A FIRST INTRODUCTION TO THE ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN FAITH:
VOLUME 1 in the series "WHAT IN THE WORLD IS THE ORTHODOX CHURCH?"
Volume 1 in a Multi-Part DVD Series of Questions & Answers About the Orthodox Church—
Its Faith & Practice
Written and Produced by St. Innocent/ FIREBIRD Multi-Media,
a ministry of St. Innocent Religious Community, Redford, MI
This is the text of the narration, that doubles as an essay, of an up-coming 30-minute DVD that is being worked on, the first of a DVD series, where icons, photos and video footage that correspond to the text, plus music, will be added to the recorded narration.
The following is written especially for use in Orthodox evangelism, to help people who might be encountering Orthodox Christianity for the first time. It is intended as a tool for those who are seeking to bring awareness of Orthodoxy to non-Orthodox who might be searching for a fuller Truth than what they so-far have encountered. It is also for use by clergy with Inquirers. Further uses are for those who already have become Orthodox, to help remind them why they embraced Orthodoxy; for prison ministries; for college campus ministries; for Orthodox people who want some help in explaining their Orthodox Faith to non-Orthodox; and for anyone who wishes to spread the fullness of Orthodox Truth anywhere.
WHY MIGHT I BE INTERESTED IN LEARNING ABOUT THE ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN FAITH AND THE ORTHODOX CHURCH?
Are you looking for the Truth, with a capital “T”? Have you wondered what happened to the Church that Christ established and which was “born” on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples? Do you want to know God better, but can’t seem to grow spiritually in the church that you attend or have attended? Do you feel that you have hit your head on a type of spiritual “glass ceiling” that doesn’t allow you to go higher? Do you feel like “there has to be something more” than what you have found in your current or previous church experience? Do you want to really worship God when you go to church, rather than be ‘entertained’? Are you looking for the Church of the Apostles that has maintained the Faith and the Worship of the Apostles, and not changed that faith?
If these questions hit home with you, we have good news for you. The Holy Orthodox Church is precisely that Church which Jesus founded, and that has maintained the True Faith and Worship of the Apostles throughout the centuries to this very day. This Orthodox Church proclaims and guards the fullness of Truth with a capital “T.” Indeed, there is “something more.” Orthodoxy offers a full banquet feast of spiritual life and growth that is inexhaustible, without any type of “glass ceiling.” Orthodoxy not only shows you the Way, the Truth and the Life, but offers countless means to help you along The Way, including the fullness of genuine God-centered worship. If you are looking for the True Faith and Worship of the original Church of the Apostles, then welcome home — you have found it! It is found in the Holy Orthodox Church!
“We have seen the True Light. We have received the heavenly Spirit. We have found the True Faith;
worshipping the Undivided Trinity, Who has saved us.” (Pentecost Hymn sung after Holy Communion)
WHAT IS THE ORTHODOX CHURCH?
The Orthodox Church is the more than 2,000-year-old historic Church that Jesus Himself established and which was empowered by the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Feast of Pentecost, and quickly spread through the Middle East, Africa, Greece, Italy, and throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. The Orthodox Church has sought to adhere to the Apostle Paul’s command not to change any of the Apostolic Traditions and teachings that he taught, which had been received from Jesus, and handed down to us today. The word “orthodox” means both “correct teaching” and “correct worship.” Therefore, in addition to adhering to the unbroken line of Apostolic teachings, the Orthodox Church also continues the fullness and profound depth of worship of God passed down through the ages. The Church is not concerned with being “politically correct” — it does not dilute or alter its Faith and Worship to accommodate the times. The Orthodox Church is universal — it exists in every continent and virtually every country, among every race throughout the world — always respecting and embracing the language and traditions of different ethnic cultures, while maintaining the unity of its Apostolic Faith and Worship. The older national churches are independent and self-governing, while major efforts are currently being made to create new national, self-governing Orthodox churches, including in the United States, but always united world-wide by its common Apostolic Faith and Worship.
WHAT DOES THE ORTHODOX CHURCH BELIEVE?
