TO BE AN ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN ....
...Is to experience the Apostolic Faith ...
They knew that something was different about him, this carpenter from Nazareth. He spoke with authority. He cleansed lepers. He raised the dead. And through he suffered crucifixion and death, he rose from the dead and appeared to his followers ... And now nothing seemed the same! Death had been trampled down by death; the reign of sin and corruption had been shattered. They knew this, those first followers of Jesus of Nazareth, because they experienced it. Their faith was not the by-product of systematic logic or disinterested analysis. These people were not fooled; they were not the gullible bumpkins that we arrogant moderns, so complacent with our self-proclaimed sophistication, often assume they were. These people would not have dropped everything, risked what little security that they had managed to attain, or put their lives on the line had it not been for a convincing experience of the Risen one.
But once Jesus returned to the Father, how could such an experience be conveyed to the next generation? Jesus recognized this problem, so he promised his disciples that he would not leave them orphans. He would send an Advocate, who would bear witness to him, conveying his presence among those who believed. And this Advocate, of course, is the Holy Spirit, whom the exalted Christ, having ascended in glory, asked the Father to send to the nascent community of believers that had gathered around the Apostles.
And so the Spirit was sent to these Apostles and o the Mother of God in the city of Jerusalem, the mother of all Churches. Because of this indwelling of the Spirit, the Church, from the moment of its inception, was "catholic," whole, lacking nothing. The experience that forged the faith of the first believers could now be had by anyone who confessed Christ and, through incorporation into his Body by baptism, entered into the life of the Spirit.
The experience of the Apostolic Faith ... This is what makes a Christian. And that is why the Church is important. Holy Orthodoxy does not claim to be a politically powerful Church or a wealthy Church or a particularly erudite Church. But it does claim to possess the indwelling of the Spirit who bears witness to Christ, the Spirit who fosters the experience of the Risen Lord that enabled the Apostles to believe. To be an Orthodox Christian is to have access to that experience in unmitigated form, for Orthodox Christians, without impugning the goodness and sincerity of other Christians, affirm that it is in the Orthodox Church that the fullness of Christian truth -- and the fullness of the Spirit who bears witness to this truth -- are to be found.
... Is to experience the events of salvation ...
To be an Orthodox Christian is to live liturgically. One cannot seriously maintain that he or she is Orthodox without participating in the liturgical life of the Church. Why do we Orthodox put such strong emphasis on liturgy? Not because we hold that liturgical participation is legally obligatory. Not because we think that liturgy is a good way to experience an aesthetic "high." Liturgy is for us not just a didactic exercise or a means of historical commemoration. For us Orthodox Christians, liturgy is the means by which we experience directly the saving power of the events of salvation history. To be sure, these are historical events which occurred once and for all at particular points in history. They cannot be "repeated." They cannot be "returned to." But there is no "before" or "after" for God, who dwells in eternity. God is not bound by time as we know it; and in his "time" all things are eternally present. In liturgy the "eternal present" of God's time breaks into our time, and we are confronted personally and directly with the saving impact of all the events of salvation that we celebrate liturgically -- especially the saving event par excellence: the Paschal Mystery, the great mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ. All other events in salvation history point to or refer back to this Passover of the Lord in which death was put to death, the reign of sin overturned, and the Kingdom of God ushered in.
... Is to be transformed ... and to transform ...
The Orthodox Christian is called to transformation. He or she is called to engage in the process as theosis, or deification. That's right: we are meant to be "gods." In fact, according to Orthodox theology, it is precisely for this reason that Christ came among us. God became a human being in Christ so that human beings could become gods. This may sound strange, but it is in this doctrine of theosis that the beauty of the Christian proclamation is revealed. To be sure, we human beings can never become divine. We are and always will be human beings. But, Orthodoxy teaches us, the human being was never meant to exist in separation from God. It is only in contact with the divine -- only in being "energized" by grace (which of us Orthodox is never a created commodity but the very presence of the Uncreated One) -- can human nature be what it is truly meant to be. When we speak of deification, we are really speaking of n humanization. The Orthodox doctrine of theosis teaches that in order for one to become human, he or she must be energized by the deifying presence of God -- what we normally call grace. We are meant to be "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4).
Now this deifying presence of God is none other than the Holy Spirit, who , as we saw, dwells in the Church. It is for this reason that we Orthodox Christians affirm the importance of the Church. We are all meant to be "deified." This deification is the work of the Holy Spirit. And that Holy Spirit is found in the Church. Our lifelong process of acquiring the Holy Spirit can thus be achieved only within the Church.
Nor is the process of theosis isolationistic. In being deified, the Orthodox Christian is not called upon to avoid others or to sever all ties with the world. The Christian is not only to be transformed; he or she is called upon to make the deifying presence of God operative in the world around us -- to transform this world. To be sure, this transformation will not be complete until the Kingdom is fully revealed on the Last Day, but we Orthodox Christians must work to manifest the Kingdom which is already partially actualized among us. Thus, social action and political responsibility must be taken extremely seriously by the Orthodox Christian.
... Is to assume responsibility for the Christian Tradition ...
The Orthodox Church is the Church of Tradition. Notice the capital "T". This Tradition is absolutely not to be equated with the transient cultural and other merely human aspects of the Church. Tradition, in the Orthodox view, is not a specific thing or set of things. It is, rather a critical faculty, a discerning sense, which enables the Church to assimilate some things as consonant with genuine Christian experience and to reject other things as contrary to Christian authenticity. Tradition is simply the faculty present in the Church by virtue of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who gorges the "mind" of the Church. Tradition is the expression of this Spirit-formed "mind".
