O Come, let us Worship and bow down before our King and God.
O Come, let us worship and bow down before Christ, our King and God.
O Come, let us worship and bow down to Christ Himself, our King and God.
This invitation marks the beginning of each day for the Orthodox Church. It comes from the office of Vespers, and it expresses the attitude which is at the heart of Orthodoxy. The Worship of God - the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, - is fundamental to the life and spirit of the Orthodox Church.
Since Worship is so important to Orthodoxy, the best introduction to the Orthodox Church is for the non-Orthodox to attend the Divine Liturgy or the celebration of one of the major Sacraments. At first, the visitor may be overwhelmed by the music and the ceremonies, but it is in Worship that the distinctive flavor, rich traditions, and living faith of Orthodoxy are truly experienced.
Worship in the Orthodox Church is expressed in four principal ways:
The Orthodox Church proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In the Greek language, the word for Gospel is Evangelion which means literally "the good news." The good news of Orthodox Christianity is a proclamation of God's unbounded and sacrificial love for man kind, as well as the revelation of the true destiny of the human person. Reflecting on the joyous message of the Gospel, Saint Gregory of Nyssa wrote in the fourth century: The good news is that man is no longer an outcast nor expelled from God's Kingdom; but that he is again a son, again God's subject.
Orthodoxy believes that the supreme treasure which God wishes to share with us is His own life. Our faith begins with the affirmation that God has acted in history to permit us to participate in His love and His goodness, to be citizens of His Kingdom. This conviction is expressed so beautifully in the prayer of the Liturgy which says: "You have not ceased to do all things until You brought us to heaven and granted us the Kingdom to come."
The initiation of love of God the Father is perfectly expressed and embodied in the Person and Ministry of Jesus Christ. The whole purpose of the Incarnation of the Son of God was to restore humanity to fellowship with God. The great teachers and Fathers of the Orthodox Church constantly reaffirmed this conviction by proclaiming that God had become what we are in order that we could become what He is.
Christ is exalted as our Light and our Life. In His Person there is a unity of humanity and divinity which each of us is called to share. In His way of life. there is the model of authentic human life which we are invited to follow. In His victorious Resurrection, there is liberation for us from all powers which can keep us from the Kingdom. Through Christ, then, God the Father has repossessed us and has called us to be His sons and daughters.
The fundamental vocation and goal of each and every person is to share in the life of God. We have been created by God to live in fellowship with Him. The descent of God in the Person of Jesus Christ has made possible the human ascent to the Father through the work of the Holy Spirit. Orthodoxy believes that each Christian is involved in a movement toward God which is known as theosis or deification.
Theosis describes the spiritual pilgrimage in which each person becomes ever more perfect, ever more holy, ever more united with God. It is not a static relationship, nor does it take place only after death. On the contrary, theosis is a movement of love toward God which begins for each Christian with the rites of Baptism and which continues throughout this life, as well as the life which is to come. Salvation means liberation from sin, death, and evil. Redemption means our repossession by God. In Orthodoxy, both salvation and redemption are within the context of theosis. This rich vision of Christian life was expressed well by Saint Peter when he wrote in the early pages of his second Epistle that we are called "to become partakers of the Divine nature." It was also affirmed by Saint Basil the Great when he described man as the creature who has received the order to become a god.
These are certainly bold affirmations which must be properly understood. The Orthodox Church understands theosis as a union with the energies of God and not with the essence of God which always remains hidden and unknown. However, the experience of the Church testifies that this is a true union with God. It is also one which is not pantheistic, because in this union the divine and the human retain their unique characteristics. In this sense, Orthodoxy believes that human life reaches its fulfillment only when it becomes divine.
The ever-deepening union of each Christian with God is not a magical or automatic process. While Christ has destroyed the powers of sin, death, and evil once and for all, this victory must be appropriated by each person in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. Each person is called to join with the lifegiving and liberating Spirit" in realizing the fulness of human life in communion with the Father. The Holy Spirit is the agent of deification whose task it is to incorporate us into the life of the Holy Trinity. However, the Spirit always recognizes our human freedom and invites our active cooperation in perfecting the "image and likeness of God" with which each of us is created.
