FAQ's About the Orthodox Church
1. What is Orthodox Christianity?
The term “Orthodox” means “correct praise” or “right doctrine.” During the early centuries of its history, when it was united, the Church was both orthodox and catholic; that is, it was the Church of “correct praise” and was “universal” (which is what catholic means).
The term “orthodox” was used by the Church to separate itself from other groups that held false doctrines about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, salvation, and the Church. These groups were called “heterodox” or “heretics” by the one, orthodox and catholic Church.
2. When did Orthodox Christianity begin?
We trace our history back to the apostles and thus to Jesus Christ Himself. We believe that Christ brought the Church into existence, that it is empowered by the Holy Spirit, that it was to be led by the apostles and then by those whom the apostles were led to ordain (the passing down of this authority through time is called apostolic succession), and that it represents the presence of the body of Christ in this world.
3. When did Orthodox Christianity become a separate entity within Christianity?
The Eastern and Western halves of the Christian Church split from each other in 1054 A.D. The halves that became the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, respectively, blamed each other for this split. For centuries before that, the two halves of the Church (which corresponded roughly with the Eastern and Western halves of the former Roman Empire) had growing differences.
Two major disagreements brought the united Church to this split — a split that created the Orthodox Church in the Eastern part of Christendom and Roman Catholic Church in the Western part.
One disagreement involved how the Trinity was to be understood. Orthodoxy stayed with the traditional understanding of the Holy Spirit as coming from God the Father, which the Roman Catholic Church adopted new language to say that the Holy Spirit proceeded from both the Father "and the Son." It is hard for us to see today that this was far more than a debate about a word or two. As with so many debates over terms, something seemingly small contains within it radical differences.
A second disagreement between the Eastern Church and the Western Church arose over the authority of the Pope, the bishop of Rome. Orthodoxy views the bishop of Rome as the “first among equals;” meaning, the bishop of Rome is the senior and most highly respected of all Christian bishops of the undivided Church. The Roman Catholic Church, however, holds that the Pope is the sole head over the entire Christian Church. The Catholic Church insists on the “supremacy” of the Pope, while the Orthodox Church holds this bishop of Rome to have “primacy.” Since the split between East and West, the Patriarch of Constantinople (modern Istanbul), has been considered the “first amongst equals” of the bishops of Orthodoxy. The see of Constantinople was, according to Church tradition, founded by St. Andrew the Apostle.
4. Did the Protestant Reformation affect Orthodox Christianity?
The Eastern Church, what we call the Orthodox Church, did not experience the Protestant Reformation of the 15th and 16th centuries. The Eastern Church, at that time, was struggling to survive under Islamic domination. The Protestants were “protesting” some of the beliefs and practices (including the issue of the Pope’s authority) of the Western Church, the Roman Catholic Church
5. Who are Orthodox Christians more like: Catholics or Protestants?
It is probably better to see Orthodox Christianity as a third understanding of Christianity, rather than more like one of the other two.
Protestant visitors to Orthodoxy will find certain similarities: both communities rejected the authority of the Pope, as we have said. Protestant visitors might also find Orthodox Liturgy to be especially beautiful, as the service is based upon scores of Biblical passages — perhaps, something like a spoken and sung “stream of scripture.”
Catholic visitors to Orthodoxy will find many similarities in Orthodox worship and belief to their own. Both communities accept the same seven sacraments as the means by which Christ is present in His Church (baptism, confirmation, confession, Eucharist, ordination, marriage, holy anointing), and both believe that Christ’s presence in the Eucharist (Communion) is a real, and not a symbolic, presence. Both communities also hold to the traditional meaning of apostolic succession; that is, that the current priests and bishops were ordained by a line of previous bishops that goes back to the original apostles and to Christ Himself.
6. When people come into an Orthodox Church, they light a candle. Why is this?
Coming into our Church from outside, you first enter the narthex, which is a kind of “half-way” space between the outside world and the temple. Lighting a candle in the narthex can mean several things. One purpose is to signify, as we light the candle, that we wish to leave our worldly cares in this room before we enter the temple.
Another reason for lighting a candle may be that we are remembering someone who is in need. We say a brief prayer for them as we light a candle and kiss one of the icons. In a way, then, our worship begins out in the narthex, even before we come into the worship service itself.
7. Why do worshippers kiss the icons?
Icons, the painted pictures of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the saints, or sacred events, are very important in Orthodox worship. These icons mean far more to us than ordinary paintings. Icons are windows into the sacred realm, into the kingdom of God. The persons portrayed on these wooden icons are, in a spiritual way, present with us. We kiss the icon to show love and respect, even as we might kiss the picture of a family member to show the same.
