Eastern Orthodox Church

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 The Vladimir Icon, one of the most venerated of Orthodox Christian icons of Mary.
The Vladimir Icon, one of the most venerated of Orthodox Christian icons of Mary.

The Eastern Orthodox Church (encompassing national Orthodox jurisdictions such as Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, etc.—see Eastern Orthodox Church organization) is a body of Christians whose origins extend directly back to Jesus and his Apostles through unbroken Apostolic Succession. It is then seen as developing its doctrines further through a series of church councils, the most authoritative being the "Seven Ecumenical Councils" held between the 4th and 8th centuries.

The present-day influence of the Orthodox Church encompasses the territories associated with the former Byzantine and Russian empires: Eastern Europe, Asia (Russia/Siberia), parts of the Middle East and Africa. Today, although Orthodoxy's strongest influence can be seen in Greece, Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Georgia, the Orthodox Church has a presence in a great many countries, with large communities in the USA and Australia.



Understanding the Term "Mystery"

Understanding the concept of “Mystery” is essential to understanding the limitations of the human mind in approaching certain theological ideas. The truth of a mystery is logically demonstrated in a very rigid manner, yet the “how” remains unexplainable. Example: In order to have accomplished our salvation, Christ must have been 100% God and 100% man, he could not have been a hybrid 50/50 as he would not then be fully man and would not have changed our nature, the same goes for his Divine person; yet it is impossible to be 100% of two different things, yet he accomplished it; we know he must have, yet we do not know how…this is Mystery. The Orthodox do not over-define their theology because to do so often leads to misunderstanding and occasionally heresy. Examples of “Mystery” can be found everywhere in the Church. Some other examples:

1. Christ God was wholly present within the womb of the Virgin Mary from conception yet he must have also remained omnipresent and all-powerful God.
2. The Son is begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, but what this begetting or proceeding is cannot be described. That they are three and one is revealed and must be accepted.
3. That the Virgin Mary, being a mortal human gave birth to the infinite God earning her the proper title of Theotokos, Birth-giver of God

Many have delved into lengthy conjecture about how such mysteries can be possible, but the Orthodox refrain from this kind of theological nonsense, as it is impossible to understand. This is therefore described as Mystery.

The Trinity

Orthodox Christians believe in a single God who is both three and one—Triune—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, "one in essence and undivided." The Holy Trinity is three "unconfused" distinct divine persons (hypostases), with no overlap or modality among them, who share one divine essence (ousia)—uncreated, immaterial and eternal. In discussing God's relationship to his creation a distinction is made between God's eternal essence and uncreated energies, though it is understood that this distinction is artificial and that there is no real separation in God. Energies and essence are both inseparably God. This distinction is used by theologians to explain how it is that God can be both transcendent (His "essence" lies outside and infinitely distant from his creation), while at the same time he can touch his creation (His "uncreated energies" interact with His creation). It is also in His energies that we can perceive the three distinct persons of the Trinity.

The Father is the eternal source of the Godhead, from Whom is begotten the Son eternally and also from Whom the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally. Orthodox doctrine regarding the Holy Trinity is summarized in the Symbol of Faith (Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed).


16th c. Russian icon of the Last Judgment
16th c. Russian icon of the Last Judgment

Man, in Orthodox belief, was originally created perfect, but through his own actions he embraced evil through disobedience to God. Because of Man's fall he was condemned, when he died, to go to Hell (Hades); it is believed that from Adam to St. John the Baptist, all men went to a place of separation from God. But when Jesus came into the world he himself was Perfect Man and Perfect God united. Through his participation in humanity, human nature was changed allowing human beings to participate in the divine nature. This process of changing human nature worked retroactive back to the beginning of time, saving all of those who came before, back to Adam. Salvation, or "being saved," therefore, refers to this process of being saved from the fate of separation from God. It is a distinct concept separate from the concept of "going to heaven." The Orthodox have always maintained that salvation belongs to all mankind and membership in the Orthodox Church is not required, however, it also maintains that the best and most complete path to participation in the gifts of God are spelled out by the Orthodox Church alone.

The Orthodox believe that there is nothing that a person can do to earn entrance into Heaven. It is rather a gift from God, who wants nothing more than to restore the original relationship with mankind. However, such a gift has to be desired by the believer, God does not force Heaven on humanity. Man is free to reject it when offered by God.

The ultimate goal of the Orthodox Christian is to achieve theosis, or Union with God. This is sometimes expressed thus: "God became Man so that Man might become God." This process is a "Goal" that is seldom reached by humans, but some have done it. Some of the greatest saints have achieved, in this life, a measure of the next. Of course, the individual who achieves theosis never realizes his accomplishment, as his perfect humility keeps him blind to pride.


In contrast to Protestantism, which generally relies upon the Bible as the sole, ultimate doctrinal authority (sola scriptura), and similarly to Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy relies upon Tradition, a broad term encompassing the Bible, the Creed, the decrees of the Seven Ecumenical Councils; the writings of those considered the "Church Fathers", as well as Orthodox laws (canons), liturgical books and icons, etc. In reliance upon tradition, Orthodox point to Paul: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by our spoken word, or by our epistle.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). The Orthodox Church believes that the Holy Spirit works through history to reveal truth to the members of the Church, and that He weeds out falsehood in order that the Truth may grow.

The Bible

The Bible in Orthodoxy is not always interpreted literally. In Orthodoxy, the true believer accepts what is written in The Bible, and never doubts it, but the actual attitude of Eastern Orthodox toward science varies, with conservative believers opposed to some concepts of evolution in the origins and development of life.

Orthodoxy considers truth to be seen in the "Consensus of the Fathers", a perceived thread of agreement running through the patristic writings to the early Church and the Apostles. Those who disagreed with what came to be considered the consensus were not accepted as authentic "Fathers." All theological concepts must be in agreement with that consensus. Even those considered to be authentic "Fathers" may have some theological opinions that are not universally shared, but are not actually heretical. Thus an Orthodox Christian is not bound to agree with every opinion of every Father, but rather with the overall consensus of the Fathers, and then only on those matters about which the church is dogmatic.

