Eastern Orthodoxy

Eastern Orthodoxy (or Eastern Orthodox Christianity) is one of the three main branches of Christianity, alongside Catholicism and Protestantism.

Like the Pentarchy of the first millennium, the mainstream (or “canonical“) Eastern Orthodox Church is organised into autocephalous churches independent from each other. In the 21st century, the number of mainstream autocephalous churches is seventeen; there also exist autocephalous churches unrecognized by those mainstream ones. Autocephalous churches choose their own primate. Autocephalous churches can have jurisdiction (authority) over other churches, some of which have the status of “autonomous” which means they have more autonomy than simple eparchies.

Many of these jurisdictions correspond to the territories of one or more modern states; the Patriarchate of Moscow, for example, corresponds to Russia and some of the other Post-Soviet states. They can also include metropolises, bishoprics, parishes, monasteries, or outlying metochions corresponding to diasporas that can also be located outside the country where the primate resides (e.g., the case of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople whose canonical territory is located partly in northern Greece and the east); sometimes they overlap (the case of Bessarabia where the jurisdictions of the patriarchs of Bucharest and of Moscow overlap).

The spread of Eastern Orthodoxy began in the eastern area of ​​the Mediterranean Basin within Greek culture. Its communities share an understanding, teaching and offices of great similarity, with a strong sense of seeing each other as parts of one Church.

Every Eastern Orthodox Christian sees their year punctuated by the liturgical calendar of the church on which they depend.

Eastern Orthodoxy believes that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father only and not “from the Father and the Son” (Filioque).

Theology

Main article: Eastern Orthodox Christian theology

Trinity

Eastern Orthodox Christians believe in the Trinity, three distinct, divine persons (hypostases), without overlap or modality among them, who each have one divine essence (ousia, Greek: οὐσία)—uncreated, immaterial, and eternal. These three persons are typically distinguished by their relation to each other. The Father is eternal and not begotten and does not proceed from any, the Son is eternal and begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit is eternal and proceeds from the Father. Orthodox doctrine regarding the Trinity is summarised in the Nicene Creed.

Eastern Orthodox Christians believe in a monotheistic conception of God (God is only one), which is both transcendent (wholly independent of, and removed from, the material universe) and immanent (involved in the material universe). In discussing God’s relationship to his creation, Eastern Orthodox theology distinguishes between God’s eternal essence, which is totally transcendent, and his uncreated energies, which is how he reaches humanity. The God who is transcendent and the God who touches mankind are one and the same. That is, these energies are not something that proceed from God or that God produces, but rather they are God himself: distinct, yet inseparable from God’s inner being. This view is often called Palamism.

In understanding the Trinity as “one God in three persons”, “three persons” is not to be emphasised more than “one God”, and vice versa. While the three persons are distinct, they are united in one divine essence, and their oneness is expressed in community and action so completely that they cannot be considered separately. For example, their salvation of mankind is an activity engaged in common: “Christ became man by the good will of the Father and by the cooperation of the Holy Spirit. Christ sends the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father, and the Holy Spirit forms Christ in our hearts, and thus God the Father is glorified.” Their “communion of essence” is “indivisible”. Trinitarian terminology—essence, hypostasis, etc.—are used “philosophically”, “to answer the ideas of the heretics”, and “to place the terms where they separate error and truth.” The words do what they can do, but the nature of the Trinity in its fullness is believed to remain beyond man’s comprehension and expression, a holy mystery that can only be experienced.

Our Lady of Tinos is the major Marian shrine in Greece

Our Lady of Tinos is the major Marian shrine in Greece

Sin, salvation, and the incarnation

When Eastern Orthodox Christians refer to fallen nature they are not saying that human nature has become evil in itself. Human nature is still formed in the image of God; humans are still God’s creation, and God has never created anything evil, but fallen nature remains open to evil intents and actions. It is sometimes said among the Eastern Orthodox that humans are “inclined to sin”; that is, people find some sinful things attractive. It is the nature of temptation to make sinful things seem the more attractive, and it is the fallen nature of humans that seeks or succumbs to the attraction. Eastern Orthodox Christians reject the Augustinian position that the descendants of Adam and Eve are actually guilty of the original sin of their ancestors.

