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January 2007

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“Baptism Makes You Greek” and Other Misconceptions about the Orthodox Christian Faith 

by Katherine Hyde

 

If you’ve seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding, maybe all you know about the Orthodox Church is the scene where Ian gets baptized in a kiddie pool under a huge chandelier and comes out saying, “Now I’m Greek.”

 

On the other hand, if you’ve read The Brothers Karamazov, you may have some inkling of the spiritual depth and richness of this ancient faith once embraced by half the Christian world.

 

Which is the true picture? Unfortunately, both. For a lot of historical reasons too complex to go into here, many Orthodox Christians in America seem a little confused as to where their ethnicity leaves off and their religion begins. But the truth of the matter is that the so-called Eastern Orthodox Church is not exclusively “Eastern,” or indeed exclusive at all. It is a church for all Christians, as Western converts are discovering every day.

 

Let’s get down to some Useful Facts for Writers.

 

(1) Orthodoxy is the dominant Christian church of Greece, the Middle East, North Africa, Eastern Europe, Russia, Armenia, and Georgia. If you are setting a story in any of those places, a rudimentary understanding of Orthodoxy is essential. In all those places, Orthodoxy has been persecuted either by Islam or by communism, so you need to have an understanding of that situation as well.

 

Because Orthodoxy was brought to America by immigrants from these lands, America now has multiple Orthodox “jurisdictions”—organizational units of the Church that in some cases are still governed by the church of the country they came from. These various jurisdictions have different ethnic flavors, may serve in different languages, and exhibit minor variations in liturgical practice, but they are all part of the same universal Orthodox Church.

 

(2) The Orthodox Church is not just the Eastern version of the Roman Catholic Church. Orthodoxy goes back to apostolic times and has some significant doctrinal differences. The Orthodox (original) version of the Nicene Creed states that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone, not from the Father and the Son as believed in the West. Also, the Orthodox Church does not believe in the authority of the Church being centered in one man (the pope). Orthodoxy has a conciliar government, with the heads of the various national churches (called patriarchs, archbishops, or metropolitans) all having equal authority; a council of bishops of all countries is required to address major questions of doctrine and church polity.

 

More subtly, the Orthodox Church differs from Western churches in approaching the faith primarily through mystery rather than through reason. Orthodoxy embraces sacred paradox and is comfortable with not understanding exactly how God works.

 

(3) Orthodox priests may and generally do marry—or to be more precise, they are ordained after marriage. Orthodox bishops may not be married, but they may be widowers. Priests who are widowed may not remarry. Those priests who are not married are usually monks.

 

Priests of the Slavic traditions often have long hair and beards and wear long black robes called cassocks in daily life. Priests of the Greek and Antiochian (Arabic) churches in America often have short hair and short or no beards and dress like Episcopal priests, in black suits with white collars. All priests, deacons, and altar boys (called acolytes) wear colorful embroidered vestments during services.

 

Priests are not seen as having a mediatorial role between the believer and Christ. Rather, the priest is Christ’s representative in ministering to the people, and the people’s representative in worshiping God. The true priesthood extends to all believers, and all have direct access to Christ.

 

(4) Orthodox churches do not have statues but do have icons—painted representations of Christ, His Mother, and the saints. These icons are “venerated”—shown the kind of honor most Christians would show to the Bible—but they are not “worshiped.” The honor shown to the icon passes over to the person depicted. The artistic style of icons is deliberately stylized, in part to discourage idolatry.

 

(5) Orthodox Christians regard the Bible with great reverence as the inerrant Word of God. A huge part of the liturgy comes directly from Scripture, especially the Psalms. However, Orthodoxy also recognizes that the Bible is one part—the greatest part—of the complete Holy Tradition of the Church, which has been handed down faithfully through all generations from the original Apostles. This Tradition includes the writings of the early Fathers of the Church, the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, the liturgy, the music, the icons, the lives of the saints, and every other aspect of the Church’s life.

 

(6) The Virgin Mary is greatly honored as the first and greatest of saints, with a unique role in salvation history and a unique position of intercession before her Son. She is considered the Mother of the Church—but she is never confused with divinity. She is believed to be ever-virgin but not immaculately conceived. Immaculate conception is a baffling idea to Orthodox because they do not believe in original sin: the human race inherited Adam’s tendency to sin, but not his guilt.

 

(7) The Orthodox concept of redemption is not juridical as it is often seen in the West. Orthodoxy sees Christ’s death as a ransom paid to death itself, not a penalty exacted by an angry Father. By His death and resurrection, Christ destroyed death and showed humanity the way to return to paradise. We share in that death and resurrection through baptism.