Orthodox churches in Vologda, Russia
Orthodox churches in Vologda, Russia

Eastern Orthodox theologians tended to rely more on Greek philosophers than did the West, often borrowing the categories and vocabulary of Neoplatonism to explain Christian doctrine, though not necessarily accepting all their theories. Some later non-Christian neoplatonist philosophers also borrowed some vocabulary from Christian theologians.

Sin and redemption

Generally speaking, the Orthodox tradition is uncomfortable with any practice which interprets doctrine in "legalistic" terms. Following rules strictly without the heart "being in it" does not help a believer with his salvation. Sin is not about breaking some set of rules; rather, it is the name for any behavior which "misses the mark," that is, moves a believer away from God rather than closer to Him.

Thus, in the Orthodox tradition sin is not viewed as a stain on the soul that needs to be wiped out, but rather as an illness that needs healing. Just like a bodily illness, human sinfullness needs individual attention and correction. The ultimate goal for this process is not to win back God's favor, but rather to get back on the path towards God.

The traditional practice of the Orthodox is to have a spiritual father (or mother) to whom one confesses and who treats the sin on an individual basis. An experienced spiritual father will know how and when to apply strictness in dealing with sin and when to effectively "bend the rules."

The Incarnation

Prior to Christ's incarnation on Earth it was man's "fate", when he died, because of the fall of Adam, to be separated from God. Because man introduced something alien to his nature by participation in evil through disobedience to God, mankind placed itself in a terrible and inescapable position. The answer to this problem was for God to raise man's fallen nature, to unite his divine nature with our human nature. This he accomplished through the incarnation, becoming man and yet remaining God. This is why Christ Jesus is referred to as the Logos, the solution to man's problem (one of the several meanings of Logos). It is absolutely fundamental that we accept Christ as both God and Man, both natures complete. This is the only means whereby we could escape the fate of hell. The incarnation changes mankind itself, uniting it to the divine. And now, because of that Incarnation, everything is different: St Basil states: "We are to strive to become little gods, within God, little jesus christs within Jesus Christ". In other words, we must seek perfection in all things in our lives; we must strive to acquire Godly virtue. God through participation in mankind makes it possible for man to participate in divinity. While it is true that we will not become "separate" gods in the pagan sense we will participate in the divine energies of God (which are not separate from God) and still retain our individuality.

The Theotokos

A great many traditions revolve around the Ever-Virgin Mary, The Theotokos, the Birth-giver of God, that are theologically paramount. That she was and remained a Virgin before and after Christ’s birth; that in being born, Christ miraculously did no physical harm to her, leaving her virginity intact; That she felt no pain in child birth. Much of the churches beliefs concerning the Virgin Mary are reflected in the apocryphal text, “The Nativity of Mary” which was not included in scripture, but is considered to be accurate in its description of events. The child Mary was consecrated at the age of three to serve in the temple as a temple virgin. Zachariah, then High Priest, did the unthinkable and carried Mary into the Holy of Holies as a sign of her importance – that she herself would become the ark in which God would take form. At the age of twelve she was required to give up her position and marry, but she desired to remain forever a virgin in dedication to God. And so it was decided to marry her to a close relative, Joseph, an Uncle or Cousin, an older man, a widow, who would care for her and allow her to retain her virginity. And so it was that when the time came she submitted to God’s will and allowed the Christ to take form within her. It is believed that she, in her life, committed no sin; however, the Orthodox do not accept the concept of immaculate conception. The Theotokos was subject to original sin as the Orthodox understand it, but was cleansed of this sin the moment Christ was conceived within her. In the Theology of the Orthodox Church it is most important to understand that Christ, from the moment of conception was 100% God and 100% man. Therefore it is correct to say that Mary is indeed, the Theotokos, the Birth-giver of God, and that she is the greatest of all humans ever to have lived. This term has tremendous theological significance to Orthodox Christians, as it was at the center of the so-called Christological debates of the 4th and 5th centuries AD. After her great role was accomplished, the Church believes she remained a virgin, continuing to serve God in all ways. She traveled much with her Son, and was present both at his Passion on the Cross and at his ascension into heaven. It is believed that she was the first to know of her son’s resurrection – the Archangel Gabriel appearing to her once more and revealing it to her. It is believed she lived to the age of seventy and called all the apostles to her before she died. According to tradition St Thomas arrived late and was not present at her death. Desiring to kiss her hand one last time he opened her tomb but her body was gone. The Orthodox believe she was “assumed” into heaven bodily, however and unlike in the Roman Catholic Church, it is not a dogmatic prescription and so is usually referred to as the Dormition of the Virgin, not the Assumption.

The Resurrection

The Resurrection of Christ is the absolute central event of the Orthodox Church and is understood in absolutely literal terms. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was crucified and died, descended into Hades, battled Death and won. Through these events, He released mankind from the bonds of Hell and then came back to the living as a man and God. That each individual human may partake of this immortality, which would have been impossible without the Resurrection, is the main promise held out by God in his New Covenant with mankind, according to Orthodox Christian tradition.

In one way or another, every holiday of the Orthodox ecclesiastical year relates to the Resurrection directly or indirectly. Every Sunday of the year is dedicated to celebrating the Resurrection; most Orthodox believers will refrain from kneeling or prostrations on Sundays in observance thereof. The Orthodox tradition puts very little liturgical emphasis on the passion of Christ during the days leading up to the Crucifixion, and instead sees it as necessary stepping-stones to the ultimate victory only days later. However, the passion is seen as a model for the ascetic self-denial that the Orthodox believer is called to live out in his quest for God.