Since the fall of man, then, it has been mankind’s dilemma that no human can restore his nature to union with God’s grace; it was necessary for God to effect another change in human nature. The Eastern Orthodox believe that Christ Jesus was both God and Man absolutely and completely, having two natures indivisibly: eternally begotten of the Father in his divinity, he was born in his humanity of a woman, Mary, by her consent, through descent of the Holy Spirit. He lived on earth, in time and history, as a man. As a man he also died, and went to the place of the dead, which is Hades. But being God, neither death nor Hades could contain him, and he rose to life again, in his humanity, by the power of the Holy Spirit, thus destroying the power of Hades and of death itself.

Through Christ’s destruction of Hades’ power to hold humanity hostage, he made the path to salvation effective for all the righteous who had died from the beginning of time—saving many, including Adam and Eve, who are remembered in the Church as saints.

Resurrection of Christ

The Eastern Orthodox Church understands the death and resurrection of Jesus to be real historical events, as described in the gospels of the New Testament.

Christian life

Church teaching is that Eastern Orthodox Christians, through baptism, enter a new life of salvation through repentance whose purpose is to share in the life of God through the work of the Holy Spirit. The Eastern Orthodox Christian life is a spiritual pilgrimage in which each person, through the imitation of Christ and hesychasm, cultivates the practice of unceasing prayer. Each life occurs within the life of the church as a member of the body of Christ. It is then through the fire of God’s love in the action of the Holy Spirit that each member becomes more holy, more wholly unified with Christ, starting in this life and continuing in the next. The church teaches that everyone, being born in God’s image, is called to theosis, fulfillment of the image in likeness to God. God the creator, having divinity by nature, offers each person participation in divinity by cooperatively accepting His gift of grace.

The Eastern Orthodox Church, in understanding itself to be the Body of Christ, and similarly in understanding the Christian life to lead to the unification in Christ of all members of his body, views the church as embracing all Christ’s members, those now living on earth, and also all those through the ages who have passed on to the heavenly life. The church includes the Christian saints from all times, and also judges, prophets and righteous Jews of the first covenant, Adam and Eve, even the angels and heavenly hosts. In Eastern Orthodox services, the earthly members together with the heavenly members worship God as one community in Christ, in a union that transcends time and space and joins heaven to earth. This unity of the Church is sometimes called the communion of the saints.

Virgin Mary and other saints

The Eastern Orthodox Church believes death and the separation of body and soul to be unnatural—a result of the Fall of Man. They also hold that the congregation of the church comprises both the living and the dead. All persons currently in heaven are considered to be saints, whether their names are known or not. There are, however, those saints of distinction whom God has revealed as particularly good examples. When a saint is revealed and ultimately recognised by a large portion of the church a service of official recognition (glorification) is celebrated.

This does not “make” the person a saint; it merely recognises the fact and announces it to the rest of the church. A day is prescribed for the saint’s celebration, hymns composed and icons created. Numerous saints are celebrated on each day of the year. They are venerated (shown great respect and love) but not worshipped, for worship is due God alone (this view is also held by the Oriental Orthodox and Catholic churches). In showing the saints this love and requesting their prayers, the Eastern Orthodox manifest their belief that the saints thus assist in the process of salvation for others.

Pre-eminent among the saints is the Virgin Mary (commonly referred to as Theotokos or Bogoroditsa: “Mother of God”). In Eastern Orthodox theology, the Mother of God is the fulfillment of the Old Testament archetypes revealed in the Ark of the Covenant (because she carried the New Covenant in the person of Christ) and the burning bush that appeared before Moses (symbolising the Mother of God’s carrying of God without being consumed).