The Holy Orthodox Church believes that God has revealed Himself to us as the Holy Trinity: God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—three Persons, but One in Essence. Christianity’s fundamental doctrines are expressed in the Nicene Creed (called ‘the Symbol of Faith’), written by the Church fathers at World-wide Church Councils held in the years 325 and 381 AD. The Church affirms in this Creed that:
+ God the Father Almighty created everything that exists, both visible and invisible;
+ In order to save us from the consequences of our sins, God the Son became a man — the God-Man, Jesus Christ — born of the Ever-Virgin Mary;
+ He suffered on the cross, was resurrected from the dead, ascended into heaven, and will come again to judge us;
+ The Holy Spirit is the Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father, and is worshipped and glorified equally with the Father and the Son;
+ Christ gave us His One, Holy, Universal and Apostolic Church; and in the life that continues after we die, the righteous will be resurrected to live in God’s Presence eternally.
WHAT DOES THE ORTHODOX CHURCH BELIEVE ABOUT JESUS?
The Orthodox Church believes that Jesus is God ,Who came among us, born as a full human being, in order to save us from our bondage as slaves to the fallen world ruled by Satan, and to restore our fallen human image to the way God first created us — in His own image. Orthodoxy believes that Jesus is the Son of God, perfect God as well as perfect Man, and that He is the Messiah, or Christ, Who was foretold by the prophets throughout the Old Testament.
“God is with us! God is with us! Understand all ye nations;
and submit yourselves, and submit yourselves, for God is with us!” (Hymn in Grand Compline)
Orthodoxy is based on the Faith that Jesus is our Lord, our Savior and our Redeemer. He has saved and redeemed us by becoming like us, so we could become like Him. He saved and redeemed us by overcoming the power of death — which represents everything that separates us from God. He did this by allowing Himself to suffer in His human nature and body by being beaten, ridiculed and crucified in the flesh, and then descending into hell, and thereby vanquishing the power of evil, darkness, death and life-lived-as-though-God-did-not-exist — in other words, the power of Satan — the devil. After abolishing the power of evil in Satan’s domain of death, Jesus then arose from the dead on the third day, and ascended into heaven forty days later, where He is enthroned with God the Father eternally. He thus enables us to share in His victory over sin and death and to share in His Resurrection, now in our present lives in the Church, and for all eternity.
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death;
and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life. (Troparion hymn for the Resurrection/Pascha)
WHAT DOES THE ORTHODOX CHURCH BELIEVE ABOUT THE HOLY SPIRIT?
The Orthodox Church believes that the Holy Spirit proceeds from God the Father, and exists eternally with the Father and the Son, and that He is fully equal with them. It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that the Father and the Son work in the world and in us, but the activity of any one Person of the Holy Trinity is the work of all Three Persons, Who are perfectly united with each other in eternal and divine Love. Orthodoxy always has kept the essential balance between the Holy Spirit and God the Father and the Son, and never has over-emphasized or under-emphasized any one Person of the Holy Trinity.
“O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth; Who art everywhere and fillest all things;
Treasury of blessings, and Giver of Life; come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity;
and save our souls, O Good One.” (Pentecost Hymn to the Holy Spirit)
WHAT DOES THE ORTHODOX CHURCH BELIEVE ABOUT HOW I CAN BE SAVED?
Whereas many non-Orthodox Christians may believe much of what has already been said about the basic beliefs of the Orthodox Christian Faith, the concepts of how (and when) one is saved vary considerably.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE “SAVED”?
The Orthodox Church believes that being saved means to know God and to become like Him; to be united with Him; to live in communion with Him; to have Him live in our hearts; to give ourselves, and our whole lives to Him. It means to be in love with Him and to serve Him above all else, no matter what our life-circumstances are. Jesus says that eternal life is to know God and His Son, Jesus Christ (John 17: 3). Our Lord also fully explains to us in chapter 6 of St. John’s Gospel, that if we do not eat of His Body and drink of His blood (that is, to partake of the Sacrament of Holy Communion), we have no part in Him.
What does it mean to be “saved”? Being saved means a life-long struggle to become more like God — a gradual slow process of spiritual growth, received as a gift of God’s grace. Being saved means to be holy, because we are commanded to be holy, as the Lord Himself is holy (Ephesians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:16, and elsewhere). Being saved means to overcome the power of the Evil-One who tries his best to prevent us from knowing God and from living a life of holiness, and to drag us away from God. God does not force Himself on us, for no one can be forced to love — love must be given of one’s own free will. When we open the door of our hearts and invite Him in, and are united with God in love in this life, He assures us that He will allow us to continue this union eternally, but the final outcome will only be decided when we depart from this world. When we turn our backs on God in this life, it will be hell to be in His Presence eternally. We must always keep in mind that how we live our lives on this earth determines how we will live eternally — whether or not we will be saved or condemned.
