the Tradition of Men?
For those coming from a different Christian background, many of the practices of the Orthodox Christian Church might seem anywhere from quite different to downright strange. Some of these practices, or traditions, are more familiar than others. The Creed recited in the Orthodox Church is quite well-known among many other Christians, as are the very important Church-wide meetings conducted from the early 300s to the late 700s, known in the Orthodox Church as the “Ecumenical Councils.” However, many Orthodox traditions are less familiar. What are some of these practices, and where do they come from? Are they “the traditions of men” that St. Paul warns against (Col. 2:8), or are they a part of the deposit of the Early Christian Church, carefully preserved and lovingly handed down for us to experience and to practice today (2 Thess. 2:15)?
Holy Scripture—The Orthodox Church uses for its Old Testament the Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation of the original Hebrew. Early texts of the original Hebrew OT no longer exist; thus, the Septuagint is the most ancient version of the OT text known today. The Septuagint is also the version of the OT most often quoted in the New Testament and used by the Early Church. The Masoretic text is a much later Jewish translation (completed in the 14th century AD), and is commonly the basis for the Protestant OT. There are some notable and important differences between the Septuagint and the Masoretic OT texts (for instance, the Septuagint OT says “virgin” in the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, whereas the Masoretic OT says “maiden”). The Septuagint OT also contains the deutero-canonical books (Protestants commonly refer to these as the “Apocrypha”). These books, along with the Septuagint, were rejected by the Jews in the late first century AD, after the decisive split between Judaism and Christianity.
The Creed—In our church services and private prayers, Orthodox Christians recite the Nicene Creed. This states our belief in the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that He is both fully God and fully Man. Like the ancient Hebrew creed (known as the Shema; found in Deut. 6:4), this statement of faith defines who we are by boldly proclaiming Who it is that we worship.
Ecumenical Councils—In the history of the Church, there have been several times when the Person of Jesus Christ has been attacked from within. In order to defend the True Faith, Church-wide councils were convened. In imitation of the first Church council in Jerusalem (Acts 15), these councils made authoritative pronouncements, defending right belief in Jesus Christ and proper Christian living. The Orthodox Church recognizes seven such councils as especially important, and thus labels them “Ecumenical” (meaning “universal”).
Apostolic Succession—For the Orthodox Church, Apostolic succession means not only having a direct line of descent from the Apostles, but, just as importantly, having preserved the Apostolic Faith without change or innovation. This mechanism for preserving the fullness of the Faith takes place mainly through the teaching office of our bishops, who have Apostolic succession through the laying on of hands. However, while the Orthodox Church is hierarchical, and it is the job of our bishops as spiritual shepherds to be “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15), the pronouncements of our bishops are subject to the “Amen” of the faithful. In regards to earthly power and unique authority, there is no figure comparable to the Pope in the Orthodox Church.
Three-fold ordained ministry—From the Apostolic era, the Orthodox have followed the three-fold structure of ordained ministry as found in the New Testament—deacons (Acts 6:1-7; Tim. 3:8-13), presbyters (commonly called “priests”; Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 5:17-22), and episcopoi (commonly called “bishops”; 1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:7-9).
Icons—The word “icon” simply means “image.” The Orthodox Church believes that images may be used properly in the worship of God without falling into idolatry, as attested to in the Old Testament (Ex. 25:17-30; 1 Kings 6:23-35). The use of icons in churches is a very ancient practice; icons have even been found in the ruins of ancient Jewish synagogues. Icons are illustrations of various Biblical events and of Christ and the saints throughout Christian history. They are a reminder of the reality of the Incarnation and that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1). Taking seriously the witness of Scripture, we believe that the saints in heaven are a very important part of the Church and worship God alongside those of us still living on earth. Often, the Orthodox express their devotion and affection for Christ and His saints by kissing icons—much like we might kiss photos of our loved ones.
Liturgical worship—True to her Jewish roots, the Orthodox Church still practices liturgical worship. Orthodox worship is a Christianized form of Jewish synagogue practice and Temple worship. The most commonly used worship services are from the 4th century (though many elements of these worship services are from even earlier). Our oldest service is attributed to St. James, Brother of the Lord and first Bishop of Jerusalem.
Pascha—“Pascha” is the Orthodox term for Easter (Pascha means “Passover”). The ancient practice is to celebrate this in the very early hours of Sunday morning (midnight to 3 am) as opposed to the common practice of Easter sunrise services. Orthodox Pascha is always celebrated after the Jewish Passover, resulting in its sometimes falling on a different date than Western Easter. Pascha is considered the “Feast of Feasts.” This glorious feast of Christ’s Resurrection is understood as the fulfillment of the Jewish Passover and is the most important celebration of the year.
Calendar of Church Feasts—Along with Nativity and Pascha, the Orthodox Church remembers and celebrates other Biblical events, most especially in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ (His Presentation in the Temple, Transfiguration, Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, etc). Other events of universal or local historic importance to Christianity are also celebrated (Pentecost, the finding of the Cross, the restoration of the icons, the Sunday of All Saints, etc).
