Understanding the Orthodox

[Catholic Digest, December 2001]

Good Friday evening—time to head home for a lenten dinner and prepare for the glorious Easter weekend. But as you stop at a light you notice that something is going on at the church on the corner. A procession is wending its way around the exterior of the church, bearing candles. At the head are the clergy and acolytes in robes, one swinging an incense pot. Everyone is singing “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us,” over and over in a dirge-like tone. It sounds like a funeral. What’s going on?

Then you notice the strangest thing. Four men are carrying something that looks like a big wooden framework, open in the middle, covered with flowers. It’s tall and unwieldy and, from the looks of it, pretty heavy. As it passes by the car you look closely and see laid across the lower level of the box a large piece of needlework hemmed with long golden fringe. The image is that of Jesus lying dead on a slab, with his mother and apostles bending over him in sorrow.

What’s going on here? What kind of church is this?

This is an Orthodox church. Sometimes termed “Eastern Orthodox,” this branch of Christendom is most common in the eastern hemisphere, and the sign outside the church might identify it as Greek, Romanian, Antiochian, or any of a dozen varieties found in the U.S. These worshipers are approaching the end of a two-hour service, the third long service of “Holy and Great Friday.” At the conclusion of the morning service, women from the church decorated this bier with abundant flowers, emulating the “Myrrh-bearing Women” who anointed Jesus for burial. During this service, worshipers gathered around this emblem of Jesus’ death and sang the ancient Lamentations. Now, as they return to the church, the men carrying the bier will stand at the door and lift it high so that worshipers can pass beneath, bowing.

After a few more hymns the service concludes, and the priest hands each worshiper a flower from the bier to take home. Many don’t go home; they will stand vigil all night, chanting the gospels and psalms, until the Eucharist the next morning. The full range of Holy Week includes eleven or more services, each from ninety minutes to four hours long.

As you can see, Orthodoxy is for people who like to worship. It’s easy to like, when the worship is so beautiful. For example, when the people have returned to the church for the conclusion of the Lamentations service, they will hear a chanter sing these words from Joseph of Arimathea to Pilate:

Give thou me this Stranger, who from his youth has wandered like a stranger.

Give me this Stranger, whom his kinsmen killed in hatred like a stranger.

Give me this Stranger at whom I wonder, beholding him as a Guest of death.

Give me this Stranger who knoweth how to take in the poor and strangers.

Give me this Stranger that I may bury him in a tomb, who being a Stranger hath no place whereon to lay his head.

Give me this Stranger, to whom his Mother, beholding him dead, cried, “My Son and my vitals be wounded, and my heart burns, as I behold thee dead, yet trusting in thy Resurrection, I magnify thee.”

It’s easy to see why the Pope has referred to Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism as being the “two lungs” of the Church. The flavor of the devotion shown in this glimpse of Orthodox worship is certainly closer to Catholic devotion than any Protestant service would be, and yet it has a distinctive “eastern” feel to it. How did our churches ever grow apart? Might they ever come together again?

Modern-day Catholics, no matter where they live, know that their roots go back to the same place: the city of Rome. The Bishop of Rome, the Pope, is the spiritual head of all Catholics everywhere. If we could travel back to the first centuries of the faith, we would see that Rome as a specially-honored member of a sisterhood of leading cities, which had grown by the second ecumenical council (381 AD) to number five.

Jerusalem, of course, is where the faith began. Antioch is where Peter was bishop before he went to Rome, and where “the disciples were for the first time called Christians” (Acts 11:26). Constantinople was the new capital of the empire, and Alexandria one of its leading cities.

These five cities, and numerous smaller ones, were in communion with each other in a single Church. Led by valiant bishops, they weathered many storms. St. Ignatius, 1st century bishop of Antioch, wrote beautiful letters of exhortation on his way to martyrdom; St. Irenaus, 2nd century bishop of Lyons, France, wrote eloquently against the heresies; St. John Chrysostom, 4th century bishop of Constantinople, wrote sermons on every imaginable topic that are still treasured today. Over the centuries these bishops and many others battled heresies, endured persecution, composed the Nicene Creed, and determined which books would be in the New Testament.

But just about every five centuries something would damage this unity, and in the fifth century, battles over the two natures of Christ led to lasting divisions. The Coptic Church of Egypt is not in communion with either Rome or Orthodoxy today as a result, and Christians in Armenia, India, and Ethiopia also went their own way. However the family resemblance between these “Oriental” churches, and Orthodox and eastern Catholic churches, is still strong today.

