them to a nature of grace with God, bringing them back to life, this time in God's heavenly kingdom. And this path he opened to all who choose to follow him in time yet to come, thus saving the human race. Thus the Orthodox proclaim each year at the time of Pascha (Easter), that Christ "trampled down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowed life."
The celebration of the Resurrection of Christ at Pascha is the central event in the liturgical year of the Orthodox Church. According to Orthodox tradition, each human being may partake of this immortality, which would have been impossible without the Resurrection; it is the main promise held out by God in the New Testament. Every holy day of the Orthodox liturgical year relates to the Resurrection directly or indirectly. Every Sunday is especially dedicated to celebrating the Resurrection and the triune God, representing a mini-Pascha. In the liturgical commemorations of the Passion of Christ during Holy Week there are frequent allusions to the ultimate victory at its completion.
Orthodox Christians hold that the Bible is a verbal icon of Christ (as proclaimed by the 7th ecumenical council). They refer to the Bible as Holy Scripture, meaning writings containing the foundational truths of the Christian faith as revealed by Christ and the Holy Spirit to its divinely inspired human authors. Holy Scripture forms the primary and authoritative written witness of Holy Tradition and is essential as the basis for all Orthodox teaching and belief. The Bible provides the only outside texts held to be suitable for reading in Orthodox worship services. Through the many scriptural quotations embedded in the worship service texts themselves, it is often said that the Orthodox pray the Bible as well as read it.
The New Testament consists of writings of the apostles and a very few other authors writing within apostolic times. The Old Testament consists of the writings of the Church as it existed in the time of the first covenant (before Christ), that is, within Judaism. The eastern regions of ancient Christianity adopted primarily the Greek-language Jewish translation of those writings known as the Septuagint, while the western regions (under the administration of Rome) depended at first on various Latin translations.
St. Jerome completed the well-known Vulgate Latin translation only in the early fifth century, around the time the accepted lists of scripture were resolved in the west. The east took up to a century longer to resolve the lists in use there, and ended by accepting a few additional writings from the Septuagint that did not appear in the lists of the west. The differences were small and were not considered to compromise the unity of the faith shared between east and west.
They did not play a role in the eventual schism in the 11th century that separated the Roman Catholic Church and eastern orthodoxy, and remained as defined essentially without controversy in east or west for at least one thousand years. It was only in the sixteenth century that Reformation Protestants challenged the lists, proclaiming a canon that rejected those Old Testament books that did not appear in the third century Hebrew Bible. In response, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches reaffirmed their accepted scriptural lists in more formal canons of their own.
Once established as Holy Scripture, there has never been any question that the Orthodox Church holds the full list of books to be venerable and beneficial for reading and study, even though it informally holds some books in higher esteem than others, the four gospels highest of all. Of the subgroups significant enough to be named, the "Anagignoskomena" (ἀναγιγνωσκόμενα, "things that are read") comprises ten of the Old Testament books rejected in the Protestant canon, but deemed by the Orthodox worthy to be read in worship services, even though they carry a lesser esteem than the 39 books of the Hebrew canon. The lowest tier contains the remaining books not accepted by either Protestants or Roman Catholics, among them, Psalm 151. Though it is a psalm, and is in the book of psalms, it is not classified as being within the Psalter (the first 150 psalms), and hence does not participate in the various liturgical and prayer uses of the Psalter.
In a very strict sense, it is not entirely orthodox to call the Holy Scriptures the "Word of God". That is a title the Orthodox Church reserves for Christ, as supported in the scriptures themselves, most explicitly in the first chapter of the gospel of John. God's Word is not hollow, like human words. "God said, 'let there be light'; and there was light." This is the Word which spoke the universe into being, and resonates in creation without diminution throughout all history, a Word of divine power.
As much as the Orthodox Church reveres and depends on the scriptures, they cannot compare to the Word of God's manifest action. But the orthodox do believe that the Holy Scriptures testify to God's manifest actions in history, and that through its divine inspiration God's Word is manifested both in the scriptures themselves and in the cooperative human participation that composed them. It is in that sense that the orthodox refer to the scriptures as "God's Word".
The Orthodox Church does not subscribe to the Protestant doctrine of "sola scriptura". The Church has defined what Scripture is; it also interprets what its meaning is. Christ promised: "When He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth". The Holy Spirit, then, is the infallible guide for the Church to the interpretation of Scripture. The Church depends upon those saints who, by lives lived in imitation of Christ, achieving theosis, can serve as reliable witnesses to the Holy Spirit's guidance. Individual interpretation occurs within the Church and is informed by the Church. It is rational and reasoned, but is not arrived at only by means of deductive reasoning.
At the same time, the authority of its interpretation resides in Christ as the head of the church, in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, and is expressed through those whom He has brought into union with Himself. The authority is not ecclesiastical, and interpretation is not restricted to clergy, but is open to whomever the Holy Spirit chooses to reveal it. A true interpretation is for the benefit of the whole Church, not just the individual, and it is consistent with "that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all" because God's revelation is consistent everywhere, always, and to all. Reading and understanding the Bible, interpreting within the Church, is encouraged and of great benefit, essential to the spiritual life of every Christian.
Scriptures are understood to contain historical fact, poetry, idiom, metaphor, simile, moral fable, parable, prophecy, and wisdom literature, and each bears its own consideration in its interpretation. While divinely inspired, the text stills consists of words in human languages, arranged in humanly-recognizable forms. The Orthodox Church does not oppose honest critical and historical study of the Bible. In biblical interpretation, it does not use speculations, suggestive theories, or incomplete indications, not going beyond what is fully known.
Holy tradition and the patristic consensus
"That faith which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all", the faith taught by Jesus to the apostles, given life by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and passed down to future generations without additions and without subtractions, is known as Holy Tradition. Holy Tradition does not change in the Orthodox Church because it encompasses those things that do not change: the nature of the one God in Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the history of God's interactions with his peoples, the Law as given to the Israelites, all Christ's teaching as given to the disciples and Jews and recorded in scripture, including the parables, the prophecies, the miracles, and His own example to humanity in His extreme humility. It encompasses also the worship of the church, which grew out of the worship of the synagogue and temple and was extended by Christ at the last supper, and the relationship between God and His people which that worship expresses, which is also evidenced between Christ and his disciples. It includes the authority that Christ bestowed on his disciples when he made them apostles, for the preserving and teaching of the faith, and for governing the organization and conduct of the church (in its administration by bishops).
Holy Tradition is firm, even unyielding, but not rigid or legalistic; instead, it lives and breathes within the Church. For example, the New Testament was entirely written by the early church (mostly the apostles). The whole Bible was accepted as scripture by means of Holy Tradition practiced within the early church. The writing and acceptance took five centuries, by which time the Holy Scriptures themselves had become in their entirety a part of Holy Tradition. But Holy Tradition did not change, because "that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all" remained consistent, without additions, and without subtractions. The historical development of the Divine Liturgy and other worship services and devotional practices of the church provide a similar example of extension and growth "without change".
The continuity and stability of Orthodox worship throughout the centuries is one means by which Holy Tradition expresses the unity of the whole church throughout time. Not only can the Orthodox of today visit a church in a place that speaks a language unknown to the visitors yet have the service remain familiar and understandable to them, but the same would hold true were any able to visit past eras. The church strives to preserve Holy Tradition "unchanging" that it may express the one unchanging faith for all time to come as well.
Besides these, Holy Tradition includes the doctrinal definitions and statements of faith of the seven ecumenical councils, including the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, and some later local councils, patristic writings, canon law, and icons. Not all portions of Holy Tradition are held to be equally strong. Some, the Holy Scriptures foremost, certain aspects of worship, especially in the Divine Liturgy, the doctrines of the ecumenical councils, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, possess a verified authority that endures forever, irrevocably. But with local councils and patristic writings, the Church applies a selective judgement. Some councils and writers have occasionally fallen into error, and some contradict each other.
In other cases, opinions differ, no consensus is forthcoming, and all are free to choose. With agreement among the Fathers, though, the authority of interpretation grows, and full patristic consensus is very strong. With canon law (which tends to be highly rigorous and very strict, especially with clergy) an unalterable validity also does not apply, since canons deal with living on earth, where conditions are always changing and each case is subject to almost infinite variation from the next. Even when and where they were once used with full strictness, their application was not absolute, and was carried out for individuals under the pastoral care of their bishop, who had the authority to decide when individual discipline had been satisfied. This too is a part of the Holy Tradition.
By tradition, the Orthodox Church, when faced with issues that are larger than a single bishop can resolve, holds a local council. The bishops and such others as may attend convene (as St. Paul called the Corinthians to do) to seek the mind of the church. A council's declarations or edicts then reflect its consensus (if one can be found). An ecumencial council is only called for issues of such import or difficulty or pervasiveness that smaller councils are insufficient to address them. Ecumenical councils' declarations and canons carry binding weight by virtue of their representation across the whole church, by which the mind of the church can be readily seen. However, not all issues are so difficult as to require an ecumenical council to resolve. Some doctrines or decisions, not defined in a formal statement or proclaimed officially, nevertheless are held by the Church unshakably and unanimously without internal disturbance, and these, also reflecting the mind of the church, are just as firmly irrevocable as a formal declaration of an ecumenical council. Lack of formality does not imply lack of authority within Holy Tradition. An example of such unanimity can be found in the acceptance in the fifth century of the lists of books that comprise Holy Scripture, a true canon without official stamp.
Territorial expansion and doctrinal integrity
During the course of the early church, there were numerous followers who attached themselves to the Christ and His mission here on Earth, as well as followers who retained the distinct duty of being commissioned with preserving the quality of life and lessons revealed through the experience of Jesus living, dying, resurrecting and ascending among them. As a matter of practical distinction and logistics, people of varying gifts were accorded stations within the community structure – ranging from the host of agape meals (shared with brotherly and fatherly love), to prophecy and the reading of Scripture, to preaching and interpretations and giving aid to the sick and the poor. Sometime after Pentecost the Church grew to a point where it was no longer possible for the Apostles to minister alone. Overseers (bishops) and assistants (deacons and deaconesses) were appointed to further the mission of the Church.