Saints, relics, and the deceased

In the Eastern Orthodox Church a saint is defined as anyone who is currently in Heaven, whether recognized here on earth or not. By this definition, Adam and Eve, Moses, the various Prophets, Martyrs for the Faith, the Angels and Archangels are all given the title of Saint. There is a formal service in the Orthodox Church whereby a saint is recognized by the entire church called "glorification". This does not, however, "make" a saint but simply accords him or her a place on the calendar with regular services in his honor. Recently, in order to avoid abuses, the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople has begun to follow the longstanding practice of other local Churches by issuing special encyclical letters (tomoi) in which the Church acknowledges the popular veneration of a saint. Glorification usually happens after believers have already begun venerating a saint. There are numerous small local followings of countless saints that have not yet been recognized by the entire Orthodox Church.

A strong element in favor of glorification can be the perceived "miraculous" condition of physical remains (relics), although that alone is not considered sufficient. In some Orthodox countries it is the custom to re-use graves after three to five years due to limited space. Bones are respectfully washed and placed in an ossuary, often with the person's name written on the skull. Occasionally when a body is exhumed something believed to be miraculous occurs to reveal the person's sainthood. There have been numerous occurrences where the exhumed bones are said to suddenly give off a wonderful fragrance, like flowers; or sometimes the body is said to be found incorrupt despite having not been embalmed (traditionally the Orthodox do not embalm the dead) and having been buried for three years.

For the Orthodox, body and soul both comprise the person, and in the end, body and soul will be reunited; therefore, the body of a saint shares in the holiness of the soul of the saint.

Because the Orthodox Church shows no true distinction between the living and the dead (believing the saints are alive in Heaven), the Orthodox treat the saints as if they were still here. They venerate them and ask for their prayers, and consider them brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. Saints are venerated and loved and asked to intercede for salvation, but they are not given the same veneration accorded to God, because their holiness is believed to come from God. In fact, any who worship, as opposed to venerate, a saint, relics, or icons is to be excommunicated. As a general rule only clergy will touch relics in order to move them or carry them in procession, however, in veneration the faithful will kiss the relic to show love and respect toward the saint. Every altar in every Orthodox church contains relics, usually of martyrs. The Church building interiors are covered with the icons of saints.

The Orthodox Church practices baptism for infants and adults as the moment one is born into Christ. The person entering the baptismal font is not seen as the same person who emerges, so the person is given a new name, used exclusively and always the name of a saint. As well as birthdays, Orthodox celebrate the day of the saint for whom the person is named.

The Last Things

Heaven, to Eastern Orthodox, is not a static state. They believe mankind will be restored to perfection, but perfection not as an ultimate end in and of itself; adverse traits will be gone from the human race and man will be as originally intended. Since God's love and wisdom are infinite, the constant progression toward a deeper understanding of that love and wisdom is equated with heavenly bliss. They also believe that for those who reject the love and mercy of God, the experience of His presence will be unbearably painful.

Art and Architecture

Church buildings

A simplistic depiction of a typical Orthodox Church Building
A simplistic depiction of a typical Orthodox Church Building

The church building has many symbolic meanings. Perhaps the oldest and most prominent is the concept that the Church is the Ark (as in Noah’s) in which the world is saved from the flood of temptations. And so, most Orthodox Churches are rectangular in design. Another popular shape, especially for churches with large choirs is the Cross. Architectural patterns may vary in shape and complexity, with chapels sometimes added around the main church, or triple altars, but in general, the symbolic layout of the church remains the same.

The Church building is divided into three main parts: the Narthex (entrance hall), the Nave and the Altar.

Narthex: The Narthex is the connection between the Church and the outside world and for this reason catechumens (pre-baptized Orthodox) and Non-Orthodox stand here (note: the tradition of only allowing confirmed orthodox into the Nave of the church has for the most part fallen into disuse).

Nave: The Nave is the main body of the Church where the people stand during the services. In most Orthodox Churches there are no pews but rather stacidia (like a high chair with foldup seat - it has arm rests high enough to be used while standing - see the picture of the monks); these were usually found along the walls, to be used only by the aged and infirm. Traditionally there is no sitting during services with the only exceptions being during the reading of the Psalms, and the priest's sermon. The people stand before God. However because of the influence of Roman Catholic and Protestant ideals in western countries it is not uncommon to find pews and kneelers in more modern church structures.

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Columbus, Ohio.
Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Columbus, Ohio.

The walls are normally covered from floor to ceiling with icons or wall paintings of saints, their lives, and stories from the Bible. Generally Christ is depicted on the right side, Mary on the left. Traditionally men therefore stand on the right and women on the left. In many modern churches families stand together.

Above the Nave in the Dome of the Church is the icon of Christ the Almighty (Pantokratoros = Ruler of the Universe). Directly hanging below the dome (In more traditional churches) is usually a kind of circular chandelier with depictions of the saints and apostles, called the horos; during certain moments of the service, it is swung.

Iconostasis: Originally called the templon, it is a screen or wall between the Nave and the Altar, which is covered with icons. There will normally be three doors, one in the middle and one on either side. The central one is traditionally called the "Beautiful Gate" or more commonly "The Royal Doors," (from the time of the Byzantine Empire, when the Emperor would enter the altar through these doors to partake of the Eucharist) and is only used by the clergy. There are times when this gate is closed during the service and a curtain is drawn. The doors on either side are called the "Deacons Doors" or “Angel Doors” as they often have depicted on them the Archangels Michael and Gabriel. These doors are used by Deacons and servers to enter the Altar. On the Royal Doors' left is the Icon of Christ, then the Icon of St John the Baptist; to the right the Icon of the Mother of God (a standard Eastern Orthodox title for Mary), always shown holding Christ; and then the Icon of the Saint to whom the Church is dedicated (i.e., the patron). There are normally many other icons on the iconostasis but these vary from church to church. Above and behind the iconostasis (if the iconostasis doesn’t reach the ceiling) is the Panagia (All Holy), the Virgin Mary with Christ blessing all. Oil lamps burn before all the icons.