AM I SAVED NOW? IF I HAVE ACCEPTED JESUS AS MY LORD AND SAVIOR, AM I NOT SAVED? IF I HAVE BEEN BAPTIZED, AM I NOT SAVED?
The answer is “Maybe!” — it is not given to us to know! Only God has the power to judge who is and is not saved, and it is presumptuous for us humans to try to usurp God’s authority to judge. Orthodoxy totally rejects the popular, modern innovation of what might be called “instant salvation,” as totally non-biblical and contrary to what Jesus and His Apostles taught. A one-time acceptance of Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior is not a life-time guarantee of salvation — it is only a first baby-step, just as finishing kindergarten is no guarantee that a child will graduate high school, no less from college. How high do we want to go? Do we aspire to make the most possible of ourselves in life, or just get by with the least possible effort. Similarly, do we really want to make the effort to be united eternally with God, or just hold on to the false hope of trying to get by with the least possible effort. As Jesus Himself says, not everyone who calls Him ‘Lord-Lord,’ will enter His bridal hall.
Accepting Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior, being Baptized and Chrismated, are the essential first steps. After this, we must then labor hard everyday of our lives, working together as partners in cooperation with the grace of the Holy Spirit, by dying to ourselves and our self-centeredness, and living God-centered lives instead. We must put that faith into action by righteous and virtuous living, by continual prayer, by love and care for the suffering and those in need, and by frequent corporate worship of God and reception of the Church’s sacraments, the “Holy Mysteries.” But even if we do all of this, it is no guarantee of salvation, because we can lose it all in an instant by our self-righteousness, lack of love and lack of humility.
Also, we must never lose sight of the fact that we do not save souls, as many like to claim — only God and His Holy Spirit saves souls, although He can chose us, unworthy though we be, to serve as His instruments in His work of salvation. In this we labor, by His grace, as partners with the Lord, so to speak.
HOW DOES THE ORTHODOX CHURCH HELP ME TO BE SAVED?
The Orthodox Church excels in the countless ways readily available to us to help us along The Path of Salvation, as the Church dedicates Herself to our spiritual growth and salvation. We will cite a few of the most obvious ways.
+ First, there is the priceless treasure of the Church’s life of God-centered worship in the extensive Orthodox corporate liturgical life as well as private prayer life. There are many different Divine Services, in which there is a correspondence between worship on earth and in heaven, in which we are allowed to join with the angels and the saints and to participate in beautiful worship before God’s heavenly throne, a type of foretaste of heaven, while yet on earth. The words of the extensive and beautiful hymns and prayers of the Services are textbooks, so-to-speak, of the Church’s teachings.
+ Second, and of indispensable help, is the reception of the Holy ‘Mysteries’ or ‘Sacraments,’ especially Holy Confession and Holy Communion, wherein we are united with Christ by partaking of His Most Precious and Holy Body and Blood.
+ Third, is the active encouragement to pursue the life of personal prayer, both by reading the church’s inexhaustible wealth of magnificent private prayers, plus the Hours and Psalter. In addition, people are encouraged to practice the continual prayer of the heart, that enables the faithful to be continually aware of being in the Presence of God, by the continual recitation of the ‘Jesus Prayer’: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
+ Fourth, is the stress on spiritual readings—the Bible above all, and then learning from the great spiritual masters who have gone before us, like guides to show us the Way. This involves reading the Lives of the Saints, found in compilations for every day of the year. The Lives of the Saints have been the primary reading for the faithful throughout the centuries, along with the Bible, the Psalter and the Book of Hours.
+ Fifth, some people are called to read the writings of the Church Fathers, called Patristics, in which the greatest spiritual heroes of previous centuries explain all the teachings of the Holy Orthodox Christian Faith, and explain the meaning of every book of the Bible. The great Patristic writers lived the Faith first, and then wrote from the experience of the Holy Spirit in their hearts.
+ Sixth, is another type of spiritual reading, more accessible to all — the various spiritual writings by Church elders past and present that focus on spiritual guidance rather than on doctrinal issues as in most of the Patristic writings.
+ And finally, seventh, the Orthodox Church encourages its faithful to have a spiritual father (or mother), frequently one’s parish priest, to personally guide an person along his or her spiritual journey to salvation. In addition, Orthodoxy also has cultivated the art of spiritual guidance in its countless Elders and Eldresses, who frequently were (and are) monks and nuns.