The ecclesia recognized the gathering of these early church communities as being greatest in areas of the known world that were famous for their significance on the world stage – either as hotbeds of intellectual discourse, high volumes of trade, or proximity to the original sacred sites. These locations were targeted by the early apostles, who recognized the need for humanitarian efforts in these large urban centers and sought to bring as many people as possible into the ecclesia – such a life was seen as a form of deliverance from the decadent lifestyles promoted throughout the eastern and western Roman empire.
As the Church increased in size through the centuries, the logistic dynamics of operating such large entities shifted: patriarchs, metropolitans, archimandrites, abbots and abbesses, all rose up to cover certain points of administration.
As a result of heightened exposure and popularity of the philosophical schools (haereseis) of Greco-Roman society and education, Synods and Councils were forced to engage such schools that sought to co-opt the language and pretext of the Christian faith in order gain power and popularity for their own political and cultural expansion. As a result, ecumenical councils were held to attempt to rebuild solidarity by using the strength of distant orthodox witnesses to dampen the intense local effects of particular philosophical schools within a given area.
While originally intended to serve as an internal check and balance for the defense of faulty local doctrine against the doctrine developed and spread by the apostles to the various sees, at times the church found its own bishops and emperors falling prey to local conventions – at these crucial moments in the history of the church, it found itself able to rebuild on the basis of the faith as it was kept and maintained by monastic communities who subsisted without reliance on the community of the state or popular culture and were generally unaffected by the materialism and rhetoric that often dominated and threatened the integrity and stability of the urban churches.
In this sense, the aim of the councils was never to expand or fuel a popular need for a clearer or relevant picture of the original apostolic teaching. Rather, the theologians spoke to address the issues of external schools of thought who wished to distort the simplicity and neutrality of the apostolic teaching for personal or political gain. The consistency of the Orthodox faith is entirely dependent on the Holy Tradition of the accepted corpus of belief – the decisions ratified by the fathers of the seven ecumenical councils, and this is only done at the beginning of a consecutive council so that the effects of the decisions of the prior council can be audited and verified as being both conceptually sound and pragmatically feasible and beneficial for the church as a whole.
Theotokos and saints
The Orthodox Church believes death and the separation of body and soul to be unnatural—a result of the Fall of Man. They also hold that the congregation of the Church comprises both the living and the dead. All persons currently in heaven are considered to be saints, whether their names are known or not. There are, however, those saints of distinction whom God has revealed as particularly good examples. When a saint is revealed and ultimately recognized by a large portion of the Church a service of official recognition (glorification) is celebrated.
This does not 'make' the person a saint, it merely recognizes the fact and announces it to the rest of the Church. A day is prescribed for the saint’s celebration, hymns composed and icons are created. Numerous saints are celebrated on each day of the year. They are venerated (shown great respect and love) but not worshiped, for worship is due to God alone. In showing the saints this love and requesting their prayers, the Orthodox manifest their belief that the saints thus assist in the process of salvation for others.
Pre-eminent among the saints is the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos ("God-bearer"). In Orthodox theology, the Theotokos is the fulfillment of the Old Testament archetypes revealed in the Ark of the Covenant (because she carried the New Covenant in the person of Christ) and the burning bush that appeared before Moses (symbolizing the Theotokos' carrying of God without being consumed ). Accordingly, the Orthodox consider Mary to be the Ark of the New Covenant and give her the respect and reverence as such. The Theotokos was chosen by God and she freely co-operated in that choice to be the Mother of Jesus Christ, the God-man.
The Orthodox believe that the Christ Child from the moment of conception was both fully God and fully Man. Mary is thus called the 'Theotokos' as an affirmation of the divinity of the One to whom she gave birth. It is also believed that her virginity was not compromised in conceiving God-incarnate, that she was not harmed and that she remained forever a virgin. Scriptural references to "brothers" of Christ are interpreted as kin, given that the word 'brother' was used in multiple ways, as was the term 'father'. Due to her unique place in salvation history, Mary is honored above all other saints and especially venerated for the great work that God accomplished through her.
The Church regards the bodies of all saints as holy, made such by participation in the Holy Mysteries, especially the communion of Christ's holy body and blood, and by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within the Church. Indeed, that persons and physical things can be made holy is a cornerstone of the doctrine of the Incarnation, made manifest also directly by God in Old Testament times through his dwelling in the Ark of the Covenant. Thus, physical items connected with saints are also regarded as holy, through their participation in the earthly works of those saints. God himself bears witness to this holiness of saints' relics through the many miracles connected with them that have been reported throughout history since Biblical times, often including healing from disease and injury.
Orthodox Christians believe that when a person dies the soul is temporarily separated from the body. Though it may linger for a short period on Earth, it is ultimately escorted either to paradise (Abraham's bosom) or the darkness of Hades, following the Temporary Judgment. Orthodox do not accept the doctrine of Purgatory, which is held by Roman Catholicism. The soul’s experience of either of these states is only a “foretaste”—being experienced only by the soul—until the Final Judgment, when the soul and body will be reunited.
The Orthodox believe that the state of the soul in Hades can be affected by the love and prayers of the righteous up until the Last Judgment. For this reason the Church offers a special prayer for the dead on the third day, ninth day, fortieth day, and the one-year anniversary after the death of an Orthodox Christian. There are also several days throughout the year that are set aside for general commemoration of the departed, sometimes including nonbelievers. These days usually fall on a Saturday, since it was on a Saturday that Christ lay in the Tomb.
While the Orthodox consider the text of the Apocalypse (Book of Revelation) to be a part of Scripture, it is also regarded to be a mystery. Speculation on the contents of Revelation are minimal and it is never read as part of the regular order of services. Those theologians who have delved into its pages tend to be amillennialist in their eschatology, believing that the "thousand years" spoken of in biblical prophecy refers to the present time: from the Crucifixion of Christ until the Second Coming.
While it is not usually taught in church it is often used as a reminder of God’s promise to those who love Him, and of the benefits of avoiding sinful passions. Iconographic depictions of the Final Judgment are often portrayed on the back (western) wall of the church building to remind the departing faithful to be vigilant in their struggle against sin. Likewise it is often painted on the walls of the Trapeza (refectory) in a monastery where monks may be inspired to sobriety and detachment from worldly things while they eat.
The Orthodox believe that Hell, though often described in metaphor as punishment inflicted by God, is in reality the soul's rejection of God's infinite love which is offered freely and abundantly to everyone.
The Orthodox believe that after the Final Judgment:
- All souls will be reunited with their resurrected bodies.
- All souls will fully experience their spiritual state.
- Having been perfected, the saints will forever progress towards a deeper and fuller love of God, which equates with eternal happiness.
Art and architecture
The church building has many symbolic meanings; perhaps the oldest and most prominent is the concept that the Church is the Ark (as in Noah's) in which the world is saved from the flood of temptations; therefore, most Orthodox Churches are rectangular in design. Another popular configuration, especially for churches with large choirs is cruciform or cross-shaped or what is called the "Greek-cross."
Architectural patterns vary in shape and complexity, with chapels sometimes added around the main church, or triple altars; but in general, the symbolic layout of the church remains the same. Each church is created with specified qualifications based on what the apostles said in the Bible. These qualifications include how big the temple should be.
The Church building is divided into three main parts: the narthex (vestibule), the nave and the sanctuary (also called the altar or holy place). The narthex is where catechumens and non-Orthodox visitors were traditionally asked to stand during services. It is separated from the nave by “The Royal Gate”. On each side of this gate are candle stands (menalia) representing the pillars of fire that went before the Hebrew people escaping from Egypt.
The nave is where most of the congregation stand during services. Traditionally, men stand on the right and women on the left. This is for a number of reasons: (1) Considering the family unit of past centuries the husband was dominant; thus, standing the same distance from the altar, equality is emphasised. (2) The idea of separating the sexes was inherited from the Jewish tradition of doing so within synagogues (3) Separation of sexes also followed the practice of choirs in which different levels of voice are placed in groups to facilitate harmony.
In general, men and women dress respectfully, typically wearing their "Sunday best" to enter the church. Often, women cover their heads as prescribed by Paul (1 Cor. 11:13). Children are considered full members of the Church and stand attentively and quietly during services. There is often a choir area at the side or in a loft in back. In addition to the Choir, a Chanter is always present at the front of the church to chant responses and hymns that are part of the Divine Liturgy offered by the Priest. There is usually a dome in the ceiling with an icon of Christ depicted as Ruler of the Universe (Pantocrator).
Everything in the Orthodox Church has a purpose and a meaning revealing God's revelation to man. At the front, or eastern end of the church, is a raised dais with an icon-covered screen or wall (iconostasis or templon) separating the nave from the sanctuary. In the center of this wall is the entrance to the altar known as the “Royal Doors” through which only the clergy may pass.
There is a right and left side door on the front of the iconostasis, one depicting the archangel, Michael and the other Gabriel. The priest and altar boys enter and exit through these doors during appropriate parts of the Divine Liturgy. Immediately to the right of the main gate you will always find an icon of Jesus Christ, on the left, an icon of the Theotokos (Mother of God). Other icons depicted on the iconostasis are John the Baptist and the Saint after which the church is named.
In front of the iconostasis is the bishop's chair, a place of honor where a visiting bishop or metropolitan will often sit when visiting the church. An Orthodox priest, when standing at the altar during the Divine Liturgy, faces toward the altar (typically facing east) and properly leads his congregation while together they perform the mystical sacrifice and pray to God.
The sanctuary contains the Holy Altar, representing the place where Orthodox Christians believe that Christ was born of the virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, laid in the tomb, descended into hell, rose from the dead on the third day, ascended into heaven, and will return again at his second coming. A free-standing cross, bearing the body of Christ, may stand behind the altar. On the altar are a cloth covering, a large book containing the gospel readings performed during services, an ark containing presanctified divine gifts (bread and wine) distributed by the deacon or priest to those who cannot come to the church to receive them, and several white beeswax candles.
The term 'icon' comes from the Greek word eikona, which simply means image. The Orthodox believe that the first icons of Christ and the Virgin Mary were painted by Luke the Evangelist. Icons are filled with symbolism designed to convey information about the person or event depicted. For this reason, icons tend to be formulaic, following a prescribed methodology for how a particular person should be depicted, including hair style, body position, clothing, and background details.