Altar: The term Altar refers to not just the Altar Table but to the whole area behind the Iconostasis: it is the 'Holy of Holies' of the Church. The church, if at all possible is always aligned with the altar facing East. The Priest also faces East when before the Holy Table (away from the congregation) offering prayers for the people to God and then coming out through the Beautiful Gate to give God's 'Good News' (Gospel) to the people. To the left of the Altar Table will be the "Prosthesis Table" (Table of Preparation) where the bread and wine are prepared before the Liturgy (Eucharist) begins.


A fairly elaborate Orthodox Christian prayer corner as would be found in a private home
A fairly elaborate Orthodox Christian prayer corner as would be found in a private home

"A picture is worth a thousand words", is a good description of one of the original uses for icons. The Orthodox believe that the first icons were painted by the Evangelist Luke of Christ and the Virgin Mary, and that the biblical prohibitions against material depictions have been altered by Christ (as God) taking on material form. Once God took human form, that human form could be depicted. Orthodox regard their depiction of Christ as accurate, with Christ having brown semi-curly hair, brown eyes, and Semitic features — The Virgin Mary being similar). The personal, idiosyncratic and creative traditions of Western European religious art are largely lacking in Orthodox Iconography before the 17th century, when Russian icon painting was strongly influenced by religious paintings and engravings from both Protestant and Catholic Europe. Greek icon painting also began to take on a strong romantic western influence for a period and the difference between some Orthodox icons and western religious art began to vanish. More recently there has been a strong trend of returning to the more traditional and symbolic representations. Icons are typically paintings on wood, often small. A properly appointed Orthodox home, for example, will have icons hanging on the wall, usually on an eastern facing wall, and in a central location where the family can pray together.

Our Lady of St Theodore (10th century), the protectress of Kostroma, following the same Byzantine "Tender Mercy" type
Our Lady of St Theodore (10th century), the protectress of Kostroma, following the same Byzantine "Tender Mercy" type

Icons are often illuminated with a candle or oil lamp. (Beeswax for candles and olive oil for oil lamps are preferred because they are natural and burn very cleanly.) Besides the practical purpose of making Icons visible in an otherwise dark church, both candles and oil lamps symbolize the Light of the World which is Christ.

Tales of miraculous icons that moved, spoke, cried, bled, or gushed fragrant myrrh are not uncommon, though it has always been considered that the "message" of such an event was for the immediate faithful involved and therefore does not usually attract crowds. Some miraculous icons whose reputations span long periods of time nevertheless become objects of pilgrimage along with the places where they are kept.

Some of the most venerated Russian Orthodox icons are treated in separate articles.

See also Category:Eastern Orthodox icons

The Cross: The Byzantine (sometimes Russian) style cross (seen right) is usually shown with a small top crossbar representing the sign that Pontius Pilate nailed above Christ’s head, however, instead of the Roman acronym INRI (Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum: meaning: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews) the Orthodox often choose to replace this literalism with the more profound and encompassing INBD (Jesus of Nazareth, the King of Glory) in order to respond to Pilates mockery with Christ’s statement that His kingdom is not of this world. There is also on many Orthodox depictions of the Cross a bottom slanting bar. This appears for a number of reasons. First of all, there is enough evidence to show that there was a small wooden platform for the crucified to stand on in order to support his or her weight; in Christ’s case his feet were nailed side by side to this platform with one nail each in order to prolong the torture of the cross. (Evidence for this comes mainly from two sources, biblical (that in order to cause the victim to die faster their legs were broken so they could not support their weight and would strangle) and tradition (all early depictions of the crucifixion show this arrangement, not the later - feet on top with single nail). It has also been pointed out that the nailed hands of a body crucified in the manner often shown in modern secular art would not support the weight and would tear through, a platform for the feet would relieve this problem. Why is the bottom bar slanted? For two reasons: one, to represent the very real agony which Christ experienced on the cross (a refutation of Monophysitism), and two, to signify that the thief on Christ’s right chose the right path while the thief on the left did not.



Orthodox services are sung nearly in their entirety. Services consist in part of a dialog between the clergy and the people (often represented by the choir or the Psaltis (Cantor). In each case the text is 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. The church has developed eight Modes or Tones, (see Octoechos) within which a chant may be set, depending on the time of year, feast days, 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. This adds to the beauty and universality of the service.


Incense is burned during all services in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The spiritual significance of incense is simple and straightforward: it symbolizes the congenial ardor that Orthodox believe ought to characterize the life of a believing Christian, as well as evoking Christian integrity and goodness; it is considered prayer rising up to God.


Eastern Orthodox Monks at prayer in their monastery church.
Eastern Orthodox Monks at prayer in their monastery church.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, monasticism holds a very special and important place. Orthodox monks lead very strict lives of prayer for the world. Monks and nuns do not, in general, do social work or teach in school, leaving those for lay people. Monks are considered spiritual warriors using prayer and discipline to conquer their shortcomings. Bishops are almost always chosen from monks.

The Schema worn by Orthodox Monks.
The Schema worn by Orthodox Monks.

Many (but not all) Orthodox seminaries are attached to monasteries, combining academic preparation for ordination with participation in the community's life of prayer. Monks who have been ordained to the priesthood are called hieromonk (priest-monk); monks who have been ordained to the deaconate are called hierodeacon (deacon-monk). Not all monks live in monasteries, some hieromonks serve as priests in parish churches thus practising "monasticism in the world".

For the Orthodox, Mother is the correct term for nuns who have been tonsured to the rank of Stavrophore or higher. Novices and Rassophores are addressed as " Sister". Nuns live identical ascetic lives to their male counterparts and are therefore also called monachoi, and their common living space, a monastery.


