Orthodox Christianity – A Short Introduction
The Orthodox Christian Church was born on Pentecost in AD 33 with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles (Acts 2:2-4). Through the missionary labors and martyric witness of countless men and women, and through the unbroken handing-down of the pure apostolic faith, the Gospel spread to every corner of the world: first the Near East, then Europe, Africa, and Asia. Orthodoxy was planted in North America in the late 18th century. Today the worldwide Orthodox Church has more than 225 million members. Each national Church (Ukrainian, Greek, Polish, Antiochian, etc.) is independent and self-administering, but is united in faith. Some five million Orthodox from diverse ethnic backgrounds now live in the United States and Canada.
The Orthodox Christian believes that the eternal truth of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ is preserved in its full integrity in the living tradition of the Church, under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Orthodox Christians recognize that other Christian groups have maintained many elements of the apostolic faith, but often in attenuated and distorted forms. With profound humility and a consciousness of her own weakness and her responsibility before God, Orthodoxy believes and proclaims that the complete and integral faith delivered to the saints by Jesus Christ has been preserved without alteration or diminution only within the communion of the Orthodox Church. Through the turbulent early centuries of the Church’s life, this faith was articulated and defended by councils of bishops. When false gospels were in circulation, the bishops of the Church compiled and proclaimed the true canon of Scripture, giving us the Bible read by all Christians to this day. When heretics distorted the apostolic faith, the bishops spoke with one voice, defending the truth with divinely-inspired depth and clarity. Whether they know it or not, all Christians today are the inheritors of this tradition whenever they acknowledge Christ as the incarnate Son of God, or offer praise to the Holy Trinity. The Scriptures and the faith alike are the gift of Orthodoxy to the world, and Orthodoxy prays fervently that all who bear Christ’s name may return again to the bosom of the one, true, and unchanging apostolic faith.
The word “Orthodox”, from the Greek word orthodoxia, means both “right belief” and “right glory” or “worship”. In Orthodoxy faith and worship are intimately linked. According to the maxim of a fourth-century monk, Evagrius of Pontus, “a theologian is one who prays truly.” Orthodoxy is by very definition an experiential faith. It is not a set of rational beliefs, held more or less abstractly, but an all-encompassing way of life. For Orthodoxy, the touchstone of this life and faith is her liturgy, her corporate and public worship. Her worship has never lost its direct continuity with the worship of the ancient Church; the central hymn of the Church’s service of evening prayer was referred to by St Basil the Great in the fourth century as being so ancient that no one remembered who composed it. Orthodoxy experiences this liturgical faithfulness as a gift of the Holy Spirit. Far from being a lifeless adherence to the past, her liturgy is a miraculous wellspring of the inspiration which God has bestowed on generations of faithful men and women: prophets and poets, ascetics and visionaries. Orthodox liturgy binds together the whole people of God, living and departed, present, past and future, into the communion of love which is the very life of the Holy Trinity. This hallowed world of prayer is a world of unparelled depth and beauty, a world within which countless Orthodox have found “the one thing needful,” and have reached the heights of spiritual life. When in the tenth century envoys of Great Prince Vladimir of Kiev first experienced the Divine Liturgy in the Great Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, they reported that they did not know if they were in heaven or on earth. An open heart can experience this heavenly beauty, this living, mysterious presence of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, even in the humblest parish church.
Orthodox Christianity remains steadfastly committed to a moral life consistent with holy Scripture and with the tradition of Christian faith, and therefore resists in the strongest terms the characteristic evils of our age: abortion, euthanasia, and all manifestations of a disregard for human life; sexual immorality and the disintegration of the family; the destruction of human community and the debauching of the human spirit in idolatrous commercialism and materialism; the tragic waste of human life and work in the demonic enterprise of war. These two inseparable aspects of the life of Orthodoxy – an unbending adherence to traditional moral life, doctrine, and worship, and the mysterious presence of the beauty, simplicity, and holiness of the ancient Church – have led many seekers and converts to embrace the Orthodox faith. No longer confined to immigrant communities, Orthodox Christianity in America has taken her proper place as a faith for all people. As the Apostle Philip said to Nathaniel who was sitting under the sycamore tree, “Come and see…” (St John 1:46). And the Orthodox Church extends this invitation to you as well. Come and see the priceless treasure that is Orthodoxy: a gift of which none of us is worthy, but which God in His rich mercy has bestowed upon us.