Our participation in the life of the Holy Trinity, which we know as theosis, takes place within the Church. For the Orthodox, the Church is the meeting place between God and His people. The Holy Spirit and the Church are organically linked. In the second century, Saint Irenaeus reminded us of this by saying: "Where the Church is there is the Spirit, and where the Spirit is there is the Church." The Holy Spirit moves through the life of the Church to reveal our common humanity in Christ and to unite us with the Father. We acquire the Holy Spirit through our celebration of the Eucharist and the reception of Holy Communion, through our participation in the Sacraments, through our discipline of daily prayer, and through the practice of fasting, all of which result in a Christ-like life.
The Holy Spirit, Who is honored as the Lord and Giver of life, is manifest in the life of the Church in order to bring our lives to perfection, and to make us responsible and loving human beings. The fruit of Worship is the gifts of the Spirit. In his letter to the Galatians, Saint Paul identified these as: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, and self-control." Certainly, these are the virtues of a Christ-like life. They testify to the fact that the love of God and the love of neighbor are inseparable.
The reality of theosis not only bears witness to the love of God who wishes to share Him self with us but also expresses a very positive view of the human person. Orthodoxy believes that each person has an intrinsic value and importance in virtue of his or her unique relationship to God. The human person is never seen as being totally depraved. The "image of God" which can be distorted by sin, can never be eradicated. Through the life of the Church, there is always the opportunity for fulfillment. When the Sacraments are administered, they are always offered to the individual by name. This action not only reminds us of the dignity of each person but also emphasizes the responsibility each person has for his or her relationship to God.
While Orthodoxy recognizes the value of the person, it does not believe that we are meant to be isolated or self-sufficient. Each person is called to be an important member of the Church. Orthodoxy believes that one cannot be a Christian without being a part of the Church. The process of theosis takes place with the context of a believing community.
To be united with God within the midst of the Church does not mean that our unique personalities are destroyed. We are not engulfed by an impersonal force or power. As with all love which is true and valuable, God's love for each of us respects our personhood. His love is not one which destroys. God's love is one which reveals, elevates, and perfects our true selves. By entering into the life of God, we become the persons we are meant to be
The Church has her origin with Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, not with a human teacher, or group, nor a code of conduct or religious philosophy. Orthodoxy believes that the Church has her origin in the Apostolic Community called into being by Jesus Christ, and enlivened by the Holy Spirit. The Feast of Pentecost, which is celebrated fifty days after Easter, commemorates the "outpouring'' of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and marks the beginning of the mission of the Church to the world. The Orthodox Church believes that she has maintained a direct and unbroken continuity of love, faith, and order with the Church of Christ born in the Pentecost experience.
The earliest Church, which is described in the Epistles and the Acts of the Apostles, did not confine itself to the land of Judea. She took very seriously the command of Our Lord to go into the whole world and preach the Gospel. The words of Christ and the event of His saving Death and Resurrection were destined not only for the people of the first century and the Mediterranean world of which they were a part, but also for persons in all places and in every age. Within only a few years after the Resurrection, colonies of Christians sprung in the major cities of the Roman Empire.
While the early Church received many converts from Judaism and the pagan religions, the world in which the Gospel was proclaimed was, in the words of St. Paul, "heartless and ruthless." With only a few intervals of peace, the Church was persecuted throughout the Empire for nearly three hundred years. The faith and love expressed by the Christians were viewed as a threat to the religion and political policies of the Empire. Thousands upon thousands of Christians were martyred.
The beginning of the fourth century marked a new stage in the development of the Church. After centuries of vicious persecution at the direction of the Roman Emperors, an Emperor of Rome became a Christian. This was Constantine the Great, who in the year 313 granted Christians freedom of worship. The Edict was a recognition that the Church not only had survived the persecutions but also had become a significant force in the Empire. From that time onward, the Church and the Empire began a very close and mutually beneficial relationship. Not only did the Church receive imperial support, but also the evils which had characterized the old Roman Empire were greatly reduced in Christian Byzantium. The Church was truly a leaven of the society of which it was a part. The fourth through the tenth centuries were a significant period for the Church's internal development. The authorative content of the New Testament was determined. The Services of Worship received a formal framework. The Teachings of Christianity were developed by great pastors and theologians who are known as the "Fathers" of the Church. It was also a period of missionary activity. Among the most important was the evangelization of the Slavs by Saints Cyril and Methodius. However, the period was not without struggle. The Byzantine Empire was constantly on guard against the neighboring Persians and Muslims. The Church itself was frequently afflicted with many grave schisms and heresies. For example, serious schisms took place in the years 431 and 451. Among the greatest heresies was Arianism, which taught that Christ was not truly God. This heresy plagued the Church and brought havoc to the Empire for nearly a century.