 

(8) The Orthodox Church baptizes by triple immersion, either in infancy or at the time of conversion. Chrismation—anointing with oil for the reception of the Holy Spirit—follows immediately. (Adults who have already been baptized in another Christian church are often received through chrismation alone.) All baptized persons may receive the Eucharist (Holy Communion). There is no “confirmation” at a later age.

 

Along with the other major sacraments, or “mysteries,” baptism is not seen as merely symbolic but as genuinely conveying the grace of God. In fact, all of life is regarded sacramentally—the grace of God infuses creation and touches our lives at every point where we allow it to. The major, “official” mysteries include baptism, chrismation, the Eucharist, confession, anointing for healing (holy unction), marriage, and ordination. The Eucharist is celebrated every Sunday and feast day in a service known as the Divine Liturgy.

 

(9) Orthodox worship follows a complex, multifaceted calendar of feasts and fasts. Foremost among these is Pascha (Easter), which is often celebrated on a different day than in the West because it must always come after the Jewish Passover. Feasts are either “fixed” on a calendar date, or “movable” in connection with the date of Pascha in a given year. The major fixed feasts are Nativity (Christmas) and Theophany (Epiphany), which celebrates Christ’s baptism. Nativity, Pascha, and two other feasts are preceded by periods of fasting. The period before Pascha is known as Great Lent.

 

Some Orthodox churches determine all liturgical dates according to the Julian, or “old,” calendar, which lags behind the Gregorian calendar in common use by 13 days. Thus, for these churches, Nativity falls on January 7. Pascha and other movable feasts remain the same for all Orthodox, as they are not linked to calendar dates but to astronomical events.

 

(10) The Orthodox Church is the most conservative of all Christian churches in that its doctrine has not changed or been added to in all its nearly 2000 years of existence. The doctrine was defined—not invented—by the Ecumenical Councils of the first millennium and guides the Church to this day. Orthodoxy does not ordain women, does not condone abortion or immorality, and does not change its doctrine to suit the times, although it does adapt itself to each culture in terms of practice (such as language or musical and artistic styles).

 

(11) The Orthodox Church sees salvation as a process, beginning with baptism and continuing until death, in which the believer cooperates with God’s grace, demonstrating his faith through his works. No one is saved in isolation. Community is crucial. The community of believers is both local and universal, and extends to those who have finished the race—the saints. They are a great cloud of witnesses cheering us on and adding their prayers to ours before God.

 

(12) The Orthodox Church embraces suffering and voluntary asceticism as an aid to our salvation. This is not morbid masochism, but an acknowledgment that our fallen physical nature needs to be disciplined and brought into subjection to the spirit. The body is not despised, for Orthodoxy is thoroughly incarnational—all of material creation has been redeemed through Christ. Body and spirit work in synergy to bring us to salvation. For this reason, Orthodox worship is a feast for the senses and requires physical participation.

 

These twelve points barely hit the highlights of the multifaceted jewel that is the Orthodox Faith. If you plan to incorporate Orthodox characters or settings in your writing, you’ll need to do some deeper research—and by all means, visit an Orthodox church in your area. More perhaps than any other Christian church, Orthodoxy expresses itself in worship, and there is no substitute for direct experience.

 

The following books and websites may prove helpful:

 

The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way by Timothy (Bishop Kallistos) Ware—Excellent introductory works on the history and spirituality of the Orthodox Church, widely available

 

www.oca.org; www.goarch.org; www.antiochian.org:  Official sites of the three largest Orthodox jurisdictions in America, with articles on the faith, full liturgical calendar information, and parish listings

 

www.slocc.com:  Parish website with articles on the faith

 

www.monasteryofstjohn.org:  Monastery website with articles on the faith and on monasticism

 

www.eighthdaybooks.com:  Online bookstore with excellent selection of Orthodox materials

 

www.conciliarpress.com:  Good source for introductory books about the Orthodox Faith

 

About Katherine Hyde: After a mainline Protestant childhood and misspent agnostic adolescence, Katherine Hyde joined a group of evangelicals who were looking for the true Church. Their search led them to Orthodoxy. Katherine has spent much of the last twenty years editing and writing for Orthodox publications and has recently returned to her lifelong dream of writing fiction. She is currently looking for a publisher for her first novel and is in the generative stages of a second. Katherine lives in the redwood country of California with her husband and the younger two of her four children.

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