The Eastern Orthodox believe that Christ, from the moment of his conception, was both fully God and fully human. Mary is thus called the Theotokos or Bogoroditsa as an affirmation of the divinity of the one to whom she gave birth. It is also believed that her virginity was not compromised in conceiving God-incarnate, that she was not harmed and that she remained forever a virgin. Scriptural references to “brothers” of Christ are interpreted as kin, given that the word “brother” was used in multiple ways, as was the term “father”. Due to her unique place in salvation history, Mary is honoured above all other saints and especially venerated for the great work that God accomplished through her.

The Eastern Orthodox Church regards the bodies of all saints as holy, made such by participation in the holy mysteries, especially the communion of Christ’s holy body and blood, and by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within the church. Indeed, that persons and physical things can be made holy is a cornerstone of the doctrine of the Incarnation, made manifest also directly by God in Old Testament times through his dwelling in the Ark of the Covenant. Thus, physical items connected with saints are also regarded as holy, through their participation in the earthly works of those saints. According to church teaching and tradition, God himself bears witness to this holiness of saints’ relics through the many miracles connected with them that have been reported throughout history since biblical times, often including healing from disease and injury.

Eschatology

Main article: Christian eschatology

Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that when a person dies the soul is temporarily separated from the body. Though it may linger for a short period on Earth, it is ultimately escorted either to paradise (Abraham’s bosom) or the darkness of Hades, following the Temporary Judgment. Orthodox do not accept the doctrine of Purgatory, which is held by Catholicism. The soul’s experience of either of these states is only a “foretaste”—being experienced only by the soul—until the Final Judgment, when the soul and body will be reunited.

The Eastern Orthodox believe that the state of the soul in Hades can be affected by the love and prayers of the righteous up until the Last Judgment. For this reason the Church offers a special prayer for the dead on the third day, ninth day, fortieth day, and the one-year anniversary after the death of an Eastern Orthodox Christian. There are also several days throughout the year that are set aside for general commemoration of the departed, sometimes including nonbelievers. These days usually fall on a Saturday, since it was on a Saturday that Christ lay in the Tomb.

The Eastern Orthodox believe that after the Final Judgment:

  • All souls will be reunited with their resurrected bodies.
  • All souls will fully experience their spiritual state.
  • Having been perfected, the saints will forever progress towards a deeper and fuller love of God, which equates with eternal happiness.

Bible

The official Bible of the Eastern Orthodox Church contains the Septuagint text of the Old Testament, with the Book of Daniel given in the translation by Theodotion. The Patriarchal Text is used for the New Testament. Orthodox Christians hold that the Bible is a verbal icon of Christ, as proclaimed by the 7th ecumenical council. They refer to the Bible as holy scripture, meaning writings containing the foundational truths of the Christian faith as revealed by Christ and the Holy Spirit to its divinely inspired human authors. Holy scripture forms the primary and authoritative written witness of holy tradition and is essential as the basis for all Orthodox teaching and belief.

Once established as holy scripture, there has never been any question that the Eastern Orthodox Church holds the full list of books to be venerable and beneficial for reading and study, even though it informally holds some books in higher esteem than others, the four gospels highest of all. Of the subgroups significant enough to be named, the “Anagignoskomena” (ἀναγιγνωσκόμενα, “things that are read”) comprises ten of the Old Testament books rejected in the Protestant canon, but deemed by the Eastern Orthodox worthy to be read in worship services, even though they carry a lesser esteem than the 39 books of the Hebrew canon. The lowest tier contains the remaining books not accepted by either Protestants or Catholics, among them, Psalm 151. Though it is a psalm, and is in the book of psalms, it is not classified as being within the Psalter (the first 150 psalms).

In a very strict sense, it is not entirely orthodox to call the holy scripture the “Word of God”. That is a title the Eastern Orthodox Church reserves for Christ, as supported in the scriptures themselves, most explicitly in the first chapter of the gospel of John. God’s Word is not hollow, like human words. “God said, ‘let there be light’; and there was light.”

Eastern Orthodoxy does not subscribe to the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. The church has defined what Scripture is; it also interprets what its meaning is. Christ promised: “When He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth”.

