Today, as in Prince Vladimir's time, the Orthodox Church -- fully aware that man is a union of body and soul -- uses all the beauty of creation to move her faithful children to prayer and worship: icons (holy pictures), beautiful singing, sweet-smelling incense, and majestic services.
Yet if the visible beauty of the Church is dazzling, her unseen beauty and glory are even more compelling, for the Orthodox Church is the Bride of Christ, and within her shelter we can begin to struggle for our salvation.
ORIGINS OF ORTHODOXY
Jesus Christ founded His Church through the Apostles. By the grace received from God at Pentecost, the Apostles established the Church throughout the ancient world. St. Paul founded the Church of Antioch; St. Peter and St. James, the Church of Jerusalem; St. Andrew the Church of Constantinople; St. Mark, the Church of Alexandria; St. Peter and St. Paul, the Church of Rome.
The Roman (or Western) church separated from the True Church in the year 1054 after changing the Creed and wrongly claiming supremacy of the Bishop of Rome (Pope) over the other bishops.
Drifting further from its origins, the Western church was then shattered into a myriad of sects by the Protestant Reformation. However, in Greece, Russia, the Balkans, Middle East, and elsewhere, the True Apostolic Church continued to flourish, preserving the Faith of Christ pure and unchanged. Today this Church is known as the Eastern or Orthodox Church and it is a haven for those seeking Christ's truth.
The Greek word Orthodoxia means "correct praise" or "correct teaching" and in Orthodox worship the praise and teaching are closely interwoven. If you attentively follow the prayers and services of the Church, you can learn from them all her teachings and rich spiritual experience.
The services trace their beginnings back to the Old Testament rites of the Hebrews. They are a treasury of Scripture readings, prayers, hymns, and canons composed by the Saints and pious Christians throughout the ages.
Pascha -- Easter -- is the Feast of Feasts, the high-point of the Orthodox year. During Pascha, the Church shines with the glory of Christ's resurrection. Clouds of fragrant incense accompany prayers heavenward; choirs and bells sing out the triumphant news; the faithful greet one another with the holy kiss of peace amid the greeting, "Christ is risen!". The altar doors are left open all week to show that the Gates of Paradise are opened by Christ for us sinners to enter in for eternal life and joy in heaven.
Just as the Grace of the Holy Spirit which descended on the Apostles at Pentecost flows in a living stream down through today's bishops and priests, so Sacred Tradition carries the spiritual life of the Church in an unbroken stream from the time of the Apostles down to Orthodox believers today. Sacred Tradition includes the unwritten acts and teachings of Christ and the Apostles which the Church preserves unchanged for us all (John 21:25; 2 Thess. 2:15; 2Thess. 3:6). The power of Sacred Tradition is the power of the Holy Spirit as it influences Orthodox Christians in all ages. Through Sacred Tradition we are in communion with the spiritual life of all preceding generations back to the Apostles.
ORTHODOX BELIEFS AND SACRAMENTS
We worship God in Trinity, glorifying equally the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Son of God, begotten before all ages, and that He is of one essence with the Father. We believe that Christ incarnate is truly man, like us in all respects except sin. We worship the Holy Spirit as Lord and Life-giver who proceeds from the Father.
We honor and venerate the saints and ask their intercession before God. Of the saints, Mary, the Mother of God, holds a special place. "More honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim."
Baptism and Chrismation are the two sacraments essential to enter into the saving shelter of the Church. Baptism by triple immersion washes away our sins and restores the image of Adam. With Chrismation, we receive the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, becoming partakers of the fullness of Christ.
In the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, we partake of the true Body and Blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine for the remission of sins, the healing of body and soul, and for life eternal. Confession is the fourth essential Sacrament for the life of all Christians. In confession, Christ gives us, through our father confessor, the forgiveness of the sins we commit after Baptism if we truly repent of them.
Ordination, Marriage, and Holy Unction complete the central Mysteries of Orthodoxy By the laying-on of hands, a bishop transmits Divine Grace to the person being ordained, linking him through the continuing flow of Grace that descended on the Apostles at Pentecost - to the uninterrupted succession of Orthodox clergy. Divine Grace sanctifies the union of two people in matrimony (Orthodox parish priests are usually married; bishops now come from the Church's monastic tradition). The Sacrament of Holy Unction heals infirmities of body and soul.
Virtually everything you see in an Orthodox Church symbolizes and calls to mind some aspect of our meeting with eternal Divinity.
The Domes. The peaked Russian dome draws our yearning and aspiration upward toward God and the spiritual life. Like its ancestor the round Byzantine dome, the Russian dome celebrates in architecture what is accomplished by the Eucharistic Sacrament -- the communion of heaven and earth. A single dome symbolizes the One Head of the Church, Jesus Christ; three domes stand for the Holy Trinity; five domes point to Christ and the Four Evangelists.