Icon painting, in general, is not an opportunity for artistic expression, though each iconographer brings a vision to the piece. It is far more common for an icon to be copied from an older model, though with the recognition of a new saint in the church, a new icon must be created and approved. The personal and creative traditions of Catholic religious art were largely lacking in Orthodox iconography before the 17th century, when Russian iconography began to be strongly influenced by religious paintings and engravings from both Protestant and Roman Catholic Europe. Greek iconography also began to take on a strong western influence for a period and the difference between some Orthodox icons and western religious art began to vanish. More recently there has been a trend of returning to the more traditional and symbolic representations.
The style of the icons seems to have been borrowed heavily from the paganism of the Greek culture. Henry Chadwick writes, “In this instinct there was a measure of truth. The representations of Christ as the Almighty Lord on his judgment throne owed something to pictures of Zeus. Portraits of the Mother of God were not wholly independent of a pagan past of venerated mother-goddesses. In the popular mind the saints had come to fill a role that had been played by heroes and deities.”
Free-standing statues (three-dimensional depictions) are almost non-existent within the Orthodox Church. This is partly due to the rejection of the previous pagan Greek age (Greek gods) of idol worship and partly because icons are meant to show the spiritual nature of man, not the sensual earthly body. Bas reliefs, however, became common during the Byzantine period and led to a tradition of covering a painted icon in a silver or gold 'riza' in order to preserve the icon. Such bas relief coverings usually leave the faces and hands of the saints exposed for veneration.
Icons are not considered by the Orthodox to be idols or objects of worship. The parameters of their usage were clearly spelled out by the 7th ecumenical council. Justification for their usage utilises the following logic: before God took human form in Christ, no material depiction was possible and therefore blasphemous even to contemplate. Once God became incarnate, depiction was possible.
As Christ is believed to be God, it is justified to hold in one's mind the image of God-incarnate. Likewise, when one venerates an icon, it is not the wood or paint that are venerated but rather the individual shown, just as it is not the paper one loves when one might kiss the photograph of a loved one. As Saint Basil famously proclaimed, honour or veneration of the icon always passes to its archetype. Following this reasoning, the veneration of the glorified human saint made in God's image, is always a veneration of the divine image, and hence God as foundational archetype.
Icons can be found adorning the walls of churches and often cover the inside structure completely. Most Orthodox homes have an area set aside for family prayer, usually an eastern facing wall, where are hung many icons. Icons have been part of Orthodox Christianity since the beginning of the church.
Icons are often illuminated by a candle or oil lamp. (Beeswax for candles and olive oil for lamps are preferred because they are natural and burn cleanly.) Besides the practical purpose of making icons visible in an otherwise dark church, both candles and oil lamps symbolise the Light of the World, who is Christ.
Tales of miraculous icons are not uncommon, though it has always been considered that the message of such an event was for the immediate faithful involved and therefore does not usually attract crowds. Some miraculous icons whose reputations span long periods of time nevertheless become objects of pilgrimage along with the places where they are kept. As several Orthodox theologians and saints have explored in the past, the icon's miraculous nature is found not in the material, but in the glory of the saint who is depicted. The icon is a window, in the words of Paul Florensky, that actually participates in the glory of what it represents.
An iconostasis, also called the templon, is a wall of icons and religious paintings, separating the nave from the sanctuary in a church. Iconostasis also refers to a portable icon stand that can be placed anywhere within a church. The modern iconostasis evolved from the Byzantine templon in the 11th century. The evolution of the iconostasis probably owes a great deal to 14th-century Hesychast mysticism and the wood-carving genius of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The first ceiling-high, five-leveled Russian iconostasis was designed by Andrey Rublyov in the cathedral of the Dormition in Vladimir in 1408. The separation between sanctuary and nave accomplished by the iconostasis is not mandatory, though it is common practice. Depending on circumstance, the role of the iconostasis can be played by masonry, carved panels, screens, curtains, railings, a cord or rope, plain icons on stands, steps, or nothing at all.
Depictions of the cross within the Orthodox Church are numerous and often highly ornamented, but its use does not extend to all Orthodox traditions. Some carry special significance. The Tri-Bar Cross, popular in Russia and Ukraine, but common throughout the Orthodox world, seen to the right, has three bars. Its origins are in the early Byzantine Church of the 4th century AD.
The small top crossbar represents the sign that Pontius Pilate nailed above Christ's head. It often is inscribed with an acronym, "INRI", Latin, meaning “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” or "INBI", Ancient Greek, "Jesus; of Nazareth, King of the Jews"; however, it is often replaced or amplified by the phrase "The King of Glory" in order to answer Pilate's statement with Christ's affirmation, "My Kingdom is not of this world".
There is also a bottom slanting bar. This appears for a number of reasons. Claims of evidence indicate that there was a small wooden platform for the crucified to stand on in order to support his weight; in Jesus' case his feet were nailed side by side to this platform with one nail each in order to prolong the torture of the cross.
Implied evidence for this comes mainly from two sources within holy tradition, namely, the Bible (in order to cause the victim to die faster, their legs were broken so they could not support their weight and would suffocate) and iconography (all early depictions of the crucifixion show this arrangement, not the later with feet on top with single nail). It has also been pointed out by some experts that the nailed hands of a body crucified in the manner often shown in modern secular art would not support the weight of the body and would tear through. A platform for the feet would relieve this problem.
The bottom bar is slanted for two reasons, to represent the very real agony which Christ experienced on the cross (a refutation of Docetism) and to signify that the thief on Christ's right chose the right path while the thief on the left did not. Other crosses associated with the Orthodox Church are the more traditional single-bar crosses, budded designs, the Jerusalem cross (cross pattée), Celtic crosses, and others.
The services of the church are properly conducted each day following a rigid, but constantly changing annual schedule (i.e., parts of the service remain the same while others change depending on the day of the year). Services are conducted in the church and involve both the clergy and faithful. Services cannot properly be conducted by a single person, but must have at least one other person present (i.e. a Priest cannot celebrate alone, but must have at least a Chanter present and participating).
Usually, all of the services are conducted on a daily basis only in monasteries and cathedrals, while parish churches might only do the services on the weekend and major feast days. On certain Great Feasts (and, according to some traditions, every Sunday) a special All-Night Vigil (Agrypnia) will be celebrated from late at night on the eve of the feast until early the next morning. Because of its festal nature it is usually followed by a breakfast feast shared together by the congregation.
The journey is to the Kingdom. This is where we are going—not symbolically, but really.—Fr. Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World
We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.—Ambassadors of Kievan Rus (10th Century), Apocryphal quote from conversion of Kievan Rus.
Services, especially the Divine Liturgy, can only be celebrated once a day on a single altar (some churches have multiple altars in order to accommodate large congregations). Each priest may only celebrate the Divine Liturgy once a day. From its Jewish roots, the liturgical day begins at sundown. The traditional daily cycle of services is as follows:
- Vespers – (Greek Hesperinos) Sundown, the beginning of the liturgical day.
- Compline (Greek Apodeipnon, lit. "After-supper") – After the evening meal prior to bedtime.
- Midnight Office – Usually served only in monasteries.
- Matins (Greek Orthros) – First service of the morning. Usually starts before sunrise.
- Hours – First, Third, Sixth, and Ninth – Sung either at their appropriate times, or in aggregate at other customary times of convenience. If the latter, The First Hour is sung immediately following Orthros, the Third and Sixth prior to the Divine Liturgy, and the Ninth prior to Vespers.
The Divine Liturgy is the celebration of the Eucharist. Although it is usually celebrated between the Sixth and Ninth Hours, it is not considered to be part of the daily cycle of services, as it occurs outside the normal time of the world. The Divine Liturgy is not celebrated on weekdays during the preparatory season of Great Lent and in some places during the lesser fasting seasons either. Reserve communion is prepared on Sundays and is distributed during the week at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.
Other items brought to the altar during the Divine Liturgy include a gold or silver chalice with red wine, a small metallic urn of warm water, a metallic communion spoon, a little metallic spear, a sponge, a metal disk with cut pieces of bread upon it, and a star, which is a star-shaped piece of metal over which the priest places a cloth covering when transporting the holy gifts to and from the altar. Also found on the altar table is the antimins. The antimins is a silk cloth, signed by the appropriate diocesan bishop, upon which the sanctification of the holy gifts takes place during each Divine Liturgy. The antimins contain the relics of a saint. When a church is consecrated by a bishop, there is a formal service or prayers and sanctification in the name of the Saint that the church is named after. The bishop will also often present a small relic of a saint to place in or on the altar as part of the consecration of a new church.
An orthodox priest (or bishop) may celebrate only one Divine Liturgy per day. The Divine Liturgy may only be celebrated once a day on any particular antimins and altar. This means that most parishes or congregations, unless they have more than one officially signed antimins and multiple priests, can celebrate only one Eucharist per day, in order to express the catholicity of the church by avoiding "private masses".
The book containing liturgically read portions of the four gospels is permanently "enthroned" on the altar table. The Orthodox bishops, priests, deacons and readers sing/chant specific verses from this Gospel Book on each different day of the year.
This daily cycle services are conceived of as both the sanctification of time (chronos, the specific times during which they are celebrated), and entry into eternity (kairos). They consist to a large degree of litanies asking for God's mercy on the living and the dead, readings from the Psalter with introductory prayers, troparia, and other prayers and hymns surrounding them. The Psalms are so arranged that when all the services are celebrated the entire Psalter is read through in their course once a week, and twice a week during Great Lent when the services are celebrated in an extended form.
Music / Chanting
Orthodox services are sung nearly in their entirety. Services consist in part of a dialogue between the clergy and the people (often represented by the choir or the Psaltis Cantor). In each case the prayers are sung or chanted following a prescribed musical form. Almost nothing is read in a normal speaking voice, with the exception of the homily if one is given.
Because the human voice is seen as the most perfect instrument of praise, musical instruments (organs, guitars, etc.) are not generally used to accompany the choir.
The church has developed eight Modes or Tones (see Octoechos) within which a chant may be set, depending on the time of year, feast day, or other considerations of the Typikon. There are numerous versions and styles that are traditional and acceptable and these vary a great deal between cultures. It is common, especially in the United States, for a choir to learn many different styles and to mix them, singing one response in Greek, then English, then Russian, etc.
