The Orthodox Church: An Introduction
What is the Orthodox Church? Here’s an introductory video with Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick:
Before Orthodox Christians enter the sanctuary, two actions happen. First: we pick up a candle, light it, and place it in the sand. Second: we bow before the icons, make the sign of the cross, and venerate the icons with a kiss. Then we enter for communal worship, or solitary prayer, or confession.
These two external acts – candle lighting and icon veneration – are symbolic. We Orthodox love symbols, and our understanding of symbolism runs deeper than the common western approach. For us, a symbol isn’t merely a sign pointing to something; rather, it bears something.
A symbol is visible and material yet communicates something beyond sight and touch. God is in the candle’s flame. God is in the icon. Material things become God-bearing realities, allowing us to encounter God and commune with Him.
We’re a mystical religion, a mysticism lived not by escaping the world but by transfiguring it.
Of course, rote external piety is a danger; we humans are weak. So, we’re attuned to the inner world: the struggle to open the eyes of the heart, to still the thoughts, to clear out room for God to dwell. This is why short, repeated prayers figure prominently in our spiritual tradition, like the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
Inner & Outer
Symbolism feeds the inner life in Christ. There’s a symbiosis between inner and outer, two sides of the same coin. We’re keen to engage the body and material world. For example:
- Services are mostly chanted and intoned, giving a sense of elevation.
- The censer’s bells ring with joy; fragrant incense brings us into the sweetness of Christ; smoke lifts our prayers to Heaven.
- The sanctuary ceiling is high, reflecting the boundlessness of God.
- We take into our bodies the eternal Body and Blood of Christ.
- We’re anointed with holy oil, our wounds joining Christ’s wounds on the Cross, and thus transfigured in His Resurrection.
- We make prostrations, bowing down to the ground – an act of humility, obedience, submission. The Greek word for prostration is metania, the same biblical word for ‘repentance,’ which means a ‘change in mind.’ We reorient toward God and return to Him even through the body.
- We tithe and give alms – sacrificial giving beyond the isolation of self-love.
- We fast regularly (from meat/dairy), lightening our bellies and freeing us from attachment to the world and to inner compulsions.
Not a Religion but a Way
These symbols and many others get to the heart of life. We don’t try to be good religious people, but people in union with God. The human vocation is to know our Creator and enter His life.
We call this ‘theosis’ – the process of deification. An early saint of the Church, St. Athanasius the Great (+373 AD), distilled the purpose of the Incarnation in this way: “God became man, so that we might become god” (with a small ‘g’). Our relationship with Christ is synergistic, two-way: our mystical seeking has concrete expressions, yet we rely on grace.
Orthodoxy isn’t a religion but a ‘way’ animated by the living God. As one modern saint says, “Christ himself is joy. He is a joy that transforms you into a different person… This is what our religion is” (St. Porphyrios +1991 AD).
Sacraments & Sacramental Life
We do have certain elevated events of symbolism – of divine presence – called ‘sacraments’: baptism, Communion, confession, marriage, and so on. But the western numbering of 7 sacraments is foreign to the Orthodox mindset; we understand all of life as sacramental.
The Greek word for ‘sacrament’ is ‘mysterion’, meaning ‘mystery’. We seek to live within the mystery of the overlap between Heaven and earth, which touches every moment of life: brushing teeth, monotony, jubilation, pain – everything.
For us, there’s no distinction between ordinary and extraordinary, profane and sacred. Christ, Who humbles Himself to take flesh, fills all creation with His presence. How am I going to see God everywhere and rejoice in His presence? This is the Orthodox question.
Nature of Orthodox Worship
And so, we’re a religion of doing, of being: of placing ourselves in patterns of living that foster a worshipful heart. The word ‘orthodox’ – orthodoxia – means ‘correct glory’ or ‘correct praise’. According to the world, I’m homo sapiens, a ‘reasoning man’. According to an Orthodox view, I’m homo adorans, a ‘worshipping man’. Worship alone changes us into what St. Paul calls “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). Poverty becomes richness.
