The Eastern Orthodox Church is not one big church is you may think. It is actually composed of thirteen independent churches named “autocephalous,” each of them administering its own matters but having a common approach to sacraments, liturgy, and doctrine. A “patriarch” or a “metropolitan” is the one who leads an autocephalous. The Patriarch of Constantinople — which is now modern Istanbul in Turkey — is seen as the universal patriarch. He doesn’t meddle in the affairs of the twelve other churches but otherwise enjoys special privileges.
Despite the name, the Eastern Orthodox Church somewhat baffles especially the Western Christians with its rather unconventional ways which make up for its unique character. This means there are more interesting facts a lot non-follower should find out about one of the largest and oldest Christian churches in the world.
The Eastern Orthodox Church doesn’t worship the Virgin Mary
The Eastern Orthodox Church maintains that they will worship God and Him alone. Nevertheless, they recognize Mary in a special way due to the fact that she is Jesus Christ’s mother.
The Eastern Orthodox Church has an estimated 225 to 300 million members, with about 5.6 million in the United States. The largest number of adherents are from Russia, with 70 to 100 million followers living there. The Russian Czars were integrally involved in Eastern Orthodoxy from the 1400s to the late 1800s.
The true church of Christ?
The Eastern Orthodox Church claims itself to be the true church of Jesus Christ, and its followers question the spiritual identity of both Roman Catholic and other Orthodox churches. In fact, a few Orthodox scholars still see the other churches as heretics.
Way of worship
The Orthodox worship is usually lengthy — it can take two hours or even more. A lot of typical Orthodox churches don’t have pews so churchgoers usually stand, kneel or even prostrate depending on what the liturgy says.
The Julian Calendar
While most Christian churches follow the Gregorian calendar, a lot of Orthodox churches still use the Julian calendar. Since the Julian calendar is thirteen days behind the Gregorian, the Orthodox observe the holy days two weeks after the West.
How did the Eastern Orthodox Church form?
The Eastern Orthodox Church formed as a distinct branch of Christianity following the East-West Schism in 1054, which was the break of communion between Eastern and Western (now Roman Catholic) Christian churches. Since Eastern Orthodoxy was formed it expanded throughout the Roman Empire and later the Byzantine Empire and other areas. It has played a dominant force in Russian, Slavic, Greek, and some African cultures.
Since the Eastern and Western Christian churches separated, the Eastern Orthodox Church does not recognize the authority of the Pope and is currently not in communion with Rome.
The Eastern Orthodox Bible
The Bible of the Eastern Orthodox Church is the same as in the Bible of the Western churches. Except that its Old Testament is not based on Hebrew, but on Greek-language Jewish translation of the writings known as Septuagint which is also known as the “Greek Old Testament.”
Fasting and prayer
Fasting and prayer are considered to be an important way of life of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Like in many Christian churches, the Orthodox believes that fasting and prayer are the way of disciplining one’s body in order to enable one’s mind to concentrate on prayer as well as all other things spiritual. The Orthodox Church has four chief fasting periods:
- The period of Lent (aka the Great Fast)
- The Fast of the Apostle, which occurs eight days following Pentecost until June 28. It concludes with the feast of saints Peter and Paul.
- The Dormition Fast which occurs from August 1 to August 14.
- The Christmas Fast which occurs from November 15 to December 24, Christmas Eve.
Wednesdays and Fridays are also expected to be periods of fasting. In these modern times though, they may not be strictly followed by most of its adherents for the exception of the most devout followers.
The Eastern Orthodox Church has endured more merciless and long-standing persecutions than any other Christian body. Take the example of the church’s harsh experience under Soviet communism and atheist policies — 98% of Orthodox churches were shut down, over a thousand monasteries and 60 seminaries were closed down. From 1917 up to the outbreak of the First World War, about 50,000 were persecuted and martyred.
Are Orthodox Churches the same as Eastern Orthodox Churches?
Not all churches in the Eastern tradition are Orthodox, and not all Orthodox churches are considered Eastern. For instance, there is an Eastern Catholic Church which recognizes the authority Pope and is in full communion with him but otherwise administers its own affairs. There is also an Oriental Orthodox Church which differs theologically from the Eastern Orthodox Church.
There are at least seven sacraments in the Eastern Orthodox, so saying this means there may be more than just seven. But apart from that, they basically have much more in common with the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church such as baptism, the Confirmation, the Eucharist, confession, the anointing of the sick, Holy Orders, and matrimony.
The Eastern Orthodox Church is also known for its icon art, consisting of beautiful and elaborate paintings used both for worship and for decorating churches and homes. The authentic “iconic” paintings of the Church are usually intricate, often backed by a gold leaf and set usually on wood. These icons often depict Mary and the baby Jesus Christ.