When I introduce myself as an Orthodox priest, I am often asked the same question: “Orthodox what? Orthodox Jew?” Rather perturbed that the large pectoral cross did not provide any hints, I patiently explain that “Orthodox” means “Eastern Orthodox,” and refers to the second largest body of Christians in the world. Orthodox Christianity is the primary understanding of Christians in the Russian Federation, Greece, the Balkan states, the Middle East and (in a slightly wider sense) Ethiopia, Egypt and yes, even India.
But what is Eastern Orthodoxy? What makes it different from Roman Catholicism and various forms of Protestantism? I have no desire in this column to engage in polemics or judgements regarding other Christians. However, I believe it may be useful to begin a little series of articles explaining the origins and development of the Eastern Orthodox Church with a view to filling out the variety of your experiences of Christianity as a whole.
The answer to the question, “What is Eastern Orthodoxy?” is to a large extent a historical matter. So you will pardon me if I indulge in a little story-telling from the past. It’s my feeling that a great many who do not know about the Orthodox Church are in such a position because they have heard only part of the story of Christendom.
Here’s the part of the story they have heard. Once upon a time, a small band of fisherman went around the Roman Empire telling people that a man named Jesus was the Son of God, that he had lived and taught, been crucified and raised from the dead and had ascended into heaven, and that he would one day return to judge the world. Meanwhile, everyone needed to confess Jesus as lord, be baptised and live a godly life until he returned.
Before they died or were killed by the hostile authorities, the apostles managed to convert a small group of Christians, who met in the catacombs of Rome, where they sang songs and remembered Jesus’ sacrifice with bread and wine (which some say was actually grape juice). Unfortunately, they too suffered at the hands of a hostile pagan establishment, being crucified, thrown to the lions, and horribly tortured for a number of years. Then, for some reason, Emperor Constantine decided to convert to Christianity, legalizing the faith overnight and later making it the official religion of the Roman Empire.
But it was too late for the Empire. Weakened and corrupted by its decadent leaders, it fell to barbarians from the north, who overran western Europe and kicked off the Dark Ages. According to some, Christianity also entered a moral Dark Age at this point. The Church became a mere institution, with a despotic Pope at its head. Corruption flourished, only coming to an end when Martin Luther and the Reformers started Protestantism. Free from the tyranny of the Catholic Church with its dead works, indulgences and idolatries, Christians were once again free to read the Bible in their own languages and to rediscover in its pages a genuine and personal faith in Jesus Christ, much like those early believers.
That’s one version anyway. From another point of view, the Roman Catholic Church actually sustained the cultural and religious life of Europe through its Dark Ages, offering a beacon of learning and faith that led to the Renaissance in the 16th century, when Michelangelo, Leonardo and the rest of those geniuses got to work. And in all of this, the Pope was no tyrant, but the direct descendent of the chief Apostle, Peter, to whom Christ gave responsibility for the Church until He returned. Yes, there were good Popes and bad Popes over the years, but the institution itself remained a continuing testimony that the Church has endured and preserved the Faith intact throughout the centuries.
These versions of history are so brief and simplistic as to be almost offensive, but the reality is, it (or something like it, written by Dan Brown) is all that most educated people will ever know of how the Christian faith developed and (in some minds) degenerated. In an age when religious pluralism lies at the centre of so many of our cultural and social conflicts, isn’t it time that we educated ourselves a little more thoroughly, at the very least when it comes to the Judeo-Christian background of Canadian history and society?
So I am going to attempt to retell the above story, in a little more detail and from a slightly different point of view, in the hopes of adding a few more dimensions to our collective current experience and knowledge of Christianity.
Along the way, you may learn some rather surprising facts. For instance, were you aware that writings exist documenting Christian practices from as early as 70 A.D., barely one generation after the disciples of Christ? That the Roman Empire did not actually end in the 4th century, but continued and flourished uninterrupted in the East, for over 1100 years? Did you know that Rome was not the centre of the faith, but that there were five ancient centres, each of which added (and continues to add) to the richness of Christian spirituality? And what about the pagan Vladimir, prince of Kiev, who baptized his entire nation in the river Dnieper in 988 A.D., thereby initiating a great flourishing of Christianity for millions of people in Eastern Europe? Concerning those and other tidbits, a lot more next time.