The fundamental doctrines of the Church were proclaimed and defended by the Seven Ecumenical Councils. These Synods, which are known by the names of the cities in which they were convened, included Bishops from throughout the world, who came to affirm the authentic teachings on the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity. The Councils did not create new doctrines, but in a particular place and time, they proclaimed what the Church always believed and taught. The counciliar and collegial expression of Church life and authority which was manifest at the Ecumenical Councils and other synods of the early Church continue to be an important aspect of Orthodox Christianity.
The Ecumenical Councils also sanctioned the organization of the Church about the five great ecclesiastical centers of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. The Archbishops of these cities came to be known as Patriarchs. They presided over the synod of bishops in a particular area. Since the early Church was not monolithic, each center had its own theological style, customs, and liturgical traditions. Yet, all shared in the unity of the faith. However, a primacy of honor was accorded the Bishop of Rome, from early times. The Second Ecumenical Council (381) gave Constantinople a position of honor by stating, "The Bishop of Constantinople shall have the prerogative of honor after the Bishops of Rome, because Constantinople is New Rome."
The Great Schism is the title given to separation between the Western Church (the Roman Catholic) and the Eastern Church, (the Orthodox), which took place in the eleventh century. Relations between the two great traditions of the East and the West had often been strained since the fourth century. Yet, unity and harmony was maintained in spite of differences in theological expression, liturgical practices, and views of authority. By the ninth century, however, legitimate differences were intensified by political circumstances, cultural clashes, papal claims, and the introduction in the West of the Filioque phrase into the Nicene Creed. The Filioque affirms that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Both the papal claims and the Filioque were strongly repudiated by the East.
Although it is difficult to date the exact year of the schism, in the year 1054 official charges, known as Anathamas, were exchanged. The Crusades, and especially the sack of the city of Constantinople by the western crusaders in 1204, can be considered the final element in the process of estrangement and deepening mistrust.
From that period onward, the Western Church, centered about the Pope of Rome, and the Eastern Church, centered about the Patriarch of Constantinople, went their separate ways. Although there were attempts to restore communion in the years 1274 and 1439, there was no lasting unity achieved. While political, cultural, and emotional factors have always been involved, the Orthodox Church believes that the two principal reasons for the continued schism are the papal claims of universal jurisdiction and infallibility, as well as the meaning of the Filioque.
For nearly 500 years the two traditions lived in formal isolation from each other. Only, since the early 1960's have steps been taken to restore the broken unity. Most significant has been the mutual lifting of the Anathamas of 1054 by the late Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI in 1965.
In the year 1453, the City of Constantinople fell to the invading Muslims. With its capital, the Byzantine Empire came to an end; and the vast lands of Asia Minor fell subject to non-Christians. The great ecclesiastical cities of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, which had come under the political control of Islam centuries earlier, were now joined by Constantinople. Throughout the Ottoman Empire, Christians came to be treated as second-class citizens who paid heavy taxes and wore distinctive dress. The life of the Orthodox Church in the Balkan and Asia Minor continued, but under much duress. Thousands of Christians suffered martyrdom. Patriarchs were deposed and murdered. Churches, monasteries, and schools were closed and destroyed. Only with the liberation of Greece in 1821, did some of the brutality come to an end. However, there were a series of vicious massacres at the beginning of this century. And, even today, Christians are denied their basic human rights in parts of Asia Minor.
After the decline of Byzantium, the Church in Russia thrived for nearly 500 years. However, with the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, Orthodoxy found itself confronted with the beliefs and political policies of militant atheists. Most churches were closed; and a policy was inaugurated to eliminate Christianity from Russia, a land which was steeped in Orthodoxy since the tenth century. In the years between the two World Wars, Orthodox Christians in Russia suffered much cruel and devastating persecution. Only since 1943 have there been modifications in government policy which have permitted the Church some degree of existence.
Today, in many of the lands which were once the pride and glory of Eastern Christendom, the Orthodox Church struggles amid great obstacles and persecution. It has been observed that in recent centuries there have been more martyrs than during the great persecutions of the early Church. Yet, despite injustices and indignities, the Faith survives.