The Orthodox seek to recapture paradise through fasting, to regain a measure of purity. Fasting is never seen as earning the believer "points" or the right to salvation; it is merely an excercise in self-denial that serves to rid the believer of his or her passions (what most modern people would call "addictions"). These often low-intensity and hard-to-detect addictions to food, television or other entertainments, sex, or any kind of self-absorbed pleasure-seeking is seen as one of the most significant obstacles for man seeking closeness to God. Through struggling with fasting the believer comes face to face with the reality of his condition — the starting point for genuine repentance according to the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

Fasting is also never looked on as a hardship or punishment but rather a great privilege and joy, although it can be very difficult. Those who for medical reasons (diabetes, for example) cannot fast, often see themselves as missing a great spiritual opportunity. Fasting typically involves differing levels of abstinence depending on the day or season and ranges from a complete fast from all food and drink to abstinence from all animal products (meat, dairy, eggs, etc.), olive oil, and wine. Shellfish and vegetable oils are permitted on certain days and weeks of the fast as is wine. Thus, most fasting guidelines resemble a vegan diet with all cooking done simply with water but no oil. In addition to restrictions on food, it is generally understood that married couples abstain from sexual relations during a fast (see 1 Corinthians 7:5) and it is often recommended that entertainments or amusements be eliminated altogether during the stricter periods of fasting.

The time and type of fast is generally uniform for all Orthodox Christians; the times of fasting are part of the ecclesial calendar. There are four major fasting periods during the year. They are:

  • The Nativity Fast (Advent or Winter Lent) which is the 40 days preceding the Nativity of Christ (Christmas).
  • 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 2 to 6 weeks on the Old Calendar. It begins on Monday following the first Sunday after Pentecost and extends to the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29th. It can virtually disappear on the New Calendar(one of the reasons for the Old Calendar Movement).
  • The two-week long Fast preceding the Dormition of the Theotokos (repose of The Virgin Mary).

In addition, except during feasting weeks, members of the Orthodox Church fast on every Wednesday in commemoration of Christ's betrayal by Judas Iscariot, and on every Friday in commemoration of his crucifixion. Monastics often include Mondays as a fast day in commemoration of the Angels.

The number of fast days varies each year, but in general the Orthodox Christian can expect to spend over half the year fasting at some level of strictness.


Almsgiving refers to any charitable giving of material resources to those in need. 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 the monetary savings from his or her decreased consumption with those in need.


Baptism is the rite by which a person's sins are remitted and he is united to the Body of Christ by becoming a member of the Orthodox Church. Holy water is blessed, and the person to be baptized is fully immersed in it three times in the name of the Holy Trinity. This is considered to be a death of the "old man" by participation in the crucifixion and burial of Christ, and a rebirth into new life in Christ by participation in his resurrection.

Children of Orthodox families are normally baptized shortly after birth. Converts from other religions or the unchurched must be received by baptism. Local rules vary for converts from other Christian groups. Depending on the group and the rules of the local Church, such a convert may be received by either baptism, chrismation, or just by confession of the Orthodox faith.


Chrismation (sometimes called confirmation) is the mystery by which a person, who has been baptized is granted the gift of the Holy Spirit through anointing with Holy Chrism. It is normally given immediately after baptism as part of the same service, but is also used to receive lapsed members of the Orthodox Church. As baptism is a person's participation in the death and resurrection of Christ, so chrismation is a person’s participation in the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

A baptized and chrismated Orthodox Christian is a full member of the Church, and may receive the Eucharist regardless of age.

Chrism may be blessed by any bishop, but this is normally done only by the chief hierarch of a local church during Holy Week. Anointing with it substitutes for the laying-on of hands described in the New Testament.

Holy Communion

The Eucharist is at the center of Orthodox Christianity. In practice, it is partaking of the bread and wine in the midst of the Divine Liturgy with the rest of the church. The bread and wine are believed to be the genuine Body and Blood of the Christ Jesus. The Eastern Orthodox Church has never described exactly how this occurs, or gone into the detail that the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches have in the West. The doctrine of transubstantiation was formulated after the Great Schism took place, and the Orthodox churches have never formally affirmed or denied it, preferring to state simply that it is a mystery and sacrament.

Communion is given only to baptized, chrismated Orthodox Christians who have prepared by fasting, prayer, and confession (if of the age of reason, see below). From baptism young infants and children are carried to the chalice to receive Holy Communion. The priest will administer the gifts with a spoon directly into the receivers mouth from the chalice.

It is the opinion of some traditionalists that frequent communion is dangerous spiritually if it reflects a lack of piety in approaching the most significant of the Mysteries, which would be damaging to the soul. However, many spiritual advisors advocate frequent reception as long as it is done in the proper spirit and not casually, with full preparation and discernment. Frequent reception is more common now than in recent centuries.


Orthodox Christians who have committed sins but repent of them, and who wish to reconcile themselves to God and renew the purity of their original baptisms, quietly confess their sins to God before an icon of Jesus and in the presence of a priest as a witness, who then prays for God's forgiveness and confirms it with a blessing. Although it is not an essential component of the Mystery, the opportunity is often taken at this time to offer spiritual counsel. Orthodox confession can therefore take the form of a discussion between the confessor and the penitent concerning his or her sins and the best means of overcoming them. Sin is not viewed by the Orthodox as a stain on the soul that needs to be wiped out, or a legal transgression that must be set right by a punitive sentence, but rather as an illness in need of a cure. Penance is therefore given only occasionally, at the discretion of the confessor, if he believes the sins mentioned in his hearing to be symptomatic of some spiritual illness requiring that treatment. It typically consists of a temporary excommunication, ideally accompanied by intensified prayer and fasting.

Repentance is essential preparation for receiving the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11:28) but this is not required of very young children who have not yet attained the age of reason.


Orthodox Marriage is seen as the not the joining of two people before God; but the Act of God joining the Two as One. Procreation is not seen as the only reason for marriage though it is referenced throughout the standard Orthodoxy Wedding Service. The fact that intimacy between married adults creates a loving bond is paramount, and that union between the two is reflective of our ultimate union with God.

The Sacrament of Marriage in the Orthodox Church has two distinct parts: The Betrothal and The Crowning.

