The Holy Orthodox Church: Her Life and Teaching
Compiled and edited by a monk of the St. Tikhon’s Monastery
Many are prone to saying there is no Orthodox culture in America; religious culture is something that comes from Europe or the Middle East; or else it must be dug up from the very ancient past, from which we must interpret and reconstruct meaning.
In fact, this is not necessarily true. It is said by some with humor that tradition is only as old as what our parents and grandparents taught us. Actually, there is profound truth in this. A cultural tradition is not an abstract reconstruction, but those truths, values and behavior commonly practiced, observed, held and understood by one generation and passed on to the next. There is a pattern of customary beliefs, a way of doing and explaining things, that is observably the faith of our fathers, passed on to us as those truths we hold.
The compilation of this book is an effort to gather from an on-going tradition of piety that which is traditional, for many, reinforcing the familiar — but equally beneficial, familiarizing many with an Orthodox continuity of things commonly observed. The style of themes, attitudes, expressions and images is popular in the sense that it has been the experience of Orthodox people in their own life and worship, representing how they were taught, what they have come to understand, and thus, have passed on to us.
It is uniquely Orthodox that theology is not solely the scholarly pursuit of a specialized class of clergy. We can, with much benefit, come in touch with what has been traditional for our people in Orthodox parishes for many generations as a theology of piety and practice. The necessary continuity for growth is to have some understanding of these truths commonly held by the Orthodox, and to be able to say, These Truths We Hold.
The teachings of the Orthodox Church are concerned primarily with the salvation of mankind through Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This salvation is expressed in the change which occurs in the soul before and after death, and in eternal blessedness after the Resurrection of the Dead. The means for achieving these blessings are faith, adherence to Christ and obedience to His teachings, all of which is facilitated by the Divine Grace of the Holy Spirit, imparted through the Sacraments, among which the Holy Eucharist occupies the central place.
Only in the Church — the Mystical Body of Christ — can the Holy Eucharist be celebrated, and all the other Sacraments are grouped around it. By receiving and partaking of the Precious Body and Blood of the Lord, the sons and daughters of the Church become communicants of the Lord Jesus Himself, constituting His very Body, which assumes true reality on earth in the Church of Christ (cf. Eph. 4:15-16, etc.).
Only by belonging to the Church, or, in other words, being in communion with the very essence of Christ through the Holy Eucharist, can one attain salvation unto eternal life. And who can be regarded as members of the Church? The answer is quite clear: all those who have been properly baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the true Son of God come in the flesh (1 John 4:2-3), and who are united by the grace of the Sacraments, in particular the Holy Eucharist administered by the Priesthood of the Apostolic Succession.
The whole life of the Church is based on an organic bond between the hierarchy and laity. We must recall that the principle of an ecclesiastical hierarchy was set forth by the Lord Himself, Who said to His disciples, I have chosen you out of the world (John 15:19) and Who said elsewhere, He who hears you hears Me, and he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him Who sent Me (Luke 10:16). This hierarchy consists of a line of direct and immediate successors to the Holy Apostles through the grace of the laying-on of hands (cf. Acts 1); these successors are the Bishops, and through them the Priests and Deacons of the Church. The Sacraments may be administered only by the Bishops, but in order to make them available to a greater number, their administration is rightly entrusted to Priests (who can be ordained only by Bishops). Following the teachings of St. Ignatius of Antioch († 107), then, where this true hierarchy is absent, the Church of Christ is absent [To the Trallians].
St. Cyprian of Carthage († 258) points out the unbreakable unity between Believers and the Church: “A man cannot have God as his Father if he does not have the Church as his Mother” [On the Unity of the Catholic Church, 6]. This is self-evident, since one cannot think of God and the Church as being apart from each other. God is salvation, and God’s saving power is mediated to man in His Body, the Church.
For this reason, the Orthodox Church regards herself as the One Holy-Catholic and Apostolic Church, since otherwise, salvation would be possible in any Church. Thus she says that outside the Church there is no salvation! This is so because, as one prominent Orthodox theologian has put it, “salvation is the Church” [G. Florovsky, Sobornost: the Catholicity of the Church].
But, does this mean that everyone outside of the Church is, of necessity, damned and those visibly within the Church saved? The answer is an emphatic No! As the Blessed Augustine noted: “How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within” [Homilies on John, XIV, 12]. There may be members of the Church who are not visibly such, but whose membership is known to God alone. If anyone is saved, he must, in some sense, be a member of the Church, but in what sense, it is not always possible to say. The Spirit of God blows where it will, and, as St. Irenaeus points out, where the Spirit is, there is the Church!
In any case, the final judgment is left to God. As the noted Orthodox theologian, A. Khomiakov so eloquently asserts:
Inasmuch as the earthly and visible Church is not the fullness and completeness of the whole Church which the Lord has appointed to appear at the final judgment of all creation, she acts and knows only within her own limits; and…does not judge the rest of mankind, and only looks upon those as excluded, that is to say, not belonging to her, who exclude themselves. The rest of mankind, whether alien from the Church, or united to her by ties which God has not willed to reveal to her, she leaves to the judgment of the great day [The Church is One, Part 2].
