Introducing the Orthodox Catholic Church
Jesus was born in Judah near the turn of the age. At the age of thirty, he emerged as a rabbi, most likely in the budding pharisaic tradition, and began a ministry of “teaching, healing, and preaching” (St Luke). St Mark records the nub of his message at 1:15: “The time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe this Gospel (good news).”
Jesus chose disciples (students) who, after the resurrection, were called Apostles (“sent forth”). They became leaders of the early church at Jerusalem, Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, and Byzantium (later re-named Constantinople). The Christian movement spread around the Mediterranean area and then to the corners of the earth. By the mid-second century there were bishops westward into what is now France, thence jumping the Channel to the British Isles, north into what is now Turkey and Armenia, south to Africa, and eastward into what is now Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran. In the tenth century the movement spread into Kievan Russia and central European countries.
After centuries of growth, and united in faith, but often divided by worship practices, local customs, and language, the church split into two main divisions, West (ultimately called Roman Catholic) and East (ultimately called Eastern Orthodox). This division continues today, although these churches have worked seriously to overcome the division for a century.
We are officially called the Orthodox Catholic Church. Let’s look at each of these words for a few minutes.
Orthodox means both the right way to praise God and right thinking about God. Our patterns of worship can be traced to the earliest church; many of them are embedded in the New Testament, and the Psalms form a major part of our prayer life. The Psalms gave the pattern for many of our liturgical hymns and prayers.
We are a traditional church. Tradition means “that which is handed down,” and some of the earliest traditions are seen in the New Testament at I Corinthians 11 and 15, which speak of the Eucharist and the meaning of the Resurrection. To be traditional does not mean to be traditionalist. The late and revered church historian Jaroslav Pelikan, himself an Orthodox Christian, said “traditionalism is the dead faith of the living; tradition is the living faith of the dead.” One of our great theologians, Vladimir Lossky, said “Tradition is the voice of the Holy Spirit active in the church.”
Catholic did not originally mean universal, as the word is currently defined. Originally it was something like “according to the whole,” meaning that the church neither adds to nor takes away from the great Tradition. It is whole and entire; we speak of “the fullness of the faith.”
In order to function as a whole body, the church engaged in numerous ecumenical and regional councils over its first 800 years. These councils produced statements of faith agreed upon by the participants; some of these survive today as, e.g., the Nicene Creed.
The church catholic always acculturated itself. The mores and customs and folkways and language of the people were normally followed wherever the church was planted. Connections were drawn between local imagery and symbol and the symbols of the church; one thinks of the legend of St Patrick, the Enlightener of Ireland, explaining the Holy Trinity by means of the shamrock.
Comes from a Greek word kyriakou, which means “of or pertaining to the Lord.” Thus the word itself signals that Church invariably has to do with Jesus the Christ and Lord. The Church is his own Body, according to St Paul. Only Christian spiritual communities rightly deserve the name of church.
From the beginning, the Church was marked by common life, by sacramental practice, and by asceticism of greater or lesser rigor. Asceticism comes from a Greek word that has to do with athletic training; Paul used the image at I Corinthians 9:25 for the Christian who would aim for the prize of an “everlasting crown.”
The New Testament word for church (a later term) is ekklesia, from which we get the term ecclesiastical. It means “those who have been called out,” out of the world into the community of faith. Peter in his first letter says it well: we are “strangers and exiles (pilgrims)” wherever we live (2:11; see the whole passage 2:9-21).
The church’s total practice includes worship, service, witness, teaching, and philanthropy. The word for witness in Greek is martyria, and from it we get the concept of martyrdom. Not all martyrs die for the faith. Many lived and live for it as well as teachers and confessors.
The ultimate marks of the church came to be One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic in accordance with the creeds. Apostolic in this case means that the church followed a pattern of leadership embedded in the New Testament, a pattern that called for presbyters/priests, deacons, and ultimately bishops (overseers).