The Betrothal includes:

The Exchange of the Rings

The Orthodox Sacrament of Marriage actually consists of two parts: The Exchange of Rings and The Crowning.
This first part of the wedding service can be equated with the 'civil service'. It takes place in the vestibule (entry) of the church; that area seen by the Church as the closest to the 'outside' world. In this service the Church first prays for the couple. Here the Church recognizes and blesses a union which has begun "in the world" yet awaits fulfillment in the world to come. After being blessed by the priest, the rings are placed on the right hand, the hand with which promises and/or oaths are traditionally made and the hand with which the presence of God is recognized through the sign of the Cross. The rings, of course, are the symbol of betrothal, agreement, authority, and stewardship from the most ancient times. The exchange of the rings gives expression to the fact that in marriage the spouses will constantly be complementing each other. Each will be enriched by the union. The exchange of rings represents a pledge to share and exchange both their physical and spiritual goods, a pledge of eternal love and devotion.

This is followed by The Procession

After the Exchange of the rings the priest leads the couple in procession into the middle of the church. The priest chants Psalm 128, "Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in His ways..." This psalm is one of the "Psalms of Ascent" sung by Jewish pilgrims on the way to the Jerusalem Temple. This point in the service most clearly reveals the "action" of the sacrament. The couple brings themselves, each other, their lives, and all that fills their lives, to the altar as an offering to God. As the couple enters into the midst of the Church, their relationship enters into the new reality of God's Kingdom.

Declaration of Intent and Lighting of Candles

Having processed into the church, the couple must individually proclaim, before the assembly, that they have come freely, without constraints or prior commitment, to be joined by God as husband and wife.
The bride and groom are then handed candles which are held throughout the service. The candles represent the couple's faith and willingness to follow the Light of Truth, Jesus Christ, and that they will have their way through life lighted by the teachings of the Church.

The Crowning

After prayers are offered on their behalf, the groom and bride are crowned by the priest "In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit". These crowns have two meanings. First, they reveal that the man and woman, in their union with Christ, participate in His Kingship. Second, as in the ancient Church, crowns are a symbol of martyrdom. The word "martyr" means witness. The common life of the bride and groom is to bear witness to the Presence of Christ in their lives and in the world. Martyrdom is usually associated with death. So the reality of God's Kingdom in the life of the husband and wife will necessarily take the form of dying to one's self, to one's will, and the giving of one's life totally to the other, and through the other, to Christ.

The Epistle

The epistle is taken from St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians (5:20-33). It presents the cornerstone of the Christian vision of marriage: the love of man and woman parallels the love of Christ and the Church. As Christ gives Himself totally to and for His Church, so the husband is to give himself totally to and for his wife. As the Church, in turn, is subject to Christ, so the wife subjects herself to her husband. Thus the two become one in a life of mutual love and mutual subjection to each other in Christ.

The Gospel

The gospel, from John (2:1-11), is the familiar account of the Wedding Feast at Cana where Christ turns the water into wine. A person must drink water simply to survive. Wine, on the other hand, is more than just a drink that quenches thirst and continues life. Wine is associated with joy, with celebration, with life as being more than mere survival. By His presence at this wedding He changes the union of man and woman into something new. Marriage becomes more than a mere human institution, existing for whatever purpose a society assigns it. It becomes, like the Church Herself, a sign that God's Kingdom has already begun in our midst.

The Common Cup and the Dance of Isaiah

After more prayers, a common cup of wine is blessed and shared by the couple as a sign of their common life together, a sharing of joys and sorrows, successes and failures, hopes and fears.
This is followed by the triple procession around the center table: the Dance of Isaiah. The hymns return once more to the theme of martyrdom and union with Christ. These are the hymns that, since ancient times, the Church has used to emphasize God's blessings. They are the same ones sung at ordinations into clergy orders and signify that this couple has been set apart from the mundane world to live a life in Christ.
Throughout the service things are done in threes in remembrance of the Trinity. Man is made in the image and likeness of God. Marriage is intended by God to be an image of the Trinity. It is the union of three persons, not two. Man and woman are one with each other and one with the person of Jesus Christ.

Removal of the Crowns

At the end of the service, the crowns are removed and the priest prays that God will receive these crowns into His Kingdom. The reality of the Kingdom into which the bride and groom have entered is not completely fulfilled, but only begun. Husband and wife must receive God's Kingdom and make it both a present reality and a challenge and goal of their common life. Completion and fulfillment will come when Christ returns in power and glory to complete the establishment of His Kingdom in this world by filling all things with Himself.

The Greeting of the Couple

At the end of the service, the couple stands at the foot of the altar. From the beginning, at the back of the church, they have now progressed to the forefront. Only the eternal Kingdom of Jesus Christ, as signified by the Altar, remains ahead of them. Their final act is to turn and face the assembled Church. Through this sacrament, they have become an icon of the Church and icon of Christ and the assembly comes up to congratulate them and share in their joy.

Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church allows divorce and allows divorced men and women to remarry under specific circumstances (infidelity, apostacy, etc.) as judged by a Spiritual Court or Bishop. It is regarded as a great tragedy, however, and a second marriage normally requires special permission from a bishop. A second wedding is always performed in the context of repentance on the part of the previously married party, a fact reflected in the ceremony.

A peculiarity of the Orthodox wedding ceremony is that there is no exchange of vows. There is a set expectation of the obligations incumbent on a married couple, and whatever promises they may have privately to each other are their responsibility to keep.

Holy Orders

Orthodox clergy at All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church, Raleigh, NC (L to R):  priest (Fr. Nicholas Sorensen), two deacons, bishop
Orthodox clergy at All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church, Raleigh, NC (L to R): priest (Fr. Nicholas Sorensen), two deacons, bishop

Since its founding, the Church spread to different places, and the leaders of the Church in each place came to be known as episkopoi (overseers, plural of episkopos, overseer — Gr. ἐπίσκοπος), which became "bishop" in English. The other ordained roles are presbyter (Gr. πρεσβύτερος, elder), which became "prester" and then "priest" in English, and diakonos (Gr. διάκονος, servant), which became "deacon" in English (see also subdeacon). There are numerous administrative positions in the clergy that carry additional titles. In the Greek tradition, bishops who occupy an ancient See are called Metropolitan, while the lead bishop in Greece is the Archbishop. Priests can be archpriests, archimandrites, or protopresbyters. Deacons can be archdeacons or protodeacons as well. The position of deacon is often occupied for life. The deacon also acts as an assistant to a bishop.

