Kiss, Kiss, Kiss

Kisses-p1Orthodox people kiss everything: icons, relics, hands, cheeks, it doesn’t seem to matter, and few things are safe from an Orthodox person planting a smooch on it! We kiss hands of clergy, out of reverence for hands that have held God. We kiss icons (on the hands or feet, avoid kissing the face) to give honor to that holy person. We kiss each other because we want to foster love and friendship among the people of God.

Often, clergy and laity alike will come in for a kiss when you least expect it. Careful! Don’t kiss your priest on the lips (unless you’re married to him), and be prepared for returns: Greeks will usually want to kiss you once on each cheek, and Russians will go back for a third kiss. If you’re kissing cheeks, start with the right cheeks, then go for the left (try not to bump noses!), and brace yourself for one more on the right cheek if you’re in a Slavic community! It is not uncommon for such kisses to be imaginary kisses, where you basically just touch cheeks and make a smooching sound in the air. Depends on who is doing it, and likely has something to do with how afraid they are of your face hosting germs!

In the middle of the service, there is a “passing of the peace”—the priest says, “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” In recent centuries, the traditional Orthodox practice consisted of clergy around the altar kissing each other, but some parishes essentially have a brief meet-and-greet in the service. Visitors can probably get away with handshakes to those around them, but stick around long enough and people might start kissing you. In some parishes, one of several customary greeting are exchanged at this time, too.

Sidebar: In many Slavic parishes, it is customary for communicants to kiss the communion chalice after partaking of the Holy Eucharist. This is done out of great reverence for the chalice that holds the Author of Life. In most Byzantine parishes, however, they wouldn’t dream of doing this, also out of great reverence for the chalice that holds the Author of Life. It’s just one of those quirky differences in Orthodoxy!

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Baptism and Conversion

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Coming into the Orthodox Church can be as exciting as it is bewildering for an adult convert. At times, inquirers find it difficult to get straight answer on what reception into the Orthodox Church is like. Put simply, one is received into the Orthodox Church by:

  • Confession of the Orthodox Faith
  • Baptism
  • Chrismation (the sealing of the Holy Spirit by anointing with oil)

All must confess the Orthodox Faith. Some will also need to baptized and/or chrismated. Sometimes a baptism, or a baptism and chrismation, are “grandfathered” in. This latter practice is sometimes done, for example, with the non-Chalcedonian “Oriental Orthodox” Christians, such as the Copts and Armenians.

The exact practice depends on the jurisdiction, bishop, or parish priest. But the Church does not simply leave a minister to his own devices. There are canonical and historical considerations, personal considerations, local considerations, and considerations of the bishop’s judgment that all factor into the manner of a person’s ultimate reception into the Orthodox Church. It is important to understand the way these several streams come together in the Church today.

There are several canons that govern reception of converts. Most famously, the seventh canon of the Second Ecumenical council states clergy should chrismate certain professing Christians who hold non-Orthodox beliefs, such as Arians and “Macedonians” (among others), but only after they have renounced any false beliefs they once held. Whereas, Montanists, Sabellians, and Eunomians were to be received by confession, baptism, and chrismation after a period as a catechumen. There are similar canons in other councils, and once we factor in more controversial historical discussions from Orthodox luminaries such as St. Cyprian of Carthage and Blessed St. Augustine of Hippo, we have a rich tapestry of reception for the bishops to draw from.

The trouble is, there is no canon that says, “Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Protestants who call themselves Lutheran or Reformed or Methodist, do this; but with Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, Mormons, and the so-called Churches of Christ, do that.” Complicating matters further, there is a good bit of difference between a Lutheran and a Presbyterian, often even chasms of difference between Lutherans and other Lutherans, or Anglicans and other Anglicans. The Canons are a matter of wisdom and exegesis—an exegesis and wisdom that belongs almost entirely to the bishops as successors of the Apostles.

When people from the particular groups in question described in the seventh canon of the Second Ecumenical Council were in view, it is safe to say they were received with a fairly strict application of the canon. Several hundred years later, at the Quinisext Council, the same basic canonical rules were repeated with minor expansion, and the canons of the Quinisext Council later enjoyed ecumenical standing.

Beyond that time, application of the Holy Canons varied. Many of the heretics listed in the Canons died out, and relations with the Western Church grew complicated due to linguistic, theological, and liturgical differences, and eventually the unprecedented Protestant Reformation arose in Western Europe.