“Come let us worship God our King. Come let worship and fall down before Christ our King and our God.
Come let worship and fall down before Christ Himself, our King and our God. Come let worship and fall down before Him.”
WHAT DOES THE ORTHODOX CHURCH BELIEVE ABOUT THE BIBLE?
The Orthodox Church has the highest regard for the Bible and proclaims it as the Word of God; it has always been the primary spiritual reading for the faithful. The Gospels are revered as the Presence of Christ Himself. Furthermore, most of the hymns and prayers of Orthodox Divine Services are taken directly from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. However, there is more to the fullness and depth of Christian Truth than can be contained in the Bible, because it wasn’t until the fourth century that the Orthodox Church gave us the complete New Testament. Also, we must caution against the arrogance of regarding ourselves as experts in comprehending and interpreting the meaning of the Bible, and instead call upon the profound spiritual wisdom of many Church Fathers and Mothers drawn from many other sources, and use them to guide us in our understanding of the Bible.
WHAT DOES THE ORTHODOX CHURCH BELIEVE ABOUT OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST’S MOTHER, MARY?
The Orthodox Church regards the Mother of our Lord with the highest devotion and veneration, which is fully in accordance with the biblical witness of the Virgin Mary, who herself prophesied: “For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1: 48). The Archangel Gabriel himself declared to her, “Blessed are you among women” (Luke 1:28), and her cousin, St. Elizabeth, the mother of St. John the Baptizer, echoed the exact same words (Luke 1:42). Orthodoxy affirms the biblical account of Jesus’ virginal birth, fulfilling the Old Testament prophesies, as clearly proclaimed by the Archangel Gabriel when he announced to Mary that she was to be the Mother of the Son of God (Luke 1:26-38), again echoed by Elizabeth when she greeted Mary — “who am I that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43). Orthodoxy maintains the fully biblical understanding that Mary remained a Virgin her whole life, fulfilling various Old Testament prophesies.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the low estate of His handmaiden;
for behold, henceforth all generation will called blessed....”
Basic to the good news of the Gospels is that Jesus is the Eternal Son of God, Who took His human nature and flesh from His mother, who was a human like us in every way. Because Jesus’ Human and Divine Natures are united and undivided in Him, One Person, it is not true to say that Mary is the mother only of the human Jesus, (which is still a common misunderstanding today). This belief was totally rejected as false by the Third and Fourth Universal Councils of the Church in the 5th century (431 and 451), which declared that the Virgin Mary is indeed the Birth-Giver-of-God— the Theotokos— because the Human and Divine Natures of the One God-Man, Jesus Christ, although they can be distinguished, cannot be separated or divided.
“It is truly meet to bless you, O Theotokos, Ever-Blessed and Most-Pure, and the Mother of our God.
More honorable than the Cherubim and more glorious than the Seraphim.
Without loss of virginity you gave birth to God the Word; true Theotokos, we magnify you!”
Another vital component of Orthodox devotion to the Mother of God is frequent praying to her for her intercession, for she is quick to hear and help those who call on her, just as she interceded with her Son at the marriage of Cana (John 2:1-5). She is ceaseless in offering her aid and intercessions on our behalf.
WHAT DOES THE ORTHODOX CHURCH BELIEVE ABOUT WORSHIP?
To know God is to want to worship Him as deeply and fully as possible. The patterns of Orthodox worship are drawn from heavenly worship, as described in the Bible (especially Revelation, Hebrews and throughout the Old Testament) and received from Tradition, wherein we on earth participate in the continual Divine worship, which is centered on worshipping God, not on entertaining us. We strive to use all the senses in making Divine worship as beautiful as possible in every way, worshipping “in the beauty of holiness.” There are many different Divine Services, but the most important one is called the Divine Liturgy, during which bread and wine are changed by the power of the Holy Spirit into the Body and Blood of Christ, which the Orthodox Faithful receive in Holy Communion, after proper preparation.
WHY ARE THERE ICONS EVERYWHERE IN ORTHODOX CHURCHES AND HOMES? AND WHY DO ORTHODOX HAVE ICONS ANYWAY?
Icons make visible the invisible reality of the transfigured life of the Kingdom of Heaven, and make present to us today the great events of salvation-history, and the great heroes of the Church— the Saints. We venerate icons, but never worship them.