The Church, knowing that outside her bounds there is no salvation for the outcast (with the conditions outlined above) and that such is doomed to destruction, nonetheless cannot permit herself to be excessively severe, closing her doors once and for all to the sinner who could return to the fold — for to do so would be to appropriate for herself the chastising judgment which is God’s alone. The Church simply requires that the sinner who wishes to return, truly and sincerely repent and atone for his sins. This is because the Church sees the primary cause of spiritual destruction for one outside the Church as the failure to partake of Holy Communion, that is, to be in communion with the very Essence of Christ (we speak here only of the salvation or destruction of the Christian).
Therefore, as Orthodox we say that the Church of Christ is the community of all Believers, externally directed and organized by the hierarchy (Bishops and ordained clergy), joined together spiritually by the constant presence of the Holy Spirit, Who manifests His grace in the Sacraments. And it is precisely by partaking of the Sacrament of Sacraments — the Holy Eucharist — that one is mystically united with Christ and becomes part of His mystical Body, the Church.
With the above in mind, a concise exposition will be presented in the following pages concerning this Church of Christ — the Holy Orthodox Church — and will examine her traditions, her teachings, and her practices. Hopefully, a careful reading of the chapters which follow will enable one to more fully appreciate These Truths We Hold.
1. A Brief History of the Orthodox Church.
The history of the Orthodox Church actually begins in the Acts of the Holy Apostles, with the Descent of the Holy Spirit: When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance (Acts 2:1-4). As the text further tells us, on that same day, after St. Peter had preached to the gathered people, those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls (Acts 2:41), thus constituting the first Christian community at Jerusalem.
This first community of Christians, headed by St. James, the Brother of the Lord — the first Bishop of the city — was later scattered by the persecutions which followed the stoning of the first martyr of the Christian Church, St. Stephen: And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria, except the Apostles (Acts 8:1).
At the same time, faithful to the Lord’s command to go…and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19), the Apostles went out and preached wherever they went, first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles, so that in a surprisingly short time, Christian communities had sprung up in all the main centers of the Roman world and beyond. Their exploits are recorded in the Acts, as well in the inner tradition of the Orthodox Church.
The Holy Apostles.
St. Andrew the First-Called.
St. Andrew was a Galilean fisherman of Bethsaida and was the first called of the Apostles of Christ (John 1:37-40), to whom he brought his brother Simon, called Peter. According to Church tradition, he suffered martyrdom at Patras in Achaia on an X-shaped Cross (St. Andrew’s Cross). Another tradition says that he visited Russia as far as the city of Kiev (while yet another — Novgorod). His Feast Day is November 30.
In Holy Scripture, St. Bartholemew is to be identified with the Nathanael of John 1:45-51, of whom the Lord Himself witnessed, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile (John 1:47). According to Church tradition, he preached the Gospel in Lycaonia, India and Armenia, where he was martyred by being flayed alive. His Feast Day is June 11.
St. James the Elder.
St. James the Elder (so-called to distinguish him from the other Apostle, St. James the Younger) and his brother, John (the Evangelist), were fishermen — the sons of Zebedee. This James, along with his brother and St. Peter, were especially beloved of the Lord. According to the Acts, he was beheaded by King Agrippa in Jerusalem (Acts 12:2), after first having preached in Spain. His Feast Day is April 30.
St. James the Younger.
St. James the Younger (so-called to distinguish him from the other Apostle of the same name; sometimes called the Son of Alphaeus), was the brother of St. Matthew. In St. Mark’s Gospel he is said to be the son of Mary, one of the Holy Myrrhbearing Women (Mark 16:1). According to Church tradition, he labored in Judea and then accompanied St. Andrew to Edessa, preaching the Gospel. Later he traveled to Gaza (on the southern seacoast of Palestine), and from thereto Egypt, where he was martyred by crucifixion. His Feast Day is October 9.
St. John the Evangelist (also the Theologian or the Divine), was a son of Zebedee and brother of St. James the Elder. In Holy Scripture he is referred to as the disciple, whom Jesus loved (John 13:23), and who leaned on his Master’s breast at the Last Supper. To him was entrusted the Most-Holy Theotokos by Our Lord as He was dying on the Cross (John 19:26), and it was at St. John’s house that her Holy Dormition occurred. St. John occupied an important place in the Apostolic ministry and, according to St. Paul, he, together with Peter and James were seen to be pillars of the Church in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:9). According to Church tradition, he was the last of the Apostles to die, ca. 100 A.D., and while exiled on the Isle of Patmos, he wrote the Apocalypse (or Revelation). To him is also attributed the Gospel and the three Epistles that bear his name. His Feast Days are May 8 and September 26.