The sermon can be sacramental, and thus God-bearing. Every Orthodox service includes a sermon, but verbal offerings don’t dominate our worship. When we enter the sanctuary, we’re primarily here to do something: to be attentive, to pray, to bow, to clear our cluttered minds, to consecrate ourselves to God, to praise Him, to receive the sacraments, to enter the Kingdom breaking into this world. This heavenly reality spills into daily life.
Ecclesiology, the Original Church
When we say ‘us Orthodox’, we don’t mean just one of the many branches of Christianity. Orthodoxy is the original Church: the only Church with an unbroken chain directly to the apostles, who received their inheritance from Jesus Himself.
How we live discipleship – how we worship and what we believe about Christ, the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary, salvation, Scripture, tradition – all this is consonant with the first 1500 years of Christianity. We’re the ancient, 2000-year-old Church – not as a dusty museum but as having preserved unchanging truths lived out creatively and appropriately in different contexts.
How the saints of old believed and lived, we uphold.
We’ve maintained this living link through our ‘ecclesiology’ – the structure of the divine-human Church. Authority doesn’t rest with certain individuals, no matter how holy they may be or what title they may have. We’re a Church that expresses truth collectively. When tension and confusion invariably rear their heads, we convene in councils to pray, deliberate, and reach common understanding. We face one another and listen; ultimately, we discern the voice of the Holy Spirit.
For roughly 1000 years, Christian unity was maintained through this kind of Church administration. There was Orthodoxy in the West (Rome) and Orthodoxy in the East (the other 4 patriarchates: Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem).
The root cause of the schism – and the reason it hasn’t healed – is an ecclesiological issue. In the West, there was a growing emphasis on the pope of Rome’s authority, even though he was considered first among equals. This emphasis increased to such a degree that the Catholic Church now has the doctrine of papal infallibility; the pope isn’t considered free of sin, but when he makes an official statement about faith or morality, it’s considered true and universally binding.
On the other extreme, in the Protestant world, if I disagree with my pastor or church, then I simply go to another pastor or church. Or, I start my own church.
Orthodoxy is balanced, in the middle. We’re a Church preserved by all yet controlled by none. And the priests don’t differ from one another, nor are we overly attached to them; rather, we’re grounded in the greater Tradition, which is the life of God Himself.
Orthodox Parishes, Our Parish
People are discovering Orthodoxy; many are becoming Orthodox. The Orthodox Church is growing; our parish is growing.
Nearly 100 years ago, Greek immigrants founded this parish. All Orthodox parishes have ethnic roots. But now, American Orthodoxy has progressed into its natural evangelistic ethos. We’re no longer ‘immigrant’ parishes. Our parish is comprised of converts, catechumens preparing to be received into Orthodoxy, and faithful from several traditionally Orthodox countries (Greece, Romania, Serbia, Eritrea, Bulgaria).
We speak English; we worship in English. We’re a home for all who seek to love Christ, as expressed in Orthodoxy’s ancient, unbroken, living Tradition.
Want to learn more?
- Reach out to our parish priest! Fr. Joshua would love to meet with you. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (616) 454-6563.
- We have a wide range of books available in our Gift Shop, including topics like: Introduction to Orthodoxy, Spirituality, Divine Liturgy, Worship & Sacraments, Church History, Church Fathers, Contemporary Elders/Saints, Iconography, Contemporary Issues, Differences between Christian Confessions.
- Ancient Faith Ministries: blogs, podcasts, films, publications, online store, and more
- “Theoria” YouTube Channel: a focus on “Orthodox life, dogma, and spirituality to inspire new, renewed, and continued inquiries into the depth of the Eastern Orthodox Church and her ancient Tradition”
- “Protecting Veil” YouTube Channel: “better understanding, deeper living”
- Orthodox Christian Network: “know the faith of those who walked with Jesus”
- Peruse any website of a canonical Orthodox jurisdiction
- Website of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of America
- “Be the Bee” YouTube Channel: geared toward young adults, covering a range of Orthodox topics and contemporary issues