Theology in Orthodoxy

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It is not uncommon for the teaching ministry of the Orthodox Church to be described variously as dogma, doctrine, or theology. These words are occasionally used interchangeably, but there are specific differences between the words.

Theology is the broadest category, which refers to “the study of God” in general, based on divine revelation. Doctrine literally means “teaching,” but refers specifically to propositional teachings. Dogma originally meant “opinion,” but now is used to denote beliefs based firmly in divine revelation and taught as necessary to be believed by all Orthodox Christians.

The Orthodox Church finds divine revelation in several sources, and sorts carefully through these sources of revelation to instruct the people of God.

Imagine the Church’s Tradition as a symphony orchestra with Jesus Christ as the Conductor. When we hear all the sections of the orchestra playing in proper tune and with the appropriate dynamics we will rightly appreciate the melody of faith and the harmony of hope. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev describes theological inquiry and how we may sort through sources of Tradition to find the appropriate balance.

The Holy Scriptures are an unconditional and indisputable authority. All Orthodox Christians accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as unified messengers of Christ. The Old Testament is “a herald of the New Testament,” and the New Testament saturates the Tradition of the Church. The Scriptures are essential to the motif of Tradition.

Our liturgical tradition is an indispensible part of the orchestral motif of the Church’s Tradition. Liturgical texts have been refined over many centuries, led by the Holy Spirit, and are an indisputable source of teaching in our Church. We must distinguish between newer texts that have not been tested by time, and those texts which have led the Church for hundreds or thousands of years. These liturgies are a close second to Scripture.

The Ecumenical Creeds and Councils of the Church rank high with the canonical liturgical texts and Scriptures. The Councils deal with incredibly difficult matters, both of a pastoral nature and a doctrinal nature, articulated in creeds and carefully worded dogmatic definitions. The dogmatic statements of the Ecumenical Councils are paramount, and the canonical guidelines—while varied in their local application—share a similar authority. The Church retains the right to return to the decision of the Councils and modify them.

Doctrinal questions find further clarification in the testimony of the Church Fathers. The Church Fathers are an integral part of the symphonic harmony of the Orthodox Church. We are the heirs of the Fathers and should follow their consensus in all things. It is important to distinguish between personal opinions of the Fathers and those texts “which express general Church teaching.” Opinions that are not dogma, and are not condemned ecumenically, may be considered as personal opinions, but not pressed upon others as necessary to be believed.

Other ancient “teachers” of the Church are important, in a qualified way. It is important to consider the writings of other ancient teachers of the Church, but to make a distinction between these teachers and those the Church has designated as “Fathers.” For example, Tertullian and Origen have serious problems in some of their work, but remain important influences to consider.

We should also consider apocryphal literature of late antiquity, especially those pieces that have influenced the Church in some sense. Apocryphal books here, of course, not referring to those books of Scripture some have labeled as “apocrypha,” but rather to books like The Protoevangelion of James or The Gospel of Thomas. Some of these early writings ought to be rejected outright (such as Thomas), but those that are “reflected in the liturgical life or in hagiographic literature” of the Church have some standing for the Orthodox Christian. Where this literature contradicts the above received wisdom, we do not follow them.

Finally, other teachers should be considered, both ancient and modern. The teaching of the Church is revealed by God and unchanging, but that doesn’t mean its articulation is static. Fresh explanations abound in different periods of history, and since the “age of the Fathers” for Orthodoxy is not limited in scope, we remain attentive to the lead of the Holy Spirit and the fresh articulation of old truths.

Conclusion: Theology for the Orthodox Church is found in that beautiful symphony that is our Tradition, and only when all the sections play their appropriate parts at the right volume does the output sound appropriate. An over-emphasis on any one part of the symphony can only create discordant sounds, contrary to the appropriate execution of the piece by the great and holy Conductor, Jesus Christ.

Note: All quotes taken from Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood: 2009), 205-208. Slight modifications made to capitalization for stylistic consistency. This is a modified form of a post that previously appeared at Orthodoxy & Heterodoxy.