It should also be noted that in the Russian tradition there have been some famous composers of unaccompanied church music, such as Tchaikovsky (Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, op. 41, 1878, and All-Night Vigil, op. 52, 1882) and Rachmaninoff (Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, op. 31, 1910, and All-Night Vigil, op. 37, 1915); and many Church tones can likewise be seen influencing their music.
As part of the legacy handed down from its Judaic roots, incense is used during all services in the Orthodox Church as an offering of worship to God as it was done in the Jewish First and Second Temples in Jerusalem (Exodus chapter 30). Incense is also prophesied in the book of Malachi 1:11 as a "pure offering" in the glorification of God by the Gentiles in "every place" where the name of God is regarded as "great". Traditionally, the base of the incense used is the resin of Boswellia thurifera, also known as frankincense, but the resin of fir trees has been used as well. It is usually mixed with various floral essential oils giving it a sweet smell.
Incense represents the sweetness of the prayers of the saints rising up to God (Psalm 141:2, Revelation 5:8, 8:4). The incense is burned in an ornate golden censer that hangs at the end of three chains representing the Trinity. Two chains represent the human and Godly nature of the Son, one chain for the Father and one chain for the Holy Spirit. The lower cup represents the earth and the upper cup the heaven. In the Greek, Slavic, and Syrian traditions there are 12 bells hung along these chains representing the 12 apostles. There are also 72 links representing 72 evangelists.
The charcoal represents the sinners. Fire signifies the Holy Spirit and frankincense the good deeds. The incense also represents the grace of the Holy Trinity. The censer is used (swung back and forth) by the priest/deacon to venerate all four sides of the altar, the holy gifts, the clergy, the icons, the congregation, and the church structure itself. Incense is also used in the home where the individual will go around the house and "cross" all of the icons saying in Greek: Ἅγιος ὁ Θεός, Ἅγιος ἰσχυρός, Ἅγιος ἀθάνατος, ἐλέησον ἡμᾶς. or in English: Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.
The number of fast days varies from year to year, but in general the Orthodox Christian can expect to spend a little over half the year fasting at some level of strictness. There are spiritual, symbolic, and even practical reasons for fasting. In the Fall from Paradise mankind became possessed by a carnal nature; that is to say, he became inclined towards the passions. Through fasting, Orthodox Christians attempt to return to the relationship of love and obedience to God enjoyed by Adam and Eve in Paradise in their own lives, by refraining from carnal practices, by bridling the tongue (James 3:5–6), confession of sins, prayer and almsgiving.
Fasting is seen as purification and the regaining of innocence. It is a practice of learning to temper the body's primary desire for food. By learning to temper this basic desire of the body, the practitioner can more readily temper other worldly desires, and thus, become better enabled to draw closer to God in the hope of becoming more Christ-like. Through obedience to the Church and its ascetic practices the Orthodox Christian seeks to rid himself or herself of the passions (The desires of our fallen carnal nature). All Orthodox Christians are provided with a prescribed set of guidelines. They do not view fasting as a hardship, but rather as a privilege and joy. The teaching of the Church provides both the time and the amount of fasting that is expected as a minimum for every member who chooses to participate. For greater ascesis, some may choose to go without food entirely for a short period of time. A complete three-day fast at the beginning and end of a fasting period is not unusual, and some fast for even longer periods, though this is usually practiced only in monasteries.
In general, fasting means abstaining from meat and meat products, dairy (eggs and cheese) and dairy products, fish, olive oil, and wine. Wine and oil—and, less frequently, fish—are allowed on certain feast days when they happen to fall on a day of fasting; but animal products and dairy are forbidden on fast days, with the exception of "Cheese Fare" week which precedes Great Lent, during which dairy products are allowed. Wine and oil are usually also allowed on Saturdays and Sundays during periods of fast. In some Orthodox traditions, caviar is permitted on Lazarus Saturday, the Saturday before Palm Sunday, although the day is otherwise a fast day. Married couples also abstain from sexual relations on fast days, that they may devote themselves to prayer (I Corinthians).
While it may seem that fasting in the manner set forth by the Church is a strict rule, there are circumstances where a person's spiritual guide may allow an Economy because of some physical necessity (e.g. those who are pregnant or infirm, the very young and the elderly, or those who have no control over their diet, such as prisoners or soldiers).
The time and type of fast is generally uniform for all Orthodox Christians; the times of fasting are part of the ecclesiastical calendar, and the method of fasting is set by the Holy Canons and Sacred Tradition. There are four major fasting periods during the year:
- The Nativity Fast (Advent or "Winter Lent") which is the 40 days preceding the Nativity of Christ (Christmas), beginning on November 15 and running through December 24. This fast becomes more severe beginning December 12, and Christmas Eve is observed as a strict fast day.
- Great Lent which consists of the 6 weeks (40 Days) preceding Palm Sunday, and Great Week (Holy Week) which precedes Pascha (Easter).
- The Apostles' Fast which varies in length from 8 days to 6 weeks. It begins on the Monday following All Saints Sunday (the first Sunday after Pentecost) and extends to the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29. Since the date of Pentecost depends on that of Pascha, and Pascha is determined on the lunar calendar, this fast can disappear completely under New Calendar observance (This is one of the objections raised by opponents to the New Calendar).
- The Dormition Fast, a two-week long Fast preceding the Dormition of the Theotokos (repose of The Virgin Mary), lasting from August 1 through August 15.
In addition to these fasting seasons, Orthodox Christians fast on every Wednesday (in commemoration of Christ's betrayal by Judas Iscariot), and Friday (in commemoration of Christ's Crucifixion) throughout the year. Monastics often fast on Mondays (in imitation of the Angels, who are commemorated on that day in the weekly cycle, since monastics are striving to lead an angelic life on earth, and angels neither eat nor drink).
Orthodox Christians who are preparing to receive the Eucharist do not eat or drink at all from vespers (sunset) until after taking Holy Communion. A similar total fast is expected to be kept on the Eve of Nativity, the Eve of Theophany (Epiphany), Great Friday and Holy Saturday for those who can do so. There are other individual days observed as fasts (though not as days of total fasting) no matter what day of the week they fall on, such as the Beheading of St. John the Baptist on August 29 and the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on September 14.
Strict fasting is canonically forbidden on Saturdays and Sundays due to the festal character of the Sabbath and the Resurrection, respectively. On those days wine and oil are permitted even if abstention from them would be otherwise called for. Holy Saturday is the only Saturday of the year where a strict fast is kept every year, though it is also kept on the Eve of Theophany in years when that day falls on Saturday.
There are also four periods in the liturgical year during which no fasting is permitted, even on Wednesday and Friday. These fast-free periods are:
- The week following Pentecost.
- The period from the Nativity of Christ up to (but not including) the Eve of Theophany (Epiphany). The day of Theophany itself is always fast-free, even if it falls on a Wednesday or Friday.
- The week following the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee (one of the preparatory Sundays before Great Lent). This is fast-free to remind the faithful not to boast like the Pharisee that he fasts for two days out of the week Luke 18:12.
When certain feast days fall on fast days, the fasting laws are lessened to a certain extent, to allow some consolation in the trapeza (refectory) for the longer services, and to provide an element of sober celebration to accompany the spiritual joy of the feast.
It is considered a greater sin to advertise one's fasting than not to participate in the fast. Fasting is a purely personal communication between the Orthodox Christian and God. If one has health concerns, or responsibilities that cannot be fulfilled because of fasting, then it is perfectly permissible not to fast. An individual's observance of the fasting laws is not to be judged by the community (Romans 14:1–4), but is a private matter between him and his Spiritual Father or Confessor.
"Almsgiving" refers to any charitable giving to those in need, such as material resources, work, assistance, counsel, or support. Along with prayer and fasting, it is considered a pillar of the personal spiritual practices of the Orthodox Christian tradition. Almsgiving is particularly important during periods of fasting, when the Orthodox believer is expected to share with those in need the monetary savings from his or her decreased consumption. As with fasting, mentioning to others one's own virtuous deeds tends to reflect a sinful pride, and may also be considered extremely rude.
All Orthodox Christians are expected to participate in at least some ascetic works, in response to the commandment of Christ to "come, take up the cross, and follow me." (Mark 10:21 and elsewhere) They are therefore all called to imitate, in one way or another, Christ himself who denied himself to the extent of literally taking up the cross on the way to his voluntary self-sacrifice. However, laypeople are not expected to live in extreme asceticism since this is close to impossible while undertaking the normal responsibilities of worldly life.
Those who wish to do this therefore separate themselves from the world and live as monastics: monks and nuns. As ascetics par excellence, using the allegorical weapons of prayer and fasting in spiritual warfare against their passions, monastics hold a very special and important place in the Church. This kind of life is often seen as incompatible with any kind of worldly activity including that which is normally regarded as virtuous. Social work, school teaching, and other such work is therefore usually left to laypeople. Ascetics of the Orthodox Church are recognized by their long hair, and in case of male monks, long beards.
There are three main types of monastics. Those who live in monasteries under a common rule are coenobitic. Each monastery may formulate its own rule, and although there are no religious orders in Orthodoxy some respected monastic centers such as Mount Athos are highly influential. Eremitic monks, or hermits, are those who live solitary lives. It is the yearning of many who enter the monastic life to eventually become solitary hermits. This most austere life is only granted to the most advanced monastics and only when their superiors feel they are ready for it.
Hermits are usually associated with a larger monastery but live in seclusion some distance from the main compound. Their local monastery will see to their physical needs, supplying them with simple foods while disturbing them as little as possible. In between are those in semi-eremitic communities, or sketes, where one or two monks share each of a group of nearby dwellings under their own rules and only gather together in the central chapel, or katholikon, for liturgical observances.
The spiritual insight gained from their ascetic struggles make monastics preferred for missionary activity. Bishops are almost always chosen from among monks, and those who are not generally receive the monastic tonsure before their consecrations.
Many (but not all) Orthodox seminaries are attached to monasteries, combining academic preparation for ordination with participation in the community's life of prayer. Monks who have been ordained to the priesthood are called hieromonk (priest-monk); monks who have been ordained to the diaconate are called hierodeacon (deacon-monk). Not all monks live in monasteries, some hieromonks serve as priests in parish churches thus practicing "monasticism in the world".