Throughout the past two hundred years the Orthodox Church in the Western Hemisphere has been developing as a valuable presence and distinctive witness. For example, in the United States, Orthodoxy has been recognized as one of the four major faiths. She has more than five million members, who are grouped into more than a dozen ecclesiastical jurisdictions. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, which is the largest, has about 500 parishes and operates church schools, parochial schools, an orphanage, a college, and a graduate theological school. Many believe that Orthodoxy in America has the potential for true renewal, creative development, and missionary activity which can contribute greatly to American life.
From the beginning of this century, the Orthodox Church has been committed to the Ecumenical Movement. This quest for Christian unity is the boldest attack on division since the early centuries of the Church. The Patriarchate of Constantinople not only inspired the movement for unity with an encyclical in 1920, but also was one of the co-founders of the World Council of Churches in 1948. The cause of Christian unity was a special concern of the late and beloved Patriarch Athenagoras. He labored greatly to promote a renewed sense of collegiality among the various Orthodox Churches, as well as to inaugurate a true dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church. In the year 1968, the Patriarch looked toward the future and declared: May the Lord of mercy send as soon as possible to our holy Eastern and Western Churches the grace of celebrating the Divine Eucharist anew and of communicating again together... The common chalice stands out luminously on the horizon of the Church.
The life of the Orthodox Church perpetuates and fulfills the ministry of Jesus Christ. The close association between Christ and His Church is reflected in the images from the Scriptures which declare that Christ is the Head and the Church is His Body, and that Christ is the Bridegroom and the Church is His bride. These images express the reality that the Church does not exist independently from Christ.
The Lord and Savior, who was known, loved, and followed by the first disciples in Galilee nearly two thousand years ago, is the same Lord and Savior who is known, loved, and followed through His Church. As Christ revealed the Holy Trinity, His Church continues to reveal the Holy Trinity and to praise God in her worship. As Christ reconciled humanity to the Father, His Church continues to be the medium of reconciliation by word and action throughout the world. As Christ manifested the vocation of authentic human life, His Church continues to be the realm through which the image and likeness of God in each of us is brought to perfection.
The Orthodox Christian becomes united with Christ at Baptism and is nurtured by Christ at every Eucharist. We believe that the Holy Spirit acts in and through the Church to make Christ our Lord and to bring His work to fulfillment.
Orthodoxy has avoided any temptation to reduce its vision of the Church. The biblical descriptions of the Church as the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit indicate that she truly must be recognized as much more than one institution among many, or a social service agency, or as an ethnic or fraternal organization. Certainly the Church does have her institutional aspects, and she is always subject to the sins and limitations of her human members. Yet, Orthodoxy believes that in addition to her obvious human side, the Church also has a Divine dimension. The Greek word for Church, ecclesia, implies a community called and gathered by God for a special purpose. This means that the Church can be described as the unique meeting place between God and His people.
The Orthodox Faith cannot be appreciated fully, or appropriated personally, by the individual who is outside the Orthodox Church. Viewed from this vantage point, Orthodoxy can falsely appear as one world-view among many, as a cultural appendage, or merely as a ceremonial church. It is only from within the Church that one has the necessary perspective of experiencing Orthodoxy as the revelation of Divine Life.
The Orthodox Church has a universal appeal and vocation. She does not restrict membership to people of any particular culture, race, class, or section of the world. Indeed, Orthodoxy values the diversity of cultures, peoples, and languages which are part of her life. She also affirms a unity of faith and love in Christ which transcends all artificial barriers. Membership in the Orthodox Church is open to all persons.
The Orthodox Church in the United States is no longer considered to be an immigrant Church. She has been recognized as one of the four major faiths in America. The membership of the Orthodox Church in this country includes persons from a wide variety of ethnic and cultural family backgrounds. The overwhelming majority have been born in the United States. Among these five million Orthodox, there are a large number of persons who were raised in other religious traditions and who have chosen to become members of the Orthodox Church.
This reality was clearly recognized by His Eminence Archbishop Iakovos, former archbishop of North and South America, when he told the Twentieth Biennial Clergy/Laity Congress of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese that:
"Orthodoxy is not exclusively the religion of the Hellenes, but the religion of all those who, as a result of mixed marriages, or contract or study of Orthodoxy, have come to know and relate to it; and, therefore, Orthodoxy has already found its place and mission in the Western Hemisphere."
