The Orthodox Faith – The Sacraments (1A)

In the Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and in some other churches, it is said that there are seven sacraments: Baptism, Chrismation, Holy Communion, Confession, Marriage, Ordination and Anointing. The last named sacrament is sometimes called Extreme Unction or the Last Rites, implying that it should only be given to a person on the point of death. This is quite wrong. It is a sacrament of healing. This will be treated in another article.
In the Orthodox Church the sacraments are officially called mysteries. However, the number seven is somewhat misleading.
The limiting of the sacraments to seven began only in the Western Middle Ages and was adopted by the Orthodox much later. Theologians have described the sacraments as “visible signs of invisible grace” In other words, the church takes ordinary material such as water or bread and wine and blesses it. In this way they become grace-bearing. From this point of view everything in the church is sacramental. It is important to realize that, in contrast to many religions and philosophies that say that this material world is something to be escaped from so the soul can go to heaven to live with God, or that material world is an illusion, we need to know that Christianity has always insisted that the material world is something real and good, created by a loving God. The Bible tells us that when God created the world “…God saw that it was good” (Gen 12). Now of course, there is much evil in the world. In addition to the evil things that human beings do with their own free will, there is much evil not caused by humans. There are diseases, earthquakes, illnesses of various sorts, and so on. Atheists ask us why a good God would allow such evil and ultimately we don’t know why God allows these things. The Church has always believed that this world “fell” when Adam and Eve fell into sin. Obviously we cannot prove this, but the idea that human sin is somehow related to the evil in the world is not so hard to believe. Because of this, we believe that when Christ comes again to raise the dead, he will redeem the material world also .As the Book of Revelation says
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Rev 21:1-5)
This world will not disappear but will be transformed just as our ordinary body will be transformed into a resurrection body. In this way we can say that the sacrament of the Church are foreshadowing of the coming transformation and resurrection. To quote from the Book of Isaiah which is read at the Great Blessing of Water on Theophany
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not pass over it, and fools shall not err therein. No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Is 35)

The use of bread, wine, oil, water, in the sacraments is a way of participating in and foreshadowing the coming transformation of the world.

Fr. John

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The Orthodox Faith – The Church Building (5B)

Light is associated with the coming of Christ. In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah points forward to the coming of the Messiah in the world.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” (Isaiah 9:2).
Some of these passages we read during Advent, the period before Christmas because Christ is the light that dispels darkness. At Christ’s birth, there was light in heaven.
“And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.” (Luke 2:9)
During His earthly ministry, at the Transfiguration Christ appeared surrounded by light. “And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother and led them up a high mountain apart. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light.” (Mt 17:1-2)
Finally, Christ says of Himself
…Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
So God is light. Jesus Christ is light and before them, all darkness, gloom, negativity disappear.
Interestingly, there is a connection between the dikiri and trikiri and the sign of the cross. As Orthodox Christians, when we make the sign of the cross, we join our thumb, index and middle finger together and fold the ring finger and pinky into the palm. The thumb, index finger, and middle finger represent the three persons of the Holy Trinity, just as the trikiri does, and the ring finger and pinky represent the two natures of Christ, divine, and human, just as the dikiri does. So every time we make the sign of the cross, we are confession our faith in the two fundamental dogmas of the Orthodox Church. The Trinity and the Incarnation, that God is in three persons and that Jesus Christ is human and divine.
We have to remember that nothing we say or do in the church is just for show. The Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Liturgy are rich symbol systems. A person could spend a lifetime studying the symbols and never exhaust their meaning.
The clergy does not wear vestments for show or to make themselves important, but rather to show that the church and the Liturgy are foretastes of the glory of the Kingdom of Heaven. Our experience of the Kingdom of heaven does not begin after death or after the Second Coming. We enter the Kingdom of Heaven when we are baptized and then receive Holy Communion. It is to symbolize this that the clergy wears vestments.
Another aspect of Orthodox Liturgy is the use of incense. The use of incense signifies our prayers ascending into heaven Incense was used in the Old Testament. For example
“… and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall burn it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations.” (Exodus 30:8)
“Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.: (Psalm 141:2)

This Psalm is used at the evening Vespers service in the Orthodox Church. The choir sings this psalm while the priest or deacon censes. So, our prayers rise to heaven like the incense and the words of the psalm are united with the action of the priest. The use of incense will continue in the Kingdom of Heaven, as we see in the Book of Revelation.
And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne;…” Revelation 8:3)
Again, all of this shows that nothing we say or do in church is arbitrary, but is a richly woven tapestry of meaning.

