Heaven on Earth
“We knew not whether we were in heaven or earth… We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations.”
With these words, envoys sent by the pagan Russian Prince Vladimir in the year 987 recorded their impression of worship within Constantinople’s awesome Orthodox cathedral, Hagia Sophia. They had been sent to search for the true religion. Within a year of their report, Prince Vladimir and the Russian people were baptised into Christ by Orthodox missionaries.
Today, as in Prince Vladimir’s time, the Orthodox Church — fully aware that man is a union of body and soul — uses all the beauty of creation to move her faithful children to prayer and worship: ikons (holy paintings), beautiful singing, sweet smelling incense, and majestic services.
Yet if the visible beauty of the Church is dazzling, her unseen beauty and glory are even more compelling, for the Orthodox Church is the Bride of Christ, and within her shelter we can begin to struggle for our salvation.
Origins of the Orthodox Church
Jesus Christ founded His Church through the Apostles. By the grace received from God at Pentecost, the Apostles established the Church throughout the ancient world. St Paul founded the Church of Antioch; St Peter and St James, the Church of Jerusalem; St Andrew, the Church of Byzantium, or Constantinople; St Mark, the Church of Alexandria; St Peter and St Paul, the Church of Rome. These became the five principal Church centres, or Patriarchates, of the early Church.
From the 11th century, the Church of Rome has charted a different course for herself and much of the Christian West, giving rise since the 16th century to the various Protestant denominations. Meanwhile the other four original Patriarchates have continued in unbroken communion, spreading the Apostolic Faith throughout the East — to Greece, Russia, the Balkans, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Today, this communion of local Churches is known as the Eastern Orthodox Church (or by one of many national names, such as “Russian Orthodox” or “Greek Orthodox”). Faithful to the Apostolic Faith, she is the authentic and organic continuation of the early Church; she is the haven for those seeking the Truth which is Christ.
The Greek word Orthodoxia means “correct praise” or “correct teaching,” and in Orthodox worship the praise and teaching are closely interwoven. If you attentively follow the prayers and services of the Church, you can learn from them all her teachings and rich spiritual experience. The services trace their beginnings back to the Old Testament rites of the Hebrews. They are a treasury of Scripture readings, Psalms, prayers, hymns and canons composed by the saints and pious Christians throughout the ages.
The Orthodox Church has always placed great emphasis on worship. Her services are longer in duration than the worship services of western Christians. Her main worship service — the Divine Liturgy — has captured that element of sheer joy in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus that is found in the writings of the early Church. It has been said that one of the main characteristics of Orthodoxy is its power to perceive the celestial beauty of the spiritual world and to express it in worship.
Pascha (or Easter) is the Feast of Feasts, the high point of the Orthodox year. During Pascha, the Church shines with the glory of Christ’s resurrection. Clouds of fragrant incense accompany prayers heavenward; choirs and bells sing out the triumphant news; the faithful greet one another with the holy kiss of peace and the greeting, “Christ is risen!” The altar doors are left open all week to show that the Gates of Paradise are opened by Christ for us sinners to enter in for eternal life and joy in heaven.
Just as the Grace of the Holy Spirit which descended on the Apostles at Pentecost flows in a living stream down through today’s bishops and priests, so Holy Tradition carries the spiritual life of the Church in an unbroken stream from the time of the Apostles down to Orthodox believers today.
Holy Tradition is the life of the Holy Spirit within the Church. Through Holy Tradition we are in communion with the spiritual life of all preceding generations from the time of the Apostles. Thus the Orthodox Church has the same faith, the same spirit, the same ethos as the Apostolic Church. She has preserved the fullness of the faith of Christ through the centuries without adding to it or subtracting from it. “This is the Apostolic faith, this is the faith of the Fathers, this is the Orthodox faith, this faith has established the universe” (from the Sunday of Orthodoxy Vespers).
We worship God in Trinity, glorifying equally the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Son of God, begotten before all ages, and that He is of one essence with the Father. We believe that Christ incarnate is truly man, like us in all respects except sin. We worship the Holy Spirit as Lord and Life-giver who proceeds from the Father.
We believe that Christ the Saviour came to save not only from but also for. He came to save us from sin for participation in the life of God. This exalted vision of the Christian life was expressed by St Peter when he wrote that we are invited “to become partakers of the Divine Nature” (II Peter 1.4). It was also affirmed by the Fathers of the Church like St Basil, who described man as “the creature who has received a command to become god.” The whole emphasis of the Orthodox way of life is on “putting on Christ” and receiving the Holy Spirit through prayer and the holy mysteries (sacraments) so that we may begin to live a new life in union with Christ and in communion with the Holy Spirit.
The goal of the Orthodox spiritual life is theosis, or “deification,” the complete transfiguration of the human being in the uncreated glory and grace of God. The path to theosis is not an individual struggle, however, but the work of the whole Church. We join our spiritual labours of prayer, fasting and asceticism to those of the other members of the body of Christ, and are surrounded by the intercession and witness of the saints, the holy ones of God who have finished their course before us. First among these is our holy mother, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary.
We believe also in diakonia, loving service to one’s neighbour, for what is faith without deeds? The Christ we meet in worship is the same Christ we meet in the person of our neighbour, so an intrinsic part of our spiritual struggle to be united to Christ is almsgiving and social concern.
Praise, thanksgiving and service in love form the triangle of worship and life in the Orthodox tradition. These actions are united in grateful response to the Holy Trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As vibrant marks of Orthodoxy, they equip us for the work of bringing Christ’s Gospel of healing, reconciliation and true life to a world of need.
For More Information
Perhaps you would like to know more about the Orthodox Church and what is involved in becoming a participant in her spiritual life and worship. For more information, please contact your nearest Orthodox church community in Ireland.