An ever-growing number of persons from various backgrounds are becoming interested in the Orthodox Church. These individuals are discovering the ancient faith and rich traditions of the Orthodox Church. They have been attracted by its mystical vision of God and His Kingdom, by the beauty of her worship, by the purity of her Christian faith, and by her continuity with the past. These are only some of the treasures of the Church which has a history reaching back to the time of the Apostles.
In our Western Hemisphere, the Orthodox Church has been developing into a valuable presence and distinctive witness for more than two hundred years. The first Greek Orthodox arrived in the New World in 1768, establishing a colony near the present city of St. Augustine, Florida. One of the original buildings in which these immigrants gathered for religious services is still standing. It has recently been transformed into St. Photius’ Shrine by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. The Shrine, named in memory of a great missionary of the Orthodox Church, honors those first Orthodox immigrants. The chapel serves as a national religious landmark, bearing witness to the presence of Orthodoxy in America from the earliest days of its history. The next group of Orthodox Christians to emerge on the American Continent were the Russian fur traders in the Aleutian Islands. They, too, made a great contribution.
The Orthodox Church in this country owes its origin to the devotion of so many immigrants from lands such as Greece, Russia, the Middle East, and the Balkans. In the great wave of immigrations in the 19th and 20th centuries, Orthodox Christians from many lands and cultures came to America in search of freedom and opportunity. Like the first Apostles, they carried with them a precious heritage and gift. To the New World they brought the ancient faith of the Orthodox Church.
Many Orthodox Christians in America proudly trace their ancestry to the lands and cultures of Europe and Asia, but the Orthodox Church in the United States can no longer be seen as an immigrant Church. While the Orthodox Church contains individuals from numerous ethnic and cultural backgrounds, the majority of her membership is composed of persons who have been born in America. In recognition of this. Orthodoxy has been formally acknowledged as one of the Four Major Faiths in the United States. Following the practice of the Early Church, Orthodoxy treasures the various cultures of its people; but it is not bound to any particular culture or people. The Orthodox Church welcomes all!
There are about 5 million Orthodox Christians in this country. They are grouped into nearly a dozen ecclesiastical jurisdictions. The largest is the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, which has about 500 parishes throughout the United States. Undoubtedly, the Primate of the Archdiocese, His Eminence Archbishop lakovos, has been chiefly responsible for acquainting many non-Orthodox with the treasures of Orthodoxy. His selfless ministry, which has spanned more than thirty years, has been one of devotion and vision filled with an appreciation of his Hellenic background and guided by a spirit of ecumenism, Archbishop lakovos has recognized the universal dimension of Orthodoxy. Hellas acted decisively to make this ancient faith of the Apostles and Martyrs a powerful witness in contemporary America.
The Orthodox Church embodies and expresses the rich spiritual treasures of Eastern Christianity. It should not be forgotten that the Gospel of Christ was first preached and the First Christian communities were established in the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. It was in these eastern regions of the old Roman Empire that the Christian faith matured in its struggle against paganism and heresy. There, the great Fathers lived and taught. It was in the cities of the East that the fundamentals of our faith were proclaimed at the Seven Ecumenical Councils.
The spirit of Christianity which was nurtured in the East had a particular favor. It was distinct, though not necessarily opposed, to that which developed in the Western portion of the Roman Empire and subsequent Medieval Kingdoms in the West. While Christianity in the West developed in lands which knew the legal and moral philosophy of Ancient Rome, Eastern Christianity developed in lands which knew the Semitic and Hellenistic cultures. While the West was concerned with the Passion of Christ and the sin of man, the East emphasized the Resurrection of Christ and the deification of man. While the West leaned toward a legalistic view of religion, the East espoused a more mystical theology. Since the Early Church was not monolithic, the two great traditions existed together for more than a thousand years until the Great Schism divided the Church. Today, Roman Catholics and Protestants are heirs to the Western tradition, and the Orthodox are heirs to the Eastern tradition.
Christians of the Eastern Churches call themselves Orthodox. This description comes to us from the fifth century and has two meanings which are closely related. The first definition means true teaching. The Orthodox Church believes that she has maintained and handed down the Christian faith, free from error and distortion from the days of the Apostles. The second definition, which is actually the more preferred, means true praise. To bless, praise, and glorify God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–is the fundamental purpose of the Church. All her activities, even her doctrinal formulations, are directed toward this goal.