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The Divine Liturgy: An Overview

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The most central aspect of the life of the Orthodox Church is seen in her weekly service of Eucharist. Eucharist, which means thanksgiving, is what the Christian life is all about, so it is natural that the center of the Church’s existence subsists in the celebration of thanksgiving. The Eucharist service in the Orthodox Church is called The Divine Liturgy, and its primary form is that liturgy that finds its origins in the adaptations made by St. John Chrysostom in the fourth century.

Let’s take a walk through The Divine Liturgy. We’ll start with a basic outline. Fr. Emmanuel Hatzidakis outlines the Liturgy like this:

Preparation
Prayers for the Faithful, Cherubic Hymn, Processions
Spiritual Litany, Fervent Supplication, and Kiss of Peace
The Symbol of Faith (Creed)

Holy Anaphora
Apostolic Blessing, Dialogue, & Great Anaphora
Triumphal Hymn, Anamnesis & Institutional Words
Epiclesis and Commemorations

Holy Communion
Litany, Lord’s Prayer, and Invitation
Holy Communion
Dismissal

For this post, we will more fully explore the Liturgy this way:

1. The Bringing of the Gifts (Prothesis/Proskomedia)
Preparation of the offerings of bread and wine to be used in the Eucharistic celebration.

2. The Liturgy of the Catechumens

The Great Ektania, a long prayer that sets the tone for the whole service. This litany consists of a dialogue between the deacon or priest and laity, concluding with a Trinitarian doxology.
Psalm 103/104
The Little Ektania
Psalm 145/146
The Troparion
The Beatitudes
The Little Entrance/Gospel Entrance
“Come Let Us Worship”
The Trisagion (i.e., Thrice-Holy) Hymn
Epistle
Gospel
Common Prayers for the Members of the Church (Diaconal Litany)
Catechumen Prayers and Departure

3. The Liturgy of the Faithful

Prayer of the Faithful
Cherubic Hymn, Offertory Prayer, Great Entrance

Petition for Mercy/Litany of Oblation
Deacon’s exhortation: “Let us love one another….”
The Kiss of Peace
Profession of Faith: Nicene Creed

The Great Thanksgiving/Eucharistic Prayer
Also called the Eucharistic Canon, or Anaphora

Sursum Corda/Hymn: “It is meet and right…”
The Sanctus
Commemoration of the Last Supper (also known as the Mystical Supper)

The Consecration of the Gifts
– Words of Institution
– Offering of the Body and Blood/Hymn: “We glorify thee”
– The Invocation of the Holy Spirit (Epiclesis)

The Great Prayer for the Church
Comemmorating the living and the dead
Megalynarion of the Theotokos
Litany of Fervent Supplication
Secret Prayers of the Priest
Lord’s Prayer

Elevation and Breaking of the Lamb
Blessing of the Faithful
Sancta Sanctis: “Holy Things for the Holy”
Breaking of the Lamb and Commemoration
Preparatory Prayer
Communion of the Clergy
Elevation of the Chalice
Pre-Communion Prayer
Communion of the Faithful

Post-Communion Prayers and Dismissal
Prayer of Thanksgiving
Transfer of the Holy Body and Blood to the prosthesis table
Prayer before the Ambo
Dismissal of the Faithful
Distribution of the Antidoron

Select Sources Used for the Post
Paul Evdokimov. Orthodoxy: The Cosmos Transfigured, trans. Anthony P. Gythiel (Witchita: Eight Day Press, 2012), 276-277.

Archpriest D. Sokolof, A Manual of The Orthodox Church’s Divine Services (Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 2001), 62-84

Fr. Emmanuel Hatzidakis, The Heavenly Banquet: Understanding the Divine Liturgy, (Columbia: Orthodox Witness, 2008).

How to Make the Sign of the Cross

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The sign of the cross is one of the most ancient and revered customs of the Church. St. Gaudentius of Brescia, a fourth/fifth century saint, said: “Let the sign of the cross be continually made on the heart, on the mouth, on the forehead, at table, at the bath, in bed, coming in and going out, in joy and sadness, sitting, standing, speaking, walking; in short, in all our actions. Let us make it on our breasts and all our members, that we may be entirely covered with this invincible armor of Christians.”