If you are seriously interested in becoming a member of the Orthodox Church, you should meet with your local Orthodox priest and become acquainted with his parish. He will be happy to offer you advice and guidance, as well as to introduce you to members of the parish. This is truly an exciting period in the development of Orthodox parishes in the United States. While most are associated with a particular cultural heritage, many are coming to fully recognize the responsibility of Orthodoxy to the wider society. When you embrace the Orthodox Church, you also join a particular local parish. It is meant to be a spiritual family. Therefore, you should thoughtfully examine the concerns and priorities of the parish. Try to discover whether you will feel comfortable, whether the parish can provide you with the opportunity to grow closer to God and to be of responsible service to others.
In many parishes, the priest offers classes or individual conferences on the Orthodox Faith for those who wish to become members of the Orthodox Church. The length and scope of these instructions will be determined by your previous knowledge of the Christian Faith, as well as by your particular needs and concerns.
After the period of instruction, there is a Service of Reception into the Church. If you are converting from a non-Christian religion, you will make a profession of Faith and be baptized and chrismated. If you are being received from a Church which has a similarity of beliefs with Orthodoxy and you have been properly baptized and confirmed, you will participate in a brief Service of Anointing (Chrismation) which signifies reconciliation with the Orthodox Church. The reception of Holy Communion is always seen as the consummation of union with the Church.
The ultimate commitment of the Orthodox Christian is a commitment to Christ our Lord, Who is known in and through the Church. This is expressed by the litanies of the Church which call upon us to "commit ourselves, one another, and our whole life unto Christ our God." And, prior to receiving Holy Communion, we pray: "O Master Who loves mankind, unto you we commit our whole life and our hope."
Each of us is unique and blessed by the Holy Spirit with different gifts and vocations in life; therefore, our personal commitments to Christ will be expressed differently. Yet, Orthodoxy firmly believes that this commitment will always be built upon a worship of God and a loving concern for others. As worship is central to the Church as a whole, worship, personal prayer, and especially participation in the Holy Eucharist are central to the life of the individual Orthodox Christian. Through these actions, we grow closer to God and we are blessed with the fruits of the Spirit, which enable us to be of loving and responsible service to others in Christ's Name. Orthodoxy avoids any tendency which seeks to separate love of God from love of neighbor. The two are inseparable. This conviction is expressed during the Divine Liturgy in the dialogue between the priest and the people which says, "Let us love one another that with one mind we may confess...The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; The Trinity, consubstantial and undivided."
Although Orthodoxy highly extols the value of worship, this does not imply that it in any way minimizes the importance of a life lived according to the Gospel. Therefore, as the Liturgy reminds us, only those with faith and love may draw near to receive Holy Communion. Our participation in the Body and Blood of the Lord also provides each with the opportunity to be Christ-bearers in the world in which we live.
The Orthodox Church throughout the ages has maintained a continuity of faith and love with the apostolic community which was founded by Christ and sustained by the Holy Spirit. Orthodoxy believes that she has preserved and taught the historic Christian Faith, free from error and distortion, from the time of the Apostles. She also believes that there is nothing in the body of her teachings which is contrary to truth or which inhibits real union with God. The air of antiquity and timelessness which often characterizes Eastern Christianity is an expression of her desire to remain loyal to the authentic Christian Faith.
Orthodoxy believes that the Christian Faith and the Church are inseparable. It is impossible to know Christ, to share in the life of the Holy Trinity, or to be considered a Christian apart from the Church. It is in the Church that the Christian Faith is proclaimed and maintained. It is through the Church that an individual is nurtured in the Faith.
God is the source of faith in the Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy believes that God has revealed Himself to us, most especially in the revelation of Jesus Christ, whom we know as the Son of God. This Revelation of God, His love, and His purpose, is constantly made manifest and contemporary in the life of the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Orthodox Faith does not begin with mankind's religious speculations, nor with the so-called "proofs" for the existence of God, nor with a human quest for the Divine. The origin of the Orthodox Christian Faith is the Self-disclosure of God. Each day, the Church's Morning Prayer affirms and reminds us of this by declaring, "God is the Lord and He has revealed Himself to us." While the inner Being of God always remains unknown and unapproachable, God has manifested Himself to us; and the Church has experienced Him as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity, which is central to the Orthodox Faith, is not a result of pious speculation, but of the overwhelming experience of God. The doctrine affirms that there is only One God, in whom there are three distinct Persons. In other words, when we encounter the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit, we are truly experiencing contact with God. While the Holy Trinity is a mystery which can never be fully comprehended, Orthodoxy believes that we can truly participate in the Trinity through the life of the Church, especially through our celebration of the Eucharist and the Sacraments, as well as the non-sacramental services.