Cultural practices differ slightly, but in general Father is the correct form of address for monks who have been tonsured, while Novices are addressed as Brother. Similarly, Mother is the correct form of address for nuns who have been tonsured, while Novices are addressed as Sister. Nuns live identical ascetic lives to their male counterparts and are therefore also called monachoi (monastics) or the feminine plural form in Greek, monachai, and their common living space is called a monastery.
Holy mysteries (sacraments)
According to Orthodox theology, the purpose of the Christian life is to attain theosis, the mystical union of mankind with God. This union is understood as both collective and individual. St. Athanasius of Alexandria wrote concerning the Incarnation that, "He (Jesus) was made man that we might be made god (θεοποιηθῶμεν)." See 2 Peter 1:4, John 10:34–36, Psalm 82:6. The entire life of the church is oriented towards making this possible and facilitating it.
In the Orthodox Church the terms "mystery" or "the mysteries" refer to the process of theosis. While it is understood that God theoretically can do anything instantly and invisibly, it is also understood that he generally chooses to use material substance as a medium in order to reach people. The limitations are those of mankind, not God. Matter is not considered to be evil by the Orthodox. Water, oil, bread, wine, etc., all are means by which God reaches out to allow people to draw closer to him. How this process works is a “mystery” and cannot be defined in human terms. These mysteries are surrounded by prayer and symbolism so that their true meaning will not be forgotten.
Those things which in the West are often termed sacraments or sacramentals are known among the Orthodox as the "sacred mysteries". While the Roman Catholic Church numbers seven sacraments, and many Protestant groups list two (Baptism and the Eucharist) or even none, the Orthodox do not limit the number. However, for the sake of convenience, catechisms will often speak of the seven Great Mysteries. Among these are Holy Communion (the most direct connection), Baptism, Chrismation, Confession, Unction, Matrimony, and Ordination. But the term also properly applies to other sacred actions such as monastic tonsure or the blessing of holy water, and involves fasting, almsgiving, or an act as simple as lighting a candle, burning incense, praying or asking God's blessing on food.
Baptism is the mystery which transforms the old and sinful person into a new and pure one; the old life, the sins, any mistakes made are gone and a clean slate is given. Through Baptism a person is united to the Body of Christ by becoming a member of the Orthodox Church. During the service water is blessed. The catechumen is fully immersed in the water three times in the name of the Holy Trinity. This is considered to be a death of the "old man" by participation in the crucifixion and burial of Christ, and a rebirth into new life in Christ by participation in his resurrection. Properly a new name is given, which becomes the person's name.
Children of Orthodox families are normally baptized shortly after birth. Converts to Orthodoxy are usually formally baptized into the Orthodox Church though exceptions are sometimes made. Those who have left Orthodoxy and adopted a new religion, if they return to their Orthodox roots, are usually received back into the church through the mystery of Chrismation.
Properly, the mystery of Baptism is administered by bishops and priests; however, in emergencies any Orthodox Christian can baptize. In such cases, should the person survive the emergency, it is likely that the person will be properly baptized by a priest at some later date. This is not considered to be a second baptism, nor is it imagined that the person is not already Orthodox, but rather it is a fulfillment of the proper form.
The service of Baptism used in Orthodox churches has remained largely unchanged for over 1500 years. This fact is witnessed to by St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386), who, in his Discourse on the Sacrament of Baptism, describes the service in much the same way as is currently in use.
Chrismation (sometimes called confirmation) is the mystery by which a baptized person is granted the gift of the Holy Spirit through anointing with Holy Chrism. It is normally given immediately after baptism as part of the same service, but is also used to receive lapsed members of the Orthodox Church. As baptism is a person's participation in the death and resurrection of Christ, so Chrismation is a person's participation in the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
A baptized and chrismated Orthodox Christian is a full member of the Church and may receive the Eucharist regardless of age.
The creation of chrism may be accomplished by any bishop at any time, but usually is done only once a year, often when a synod of bishops convenes for its annual meeting. (Some autocephalous churches get their chrism from others.) Anointing with it substitutes for the laying-on of hands described in the New Testament, even when an instrument such as a brush is used.
The Eucharist is at the center of Orthodox Christianity. In practice, it is the partaking of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the midst of the Divine Liturgy with the rest of the church. The bread and wine are believed to become the genuine Body and Blood of the Christ Jesus through the operation of the Holy Spirit. The Orthodox Church has never described exactly how this occurs, or gone into the detail that the Roman Catholic Church has in the West.
Communion is given only to baptized and chrismated Orthodox Christians who have prepared by fasting, prayer and confession. The priest will administer the gifts with a spoon, called a "cochlear", directly into the recipient's mouth from the chalice. From baptism young infants and children are carried to the chalice to receive holy communion.
Because of the Orthodox understanding of mankind's fallen nature in general those who wish to commune prepare themselves in a way that reflects mankind in paradise. First, they prepare by having their confession heard and the prayer of repentance read over them by a priest. They will increase their prayer rule, adding the prescribed prayers in preparation for communing. Finally, they will fast completely from food and drink from the evening of the previous day (usually sunset on Saturday if communing on Sunday).
Orthodox Christians who have committed sins but repent of them, and who wish to reconcile themselves to God and renew the purity of their original baptisms, confess their sins to God before a spiritual guide who offers advice and direction to assist the individual in overcoming their sin. Parish priests commonly function as spiritual guides, but such guides can be any person, male or female, who has been given a blessing to hear confessions. Spiritual guides are chosen very carefully as it is a mandate that once chosen, they must be obeyed. Having confessed, the penitent then has his or her parish priest read the prayer of repentance over them.
Sin is not viewed by the Orthodox as a stain on the soul that needs to be wiped out, or a legal transgression that must be set right by a punitive sentence, but rather as a mistake made by the individual with the opportunity for spiritual growth and development. An act of Penance (epitemia), if the spiritual guide requires it, is never formulaic, but rather is directed toward the individual and their particular problem, as a means of establishing a deeper understanding of the mistake made, and how to effect its cure. Because full participatory membership is granted to infants, it is not unusual for even small children to confess; though the scope of their culpability is far less than an older child, still their opportunity for spiritual growth remains the same.
From the Eastern Orthodox perspective, marriage is one of the holy mysteries or sacraments. As well as in many other Christian traditions, for example in the Catholic Church, it serves to unite a woman and a man in eternal union and love before God, with the purpose of following Christ and His Gospel and raising up a faithful, holy family through their holy union. It is referred to extensively in both the Old and New Testaments. Christ declared the essential indissolubility of marriage in the Gospel. Both virginity and marriage have the same reference to the future Kingdom.
Jesus said that "when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven" (Mk 12:25). For the Orthodox Christian this passage should not be understood to imply that Christian marriage will not remain a reality in the Kingdom, but points to the fact that relations will not be "fleshy", but "spiritual". Love between wife and husband, as an icon of relationship between Christ and Church, is eternal.
The Church does recognize that there are rare occasions when it is better that couples do separate, but there is no official recognition of civil divorces. For the Orthodox, to say that marriage is indissoluble means that it should not be broken, the violation of such a union, perceived as holy, being an offense resulting from either adultery or the prolonged absence of one of the partners. Thus, permitting remarriage is an act of compassion of the Church towards sinful man.
In the U.S., according to 2001 statistics, 14% of Orthodox marriages ended in an ecclesiastical divorce. This figure, since it took no account of how many of the couples who entered such marriages took out a civil divorce, is not comparable with the figure of 43% given at that time for the proportion of all marriages that ended in a civil divorce. But it has been argued as indicating a probable total of only 15% of marriages celebrated in an Orthodox church led to any form of divorce.
Ecclesiastically divorced Orthodox (not civilly-divorced only) are usually allowed to remarry in the Orthodox Church, though there is usually imposed on them a fairly severe penance by their bishop and the services for a second marriage in this case are more penitential than joyful. Widows are permitted to remarry without repercussion and their second marriage is considered just as valid as the first. One exception to this rule is the clergy and their wives. Should a married priest die, it is normal that his wife will retire to a monastery once their children are out of the house. Widowed priests are not allowed to remarry (no priest may be married after his ordination) and also frequently end up in monasteries.
The service of Marriage in the Orthodox Church has two distinct parts: The Betrothal and The Crowning. The Betrothal includes: 1. The exchange of the rings, (It has always been the tradition of the Church to place the wedding ring on the right hand of the couple based on biblical references. This is seen very clearly in one of the prayers in the Betrothal Service.
A portion of the prayer refers to the biblical references: “For You, O Lord, have declared that a pledge is to be given and held inviolate in all things. By a ring Joseph was given might in Egypt; by a ring Daniel was exalted in Babylon; by a ring our heavenly Father showed compassion upon His prodigal son, for He said, ‘Put a ring upon his right hand, kill the fatted calf, and let us eat and rejoice.’ Your own right hand, O Lord, armed Moses in the Red Sea. By word of Your truth were the Heavens established and the earth set upon her sure foundations; and the right hands of Your servants shall be blessed by Your mighty word, and by Your uplifted arm.” As we see, it was scripturally the practice to wear rings on the right hand, the hand of authority and power completing the pledge of commitment. The power and authority comes from the right hand of God.) 2. The procession, the declaration of intent, and 3. The lighting of candles.
The Crowning includes: The readings from the epistle and gospel, the Blessing of the Common Cup, and the Dance of Isaiah (the bride and groom are led around the table 3 times), and then the Removal of the Crowns. There is no exchange of vows. There is a set expectation of the obligations incumbent on a married couple, and whatever promises they may have privately to each other are their responsibility to keep. The ceremony ends with the reading of Benedictions to and the Greeting of the Couple.
At the Sacrament of Marriage the crowns are placed on the bride and groom’s heads as the following prayer is recited three times, “The servant of God, (groom’s name), is crowned to the handmaid of God, (bride’s name), in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” three times. It is then repeated three times as the bride is crowned to the groom. We witness the groom and bride being crowned (visibly proclaimed) as the king and queen, respectively, of a new family, entrusted by God with the authority to rule their family in faith and love and harmony with Christ.
