The Orthodox Church
The Orthodox Church simply calls itself “the Church,” just as the Greeks in the past used the word “Christians” to refer to the Orthodox. This follows naturally from the fact that the Eastern Orthodox Church is organically the same congregation or ecclesia which was born at the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem on Holy Pentecost. In many places already mentioned in the New Testament, this congregation has remained the same throughout history. The Orthodox Church does not need to give proof of its historical authenticity; it is simply the direct continuation of the Church of the Apostolic Age.
Does the Orthodox Church of today in fact correspond to the picture we get of the congregation of the Apostolic Age when we read the New Testament and the writings of the Apostolic Fathers? It does – as much as a grown-up person corresponds to a picture taken of him as a child. Although the Church has developed, it is the same in essence and spirit in the twentieth century as it has been from the very beginning.
The coming of Christ when the time was “fulfilled” (Mk 1:15) was an appointed event. Indeed, our calendar begins there. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit in fulfilment of the promise of the Father (Acts 1:4) was also an appointed, unique historical event. For the Church it meant “power from on high” and “the Spirit of truth” (Lk 24:49, Jn 16:13). On the strength of this, we believe that although the grace of the Holy Spirit is at work in the later churches and communities according to their faith, the plenitude of grace once given to the Church in the historical outpouring of the Holy Spirit will not be given again. In a hymn for Pentecost, the Church sings: Blessed art Thou, O Christ our God, who hast revealed the fishermen as most wise by sending down upon them the Holy Spirit; through them Thou didst draw the world into Thy net. O Lover of man, glory to Thee! “When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth Christ promised” (Jn 16:13). After this promise had been fulfilled, the Apostle indeed gave to the “Church of the living God” the name pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15).
(Excerpts from “The Faith We Hold” by Archbishop Paul of Finland)
Holy Tradition is the deposit of faith given by Jesus Christ to the Apostles and passed on in the Church from one generation to the next without alteration, addition or subtraction. Vladimir Lossky has famously described Holy Tradition as “the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church”. It is dynamic in application, yet unchanging in dogma. It is growing in expression, yet ever the same in essence.
Unlike many conceptions of tradition in popular understanding, the Orthodox Church does not regard Holy Tradition as something which grows and expands over time, forming a collection of practices and doctrines which accrue, gradually becoming something more developed and eventually unrecognisable to the first Christians. Rather, Holy Tradition is that same faith which Christ taught to the Apostles and which they gave to their disciples, preserved in the whole Church and especially in its leadership through Apostolic Succession.
Archbishop Paul of Finland’ writes in, “The Faith We Hold” (Saint Vladimir Press, 1978), “Why is the church given priority as the subject of the first chapter in this book? Because the Church came into being first, and only afterwards, little by little, did the books of the New Testament, the Gospels and Epistles, appear.” The prime importance of Holy Tradition is plainly shown by the fact that it was not until the fifth century that the Church established conclusively which books in circulation should be regarded as genuinely inspired by God’s revelation. Thus, the Church itself determined the composition of the Bible. “It is our belief that the Bible by itself, without the Holy Tradition as its living interpreter, is insufficient as a source of truth” (pp. 18-19).
On the Incarnation of the Son of God and the Salvation of the world
The life of the Church in the earlier Byzantine period is dominated by the seven General Councils (325-787 AD). These Councils fulfilled a double task. First, they clarified and articulated the visible organization of the Church, crystallizing the position of the five great sees or Patriarchates, as they came to be known. Secondly, and more importantly, the Councils defined once and for all the Church’s teaching upon the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith – the Trinity and the Incarnation. All Christians agree in regarding these things as “mysteries” which lie beyond human understanding and language. The bishops, when they drew up definitions at the Councils, did not imagine that they had explained the mystery; they merely sought to exclude certain false ways of speaking and thinking about it. To prevent men from deviating into error and heresy, they drew a fence around the mystery; that was all.
The discussions at the Councils at times sound abstract and remote, yet they were inspired by a very practical purpose: the salvation of man. Man, so the New Testament teaches, is separated from God by sin, and cannot through his own efforts break down the wall of separation which his sinfulness has created. God has therefore taken the initiative: He became man, was crucified, and rose from the dead, thereby delivering humanity from the bondage of sin and death. This is the central message of the Christian faith, and it is this message of redemption that the Councils were concerned to safeguard. Heresies were dangerous and required condemnation, because they impaired the teaching of the New Testament, setting up a barrier between man and God, and so making it impossible for man to attain full salvation.
Saint Paul expressed this message of redemption in terms of sharing. Christ shared our poverty that we might share the riches of His divinity: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). In Saint John’s Gospel the same idea is found in a slightly different form. Christ states that He has given His disciples a share in the divine glory, and He prays that they may achieve union with God: “And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one…” (John 17:22-23). The Greek Fathers took these and similar texts in their literal sense, and dared to speak of man’s “deification” (in Greek, Theosis). If man is to share in God’s glory, they argued, he is to be “perfectly one” with God, this means in effect that man must be “deified”: he is called to become by grace what God is by nature.