This Apostle, the brother of James the Just (both being half-brothers or perhaps, cousins, of the Lord), is also called Thaddaeus or Lebbaeus (John 14:22; Matt. 10:3). To him is attributed the Epistle of St. Jude. According to Church tradition, he preached in Syria and Edessa, eventually being martyred in Persia with his fellow Apostle, Simeon Zealotes. His Feast Day is June 19.
[See St. Jude].
St. Matthew (also called Levi the son of Alphaeus (Mark 2:14)) was a brother of St. James the Younger and was a tax collector. The First Gospel is attributed to him, and, according to many scholars, was first written for the Hebrews. According to Church tradition, St. Matthew preached to the Jews first, and then traveled to Ethiopia, Macedonia, Syria and Persia, dying a natural death, according to one tradition, or by martyrdom, according to another. His Feast Day is November 16.
According to the Acts, St. Matthias was chosen by lot to fill the place among the Twelve Apostles left vacant by the Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:15-26). According to Church Tradition he is said to have preached in Ethiopia and Armenia, eventually suffering death by crucifixion. His Feast Day is August 9.
[See St. Bartholomew].
St. Peter was a brother of St. Andrew, and, together with him, was a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee. Called by the Lord to become a fisher of men (Matt. 4:19), he was originally named Simon, but later his name was changed to Peter (in Aramaic Cephas, meaning rock) by the Lord. This was in response to Peter’s declaration: You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Matt. 16:16), for the Lord then said to him, You are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18). Holy Scripture amply witnesses to the fact that Peter occupied a primary place among the Apostles, although not to the extreme claimed by the Roman Catholic Church. His activities after the Resurrection are witnessed to in the Acts and, according to Church tradition, he was later martyred in Rome, being crucified upside down at his own request, since he felt himself not worthy to die in the same manner as the Lord Himself. The two Epistles of St. Peter are ascribed to him and he is celebrated, together with the other chief Apostle, St. Paul, on June 29.
St. Philip, like Peter and Andrew, came from Bethsaida in Galilee (Matt. 10:3) and was called early in the Lord’s earthly ministry, bringing Nathanael with him (John 1:43ff.). According to Church tradition, he was a missionary in Phrygia and died there (by martyrdom, according to some) at Hierapolis. His Feast Day is November 14, the next day being the beginning of the Nativity Fast (for which reason it is often called St. Philip’s Fast).
St. Simeon Zealotes.
St. Simeon Zealotes (or the Zealot; sometimes the Canaanite), according to Church tradition, traveled through Egypt and Africa, then through Mauretania and Libya, preaching the Gospel of Christ. Later he is said to have traveled to Britain, where he was martyred by the Romans on a Cross. Another tradition says that he was martyred with St. Jude in Persia. His Feast Day is May 10.
[See St. Jude].
St. Thomas, called Didymus (or the Twin, John 11:16), appears several times in St. John’s Gospel, which gives a good impression of the sort of man he was: ready to die with the Master (John 11:16); skeptical about the Resurrection, yet, when the Risen Christ manifested Himself to him, is whole-hearted in his belief (John 20:24-28). According to Church tradition, St. Thomas preached in Parthia (Persia), Edessa and India, where he is held in great veneration as a founder of the Church there, eventually suffering martyrdom. According to Church tradition, his remains were buried in Edessa. His Feast Day is October 6 and also the Sunday following Holy Pascha (St. Thomas Sunday).
This disciple, forever a symbol of treachery, the son of Simon, was from the town of Kerioth (from Kerioth — Iscariot). According to the Gospel, he stole from the common treasury of which he had charge (John 12:5-6) and ultimately betrayed his Lord for thirty pieces of silver (Matt. 26:14-15). After the Crucifixion of Jesus, in deep remorse, Judas cast the pieces of silver into the Temple before the Chief Priests and Elders, later going out and hanging himself. With the money, now considered blood money, a potter’s field was bought to bury strangers in (Matt. 27:3-10).
St. Paul was a strict Pharisee, having studied under the respected Rabbi Gamaliel at Jerusalem (Acts 22:3). At a young age he had learned the trade of a tent-maker (Acts 18:1-3) and had inherited Roman citizenship from his father (Acts 22:28). The young Saul (as he was known before his conversion to Christianity) was zealous for Judaism and consented to the stoning of St. Stephen, later actively joining in the persecution of the Christians (Acts 8:3). While on the way to Damascus, to persecute the Christians there, he had a sudden vision of the Lord, Who rebuked him for his persecution, and later he converted to the Christian Faith (Acts 9:1-22). After this conversion experience, St. Paul went on to become one of the greatest of the Apostles, zealously bringing the Light of Christ to the Gentiles, eventually going to Rome where he received martyrdom by beheading. During his missionary journeys, amply attested to in the Acts, he wrote letters of encouragement to various congregations and individuals along the way, and thirteen of them (fourteen, if the Epistle to the Hebrews is accepted as of Pauline origin) have been accepted as part of the New Testament. Together with St. Peter, he is commemorated on June 29.
To be continued…