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The Orthodox Church.


The history of Christianity convinces that the establishment of the Orthodox Church originates in the age of the Apostles. The Church was initially small, as the mustard seed, according to the Savior's expression, eventually grew into a big tree, and its branches filled the world (Matthew 13:31-32). As early as the end of the first century, Christian communities were found in almost all towns of the Roman Empire: in the Holy Land, Syria, Armenia, Asia Minor, Hellas, Macedonia, Italy, Gaul, Egypt and Northern Africa, Spain and Britain; and also beyond the boundaries of the Empire: in the faraway Arabia, India and Scythia. By the end of the first century, Christian communities of all more or less significant towns were headed by bishops who were the bearers of the entirety of apostolic grace. Bishops had authority over the communities in neighboring towns of lesser importance. In the 2nd century bishops of principal (regional) cities of the Roman Empire began to be called metropolitans, and their metropolis covered the nearby bishops' sees. The metropolitans were obliged to regularly convene bishops' councils to resolve current issues of religion and administration.

Apart from principal cities, there were imperial dioceses in the Roman Empire. These most important centers of state organization became the starting points of wider area Church administration, which were named Patriarchates later. The Fourth Ecumenical Council, assembled in Chalcedon in 451, defined the boundaries of five Patriarchates: that of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem (with little territory as concerns administration, but having great religious significance).

As time passed, the territories of patriarchates grew or shrank because of different historical events. Serious changes in the Church occurred due to the invasion of Germanic tribes to Europe (late 4th century), oppression by the Persians and invasion of the Arabs to eastern districts of the Byzantine Empire (mid 7th century). In the middle of the 9th century, there was a movement for adoption of Christian faith amongst Slavic peoples. The Thessalonian brothers, Saints Cyrill and Methodius toiled much for the enlightenment of the Bulgarians and Moravians. From Bulgaria, the Christian faith spread to Serbia. A great merit of St. Cyrill and Methodius is that they created the Slavonic alphabet and translated selected books of the Scriptures and divine service from the Greek language into the Slavonic. Their work prepared the ground for the spread of Christianity in Russia.

Although Christian communities existed on the northern shore of the Black Sea as early as the end of the first century, the mass conversion to Christianity of Slavic tribes, inhabiting Russia, began only at the time Christening of Russia in 988, when Grand Prince Vladimir had the entire population of Kiev baptized in the River Dnieper (See leaflet on St. Vladimir and the Millennium of Christianity in Russia). From Kiev, the Orthodox faith spread to other parts of Russia. The following statistical data allow us to judge how great the Russian Orthodox Church was before the revolution: there were 1098 monasteries in Russia, with the total of over 90 thousand monks. Apart from the Patriarch of Moscow, there were 6 Metropolitans, 136 bishops, 48 thousand priests and deacons serving in 60 thousand temples and chapels. Four Academies, 57 seminaries and 185 schools provided training for the clergy. Bibles, theological and other spiritual literature were published in large quantities. Unfortunately, we did not value our spiritual riches as we had to, and became captivated by western ideas. The post-1918 persecution of the Church by atheists, extermination of the clergy and believers, and destruction of temples can only be explained in the light of the Apocalypse, which predicts severe persecution of the faith in Christ before the end of the world.

From the middle of the 18th century, through the efforts of St. Herman of Alaska and other Russian missionaries, the Orthodoxy made its way to Alaska, where a few Aleuts received baptism, thus giving the start to dissemination of the Orthodox faith in North America. Today, about 3 million Orthodox Christians live in the USA.

The Orthodox Church currently includes the following autocephalous (regional or local) churches: Constantinople (with a number of parishes in Europe, North and South America, and the Patriarchal See in Istanbul, Turkey), Alexandrian (Egypt), Antioch (with its capital in Damascus, Syria), Jerusalem, Russian, Georgian, Serbian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Cypriot, Greek, Albanian, Polish, Czechoslovakian, Lithuanian, and the Orthodox Church in America. Sinai, Finnish and Japanese churches are autonomous. Many Orthodox Greek and Russian (Russian Church Abroad) parishes were established in almost all parts of the world after the First and Second World Wars. Total number of Orthodox Christians around the world is about 160 million.

The term Orthodox Church came into usage in the age of religious disputes of 4th-6th centuries, because there was a need to differentiate between the true Church and heretical groups (Arians, Nestorians etc.), who also called themselves Christians. The word "Orthodox" comes from the Greek оrthо-dоkео, which means "right thinking." Another term for the Church is Catholic, which is translated from the Greek as universal, all-gathering or all-inclusive. The meaning of this term is that the Church calls all people to salvation, irrespective of their nationality and social status.

The regional churches, such as Jerusalem, Russian, Serbian and others, are sometimes headed by Patriarchs, or archbishops, or metropolitans. To resolve problems, related to a certain church, the head of this church convenes an assembly (synod) of his bishops. The problems that concern the entire Orthodox Church, e.g. the issues of faith (dogmas) and church law (canons), should be discussed in Ecumenical Synods (or Universal Councils). Ecumenical Synods are attended by bishops from all regional and autonomous Orthodox Churches. As need may be, representatives of the clergy and laity are invited. Thus, the governance of the Orthodox Church is neither sovereign, nor democratic, but synodal.

