A Brief Orthodox Christian Catechism
What Is the Orthodox Church?
The Church is the mystical body of Christ. Jesus Christ is the head, and the members of the body are those who have accepted the Orthodox Christian faith, and participate regularly in the Holy Mysteries. A hierarchy exists in the Church: the Bishop, who represents the presence of Christ on earth; the Priest; the Deacon, and the faithful. Together they make up the Church, the mystical body of Christ. “Christ is the head of the Church, His body, and is Himself its saviour” (Ephesians 5:23), says St. Paul. He also says that “you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it”, (I Corinthians 12:27) and that “we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Romans 12:5). Jesus Christ, the Son of God born of a Virgin, founded His Holy Church (Matthew 16:18). Since the time of the Apostles, the Church has laboured for the salvation of man. The Apostles spread the Church with her teachings far and wide; they founded many communities all united in faith, worship, and the partaking of the Mysteries (known by many as the Sacraments) of the Holy Church.
There are ancient Patriarchates founded by the Apostles themselves: Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Rome. The Church at Constantinople was founded by St. Andrew, the Church at Alexandria by St. Mark, the Church at Antioch by St. Paul, the Church at Jerusalem by Ss. Peter and James, and the Church at Rome by Ss. Peter and Paul. Those founded in later years through missionary were the Churches of Sinai, Russia, Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, and others.
Each of these churches is autocephalous (independent in administration). With the exception of the Church of Rome, which separated from the others in the year 1054, all are united in the Apostolic tradition: faith, doctrine, mysteries, and worship. Together they all constitute the Orthodox Church.
The workings of the Church are found within Holy Tradition which includes Church practices, Christian dogma and the Bible. The Scriptures are considered to be part of the Holy Tradition of the Church, and are interpreted within the whole framework and practice of the faith. As written in the Gospel of St. John, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (John 2I :25). It is important to know that much of the Orthodox Christian faith has been transmitted orally to us through Holy Tradition.
The word Orthodox literally means right teaching or right worship, and is derived from two Greek words: orthos (right) and doxa (teaching or worship). As false teachings and division occurred in early Christian times, threatening to obscure the identity of the Church, the term Orthodox soon came to be used. The Orthodox Church carefully preserves Christian Truth against all error and schism both to protect the faithful and to glorify Jesus Christ whose body she is. What follows are brief definitions of the main beliefs and practices of the Holy Orthodox Church.
The Holy Eucharist
Eucharist means thanksgiving and has become a synonym for Holy Communion. The Eucharist is the central action of worship in the Orthodox Church. Because Jesus said of the bread and wine at the Mystical (Last) Supper, “This is my body”, and “This is my blood”, (Luke 22: 19,20), His followers follow His commandment. In the Eucharist, the faithful partake mystically of Christ’s Body and Blood, which grants life and healing of both soul and body. By the grace that is imparted through the Holy Eucharist the faithful are united with Christ.
The Divine Liturgy
Liturgy is a term used to describe the Church’s shared worship of God. The word liturgy derives from a Greek word which means the common work. Many biblical references to worship in heaven involve liturgy. In the Old Testament, God ordains a liturgy, or a specific pattern of worship. We find it described in the books of Exodus and Leviticus. In the New Testament the Church adjusts the worship of the Old Israel as practiced in the temple to witness the faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. The contemporary form of the Orthodox Christian Liturgy developed over man, centuries, and maintains the ancient shape of worship. The main elements in the Liturgy are prayers. the reading of the Epistle, the proclamation of the Holy Gospel, and the Holy Eucharist itself. For Orthodox Christians, the expression the Liturgy refers generally to the Eucharistic rite instituted by Christ Himself at the Mystical (Last) Supper.
God the Father
The Father is maker of all things in heaven and on earth (Genesis I and 2), the Lord of all Creation. The Father spoke with Moses and gave the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). He is the Lord about whom the King and Prophet David speaks in the Psalms: “Like as a father pities his children, so the Lord pities them that fear him” (Psalm 103:13). He is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (II Corinthians II:31). The Father is the fountain of the Godhead (pygitheotitos), the head of the Holy Trinity. This means that He is the Person in whom all divinity originates.
Jesus Christ was born as the child foretold by the Prophet Isaiah: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7: I4). Jesus Christ is the Word of God identified by Saint John: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God” (John I:I -2). Christ is born as a man but He is not mere man; He is the Son of God, (Matthew 3:17) and therefore divine. Jesus is identified as the Christ, the Messiah, by Peter. (Mark 8:29). Jesus Christ the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.
The Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Holy Trinity and is, like Jesus Christ, of one essence with the Father. In the Creed, Orthodox Christians confess, “And (I believe) in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the Prophets”. He is called the promise of the Father (Acts l:4), and is sent by Christ as a gift to the Church, to empower the faithful to serve God (Acts 1:8), to place God’s love in our hearts (Romans 5:5), and to impart to the faithful spiritual gifts (I Corinthians l2:7-13) and virtues (Galatians 5:22, 23).The Spirit is known also as the Comforter and witnesses Christ to the faithful (John 15:26).
The Holy Trinity
The Holy Scriptures reveal that within the one God are Three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. From before all time they share the one divine nature. The Son is begotten of the Father before all ages and all time (Psalm 2:7). It is from the Father that the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds (John 15:26). God the Father created all things through the Son, in the Holy Spirit (Genesis I and 2; John 1:3), and we are called to worship God in the Holy Spirit (John 4:23). The Trinity appears to Abraham in the form of three men (Genesis 18:1-2). The Baptism of Christ (Matthew 3:16; Mark I:10; John 1:32) is a revelation of the Holy Trinity, as is Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor (Matthew 17: l-5; Mark 9: 1-7).
The Creed or Symbol of Faith
The word creed comes from the Latin credo meaning I believe. From the earliest days of the Church, the faithful have made living confessions of what they believe and not merely formal, academic, theological pronouncements. Such confessions of faith appear in the New Testament, where, for example, St. Paul quotes a creed to remind Timothy, “God…was revealed in the flesh…” (I Timothy 3:16). The Nicene Creed was approved by the Church in council (325 A.D.), to give a concise statement of the Truth. This was prompted by the appearance of a heresy that threatened the Orthodox Faith.
In reciting the Nicene Creed, Orthodox Christians reaffirm the Orthodox faith about Jesus as they say, “I believe … in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, true God of true God; begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father; through Whom all things were made; Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end”.
The Incarnation refers to our Lord Jesus Christ being born in the flesh. The eternal Son of God the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, took on full and true human nature from the Virgin Mary. He possesses from God the Father the entirety of the divine nature, anda complete human nature from the Virgin Mary. By His Incarnation, the Son forever possesses these two natures in His one Person. The Son of God, boundless in His divine nature, willingly accepted hunger, thirst, fatigue, and ultimately, death. The Incarnation is indispensable to Christianity. The Scriptures witness: “… Every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God” (I John 4:3). By His Incarnation, the Son of God raises human nature to Heaven, a redemption made accessible to all who are joined to Him through faith and participation in the Holy Mysteries of the Church.
The word refers to missing the mark. As St. Paul writes, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We sin when we pervert what God has given us as good, falling short of, forgetting or ignoring His purposes for us. Our sins separate us from God (Isaiah 59:1, 2), leaving us spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1). To save us, the Son of God assumed our human nature, and being without sin “He condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3). In His mercy and love, God forgives our sins when we confess them and turn from them, giving us strength to overcome sin in our lives. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John I:9).
Salvation is the divine gift through which we are delivered from sin and death. We become united with Christ, enter into the Heavenly Kingdom. Those who heard St. Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost asked what they must do to be saved. He answered, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). To a Christian, salvation demands faith in Jesus Christ. People cannot save themselves by their own good works. “For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2: 8-10). Our salvation is a life-long process. It involves our putting on Christ and fulfilling the potential of our nature made in the image and likeness of God.
Baptism and Chrismation
Baptism is a Holy Mystery by which a person is united with Christ and through Him all of the faithful (Galatians 3:26-28). The Apostle Paul teaches: “Know you not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). Through Baptism our sins are washed away we are empowered by our union with Christ to live a holy life. A new birth occurs in Baptism where we die with Christ, are buried with Him, and are raised with Him in the of His resurrection, being joined with Him in transfigured human nature (Acts 2:38; Romans 6:3, 4). “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). From its beginning, the Church has taught that the water is the baptismal water and the Spirit is the Holy Spirit. The Orthodox Church has historically practiced baptism by full immersion.