Together with the belief in the Holy Trinity, the doctrine of the Incarnation occupies a central position in the teaching of the Orthodox Church. According to Orthodox Faith, Jesus is much more than a pious man or a profound teacher of morality. He is the "Son of God who became the Son of Man." The doctrine of the Incarnation is an expression of the Church's experience of Christ. In Him, divinity is united with humanity without the destruction of either reality. Jesus Christ is truly God who shares in the same reality as the Father and the Spirit. Moreover, He is truly man who shares with us all that is human. The Church believes that, as the unique God-man, Jesus Christ has restored humanity to fellowship with God.
By manifesting the Holy Trinity, by teaching the meaning of authentic human life, and by conquering the powers of sin and death through His Resurrection, Christ is the supreme expression of the love of God the Father, for His people, made present in every age and in every place by the Holy Spirit through the life of the Church. The great Fathers of the Church summarized the ministry of Christ in the bold affirmation, "God became what we are so that we may become what He is."
The Holy Scriptures are highly regarded by the Orthodox Church. Their importance is expressed in the fact that a portion of the Bible is read at every service of Worship. The Orthodox Church, which sees itself as the guardian and interpreter of the Scriptures, believes that the books of the Bible are a valuable witness to God's revelation. The Old Testament is a collection of forty-nine books of various literary styles which expresses God's revelation to the ancient Israelites. The Orthodox Church regards the Old Testament as a preparation for the coming of Christ and believes that it should be read in light of His revelation.
The New Testament is centered upon the person and work of Jesus Christ and the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit in the early Church. The four Gospels are an account of Christ's life and teaching, centering upon His Death and Resurrection. The twenty-one epistles and the Acts of the Apostles are devoted to the Christian life and the development of the early Church. The Book of Revelation is a very symbolic text which looks to the return of Christ. The New Testament, especially the Gospels, is very important to Orthodoxy because here is found a written witness to the perfect revelation of God in the Incarnation of the Son of God, in the person of Jesus Christ.
While the Bible is treasured as a valuable written record of God's revelation, it does not contain wholly that revelation. The Bible is viewed as only one expression of God's revelation in the on-going life of His people. Scripture is part of the treasure of Faith which is known as Tradition. Tradition means that which is "handed on" from one generation to another. In addition to the witness of Faith in the Scripture, the Orthodox Christian Faith is celebrated in the Eucharist; taught by the Fathers; glorified by the Saints; expressed in prayers, hymns, and icons; defended by the seven Ecumenical Councils; embodied in the Nicene Creed; manifested in social concern; and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, it is lived in every local Orthodox parish. The life of the Holy Trinity is manifested in every aspect of the Church's life. Finally, the Church, as a whole, is the guardian of the authentic Christian Faith which bears witness to that Revelation.
As Orthodoxy has avoided any tendency to restrict the vision of God's revelation to only one avenue of its life, the Church has also avoided the systematic or extensive definition of its Faith. Orthodoxy affirms that the Christian Faith expresses and points to the gracious and mysterious relationship between God and humanity. God became man in the person of Jesus Christ not to institute a new philosophy or code of conduct, but primarily to bestow upon us "new life" in the Holy Trinity. This reality, which is manifest in the Church, cannot be wholly captured in language, formulas, or definitions. The content of the Faith is not opposed to reason, but is often beyond the bounds of reason, as are many of the important realities of life. Orthodoxy recognizes the supreme majesty of God, as well as the limitations of the human mind. The Church is content to accept the element of mystery in its approach to God.
Only when the fundamental truths of the Faith are seriously threatened by false teachings does the Church act to define dogmatically an article of faith. For this reason, the decisions of the seven Ecumenical Councils of the ancient undivided Church are highly respected. The Councils were synods to which bishops from throughout the Christian world gathered to determine the true faith. The Ecumenical Councils did not create new doctrines but proclaimed, in a particular place and a particular time, what the Church has always believed and taught.