The Orthodox Church engages in worship using all five senses, and the sign of the cross is a physical prayer. And we use it a lot! In some parishes, you might see someone cross him or herself hundreds of times in a single service!

The general idea of the sign of the cross is identifying and calling to mind the death of Christ on the cross. It’s a prayer for God to bless you. It’s an acknowledgement of prayer, and a calling on the mercy of God. Some might even see it as a reminder of their baptism and chrismation, when they entered the Church and the sign of the cross was made on them many times, declaring them a beloved child of God!

In current Orthodox practice, the sign is made by holding the right hand’s thumb, index finger, and middle finger together, and tucking the ring and pinky fingers into the palm, side-by-side. The three fingers together symbolize the Trinity, and the two remaining fingers represent the two natures of Christ. Then, the sign begins by touching the forehead with the three fingers, bringing the hand straight down to the torso or chest, over to the right shoulder, then to the left shoulder.

Typically the signing is completed by a slight bow of the head, or by a full bow, where the signer reaches all the way to the ground and touches it briefly. In some cases, the crossing is punctuated with a full, facedown prostration on the ground.

We cross ourselves many times throughout the day, and throughout a worship service. It is customary to cross oneself when entering and exiting a church building. We cross ourselves before venerating an icon or a relic. We cross ourselves during prayer, sometimes at the beginning and the end of a prayer. Many will cross during litanies, as we sing, “Lord have mercy!” or “Grant this, O Lord!” We cross near the end of reciting the Nicene Creed, before and after the Gospel reading in the service, and many cross themselves when the Holy Gifts are brought out in the midst of the congregation during the Great Entrance.

Crossing yourself is acceptable just about any time. However, it is preferred that you don’t cross yourself “at” a priest or bishop, even when he is blessing you, and it’s generally frowned upon to cross yourself when receiving the Body and Blood of Christ at communion (accidents happen!).

Sidebar: The Russian “Old Believers” or “Old Ritualists” cross themselves slightly differently. They place their thumb, ring finger, and pinky together in the palm, and have their index and middle fingers together in a pointed fashion. There are a few Old Believer communities in communion with the worldwide Orthodox communion of Churches. If you belong to one of these communities, this would be the way to cross yourself. If you do not, then don’t. Cross yourself in unity with your worshiping community.

Deer in the Headlights Baptist Visits an Orthodox Church

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When one first enters an Orthodox church, it may be a scary or intimidating experience. There is often confusion about what everyone is doing, when and why they’re going around kissing things, and what a visitor should do or how to behave. “And did those people really just kiss the hand of that man in the Matrix outfit? Yes, I’m pretty sure that just happened.”

So let’s demystify this a bit with a story. In this imaginary Sunday morning experience we meet George, a lifetime Orthodox Christian, and Sally, a recent inquirer.  Not every detail of this story is replicated in every place, but rather this story is told to give you a sense of what one might see.

George arrived for liturgy, and greeted a few friends on his way in. Fr. Sergius, a semi-retired priest who serves the parish in a limited capacity, was just coming through the doorway, too. He greeted Fr. Sergius by saying, “Father, bless!” and then swept his right hand to the ground, bending at the waist. While he was doing that, Fr. Sergius made the sign of the cross over him, and said, “The blessing of the Lord be upon you!” while George placed his right hand, palm up and open, into the palm of his left hand, and Fr. Sergius placed his own hand into George’s hands, while George kissed it. George followed this pious custom out of reverence for the Lord and respect for hands that were tools in the hands of God—hands used in the great task of bringing the incarnate Son of God to the people of God through ordinary bread and wine. These hands were holy, for they have handled the holiest things on earth.

Sally watched all this from a few steps behind George.

After this greeting, George entered the foyer and venerated several icons. Sally observed awkwardly from the side, noting that George crossed himself twice, bending over and touching the ground, standing up to kiss the icon, and then crossing and bowing one more time, touching the floor with one hand. When George venerated a second icon, Sally watched closely, and saw that George was kissing the hand of the figure on the icon, rather than the face.