Orthodox Christians believe that the Holy Spirit is granted through Chrismation (anointing with Chrism) at the time of Baptism. Chrismation is a Holy Mystery. It is based on the Apostolic practice of the laying on of hands. They laid hands on those who confessed faith in Christ and had been baptized, so that they would receive the Holy Spirit. At least two Scriptural passages support this practice: “Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit”, and “when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them” (Acts 8:17; 19:6). Chrism is a special ointment prepared over many days. Unceasing prayers and Scripture readings accompany the preparation of the Chrism. Only Autocephalous Churches prepare Chrism.
The Mystery of Repentance or Confession
Confession is the open admission of our sins committed before God and man. Christ established the Mystery of Repentance after His resurrection. Speaking to His disciples, He said: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:22-24). St. James the Apostle admonishes us to confess our sins, to God before the priests (James 5: I6). We are also all exhorted to confess our sins directly to God (I John 1:9). The Orthodox Church has always followed the New Testament practice of confession before a priest as well as private confessions to the Lord. Confession is a necessary means of repenting, and receiving healing from the effects of our sins. It is also a most powerful aid to overcoming our sins. No sin is unforgivable except for the sin of unrepentance, which is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The one who remains unforgiven is the one who does not believe in God’s forgiveness and salvation.
The Bible refers to the books of both the Old Testament, including the Books of Moses and the Prophets and the book of the New Testament, including the Gospels and the Epistles. It is the divinely inspired Word of God (II Timothy 3: 16). The Old Testament begins with a description of Creation, and provides an account of God’s revelation to Israel. The New Testament witnesses the life of Jesus Christ in the Gospels and includes the writings of His Apostles. Though these sacred writings were read in the Church from the time they first appeared, they were not codified in the order Christians now know them for about 300 years. The Canon of Scripture now known to the world, was first identified in the 33rd Canon of a Church council held at Carthage in 318, and in a fragment of St. Athanasius of Alexandria’s Festal Letter in 367 . Both sources list all of the books of the New Testament without exception. A local council, probably held at Rome in 382, set forth a complete list of the canonical books of both the Old and New Testaments. The Scriptures are at the very heart of worship and devotion, and are an integral part of Orthodox Holy Tradition.
Mary the Theotokos
The Virgin Mary is called Theotokos, meaning God-bearer or Mother of God. The name Theotokos was recognized by the Orthodox Church at the Third Ecumenical Council held at Ephesus in 431. Mary bore the Son of God in her womb, and from her He took His humanity. St. Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, recognized this reality when she called Mary, “the Mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43). Mary said of herself: “All generations shall call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). That Mary is called Ever-Virgin (Aeiparthenos) is not to elevate her to some special status or to incite us to worship the creature rather than the Creator. Rather, this is an affirmation of who Jesus Christ is. Because He has chosen her to be His mother, to conceive Him, to give flesh to Him, to give birth to Him, we understand her as an earthly dwelling place of the infinite God. Thus, because she is in this sense a new Holy of Holies, her ever-virginity is a natural characteristic of such an awesome reality.
The Councils of the Church
Chapter 15 of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles records a dispute in the Church over the keeping of Jewish laws by Christians. “And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter” (Acts I 5: 6). This council, held in Jerusalem, set the pattern for the subsequent calling of councils. Through the centuries there have been hundreds of church councils both local and Ecumenical. The rulings of the seven Ecumenical councils apply to the whole Church. The seven Ecumenical councils dealt with the rise of heresy within the Church.
- First Council of Nicea, (325); repudiated Arianism, adopted the Nicene Creed.
- First Council of Constantinople, (381); revised the Nicene Creed into the present form used in the Orthodox Church.
- Council of Ephesus, (431); repudiated Nestorianism, proclaimed the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God .
- Council of Chalcedon, (451); repudiated Monophysitism, described and delineated the two natures of Christ, human and divine; adopted the Chalcedonian Creed.
- Second Council of Constantinople, (553); reaffirmed decisions and doctrines explicated by previous Councils, condemned new Arian, Nestorian, and Monophysite writings.
- Third Council of Constantinople, (680-681); repudiated Monothelitism, affirmed that Christ had both human and Divine wills. Quinisext Council or Council in Trullo, (692); mostly an administrative council that raised some local canons to ecumenical status and established principles of clerical discipline. It is not considered to be a full-fledged council in its own right because it did not determine matters of doctrine.
- Second Council of Nicea, (787); restoration of the veneration of icons.