The Nicene Creed, which was formulated at the Councils of Nicaea in 325 and of Constantinople in 381, has been recognized since then as the authoritative expression of the fundamental beliefs of the Orthodox Church. The Creed is often referred to as the "Symbol of Faith." This description indicates that the Creed is not an analytical statement, but that it points to a reality greater than itself and to which it bears witness. For generations, the Creed has been the criterion of authentic Faith and the basis of Christian education. The Creed is recited at the time of Baptism and during every Divine Liturgy.
"I believe in One God, Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.
And in One Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages.
Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not created, of one essence with the Father, through whom all things were made.
For us and for our salvation He came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became Man.
He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and He suffered and was buried.
On the third day He rose according to the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead. His kingdom will have no end.
And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father, who together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, who spoke through the prophets.
In one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
I acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
I expect the resurrection of the dead; and the life of the age to come.
One of the best-known prayers of the Orthodox Church speaks of the spirit of God being "present in all places and filling all things." This profound affirmation is basic to Orthodoxy's understanding of God and His relationship to the world. We believe that God is truly near to us. Although He cannot be seen, God is not detached from His creation. Through the persons of The Risen Christ and the Holy Spirit, God is present and active in our lives and in the creation about us. All our life and the creation of which we are an important part, points, to and reveals God.
There are special experiences in our corporate life as Orthodox Christians when the perception of God's presence and actions is heightened and celebrated. We call these events of the Church Sacraments. Traditionally, the Sacraments have been known as Mysteries in the Orthodox Church. This description emphasizes that in these special events of the Church, God discloses Himself through the prayers and actions of His people.
Not only do the Sacraments disclose and reveal God to us, but also they serve to make us receptive to God. All the Sacraments affect our personal relationship to God and to one another. The Holy Spirit works through the Sacraments. He leads us to Christ who unites us with the Father. By participating in the Sacraments, we grow closer to God and to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This process of deification, or theosis, as it is known by Orthodoxy, takes place not in isolation from others, but within the context of a believing community. Although the Sacraments are addressed to each of us by name, they are experiences which involve the entire Church.
The Sacraments of the Orthodox Church are composed of prayers, hymns, scripture lessons, gestures and processions. Many parts of the services date back to the time of the Apostles. The Orthodox Church has avoided reducing the Sacraments to a particular formula or action. Often, a whole series of sacred acts make up a Sacrament. Most of the Sacraments use a portion of the material of creation as an outward and visible sign of God's revelation. Water, oil, bread and wine are but a few of the many elements which the Orthodox Church employs in her Worship. The frequent use of the material of creation reminds us that matter is good and can become a medium of the Spirit. Most importantly, it affirms the central truth of the Orthodox Christian faith: that God became flesh in Jesus Christ and entered into the midst of creation thereby redirecting the cosmos toward its vocation to glorify its Creator.
The Holy Eucharist, which is known as the Divine Liturgy, is the central and most important worship experience of the Orthodox Church. Often referred to as the "Sacrament of Sacraments", it is the Church's celebration of the Death and Resurrection of Christ offered every Sunday and Holy day. All the other Sacraments of the Church lead toward and flow from the Eucharist, which is at the center of the life of the Church. The previous pamphlet in this series was devoted to the meaning and celebration of the Eucharist in the Orthodox Church.
The Sacrament of Baptism incorporates us into the Church, the Body of Christ, and is our introduction to the life of the Holy Trinity. Water is a natural symbol of cleansing and newness of life. Through the three-fold immersion in the waters of Baptism in the Name of the Holy Trinity, one dies to the old ways of sin and is born to a new life in Christ. Baptism is one's public identification with Christ Death and victorious Resurrection. Following the custom of the early Church, Orthodoxy encourages the baptism of infants. The Church believes that the Sacrament is bearing witness to the action of God who chooses a child to be an important member of His people. From the day of their baptism, children are expected to mature in the life of the Spirit, through their family and the Church. The Baptism of adults is practiced when there was no previous baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity.
The Sacrament of Chrismation (Confirmation) immediately follows baptism and is never delayed until a later age. As the ministry of Christ was enlivened by the Spirit, and the preaching of the Apostles strengthened by the Spirit, so is the life of each Orthodox Christian sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Chrismation, which is often referred to as one's personal Pentecost, is the Sacrament which imparts the Spirit in a special way.
