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Orthodox Christians believe in the Holy Trinity, three distinct, divine persons (hypostases), without overlap or modality among them, who share one divine essence (ousia Greek οὐσία)—uncreated, immaterial and eternal. These three persons are typically distinguished 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 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 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.
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Sin, salvation, and the incarnation
John of Damascus
According to the Eastern Orthodox faith, 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 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
A 17th-century Russian Orthodox icon of the Resurrection.
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.
Church teaching is that Orthodox Christians, through baptism, 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. The Orthodox Christian life is a spiritual pilgrimage in which each person, through the imitation of Christ and hesychasm, cultivates the practice of unceasing prayer. Each life occurs within the life of the Church as a member of the body of Christ. It is then through the fire of God’s love in the action of the Holy Spirit that each member becomes more holy, more wholly unified with Christ, starting in this life and continuing in the next. The Church teaches that everyone, being born in God’s image, 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.
Mother of God and saints
Our Lady of Tinos is the major Marian shrine in Greece
The Theotokos of Vladimir, one of the most venerated of Orthodox Christian icons of the Virgin Mary.
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 Mother of God. In Orthodox theology, the Mother of God 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 Mother of God’s 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 human. Mary is thus called the ‘Theotokos’ or ‘Bogoroditsa’ 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 Orthodox 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.
Main article: Christian eschatology
Last Judgment: 12th-century Byzantine mosaic from Torcello Cathedral.
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.
Monastery of Saint John the Theologian in Patmos, where the Book of Revelation was written
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.
The official bible of the Orthodox Church contains the Septuagint text of the Old Testament, with the Book of Daniel given in the translation by Theodotion. The Patriarchal Text is used for the New Testament. 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 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.
David glorified by the women of Israel from the Paris Psalter, example of the Macedonian art (Byzantine) (sometimes called the Macedonian Renaissance)
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 5th 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 See of Rome and the West from the See of Constantinople and the other apostolic Orthodox Churches, and remained as defined essentially without controversy in the East or West for at least one thousand years. It was only in the 16th century that Reformation Protestants challenged the lists, proclaiming a canon that rejected those Old Testament books that did not appear in the 3rd-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 5th 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 to 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 the doctrine developed and spread by the apostles to the various sees against faulty local doctrine, 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 not 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.
Main articles: Byzantine Rite and Eastern Orthodox worship
Fresco of Basil the Great in the cathedral of Ohrid. The saint is shown consecrating the Gifts during the Divine Liturgy which bears his name.
Many church traditions, including the schedules of services, feasts, and fasts, are structured by the church’s calendar, which provides a strictly observed intermingled set of cycles of varying lengths. The fixed annual cycle begins 1 September, and establishes the times for all annual observances that are fixed by date, such as Christmas. The annual Paschal cycle is established relative to the varying date of Pascha each year and affects the times for such observances as Pascha itself, Great Lent, Holy Week, and the feasts of Ascension and Pentecost.
Lesser cycles also run in tandem with the annual ones. A weekly cycle of days prescribes a specific focus for each day in addition to others that may be observed.
Each day of the Weekly Cycle is dedicated to certain special memorials. Sunday is dedicated to Christ’s Resurrection; Monday honors the Holy Bodiless Powers (Angels, Archangels, etc.); Tuesday is dedicated to the prophets and especially the greatest of the Prophets, St. John the Forerunner and Baptist of the Lord; Wednesday is consecrated to the Cross and recalls Judas’ betrayal; Thursday honors the Holy Apostles and Hierarchs, especially St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra in Lycia; Friday is also consecrated to the Cross and recalls the day of the Crucifixion; Saturday is dedicated to All Saints, especially the Mother of God, and to the memory of all those who have departed this life in the hope of resurrection and eternal life.
Main articles: Canonical Hours § Orthodox and Greek-Catholic usage, and Divine Services
The services of the church are conducted each day according to the church calendar. Parts of each service remain fixed, while others change depending on the observances prescribed for the specific day in the various cycles, ever providing a flow of constancy within variation. 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.
Icon of Ss. Basil the Great (left) and John Chrysostom, ascribed authors of the two most frequently used Eastern Orthodox Divine Liturgies, c. 1150 (mosaic in the Palatine Chapel, Palermo).
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, and before sleeping.
- Midnight Office – Usually served only in monasteries.
- Matins (Greek Orthros) – First service of the morning. Usually starts before sunrise.
- Divine Liturgy – The Eucharist service. (see below)
- 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 before the Divine Liturgy, and the Ninth before 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 is 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 and chanting
See also: Early Christianity
Chanters singing on the kliros at the Church of St. George, Patriarchate of Constantinople.
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.
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 heard influencing their music.
Russian Orthodox Deacon and Priest
An Orthodox priest in Jerusalem
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 sacra, 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.
Blessing of the waters and throwing cross; Theophany
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, 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 activity on fast days so that they may devote themselves fulsomely to prayer (1 Corinthians 7:5).
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 congregation lighting their candles from the new flame in Adelaide, at St. George Greek Orthodox Church, just as the priest has retrieved it from the altar. The picture is flash-illuminated; all electric lighting is off, and only the oil lamps in front of the Iconostasis remain lit.
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 15 November and running through 24 December. This fast becomes more severe beginning 12 December, 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 29 June. 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 1 August through 15 August.
Patriarch Kirill serves Holy Liturgy at Easter
Patriarch Daniel of Romania
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 29 August and the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on 14 September.
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 Pascha (Easter), also known as Bright Week.
- 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”, more comprehensively described as “acts of mercy”, refers to any giving of oneself in charity to someone who has a need, such as material resources, work, assistance, counsel, support, or kindness. 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.