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Chapter IV – The Orthodox Church and Her Theology – Part C

The Saints

The Orthodox Church has the highest respect for the saints. The Orthodox Church understands the Church as the expression of God’s Kingdom, encompassing the living and the dead. In the Orthodox Church there is no division between the living and the departed, but all are considered one in the love of the Father. Whether alive or dead, members of the Church  still belong to the same family, and still have a duty to bear one another’s burdens. “Therefore just as Orthodox Christians here on earth pray for one another and ask for one another’s prayers, so they pray also for the faithful departed and ask the faithful departed to pray for them. Death cannot sever the bond of mutual love which links the members of the Church together.”[i]

Thus, Orthodox Christians honor the saints, but give worship to God alone. The veneration of the saints is seen in the iconography of the Church and her prayers to the saints. In private an Orthodox Christian may ask for the prayers of any member of the Church. In one sense all members of the Church are saints. On the other hand, in public worship only the officially proclaimed saints are invoked. The Orthodox underscore the prayers to the saints by asserting that those who die are alive and  present with the Lord in heaven. And since the Orthodox Church believes that its worship is with the entire company of heaven, prayers to the heavenly saints and angels are entirely appropriate. However, the Orthodox insist that the saints have no power to grant requests; the role of the saints in heaven is to direct their prayers to the throne of God. Prayers to the saints in no way denigrates the importance of prayer to the Holy Trinity. Prayers to the saints is a recognition of their ceaseless heavenly prayers for those on earth. The Orthodox affirm the importance of many saints praying simultaneously for the needs of people.

At his Baptism an Orthodox Christian is given the name of a saint “as a symbol of his entry into the unity of the Church which is not only the earthly Church, but also the Church in heaven.”[ii] That person also keeps an icon of his patron saint in his room, and prays daily to him. Orthodox Christians view saints not as distant figures but as friends and contemporaries. Orthodox also pray to their guardian angels.

Orthodox Worship

The best way to learn more about the Orthodox Church is to attend itsworship. The liturgy is the Church’s faith in action. The Church is viewed as a community of worship, spirituality, and mystery.

There are several things that a visitor will notice in Orthodox worship. First, the liturgy is chanted in its entirety. There is no equivalent to the Roman “Low Mass.” The music is usually sung without accompaniment.  Second, at every liturgy, incense is used. Incense is associated with prayer of the Church on earth and in heaven (Revelation 8:3). “Bells and smells” is an apt description of Orthodox worship. Third, Orthodox worship is very physical. There is an emphasis on the use of all five senses in worship. Worship involves a great deal of gesture, prostrations, bowing, making the sign of the cross, and processions. The iconography is very striking. The Orthodox wish to convey, through the iconostasis (icon screen) and the other icons in the Church, an encounter with the Church in heaven. Fourth, usually there are no chairs or pews in the center of the church. Benches are often placed along the walls for the young,  weak, and infirm. Because of the absence of pews, there is a certain flexibility not found in western congregations with pews.

While the people stand throughout the worship, they are free to move about during the service without causing a disturbance. The absence of pews creates a real sense of community. The use of pews in Orthodox churches is more common, however, in the United States. Fifth, the liturgy of the Orthodox is usually quite lengthy. There is a sense of timelessness in the church. Each service contains a number of extensive litanies.

Sixth, when an Orthodox enters church, his first action will be to purchase a candle, approach the icon of the day in the rear of the church, cross himself, kiss the icon as a sign of respect for the saint depicted, and light a candle in front of it. During the liturgy he may also place a lighted candle before other icons in the church.

The Eucharist is celebrated every Sunday in the Orthodox Church. Daily Mass is almost unheard of, except in certain monasteries and cathedrals. Orthodox refer to the service of Holy Communion as “The Divine Liturgy.”  The Eucharist is celebrated according to four different services:

(1)The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom–this is the normal  liturgy on Sunday.

(2)The Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great–this liturgy is used about ten times a year. It is

similar to the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, though a bit more extensive).

(3) The Liturgy of St. James–used once during the year, on Saint James’ Day.

(4) The Liturgy of the Presanctified–This is used on the Wednesdays and Fridays of Lent,

and on the first three days of Holy Week. There is no consecration of the elements, but communion is given from the elements consecrated the previous Sunday.

The Orthodox Church conducts minor services, such as Matins, Vespers. A priest is required to chant Matins and Vespers every day. Normally, the Sunday liturgy is preceded with Saturday evening Vespers.Matins is sung prior to the conduct of the Divine Liturgy.

Prior to the Divine liturgy, the priest prepares the elements to be used in Holy Communion on a table, called the prothesis,  to the left of the altar. The Orthodox use leavened bread in the Eucharist. This bread, usually baked by someone in the parish, is stamped with a symbol on it. The priest cuts the bread, using a symbolic spear, and arranges the pieces of bread on the paten (diskos) in a particular order.

The Church Year

The Orthodox Church has a multitude of services for the church year.  The ecclesiastical calendar begins on September 1. The “feast of feasts” in the Orthodox Church is Easter.” All elements of Orthodox liturgical piety point to and flow from Easter, the celebration of the New Christian Passover. “[iii] The Orthodox normally call Easter “Pascha,” because of its association as the New Testament Passover. It is important to note that the date of Easter will usually not correspond to that of western Easter. This is because the Orthodox reckon the date of Easter not only according to the Spring equinox but also the Jewish Passover. It is possible for Orthodox Easter to be four or five weeks later than western Easter. Even among the Orthodox there is some disagreement as to the dates of the Church Year. Some Orthodox Churches still reckon liturgical time according to the Julian Calendar.

