Eastern Orthodox Church Behind the elaborate fresco paintings and splendid architecture, Eastern Orthodox Church has played a significant role in the preservation of Christian tradition throughout history. Since the transfer of the imperial capitol of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople, the Eastern Orthodox Christianity has evolved into a distinct branch of Christianity (Steeves).
As Timothy Ware, the author of The Orthodox Church, suggests, major intellectual, cultural, and social developments that were taking place in a different region of the Roman Empire were not entirely consistent with the evolution of Western Christianity (Ware 8). These traditions and practices of the church of Constantinople were adopted by many and still provide the basic patterns and ethos of contemporary Orthodoxy. The Eastern Orthodox Church has adopted unique organizational features, beliefs, and traditions constituting itself as a unique branch of Christianity.
As the developments in Eastern Christianity were happening independent of Western Christianity, the differences in approaches grew to a serious estrangement between the two (Ware 23-24). As Ware suggests, some of the more prominent differences between the eastern and western Christianity are in the approach of religious truth, the perception of sin and salvation, and the view of the Holy Spirit. For Orthodox Christians, truth must be experienced personally (Ware 132). There is thus less focus on the exact definition of religious truth and more on the practical and personal experience of truth in the life of the individual and the church.
This emphasis on personal experience of truth flows into the actual definition of the word Orthodox, which essentially means the correct theological observance of religion (“orthodox”). In the Western churches sin and salvation are seen primarily in legal terms. God gave humans freedom, and if they misuse it and brake God’s commandments, they deserve punishment. God’s grace results in forgiveness of the transgression and freedom from bondage and punishment. The Eastern churches see the matter in a different way.
For Orthodox theologians, humans were created in the image of God and made to participate fully in the divine life. The full communion with God that Adam and Eve enjoyed meant complete freedom and true humanity, because humans are most human when they are completely united with God. The result of sin, then, would be considered a blurring of the image of God and a barrier between God and man. In addition, salvation is a process not of justification, but of reestablishing man’s communion with God (Ware 155-161). In Christianity the process of being reunited to God is accomplished by the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit plays a central role in Orthodox worship and the liturgy usually begins with a prayer to the Spirit and invocations made prior to sacraments are addressed to the Spirit. It is in the view of the Holy Spirit that Orthodox theology differs from Western theology. In the Orthodox tradition the belief is that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. The Catholic tradition, on the other hand, believes that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Even though this difference might seem rather technical, it was a major contributor to the parting of East from West in the 11th century (Ware 182-190).
The Orthodox Church is organized into several regional churches governed by their own head bishops who also oversee one or several priests. There is no single leader in the church. No pope. The Patriarch of Constantinople has the honor of primacy, but does not carry the same authority as the Pope does in Catholicism. The religious authority for Orthodox Christianity is not the Pope but the scriptures as interpreted by the seven ecumenical councils of the church. Since all bishops are equal, the spiritually undivided church can be administratively divided into various self governing organizations.
Major Orthodox churches include the Greek Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the Serbian Orthodox Church etc. In spite of these specific divisions, these groups recognize each other as being canonical, or within the body of the Church (Steeves). As suggested by Timothy Ware, Orthodox Christians believe in God who is both three and one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The holy trinity is three distinct, divine persons with no overlap among them who share one divine essence. The saints are regarded as those who have reliably finished the course of their lives following God’s path.
Those that are known to the Church are glorified by incorporating their lives into the Church’s liturgical life. They are venerated or shown great respect and love, but not worshiped. Virgin Mary plays a particularly important part in the Orthodox Christian Tradition. As the mother of God, she is honored above all other saints. The Mysteries within the Orthodox Church, unlike the Roman Catholic Sacraments, are more numerous (than 7) and less analyzed. An Orthodox definition of mystery might be any action in which a person connects to God.
Some of the more prominent mysteries are Communion which is the most prominent one (the direct physical union with Christ’s Body and Blood), followed by baptism, normally by immersion. Confirmation follows baptism immediately in the form of anointment with chrism. Other mysteries are repentance, for those who wish to reconcile themselves to God , and other more simpler acts such as lighting a candle or asking God to bless one’s food. One of the particularly interesting mysteries is fasting. Fasting is meant to bring back a more of a spiritual as opposed to carnal nature in people.
Another purpose of fasting is to rid the believer of various addiction such as food, television, and sex. The time and type of fast is generally uniform for all Orthodox Christians and the times of fasting are part of the church calendar (Ware, 202, 255-256, 264-267, 270). The services of the church are properly conducted each day, which is more common for monasteries, or just on the weekends, which is a characteristic of parish churches. Services are conducted by the clergy. Services cannot properly be conducted by a single person, but must have at least one other person present (i. . a Priest and a Chanter). This is largely due to the fact that Orthodox services are almost entirely sung. Services consist in part of a dialog between the clergy and the people (often represented by the choir). 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 (Ware, 283-285). In his article “Orthodox Art and Architecture,” John Yannias explains that 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” (122). Because of this, most Orthodox Churches are rectangular in design. Another popular shape, especially for churches with large choirs is cruciform or cross-shaped. Architectural patterns may vary in shape and complexity, with chapels sometimes added around the main church. Yannias also explains a very characteristic religious form of art in the Orthodox tradition, iconography.
The Orthodox theologians argue that God is indeed invisible and indescribable in his essence, but when the Son of God became man, he voluntarily assumed all the characteristics of created nature. Consequently, images of Christ, as man, affirm the truth of God’s real incarnation. Therefore, the function of the artist engaged in iconography is to convey the very mystery of the Christian faith through art. Furthermore, the icons of Christ and the saints provide direct personal contact with the holy persons represented on them. (Yannias, 122-124).
Another interesting example of the Eastern Orthodox tradition is the way that the Cross is represented. The Byzantine style cross is usually shown with a small top crossbar representing the sign that was nailed above Christ’s head. Also Orthodox tradition depictions the cross with a bottom slanting bar. The reason it that there is enough evidence to show that Jesus’ feet were nailed side by side to this platform with one nail each in order to prolong the torture of the cross (Yannias, 126). One of the three branches of world Christianity, the Orthodox church, has been preserving the Christian tradition for hundreds of years.
Today the Eastern Christian Orthodox church has an estimated 250 million adherents, of whom, some 5-6 million live in the United States and Canada (Antiochian). In spite of many similarities with the Western Christian Church, the Eastern Orthodox church possesses certain characteristics only unique to this Christian tradition. Its development and a long period of separation from the Western Christian Church have produced a unique set of organizational features, believes, and traditions distinguishing the Eastern Orthodox Church from all other churches.
Works Cited “Orthodox. ” Encyclopedia Britannica. 6 Dec 2006 ;http://www. britannica. com/eb/article-9057479/orthodox;. Steeves, P. D.. “Orthodox Church. ” Believe. 6 Dec 2006 ;http://mb-soft. com/believe/txc/orthodox. htm;. “The Self-ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. ” Antiochian. 6 Dec 2006 ;http://www. antiochian. org/668;. Ware, Timothy . The Orthodox Church. 2nd. New York City: Penguin, 1993. Yiannias, John. “Orthodox Art and Architecture. ” The Art Bulletin 80(1998): 121-127.