Icons, the sacred images of the Orthodox Church, are absolutely essential to Orthodoxy, because:
(a) they affirm God’s Incarnation in Jesus Christ, because they depict the invisible, incomprehensible, unapproachable God Who became visible, comprehensible and approachable by being born as a human and taking on human flesh (“... and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us ...” John 1:14);
(b) they affirm the goodness of the material world that God created, by using that material world (paint, wood, etc.) to depict the invisible divine world; and
(c) they affirm that the physical world has the potential for being resurrected and transfigured as it participates in the restoration of humanity to the beauty of the Divine Image and Likeness.
“No one could describe the Word of the Father; but when He took flesh from you, O Theotokos,
He accepted to be described, and restored the fallen image to its former state by uniting it to divine beauty.
We confess and proclaim our salvation in word and images.” (Kontakion, Orthodoxy Sunday)
WHY DO ORTHODOX REVERE SAINTS?
From the earliest times Christians have revered holy people (saints) and commemorated the anniversary of their deaths, especially the martyrs. They have always been regarded as ‘role models’ to be imitated, just as the Apostle Paul told all Christians to imitate him. Saints are revered, but never worshipped. We ask them to pray for us.
Why saints? Every Christian is called to be a saint, because Christ commanded us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. The veneration of saints is vital to Orthodoxy, because the existence of saints affirms that it is truly possible to fulfill the Christian vocation—to become conformed to the Image of Christ.
WHAT DOES THE ORTHODOX CHURCH BELIEVE IS THE MEANING AND PURPOSE OF LIFE?
The Orthodox Church believes without a doubt that the meaning and purpose of life is to know God, to love and serve Him—obeying His commandments and doing His Will. To know God is also to know ourselves, since we are made in His Image and Likeness. To find God is also to find ourselves. When God abides in our hearts, and we live God-centered lives, everything else in our lives makes sense, and there is no longer any need to struggle to “find ourselves” or search for the reason for our existence. We then become free to live full and meaningful and rich lives, full of God’s blessings which our hearts allow us to accept and to transfigure us, our lives, and life and the world around us.
WHAT DOES THE ORTHODOX CHURCH BELIEVE ABOUT HOW WE SHOULD LIVE?
This question provides a fitting conclusion to our introduction to the basic principles of the Orthodox Christian Faith. The Orthodox Church affirms that we should strive to do the most possible to grow closer to the Lord, working together with the grace of God, to imitate Christ and his friends, the saints, in fulfilling the Christian vocation of becoming conformed to the Image of Christ. The faithful Orthodox Christian asks ‘what is the most I can do for God?’ rather than ‘what is the least possible I can get by with?’ He struggles to take up his cross everyday, denying himself, and following Christ, dying to himself, that is, to his self-centeredness, and pursing a God-centered life instead. He lives a life of love for God and his neighbor, doing whatever he can to help others — the sick, the poor, the imprisoned, the homebound, the hungry, trying to be God’s instrument in healing the suffering of the sin-sick world around us, using whatever gifts and talents the Lord has given him to serve others. The faithful Orthodox Christian lives a life of repentance and forgiveness, of patience and humility, kindness and gentleness, generosity and peace. He strives to live a life of prayer, alms-giving and fasting, frequent Confession and weekly partaking of Christ’s Body and Blood in Holy Communion; and attending as many of the Church’s Divine Services as possible, not missing Sunday Liturgy or major feastdays. He does not rely on himself alone, but labors together in partnership with God, to accomplish the Divine Will. He seeks divine courage to follow all Christ’s moral precepts and will not sell his soul to get ahead or take the easy path—he cannot be ‘bought.’ The devout Orthodox person uses his free will to choose the narrow, difficult path that leads to salvation, and rejects the wide, easy path of fun, pleasure, riches and immorality. The Orthodox Christian is dedicated to serving Christ’s Holy Church, the guardian of the Faith by which he is saved, for without the Church there is no salvation; he obeys the Church’s precepts and accepts the unchanging Truth and Reality of what the Church teaches, as delivered by Christ to the Apostles. He focuses on his owns sins, and does not judge others, always keeping before him the Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian:
O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk.
But give rather the spirt of chastity, humility, patience and love to your servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins, and not to judge my brother;
for blessed art Thou unto ages of ages. Amen.