Scriptures are understood to contain historical fact, poetry, idiom, metaphor, simile, moral fable, parable, prophecy and wisdom literature, and each bears its own consideration in its interpretation. While divinely inspired, the text still consists of words in human languages, arranged in humanly recognisable forms. The Eastern Orthodox Church does not oppose honest critical and historical study of the Bible.

Holy tradition and the patristic consensus

“That faith which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all”, the faith taught by Jesus to the apostles, given life by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and passed down to future generations without additions and without subtractions, is known as holy tradition. Holy tradition does not change in the Eastern Orthodox Church because it encompasses those things that do not change: the nature of the one God in Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the history of God’s interactions with his peoples, the Law as given to the Israelites, all Christ’s teaching as given to the disciples and Jews and recorded in scripture, including the parables, the prophecies, the miracles, and his own example to humanity in his extreme humility. It encompasses also the worship of the church, which grew out of the worship of the synagogue and temple and was extended by Christ at the last supper, and the relationship between God and his people which that worship expresses, which is also evidenced between Christ and his disciples. It includes the authority that Christ bestowed on his disciples when he made them apostles.

Holy tradition is firm, even unyielding, but not rigid or legalistic; instead, it lives and breathes within the church. For example, the New Testament was entirely written by the early church (mostly the apostles). The whole Bible was accepted as scripture by means of holy tradition practised within the early church. The writing and acceptance took five centuries, by which time the holy scriptures themselves had become in their entirety a part of holy tradition. But holy tradition did not change, because “that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all” remained consistent, without additions, and without subtractions. The historical development of the Divine Liturgy and other worship services and devotional practices of the church provide a similar example of extension and growth “without change”.

Besides these, holy tradition includes the doctrinal definitions and statements of faith of the seven ecumenical councils, including the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, and some later local councils, patristic writings, canon law, and icons. Not all portions of holy tradition are held to be equally strong. Some—the holy scriptures foremost, certain aspects of worship, especially in the Divine Liturgy, the doctrines of the ecumenical councils, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed—possess a verified authority that endures forever, irrevocably. However, with local councils and patristic writings, the church applies a selective judgement. Some councils and writers have occasionally fallen into error, and some contradict each other.

In other cases, opinions differ, no consensus is forthcoming, and all are free to choose. With agreement among the Church Fathers, though, the authority of interpretation grows, and full patristic consensus is very strong. With canon law (which tends to be highly rigorous and very strict, especially with clergy) an unalterable validity also does not apply, since canons deal with living on earth, where conditions are always changing and each case is subject to almost infinite variation from the next.

By tradition, the Eastern Orthodox Church, when faced with issues that are larger than a single bishop can resolve, holds a local council. The bishops and such others as may attend convene (as St. Paul called the Corinthians to do) to seek the mind of the church. A council’s declarations or edicts then reflect its consensus (if one can be found). An ecumencial council is only called for issues of such import or difficulty or pervasiveness that smaller councils are insufficient to address them. Ecumenical councils’ declarations and canons carry binding weight by virtue of their representation across the whole church, by which the mind of the church can be readily seen. However, not all issues are so difficult as to require an ecumenical council to resolve. Some doctrines or decisions, not defined in a formal statement or proclaimed officially, nevertheless are held by the church unshakably and unanimously without internal disturbance, and these, also reflecting the mind of the church, are just as firmly irrevocable as a formal declaration of an ecumenical council. Lack of formality does not imply lack of authority within holy tradition.

Territorial expansion and doctrinal integrity

As the church increased in size through the centuries, the logistic dynamics of operating such large entities shifted: patriarchs, metropolitans, archimandrites, abbots and abbesses, all rose up to cover certain points of administration.

Liturgy

Main articles: Byzantine RiteEastern Orthodox worship, and Western Rite Orthodoxy

Church calendar

Lesser cycles also run in tandem with the annual ones. A weekly cycle of days prescribes a specific focus for each day in addition to others that may be observed.

