The Vitality of Orthodoxy

An icon of Christ from the Serbian Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity and St. Spyridon, Trieste, Italy
A. Dagli Orti/De Agostini Picture Library/Bridgeman Images
An icon of Christ from the Serbian Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity and St. Spyridon, Trieste, Italy, nineteenth century

If you are a stranger to Orthodox Christianity, I recommend reading the final chapter of John McGuckin’s The Eastern Orthodox Church first. That’s the quickest way to enter a devotional and theological world frequently misunderstood, as much by those who know only Western Christianity’s many varieties as by those unfamiliar with Christian beliefs more generally. In the closing section of this worthwhile book, McGuckin courteously guides the present-day Sunday visitor through the crowded portals of a representative Orthodox parish church. In former times, that would have meant going to Eastern Europe, the eastern Mediterranean, or Russia, but nowadays it could be anywhere in the world: there are plenty of Orthodox worshipers in Chicago, Melbourne, or Toronto. There is a narthex, or entrance hall, brightly lit and full of movement in and out. Long, thin tapers are prominently on offer, and having listened to McGuckin’s explanation for them—they will bear up prayers for your family, living and departed—you may choose to pick up and pay for a couple before you proceed further.

The church door proper now beckons, and through it is a greater dimness, marked by pools of lively light as similar tapers burn in front of images that are richly painted on flat surfaces of wall or board with a distinctive artistic style: once seen, it is easily recognized again. McGuckin tells you that these images are called “icons” (simply the Greek word for images, but nothing is simple in Orthodoxy). Around you are crowds of worshipers, not sitting passively in pews like a Catholic or Protestant congregation but standing or walking around with a purpose. Your tapers are part of the purpose: one of them ends up in front of a prominent icon of Christ, the other before an icon of his mother, Mary. (A Westerner may ask, Where are the crucifixes? And why are there no statues?) The worshipers are doing a great deal on their own initiative; without obvious reference to the liturgy being performed by clergy and choir, they repeatedly bow or prostrate or cross themselves. If you know Western churches, you may be struck by another absence (at least on a normal Sunday): no one is kneeling. McGuckin whispers the reason to you: in 325 CE, a council of the universal Church held at Nicaea (now Iznik, Turkey) forbade kneeling on Sundays, because kneeling is a gesture of penitence, and Sunday is the time to rejoice in glory.

So begins the unfolding rationale of a long and intimidatingly complex liturgy, the regular diet of worship in an Orthodox parish church. Beyond it lie even more complex…

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