By the time the Orthodox faith reached America in the late 18th century, the Slavic tradition almost universally received converts from other Christian confessions by chrismation. We know of saints in the last century who were received without rebaptism, such as St. Elizabeth the New Martyr (formerly a German Lutheran) and St. Alexis of Wilkes-Barre (formerly a Byzantine-rite Roman Catholic). More recently, certain local churches have strengthened canonical applications as it relates to reception of converts (perhaps in part responding to what is perceived to be excesses of the ecumenical movement).

It is not surprising that in this modern era there is diversity of practice. Since the current cadre of converts to the Orthodox Church is not the same as it was 1600 years ago, the application of 1600-year-old canons will necessarily vary. It is the prerogative of the bishop to determine the best application of a canon, and by proxy, his priests are often left with discretion in such matters.

Despite minor variation from one bishop to another, the Orthodox Church has been quite consistent in its insistence on determining decisions based squarely on the Holy Canons.

[Editor’s note: The author of this Field Guide is not taking a position on the matter of baptizing converts, but simply trying to be faithful to the facts of historical and current practice.]

The Holy Canons

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The Holy Canons of the Orthodox Church are the plumb line by which the bishops have historically responded to pastoral and theological difficulties in the Church. Beginning very early in Church history, Church leaders responded to pastoral challenges by drawing up guidelines for Church life. These canons were written during important councils of assembled bishops.

Many canons cover conduct of clergy or specify areas of authority for certain episcopal sees, placing constraints on Church leadership to mitigate potential for abuse or scandal. Many canons also apply to non-clerics in the Church. Canons speak on matters as varied as sexuality and marriage, sacraments, excommunication, reception of converts, how clergy are to behave in public, and even matters of personal violence.

It is helpful to think of the Canons as the “house rules.” They are the standard for daily activity, but they are not necessarily strictly applied in every instance. That should not lead us to be dismissive of them, though. Just as good parents consider how to apply their own house rules with their children, so it is the bishop’s (and by proxy, a priest’s) job to determine when and how to apply applicable canons to particular pastoral situations.

Canons are not all created equal—some local canons never reached beyond a particular region, and were eventually phased out, while other canons went on to enjoy universal acceptance in the Church. Other canons were more specifically focused on the situations and cultural concerns of their time, finding application to a lesser extent in the Church today. It is not that these canons are ignored or abrogated, it is more that the very specific contexts in which they were introduced are absent, and should some similar context emerge again in the future, those canons would be relevant again. Until then, many simply don’t apply.

The manner of applying the Canons is typically categorized as akravia or oikonomia in popular Orthodox teaching. Akravia refers to a strict, to-the-T application of a rule. Oikonomia literally refers to the management of a household (Greek: oikos = household; nomos = law; or “economy” in English). It is used commonly to describe adjusting canonical requirements for pastoral considerations, with an individual’s salvation in mind.

St. Nicodemos the Hagorite (1749-1809) explains:

One kind of judgment is called strictness (akrivia); the other kind is called economy (oikonomia) with which the economists—the Greek meaning herein is “management of the household of the Spirit” to promote the salvation of souls—at times [go] with the one, and at times with the other.

The definitions and applications of oikonomia and akravia have varied through the centuries. The current usage is consistent with the harmonizing synthesis described by St. Nikodemos, and may refer to a departure from the norm for pastoral reasons for the salvation of those involved—this departure may more lenient or even more strict. St. Nikodemos is only one voice among many, but he is at least the most prominent voice when it comes to  canonical commentaries in English.

Access to the Canons by the laity in the age of the Internet has been a mixed blessing. Some modern Orthodox people have been openly critical of the Canons, and have used certain canons to mock Orthodoxy; others, who are more rigorist have used strict application of the Canons to criticize clergy of the Church (ironically, forbidden by the very Holy Canons they are seeking to preserve and defend) for not strictly applying certain canons. As we move toward greater administrative unity in Europe and America (and more in line with canonical norms), it is important that our bishops and clergy familiarize themselves with the Holy Canons, and that laity support them in this endeavor as we all grow into the future of the ancient Orthodox Faith.

There is always a danger of misapplying the Canons in a zeal to embrace the Canons. It may be something of a cliché to call this Pharisaical, but isn’t this what the spirit of the Pharisees was? They took legitimately enacted regulations of religious life and turned them into ends in themselves.

Certainly, the Canons should not be ignored willy-nilly, but the canonical corpus itself demonstrates that canons may be altered over time for various (good) reasons that don’t have anything to do with compromise. After all, the Church was not made for the Canons, but the Canons were made for the Church.