They both share in this responsibility and privilege as a newly married couple. This is not simply being declared by the priest or even the Church, but by God Himself, as the following hymn is chanted three times: “O Lord, our God, crown them with glory and honor.” The crowns are then switched back and forth between the groom and bride’s head, signifying that they completely share their lives together.
The crowns also serve as a reminder of the crowns that await them in heaven, if they live their lives in faithfulness to God and to each other. Fr. John Meyendorff in his book, Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective, writes: “According to St. John Chrysostom, the crowns symbolized victory over the ‘passions’.” In the service of a second marriage the crowns are not to be used, but if it is a second marriage for only one of the two who are marrying and a first marriage for the other, the usual rite is followed.
Many couples keep the wedding crowns in a case and display them near their icon corner or in the couple’s bedroom. They serve as a reminder that God has united them to each other and to himself and that he has bestowed his grace upon them to live in unity, faith and love.
Since its founding, the Church spread to different places and its leaders in each region came to be known as episkopoi (overseers, plural of episkopos, overseer—Gr. ἐπίσκοπος), which became "bishop" in English. The other ordained roles are presbyter (Gr. πρεσβύτερος, elder), which became "prester" and then "priest" in English, and diakonos (Gr. διάκονος, servant), which became "deacon" in English (see also subdeacon). There are numerous administrative positions among the clergy that carry additional titles.
In the Greek tradition, bishops who occupy an ancient see are called metropolitans, while the lead bishop in Greece is the archbishop. (In the Russian tradition, however, the usage of the terms "metropolitan" and "archbishop" is reversed.) Priests can be archpriests, archimandrites or protopresbyters. Deacons can also be archdeacons or protodeacons. The position of deacon is often occupied for life. The deacon also acts as an assistant to a bishop.
With the exception of bishops, who remain celibate, the Orthodox Church has always allowed priests and deacons to be married, provided the marriage takes place before ordination. In general it is considered preferable for parish priests to be married as they often act as counsel to married couples and thus can draw on their own experience. Unmarried priests usually are monks and live in monasteries, though there are occasions when, because of a lack of married priests, a monk-priest is temporarily assigned to a parish.
Widowed priests and deacons may not remarry and it is common for such members of the clergy to retire to a monastery (see clerical celibacy). This is also true of widowed wives of clergy, who do not remarry and become nuns when their children are grown. There is serious discussion about reviving the order of deaconess, which fell into disuse in the first millennium; the deaconesses had both liturgical and pastoral functions within the church. However, it has fallen out of practice (the last deaconess was ordained in the 19th century).
Anointing with oil, often called "unction", is one of the mysteries administered by the Orthodox Church and it is not reserved only for the dying or terminally ill, but for all in need of spiritual or bodily healing. In Greece, during the Ottoman occupation, it became the custom to administer this mystery annually on Great Wednesday to all believers; in recent decades, this custom has spread to many other locations. It is often distributed on major feast days, or any time the clergy feel it necessary for the spiritual welfare of its congregation.
According to Orthodox teaching unction is based on the Epistle of James:
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.—James 5:14–15
Christianity spread rapidly throughout the Roman Empire. Paul and the Apostles traveled extensively throughout the Empire, including Asia Minor, establishing Churches in major communities, with the first Churches appearing in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, then in Antioch, Ethiopia, Egypt, Rome, Alexandria, Athens, Thessalonica, Illyricum, and Byzantium, which centuries later would become prominent as the New Rome. Christianity in the Roman Empire was met with some resistance as its adherents would refuse to comply with the Roman state (even at the threat of death) in offering sacrifice to the pagan gods. Despite being under persecution, the Church spread. The persecution dissipated upon the conversion of Emperor Constantine I in 324 AD.
By the 4th century Christianity had spread in numerous countries. A number of influential schools of thought had arisen, particularly the Alexandrian and Antiochian philosophical approaches. Other groups, such as the Arians, had also managed to gain influence. However, their positions caused theological conflicts within the Church, thus prompting The Emperor Constantine to call for a great ecumenical synod in order to define the Church's position against the growing, often widely diverging, philosophical and theological interpretations of Christianity. He made it possible for this council to meet not only by providing a location, but by offering to pay for the transportation of all the existing bishops of the Church. This synod is commonly referred to as the First Council of Nicaea or more generally as First Ecumenical Council and is considered of major importance by most modern Christian Churches.
Several doctrinal disputes from the 4th century onwards led to the calling of Ecumenical councils. In the Orthodox Church, an Ecumenical council is the supreme authority that can be invoked to resolve contested issues of the faith. As such, these councils have been held to resolve the most important theological matters that came to be disputed within the Church. Many lesser disagreements were resolved through local councils in the areas where they arose, before they grew significant enough to require an Ecumenical council.
There are seven councils authoritatively recognized as Ecumenical:
- The First Ecumenical Council was convoked by the Roman Emperor Constantine at Nicaea in 325 and presided over by the Patriarch Alexander of Alexandria, with over 300 bishops condemning the view of Arius that the Son is a created being inferior to the Father.
- The Second Ecumenical Council was held at Constantinople in 381, presided over by the Patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch, with 150 bishops, defining the nature of the Holy Spirit against those asserting His inequality with the other persons of the Trinity.
- The Third Ecumenical Council is that of Ephesus in 431, presided over by the Patriarch of Alexandria, with 250 bishops, which affirmed that Mary is truly "Birthgiver" or "Mother" of God (Theotokos), contrary to the teachings of Nestorius.
- The Fourth Ecumenical Council is that of Chalcedon in 451, Patriarch of Constantinople presiding, 500 bishops, affirmed that Jesus is truly God and truly man, without mixture of the two natures, contrary to Monophysite teaching.
- The Fifth Ecumenical Council is the second of Constantinople in 553, interpreting the decrees of Chalcedon and further explaining the relationship of the two natures of Jesus; it also condemned the teachings of Origen on the pre-existence of the soul, etc.
- The Sixth Ecumenical Council is the third of Constantinople in 681; it declared that Christ has two wills of his two natures, human and divine, contrary to the teachings of the Monothelites.
- The Seventh Ecumenical Council was called under the Empress Regent Irene of Athens in 787, known as the second of Nicaea. It supports the veneration of icons while forbidding their worship. It is often referred to as "The Triumph of Orthodoxy".
There are also two other councils which are considered Ecumenical by some Orthodox. All Orthodox agree that the decisions of these further councils are valid; the disagreement is only whether they carry sufficient importance to be considered truly Ecumenical:
- 8. The Fourth Council of Constantinople was called in 879. It restored St. Photius to his See in Constantinople and condemned any alteration of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381.
- 9. The Fifth Council of Constantinople was actually a series of councils held between 1341 and 1351. It affirmed the hesychastic theology of St. Gregory Palamas and condemned the philosopher Barlaam of Calabria.
In addition to these councils there have been a number of other significant councils meant to further define the Orthodox position. They are the Synods of Constantinople, in 1484, 1583, 1755, 1819, and 1872, the Synod of Iaşi (Jassy) in 1642, and the Pan-Orthodox Synod of Jerusalem in 1672.
Eastern Christian culture reached its golden age during the high point of the Byzantine Empire and continued to flourish in Ukraine and Russia, after the fall of Constantinople. Numerous autocephalous churches were established in Europe: Russia, Greece, Armenia, Georgia and Ukraine, as well as Asia.
The Byzantine Empire during its greatest territorial extent under Justinian. c. 550.
The Church in Egypt (Patriarchate of Alexandria) split into two groups following the Council of Chalcedon (451), over a dispute about the relation between the divine and human natures of Jesus. Eventually this led to each group anathematizing the other. Those that remained in communion with the other patriarchs (those who accepted the Council of Chalcedon) were called "Melkites" (the king's men, because Constantinople was the city of the emperors), not to be confused with the Melkite Catholics of Antioch. Those who disagreed with the findings of the Council of Chalcedon are today known as the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. There was a similar split in Syria (Patriarchate of Antioch) resulting in the Syriac Orthodox Church.
Those who disagreed with the Council of Chalcedon are sometimes called "Oriental Orthodox" to distinguish them from the Orthodox, who accepted the Council of Chalcedon. Oriental Orthodox are also sometimes referred to as "non-Chalcedonians", or "anti-Chalcedonians". The Oriental Orthodox Church denies that it is monophysite and prefers the term "miaphysite", to denote the "joined" nature of Jesus (two natures joined into one). Both the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches formally believe themselves to be the continuation of the true church, although over the last several decades there has been some reconciliation.
As well, there are the "Nestorian" churches, which are Eastern Christian churches that keep the faith of only the first two ecumenical councils, i.e., the First Council of Nicaea and the First Council of Constantinople. "Nestorian" is an outsider's term for a tradition that predated the influence of Nestorius. Thus, "Persian Church" is a more neutral term.
Conversion of East and South Slavs
In the 9th and 10th centuries, Christianity made great inroads into pagan Europe, including Kievan Rus'. This work was made possible by the work of the Byzantine-Era saints Cyril and Methodius. When Rastislav, the king of Moravia, asked Byzantium for teachers who could minister to the Moravians in their own language, Byzantine emperor Michael III chose these two brothers. Cyril and Methodius translated the Bible and many of the prayer books. As the translations prepared by them were copied by speakers of other dialects, the hybrid literary language Old Church Slavonic was created. Originally sent to convert the Slavs of Great Moravia, Cyril and Methodius were forced to compete with Frankish missionaries from the Roman diocese. Their disciples were driven out of Great Moravia in AD 886.
Some of the disciples, namely Saint Clement of Ohrid and Saint Naum, were of great importance to the Orthodox Faith in Bulgaria. In a short time, the disciples of Cyril and Methodius managed to prepare and instruct the future Bulgarian clergy into the biblical texts and in AD 893, proclaimed the first organized Church on the Balkan Peninsula. The success of the conversion of the Bulgarians facilitated the conversion of East Slavic peoples, most notably the Rus', predecessors of Belarusians, Russians, and Ukrainians.