The division called the Great Schism came next, in 1054 A. D. Trouble had been simmering for quite awhile between Rome and the other four cities. From the start Rome was accorded special honor: it was the city of St. Peter, the historic capital of the empire, and a place admired for the consistent purity of its faith. The role of the Pope was described as “first among equals,” similar to that of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

But a number of factors — political and cultural as well as theological — caused stress between Rome and her sisters. Europe communicated in Latin and Christians of the east in Greek, and that led them to talk about tenets of the faith in subtly different ways. Attacks by Barbarians in the west and Muslims in the east contributed further to the disarray and breakdown in communications. When the Pope crowned Charlemagne emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 800 A.D., citizens of the Constantinople-based empire took it as an insult and refused to recognize him. Members of Charlemagne’s court then accused eastern Christians of heresy because — and this is probably the point at which you start remembering some of this from history class — the Greeks did not use the word “filioque” in the Nicene Creed.

It’s one of those turning points of history that the unity of the Church, east and west, could hang on a single word: *filioque*. The Latin word is a compound, translated in English, “and the Son,” and it was inserted in the Nicene Creed in the passage about the Holy Spirit; the original reading is simply, “Who proceeds from the Father.” Although Charlemagne’s pope, Pope Leo III, rejected it, this addition had already been used in some places in Europe for many years. By the early 11th century it was officially adopted at Rome, but eastern Christians continued to reject it. For one reason, they believed it not to be true, and to distort the theological understanding of the Trinity. For another, they believed that a Creed prayerfully created by an ecumenical council (the Council of Nicea, 325 A. D.) could not be changed except by another council; the pope, they said, did not have the authority to decree such a change single-handedly. So the split was not merely over the *filioque* itself, but over the limits of the pope’s authority.

From that time forth the Roman Catholic church, and the Orthodox church centered at Constantinople, have been out of communion. Following the “every 500 years” principle, we see the Protestant Reformation arise in the 16th century, a challenge within western Christendom that did not involve the east. Another five hundred years have passed since then, and perhaps, as sociologist James Davison Hunter suggests, we are once again seeing a splintering within western Christian faith. He notes that divisions by denomination matter less and less, and affiliation is now found among either those who hold to classic faith and morality (he calls them small-o “orthodox”) or those who embrace an ever-changing, up-to-date faith (whom he terms “progressives”).

In a time of theological and cultural confusion, it seems more important than ever for Christians to make peace. Pope John Paul II has gone to great lengths to offer an olive branch to Orthodox Christians. What differences still divide us? What would have to be overcome?

Some differences are subtle, some more significant, and of course many of these differences are already part of Eastern-rite Catholicism.

* The Eucharist. Both Orthodox and Roman Catholics believe that the bread and wine become the real Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Orthodox do not have a theory of “transubstantiation,” however; they decline to analyze how the change takes place. Orthodox use leavened bread, not unleavened. A portion of the consecrated bread is placed in the chalice, and worshipers receive communion as a piece of wine-soaked bread from a spoon. The liturgy is usually that of St. John Chrysostom, which was compiled in the fourth century from earlier sources. Traditionally, worshipers stand through most of the service, and some churches have no pews, though there is some seating for the old and infirm.

* Holy Orders. Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches both have deacons, priests, and bishops, and other levels of those orders. In Orthodoxy only men may be ordained, though there is current discussion about reviving the ancient order of deaconess. A man can get married before ordination, but not after; there are married priests, but a priest who is celibate, widowered, or abandoned by his wife cannot marry without leaving the priesthood. Bishops are not married, and are chosen from among the monks or unmarried priests. There is no shortage of priests in the Orthodox Church, which means that churches often can be smaller and a pastor can more practically serve as spiritual father to his flock.

* The “Old Country.” Greek, Russian, and other kinds of Orthodox churches are all part of a single international church, much like French or Italian Catholic churches a couple of generations ago. As a result of the influx of immigrants in the early 20th century, these different nationalities established parallel church offices and administrations. Dismantling those offices and creating a single Orthodox church in America is an important goal to the council of Orthodox bishops.

* Fasting. Orthodox guidelines call for fasting from meat, dairy, fish, wine, and oil on Wednesday and Friday, the seven weeks of Lent, and several other fast days and periods. These guidelines are observed more strictly in some parishes than others, and they are always applied in consideration of a person’s health and abilities, under the individual guidance of the pastor. Preparation for a morning eucharist always includes fasting from all food and drink from the previous midnight.

* The Calendar. Some Orthodox bodies use the “New Calendar,” the Gregorian calendar; they observe Christmas on December 25, like most western Christians. Other Orthodox bodies use the “Old Calendar,” the Julian Calendar; they observe Christmas on January 7, and all their fixed feasts come 13 days after the new calendar dates. Though it would appear impossibly disorganized for believers within a single church to be using different calendars, in practice they find ways to get along. Contrary to popular assumption, however, these differing calendars have nothing to do with the date of Easter. All Orthodox, new or old calendar, observe Easter (which they call Pascha) on a common date. The formula they use to determine each year’s Pascha date includes the stipulation that Pascha must fall *after* Jewish Passover, just as the original Easter Day did. Occasionally, as in 2001, western Easter and Orthodox Pascha fall on the same date. In other years, Pascha comes one to four weeks later.