The feasts of the Orthodox Church are divided into two categories: 1) the Feasts of the Mother of God and 2) The Feasts of the Lord.

Thomas Smith gives an apt account of the reasons behind the survival of the Orthodox Church under centuries of Moslem oppression:

Next to the miraculous and gracious providence of God, I ascribe the preservation of Christianity among them to the strict and religious observation of the Festivals and Fasts of the church. . .For children                            and those of the most ordinary capacities know the meaning of these holy Solemnities, at which times they flock to the Church in great companies, and thereby retain the memory of our Blessed Savior’s Birth,     dying upon the cross, Resurrection, and Ascension, and keep up the constant profession  of their acknowledgement of the necessary and fundamental points of Faith…And while they celebrate the sufferings and martyrdoms of the Apostles of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and the other great saints, who laid down their lives most joyfully  for His name, and underwent with unwearied and invincible patience all the torments and cruelties of their heathen persecutors, they take courage from such glorious examples, and are the better enabled to endure with less trouble and regret the miseries and hardships ey daily struggle with.[iv]

The rules of fasting in the Orthodox Church are more rigorous than any found in western Christianity. On most days of Lent (the period which precedes Christmas and Easter) and Holy Week, not only is meat forbidden, but also fish and all animal products (lard, butter, eggs, milk, and cheese), together with wine and oil. Wednesday and Friday are fast days, except during the week after a festival. Periods of fasting include: 1) The Lenten fast (seven weeks before Easter); 2)The Apostles’ Fast (starts on the Monday eight days after Pentecost, and ends on June 28); 3) The Assumption Fast (from August 1-14); 4) and the Christmas Fast (40 days, from November 15 to December 24).

Spirituality and Private Prayer

In every Orthodox home an icon corner gives witness to family devotional life.  The Orthodox use the prayers of the Church in their morning and evening prayers. Orthodoxy affirms that even when in his own home, an Orthodox still prays with the Church; he is joined in fellowship with other Orthodox Christians who are praying in the same words as he.

The Orthodox Church has a strong tradition of spirituality, ranging from the Desert Fathers to the isolated monks in Russia.

The “Jesus Prayer” is an excellent example of a personal prayer that plays an important part in the life of Orthodoxy. This prayer is quite simple: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This prayer can be used any time of the day. The Orthodox believe that  the power of God is present in the name of Jesus. Ultimately, there is a time when this prayer “enters into the heart,” and is recited without deliberate effort.

Orthodox spirituality is a rich portion of the Church’s life. The contemplation of the Kingdom of God, the reading of Scriptures and Fathers, and the silent prayer of theHesychast, are essential elements in the Orthodox process of deification.

The Ecumenical Issue

Because the Orthodox Church believes herself to be the true Church, her goal is “the reconciliation of all Christians to Orthodoxy.”[v] It does not seek to turn western Christians into Byzantines. There is room in Orthodoxy for different cultural patterns and even for different ways of worship. It is interesting to note that the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America has congregations that practice Western Rite Orthodoxy.[vi]

The Western Rite Mass is basically the liturgy of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer,

corrected by Saint Tikhon (Archbishop of America and Patriarch of Moscow ) for Orthodox worship. As more Episcopalians and liturgical western Christians become Orthodox, the Western Rite will make the transition to Orthodoxy for these people seem less obtrusive.

The Orthodox Church does remain steadfast on one principle, however: there can be no reunion without unity in the faith. Thus, in terms of inter-communion and sharing of the Eucharist, the Orthodox position is quite clear: until unity in the faith has been achieved, there can be no sharing in the sacraments.

From a practical point of view, Orthodox Christians are forbidden to receive the sacraments from any other altars other than Orthodox, and non-Orthodox Christians are not permitted to partake of the sacraments in an Orthodox Church.


The trend toward Orthodoxy is not a large trend. It is occurring primarily among clergy and well-read laity. But it is happening with enough frequency that the chaplaincy should take notice. In the past the chaplaincy has often overlooked the Orthodox Church as a major faith group because of its  relatively small numbers  in America. With the renewed interest in the Orthodox Church today, chaplains in the military will need to become more knowledgeable concerning this ancient, major faith. By becoming better informed about Orthodoxy, as well as other faiths,  they will become more effective chaplains.

This paper cannot truly do justice to the depth and breadth of Orthodoxy. Hopefully, it will encourage military chaplains to delve into some of the books listed in the bibliography.  In this way,  they will be able to give sound counsel regarding Orthodox teachings and practices. They will also be enriched by the breadth and depth of tradition and spirituality that flow from this ancient faith.

[i]Ware, 258, citing John Meyendorff, quoted by M. J. le Guillou, Mission et unite, vol. 11 (1960), 313

[ii]Ware, 261

[iii]Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith (New York: The Department of Religious Education, The Orthodox Church in America, 1972), 70

[iv]Anthony M. Coniaris, Introducing the Orthodox Church (Minneapolis, MN: Light and Life Publishing company, 1982), 72, citing Thomas Smith, “An Account of the Greek Church,” quoted by G. Every in “The Byzantine Patriarchate” (no other information given)

[v]Ware, 317

[vi]Connely, 21