The work of the Thessaloniki brothers Cyril and Methodius and their disciples had a major impact to Serbs as well. However, they accepted Christianity collectively by families and by tribes (in the process between the 7th and the 9th century). In commemoration of their baptisms, each Serbian family or tribe began to celebrate an exclusively Serbian custom called Slava in a special way to honor the Saint on whose day they received the sacrament of Holy Baptism. It is the most solemn day of the year for all Serbs of the Orthodox faith and has played a role of vital importance in the history of the Serbian people. Slava is actually the celebration of the spiritual birthday of the Serbian people which the Church blessed and proclaimed it a Church institution.
The missionaries to the East and South Slavs had great success in part because they used the people's native language rather than Greek, the predominant language of the Byzantine Empire or Latin as the Roman priests did. Today the Russian Orthodox Church is the largest of the Orthodox Churches followed by the Romanian Orthodox Church.
Great Schism (1054)
In the 11th century what was recognised as the Great Schism took place between Rome and Constantinople, which led to separation between the Church of the West, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Eastern Byzantine Churches, now the Orthodox. There were doctrinal issues like the filioque clause and the authority of the Roman Pope involved in the split, but these were greatly exacerbated by political factors of both Church and state, and by cultural and linguistic differences between Latins and Greeks. Prior to 1054, the Eastern and Western halves of the Church had frequently been in conflict, particularly during the periods of Eastern iconoclasm and the Photian schism.
The final breach is often considered to have arisen after the capture and sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204; the final break with Rome occurred circa 1450. The sacking of Church of Holy Wisdom and establishment of the Latin Empire as a seeming attempt to supplant the Orthodox Byzantine Empire in 1204 is viewed with some rancour to the present day. In 2004, Pope John Paul II extended a formal apology for the sacking of Constantinople in 1204, which was importantly also strongly condemned by the Pope at the time (Innocent III, see reference at end of paragraph); the apology was formally accepted by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. Many things that were stolen during this time —holy relics, riches, and many other items—were not returned and are still held in various European cities, particularly Venice.
Reunion was attempted twice, at the 1274 Second Council of Lyon and the 1439 Council of Florence. The Council of Florence did briefly reestablish communion between East and West, which lasted until after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. In each case, however, the councils were rejected by the Orthodox people as a whole, and the union of Florence also became very politically difficult after Constantinople came under Ottoman rule, so in both cases came to fail. Some local Eastern Churches have, however, renewed union with Rome in time since (see Eastern Catholic Churches). Recent decades have seen a renewal of ecumenical spirit and dialogue between the Churches.
Age of captivity
In 1453, the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottoman Empire. By this time Egypt had been under Muslim control for some seven centuries, but Orthodoxy was very strong in Russia which had recently acquired an autocephalous status; and thus Moscow called itself the Third Rome, as the cultural heir of Constantinople.
Under Ottoman rule, the Greek Orthodox Church acquired substantial power as an autonomous millet. The ecumenical patriarch was the religious and administrative ruler of the entire "Greek Orthodox nation" (Ottoman administrative unit), which encompassed all the Orthodox subjects of the Empire.
Russian Orthodox Church in the Russian Empire
Up until 1666, when Patriarch Nikon was deposed by the tsar, the Russian Orthodox Church had been independent of the State. In 1721 the first Russian Emperor, Peter I abolished completely the patriarchate and so the Church effectively became a department of the government, ruled by a Most Holy Synod composed of senior bishops and lay bureaucrats appointed by the Emperor himself. From 1721 until the Bolsheviks' October Revolution of 1917, the Russian Orthodox Church was essentially transformed into a governmental agency, a tool used to various degrees by the tsars in the imperial campaigns of Russification. The Church was allowed by the State to levy taxes on the peasants. Therefore, the Church, along with the imperial regime, to which it belonged, came to be presented as an enemy of the people by the Bolsheviks and the other Russian revolutionaries.
Russian Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union (1917-1991)
The revolution brought a brief period of freedom from governmental control for the Church: an independent patriarchate was reestablished briefly in 1917, until Vladimir Lenin quashed the Church a few years later, imprisoning or killing many of the clergy and of the faithful. Part of the clergy escaped the Bolshevik persecutions by fleeing abroad, where they founded an independent church in exile, reunified with the Russian one in 2007.
The Orthodox Church clergy in Russia were seen as sympathetic with the cause of the White Army in the Civil War (see White movement) after the October Revolution, and occasionally collaborated with it; Patriarch Tikhon's declared position was vehemently anti-Bolshevik in 1918. This may have further strengthened the Bolshevik animus against the church.
Before and after the October Revolution of November 7, 1917 (October 25 Old Calendar) there was a movement within the Soviet Union to unite all of the people of the world under Communist rule (see Communist International). This included the Eastern Bloc countries as well as the Balkan States. Since some of these Slavic states tied their ethnic heritage to their ethnic churches, both the peoples and their church were targeted by the Soviets.
The Soviets' official interpretation of freedom of conscience was one of "guaranteeing the right to profess any religion, or profess none, to practice religious cults, or conduct atheist propaganda", though in effect atheism was sponsored by state and was taught in all educational establishments. Public criticism of atheism was unofficially forbidden and sometimes led to imprisonment.
The Soviet Union was the first state to have as an ideological objective the elimination of religion. Toward that end, the Communist regime confiscated church property, ridiculed religion, harassed believers, and propagated atheism in the schools. Actions toward particular religions, however, were determined by State interests, and most organized religions were never outlawed. Some actions against Orthodox priests and believers along with execution included torture, being sent to prison camps, labour camps or mental hospitals.
The result of state sponsored atheism was to transform the Church into a persecuted and martyred Church. In the first five years after the Bolshevik revolution, 28 bishops and 1,200 priests were executed.
After Nazi Germany's attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, Joseph Stalin revived the Russian Orthodox Church to intensify patriotic support for the war effort. By 1957 about 22,000 Russian Orthodox churches had become active. But in 1959 Nikita Khrushchev initiated his own campaign against the Russian Orthodox Church and forced the closure of about 12,000 churches. It is estimated that 50,000 clergy had been executed between the revolution and the end of the Khrushchev era. Members of the church hierarchy were jailed or forced out, their places taken by docile clergy, many of whom had ties with the KGB. By 1985 fewer than 7,000 churches remained active.
In the Soviet Union, in addition to the methodical closing and destruction of churches, the charitable and social work formerly done by ecclesiastical authorities was taken over by the state. As with all private property, Church owned property was confiscated into public use. The few places of worship left to the Church were legally viewed as state property which the government permitted the church to use. After the advent of state funded universal education, the Church was not permitted to carry on educational, instructional activity of any kind. Outside of sermons during the celebration of the divine liturgy it could not instruct or evangelise to the faithful or its youth. Catechism classes, religious schools, study groups, Sunday schools and religious publications were all illegal or banned. This persecution continued, even after the death of Stalin until the Fall of Communism in 1991. This caused many religious tracts to be circulated as illegal literature or samizdat.
Among the most damaging aspects of Soviet rule, along with these physical abuses, the Soviet Union frequently manipulated the recruitment and appointment of priests, sometimes planting agents of the KGB within the church to monitor religious persons who were viewed – simply for not being atheists – as suspicious and potential threats to Soviet communism. The recovery of religious beliefs in Russia after the fall of communism, part of a significant religious revival, has been made more challenging as a result of those leaders forced involuntarily upon the church by the KGB during Soviet times.
However, there is definitely marked return to Christian Orthodoxy in Russia. According to the Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project, between 1991 and 2008, the share of Russian adults identifying as Orthodox Christian rose from 31 percent to 72 percent, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of three waves of data (1991, 1998 and 2008) from the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) – a collaboration involving social scientists in about 50 countries.
Other Orthodox Churches during the Cold War
Albania was the only state to have declared itself officially fully atheist. In some other communist states such as Romania, the Orthodox Church as an organization enjoyed relative freedom and even prospered, albeit under strict secret police control. That, however, did not rule out demolishing churches and monasteries as part of broader systematization (urban planning), and state persecution of individual believers. As an example of the latter, Romania stands out as a country which ran a specialized institution where many Orthodox (along with people of other faiths) were subjected to psychological punishment or torture and mind control experimentation in order to force them give up their religious convictions. However, this was only supported by one faction within the regime, and lasted only three years. The Communist authorities closed down the prison in 1952, and punished many of those responsible for abuses (twenty of them were sentenced to death).
Relations with other Christians
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Orthodoxy represents the majority of Eastern Christianity. The Orthodox trace their bishops back to the apostles through apostolic succession, venerate saints, especially Mary the Mother of God as the Theotokos, pray for the dead, and continue the ancient Christian practice of monasticism. Orthodoxy does not openly promote statuary, although it is not expressly condemned, instead limiting itself primarily to two-dimensional iconography. Western theological concepts of original sin, atonement, predestination, purgatory and particular judgment are generally rejected by traditional Orthodox theologians.
The Orthodox understand themselves to be the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church; the true Church established by Jesus Christ and placed into the care of the apostles. As almost all other Christian groups are in indirect schism with the Orthodox Church, mostly as a result of the Great Schism with the Roman Catholic Church at the turn of the second Christian millennium (prior to the additional schisms of the Protestant Reformation), these other groups are viewed as being Christian, but who in varying degrees lack full theological orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
As such, all groups outside of the Orthodox Church are not seen as being members of the Church proper, but rather separated brethren who have failed to retain the fullness of the Christian faith and theology, as was given to the apostles by Jesus Christ. These deviations from orthodoxy have traditionally been called heresy, but due to the term's immediately pejorative connotations, some prefer the more technical designation of the term heterodoxy.
Hilarion Alfeyev, the Metropolitan of Volokolamsk and head of external relations for the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, stated that Orthodox and evangelical Christians share the same positions on "such issues as abortion, the family, and marriage" and desire "vigorous grassroots engagement" between the two Christian communions on such issues.
Metropolitan Alfeyev stated belief in the possibility of peaceful coexistence between Islam and Christianity as the two religions have never had religious wars in Russia. However, Alfeyev stated that the Russian Orthodox Church "disagrees with atheist secularism in some areas very strongly" and "believes that it destroys something very essential about human life."
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The various autocephalous and autonomous synods of the Orthodox Church are distinct in terms of administration and local culture, but for the most part exist in full communion with one another. The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) has recently united with the Moscow Patriarchate (MP); these two branches of the Russian Orthodox Church had separated from each other in the 1920s due to the subjection of the latter to the hostile Soviet regime (see Act of Canonical Communion).