The Orthodox Church has always allowed married priests and deacons, provided the marriage takes place before ordination. In general, parish priests are be married as they live in normal society (that is, "in the world" and not a monastery) where Orthodoxy sees marriage as the normative state. Unmarried priests usually live in monasteries since it is there that the unmarried state is the norm, although it sometimes happens that an unmarried priest is assigned to a parish. Widowed priests and deacons may not remarry, and it is common for such a member of the clergy to retire to a monastery (see clerical celibacy). This is also true of widowed wives of clergy, who often do not remarry and may become nuns if their children are grown. Bishops are always celibate. Although Orthodox consider men and women equal before God (Gal. 3:28), only men who are qualified and have no canonical impediments may be ordained bishops, priests, or deacons.

Orthodox bishops and faithful at the 2005 March for Life in Washington, DC
Orthodox bishops and faithful at the 2005 March for Life in Washington, DC

Anointing with Holy Oil

Anointing, or Holy Unction, is one of the seven sacraments recognized by the Orthodox Church. The sacrament is not reserved for the dying or terminally ill, but for all in need of spiritual or bodily healing. In some traditions it is also given annually on Holy Wednesday to all believers.

According to Orthodox teaching, the sacrament of Holy Unction is based on James 5:14-15:

Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.


The early Church

Christianity first spread in the predominantly Greek-speaking eastern half of the Roman Empire. Paul and the Apostles traveled extensively throughout the Empire, establishing Churches in major communities, with the first Churches appearing in Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem, and then the two political centres of Rome and Constantinople. Orthodox believe an Apostolic Succession was established; this played a key role in the Church's view of itself as the preserver of the Christian community. Systematic persecution of Christians stopped in 313 when Emperor Constantine the Great proclaimed the Edict of Milan. From that time forward, the Byzantine Emperor exerted various degrees of influence over the church (see Caesaropapism). This included the calling of the Ecumenical Councils to resolve disputes and establish church dogma on which the entire church would agree. Sometimes Patriarchs (often of Constantinople) were deposed by the emperor; at one point emperors sided with the iconoclasts in the eighth and ninth centuries.

Several Ecumenical Councils were held between 325 (the First Council of Nicaea) and 787 (the Second Council of Nicaea), which to Orthodox constitute the definitive interpretation of Christian dogma. Orthodox thinking differs on whether the Fourth and Fifth Councils of Constantinople were properly Ecumenical Councils, but the majority view is that they were merely influential, and not bindingly dogmatic.

Orthodox Christian culture reached its golden age during the high point of Byzantine Empire and continued to flourish in Russia, after the fall of Constantinople. Numerous autocephalous jurisdictions were established in Eastern Europe and Slavic areas.

The Orthodox jurisdictions with the largest number of adherents in modern times are the Russian and the Romanian Orthodox churches. The most ancient of the Orthodox churches of today are the Churches of Constantinople, Alexandria, Georgia, Antioch, and Jerusalem.

The Roman/Byzantine Empire

Several doctrinal disputes from the 4th century onwards led to the calling of Ecumenical councils. The Church in Egypt (Patriarchate of Alexandria) split into two groups following the Council of Chalcedon (451), over a dispute about the relation between the divine and human natures of Jesus. Eventually this led to each group having its own Patriarch (Pope). Those that remained in communion with the other patriarchs were called "Melkites" (the king's men, because Constantinople was the city of the emperors) [not to be confused with the Melkite Catholics of Antioch], and are today known as the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, until recently led by Pope Petros VII. Those who disagreed with the findings of the Council of Chalcedon are today known as the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, led by Pope Shenouda III. There was a similar split in Syria. Those who disagreed with the Council of Chalcedon are sometimes called "Oriental Orthodox" to distinguish them from the Eastern Orthodox, who accepted the Council of Chalcedon. Oriental Orthodox are also sometimes referred to as "monophysites", "non-Chalcedonians", or "anti-Chalcedonians", although today the Oriental Orthodox Church denies that it is monophysite and prefers the term "miaphysite", to denote the "joined" nature of Jesus.

In the 530s the Church of the Holy Wisdom, was built in Constantinople, under emperor Justinian I.

The Seven Ecumenical Councils

Eastern Orthodox Christianity recognizes only these seven ecumenical councils.

  1. The first of the Seven Ecumenical Councils was that convoked by the Roman Emperor Constantine at Nicea in 325, condemining the view of Arius that the Son is a created being inferior to the Father.
  2. The Second Ecumenical Council was held at Constantinople in 381, defining the nature of the Holy Spirit against those asserting His inequality with the other persons of the Trinity.
  3. The Third Ecumenical Council is that of Ephesus in 431, which affirmed that Mary is truly "Birthgiver" or "Mother" of God (Theotokos), contrary to the teachings of Nestorius.
  4. The Fourth Ecumenical Council is that of Chalcedon in 451, which affirmed that Jesus is truly God and truly man, without mixture of the two natures, contrary to Monophysite teaching.
  5. The Fifth Ecumenical Council is the second of Constantinople in 553, interpreting the decrees of Chalcedon and further explaining the relationship ot the two natures of Jesus; it also condemned the teachings of Origen on the pre-existence of the soul, etc.
  6. The Sixth Ecumenical Council is the third of Constantinople in 681; it declared that Christ has two wills of his two natures, human and divine, contrary to the teachings of the Monothelites.
  7. The Seventh Ecumenical Council was called under the Empress Regent Irene in 787, known as the second of Nicea. It affirmed the making and veneration of icons, while also forbidding the worship of icons and the making of three-dimensional statuary. It reversed the declaration of an earlier council that had called itself the Seventh Ecumenical Council and also nullified its status (see separate article on Iconoclasm). That earlier council had been held under the iconoclast Emperor Constantine V. It met with more than 340 bishops at Constantinople and Hieria in 754, declaring the making of icons of Jesus or the saints an error, mainly for Christological reasons.