Occasionally, the word Catholic is also used to describe the Orthodox Church. This description dating back to the second century, is embodied in the Nicene Creed which acknowledges One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. From the Orthodox perspective, Catholic means that the Church is universal and also that she includes persons of all races and cultures. It also affirms that the Church has preserved the fullness of the Christian faith.
It is not unusual for titles such as Greek, Russian and Antiochian to be used in describing Orthodox Churches. These appellations refer to the cultural or national roots of a particular parish, diocese, or archdiocese.
Diversity In Unity
The Orthodox Church is an international federation of patriarchal, autocephalous and autonomous churches. Each church is independent in her internal organization and follows her own particular customs. However, all the churches are united in the same faith and order. The Orthodox Church acknowledges that unity does not mean uniformity. Some churches are rich in history, such as the Church of Constantinople, while others are relatively young, such as the Church of Finland. Some are large, such as the Church of Russia, while others are small, such as the Church of Sinai. Each Church is led by a synod of bishops. The president of the synod is known as the Patriarch, Archbishop, Metropolitan, or Catholicos. Among the various bishops, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople is accorded a “place of honor” and is regarded as “first among equals.” In America and Western Europe, where Orthodoxy is relatively young, there are a number of dioceses and archdioceses which are directly linked to one of these autocephalous Churches. For example, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese is under the care of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. While the Archdiocese enjoys a good measure of internal autonomy and is headed by an Archbishop, it owes its spiritual allegiance to the Church of Constantinople.
Fundamental Tenets Of The Orthodox Church
1. The Orthodox Church Has Two Great Sources Of Authority:
Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition
Holy Scripture is comprised of the writings of both the New and the Old Testaments. The New Testament reveals the human and divine nature of Jesus Christ, and His sacred teachings that we are charged to follow. The Old Testament is a history of the Hebrew people. It contains, among other sacred writings, the prophecies and the writings of the Prophets that foretold the coming of the Messiah. It therefore serves as an introduction to the revelation and the saving message of the New Testament.
Holy Tradition, of which Holy Scripture is a part, includes the writings, teachings, acts of the apostles, saints, martyrs, and fathers of the Church, and her liturgical and sacramental traditions throughout the ages, the oral tradition of the early Church and the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils. All of this collective wisdom and experience through the centuries are combined to form this second great source of sacred authority.
2. The Creed
The Creed contains the Church’s basic summary of doctrinal truths to which we adhere as Orthodox Christians. It consists of the twelve articles of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, or the “Pistevo,” which is recited at each 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.
3. The Sacraments
The Sacraments are seven in number. They are the visible means by which the invisible Grace of the Holy Spirit is imparted to us. Four Sacraments are obligatory:
- Chrismation (anointment with holy oil)
- Confession, and
- Holy Communion
Three are optional:
- Holy Orders (Ordination)
- Unction (anointment of the sick)
4. The Church Calendar
The Church Calendar begins on September 1st and ends on August 31st. Each day is sacred for the Orthodox Christian. The Church venerates at least one saint or sacred event in the life of the Church every day of the year. There are, however, several major feast days observed annually, and of these Easter, or Pascha, is the most important.
5. The Divine Liturgy
The central worship service of the Church is the Divine Liturgy which is celebrated each Sunday morning and on all holy days. The Liturgy is also the means by which we achieve union with Jesus Christ and unity with each other through the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
While the Orthodox Church considers herself the Mother Church of Christendom, she cooperates with other churches in programs of educational, philanthropic and social endeavors insofar as this is consistent with her theology. Orthodoxy has become a major force in the universal ecumenical movement of which she was a prime mover through the encyclical of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in 1920.
7. The Major Feastdays
Nativity of the Theotokos: September 8
Exaltation of the Holy Cross: September 14
Presentation of the Theotokos in the Temple: November 21
Christmas (Nativity of Jesus Christ): December 25
Epiphany (Baptism of Christ): January 6
Presentation of Christ in the Temple: February 2
Annunciation (Evangelismos): March 25
EASTER (Pascha): (Varies from year to year)
Ascension: (40 Days after Easter)
Pentecost: (50 Days after Easter)
Transfiguration of Christ: August 6
Dormition of the Theotokos (Kimissis): August 15