Tensions exist in the philosophical differences between those who use the Revised Julian Calendar ("New Calendarists") for calculating the feasts of the ecclesiastical year and those who continue to use the traditional Julian Calendar ("Old Calendarists"). The calendar question reflects the dispute between those who wish to synchronize with the modern Gregorian calendar, which its opponents consider unnecessary and damaging to continuity, and those who wish to maintain the traditional ecclesiastical calendar (which happens to be based on the Julian calendar), arguing that such a modern change goes against 1900 years of Church tradition and was in fact perpetrated without an ecumenical council, which would surely have rejected the idea.
The dispute has led to much acrimony, and sometimes even to violence. Following canonical precepts, some adherents of the Old Calendar have chosen to abstain from clerical intercommunion with those synods which have embraced the New Calendar until the conflict is resolved. The monastic communities on Mount Athos have provided the strongest opposition to the New Calendar, and to modernism in general, while still maintaining communion with their mother church.
Some latent discontent between different national churches exists also in part due to different approach towards ecumenism. While the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the Orthodox bishops in North America gathered into the Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA), Romanian bishops, and others are fairly open to dialog with the Roman Catholic Church, both conservative and moderate Old Calendarists, many of the monks of Mount Athos, several bishops of Russian, Serbian, and some of Greek and Bulgarian churches regard ecumenism as compromising essential doctrinal stands in order to accommodate other Christians, and object to the emphasis on dialogue leading to inter-communion; believing instead that Orthodox must speak the truth with love, in the hope of leading to the eventual conversion to Orthodoxy of heterodox Christians.[clarification needed]
Eastern Orthodox churches in communion
The Orthodox Church is a communion of 14 autocephalous (that is, administratively completely independent) local churches plus the Orthodox Church in America which is recognized as autocephalous only by the Russian, Bulgarian, Georgian, Polish, and Czech-Slovak Churches. Each has defined geographical boundaries of its jurisdiction and is ruled by its Council of Bishops or Synod presided by a senior bishop – its Primate (or First Hierarch). The Primate may carry the honorary title of Patriarch, Metropolitan (in the Slavic tradition) or Archbishop (in the Greek tradition).
Each local church consists of constituent eparchies (or, dioceses) ruled by a bishop. Some churches have given an eparchy or group of eparchies varying degrees of autonomy (self-government). Such autonomous churches maintain varying levels of dependence on their mother church, usually defined in a Tomos or other document of autonomy.
Below is a list of the 14 (15) autocephalous churches in their order of precedence, based on the diptychs of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, with constituent autonomous churches and exarchates. The Liturgical title of the Primate is listed in italics.
- Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (Archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch)
- Autonomous Orthodox Church of Finland (Archbishop of Karelia and All Finland)
- Autonomous Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church (Metropolitan of Tallinn and All Estonia) [Autonomy not recognized by the Church of Russia]
- Self-governing Orthodox Church of Crete (Archbishop of Crete)
- Self-governing Monastic Community of Mount Athos
- Exarchate of Patmos (Patriarchal Exarch of Patmos)
- Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain (Archbishop of Thyateira and Great Britain)
- Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Italy and Malta (Orthodox Archbishop of Italy and Malta and Exarch of Southern Europe)
- Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (Archbishop of America)
- Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia (Archbishop of Australia)
- Exarchate of the Philippines (Exarch of Philippines)
- Patriarchal Exarchate for Orthodox Parishes of Russian Tradition in Western Europe (Archbishop of Komana)
- Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria (His Most Divine Beatitude the Pope and Patriarch of the Great City of Alexandria, Libya, Pentapolis, Ethiopia, all the land of Egypt, and all Africa, Father of Fathers, Shepherd of Shepherds, Prelate of Prelates, Thirteenth of the Apostles, and Judge of the Œcumene)
- Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch (Patriarch of Antioch and all the East)
- Self-governing Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America (Archbishop of New York and Metropolitan of All North America)
- Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem (Patriarch of the Holy City of Jerusalem and all Palestine, and of Syria, Arabia, beyond the Jordan River, Cana of Galilee, and Sacred Zion)
- Autonomous Church of Mount Sinai (Archbishop of Choreb, Sinai, and Raitha)
- Orthodox Church of Russia (Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia)
- Autocephalous Orthodox Church in America (Archbishop of Washington, Metropolitan of All America and Canada) [Autocephaly not recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate]
- Autonomous Orthodox Church of Japan (Archbishop of Tokyo and Metropolitan of All Japan)
- Autonomous Orthodox Church of China (defunct)
- Self-governing Orthodox Church of Ukraine (Metropolitan of Kiev and all Ukraine)
- Self-governing Orthodox Church of Moldova (Metropolitan of Chisinau and all Moldova)
- Self-governing Orthodox Church of Latvia (Metropolitan of Riga and all Latvia)
- Self-governing Estonian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) (Metropolitan of Tallinn and all Estonia) [Autonomy not recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate]
- Self-governing Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (Metropolitan of Eastern America and New York, First Hierarch of the Russian church abroad)
- Exarchate of Belarus (Metropolitan of Minsk and Slutsk, Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus)
- Orthodox Church of Serbia (Archbishop of Peć, Metropolitan of Belgrade and Karlovci, Patriarch of the Serbs)
- Autonomous Archdiocese of Ohrid (Archbishop of Ohrid and Metropolitan of Skopje)
- Orthodox Church of Romania (Archbishop of Bucharest, Metropolitan of Ungro-Valachia, and Patriarch of All Romania)
- Self-governing Metropolis of Bessarabia (autonomy not recognized by the Church of Russia)
- Orthodox Church of Bulgaria (Metropolitan of Sofia and Patriarch of All Bulgaria)
- Orthodox Church of Georgia (Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, the Archbishop of Mtskheta-Tbilisi and Metropolitan bishop of Abkhazia and Pitsunda.)
- Orthodox Church of Cyprus (Archbishop of New Justiniana and all Cyprus)
- Orthodox Church of Greece (Archbishop of Athens and all Greece)
- Orthodox Church of Poland (Metropolitan of Warsaw and all Poland)
- Orthodox Church of Albania (Archbishop of Tirana and all Albania)
- Orthodox Church of the Czech lands and Slovakia (Archbishop of Prague, the Metropolitan of Czech lands and Slovakia or the Archbishop of Presov, the Metropolitan of Czech lands and Slovakia)
Some Orthodox do not acknowledge the following Church as autonomous & autocephalous:
- Orthodox Church in America (Archbishop of Washington, Metropolitan of All America and Canada) [Autocephaly granted in 1970 from its mother church, the Russian Orthodox Church. It is in full communion with all canonical Orthodox Churches and de facto, fully recognized by all. The Ecumenical Patriarchate accepts the OCA, but disputes the Russian Orthodox Church's action]
- Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church (Metropolitan of Tallinn and all Estonia) [Autonomy recognized only by the Ecumenical Patriarchate]
Note, that the Russian Church recognized a different order of seniority, in which the Georgian church comes after the Church of Russia and the Albanian Church – after the Church of Greece. The Church of Cyprus also has a different list featuring herself immediately after the ancient Patriarchates and before that of Moscow.
The jurisdiction of the Sinai peninsula is most correctly called autonomous rather than autocephalous. It consists solely of Saint Catherine's Monastery, whose leader is elected Abbot by the monks but is consecrated Archbishop by the Patriarch of Jerusalem.
Orthodox Churches not in communion with Eastern Orthodox
The following is list of some of the organizations that use the term "Orthodox" in their name but do not maintain communion with any of the 14 (15) autocephalous churches and thus are not typically considered part of the Orthodox Christian communion.
Old Calendarists are groups that do not maintain communion with the 14 (15) autocephalous churches as a result of the use of the Revised Julian Calendar.
- Church of the Genuine Orthodox Christians of Greece, so-called "Matthewites"
- Church of the Genuine Orthodox Christians of Greece, so-called "Florinites"
- Orthodox Church of Greece (Holy Synod in Resistance), so-called "Cyprianites". (Merged with the Church of the Genuine Orthodox Christians of Greece as of March 2014.) 
- Old Calendar Romanian Orthodox Church
- Old Calendar Bulgarian Orthodox Church
- Russian Orthodox Church in America
Old Believers are groups that do not accept liturgical reforms carried out in the Russian Orthodox Church by Patriarch Nikon in the 17th century.
- Russian Orthodox Old-Rite Church (Belokrinitskaya Hierarchy)
- Lipovan Orthodox Old-Rite Church (Belokrinitskaya Hierarchy)
- Russian Old-Orthodox Church (Novozybkovskaya Hierarchy)
- Pomorian Old-Orthodox Church (Pomortsy)
Churches with irregular or unresolved canonical status are entities that have carried out episcopal consecrations outside of the norms of canon law or whose bishops have been excommunicated by one of the 14 (15) autocephalous churches.
- Abkhazian Orthodox Church
- Autonomous Alexandrian Eastern Pan Orthodox Church
- Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church
- Bulgarian Alternative Synod
- Holy Orthodox Church in North America
- Macedonian Orthodox Church
- Montenegrin Orthodox Church
- Orthodox Church in Italy
- Russian True Orthodox Church
- Turkish Orthodox Church
- Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate)
- Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church
- Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church Canonical
- Catholic–Orthodox theological differences
- Eastern Catholic Churches
- Orthodox Church organization
- Eastern Orthodox liturgical calendar
- Emanation (Eastern Orthodox Christianity)
- Greek Orthodox Church
- Orthodox Christianity in Lebanon
- Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology
- History of the Orthodox Church
- Oriental Orthodoxy
- Western Rite Orthodoxy
- History of Christianity
- List of Orthodox Churches
- List of Christian denominations
- List of Christian denominations by number of members
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- An Online Orthodox Catechism published by the Russian Orthodox Church
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- Orthodox books – Lives of Holy People at skete.com
- An Orthodox View of Salvation
- IV Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference
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- Prologue from Ohrid – (Saints of the Orthodox Church Calendar)
- A repository with scientific papers on various aspects of the Byzantine Orthodox Church in English and in German