Each day of the Weekly Cycle is dedicated to certain special memorials. Sunday is dedicated to Christ’s Resurrection; Monday honors the holy bodiless powers (angels, archangels, etc.); Tuesday is dedicated to the prophets and especially the greatest of the prophets, St. John the Forerunner and Baptist of the Lord; Wednesday is consecrated to the Cross and recalls Judas’ betrayal; Thursday honors the holy apostles and hierarchs, especially St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra in Lycia; Friday is also consecrated to the Cross and recalls the day of the Crucifixion; Saturday is dedicated to All Saints, especially the Mother of God, and to the memory of all those who have departed this life in the hope of resurrection and eternal life.

Church services

Main article: Byzantine Rite

The Byzantine Rite, also known as the Greek Rite or the Rite of Constantinople, identifies the wide range of cultural, liturgical, and canonical practices that developed in the Eastern Orthodox Church of Constantinople.

The canonical hours are very long and complicated, lasting about eight hours (longer during Great Lent) but are abridged outside of large monasteries. An iconostasis, a partition covered with icons, separates the area around the altar from the nave. The sign of the cross, accompanied by bowing, is made very frequently, e.g., more than a hundred times during the divine liturgy, and there are prominent veneration of icons, a general acceptance of the congregants to freely move within the church and interact with each other, and distinctive traditions of liturgical chanting.

Music and chanting

For the composition of religious chant, the Octoechos, an eight-tone (mode) system, analogous to the Gregorian modes in the West, and to other ancient Christian musical systems, is used. Byzantine music is microtonal.

Northern Slavs, however, have used simpler tonal systems evolved through the sundry local types of Znamenny chant; today Western music, often with four-part harmony, and the “tones” are simply sets of melodies.

There are numerous versions and styles that are traditional and acceptable and these vary a great deal between cultures.

Traditions

Monasticism

Main articles: Eastern Orthodox monasticism and Degrees of Eastern Orthodox monasticism

The Eastern Orthodox Church places emphasis and awards a high level of prestige to traditions of monasticism and asceticism with roots in Early Christianity in the Near East and Byzantine Anatolia. The most important centres of Christian Orthodox monasticism are Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula (Egypt) and Mount Athos in Northern Greece.

All bishops are monks; if a man who is not a monk is elected a bishop, he must be tonsured a monk before he may be consecrated. Customarily, also, a man must either be a monk or be married to be ordained.

Icons and symbols

See also: Christian symbolism

Christian symbolism is the use of symbols, including archetypes, acts, artwork or events, by Christianity. It invests objects or actions with an inner meaning expressing Christian ideas.

The Christian symbolism of the early Church was characterized by being understood by initiates only, while after the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire during the 4th-century more recognizable symbols entered use. Christianity has borrowed from the common stock of significant symbols known to most periods and to all regions of the world.

Only a minority of Christian denominations have practiced Aniconism, or the avoidance or prohibition of types of images. These include early Jewish Christians sects, as well as some modern denominations that prefer to some extent not to use figures in their symbols due to the Decalogue’s prohibition of idolatry.

Icons

Further information: Iconoclasm

Aspects of the iconography borrow from the pre-Christian Roman and Hellenistic art. Henry Chadwick wrote, “In this instinct there was a measure of truth. The representations of Christ as the Almighty Lord on his judgment throne owed something to pictures of Zeus. Portraits of the Mother of God were not wholly independent of a pagan past of venerated mother-goddesses. In the popular mind the saints had come to fill a role that had been played by heroes and deities.”

Icons can be found adorning the walls of churches and often cover the inside structure completely. Most Eastern Orthodox homes have an area set aside for family prayer, usually an eastern facing wall, where are hung many icons. Icons have been part of Orthodox Christianity since the beginning of the church.

Iconostasis of the Romanian People's Salvation Cathedral

Iconostasis of the Romanian People’s Salvation Cathedral

Iconostasis

An iconostasis, also called the templon, is a wall of icons and religious paintings, separating the nave from the sanctuary in a church. Iconostasis also refers to a portable icon stand that can be placed anywhere within a church. The modern iconostasis evolved from the Byzantine templon in the 11th century. The evolution of the iconostasis probably owes a great deal to 14th-century Hesychast mysticism and the wood-carving genius of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The first ceiling-high, five-leveled Russian iconostasis was designed by Andrey Rublyov in the cathedral of the Dormition in Vladimir in 1408.

