This is an essay I wrote for my Intro to Christianity class, about the Orthodox Church. Primary sources used are The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware and An Introduction to Christianity by Alister McGrath.
“In the dark days in their history – under the Mongols, the Turks, or the communists – it is to the Holy Liturgy that the Orthodox people have always turned for inspiration and new hope; nor have they turned in vain,” (Ware, 272). Today, one thing that stands out about the Eastern Orthodox Church to a person in the West is their elaborate rituals, from infant baptism to venerating icons of the saints and kissing the cross. Their services, too, are traditional and almost archaic, which is the point because that is how the early church fathers held their services. These traditions, sacraments, and a faith in Jesus Christ define the Orthodox Church.
The Orthodox Church first split from the western church after the Seventh Ecumenical Council, and traces its routes back to the Roman empire and to the earliest apostolic churches. It has a strong influence and continuity with the early church and Greek fathers, and stresses tradition (McGrath 402). Orthodoxy is most popular in Eastern Europe, particularly in Russia and Greece, although it has spread to North America and Australia, and is often associated with ethnic culture. Among the Eastern churches there is the Assyrian Church in the East, the Oriental Orthodox churches including the Armenian, Coptic, and Ethiopian denominations, and the Orthodox Church including autocephalous, autonomous, and canonical churches influenced by ethnicity.
The two sources of revelation in the Orthodox Church are scripture and tradition. To understand tradition, said Ware, one must see it from within, for “it is a life, a personal encounter with Christ in the Holy Spirit” (Ware, 206). Tradition is expressed in a variety of forms, including the Bible, the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the fathers, the liturgy, and icons.
There are seven sacraments for the Orthodox Church representing the divine mysteries of God. They are outward and visible signs that translate and illuminate an unseen hidden grace. The seven sacraments are baptism, chrismation, the eucharist, repentance or confession, holy orders, marriage, and the anointing of the sick (Ware 281-282).
The first three sacraments are known as the Christian initiation, as a new believer is baptized, confirmed, and given communion. Infants are given all three of these privileges from the start, unlike the Western churches, which allows them to always be part of the ceremonies and feel more welcome. Full immersion is essential in Orthodoxy, as it is an outward act symbolizing the inward rebirth of the soul, and for this reason sprinkling of water over the head is looked down upon and extremely limited (Ware, 284). A priest uses a special ointment to then anoint the new believer’s body, confirming him as a layman into the church. At every liturgy, there is the Eucharist, where believers take bread and wine. The Orthodox Church believes that the wine and the bread “becomes in the very truth the Body and Blood of Christ: they are not mere symbols, but the reality” (Ware, 290). It can be seen that Orthodoxy stresses the importance of remembering Christ and becoming one for blessing.
The fourth sacrament, repentance, is given to children from about six or seven years of age. Sins committed are reconciled to the Church, and confession is now held in any convenient place in the church, usually with the believer and priest both standing (Ware, 295). Holy Orders are the positions held in the church, including a Bishop, Priest, and Deacon, and what powers they each hold. Marriage, the sixth sacrament, is seen as a special vocation and needs the gift from the Holy Spirit to function in unity with God (Ware, 301). Lastly, there is the anointing of the sick. It is practiced in two dimensions: healing the body physically and forgiving sins spiritually, and is given to anyone who is sick (Ware, 302). The purpose of these seven sacraments is to attain the beautiful union of man with God.
One thing common in the Orthodox Church not common in other churches are icons. Icons, wood covered with images of Jesus, Mary, or the saints, are “one of the ways whereby God is revealed to man” (Ware, 214). They are not worshipped, but venerated, as a way to look directly into the image of God, and adherents have collections at their homes or at church.
Today, Christianity has many different denominations and beliefs, but the Eastern Orthodox Church still has roots to the earliest churches, that of the first ever planted. “They believe that in a divided and bewildered Christendom it is their duty to bear witness to this primitive and unchanging Tradition,” (Ware, 333). Therefore, the church stands firm in its beliefs which have not varied greatly over time because Christ is changeless. To be Orthodox means having a faith in Jesus and stressing tradition as well as the Bible as God’s source of revelation to man.