The Russian Orthodox Cross. On top of every dome, and throughout the church, you see the unique Russian three-bar cross. The top bar bears the sign "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews," reminding us that Christ is the King of Glory. The footboard, which was used by Roman executioners in Christ's time, is slanted up on the right for the thief who repented and down on the left for the thief who railed at Christ.
An Open Church. There are no pews or chairs in most Orthodox Churches. We stand during worship services out of reverence and humility before God. The absence of rigid pews gives us freedom to move about the Church and feel at home. We are free to venerate icons and light candles, as well as to bow and do the prostrations necessary at times during worship.
Candles. Candles burn before the icons and on the altar, signifying the light of truth given by the Lord, illuminating the world with spiritual radiance. Candles also symbolize our soul's burning love of God and the spiritual joy and triumph of the Church.
The Sanctuary. Raised above the nave (body of the Church), the sanctuary is where the Church's consecrated clergy perform divine services. The altar in the center of the sanctuary is known as the Holy Throne because the Lord God Himself is present on it.
The screen (called iconostasis, or image stand) is not placed in front of the altar to hide it, but to emphasize the inner mystery of the sacraments. On small icon stands, on the large iconostasis in front of the sanctuary encircling the walls, and even up to the highest dome -- holy pictures draw you into the spiritual life of the Church like silent, ever-preaching sermons. Called icons, from the Greek word for image, the holy pictures of Christ, the saints, and martyrs have deep significance in Orthodox life.
Because the Son of God took on human flesh and became incarnate as the God-man Jesus Christ, it became possible to portray the glory of God incarnate. "Blessed are the eyes which see what you see!" (Luke10:23). The icons' style may seem austere and strange at first; they do not depict the natural beauty of the material world, but the spiritual beauty of the Kingdom of Heaven. Icons are venerated, but not worshipped, by Orthodox Christians. Free from the subjective, sentimental, and fleshy quality of Western religious art, the true icon is part of the Church's Sacred Tradition. A true icon, painted through the power of the Holy Spirit, is in communion with the spiritual life of the Church back to its earliest days.
Because of the unity of Sacred Tradition, icons -- like Orthodoxy itself -- exist as unchanging and ageless windows into the spiritual world. As you gaze into an icon, the calm eye of eternal truth falls upon you. And you begin to realize the true beauty and order of all things visible and invisible.
THE CATACOMB CHURCH
The 1917 revolution destroyed the Russian Empire and plunged the world, and especially the Orthodox world, into darkness. The Church in Russia was subjected to vicious persecution by the atheist Bolsheviks.
Patriarch Tikhon, Head of the Church, anathematized the Bolshevik rulers and suffered imprisonment and torture for his refusal to submit to their demands. However, his successor, Metropolitan Sergius, gave in and, with his notorious Declaration of 1927, made the church in the Soviet Union a political tool of the atheist government. The majority of the clergy vehemently protested against this concordat, but they were systematically killed.
Not only the clergy but Orthodox throughout the land suffered incredibly. According to the Soviet government's own statistics, there have been over 20 million new Christian martyrs who have died for the Orthodox Christian Church. Sorrowing for their suffering but rejoicing in the strength of their faith, the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates the millennium of Russian Orthodoxy (988-1988) by glorifying her Holy New Martyrs.
The existence of the Catacomb Church was admitted by the communists themselves. It survives and continues to grow with renewed vigor in spite of the continued and systematic campaign against religion in the USSR
THE RUSSIAN CHURCH ABROAD
Millions of Russians fled their homeland and settled in exile after the Bolsheviks established their control of Russia. On November 7, 1920, Patriarch Tikhon issued an Encyclical ordering all Russian Orthodox leaders outside Russia to organize a supreme Church authority and establish Church life and order independent of the church in the Soviet Union, which was and remains under communist control. Thus, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad was organized under the senior hierarch outside Russia, Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky).
From the year 1988, the millennium of Christianity in Holy Rus’, significant changes began to occur, culminating in 1992, with the USSR finally dissolved. These changes made it possible for the two parts of the One Russian Church to reconcile and reunite in May 17, 2007. Today the RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH ABROAD, now known as the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) is a self-governing part of the Russian Church and is headed by His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion, bearing witness to Christ’s Truth without compromise.
Prepared by Anne K. Turley in the 1960’s. Originally published with the blessing of The Most Reverend Anthony Archbishop of Western American Diocese in San Francisco, California.
Editor’s note: updated in November 2019.