Cross

The small top crossbar represents the sign that Pontius Pilate nailed above Christ’s head. It often is inscribed with an acronym, “INRI”, Latin for “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” or “INBI”, Greek Ἰησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος ὁ βασιλεύς τῶν Ἰουδαίων for “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”; however, it is often replaced or amplified by the phrase “The King of Glory” in order to answer Pilate’s statement with Christ’s affirmation, “My Kingdom is not of this world”.

Other crosses associated with the Eastern Orthodox Church are the more traditional single-bar crosses, budded designs, the Greek cross, the Latin cross, the Jerusalem cross (cross pattée), Celtic crosses, and others. A common symbolism of the slanted foot stool is The foot-rest points up, toward Heaven, on Christ’s right hand-side, and downward, to Hades, on Christ’s left. “Between two thieves Thy Cross did prove to be a balance of righteousness: wherefore one of them was dragged down to Hades by the weight of his blasphemy [the balance points downward], whereas the other was lightened of his transgressions unto the comprehension of theology [the balance points upward]. O Christ God, glory to Thee.” Another Eastern Orthodox cross which is worn in gold is an outer budded cross with an inner Three Bar Cross. The inscription Jesus Christ in Greek: IC (Iesous) on the left side bar and XC (Xhristos) on the right side bar, with a sun on the top of the cross. There is also typically an inscription on the back in Church Slavonic: “спаси и сохрани”, “Spasi i Sokhrani“, “Save and Protect“. This cross is known as the Saint Olga Cross.

An illustration of the traditional interior of an Orthodox church.

An illustration of the traditional interior of an Orthodox church.

Art and architecture

Main article: Eastern Orthodox church architecture

The Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity on New York City’s Upper East Side is the largest Eastern Orthodox Christian church in the Western Hemisphere.

Local customs

Locality is also expressed in regional terms of churchly jurisdiction, which is often also drawn along national lines. Many Orthodox churches adopt a national title (e.g. Albanian Orthodox, Bulgarian Orthodox, Georgian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, etc.) and this title can identify which language is used in services, which bishops preside, and which of the typica is followed by specific congregations. In the Middle East, Orthodox Christians are usually referred to as Rum (“Roman”) Orthodox, because of their historical connection with the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire.

Holy mysteries (sacraments)

Those things which in the West are often termed sacraments or sacramentals are known among the Eastern Orthodox as the “sacred mysteries”. While the Roman Catholic Church numbers seven sacraments, and many Protestant groups list two (baptism and the Eucharist) or even none, the Eastern Orthodox do not limit the number. However, for the sake of convenience, catechisms often speak of the seven great mysteries. Among these are Holy Communion (the most direct connection), baptism, Chrismation, confession, unction, matrimony, and ordination. But the term also properly applies to other sacred actions such as monastic tonsure or the blessing of holy water, and involves fasting, almsgiving, or an act as simple as lighting a candle, burning incense, praying or asking God’s blessing on food.

Baptism

Baptism is the mystery which transforms the old and sinful person into a new and pure one; the old life, the sins, any mistakes made are gone and a clean slate is given. Through baptism a person is united to the Body of Christ by becoming a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church. During the service, water is blessed. The catechumen is fully immersed in the water three times in the name of the Trinity. This is considered to be a death of the “old man” by participation in the crucifixion and burial of Christ, and a rebirth into new life in Christ by participation in his resurrection.

Properly, the mystery of baptism is administered by bishops and priests; however, in emergencies any Eastern Orthodox Christian can baptise.

Chrismation

Chrismation (sometimes called confirmation) is the mystery by which a baptised person is granted the gift of the Holy Spirit through anointing with Holy Chrism. It is normally given immediately after baptism as part of the same service, but is also used to receive lapsed members of the Eastern Orthodox Church. As baptism is a person’s participation in the death and resurrection of Christ, so Chrismation is a person’s participation in the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

A baptised and chrismated Eastern Orthodox Christian is a full member of the church and may receive the Eucharist regardless of age.