8. Does kissing icons mean that Orthodox Christians worship the icon or the person portrayed?
No. Only God (as Trinity — the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is worthy of worship. The Virgin Mary and the saints are worthy of our deepest respect and love, or what is called “veneration.” As was said above, even as we might kiss a picture of a loved one, so we kiss the icons to show our love and respect for these spiritual beings who are alive with Christ and, therefore, with us in worship.
9. Is there anything about the temple of an Orthodox Church that might help me understand Orthodox Christianity?
Yes. The structure of Orthodox places of worship offers visual lessons of our heritage and beliefs. Although we have adopted the Western use of the term “church” for our place of worship, it is more accurately termed a “temple.” By this, Orthodoxy means to highlight that we are more than a gathering of people who come together for praise, prayer and learning. We are, in this place, in the very presence of God — even as the Jerusalem Temple provided access to God (the Holy of Holies) in the Old Testament and early New Testament periods. Various elements of Orthodox architecture, as well as elements of our worship (some will be discussed below) relate to the “temple” nature of our churches.
Secondly, Orthodox churches throughout the world tend to conform to certain repeating architectural patterns, many of which retain ancient elements from the very early centuries of Christianity. Most Orthodox churches have a huge dome covering the congregation. It is not coincidental that the dome is globe-shaped. In worship, the dome symbolizes that we are in a new world, the kingdom of God. There is typically a large icon of Christ as Ruler of the World (the “Pantocrator”) painted within the domes of many Orthodox churches.
10. Why is there a screen at the front of the church, and why does it have those particular icons on it?
This wall is called the “iconostasis,” or “icon screen,” and certain, very important icons are hung to face the congregation. The “royal doors,” or “beautiful gates” (again, using imagery from the Jerusalem Temple), are in the middle of the iconostasis, and through them we can see into the altar area, or what we term the “sanctuary.”
11. Are the icons on the iconostasis always the same?
For the most part, yes. To the left of the royal doors is always an icon of the Theotokos (Mary, the “mother of God”) and the Christ child. To the left of her is usually an icon of that parish’s patron saint. Since this church is the Saint Mark Greek Orthodox community, you will see an icon of Saint Mark there.
To the right of the royal doors is always the Christ icon. To the right of the Christ icon is St. John the Baptist, the one who prepared the way for Jesus’ earthly ministry.
12. How do these larger icons contribute to Orthodox worship?
Icons are very important in Orthodox worship. When our service, which we call the Divine Liturgy, begins, the priest first proclaims “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” With these words, the priest invites all present to enter into the Kingdom of God, which was begun in Jesus’ ministry and is now present in the Church. We draw near to Christ in worship, even as Christ comes to us in various aspects of the service (especially the Gospel reading and in the Eucharist).
Since the saints are alive with Christ in His Kingdom (Revelations 6:9), we believe that the saints are invisibly present with us and join with us in worship. The icons remind us of the presence of the Trinity, the Virgin Mary, and all the saints who join with us each time we gather for worship.
13. What is in the area behind the iconostasis, between the royal doors?
This is the altar area (sanctuary), from where the priest, the deacons, and the altar boys conduct parts of the service. Here the Holy Eucharist, or Holy Communion, is celebrated on the altar.
You may also be able to see a huge crucifixion icon of Jesus behind the altar. The Eucharist is the “making alive” or “making real” again of the sacrifice of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins and for our spiritual healing.
In a sense, every worshipper is invited to see the story of Jesus whenever the worshipper looks toward the altar area. To the left of the royal doors, we see the icon of the Theotokos with the Christ child, reminding us of the Incarnation, of Christmas, when God took human form. Inside the royal doors, behind the altar, we see the icon of the Crucifixion, reminding us of Jesus’ earthly ministry which ended on the cross for our benefit. To the right of the royal doors, we see the Christ icon, which reminds us that our resurrected Lord will come again, at the end of human history, to judge humanity.
14. Why does the priest face away from the congregation? Isn’t this rude?
The priest is actually facing toward the altar and the icon of the crucified Lord. He is facing the same direction as we are, as we look to Jesus throughout our worship.
The area where the congregation gathers we call the nave. That word is related to the word “naval,” which should remind us of a ship. The priest, then, might be compared to the first mate on a ship. From the altar area, the priest leads us in prayer and directs the readers and chanters.