Next, George walked over to some boxes of candles and what appeared to Sally to be a sand-filled litter box. George dropped a few dollars in a bin, and took several candles. Sally wasn’t really sure what to do, so she just awkwardly smiled at a few elderly ladies in head coverings eyeing her, then quickly looked away.

George walked into the nave—the main part of the church, where the congregation stands—and made his way to the front. Sally entered right behind him, but lingered along the rear wall. He stood for a few brief moments in front of several icons, apparently praying, and repeated the triple crossing and bowing kissing thing, and occasionally would light the candles he had, cross himself yet again, and place the candles on these interesting-looking gold or bronze stands.

Eventually, George made his way to a place in the congregation to stand. Like many other Orthodox parishes in America and around the world, this church had pews, and he took a place, but he did not sit.

Something then occurred to Sally—there were chanters up front and off to the side, and a priest was swinging a thing full of incense and muttering some barely audible words. It appeared to her that the service was already in progress, but people were still milling about, kissing icons and lighting candles.

Much of the service was a blur for Sally. There were a lot of hymns, a lot of “Lord have mercys,” and a number of strange words, like “Theotokos.” Some of the service was in a language she didn’t recognize—perhaps she even heard several languages, she could not be completely sure.

There were distinctly familiar moments, such as Scripture readings—but even such moments felt unusual to her, since they were chanted instead of simply read. And what was with all the crossings? She must have seen the sign of the cross made a thousand times around her.

There was a sermon in the middle of the service. Everyone sat down, and there were even a few people in flip-flops who just plopped down on the floor along walls and in corners. The sermon was nice, but it felt strange to her. No pulpit, no detailed verse-by-verse exposition, and certainly no emotional altar call. Perhaps most striking was that the sermon clocked in at 15 to 20 minutes or so (who’s counting?) instead of the 45 minutes or more she was used to at her old church.

After the sermon, there was a great deal of commotion up front, behind a strange wall with a lot of icons on it, while a choir in a balcony above sang a cappella hymns. She found it a little jarring when the priest chanted for something or other to depart—over and over he said a strange word about some people and told them to depart. Yet, she never saw anyone depart (except for people with fussy babies, but this didn’t appear to have any correlation with the command to depart!).

After that, more litanies were sung, and the priest prayed a lot of prayers. George appeared to be at home, crossing himself and bowing his head slightly just about every time the choir sang “Lord have mercy.”

At one point, Sally felt really awkward when a long line of people came out from behind the icon wall…a few kids, a couple assistants, and the priests literally paraded down the north side of the nave carrying a cross, some disc-like things, incense, a chalice, some cloths, and other mystifying items. And as they rounded the corner at the back, she realized she was in the way, and stumbled her way to the opposite side of the center aisle. The entourage rounded another corner and headed down the main aisle toward the altar, praying for various names of people.

The rest of the service was pretty much a blur to Sally. She occasionally glanced at George, but he seemed right at home, crossing himself and occasionally singing along to “Amens.” The service felt long, and sometimes she got tired from standing, so she would  rest in a pew set along the back wall.

The one moment that stood out to Sally was toward the end of the service, when it was time for communion.

The priest announced, “Holy things are for the holy!” and the choir responded, “Only one is holy, only one is the Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father!” Then a minor rustling began as men, women, children, and the elderly alike began lining up in the center aisle with most crossing their arms against their chests, while a few carried small children. Up front, it looked as if the priest was spoon feeding each person from a golden chalice, but it was difficult to see from the back of the nave. Whatever was happening, it looked pretty special to Sally.

As people moved past the priest, they took a few pieces of bread from a bowl and returned to their places in the building. One stranger greeted Sally with a piece of bread and said to her, “Christ is in our midst!” She sheepishly replied, “Thank you,” and took the bread.

After the service was over and the priest made a few announcements, Sally was more-or-less swept away into a river of people going down to the front of the Church and speaking with the priest. People were kissing a cross and the priest’s hand, and then receiving more pieces of bread from a bowl held by a young child. Sally was greeted warmly by the priest and invited to stay for coffee hour afterward. Still processing everything that she just witnessed, Sally thanked him, and made her way toward the door.