Accordingly, Saint Athanasius summed up the purpose of the Incarnation by saying: “God became man that we might be made god” (On the Incarnation, 54). Now if this “being made god,” this Theosis, is to be possible, Christ the Saviour must be both fully man and fully God. No one less than God can save man; therefore, if Christ is to save, He must be God. But only if He is also truly a man, as we are, can we men participate in what He has done for us. A bridge is formed between God and man by the Incarnate Christ who is both.
“Hereafter you shall see heaven open,” Our Lord promised, “and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51). Not only angels use that ladder, but the human race.
Christ must be fully God and fully man. Each heresy in turn undermined some part of this vital affirmation. Either Christ was made less than God (Arianism); or His manhood was so divided from His Godhead that He became two persons instead of one (Nestorianism); or He was not presented as truly man (Monophysitism, Monothelitism). Each Council defended this affirmation. The first two, held in the fourth century, concentrated upon the earlier part (that Christ must be fully God) and formulated the doctrine of the Trinity. The next four, during the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries, turned to the second part (the fullness of Christ’s manhood) and also sought to explain how manhood and Godhead could be united in a single person. The seventh Council, in defence of the Holy Icons, seems at first to stand somewhat apart, but like the first six it was ultimately concerned with the Incarnation and with man’s salvation.
(Excerpt from The Orthodox Church History Faith and Worship by Kallistos Ware)
The Veneration of the Saints
In honouring the Saints, we celebrate God’s accomplished work of salvation. Archbishop Paul of Finland writes, “In glorifying the saints’ spiritual struggle and victory, the Church is in fact glorifying God’s work of salvation, the work of the Holy Spirit; it experiences the salvation already accomplished in them, the goal towards which the members of the Church militant are still pressing on (Phil. 3:12,14)”. Understanding that the Saints are the perfection or completion of the Gospel, we honour and venerate them, celebrating thw work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
The Saints are guides who “point the way” for us to follow towards the Heavenly Kingdom; they are truly “heroes of faith” for us to try to imitate. Their examples of faith, repentance and hope are examples for us to follow and apply in our lives. Their lives challenge us to seek holiness in our society, as the saints did.
Saint John of Kronstadt emphasised this when he wrote: “How the Creator and Provider of all has honoured and adorned our nature! The saints shine with His light, they are hallowed by His grace, having conquered sin and washed away every impurity of body and spirit; they are glorious with His glory, they are incorruptible through His incorruption. Glory to God, who has so honoured, enlightened, and exalted our nature.”
The Saints show us what a glorious destiny we have in God. Through the glorious example of their lives, they point the way to our becoming “partakers of divine nature.” The practice of adopting a new Christian name at baptism is just another sign of the reality that the Orthodox Church is truly a “family in Christ”. This family includes not only the members of the parish standing with us in worship, but also the choirs of saints depicted on our walls and ceilings and mentioned in Orthodox hymns. We are all one in the Holy Church, the living, breathing Body of Christ.
Monasticism (from the Greek: μοναχός, a solitary person or monastic) is the ancient Christian practice of withdrawal from the world in order to dedicate oneself fully and intensely to the life of the Gospel, seeking union with Jesus Christ.
The focus of monasticism is on Theosis, the process of perfection to which every Christian is called. Seeking God above all other things is the ideal to which monastics strive. In other words, a monk or a nun is one who has vowed to follow not only the commandments of the Church, but also the counsels (i.e., vows of poverty, chastity, stability, and obedience). The words of Jesus which are the cornerstone for this ideal are “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Thus, monks and nuns practice hesychasm (silence, stillness, rest and quiet) the spiritual struggle of purification (κάθαρσις), illumination (θεωρία) and deification (θέωσις) in prayer, the sacraments and obedience.
Types of Monasticism
Although the Orthodox Church does not have religious orders as the Latin Church does, there are in Orthodoxy different styles of monastic life, both individually and in community. Generally speaking, some monasteries may be more liturgically oriented, while others may be more ascetic, while still others may have a certain mystical tradition, and others be more inclined to spiritual guidance and openness to the world for the purpose of care and counselling. These various styles of monasticism, which take both a personal as well as a corporate form, are not formally predetermined or officially legislated. They are the result of organic development under the living Grace of God.
In addition to the various spiritual styles of monastic life, three formal types of organization may be mentioned. The first is that of coenobitic monasticism. In this type all members of the community do all things in common. The second form is called idiorhythmic in which the monks or nuns pray together liturgically, but work and eat individually, or in small groups. In this type of monasticism, the persons may even pray the offices separately, coming together only for the eucharistic liturgy, and even then, perhaps, only on certain occasions. Finally, there is the eremitic type of monasticism where the individual monks or nuns are actually hermits, also called anchorites or recluses. They live in total individual seclusion and never join in the liturgical prayer of the community, except again perhaps on the most solemn occasions. In the rarest of cases, it may even happen that the Holy Eucharist is brought to the monk or nun who remains perpetually alone.
In the Orthodox Church today in the Western world there are only a few communities with a genuinely monastic life. In traditionally Orthodox countries, monasticism still thrives, although with greatly reduced numbers due to the political and spiritual conditions. In recent years, in some places, there has been a renewed interest in monasticism, particularly among the more educated members of the Church.