Fr. John

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The Orthodox Faith – The Church Building (5A)

In the Orthodox Church, bishops, priests, deacons and altar servers wear special clothing during the services These special clothes are called vestments. They are usually beautiful and ornate. The vestments of bishops are especially ornate. There is a reason for this. After the fall of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) empire the bishops began to wear vestments which only the emperor could wear before the fall of the empire. This requires some explanation. When people talk about the fall of Rome, they are usually speaking of the deposition of Emperor Romulus Augustus in 476 AD. But this was the end of the empire of the West. However, there was also an Eastern Roman empire centered in Constantinople (now Istanbul). The relocation to Constantinople was done by Emperor Constantine, the emperor who legalized Christianity. The Byzantine or Eastern Roman empire continued until 1453 when the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople. So an Orthodox Christian empire fell and an Ottoman Muslim empire was established in its place. After this the Orthodox bishops started wearing some of the special clothing the emperor used to wear.
The most notable of these vestments is the mitre, a special hat for bishops (and in the Russian church certain priests are given a mitre, as well). The mitre is simply the crown the emperor used to wear. Why did this happen? Were the bishops trying to make themselves more important or to show off? The answer to this is probably no. We have to remember that the Roman empire with all its faults, was a Christian empire. The whole society, from emperor to peasant, was Christian. In America, church and state are separated and church membership is seen as a personal choice. But this is not how it was in the Roman empire. The empire was a Christian commonwealth until the capture of Constantinople by the Turks. Christians became, at best, a tolerated minority and sometimes a persecuted minority. The vestments of the bishops showed that the ancient Christian community still survived, although now in a difficult position. In the absence of the emperor the bishops took on the role of leading that Christian community.
In addition to the bishop’s vestments, bishops use two special candle holders to bless the people. They are call dikiri and trikiri. The trikiri has three candles and the dikiri have two candles. These candle holders have great significance. The trikiri, which means three candles, points to the Orthodox dogma that God is one and three, one nature and three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The dikiri with two candles signifies the dogma of Christ’s two natures, human and divine.
Someone might ask why we have so many candles in church. In the days before electric light one needed candles, but we no longer use candles for illumination. So why are they there? The symbolism of light and dark is something that exists in all cultures and religions. Darkness is associated with blindness, gloom, danger, death and despair. Light is the cure for these things. Light drives away the above-mentioned negative conditions. Light is associated with God. We see this over and over again in the Bible. In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, right at the beginning of creation
“…God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light” (Gen 1:3)
God guides us with His light during our life’s journey.
“Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105)

Fr. John

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Christmas Letter

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The Orthodox Faith – The Church Building (4c)

Depending on how big the iconostasis is, there may be rows of different kinds of saints, but again, the placement is not arbitrary but follows some plan. Very often the icon of Christ Almighty is found in the dome of the church. An icon of the Mother of God with Christ is in the Altar area. Directly behind the Altar table itself there is often an icon of Christ in glory, or Christ with the chalice giving Holy Communion.

Something must be said about the iconostasis. Sometimes it’s said that the iconostasis divides the church between the “holy area” for the clergy and the worldly area for the laity. This is a grave error. The whole church is holy  and all the people present are also holy, despite individual weakness.

The iconostasis is rather a window into heaven. We see Christ, His mother and his saints, as they are in heaven. Generally speaking, all the icons are visions of heaven. We have to understand something about icons. They are not photographs, so to speak, or portraits of the person depicted. Rather, they are painted in a symbolic way, to show humanity as it looks when glorified by God. Icons show us the holiness that is often invisible to the naked eye.

There is a great difference between Western religious art and icons. If one looks at a painting of a religious person and scene done in the Renaissance, we see how realistic the picture is. We can see every detail of the person’s face, clothing and so on. Renaissance religious art are almost contemporary scenes of Renaissance Italy. Some artists used their girlfriend or even prostitutes for portraits of the Mother of God. This is unthinkable for Orthodox. It is true that in recent centuries Orthodox icons have sometimes adapted the realism of the West, but this is a kind of decadence. True Orthodox iconography has its own renaissance or beginning in the latter half of the 19th century and continues until today. Orthodox iconography has spread beyond Orthodox Churches; many Protestants can see how icons express the truth of the faith in a unique way.

Just to finish with one example of the difference between Western religious art and Orthodox icons, no doubt we have seen paintings or sculptures of Christ on the cross, often the works of art have our Lord as a victim of suffering. There can be blood everywhere, chunks of skin cut out etc. So the emphasis is on the suffering Christ.

Of course, Christ did suffer horribly on the cross and Orthodox icons of Christ on the cross also portray His suffering. But the emphasis is not on gory detail. Sometimes Christ even appears to be at peace. That is because Christ on the cross is not simply a passive victim but actually does battle with and conquers death and the devil. In other words, even on the cross Christ is victorious and this is depicted in Orthodox icons.

Fr. John

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