In the Sacrament of Chrismation, the priest anoints the various parts of the body of the newly-baptized with Holy Oil saying: "The seal of the gifts of the Holy Spirit." The Holy Oil, which is blessed by the bishop, is a sign of consecration and strength. The Sacrament emphasizes the truths that not only is each person a valuable member of the Church, but also each one is blessed by the Spirit with certain gifts and talents. The anointing also reminds us that our bodies are valuable and are involved in the process of salvation.
The Sacraments of initiation always are concluded with the distribution of Holy Communion to the newly-baptized. Ideally, this takes place within the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. This practice reveals that Orthodoxy views children from their infancy as important members of the Church. There is never time when the young are not part of God's people.
As members of the Church, we have responsibilities to one another and, of course, to God. When we sin, or relationship to God and to others distorted. Sin is ultimately alienation from God, from our fellow human beings, and from our own true self which is created in God's image and likeness.
Confession is the Sacrament through which our sins are forgiven, and our relationship to God and to others is restored and strengthened. Through the Sacrament, Christ our Lord continues to heal those broken in spirit and restore the Father's love those who are lost. According to Orthodox teaching, the penitent confess to God and is forgiven by God. The priest is the sacramental witness who represents both Christ and His people. The priest is viewed not as a judge, but as a physician and guide. It is an ancient Orthodox practice for every Christian to have a spiritual father to whom one turns for spiritual advice and counsel. Confession can take place on any number of occasions. The frequency is left the discretion of the individual. In the event of serious sin, however, confession is a necessary preparation for Holy Communion.
God is active in our lives. It is He who joins a man and a woman in a relationship of mutual love. The Sacrament of Marriage bears witness to His action. Through this Sacrament, a man and a woman are publicly joined as husband and wife. They enter into a new relationship with each other, God, and the Church. Since Marriage is not viewed as a legal contract, there are no vows in the Sacrament. According to Orthodox teachings, Marriage is not simply a social institution, it is an eternal vocation of the kingdom. A husband and a wife are called by the holy Spirit not only to live together but also to share their Christian life together so that each, with the aid of the other, may grow closer to God and become the persons they are meant to be. In the Orthodox Marriage Service, after the couple have been betrothed and exchanged rings, they are crowned with "crowns of glory and honor" signifying the establishment of a new family under God. Near the conclusion of the Service, the husband and wife drink from a common cup which is reminiscent of the wedding of Cana and which symbolized the sharing of the burdens and joys of their new life together.
The Holy Spirit preserved the continuity of the Church through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Through ordination, men who have been chosen from within the Church are set apart by the Church for special service to the Church. Each is called by God through His people to stand amid the community, as pastor and teacher, and as the representative of the parish before the Altar. Each is also a living icon of Christ among His people. According to Orthodox teaching, the process of ordination begins with the local congregation; but the bishop alone, who acts in the name of the universal Church, can complete the action. He does so with the invocation of the Holy Spirit and the imposition of his hands on the person being ordained.
Following the custom of the Apostolic Church, there are three major orders each of which requires a special ordination. These are Bishop, who is viewed as a successor of the Apostles, Priest and Deacon, who act in the name of the Bishop. Each order is distinguished by its pastoral responsibilities. Only a Bishop may ordain. Often, other titles and offices are associated with the three orders. The Orthodox Church permits men to marry before they are ordained. Since the sixth century, Bishops have been chosen from the celibate clergy.
When one is ill and in pain, this can very often be a time of life when one feels alone and isolated. The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, or Holy Unction as it is also known, remind us that when we are in pain, either physical, emotional, or spiritual, Christ is present with us through the ministry of his Church. He is among us to offer strength to meet the challenges of life, and even the approach of death.
As with Chrismation, oil is also used in this Sacrament as a sign of God's presence, strength, and forgiveness. After the reading of seven epistle lessons, seven gospel lessons and the offering of seven prayers, which are all devoted to healing, the priest anoints the body with the Holy Oil. Orthodoxy does not view this Sacrament as available only to those who are near death. It is offered to all who are sick in body, mind, or spirit. The Church celebrates the Sacrament for all its members during Holy week on Holy Wednesday.
The Orthodox Church has never formally determined a particular number of Sacraments. In addition to the Eucharist she accepts the above six Mysteries as major Sacraments because they involve the entire community and most important are closely relation to the Eucharist. There are many other Blessings and Special Services which complete the major Sacraments, and which reflect the Church's presence throughout the lives of her people. Some of these are discussed in the following pamphlet in this series.