You will notice, also, that the priest does not always face forward, but turns toward the congregation on occasion. He faces the congregation to bless us, to give the sermon from the pulpit, and to cense us with incense.
15. Why does the priest use incense ? What is the purpose of the incense?
We know, from the Old Testament, that incense was used in the Jerusalem Temple. The pleasant smell was believed to drift up to the heavenly realm and please God. In the Psalms of the Old Testament, there is also the request that the Psalmist’s prayers would rise like incense and please God. Incense in Orthodox worship carries these same meanings and various others as well. The priest censes the temple, the altar, the icons, and the congregation as a way of extending Christ’s blessings on all that are present.
16. Why and when do Orthodox Christians cross themselves?
Orthodox Christians make the ancient sign of the cross frequently during worship. This ancient gesture (Orthodox Christians use three fingers of their right hands to touch the forehead, heart area, then the right shoulder/arm, and finally the left shoulder/arm) is usually given when there is a mention of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) in the Liturgy. It will also be seen at other times in the service. This simple gesture, of making the sign of the cross on our bodies, can be considered a way of keeping our minds and hearts on Christ. It is, then, a type of bodily prayer.
17. Are Orthodox worship services long?
Not really. It is, of course, true that an experience seems long or short depending on how much we are engaged in that experience. Fifteen minutes waiting in traffic can seem, for example, much longer than four hours with a close friend. So, Orthodox worship may, at times, strike the worshipper as short, even though it has lasted nearly two hours in length.
We do know that worship in the early Church could last many hours. Six hours may not have been uncommon. In the United States today, our services usually last between one and two hours. The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which is commonly used in most Orthodox churches on most Sundays of the year today, usually lasts about an hour and a quarter, including a ten to fifteen minute sermon.
18. Isn’t it boring to use the same Liturgy week after week?
While this might seem to be a problem from the outside, it is not so for most Orthodox Christians. The Liturgy is lengthy, which means that the worshipper may have different parts of it speak to him or her from week to week.
Secondly, it is very true that none of us go through the same struggles and experiences from day to day. We come to worship each week with different concerns; the Liturgy, therefore, speaks anew to us.
Finally, there is something spiritually deepening in the fact that we, who live in lives and worlds of change, come each week to participate in an unchanging Liturgy. We bring our restlessness with us and find in the Liturgy both a peacefulness as well as an invitation to proceed further on our journeys toward God.
19. Why do priest and altar boys walk around the church at various times of the service?
There are two processions in the Liturgy, reminding us of the two parts of early Christian worship. The first procession brings the Gospel from the narthex, up through the congregation to the altar, where we then hear the words of Jesus. The second procession brings the ordinary elements of bread and wine around and through the congregation back up to the altar, from where, at the time of consecration, the Holy Spirit descends and transforms them into the real presence of Christ.
20. Who is allowed to receive Communion?
Baptized Christians confirmed in the Orthodox Faith who have prepared themselves may approach the priest for Communion. The fact that the Orthodox Church does not extend Communion to persons from other Christian groups who may be present is not meant as an insult, but as a sad acknowledgement that the Church is divided. It is the prayer of all Orthodox Christians that Christ’s Church may again be one, as Christ Himself prayed. All visitors are invited, at the end of the service, to join with the congregants in approaching the front to receive from the priest a piece of antidoron, or “blessed bread.”
Orthodox Christians do not themselves take the Eucharist as some “right.” We must prepare for Communion by fasting, prayer, confession of sins, and a repentant heart. This means that, on any given Sunday, not every Orthodox Christian present will approach the priest for Communion. Of course, frequent Communion, and the spiritual preparation that precedes it, is strongly encouraged.
21. Why is Greek used in the services, and does everyone present understand Greek?
Greek was the language of the early Church. Evangelists, such as St. Paul, evangelized the Roman world in Greek. The entire New Testament is written in Greek. The councils of the early Church were also conducted in Greek. To retain the Greek language is to connect ourselves with our Christian roots. You will notice, however, from the liturgy books in the pews that English is offered for every aspect of the service. English and Greek are used for a majority of the service.
22. Does a person have to be Greek, or Russian, or from some other European heritage to be an Orthodox Christian?
Most emphatically NO! The various Orthodox churches in the United States welcome anyone for worship and to consider membership. At the present time, the Orthodox churches in the West are experiencing significant growth from converts interested in our worship and doctrines. The Orthodox Church is Christ’s Church and is therefore open to everyone.