The Iconostasis

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One of the central and most notable features of nearly every Orthodox church is the iconostasis (all, save the Western Rite parishes). “Iconostasis”—simply “iconostas” among Slavs—means nothing more than “icon stand,” and it separates the nave from the sanctuary and altar. It may consist of icons set up on two easels in a mission church, or be as large as a gigantic wall with dozens of icons and three doorways.

The iconstasis developed over time, but it is not without precedent in antiquity. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that certain groups of ancient Jews decorated their synagogues with icons depicting biblical figures and events, and in at least one archaeological excavation, there is a full wall of icons separating the gathering room from a sort of Torah shrine.

Around the 5th century, it became customary in eastern churches to construct a templon between the nave and altar. In the west, a similar development occurred with a “rood screen.” Over time, these elements came to be adorned with icons, and eventually became what we know as the iconostasis. There are many variations in these icon stands, but the general set-up is guided by Church rubrics, and so several features are fairly common. (And despite many years of separation from the mainstream Chalcedonian Orthodox Church, even some of the so-called “Oriental Orthodox” churches, especially the Coptic Orthodox, have embraced the iconostasis.)

Beyond the basics, liturgically, the iconostasis is equipped with three important entrances: two “deacon” doors, and one central entrance. Anyone with a blessing from the bishop (or by proxy, the priest) can enter the deacon doors, but only ordained clergy (bishop, priest, or deacon) may enter the central doors. In churches where there are several deacons, these doors are used frequently in services, and it’s hard not to imagine the workings of a cuckoo clock! These deacon doors are typically adorned with icons of deacons or archangels (and are sometimes called “angel doors” due to the icons of Archangels Michael and Gabriel).

The middle entrance usually consists of two doors, sometimes called the Royal Doors or Beautiful Gates, and a curtain. This doorway is used exclusively by clergy for liturgical purposes. These two doors are frequently adorned with icons of the four evangelists (Gospel writers) or of the Annunciation, displaying the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. Since these are the gates through which the life-giving flesh and blood of God will enter the nave of the Church to be given to the people, it is fitting that the Virgin Mary is depicted on these gates (or similarly, it is fitting that sometimes the Gospel writers who brought us the message of God incarnate are depicted).

Directly above the Beautiful Gates (or Royal Doors), you may see an icon of the Mystical Supper (Last Supper), or perhaps Christ enthroned, and very likely a large cross.

The central doors are always flanked by an icon of Christ to the right, and the Virgin Mary and with the Christ child to the left. Next comes the patron saint or patronal feast of the parish—in Byzantine parishes, the patronal icon goes next to the Virgin Mary, but in Slavic parishes, the patronal icon is next to Christ. Often—though not always—St. John the Baptist is depicted to the right, either next to Christ or after the patron saint. Other well-loved saints, such as St. George or St. Nicholas, may be depicted on other panels.

Depending on the size of the iconostasis, you may see one or more rows of icons above the first tier of icons. These rows may depict the major feasts of the Church (based around Christ’s and the Virgin Mary’s lives), the twelve apostles (sometimes St. Matthias is replaced by St. Paul), and/or Old Testament patriarchs and prophets.

Though not part of the iconostasis, when looking at the iconostasis you may be struck by a large iconographic representation behind the altar. In Byzantine parishes, this is almost always an icon of the Virgin Mary and Christ, known as the Panagia (all-holy). She usually has her arms open wide, and Christ is making a blessing, or may have his arms open wide, too. These open arms symbolize that she is “wider than the heavens” having “contained the uncontainable one” in her womb—and some see the open arms as an invitation of love to the world.

Slavic parishes sometimes depict the Resurrection of Christ, the Mystical (Last) Supper, or Christ enthroned in heaven and surrounded by angels in this space instead.

In a very real sense, the iconostasis and curtain separate the nave from the sanctuary—the common area from the Holy of Holies. But unlike the Holy of Holies in the Old Testament temple, this Holy of Holies is accessible. We can see it, and in fact, the icons draw our eyes toward it. And at the apex of every Liturgy, God enters the Holy of Holies in his body and his blood, and then condescends to come to us through the Beautiful Gates. And finally, he gives himself to us.

This is the true faith that established the universe!