SYMBOLS – The key symbol of Orthodoxy people from other traditions or none notice is the icon. The icon is not an exact image, because iconography follows prescribed patterns of execution that make the image more than lifelike. The icon is not an idol. We do not pray to icons, nor do we stop our vision with simply looking at them. They are a means of meditation and an invitation to prayer. We call them “windows onto heaven,” since their purpose is to lead us beyond two dimensional depiction into deep prayer and contemplation of God.
According to the tradition of the church, the Evangelist Luke painted the first image of the Virgin Mary. No matter what one thinks of the legend, it bears a truth: the gospels are verbal icons of Christ, matched by the pictorial icons. Of this St John of Damascus, the great hero of the Iconoclastic Controversy that rocked the church in the 7th and 8th centuries, testified.
SACRAMENTS – We share with Roman Catholicism seven scripted actions that are connected to the ministry of Christ and the need for ritual moments in life. These are baptism, chrismation (called confirmation in the West), the Eucharist or Holy Communion, confession, marriage, ordination, and anointing of the sick.
Unlike Roman Catholicism, however, we neither define the mode of Christ’s Presence in and through these sacraments, nor do we think that the list is exclusive or exhaustive. (anecdote: the woman at Cathedral in Chicago)
SAINTS – We recognize some people as pre-eminent in faith and life; they are called saints. We do not have an office anywhere that investigates individuals for their sainthood. Saints have traditionally emerged locally and then have simply been recognized regionally and then worldwide, in Orthodoxy.
The Blessed Virgin Mary, called among us the Theotokos (God-bearer),
Is our most revered Saint. She represents the true meaning of Christian faith for us – receptive to God, humble and willing to serve – and is known as the “strong intercessor” before God on our behalf.
We believe that the saints are alive in God beyond death, and hence they may be called upon to pray on our behalf. The saints, however, never take the place of Christ as the One Mediator between God and humanity (I Timothy 2:5).
SPIRITUALITY – Orthodoxy views the church as a hospital or therapeutic community. To this end we spend time with spiritual directors, with spiritual books, and with spiritual tools. So much could be said about this, but there is a distinctive tradition of spirituality that marks Orthodoxy and which is outlined and expanded in a lengthy set of volumes called Philokalia, “love of goodness.”
One tool many people know is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” This simple prayer has been the refuge and center point for Orthodox Christians since the church began; it is witnessed to in writings by the 3rd century, but it goes back to the people in the Gospels who called out to Christ, “Lord, have mercy on me” (e.g. Matthew 20:30, Mark 5:19).
Why you don’t know about Orthodox Christianity
- Orthodoxy has been the suffering church – Orthodoxy, since the development of Islam, has lived under some restrictions in countries where Christianity was once dominant. These restrictions led to migrations, on one hand, and diminished numbers on the other. The 20th Century far exceeded the total number of martyrs from all the previous 19 centuries. In the Ukraine alone, 6 million people lost their lives to a famine engineered by the Soviets. In great Russia, at least 25 million people died as a result of Communist persecution of the church. 1.5 million Armenians died in the decade 1910-1920 under persecution. The church in Albania was almost completely wiped out. These figures are common knowledge; they are not made up.
- America was essentially founded by Protestants and Deists, and bears the stamp of that early heritage. The most prolific of alternative churches to Protestantism has continued to be Roman Catholic. Orthodox Christians did not come to what is now the US until the 1790’s and their entry was through Alaska. 19th Century migration brought many people both poor and suffering to our shores, and they often remained in poverty for several generations. Only in the recent generations are the grandchildren of these immigrants making progress In America in all areas of endeavor.
- We have hampered our own efforts in several ways. First, Orthodoxy had no tradition of creating schools and universities as did both Roman Catholics and Protestants. This tradition has produced leaders for other churches, whereas Orthodoxy relied upon public education. Second, the history of Orthodoxy in the US is hampered by the development, particularly after the Bolshevik Revolution, of indigenous jurisdictions – Greeks, Bulgarians, Russians, Romanians, and so forth. These jurisdictions also kept the old languages far longer than did other churches in America that began on other soil but were translated to our shores. Third, until recently, we would have to admit, Orthodoxy has not had the sort of missionary zeal that has characterized other churches in America.