The Great Schism

In the 11th century the Great Schism took place between Rome and Constantinople, which led to separation of the Church of the West, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Churches of the East. There were doctrinal issues like the filioque clause and the authority of the Pope involved in the split, but these were exacerbated by cultural and linguistic differences.

The final breach is often considered to have arisen after the sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204. This Fourth Crusade had the Latin Church directly involved in a military assault against the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople, and the Orthodox Patriarchate. The sacking of the Church of Holy Wisdom and establishment of the Latin Empire in 1204 is viewed with some rancor to the present day. In 2004, Pope John Paul II extended a formal apology for the sacking of Constantinople in 1204; the apology was formally accepted by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. (Many things that were stolen during this time: relics, riches, and many other items, are still held in various Catholic churches in Western Europe.

In 1453, the last of the Roman Empire (with its capital at Constantinople) fell to the Ottoman Turks. By this time Egypt had been under Muslim control for some seven centuries, but Orthodoxy was very strong in Russia; and so Moscow, called the Third Rome, became a major new center of the Church at that time.

Conversion of the Slavs

In the ninth and tenth centuries, Orthodoxy made great inroads into Eastern Europe, including Kievan Rus'. This work was made possible by the work of Saints Cyril and Methodius, who translated the Bible and many of the prayer books into Slavonic. Originally sent to convert the Slavs of Great Moravia, they were forced to compete with Frankish missionaries from the Roman diocese. Their disciples were driven out of Great Moravia in AD 886.

Some of the disciples, however, reached Bulgaria where they were welcomed by the Bulgarian Tsar Boris I who viewed the Slavonic liturgy as a way to counteract Greek influence in the country. In a short time the disciples of Cyril and Methoduis managed to prepare and instruct the future Slav Bulgarian clergy into the Glagolitic alphabet and the biblical texts and in AD 893, Bulgaria expelled its Greek clergy and proclaimed the Slavonic language as the official language of the church and the state. The success of the conversion of the Bulgarians facilitated the conversion of other Slavic peoples, most notably the Rus', predecessors of Belarusians, Russians, and Ukrainians.

Slavic missionaries had great success in part because they used the people's native language rather than Latin as the Roman priests did, or Greek. Today the Russian Orthodox Church, in spite of 70 years of persecution under the atheistic government of the USSR, is the largest of the Orthodox Churches.

The Church in North America

St. Tikhon's Russian Orthodox Monastery in South Canaan, Pennsylvania
St. Tikhon's Russian Orthodox Monastery in South Canaan, Pennsylvania

The Russian Orthodox Church sent missionaries to Alaska beginning in the 18th century. Among the first was Saint Herman of Alaska. This established missionary precedence for the Russian Orthodox Church in the Americas, and Eastern Orthodox Christians were under the omophor (Church authority and protection) of the Patriarch of Moscow. The Russian Orthodox Church was devastated by the Bolshevik Revolution. One side effect was the flood of refugees from Russia to the United States, Canada, and Europe. Among those who came were Orthodox lay people, deacons, priests, and bishops. In 1920 Patriarch Tikhon issued an ukase (decree) that Orthodox Christians under his leadership but outside of Russia should seek refuge with whatever Orthodox jurisdiction that would shield them from Communist control. The various national Orthodox communities thus were permitted as an emergency measure to look towards their immigrant homelands for ecclesiastic leadership rather than be tied to Russia. Some of the Russian Orthodox formed an independent synod that became the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR). Some of the Russian Orthodox remained in communion with Moscow and were granted autocephaly in 1970 as the Orthodox Church in America (OCA, though rarely referred to as "TOCA"). However, recognition of this autocephalic status is not universal, as the Ecumenical Patriarch (under whom is the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America) and some other jurisdictions have not officially accepted it. The reasons for this are complex; nevertheless the Ecumenical Patriarch and the other jurisdictions remain in communion with the OCA.

Today there are many Orthodox churches in the United States and Canada that are still bound to the Greek, Antiochian, or other overseas jurisdictions; in some cases these different overseas jurisdictions will have churches in the same U.S. city. However, there are also many "pan-orthodox" activities and organizations, both formal and informal, among Orthdox believers of all jurisdictions. One such organization is SCOBA, the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas, which comprises North American Orthodox bishops from nearly all jurisdictions. (See list of Orthodox jurisdictions in North America.)

In June of 2002, the Antiochian Orthodox Church granted self-rule to the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America. Some observers see this as a step towards greater organizational unity in North America.

During the past 50 years there have come into existence so-called Western Orthodox Churches (a term not in use by the majority of Orthodox Christians, including those within Western Rite Orthodox parishes) in North America. These are Orthodox Christians who use the Western forms of liturgy yet are Orthodox in their theology. The Antiochian Orthodox Church, The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, and the Holy Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church of America (formerly connected with the Vicar Bishop of the (Western) Orthodox Church of France-ECOF), all have Western Rite parishes. The last jurisdiction currently has no canonical ties to the majority of Orthodox and is not viewed by them as fully Orthodox.

Eastern Orthodoxy has had a history in China and East Asia as well.

The Church today

The various local churches within the Orthodox Church are distinct in terms of administration and local culture, but for the most part exist in full communion with one another, with exceptions such as lack of relations between the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) and the Moscow Patriarchate (the Orthodox Church of Russia) dating from the 1920s and due to the subjection of the latter to the hostile soviet regime. (However, attempts at reconciliation are being made between the ROCOR and the Moscow Patriarchate with the ultimate purpose of reunification.) Further tensions exist in the philosophical differences between the New Calendarists and the Moderate Old Calendarists.

See also

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