Sign of the Cross—Writing in the 4th century, St. Basil the Great states that Christians have been signing themselves with the Sign of the Cross since the very beginning of Christianity as an act of worship, devotion, and prayer. According to St. Basil, the Apostles taught the earliest Christians this practice.
Facing east—Orthodox churches face east, and many Orthodox privately pray at home while facing east as well. Again, according to St. Basil, this is an early practice taught by the Apostles and is done in expectation of Christ’s return. On that Day, the Sun of Righteousness will dawn and He will appear suddenly like lightning coming from the east and flashing to the west (Mt. 24:27).
Positions of prayer—The most common Orthodox position for worship is standing attentively (there were no pews in the Temple!). Other common positions are bowing and prostrating. The Orthodox view prayer as something that encompasses the whole person, both body and soul.
Candles and incense—Orthodox worship is holistic, involving both the spiritual and physical aspects of the human person. This includes all of the senses. Prayers are often accompanied by the lighting of a candle for a particular person or need; the light of the candle reminds us that Christ is the True Light and that He hears our prayers. Throughout the Scriptures, incense is also employed in the worship of God—as both an offering to the Lord and as a visual reminder that our prayers rise to heaven before the throne of God.
Holy Communion—Without over-explaining the Mystery, we believe that the Bread and Wine offered at the Liturgy truly do become the Body and Blood of Christ. This ancient belief is well attested to throughout the earliest of Christian writings, both in the New Testament (for instance, Jn. 6; 1 Cor. 10:16) and in early post-Apostolic writings.
Salvation as a process—The Orthodox view salvation as a process that begins with confession of faith in Jesus Christ and Baptism and will culminate at the Second Coming and the Resurrection of the dead. St. Paul speaks of salvation in terms of a process, saying that we are to work out our own salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12), and that we are being transformed “from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18). For the Orthodox Christian, salvation is viewed as more than simply being rescued from Hell; it is growth toward maturity in Christ to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:3-4).
Baptizing and communing infants—The Orthodox practice infant baptism and also allow infants and small children to receive Holy Communion. This is done in accordance with Christ’s own words (Mt. 19:14), and according to the Baptismal promise of Pentecost (Acts 2:38-39).
Communion of the Saints—Christ is the God of the living, not the dead (Mk. 12:26-27). The Orthodox believe that the great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1)—the saints in heaven—are alive in Christ and intercede for those still on earth (Rev. 7:9-8:5). The Orthodox ask for their intercessory prayers just as we ask for the intercessory prayers of our fellow Christians who are still on earth.
Veneration of the Virgin Mary—The Orthodox Church holds Christ’s mother in very high esteem. She is most often referred to as the “Theotokos” (Greek for “Birthgiver of God”). She is remembered in many worship services, where she is called “blessed” in fulfillment of the prophecy concerning her (Lk. 1:48). The Orthodox believe she was chosen to be Christ’s mother because of her unique purity and holiness. The Church’s experience is that the Theotokos is a very powerful intercessor (Jn. 2:1-12). Thus, the Orthodox ask for her prayers on our behalf.
Ever-virginity of Mary—The Orthodox believe that Mary is ever-virgin, meaning she was a virgin before, during, and after giving birth to Christ. According to ancient tradition, Joseph was much older, previously married and widowed, Mary and Joseph never had marital relations, and Christ’s brothers and sisters spoken of in the NT are His step-siblings. This information is recorded in an early Christian document from the 2nd century, and this was the universal belief of the Early Church. Scripture also witnesses to this in Christ’s giving of his mother into the care of the Apostle John (Jn. 19:25-27). As a Jew, this would have been unheard of if Mary had had other biological children of her own.
Prayer for the departed—Orthodox Christians pray for all people, asking even for God’s mercy upon those who have physically died. A Scriptural precedent for this can be found in the book of Maccabees (a deutero-canonical book in the Septuagint OT). This prayer is seen primarily as an act of love and care for our departed loved ones, and while the dead can no longer pray for themselves or change their own spiritual state, motivated out of love, the living continue to pray for them.
Relics—On certain occasions, miraculous events occur through the physical remains of a holy person or other items associated with them. This is seen in both Scripture (2 Kings 2:8-14, 13:20-21; Acts 19:11-12) and in Church history. Early Christians honored the earthly remains of the martyrs. Relics are not subject to the normal laws of death and decay. This is viewed as confirmation of Christ’s triumph over death.
Monasticism—Christ stated, “There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake” (Mt. 19:12). The Orthodox see this as fulfilled most fully in the monastic way of life. Some people are called by God to a life of complete dedication to Him. Thus, they do not marry or have families. St. Paul also speaks of this (1 Cor. 7:7). This kind of life is a very special gift and is not for everyone.