The teaching of the Orthodox Church is concisely formulated in the Creed, developed by the First and Second Universal Synods in 325 and 381 (in Nicaea and Constantinople). In its turn, this Creed was built upon more ancient creeds, originated in the age of the Apostles. Summing up the Orthodox doctrine, we believe in One God Father, Son and the Holy Ghost, Who is the consubstantial and indivisible Trinity. The Son is begotten from the Father before all ages. The Holy Ghost does eternally proceed from God the Father. We believe that One God, worshipped in the Trinity, is eternal, omnipotent and omnipresent, that He, by His will and out of nothing, created everything that exists: first the invisible angel world, then our visible, material world. Also, God created us people, breathed immortal soul into us, and inscribed His moral law in our hearts. God created us so that we improve ourselves and reach never-ending felicity in communion with Him. We believe that God is infinitely just and merciful. He rules the whole universe and life of every human being, and nothing can happen without His will.

When the first people broke the commandment of God, God did not reject them completely, but, through the prophets, began to prepare people for salvation, and promised to send the Messiah, or Christ, to them. When the world matured enough to accept the true faith, the Son of God, Our Lord Jesus Christ came to the earth to save us, sinful people. He taught how to believe and how to live right. For our salvation He died on the cross and rinsed away our sins with His blood. On the third day He rose from the dead and set the beginning of our resurrection and everlasting life in the Paradise. We believe that on the fiftieth day after His resurrection, the Lord Jesus Christ sent the Holy Ghost to the Apostles, and since then He has been in the Church, instructing her in the truth. We believe that one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church will not be overcome by the powers of evil until the very end of the world's existence. We believe that in the Sacraments of baptism, Chrismation, Confession, Communion, and in other actions of the divine service, the Holy Ghost does purify and sanctify believers and give them power to live Christian lives. We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ shall come again to the earth. This will be the time of the resurrection of the dead, end of the world and the general Judgment, where every one shall receive in accordance with his or her living. After the Judgment, eternal life shall start: it will be never-ending bliss in communion with God for the righteous, and never-ending torture in the Gehenna of fire for the devil and sinners.

We acknowledge that faith only is not enough to make life conform with belief. That is why we recognize the need in fulfilling the Ten Commandments, given by God to the prophet Moses (Exodus, Chapter 20), and the Evangelical Commandments, or blessings, given by the Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 5:3-12). The essence of these commandments is the love for God and neighbor, and even to enemies (Matthew 5:43-45). These commandments of love place the Christian faith above other religions in the moral sense, and from the point of view of the human reason they can be evaluated as the only way to establish peace, mutual respect and lawfulness among people. Without genuine love for neighbor and all-forgiveness, wars and mutual extermination will be inevitable. The Lord Jesus Christ teaches us to forgive everyone in the Lord's Prayer, when it reads, "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (Matthew 6:12). In His parables, the Lord teaches us about the virtues of faith, meekness, patience, constancy, justice and other. Outstanding among others is the parable of the talents, which calls us to develop all abilities and talents that the Lord God gave us. The genuine faith must inevitably manifest itself in the inner growth and good-doing, because "faith without works is dead" (James 2:20). A Christian should not be avaricious, i.e. he has to be quiet about material welfare, and use it not for his whims, but for his needs and for helping others. Pride, self-seeking, arrogance and egoism are all disgusting in God's eye.

The Orthodox Church teaches that every one received free will from the Creator, and is therefore responsible for one's acts. The Lord loves and pities for us. He helps us in everything good, and especially if we ask Him for it. As He promised, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you" (Matthew 7:7). A fervent prayer does clear the mind, help overcome temptations and live in accord with the Commandments of God. Prayer helps us improve our spiritual capabilities, which is the main goal of our life on earth.

When an Orthodox Christian suffers from diseases or adversities, he or she should not murmur at God and forget that God permits that we suffer, but it is for our own spiritual benefit, for cleansing of sins and strengthening of the will for good-doing. At the rough moments of life we must pray to our Heavenly Father: "Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven."

We, the Orthodox, honor saints: the Holy Virgin Mary, prophets, Apostles, martyrs, reverends (monastic) and other holy people who pleased God. Many saints have not broken their communion with us after their deaths, but passed to the celestial part of the Church, called Church Triumphant. At the Throne of God they pray for us as for their small brothers and help us in achieving the Kingdom of God. Very precious for us Russians are the memories of Saint Princess Olga and Prince Vladimir, Saints Boris and Gleb, Reverend Sergius of Radonezh, Antonius and Theodosius of Pechersk, Seraphim of Sarov, Saint John of Kronschtadt and others, including the recently glorified new Russian martyrs.

The divine service of the Orthodox Church follows the centuries-established order. The principal act of worship is Liturgy (communal service). An essential portion of the Liturgy is Eucharist, when the faithful receive the very Flesh and Blood of Christ under the forms of bread and wine, and mysteriously commune with Him, as the Lord said, "Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day" (John 6:54). Before the Communion believers confess their sins.

In order to help Christians overcome their imperfections, fasting days were established. Since the Apostolic age there has been a tradition to fast on all Wednesdays and Fridays (as commemoration of the suffering of Our Savior), and to hold fast during Lent, before the Easter. On fast days it is not allowed to eat meat and dairy products and to have entertainments, but we should pray more and read religious literature. The Orthodox faith calls to provide for the family, care for the elderly, sick and poor, and not to reproach anyone: "Judge not, that ye be not judged" (Matthew 7:1). The purpose of our life is continuous moral improvement: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).

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