* Confession. Another part of preparing for Orthodox communion is recent confession. Priest and penitent stand before the icon of Christ, and the penitent confesses to Christ while the priest listens, offers guidance, and pronounces God’s forgiveness.

* Icons and statues. The Orthodox expectation of religious art is that it should lead us out of ourselves into heaven. Thus, art that is emotional or dramatic is not as valued as that which reflects the awe and glory of eternity. Those used to western art, therefore, find eastern icons initially forbidding and severe. Orthodox, on the other hand, find western art noisy, sentimental, and earthbound. Statues, being three-dimensional, are experienced as too captured in this world; the flat surface of an icon, on the other hand, acts as a window opening into heaven.

* Monasticism. Orthodoxy does not have “orders,” like the Benedictine or Carmelite orders in the west. Instead, all monks and nuns are part of a single universal monastic community. The term “convent” is not often used; instead, both men and women live in “monasteries,” and under some circumstances, in nearby houses in the same monastic establishment. Monasteries need not be large operations. A woman living alone in a house in the suburbs may be, under the authority and direction of her bishop, living as a nun in a monastery.

* The Virgin Mary. Orthodox most often call her by the title “Theotokos,” which means “God-bearer.” (This title is designed to refute an ancient heresy which suggested that Mary was the “mother of God” in the sense that a woman might be “the mother of the bishop,” and that the infant Jesus was not God.) The Theotokos is honored as the “Captain Leader” of all Christians, our foremost example. She intercedes for us, but Orthodox do not think of her as mediating or distributing God’s grace — grace is the presence of God, not a gift separate from him. The Theotokos is ever-Virgin and sinless, but there is no doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. For Orthodox, humans are not born bearing the guilt of Adam, only his fallen propensity to sin. We are guilty of our own inevitable sins, not his. Mary was able to resist sin all her life, by the sustaining grace of the Holy Spirit, and at her death was taken bodily to heaven. Children who die very young, before they can commit sins, are likewise taken into heaven.

The list of near-similarities between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism could go on and on. So why should there be any trouble over reuniting?

The main obstacles to reunion are the two mentioned above, the *filioque* and the pope’s authority. Some Catholics have suggested that the east would be allowed to retain the original form of the Nicene Creed, and that the pope would not expect to rule in the east, or to be seen as infallible, in the same way he is in the west.

These are very great concessions, but are not likely to be enough to sway the Orthodox to accept union. For one thing, there is great fear that any union with Rome would mean absorption by Rome, that the embrace could only be one that smothers the east. Secondly, besides these theological reasons, the sack of Constantinople by Roman Crusaders in 1204, and the failure of Rome to aid eastern Christians against the Ottoman Turks in 1453, are remembered as painful times of betrayal whose negative effects linger even today.

Thirdly, there are bitter memories of previous attempts at reconciliation, in the thirteenth and fifteenth century. In both cases the Orthodox were compelled to union, and agreed to Rome’s terms, because of desperate need for military assistance. In both cases the agreement was emphatically rejected by the lay and clergy rank-and-file, who saw them as a betrayal of Orthodoxy.

And that brings us to the final point of difficulty. Orthodoxy is a church in which the common people *can* refuse a decision of their hierarchs. The faith is not centered in a single leader, or a magisterium; it is diffused among all the faithful, throughout all ages. This means that the faith cannot change very much, because the current age is under the tutelage of all previous generations. There can be no innovation; whatever has been held “always, everywhere, and by all” is the authority (which is why the new term *filioque* was rejected).

Thus everyone obeys “the faith,” rather than the patriarch, and the Patriarch of Constantinople does not rule the eastern church as the pope rules the west. A patriarch who did something very unpopular would not be able to enforce his decision; instead, many would denounce and reject him. Union simply could not be compelled.

So, though the way seems open to Roman Catholics, the path to union is blocked for Orthodox by several concerns: theology, the pope’s authority, sour memories, and the practical inability of any church leader to enforce reunion on the whole church.  And yet Orthodox would acknowledge that Rome was once one of the great Pentarchy of cities, was in fact the “first among equals,” and that the current division is not how things should be.

It’s a dilemma, and one which does not offer an obvious solution. On the local level, however, you can stop in and visit that church on the corner. The riches of the eastern tradition are still there for discovering.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.