Tradition has crystallized in a number of forms: in Scripture, of course, the primary deposit of Tradition; in patristic writings (the writings of the Church Fathers); in church art; in conciliar decrees; in liturgical texts; in the example provided by the saints .... All of these are testimony to the operation of the Spirit in the Church.
And this Tradition is not a relic, locked away be ecclesiastical authorities for safekeeping. It is a living, vital force accessible to each of us. In fact, every Orthodox Christian is responsible for discerning, preserving, enriching, and passing on this precious deposit of Tradition. How? Above all, by acquiring the Divine Person who forges and maintains it -- namely the Holy Spirit. Thus theosis is crucial not only to the transformation of individuals and of the world, but for the health of the Church as well. In Orthodoxy, it is not an authoritative magisterium which safeguards the Faith; it is the faithful themselves! For the faithful to be able to assume this responsibility -- and privilege -- they must immerse themselves in the life of the Spirit through prayer, sacramental participation, and spiritual training.
... Is to proclaim the Faith of the undivided Church ...
Orthodoxy believes that it has maintained, without distorting addition or damaging detraction, the Faith of the Apostles, the Faith of the undivided Church. It rejoices in this Faith and feels the urge to proclaim it to all. Orthodoxy is not just for Greeks or Slavs or Arabs or Romanians. It is for all who would receive it as the most appropriate expression of the Christian experience. For this reason, the Orthodox Church is a missionary Church, and we Orthodox Christians are called to be missionaries. To be an Orthodox Christian is to respond to this challenge.
WHAT IS THE ORTHODOX CHURCH?
Orthodox Christians affirm that their Church is the living continuation of the Apostolic Church, founded by Christ himself; they believe that it has maintained, without distorting addition or damaging detraction, the ancient faith of the undivided Church. The Orthodox make these claims in all humility, readily admitting the shortcomings of their Christian witness. They have no intention of calling into question the sincerity and integrity of other Christians. But they do assert that "if a person carefully examines the history of Christianity, he or she will soon discover that the Orthodox Church alone is in complete sacramental, doctrinal, and canonical continuity with the ancient undivided Church as it authoritatively expressed itself in the great Ecumenical Councils."
GREEK, RUSSIAN, THAI OR WHAT?
You may have heard of the Greek Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, and perhaps some other Orthodox Churches such as the Antiochian, the Serbian, the Romanian, Orthodox Church in Thailand etc. Are they different Churches? No, they are all Orthodox Churches. The national name associated represents the country where they are established. The various Orthodox Churches are all sister Churches, all part of the One, Holy, Orthodox Catholic Church. Members of one are recognized as fellow Orthodox by the others, and welcome to receive the sacraments at the other Orthodox Churches and to become members of whatever Orthodox Church is convenient for them.
I believe in one God,
the 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 his Father before all worlds,
God of God, Light of Light,
very God of very God,
begotten, not made,
being of one substance with the Father;
by whom all things were made;
who for us men and for our salvation
came down from heaven,
and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost
of the Virgin Mary,
and was made man;
and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered and was buried;
and the third day he rose again
according to the Scriptures,
and ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of the Father;
and he shall come again, with glory,
to judge both the quick and the dead;
whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost the Lord, and Giver of Life,
who proceedeth from the Father,
who with the Father and the Son together
is worshipped and glorified;
who spake by the Prophets.
And I believe one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church;
I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins;
and I look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.
Icons in the Orthodox Church
One of the unique characteristics of the Orthodox Church is its use of icons (i.e., holy images). Icons have been in use since the earliest days of the Christian Church. Icons, in their simplest forms, were found in the catacombs, grave sites and other places of ancient Christian worship. They included: the cross, the fish, the lamb and other symbols that represented Jesus Christ. By the fifth century, iconography began to be widespread. Beautiful paintings, mosaics, frescoes and other media of art were used to depict Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints. The Church felt quite comfortable in depicting our Lord and His saints, for they felt the media of art was just another way to praise and teach about God-just as the Church used music and poetry. Icons were depicted on churches, homes and public buildings.
Icons served a many-fold purpose in the Orthodox Church. They were used to help teach the faithful about God. A person can walk into an Orthodox Church and see the whole Bible story unfolded on its walls. Icons of Old and New Testament people and events were used to teach the faithful-keeping in mind that many could not read- about the Christian Faith.
Another purpose of icons was to aid the faithful in prayer and meditation on the person or the salvific significance of the event depicted. Icons kept the mind from wandering and helped focus one's attention on prayer. They also served as a reminder to all the Orthodox of God's omnipresent and immanence in the world.
There was a brief time in the Church's history when civil and ecclesiastical leaders renounced the use of icons as idolatrous. As a result, many priceless icons were destroyed and people who were found possessing them were persecuted; yet, many people continued to use icons in secret. This prompted the Church to defend the use of icons for liturgical and didactic purposes.
The Church defended its use of icons by stating that if God became man in the person of Jesus Christ, then He can be depicted. To say that He cannot be depicted is saying that Jesus was not fully human (the Church believes that Jesus Christ was fully human and fully divine; to say otherwise is heretical). And, if Jesus can be depicted, His holy Mother and saints can be depicted as well.
Against the charge of idolatry, the Church made it quite clear that the faithful do not worship the wood and paint, but deeply respect and venerate the person depicted. The Church made a clear distinction between adoration (i.e., worship, due to God alone) and veneration (i.e., deep respect). The pagans worshiped idols because they believed that the deity was present in the stone or wood. The Orthodox make no such claim concerning icons. Icons are only images of the person depicted; therefore, do not venerate the wood but the person whose image it bears. Thus, by the end of the eighth century, icons were restored in the Orthodox Church and have served their proper purpose ever since.