Anointing with chrism substitutes for the laying-on of hands described in the New Testament.

Holy Communion (Eucharist)

Communion is given only to baptised and chrismated Eastern Orthodox Christians who have prepared by fasting, prayer and confession. The priest administers the gifts with a spoon, called a “cochlear”, directly into the recipient’s mouth from the chalice. From baptism young infants and children are carried to the chalice to receive holy communion.

Repentance (Confession)

Main article: Confession (religion)

There are many different practices regarding how often Eastern Orthodox Christians should go to confession. Some Patriarchates advise confession before each reception of Holy Communion, others advise confessing during each of the four fasting periods (Great Lent, Nativity Fast, Apostles’ Fast and Dormition Fast), and there are many additional variants.

Marriage

From the Orthodox perspective, marriage is one of the holy mysteries or sacraments. As well as in many other Christian traditions, for example in Catholicism, it serves to unite a woman and a man in eternal union and love before God, with the purpose of following Christ and his Gospel and raising up a faithful, holy family through their holy union. The church understands marriage to be the union of one man and one woman, and certain Orthodox leaders have spoken out strongly in opposition to the civil institution of same-sex marriage.

Jesus said that “when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mk 12:25). For the Orthodox Christian this passage should not be understood to imply that Christian marriage will not remain a reality in the Kingdom, but points to the fact that relations will not be “fleshy”, but “spiritual”. Love between wife and husband, as an icon of relationship between Christ and Church, is eternal.

The church does recognise that there are rare occasions when it is better that couples do separate, but there is no official recognition of civil divorces. For the E. Orthodox, to say that marriage is indissoluble means that it should not be broken, the violation of such a union, perceived as holy, being an offense resulting from either adultery or the prolonged absence of one of the partners. Thus, permitting remarriage is an act of compassion of the church towards sinful man.

Holy orders

Widowed priests and deacons may not remarry and it is common for such members of the clergy to retire to a monastery (see clerical celibacy). This is also true of widowed wives of clergy, who do not remarry and become nuns when their children are grown. Only men are allowed to receive holy orders, although deaconesses had both liturgical and pastoral functions within the church.

In 2016, the Patriarchate of Alexandria decided to reintroduce the order of deaconess. In February 2017, Patriarch Theodore II consecrated five women to be deacons within the Patriarchate of Alexandria.

Distribution

Eastern Orthodoxy is the predominant religion in the world’s largest country, Russia (77%), where roughly half the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christians live. The religion is also heavily concentrated in the rest of Eastern Europe, where it is the majority religion in Ukraine (65.4%–77%), Romania (82%), Belarus (48%–73%), Greece (95%–98%), Serbia (97%), Bulgaria (88%), Moldova (93%), Georgia (84%), North Macedonia (65%), Cyprus (89%) and Montenegro (72%); it is also predominant in the disputed territories of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria.

Significant minorities are present in several European countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina (31%), Latvia (18%), Estonia (14%), Albania (7%), Lithuania (4%), Croatia (4%), Slovenia (2%), and Finland (1.5%). In the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, Eastern Orthodoxy constitutes the dominant religion in northern Kazakhstan, representing 23.9% of the population of the region, and is also a significant minority in Kyrgyzstan (17%), Turkmenistan (5%), Uzbekistan (5%), Azerbaijan (2%), and Tajikistan (1%). In much of the Middle East, the majority of the local Orthodox Christian community has emigrated to the West due to discrimination from the Muslim Arab majority. The most significant remaining Eastern Orthodox populations are in Lebanon (8%), Syria (5–8% prior to the 2011 civil war), Israel (2%), which is the only country in the region where the Christian population continues to grow and is home to adherents to all major denominations of Orthodox Christianity, West Bank (also known as Judea and Samaria) (0.5%–1.5%) and Jordan (over 1%).

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia