The Orthodox Faith series is intended to provide basic, comprehensive information on the faith and life of the Orthodox Church. It consists of four volumes and is available for purchase from SVS Press.

Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko (1939–2015) was professor of dogmatic theology and served as dean of Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary. Alongside his numerous books and articles, Father Thomas was also renowned as a gifted speaker and homilist.


Some elders once visited Abba Anthony, and Abba Joseph was with them. The elder mentioned a verse from Scripture, wishing to put them to the test. He began to ask, starting with the least of them, what this verse was about and each one began to speak according to his own ability. But the elder said to each one: “You have not discovered it yet.” Last of all he said to Abba Joseph: “You then, what do you say this phrase is about?” “I do not know,” he replied—so Abba Anthony said: ”Because he said, ‘I do not know,’ Abba Joseph has indeed discovered the way.”

During the last years of his life, the late Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko was fond of carrying with him a copy of The Arena, by Saint Ignatius ­Brianchaninov, and a print-out of the thirty-eight sayings of Saint Anthony the Great from the Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, from which the above quotation is taken. Being himself deeply rooted in the rich scriptural, patristic, and historical soil of the Orthodox faith, Father Tom saw both texts as fundamental to the Christian life. He knew through his own experience what Saint Anthony was trying to convey to the elders that came to see him: that knowledge of God is best attained, not through study and discourse—though these have their place—but through the experience of living in Christ, which requires great humility and great love.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the series The Orthodox Faith, one of the earliest publications written by Father Tom, the first volume of which came out in 1971. This deceptively labeled “elementary handbook” on the Orthodox Church has been used by thousands, from casual enquirers to catechumens to lifelong Church members, as both a catechesis and basic reference tool on Orthodox Christianity.

Yet the series has always been more than a simple set of reference manuals, precisely because it is the fruit of the living faith and understanding of tradition of its author, which give the work its sense of immediacy and zeal. Over forty-five years after their first appearance, these volumes continue to fulfill a dual purpose. First, they provide a rich base of introductory information on many aspects of Orthodoxy: Church doctrine and its development, Holy Scripture, liturgical practices, the spiritual life, etc. But, beyond this, through the rousing voice of Father Tom, they remind us that our life in the Church—in Christ—means more than a vain repetition of ritual by a group of individuals.

Writing about the Liturgy, Father Tom writes:

The Divine Liturgy is not an act of personal piety. It is not a prayer service. It is not merely one of the sacraments. The Divine Liturgy is the one common sacrament of the very being of the Church itself. It is the one sacramental manifestation of the essence of the Church as the Community of God in heaven and on earth. It is the one unique sacramental revelation of the Church as the mystical Body and Bride of Christ.

And so, it is more than fitting that these books be given an update in design and content after so many years of faithful service. Father Tom had plans to revise and update all four volumes of this series. But alas, with his final illness and death in March, 2015, this was not to be.

Significantly, however, Father Tom, working together with Dr. David Ford of Saint Tikhon’s Seminary, was able to complete one important piece of that plan, namely, a fully re-worked Church history volume. The revised and expanded Volume 3: Church History of this series contains the fruit of that labor, containing greatly enhanced coverage of major events in the history of the Church, from the Church’s birth at Pentecost through the arrival of Orthodoxy to the Americas in the eighteenth century and into the early twenty-first. This new edition of Church History also includes theological and historical developments occurring in the West during the same periods.

Of course, in today’s digital era, there are more considerations to take account of when updating content. These volumes will also be available for download in digital formats. Additionally, in an effort to provide more interactivity and the possibility for continual updates, the Department of Christian Education of the Orthodox Church in America has created a section on the OCA’s website offering discussion questions and points for reflection. To view and download these resources as they become available, please visit:

My hope is that these volumes will continue to inspire those who have made use of them over the years and will serve as an introduction to the Orthodox Faith for a new generation of seekers and learners who are willing to enter into the experience of God by following the example provided by Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko and his words.

Archbishop of Washington
Metropolitan of All America and Canada

Volume I - Doctrine and Scripture


Volume 1 contains four sections: sources of Christian Doctrine, main doctrines of the Orthodox Church present by way of commentary on the Nicene Creed, an explanation of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and an explanation on Scripture. Volume I is available for purchase from SVS Press.

Volume I - Doctrine and Scripture

Sources of Christian Doctrine



Every morning at its Matins Service the Orthodox Church proclaims: “God is the Lord and has revealed Himself unto us; blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” (Ps 118.26–27). The first foundation of Christian doctrine is found in this biblical line: God has revealed Himself to us.

God has shown Himself to His creatures. He has not disclosed His very innermost being, for this innermost essence of God cannot be grasped by creatures. But God has truly shown what men can see and understand of His divine nature and will.

The fullness and perfection of God’s self-revelation is found in His Son Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of the gradual and partial revelation of God in the Old Testament. Jesus is the one truly “blessed . . . Who comes in the name of the Lord.”

The first title given to Jesus by the people is that of Rabbi, which literally means teacher. In the English New Testament the word Master also issued in relation to Jesus in the sense of one who teaches, such as a schoolmaster or holder of a master’s degree. Jesus’ followers are also called disciples, which literally means students or pupils.

Jesus came to men first of all as the Teacher sent from God. He teaches the will of God and makes God known to men. He reveals fully—as fully as men can grasp—the mysteries of the Kingdom of God.

The coming of Jesus as teacher is one aspect of his being Christ the Messiah. The word Christ in Greek is the word for the Hebrew ­Messiah which means the Anointed of God. For when the messiah would come, it was foretold, men would be “taught by God” (Is 54.13, Jn 6.45).

Jesus comes to men as the divine teacher. He claimed on many occasions that his words were those of God. He spoke as ‘one having authority’ not like the normal Jewish teachers (Mt 7.29). And he accused those who rejected his teachings as rejecting God Himself.

He who believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. And he who sees me sees Him who sent me. I have come as light into the world . . . for I have not spoken on my own authority; the Father who sent me has himself given me commandment what to speak. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has bidden me (Jn 12.44–50).

Jesus taught men not only by his words, but also by his actions; and indeed by his very own person. He referred to himself as the Truth (Jn 14.6) and as the Light (Jn 8.12). He showed himself not merely to be speaking God’s words, but to be himself the Living Word of God in human flesh, the Logos who is eternal and uncreated, but who has become man as Jesus of Nazareth in order to make God known to the world.

In the beginning was the Word [Logos] and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.

In him was life and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son from the Father.

And from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace. For the law came through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

No one has ever seen God; the only-begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.

(See Jn 1.1–18; the Easter Liturgy Gospel Reading
in the Orthodox Church.)

Jesus, the divine Word of God in human flesh, comes to teach men by his presence, his words and his deeds. His disciples are sent into the world to proclaim Him and His Gospel, which means literally the “glad tidings” or the “good news” of the Kingdom of God. Those whom Jesus sends are called the apostles, which means literally “those who are sent.” The apostles are directly inspired by God’s Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth (Jn 15.26), to “make disciples of all nations” teaching them what Christ has commanded (Mt 28.19).

The early Church, we are told, “devoted themselves to the apostles’ doctrine” (Acts 2.42). Doctrine as a word simply means teaching or instruction. The apostles’ doctrine is the doctrine of Jesus and becomes the doctrine of the Christian Church. It is received by the disciples of every age and generation as the very doctrine of God. It is proclaimed everywhere and always as the doctrine of eternal life through which all men and the whole world are enlightened and saved.

At this point it must be mentioned that although God’s self-revelation in history through the chosen people of Israel—the revelation which culminates in the coming of Christ the Messiah—is of primary importance, it is also the doctrine of the Christian Church that all genuine strivings of men after the truth are fulfilled in Christ. Every genuine insight into the meaning of life finds its perfection in the Christian Gospel. Thus, the holy fathers of the Church taught that the yearnings of pagan religions and the wisdom of many philosophers are also capable of serving to prepare men for the doctrines of Jesus and are indeed valid and genuine ways to the one Truth of God.

In this way Christians considered certain Greek philosophers to have been enlightened by God to serve the cause of Truth and to lead men to fullness of life in God since the Word and Wisdom of God is revealed to all men and is found in all men who in the purity of their minds and hearts have been inspired by the Divine Light, which enlightens every man who comes into this world. This Divine Light is the word of God, Jesus of Nazareth in human flesh, the perfection and fullness of God’s self-revelation to the world.

It cannot be overstressed that divine revelation in the Old Testament, in the Church of the New Testament, in the lives of the saints, in the wisdom of the fathers, in the beauty of creation . . . and most fully and perfectly in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the revelation of God Himself. God has spoken. God has acted. God has manifested Himself and continues to manifest Himself in the lives of His people.

If we want to hear God’s voice and see God’s actions of self-revelation in the world, we must purify our minds and hearts from everything that is wicked and false. We must strive to love the truth, to love one another, and to love everything in God’s good creation. According to the Orthodox faith, purification from falsehood and sin is the way to the knowledge of God. If we open ourselves to divine grace and purify ourselves from all evils, then it is certain that we will be able to interpret the scriptures properly and come into living communion with the true and living God who has revealed Himself and continues to reveal Himself to those who love Him.


The ongoing life of God’s People is called Holy Tradition. The Holy Tradition of the Old Testament is expressed in the Old Testamental part of the Bible and in the ongoing life of the People of Israel until the birth of Christ. This tradition is fulfilled, completed and transcended in the time of the Messiah and in the Christian Church.


The New Testamental or Christian Tradition is also called the apostolic tradition and the tradition of the Church. The central written part of this tradition is the New Testamental writings in the Bible. The gospels and the other writings of the apostolic church form the heart of the Christian tradition and are the main written source and inspiration of all that developed in later ages.

This Christian tradition is given over from people to people, through space and time. Tradition as a word means exactly this: it is that which is “passed on” and “given over” from one to another. Holy Tradition is, therefore, that which is passed on and given over within the Church from the time of Christ’s apostles right down to the present day.

Although containing many written documents, Holy Tradition is not at all limited to what is written; it is not merely a body of literature. It is, on the contrary, the total life and experience of the entire Church transferred from place to place and from generation to generation. Tradition is the very life of the Church itself as it is inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit.

Not everything in the Church belongs to its Holy Tradition for not everything in the Church is done by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and not everything in the Church pertains essentially and necessarily to the Kingdom Of God. Some things in the Church are just temporal and temporary things, merely human customs and traditions of no eternal and everlasting value. Such things in themselves are not sinful or wrong. On the contrary, they may be very positive and very helpful to the life of the Church as long as they are not taken to be what they are not. Thus, it is very important in the Church to make the distinction between traditions which are merely earthly and human and passing away and the genuine Holy Tradition which pertains to the heavenly and eternal Kingdom of God.

It is also important to recognize that there are also things in the Church which not only do not belong to Holy Tradition, but which are not even to be counted among its positive human traditions. These things which are just sinful and wrong are brought into the life of the Church from the evil world. The Church in its human form, as an earthly institution, is not immune to the sins of its unholy members. These deviations and errors which creep into the life of the Church stand under the judgment and condemnation of the authentic and genuine Holy Tradition which comes from God.

Among the elements which make up the Holy Tradition of the Church, the Bible holds the first place. Next comes the Church’s liturgical life and its prayer, then its dogmatic decisions and the acts of its approved churchly councils, the writings of the church fathers, the lives of the saints, the canon laws, and finally the iconographic tradition together with the other inspired forms of creative artistic expression such as music and architecture. All of the elements of Holy Tradition are organically linked together in real life. None of them stands alone. None may be separated or isolated from the other or from the wholeness of the life of the Church. All come alive in the actual living of the life of the Church in every age and generation, in every time and place. As the Church continues to live by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Tradition of the Church will continue to grow and develop. This process will go on until the establishment of the Kingdom of God at the end of the ages.


The written record of God’s revelation is the Bible, which means the book, or the books. The Bible is also called the Holy Scriptures. Scripture as a word simply means writings.

The Bible was written over thousands of years by many different people. It is divided into two testaments or covenants. These words signify agreements, pacts, or we might say, ‘deals.’ The two basic covenants are the old and the new; each has its own scriptures. As a book, the Bible contains many different kinds of writings: law, prophecy, history, poetry, stories, aphorisms, prayers, letters and symbolical visions.

The Old Testament

The Old Testament scripture begins with the five books of the Law called the Pentateuch, which means the five books; also called the Torah, which means the Law. Sometimes these books are also called the Books of Moses since they are centered on the exodus and the Mosaic laws.

In the Old Testament there are also books of the history of Israel; books called the Wisdom books such as the Psalms, Proverbs, and the Book of Job; and books of the prophecies which carry the names of the Old Testament prophets. A prophet is one who speaks the Word of God by direct divine inspiration. Only secondarily does the word prophet mean one who foretells the future.

The Orthodox Church also numbers among the genuine books of the Old Testament the so-called apocryphal books, meaning literally the secret or hidden writings. Other Christians put these books in a secondary place or reject completely their being of divine inspiration.

The New Testament

The center of the New Testament part of the Bible is the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, who are called the four evangelists, which means those who wrote the gospels. Gospel in Greek is evangelion which means the “glad tidings” or the “good news.”

In the New Testament scripture there is also the book of the Acts of the Apostles, written by Saint Luke. There are fourteen letters called the epistles (which simply means letters) of the Apostle Paul, though perhaps some, such as the Letter to the Hebrews, were not written directly by him. Three letters are also ascribed to the apostle John; two to the apostle Peter; and one each to the apostles James and Jude. Finally there is the Book of Revelation, also called the Apocalypse, which is ascribed to Saint John as well.

For the Orthodox, the Bible is the main written source of divine doctrine since God Himself inspired its writing by His Holy Spirit (see 2 Tim 3.16 and 2 Pet 1.20). This is the doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible, namely that men inspired by God wrote the words which are truly their own human words—all words are human!—but which nevertheless may be called all together the Word of God. Thus, the Bible is the Word of God in written form because it contains not merely the thoughts and experiences of men, but the very self-­revelation of God.

The center of the Bible as the written Word of God in human form is the person of the Living Word of God in human form, Jesus Christ. All parts of the Bible are interpreted in the Orthodox Church in the light of Christ since everything in the Bible leads up to Christ and speaks about Him (Lk 24.44). This fact is symbolized in the Orthodox Church by the fact that only the book of the four gospels is enthroned on the altars of our churches and not the entire Bible. This is so because everything in the Bible is fulfilled in Christ.

The Liturgy


When the Church, which means literally the gathering or assembly of people who are called together to perform a specific task, assembles as God’s People to worship, this gathering is called the liturgy of the Church. As a word, liturgy means the common work or action of a particular group of people for the sake of all. Thus the divine liturgy of the Christian Church means the common work of God done by the people of God.

The liturgy of the Old Testament people was the official worship in the temple of Jerusalem according to the Mosaic Law, as well as the annual feasts and fasts and the private prayers and services held by the Israelites at home or in the synagogues. Synagogues by definition are houses of gathering; they are not temples since, according to the Law, there was just the one temple in Jerusalem where the priestly worship was conducted. In the synagogues the Israelites gathered for prayer and scriptural study, preaching, and contemplation of the Word of God.

In the New Testament Church the liturgy is centered in the person of Christ and is primarily a “christening” of the Old Testament liturgical life. The Christian Church retains the liturgical life of the Old Testament in a new and eternal perspective. Thus, the prayers of the Old Testament, the scriptures and the psalms, are read and sung in the light of Christ. The sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ replaces the Old Testament sacrifices in the temple. And the Lord’s Day, Sunday, replaces the old Jewish sabbath which is Saturday.

The Jewish feasts also take on new meaning in the Christian Church, with the central feast of Passover, for example, becoming the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection; and the feast of Pentecost becoming the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit, which fulfills the Old Testamental Law. The Christian liturgical year is also patterned after the Old Testamental prototype.

From the basic foundation of the Old Testament liturgy, the Church developed its own sacramental life with baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity, chrismation, holy communion, marriage, repentance, healing, and the Churchly ministry and priesthood taking on specifically Christian forms and meaning. In addition, a great wealth of specifically Christian prayers, hymns, and blessings were developed, together with specifically Christian feasts and celebrations in remembrance of New Testamental events and saints.

The living experience of the Christian sacramental and liturgical life is a primary source of Christian doctrine. In the liturgy of the Church, the Bible and the Holy Tradition come alive and are given to the living experience of the Christian people. Thus, through prayer and sacramental worship, men are “taught by God” as it was predicted for the messianic age (Jn 6.45).

In addition to the living experience of the liturgy, the texts of the services and sacraments provide a written source of doctrine in that they may be studied and contemplated by one who desires an understanding of Christian teachings. According to the common opinion of the Orthodox Church, the sacramental and liturgical texts—the hymns, blessings, prayers, symbols, and rituals—contain no formal errors or deformations of the Christian faith and can be trusted absolutely to reveal the genuine doctrine of the Orthodox Church. It may well be that some of the historical information contained in church feasts is inaccurate or merely symbolical, but there is no question in the Church that the doctrinal and spiritual meaning of all of the feasts is genuine and authentic and provides true experience and knowledge of God.

The Councils

As the Church progressed through history it was faced with many difficult decisions. The Church always settled difficulties and made decisions by reaching a consensus of opinion among all the believers inspired by God who were led by their appointed leaders, first the apostles and then the bishops.

The first church council in history was held in the apostolic church to decide the conditions under which the gentiles, that is, the non-Jews, could enter the Christian Church (see Acts 15). From that time on, all through history councils were held on every level of church life to make important decisions. Bishops met regularly with their priests, also called presbyters or elders, and people. It became the practice, and even the law, very early in church history that bishops in given regions should meet in councils held on a regular basis.

Fathers of the 4th Ecumenical Council

At times in church history, councils of all of the bishops in the church were called. All the bishops were not able to attend these councils, of course, and not all such councils were automatically approved and accepted by the Church in its Holy Tradition. In the Orthodox Church only seven such councils, some of which were actually quite small in terms of the number of bishops attending, have received the universal approval of the entire Church in all times and places. These councils have been termed the Seven Ecumenical Councils (see table below).

The dogmatic definitions (dogma means official teaching) and the canon laws of the ecumenical councils are understood to be inspired by God and to be expressive of His will for men. Thus, they are essential sources of Orthodox Christian doctrine.

Besides the seven ecumenical councils, there are other local church councils whose decisions have also received the approval of all Orthodox Churches in the world, and so are considered to be genuine expressions of the Orthodox faith and life. The decisions of these councils are mostly of a moral or structural character. Nevertheless, they too reveal the teaching of the Orthodox Church.

The Seven Ecumenical Councils

Nicea 1 325 Formulated the First Part of the Creed, defining the divinity of the Son of God
Constantinople I 381 Formulated the Second Part of the Creed, defining the divinity of the Holy Spirit
Ephesus 431 Defined Christ as the Incarnate Word of God and Mary as Theotokos
Chalcedon 451 Defined Christ as Perfect God and Perfect Man in One Person
Constantinople II 553 Reconfirmed the Doctrines of the Trinity and of Christ
Constantinople III 680 Affirmed the True Humanity of Jesus by insisting upon the reality of His human will and action
Nicea II 787 Affirmed the propriety of icons as genuine expressions of the Christian Faith

The Fathers

The Holy Fathers

There are in the Church a number of saints who were theologians and spiritual teachers who defended and explained the doctrines of the Christian Faith. These saints are called the holy fathers of the Church and their teachings are called the patristic teachings (patristic is from the Greek word for father).

Some of the holy fathers are called apologists because they defended the Christian teachings against those outside the Church who ridiculed the faith. Their writings are called apologies which means “answers” or “defenses.”

Others of the holy fathers defended the Christian faith against certain members of the Church who deformed the truth and life of Christianity by choosing certain parts of the Christian revelation and doctrine while denying other aspects. Those who deformed the Christian faith in this way and thereby destroyed the integrity of the Christian Church are called the heretics, and their doctrines are called heresies. By definition heresy means “choice,” and a heretic is one who chooses what he wants according to his own ideas and opinions, selecting certain parts of the Christian Tradition while rejecting others. By his actions, a heretic not only destroys the fullness of the Christian truth but also divides the life of the Church and causes division in the community.

Generally speaking, the Orthodox tradition regards the teachers of heresies as not merely being mistaken or ignorant or misguided; it accuses them of being actively aware of their actions and therefore sinful. A person merely misguided or mistaken or teaching what he believes to be the truth without being challenged or opposed as to his possible errors is not considered to be a heretic in the true sense of the word. Many of the saints and even the holy fathers have elements in their teachings which Christians of later times have considered as being false or inaccurate. This, of course, does not make them heretics.

Not all of the holy fathers were defenders against falsehood or heresy. Some of them were simply the very positive teachers of the Christian faith, developing and explaining its meaning in a deeper and fuller way. Others were teachers of the spiritual life, giving instruction to the faithful about the meaning and method of communion with God through prayer and Christian living. Those teachers who concentrated on the struggle of spiritual life are called the ascetical fathers, asceticism being the exercise and training of the “spiritual athletes”; and those who concentrated on the way of spiritual communion with God are called the mystical fathers, mysticism being defined as the genuine, experiential union with the Divine.

All of the holy fathers, whether they are classified as theological, pastoral, ascetical or mystical gave their teachings from the sources of their own living Christian experience. They defended and described and explained the theological doctrines and ways of spiritual life from their own living knowledge of these realities. They blended together the brilliance of the intellect with the purity of the soul and the righteousness of life. This is what makes them the holy fathers of the Church.

The writings of the Church Fathers are not infallible, and it has even been said that in any given one of them some things could be found which could be questioned in the light of the fullness of the Tradition of the Church. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, the writings of the Fathers which are built upon the biblical and liturgical foundations of Christian faith and life have great authority within the Orthodox Church and are primary sources for the discovery of the Church’s doctrine.

The writings of some of those fathers who have received the universal approval and praise of the Church through the ages are of particular importance, such as those of Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyons, Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus, Photius of Constantinople, and Gregory Palamas; and those of the ascetical and spiritual fathers such as Anthony of Egypt, Macarius of Egypt, John of the Ladder, Isaac of Syria, Ephraim of Syria, Simeon the New Theologian, and others.

Sometimes it is difficult for us to read the writings of the fathers of the Church since their problems were often complicated and their manner of writing very different in style from our own. Also most of the spiritual and ascetical writings are put in the monastic setting and have to be transposed in order to be understandable and usable to those of us who are not monks or nuns. Nevertheless, it is important to read the writings of the fathers directly. One should do so slowly, a little at a time, with careful thought and consideration and without making quick and capricious conclusions . . . the same way that one would read the Bible. Among the church fathers, Saint John Chrysostom’s writings are very clear and direct and can be read by many with great profit if the proper care is given. Also the Philokalia—an anthology of spiritual writings—exists in English, at least in part, and with proper care, it can be helpful to a mature Christian in search of deeper insights into the spiritual life.

The Saints

All Saints

The doctrine of the Church comes alive in the lives of the true believers, the saints. The saints are those who literally share the holiness of God. “Be holy, for I your God am holy” (Lev 11.44; 1 Pet 1.16). The lives of the saints bear witness to the authenticity and truth of the Christian gospel, the sure gift of God’s holiness to men.

In the Church there are different classifications of saints. In addition to the holy fathers who are quite specifically glorified for their teaching, there are a number of classifications of the various types of holy people according to the particular aspects of their holiness.

Thus, there are the apostles who are sent to proclaim the Christian faith, the evangelists who specifically announce and even write down the gospels, the prophets who are directly inspired to speak God’s word to men. There are the confessors who suffer for the faith and the martyrs who die for it. There are the so-called “holy ones,” the saints from among the monks and nuns; and the “righteous,” those from among the lay people.

In addition, the church service books have a special title for saints from among the ordained clergy and another special title for the holy rulers and statesmen. Also there is the strange classification of the fools for Christ’s sake. These are they who through their total disregard for the things that people consider so necessary—clothes, food, money, houses, security, public reputation, etc.—have been able to witness without compromise to the Christian Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven. They take their name from the sentence of the Apostle Paul: “We are fools for Christ’s sake” (1 Cor 4.10; 3.18).

NA Saints
Saints of North America

There are volumes on lives of the saints in the Orthodox tradition. They may be used very fruitfully for the discovery of the meaning of the Christian faith and life. In these “lives” the Christian vision of God, man, and the world stands out very clearly. Because these volumes were written down in times quite different from our own, it is necessary to read them carefully to distinguish the essential points from the artificial and sometimes even fanciful embellishments which are often contained in them. In the Middle Ages, for instance, it was customary to pattern the lives of saints after literary works of previous times and even to dress up the lives of the lesser known saints after the manner of earlier saints of the same type. It also was the custom to add many elements, particularly supernatural and miraculous events of the most extraordinary sort, to confirm the true holiness of the saint, to gain strength for his spiritual goodness and truth, and to foster imitation of his virtues in the lives of the hearers and readers. In many cases the miraculous is added to stress the ethical righteousness and innocence of the saint in the face of his detractors.

Generally speaking, it does not take much effort to distinguish the sound kernel of truth in the lives of the saints from the additions made in the spirit of piety and enthusiasm of the later periods; and the effort should be made to see the essential truth which the lives contain. Also, the fact that elements of a miraculous nature were added to the lives of saints during medieval times for the purposes of edification, entertainment, and even amusement should not lead to the conclusion that all things miraculous in the lives of the saints are invented for literary or moralizing purposes. Again, a careful reading of the lives of the saints will almost always reveal what is authentic and true in the realm of the miraculous. Also, the point has been rightly made that men can learn almost as much about the real meaning of Christianity from the legends of the saints produced within the tradition of the Church as from the authentic lives themselves.


There are canon laws of ecumenical councils, of provincial and local councils, and of individual church fathers which have been received by the entire Orthodox Church as normative for Christian doctrine and practice. As a word canon means literally rule or norm or measure of judging. In this sense the canon laws are not positive laws in the juridical sense and cannot be easily identified with laws as understood and operative in human jurisprudence.

The canons of the Church are distinguished first between those of a dogmatic or doctrinal nature and those of a practical, ethical, or structural character. They are then further distinguished between those which may be changed and altered and those which are unchangeable and may not be altered under any conditions.

The dogmatic canons are those council definitions which speak about an article of the Christian faith; for example, the nature and person of Jesus Christ. Although such canons may be explained and developed in new and different words, particularly as the Church Tradition grows and moves through time, their essential meaning remains eternal and unchanging.

Some canons of a moral and ethical character also belong to those which cannot be changed. These are the moral canons whose meaning is absolute and eternal and whose violation can in no way be justified. The canons which forbid the sale of Church sacraments are of this kind.

There are, in addition, canons of a quite practical nature which may be changed and which, in fact, have been changed in the course of the life of the Church. There are also those which may be changed but which remain in force since the Church has shown the desire to retain them. An example of the former type is the canon which requires the priests of the church to be ordained to office only after reaching thirty years of age. It might be said that although this type of canon remains normative and does set a certain ideal which theoretically may still be of value, the needs of the Church have led to its violation in actual life. The canon which requires that the bishops of the Church be unmarried is of the latter type.

It is not always clear which canons express essential marks of Christian life and which do not. There are often periods of controversy over certain canons as to their applicability in given times and conditions. These factors, however, should not lead the members of the Church to dismay or to the temptation either to enforce all canons blindly with identical force and value or to dismiss all the canons as meaningless and insignificant.

In the first place, the canons are “of the Church” and therefore cannot possibly be understood as “positive laws” in a juridical sense; secondly, the canons are certainly not exhaustive, and do not cover every possible aspect of Church faith and life; thirdly, the canons were produced for the most part in response to some particular dogmatic or moral question or deviation in the Church life and so usually bear the marks of some particular controversy in history which has conditioned not merely their particular formulation, but indeed their very existence.

Taken by themselves, the canon laws of the Church can be misleading and frustrating, and therefore superficial people will say “either enforce them all or discard them completely.” But taken as a whole within the wholeness of Orthodox life—theological, historical, canonical, and spiritual—these canons do assume their proper place and purpose and show themselves to be a rich source for discovering the living Truth of God in the Church. In viewing the canons of the Church, the key factors are Christian knowledge and wisdom, which are borne from technical study and spiritual depth. There is no other “key” to their usage; and any other way would be according to the Orthodox faith both unorthodox and unchristian.

Church Art

The Orthodox Church has a rich tradition of iconography as well as other church arts: music, architecture, sculpture, needlework, poetry, etc. This artistic tradition is based on the Orthodox Christian doctrine of human creativity rooted in God’s love for man and the world in creation.

Because man is created in the image and likeness of God, and because God so loved man and the world as to create, save, and glorify them by His own coming in Christ and the Holy Spirit, the artistic expressions of man and the blessings and inspirations of God merge into a holy artistic creativity which truly expresses the deepest truths of the Christian vision of God, man, and nature.

The icon is Orthodoxy’s highest artistic achievement. It is a gospel proclamation, a doctrinal teaching, and a spiritual inspiration in colors and lines.

The traditional Orthodox icon is not a holy picture. It is not a pictorial portrayal of some Christian saint or event in a “photocopy” way. It is, on the contrary, the expression of the eternal and divine reality, significance, and purpose of the given person or event depicted. In the gracious freedom of the divine inspiration, the icon depicts its subject as at the same time both human and yet “full of God,” earthly and yet heavenly, physical and yet spiritual, “bearing the cross” and yet full of grace, light, peace, and joy.

In this way the icon expresses a deeper “realism” than that which would be shown in the simple reproduction of the physical externals of the historic person or happening. Thus, in their own unique way the various types of Orthodox icons, through their form and style and manner of depiction as well as through their actual contents and use in the Church, are an inexhaustible source of revelation of the Orthodox doctrine and faith.

Musical expression may be added to the icon as a source of discovering the Orthodox Christian worldview. Here, however, there is greater difficulty because of the loss in recent years of the liturgical and spiritual meaning of music in the Church. Just as the theological meaning of the traditional Orthodox icon is being rediscovered, so is the traditional doctrinal significance of Orthodox music. The process in the latter case, however, is much slower, much more difficult, and much less evident to the average person.

The traditional Orthodox architecture also expresses the doctrine of the Church, particularly in its emphasis on “God with us” and the complete communion of men and the world with God in Christ. The use of domed ceilings, the shape and layout of the buildings, the placing of the icons, the use of vestments, etc., all express the teachings of the Church. The traditional Orthodox church architecture and artwork are expressions of the Orthodox Christian doctrines of creation, salvation, and eternal life.

It is a very important spiritual exercise for Christians to study the holy icons and the hymns of the Church’s liturgy. One can learn much about God and His gracious actions among men by a careful and prayerful contemplation of the artistic expressions of Church doctrine and life (see Worship).

The Symbol of Faith

Nicene Creed

The Nicene Creed should be called the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed since it was formally drawn up at the first ecumenical council in Nicea (325) and at the second ecumenical council in Constantinople (381).

The word creed comes from the Latin credo which means “I believe.” In the Orthodox Church the creed is usually called The Symbol of Faith which means literally the “bringing together” and the “expression” or “confession” of the faith.

In the early Church there were many different forms of the Christian confession of faith; many different “creeds.” These creeds were always used originally in relation to baptism. Before being baptized a person had to state what he believed. The earliest Christian creed was probably the simple confession of faith that Jesus is the Christ, i.e., the Messiah; and that the Christ is Lord. By publicly confessing this belief, the person could be baptized into Christ, dying and rising with Him into the New Life of the Kingdom of God in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

As time passed different places had different credal statements, all professing the identical faith, yet using different forms and expressions, with different degrees of detail and emphasis. These credal forms usually became more detailed and elaborate in those areas where questions about the faith had arisen and heresies had developed.

In the fourth century a great controversy developed in Christendom about the nature of the Son of God (also called in the Scripture the Word or Logos). Some said that the Son of God is a creature like everything else made by God. Others contended that the Son of God is eternal, divine, and uncreated. Many councils met and made many statements of faith about the nature of the Son of God. The controversy raged throughout the entire Christian world.

It was the definition of the council which the Emperor Constantine called in the city of Nicea in the year 325 which was ultimately accepted by the Orthodox Church as the proper Symbol of Faith. This council is now called the first ecumenical council, and this is what it said:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. Light of Light; true God of true God; begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man. And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried. And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; whose Kingdom shall have no end.

Following the controversy about the Son of God, the Divine Word, and essentially connected with it, was the dispute about the Holy Spirit. The following definition of the Council in Constantinople in 381, which has come to be known as the second ecumenical council was added to the Nicene statement:

And [we believe] in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets. In one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

This whole Symbol of Faith was ultimately adopted throughout the entire Church. It was put into the first person form “I believe” and used for the formal and official confession of faith made by a person (or his sponsor-godparent) at his baptism. It is also used as the formal statement of faith by a non-Orthodox Christian entering the communion of the Orthodox Church. In the same way the creed became part of the life of Orthodox Christians and an essential element of the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church at which each person formally and officially accepts and renews his baptism and membership in the Church. Thus, the Symbol of Faith is the only part of the liturgy (repeated in another form just before Holy Communion) which is in the first person. All other songs and prayers of the liturgy are plural, beginning with “we”. Only the credal statement begins with “I.” This, as we shall see, is because faith is first personal, and only then corporate and communal.

To be an Orthodox Christian is to affirm the Orthodox Christian faith—not merely the words, but the essential meaning of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan symbol of faith. It means as well to affirm all that this statement implies, and all that has been expressly developed from it and built upon it in the history of the Orthodox Church over the centuries down to the present day.


I believe…

Faith is the foundation of Christian life. It is the fundamental virtue of Abraham, the forefather of Israel and the Christian Church. “Abraham believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15.6).

Jesus begins his ministry with the same command for faith.

Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15).

All through his life Jesus was calling for faith; faith in himself, faith in God his Father, faith in the Gospel, faith in the Kingdom of God. The fundamental condition of the Christian life is faith, for with faith come hope and love and every good work and every good gift and power of the Holy Spirit. This is the doctrine of Christ, the apostles, and the Church.

In the Scriptures faith is classically defined as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11.1).

There are basically two aspects to faith; one might even say two meanings of faith. The first is faith “in” someone or something, faith as the recognition of these persons or things as real, true, genuine, and valuable; for example, faith in God, in Christ, in the Holy Trinity, in the Church. The second is faith in the sense of trust or reliance. In this sense, for example, one would not merely believe in God, in his existence, goodness, and truth; but one would believe God, trust his word, rely upon his presence, depend securely and with conviction upon his promises. For Christians both types of faith are necessary. One must believe in certain things with mind, heart, and soul; and then live by them in the course of everyday life.

Faith is sometimes opposed to reason, and belief to knowledge. According to Orthodoxy, faith and reason, belief and knowledge, are indeed two different things. They are two different things, however, which always belong together and which may never be opposed to each other or separated from each other.

In the first place one cannot believe anything which he does not already somehow know. A person cannot possibly believe in something he knows nothing about. Secondly, what one believes in and trusts must be reasonable. If asked to believe in the divinity of a cow, or to place one’s trust in a wooden idol, one would refuse on the basis that it is not reasonable to do so. Thus, faith must have its reasons, it must be built upon knowledge, it must never be blind. Thirdly, knowledge itself is often built upon faith. One cannot come to knowledge through absolute skepticism. If anything is known at all, it is because there exists a certain faith in man’s knowing possibilities and a real trust that the objects of knowledge are really “showing themselves” and that the mind and the senses are not acting deceitfully. Also, in relation to almost all written words, particularly those which relate to history, the reader is called to an act of faith. He must believe that the author is telling the truth; and, therefore, he must have certain knowledge and certain reasons for giving his trust.

Very often it is only when one does give his trust and does believe something that one is able to “go further,” so to speak, and to come finally to knowledge of his own and to the understanding of things he would never have understood before. It is true to say that certain things always remain obscure and meaningless unless they are viewed in the light of faith which then provides a way of explaining and understanding their existence and meaning. Thus, for example, the phenomena of suffering and death would be understood differently by one who believes in Christ than by one who believes in some other religion or philosophy or in none at all.

Faith is always personal. Each person must believe for himself. No one can believe for another. Many people may believe and trust the same things because of a unity of their knowledge, reason, experience and convictions. There can be a community of faith and a unity of faith. But this community and unity necessarily begins and rests upon the confession of personal faith.

For this reason the Symbol of Faith in the Orthodox Church—not only at baptisms and official rituals of joining the Church, but also in common prayers and in the Divine Liturgy—always remains in the first person. If we can pray, offer, sing, praise, ask, bless, rejoice, and commend ourselves and each other to God in the Church and as the Church, it is only because each one of us can say honestly, sincerely, and with prayerful conviction: “Lord, I believe . . .”—adding, as one must, the words of the man in the gospel—“. . . help thou my unbelief” (Mk 9.24).

In order for our faith to be genuine, we must express it in everyday life. We must act according to our faith and prove it by the goodness and power of God acting in our lives. This does not mean that we “tempt God” or “put God to the test” by doing foolish and unnecessary things just for the sake of seeing if God will participate in our foolishness. But it does mean that if we live by faith in our pursuit of righteousness, we can demonstrate the fact that God will be with us, helping and guiding us in every way.

For faith to grow and become stronger, it must be used. Each person should live according to the measure of faith which he has, however small, weak and imperfect it might be. By acting according to one’s faith, trust in God and the certitude of God’s presence is given, and with the help of God many things which were never before imagined become possible.


... One God, the Father Almighty…

The fundamental faith of the Christian Church is in the one true and living God.

“Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one God; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be placed upon your heart, and you shall teach them to your children, and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down and when you rise . . .” (Deut 6.4–8).

These words from the Law of Moses are quoted by Christ as the first and greatest commandment (Mk 12.29). They follow upon the listing of the Ten Commandments which begin, “I am the Lord your God . . . you shall have no other gods besides me” (Deut 5.6–7).

The one Lord and God of Israel revealed to man the mystery of his name.

And Moses said “. . . if they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

God also said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘Yahweh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob has sent me to you: this is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations’” (Ex 3.13–15).

God’s name is Yahweh which means I AM WHO I AM; or I AM WHAT I AM; or I AM WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE; or simply I AM. He is the true and living God, the only God. He is faithful and true to his people. He reveals to them His divine and holy Word. He gives to them his divine and holy Spirit. He is called Adonai: the Lord; and his holy name of Yahweh is never mentioned by the people because of its awesome sacredness. Only the high priest, and only once a year, and only in the holy of holies of the Jerusalem Temple dared to utter the divine name of Yahweh. On all other occasions Yahweh is addressed as the Almighty Lord, as the Most High God, as the Lord God of Hosts.

According to the Scriptures and the experience of the saints of both the old and new testaments, Yahweh is absolutely holy. This means literally that He is absolutely different and unlike anything or anyone else that exists (Holy literally means totally separated, different, other).

According to the Biblical-Orthodox tradition, even to say that “God exists” must be qualified by the affirmation that He is so unique and so perfect that His existence cannot be compared to any other. In this sense God is “above existence” or “above being.” Thus, there would be great reluctance according to Orthodox doctrine to say that God “is” as everything else “is” or that God is simply the “supreme being” in the same chain of “being” as everything else that is.

In this same sense the Orthodox doctrine holds that God’s unity or oneness is also not merely equivalent to the mathematical or philosophical concept of “one”; nor is his life, goodness, wisdom, and all powers and virtues ascribed to Him merely equivalent to any idea, even the greatest idea, which man can have about such reality.

However, having warned about an overly-clear or overly-positivistic concept or idea of God, the Orthodox Church—on the basis of the living experience of God in the saints—still makes the following affirmations: God may certainly be said to exist perfectly and absolutely as the one who is perfect and absolute life, goodness, truth, love, wisdom, knowledge, unity, purity, joy, simplicity; the perfection and superperfection of everything that man knows as holy, true, and good. It is this very God who is confessed formally in the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom as “. . . God, ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same.”

It is this God—the Yahweh of Israel—whom Jesus Christ has claimed to be His Father. God Almighty is known as “Father” through His son Jesus Christ. Jesus taught man to call the Almighty Lord God of Hosts by the title of Father. Before Jesus no one dared to pray to God with the intimate name of Father. It was Jesus who said, “Pray then like this: Our Father who art in heaven . . .”

Jesus could call God Father because He is God’s only-begotten Son. Christians can call God Father because through Christ they receive the Holy Spirit and become themselves sons of God.

For when the time had fully come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the Law, to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons [or, so that we all might be made sons]. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying “Abba! Father!” So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir [of the Kingdom of God]
(Gal 4.4–7, The Christmas Epistle
Reading in the Orthodox Church)

Thus no man is naturally a son of God and no man can easily call God Father. We can only do so because of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. And so we say in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy:

And make us worthy, O Master, that with boldness and without condemnation, we may dare to call upon Thee, the Heavenly God as Father and to say: Our Father, who art in heaven . . .

In contemplating the revelation of God our Father in the life of His people in the Old Testament and in the life of the Church in the New Testament, certain attributes and properties of God can be grasped by men. First of all, it can be clearly seen that God is Love, and that in all of His actions in and toward the world, God the Father expresses His nature as Love through Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.

In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only-begotten Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the expiation for our sins.

So we know and believe that love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him
(1 Jn 4.7–16).

. . . God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us (Rom 5.5).

Being the God who is Love, our Father in heaven does all that He can for the life and salvation of man and the world. He does this because He is merciful and kind, longsuffering and compassionate, willing to forgive and to pardon man’s sins so that man might share in the life and love of God. These gracious attributes of God are recalled in the scriptural psalmody normally chanted at the beginning of the divine liturgy in the Church.

Bless the Lord, O my soul! And forget not all His benefits! Who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases! The Lord is compassionate and merciful, long suffering and of great goodness! (Ps 103).


Maker of Heaven and Earth…

The Orthodox Church believes that God the Father is the “Creator of Heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.”

To create means to make out of nothing; to bring into existence that which before did not exist; or, to quote the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom once more: “to bring from non-existence into being.”

The Orthodox doctrine of creation is that God has brought everything and everyone which exists from non-existence into being. The Scriptural description of creation is given primarily in the first chapter of Genesis. The main doctrinal point about creation is that God alone is uncreated and ever-existing. Everything which exists besides God was created by Him. God, however, did not create everything individually and all at once, so to speak. He created the first foundations of existence, and then over periods of time (perhaps millions of years, see 2 Pet 3.8) this first foundation of existence-by the power which God had given to it—brought forth the other creatures of God:

Let the earth put forth vegetation . . . let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures . . . let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds . . . (Gen 1.19, 20, 24)

Thus, although God is certainly the creator of everything. He acts gradually in time and by means of things previously made by Him to which He has given life-producing potencies and powers.

According to the Orthodox Faith, everything that God makes is “very good”: the heavens, the earth, the plants, the animals, and finally man himself (Gen 1.31). God is pleased with creation and has made it for no other purpose than to participate in His own divine, uncreated existence and to live by His own divine “breath of life” (Gen 1.30; 2.7).

By the Word of the Lord
the heavens were made,
and all their host by the
breath (or Spirit) of His mouth.
He gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle;
He put the deeps in storehouses.
Let all the earth fear the Lord,
let all the inhabitants of the world
stand in awe of Him!
For He spoke, and it came to be
He commanded, and it was made!

(Ps 33.6–9)

In the above-quoted verses as well as in the account of Genesis we must notice the presence and action of God’s Word and God’s Spirit. God the Father makes all that exists by means of His Divine Word—“for He spoke and it came to be”—and by His Divine Spirit who “moved upon the face of the waters” (Gen 1.2). We see already a glimpse of the Holy Trinity to be fully revealed in the New Testament when the Word becomes flesh and when the Holy Spirit comes personally to the disciples of Jesus on the day of Pentecost.

We must make special notice as well of the goodness of the created physical world. There is no dualism in Orthodox Christianity. There is no teaching that “spirit” is good and “matter” is bad, that “heaven” is good and the “earth” is evil. God loves His entire material creation with His eternal love and, as we shall see, when the physical creation is mined by sin He does everything in His power to save it.

Loving the whole of His good creation, God the Father dwells within the world that He has made because of His goodness and love for man. The omnipresence of God is one of the divine attributes of the Creator particularly stressed in Orthodox Christian teaching. This fact is directly affirmed in the prayer to the Spirit of God which is used as the opening prayer of Orthodox worship:

O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere and fillest all things. Treasury of Blessings and Giver of Life! Come and abide in us. And cleanse us from every impurity. And save our souls, O Good One!

The fact that Christians pray: Our Father who art in heaven . . . (or, literally, “in the heavens”) is also an affirmation of the fact that God is present everywhere, for wherever men move on the face of the earth, over the seas or in the air, the heavens surround them with the presence of God. The Lord Jesus Christ, in order to have men realize that the true God, His Father, is not bound to one or another particular place, as were the pagan gods, teaches men to pray to the Father “in the heavens.” For the one true and living God is present to all, over all, embracing and encompassing all with His heavenly care and protection. The God who is “over all” is also “through all and in all” (Eph 4.5). By His Word and His Holy Spirit, God “fills all in all” (Eph 1.10, 23).

Thus, the Apostle Paul also proclaimed to the Athenians, that whether men realize it or not, “in Him we live and move and have our being,” for “He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17.27–28). It is this fact of God’s omnipresence in His creation, and our own presence in and to Him, that is witnessed to so beautifully in Psalm 139:

Whither shall I go from Thy Spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from Thy Presence?
If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, Thou art there
If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there Thy hand shall lead me, and Thy right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Let only darkness cover me, and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to Thee, the night is bright as the day;
for darkness is as light with Thee!

(Ps 139.7–12)

Angels and Evil Spirits

All things visible and invisible…

In addition to the visible, physical creation there is an invisible world created by God. The Bible sometimes calls it “the heavens” and other times refers to it as “above the heavens.” Whatever its symbolical description in the Holy Scriptures, the invisible world is definitely not part of the physical, material universe. It does not exist in space; it has no physical dimensions. And so it cannot be located, and it has no “place” which can be “reached” by travel within the galaxies of the spatial, locatable “places” of the physically created universe.

However, the fact that the invisible, created world is purely spiritual and is not discoverable on a map of the created material spaces makes it no less real or truly existing. The invisible creation exists as different from the created material universe and, of course, as totally different from the uncreated, absolutely super-divine existence of the uncreated God.

Invisible created reality consists of the hosts of bodiless powers, generally—and somewhat incorrectly—called the angels.


Angels (which means literally “messengers”) are, strictly speaking, but one rank of the incorporeal or bodiless powers of the invisible world.

According to Orthodox Scripture and Tradition there are nine ranks of bodiless powers or the Hosts (Sabaoth means literally “armies” or “choirs” or “ranks”). There are angels, archangels, principalities, powers, virtues, dominions, thrones, cherubim, and seraphim. The latter are described as offering continual adoration and glory to God with the incessant and ever-resounding cry of Holy! Holy! Holy! (Is 6.3; Rev 4.8). Those in the middle of the above listing are little-known to men while the angels and archangels are seen as the active workers, warriors, and messengers of Yahweh relative to this world. Thus, angels and archangels are seen to struggle against spiritual evil and to mediate between God and the world. They appear in various forms to men in both the Old and New Testaments as well as in the life of the Church. The angels are those who bring the power and presence of God and who are messengers of His word for the salvation of the world. The best-known of the angels are Gabriel (which means literally “man of God”), the bearer of the good news of Christ’s birth (Dan 8.16; 9.21; Lk 1.19, 26), and Michael (which means literally “who is like God”), the chief warrior of the spiritual armies of God (Dan 11.13; 12.1; Jude 9; Rev 12.7).

Generally speaking the appearances of the bodiless powers to men are described in a physical way (“six-winged, many-eyed”; or in the “form of a man”). However, it must be clearly understood that these are merely symbolical descriptions. By nature and definition the angels have no bodies and no material properties of any sort. They are strictly spiritual beings.

Evil Spirits

In addition to the created spiritual powers who do the will of God, there are, according to the Orthodox faith, those who rebel against Him and do evil. These are the demons or devils (which means literally those who “pull apart” and destroy) who are also known both in the Old and New Testaments as well as in the lives of the saints of the Church.

Satan (which means literally the enemy or the adversary) is one proper name for the devil, the leader of the evil spirits. He is identified in the serpent symbol of Gen 3 and as the tempter of both Job and Jesus (Job 1.6; Mk 1.33). He is labelled by Christ as a deceiver and liar, the “father of lies” (Jn 8.44) and the “prince of this world” (Jn 12.31; 14.30; 16.11). He has “fallen from heaven” together with his evil angels to do battle with God and his servants (Lk 10.18; Is 14.12). It is this same Satan who “entered Judas” to effect the betrayal and destruction of Christ (Lk 22.3).

The apostles of Christ and the saints of the Church knew from direct experience Satan’s powers against man for Man’s own destruction. They knew as well Satan’s lack of power and his own ultimate destruction when man is with God, filled with the Holy Spirit of Christ. According to Orthodox doctrine there is no middle road between God and Satan. Ultimately, and at any given moment, man is either with God or the devil, serving one or the other.

The ultimate victory belongs to God and to those with Him. Satan and his hosts are finally destroyed. Without this recognition—and still more—the experience of this reality of the cosmic spiritual struggle (God and Satan, the good angels and the evil angels), one cannot truly be called an Orthodox Christian who sees and lives according to the deepest realities of life. Once again, however, it must be clearly noted that the devil is not a “red-suited gentleman” nor any other type of grossly-physical tempter. He is a subtle, intelligent spirit who acts mostly by deceit and hidden actions, having as his greatest victory man’s disbelief in his existence and power. Thus, the devil attacks “head-on” only those whom he can deceive in no other way: Jesus and the greatest of the saints. For the greatest part of his warfare he is only too satisfied to remain concealed and to act by indirect methods and means.

Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour (1 Pet 5.8).

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (Eph 6.11–12).


Man is God’s special creature. He is the only one “created in the image and likeness of God” (Gen 1.26). He is created by God from the dust at the end of the process of creation (the “sixth day”) and by the special will of God. He is made to breathe “the breath of life” (Gen 2.7), to know God, to have dominion over all that God has made.

God created humans as male and female (Gen. 1.27; 2.21) in order “to be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1.28). Thus, according to Orthodox doctrine sexuality belongs to the creation which God calls “very good” (Gen 1.31), and in itself it is in no way sinful or perverse. It belongs to the very nature of humanity directly willed by God.

As the image of God, ruler over creation and co-creator with the Uncreated Maker, man has the task to “reflect” God in creation; to make His presence, His will and His powers spread throughout the universe; to transform all that exists into the paradise of God. In this sense man is definitely created for a destiny higher than the bodiless powers of heaven, the angels. This conviction is affirmed by Orthodox Christianity not only because of the Scriptural emphasis on man as made in God’s image to rule creation, which is not said about angels; but it is also directly affirmed because it is written of Jesus Christ, Who is truly the perfect man and the Last Adam (1 Cor 15.45) that “God has highly exalted him and bestowed upon him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2.10–11).

It follows from belief in Jesus that man is created for a life far superior to that of any creature, even the angels who glorify God and serve the cause of man’s salvation. It is precisely this conviction which is affirmed when the Church hails Mary the Mother of Christ as “more honorable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim.” For what is glorified as already accomplished in the human Mary is precisely what is expected and hoped for by all men “who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk 11.28).

Thus we see the great dignity of man according to the Christian faith. We see man as the “most important” of God’s creatures, the one for whom “all things visible and invisible” have been created by God.

It is the Orthodox doctrine that one can understand and appreciate what it means to be human only in the light of the full revelation of Jesus Christ. Being the Divine Word and Son of God in human flesh, Jesus reveals the real meaning of manhood. As the Perfect Man and the Last Adam, the “man from heaven,” Jesus gives us the proper interpretation of the story of creation given in the book of Genesis. For as the Apostle Paul has written, Adam finds his significance as “the type (or figure) of the one who was to come,” namely Jesus Christ (Rom 5.14).

Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man (Christ) is from heaven . . . Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven (1 Cor 15.45–49).

According to Orthodox theology, to bear the image of God is to be like Christ, the uncreated Image of God, and to share in all of the spiritual attributes of divinity. It is, in the words of the holy fathers, to become by divine grace all that God Himself is by nature. If God is a free, spiritual, personal Being, so human beings, male and female, are to be the same. If God is so powerful and creative, having dominion over all creation, so human creatures, made in His image and according to His likeness, are also to exercise dominion in the world. If God exercises dominion and authority not by tyranny and oppression, but by loving kindness and service, so are His creatures to do likewise. If God Himself is love, mercy, compassion and care in all things, so must His creatures, made to be like Him, also be the same. And finally, if God lives forever in eternal life, never dying, but always existing in perfectly joyful and harmonious beauty and happiness with all of creation, so too are human beings made for everlasting life in joyful and harmonious communion with God and the whole of creation.

According to Orthodox doctrine, human being and life is never completed and finished in its development and growth because it is made in the image and according to the likeness of God. God’s being and life are inexhaustible and boundless. As the Divine Archetype has no limits to His divinity, so the human image has no limits to its humanity, to what it can become by the grace of its Creator. Human nature, therefore, is created by God to grow and develop through participation in the nature of God for all eternity. Man is made to become ever more Godlike forever, even in the Kingdom of God at the end of this age, when Christ will come again in glory to raise the dead and give life to those who love Him.

Thus the holy fathers of the Orthodox faith taught that whatever stage of maturity and development man attains and achieves, whatever his power, wisdom, mercy, knowledge, love, there continually remains before him an infinity of ever-greater fullness of life in the most blessed Trinity to be participated in and lived. The fact that human nature progresses eternally in perfection within the nature of God constitutes the meaning of life for man, and remains forever the source of his joy and gladness for all eternity.

It must be mentioned at this point as well that according to Orthodox Christian doctrine, the fact that humans are created male and female is the direct will of God and is essential for proper human life and activity as reflective of God. In a word, human sexuality is a necessary element in human being and life as made in the image of God. This does not mean that there is any sort of sexuality in God, but it does mean that human life must be sexual—male and female—if it will be what God Himself has made it to be.

Man and woman, male and female, are created by God to live together in a union of being, life and love. The man is to be the leader in human activities, the one reflecting Christ as the new and perfect Adam. The woman is to be man’s “helpmeet,” the “mother of all living” (Gen 2.18; 3.20). Symbolized in the relationship of Mary and the Church, the New Eve, to Christ, the New Adam, as the one who inspires man’s life and completes his being and fulfills his life, the woman is not man’s instrument or tool. She is a person in her own right, a sharer of the nature of God, a necessary complement to man. There can be no man without woman—no Adam without Eve; just as there can be no woman without man. The two exist together in perfect communion and harmony for the fulfillment of human nature and life.

The differences between men and women are real and irreducible. They are not limited to biological or physical differences. They are rather different “modes of existence” within one and the same humanity; just as, we might say, the Son and the Holy Spirit are different “modes of existence” within one and the same divinity, together with God the Father. The male and female are to be in spiritual as well as bodily union. They are to express together, in one and the same humanity, all of the virtues and powers that belong to human nature as made in the image and according to the likeness of God. There are no virtues or powers that belong to man, and not to woman; nor to woman and not to man. All are called to spiritual perfection in truth and in love, indeed in all of the divine virtues of God given to His creatures.

The hostilities and competitions between man and woman that exist in the present world are not due to their respective “modes of existence” as created by God. They are due rather to sin. There should be no tyranny of men over women; no oppression, no servitude. Just as there should be no striving of women to be men, and to hold the male position in the order of creation. There should be rather a harmony and unity within the community of being with its natural created order and distinctions. The oneness of nature with the distinction of various modes of being within Divinity, the Most Holy Trinity. For in the Divinity of the Trinity itself there is a perfect unity of nature and being, with real distinctions between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit as to how each of the Divine Persons lives and expresses the common nature of God. There is an order in the Trinity. There is even a hierarchy if we do not take this term to mean some difference in nature between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but merely the way in which the Divine Persons relate to one another and to man and the world. For in the Trinity itself the Father alone is the “source of divinity.” The Son is the expression of the Father and is “subject” to Him. And the Holy Spirit, of one essence and fully equal with the Father and the Son, is the “third” Person who fulfills the will of the Father and the Son. The Three Divine Persons are perfectly equal. This is a dogma of the Church. But they are not the same, and there is an ordered relation between them in which there are “priorities” in being and acting which not only do not destroy the perfection and perfect unity of the Godhead, but even allow it and make it to be perfect and divine (see “The Holy Trinity,” below). It is the Trinitarian Life of God which is the Divine Archetype and Pattern for the being and acting of male and female within the order of creation.


The word sin means literally “missing the mark.” It means the failure to be what one should be and to do what one should do.

Originally man was made to be the created image of God, to live in union with God’s divine life, and to rule over all creation. Man’s failure in this task is his sin which has also been called his fall.

The “fall” of man means that man failed in his God-given vocation. This is the meaning of Gen 3. Man was seduced by evil (the serpent) into believing that he could be “like God” by his own will and effort.

In the Orthodox tradition the eating of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” is generally interpreted as man’s actual taste of evil, his literal experience of evil as such. Sometimes, this eating is also interpreted (as by Saint Gregory the Theologian) as man’s attempt to go beyond what was possible for him; his attempt to do that which was not yet within his power to realize.

Whatever the details of the various interpretations of the Genesis story, it is the clear doctrine of Orthodoxy that man has failed in his original vocation. He disobeyed God’s command through pride, jealousy and the lack of humble gratitude to God by yielding to the temptation of Satan. Thus man sinned. He “missed the mark” of his calling. He transgressed the Law of God (see 1 Jn 3.4). And so he ruined both himself and the creation which he was given to care for and to cultivate. By his sin-and his sins—man brings himself and all creation under the rule of evil and death.

In the Bible and in Orthodox theology these elements always go together: sin, evil, the devil, suffering and death. There is never one without the other, and all are the common result of man’s rebellion against God and his loss of communion with Him. This is the primary meaning of Genesis 3 and the chapters which follow until the calling of Abraham. Sin begets still more sin and even greater evil. It brings cosmic disharmony, the ultimate corruption and death of everyone and everything. Man still remains the created image of God—this cannot be changed—but he fails to keep his image pure and to retain the divine likeness. He defiles his humanity with evil, perverts it and deforms it so that it cannot be the pure reflection of God that it was meant to be. The world also remains good, indeed “very good,” but it shares the sorry consequences of its created master’s sin and suffers with him in mortal agony and corruption. Thus, through man’s sin the whole world falls under the rule of Satan and “lies in wickedness” (1 Jn 5.19; see also Rom 5.12).

The Genesis story is the divinely-inspired description in symbolic terms of man’s primordial and original possibilities and failures. It reveals that man’s potency for eternal growth and development in God was turned instead into man’s multiplication and cultivation of wickedness and his transformation of creation into the devil’s princedom, a cosmic cemetery “groaning in travail” until saved once more by God (Rom 8.19–23). All the children of Adam, i.e. all who belong to the human race, share in this tragic fate. Even those born this very minute as images of God into a world essentially good are thrown immediately into a deathbound universe, ruled by the devil and filled with the wicked fruit of generations of his evil servants.

This is the fundamental message: man and the world need to be saved. God gives the promise of salvation from the very beginning, the promise which begins to be fulfilled in history in the person of Abraham, the father of Israel, the forefather of Christ.

And the Lord said . . . to Abram [later named Abraham] “I will make you a great nation . . . and by you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen 12.3; also 22.15).

Abraham believed God; and from him came the people of Israel from whom, according to the flesh, came Jesus Christ the Saviour and Lord of Creation (see Lk 1.55, 73; Rom 4; Gal 3).

The entire history of the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in Jesus. All that happened to the chosen children of Abraham happened in view of the eventual and final destruction of sin and death by Christ. The covenants of God with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel which means “the one who struggles with God”); the twelve tribes of Israel; the story of Joseph; the passover, exodus and reception of God’s Law by Moses; the entrance into the promised land by Joshua; the founding of Jerusalem and the building of the temple by David and Solomon; the judges, kings, prophets and priests; everything in the Old Testament history of God’s chosen people finds its final purpose and meaning in the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and glorification of God’s only Son Jesus the Messiah. He is the one who comes from the Father to save the people from their sins, to open their tombs and to grant eternal life to all creation.

Jesus Christ

And In One Lord Jesus Christ . . .

The fundamental confession of Christians about their Master is this: Jesus Christ is Lord. It begins in the gospel when Jesus himself asks his disciples who they think that He is:

But who do you say that I am? Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Mt 16.16).

Jesus is the Christ. This is the first act of faith which men must make about Him. At His birth, the child of Mary is given the name Jesus, which means literally Saviour (in Hebrew Joshua, the name also of Moses’ successor who crossed the Jordan River and led the chosen people into the promised land). “You will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1.21; Lk 1.31). It is this Jesus who is the Christ, which means the Anointed, the Messiah of Israel. Jesus is the Messiah, the one promised to the world through Abraham and his children.

But who is the Messiah? This is the second question, one also asked by Christ in the gospels—this time not to his disciples, but to those who were taunting him and trying to catch him in his words. “Who is the Messiah?” he asked them, not because they could answer or really wished to know, but in order to silence them and to begin the inauguration of “the hour” for which he had come: the hour of the world’s salvation.

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question saying, “What do you think of the Christ [i.e., the Messiah]? Whose Son is he?

They said to him, “The Son of David.”

He said to them, “How is it then that David, inspired by the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand till I put thy enemies under thy feet” (Ps 110). If David thus calls him Lord, how is he his son?”

And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
(Mt 22.41–46)

After Jesus’ resurrection, inspired by the same Holy Spirit who inspired David, the apostles and all members of the Church understood the meaning of his words. Jesus is the Christ. And the Christ is the Lord. This is the mystery of Jesus Christ the Messiah, namely that He is the One and Only Lord, identified with the God Yahweh of the Old Testament.

We saw already how Yahweh was always called Adonai, the Lord, by the people of Israel. In the Greek Bible the very word Yahweh was not even written. Instead, where the word Yahweh was written in Hebrew, and where the Jews said Adonai, the Lord, the Greek Bible simply wrote Kyrios—the Lord. Thus, the Son of David, which was another way of saying the Messiah, is called Kyrios, the Lord.

For the Jews, and indeed for the first Christians, the term Lord was proper to God alone: “God is the Lord and has revealed Himself unto us” (Ps 11.8). This Lord and God is Yahweh; and it is Jesus the Messiah as well. For although Jesus claims that “the Father is greater than I” (Jn 14.28), he claims as well: “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10.30).

Believing in “One Lord Jesus Christ” is the prime confession of faith for which the first Christians were willing to die. For it is the confession which claims the identity of Jesus with the Most High God.

Son of God

The only-begotten Son of God . . .

Jesus is one with God as His only-begotten Son. This is the gospel proclamation formulated by the holy fathers of the Nicene Council in the following way:

. . . and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages: Light of Light. True God of True God. Begotten not made. Of one essence with the Father. Through whom all things were made . . .

These lines speak about the Son of God, also called the Word or Logos of God, before his birth in human flesh from the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem.

There is but one eternal Son of God. He is called the Only-begotten, which means the only one born of God the Father. Begotten as a word simply means born or generated.

The Son of God is born from the Father “before all ages”; that is, before creation, before the commencement of time. Time has its beginning in creation. God exists before time, in an eternally timeless existence without beginning or end.

Eternity as a word does not mean endless time. It means the condition of no time at all—no past or future, just a constant present. For God there is no past or future. For God, all is now.

In the eternal “now” of God, before the creation of the world, God the Father gave birth to his only-begotten Son in what can only be termed an eternal, timeless, always presently-existing generation. This means that although the Son is “begotten of the Father” and comes forth from the Father, his coming forth is eternal. Thus, there never was a “time” when there was no Son of God. This is specifically what the heretic Arius taught. It is the doctrine formally condemned by the first ecumenical council.

Although born of the Father and having his origin in Him, the only-begotten Son always existed, or rather more accurately always “exists” as uncreated, eternal and divine. Thus, the Gospel of Saint John says:

In the beginning was the Word [the Logos-Son], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (Jn 1.1).

As the eternally-born of God and always existing with the Father in the “timeless generation,” the Son is truly “Light of Light, True God of True God.” For God is Light and what is born of Him must be Light. And God is True God, and what is born of Him must be True God.

We know from the created order of things that what is born must be essentially the same as what gives birth. If one comes from the very being of another, one must be the very same thing. He cannot be essentially different. Thus, men give birth to men, and birds to birds, fish to fish, flowers to flowers.

If God, then, in the super-abundant fullness and perfection of His divine being gives birth to a Son, the Son must be the same as the Father in all things—except, of course, in the fact of his being the Son.

Thus, if the Father is divinely and eternally perfect, true, wise, good, loving, and all of the things that we know God is: “ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, ever-existing and eternally the same” (to quote this text of the Liturgy once more), then the Son must be all of these things as well. To think that what is born of God must be less than God, says one saint of the Church, is to dishonor to God.

The Son is “begotten not made, of one essence with the Father.” “Begotten not made” may also be put “born and not created.” Everything which exists besides God is created by Him: all things visible and invisible. But the Son of God is not a creature. He was not created by God or made by Him. He was born, begotten, generated from the very being and nature of the Father. It belongs to the very nature of God-to God as God—according to divine revelation as understood by the Orthodox, that God is an eternal Father by nature, and that He should always have with Him his eternal, uncreated Son.

It belongs to the very nature of God that He should be such a being if He is truly and perfectly divine. It belongs to God’s very divine nature that He should not be eternally alone in his divinity, but that His very being as Love and Goodness should naturally “overflow itself” and “reproduce itself” in the generation of a divine Son: the “Son of His Love” as the Apostle Paul has called him (Col 1.13, inaccurately translated in English).

Thus, there is an abyss drawn between the created and the uncreated, between God and everything else which God has made out of nothing. The Son of God, born of the Father before all ages, is not created. He was not made out of nothing. He was eternally begotten from the divine being of the Father. He belongs “on the side of God.”

Having been born and not made, the Son of God is what God is. The expression of one essence simply means this: what God the Father is, so also—is the Son of God. Essence is from the Latin word esse which means to be. The essence of a thing answers the question, What is it? What the Father is, the Son is. The Father is divine, the Son is divine. The Father is eternal, the Son is eternal. The Father is uncreated, the Son is uncreated. The Father is God and the Son is God. This is what men confess when they say “the only-begotten Son of God . . . of one essence with the Father.”

Being always with the Father, the Son is also one life, one will, one power and one action with Him. Whatever the Father is, the Son is; and so whatever the Father does, the Son does as well. The original act of God outside of His divine existence is the act of creation. The Father is creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. And in the act of creation, as—we confess in the Symbol of Faith, the Son is the one by whom all things were made.

The Son acts in creation as the one who accomplishes the Father’s will. The divine act of creation-and, indeed, every action toward the world in revelation, salvation, and glorification—is willed by the Father and accomplished by the Son (we will speak of the Holy Spirit below) in one identical divine action. Thus, we have the Genesis account of God creating through His divine word (“God said . . .”), and in the Gospel of St John the following specific revelation:

“He [the Word-Son] was in the beginning with God [the Father]; all things were made through [or by] him and without him was not anything made that was made” (Jn 1.2–3).

This is the exact doctrine of the Apostle Paul as well:

. . . in him [the Son] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers-all things were created through him and for him. He is before an things and in him all things hold together (Col 1.16–17).

Thus, the eternal Son of God is confessed as the one “by whom all things were made” (Heb 1.2; 2.10; Rom 11.36).

The Symbol of Faith continues: . . . Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man . . .

The divine Son of God was born in human flesh for the salvation of the world. This is the central doctrine of the Orthodox Christian Faith; the entire life of Christians is built upon this fact.

The Symbol of Faith stresses that it is “for us men and for our salvation” that the Son of God has come. This is the most critical biblical doctrine, that “God so loved the world that He gave his only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (Jn 3.16, quoted at each Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom at the center of the eucharistic prayer).

Because of His perfect love, God sent forth His Son into the world. God knew in the very act of creation that to have a world at all would require the incarnation of His Son in human flesh. Incarnation as a word means “enfleshment” in the sense of taking on the wholeness of human nature, body and soul.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as the only-begotten Son of the Father. And from his fullness have we all received grace upon grace” (Jn 1.14–16).

... came down from heaven…

The affirmation that the Son came “down from heaven” also should not be interpreted in the sense that before the incarnation the Son of God was totally absent from the world. The Son was always “in the world” for the “world was made through Him” (Jn 1.10). He was always present in the world for He is personally the life and the light of man (1 Jn 4).

As “created in the image and likeness of God,” every man—just by being a man—is already a reflection of the divine Son, who is Himself the uncreated image of God (Col 1.15; Heb 1.3). Thus, the Son, or Word, or Image, or Radiance of God, as He is called in Scriptures, was always “in the world” by being always present in every of his “created images,” not only as their creator, but also as the one whose very being all creatures are made to share and to reflect. Thus, in his incarnation, the Son comes personally to the world and becomes Himself a man. But even before the incarnation He was always in the world by the presence and power of his creative actions in his creatures, particularly in man.

In addition to this, it is also Orthodox doctrine that the manifestation of God to the saints of the Old Testament, the so-called theophanies (which means divine manifestations), were manifestations of the Father, by, through and in his Son or Logos. Thus, for example, the manifestations to Moses, Elias or Isaiah are mediated by God’s divine and uncreated Son.

It is the Orthodox teaching as well that the Word of God which came to the Old Testament prophets and saints, and the very words of the Old Testament Law of Moses, which are called in Hebrew the “words” and not as we say in English, the “commandments”, are also revelations of God by his Son, the Divine Word. Thus, for example, we have Old Testamental witness to the revelation of God’s Word, such as that of the Prophet Isaiah, in almost the same personalistic form as is found in the Christian gospel:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I propose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it (Is 55.10–11).

Thus, before His personal birth of the Virgin Mary as the man Jesus, the divine Son and Word of God was in the world by His presence and action in creation, particularly in man. He was present and active; also in the theophanies to the Old Testament saints; and in the words of the law and the prophets, both oral and scriptural.


And He was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man . . .

The divine Son of God was born as a man from the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit (Mt 1; Lk 1). The Church teaches that the virgin birth is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (Is 7.14), and that it is as well the fulfillment of the longings of all men for salvation which are found in all religions and philosophies in human history. Only God can save the world. Man alone cannot do it because it is man himself who must be saved. Therefore, according to Orthodox doctrine, the virgin birth is necessary not at all because of a false idolization of virginity as such or because of a sinful repulsion to normal human sexuality. Nor is it necessary as some would contend to give “added weight” to the moral teachings of Jesus. The virgin birth is understood as a necessity because the one who is born must not be merely a man like all others needing salvation. The Saviour of the world cannot merely be one of the race of Adam born of the flesh like all of the others. He must be “not of this world” in order to save the world.

Jesus is born from the Virgin Mary because he is the divine Son of God, the Saviour of the world. It is the formal teaching of the Orthodox Church that Jesus is not a “mere man” like all other men. He is indeed a real man, a whole and perfectly complete man with a human mind, soul and body. But he is the man which the Son and Word of God has become. Thus, the Church formally confesses that Mary should properly be called Theotokos, which means literally “the one who gives birth to God.” For the one born of Mary is, as the Orthodox Church sings at Christmas: “. . . he who from all eternity is God.”

Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One, and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One! Angels, with shepherds, glorify Him! The wise men journey with the star! Since for our sake the eternal God was born as a little child! (Kontakion of the Nativity)

Jesus of Nazareth is God, or, more accurately, the divine Son of God in human flesh. He is a true man in every way. He was born. He grew up in obedience to his parents. He increased in wisdom and stature (Lk 2.51–52). He had a family life with “brethren” (Mk 3.31–34), who according to Orthodox doctrine were not children born of Mary who is confessed as “ever-virgin,” but were either cousins or children of Joseph.

As a man Jesus experienced all normal and natural human experiences such as growth and development, ignorance and learning, hunger, thirst, fatigue, sorrow, pain, and disappointment. He also knew human temptation, suffering, and death. He took these things upon himself “for us men and for our salvation.”

Since, therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage. For surely it was not with angels that he is concerned but with the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect . . . to make expiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted (Heb 2.9–18).

Christ has entered the world becoming like all men in all things except sin.

He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him [God the Father] who judges justly (1 Pet 2.22; Heb 4.15).

Jesus was tempted, but he did not sin. He was perfect in every way, absolutely obedient to God the Father; speaking His words, doing His works, and accomplishing His will. As a man, Jesus fulfilled his role perfectly as the Perfect Man, the new and final Adam. He did all things that man fails to do, being in everything the most perfect human response to the divine initiative of God toward creation. In this sense, the Son of God as man “recapitulated” the life of Adam, i.e., the entire human race, bringing man and his world back to God the Father and allowing for a new beginning of life free from the power of sin, the devil, and death.

As the Saviour-Messiah, Christ fulfilled as well all of the prophecies and expectations of the Old Testament, fulfilling and crowning in final and absolute perfection all that was begun in Israel for human and cosmic salvation. Thus, Christ is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, the completion of the Law of Moses, the fulfillment of the prophets and Himself the Final Prophet, the King and the Teacher, the one Great High Priest of Salvation and the Perfect Sacrificial Victim, the New Passover and the Bestower of the Holy Spirit upon all creation.

It is in this role as Messiah-King of Israel and Saviour of the world that Christ insisted upon His identity with God the Father and called Himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life: the Resurrection and the Life, the Light of the World, the Bread of Life, the Door to the Sheepfold, the Good Shepherd, the Heavenly Son of Man, the Son of God, and God Himself, the I AM (Gospel of Saint John).

Defense of the Doctrine of Incarnation

In the Orthodox Church the central fact of the Christian faith, that the Son of God has appeared on earth as a real man, born of the Virgin Mary in order to die and rise again to give life to the world, has been expressed and defended in many different ways. The first preaching and the first defense of the faith consisted in maintaining that Jesus of Nazareth is in truth the Messiah of Israel, and that the Messiah Himself—the Christ—is indeed truly Lord and God in human form. The first Christians, beginning with the apostles, had to insist on the fact that not only is Jesus truly the Christ and the Son of God, but that He has truly lived and died and risen from the dead in the flesh, as a true human being.

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God (1 Jn 4.2).

For many deceivers have gone into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh . . . (2 Jn 7).

In the early years of the Christian faith, the defenders of the faith—the apologists and martyrs—had as their central witness and task the defense of the doctrine that Jesus, being the Son of God in human flesh, has lived on earth, has died, has been raised by the Father, and has been glorified as the only King and Lord and God of the world.

The Ecumenical Councils

In the third and fourth centuries attempts were made to teach that although Jesus is truly the incarnate Son and Word of God, that the Son and Word Himself is not fully and totally divine, but a creature—even the most exalted creature—but a creature made by God like everything else that was made. This was the teaching of the Arians. Against this teaching, the fathers, such as Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil the Great, his brother, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory the Theologian of Nazianzus defended the definition of faith of the first and second ecumenical councils which held that the Son and Word of God—incarnate in human form as Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah—Christ of Israel—is not a creature, but is truly divine with the same divinity as God the Father and the Holy Spirit. This was the defense of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity which preserved for the Church of all ages the faith that Jesus is indeed the divine Son of God, of one essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one of the Holy Trinity.

At the same time, in the fourth century, it was also necessary for the Church to reject the teaching of a certain Appolinarius, who claimed that although Jesus was indeed the incarnate Son and Word of God, the incarnation consisted in the Word merely taking a human body and not the fullness of human nature. This was the doctrine that Jesus had no real human soul, no human mind, no human spirit, but that the divine Son of God, who exists eternally with the Father and the Spirit, merely dwelt in a human body, in human flesh, as in a temple. It is for this reason that every official doctrinal statement in the Orthodox Church, including all of the statements of the ecumenical councils, always insists that the Son of God became man of the Virgin Mary with a rational soul and body; in other words, that the Son of God really became human in the full meaning of the word and that Jesus Christ was and is a real human being, having and being everything that every human being has and is. This is nothing other than the teaching of the Gospels and the New Testament scriptures generally.

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same nature . . . [being] made like His brethren in every respect . . . (Heb 2.14–17)

The Nestorian Controversy

In the fifth century a long and difficult controversy developed over the true understanding of the person and nature of Jesus Christ. The third ecumenical council in Ephesus in 431, following the teaching of Saint Cyril of Alexandria, was most concerned to defend the fact that the One who was born of the Virgin Mary was no one other than the divine Son of God in human flesh. It was necessary to defend this fact most explicitly because some in the Church, following Nestorius, the bishop of Constantinople, were teaching that the Virgin Mary should not be called Theotokos—a term already used in the Church’s theology—because it was claimed that the Virgin gave birth to the man Jesus whom the Son of God had become in the incarnation, and not to the Son Himself. In this view it was held that there is a division between the Son of God born in eternity from God the Father and the Son of Man born from the Virgin in Bethlehem; and that although there is certainly a real “connection” between them, Mary merely gave birth to the man. As such, it was held, Mary could be called Theotokos only by some sort of symbolic and overly-pious stretching of the word, but that it is rather dogmatically accurate to call her Christotokos (the one who gave birth to the Messiah) or Anthropotokos (the one who gave birth to the Man that the Son of God has become in the incarnation).

Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the fathers of the council in Ephesus rejected the Nestorian doctrine and claimed that the term Theotokos for the Virgin Mary is completely and totally accurate and must be retained if the Christian faith is to be properly confessed and the Christian life properly lived. The term must be defended because there can be no division of any sort between the eternal Son and Word of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, and Jesus Christ, the Son of Mary. Mary’s child is the eternal and divine Son of God. He—and no one else—was born of her as a child. He—and no one else—was incarnate in human flesh from her. He—and no one else—became man in the manger in Bethlehem. There can be no “connection” or “conjunction” between God’s Son and Mary’s Son because they are in fact one and the same person. God’s Son was born of Mary. God’s Son is divine; He is God. Therefore, Mary gave birth to God in the flesh, to God as a man. Therefore, Mary is truly Theotokos. The battle cry of St Cyril and the Council in Ephesus was just this: The Son of God and the Son of Man—one Son!

The Council of Chalcedon

This teaching about Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, was further elaborated and explained by the definition of the fourth ecumenical council in Chalcedon in 451. This was necessary because there was a tendency to stress the divine nature of Christ to such an extent that His true human nature was underplayed to the point almost of being rejected. At the fourth council the well-known formulation was made which says that Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son and Word of God is one person (or hypostasis) having two full and complete natures: human and divine. Inspired particularly by the letter of Saint Leo, the Pope of Rome, the fourth council insisted that Jesus is exactly what God the Father is in relation to His divinity. This was a direct reference to the Nicene Creed which claims that the Son of God is “of one essence with the Father,” which simply means that what God the Father is, the Son is also: Light from Light, True God from True God. And the council insisted as well that in the incarnation the Son of God became exactly what all human beings are, confessing that Jesus Christ is also “of one essence” with all human beings in respect to His humanity. This doctrine was and is defended as teaching nothing other than the apostolic faith as recorded in the Gospels and the New Testament writings, for example, those of the Apostle Paul:

. . . though He was in the form of God, [Jesus] did not count equality with God a thing to be clung to, but emptied Himself, taking on the form of a servant, being found in the likeness of men. And being found in human form He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Phil 2.6–8; See also Heb 1–2, Jn 1).

The critical words in the definition of faith of the Council of Chalcedon are the following:

Following the holy fathers we teach with one voice that the Son of God and our Lord Jesus Christ is to be confessed as one and the same [Person], and He is perfect in Divinity and perfect in Humanity, true God and true Man, of a rational soul and [human] body consisting, of one essence with the Father as touching His Divinity and of one essence with us as touching His Humanity; made in all things like unto us, with the exception of sin only; begotten of His Father before all ages according to His Divinity: but in these last days, for us men and for our salvation, born [into the world] of the Virgin Mary, Theotokos, according to His Humanity. This one and the same Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son [of God] must be confessed to be in two natures, without mixture and without change, without separation and without division [i.e., without fusing together Divinity and Humanity so that the proper characteristics of each are changed or lost; and also without separating them in such a way that there might be considered to be two Sons and not One Son only] and that without the distinction of natures being removed by such union, but rather that the peculiar property of each nature being preserved and being united in one Person and Hypostasis, not separated or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son and only begotten, God the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, as the Prophets of old have spoken concerning Him [e.g., the Immanuel of Is 7.14], and as Jesus Christ has taught us, and as the Creed of the fathers has delivered to us.

A number of Christians did not accept the Council of Chalcedon and broke communion with those who did accept it. They did so because they thought that the council had in fact resurrected the wrong doctrine of Nestorius by insisting on the “two natures” after the incarnation, however strongly and firmly the “union” of the two natures was insisted upon. These Christians were called the monophysites (from the term meaning “one nature” after the incarnation), and they continue until today in separation from the Chalcedonian Orthodox in the Coptic, Ethiopian and Armenian churches. Hopefully, one day, by God’s grace, this dispute will be resolved and those who adhere to Chalcedon the Eastern Orthodox Christians, as well as the traditional Roman Catholics and Protestants—will come to a unity of faith with those who reject Chalcedon in regard to its explication of the union of the divine and the human in the one person of Christ our Lord. Whatever the future may hold by God’s grace, however, it is still the firm teaching of the Orthodox Church that the Council of Chalcedon is in strict adherence with the anti-Nestorian doctrines of Saint Cyril and the third ecumenical council in Ephesus. The virtue of the fourth council, in the Orthodox view, is that it defines very clearly the fact that when the Son of God was born as a man from the Virgin Mary, Theotokos, He did not cease to be God or change in His Divinity, while becoming a complete and perfect man in His incarnate Humanity. For salvation itself requires the perfect union of Divinity and Humanity in the one Person of Jesus Christ; 21 union where God is God and Man is Man, and yet where the two become one in perfect unity: without fusion or change, and without division or separation.

Emperor Justinian and the 5th Ecumenical Council

In the sixth century, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian wanted to reaffirm the fact that the followers of the council of Chalcedon really believed that Jesus Christ is the incarnate Son and Word of God, one of the Holy Trinity. He wanted to do this primarily to convince those who did not accept the fourth council that its definition did not reintroduce the error of Nestorius. To do this, the Emperor called the council now known as the fifth ecumenical council in Constantinople in 553 which further served to clarify the Orthodox position in regard to the person and action of Christ. The following are some of the key texts of this council:

If anyone understands the expression “one Person only of our Lord Jesus Christ” in this sense, that it is the union of many hypostases [or persons], and if he thus attempts to introduce into the mystery of Christ two hypostases or two persons, and after having introduced two persons speaks of one Person only in the sense of dignity, honor or worship . . . [and] shall calumniate the holy council of Chalcedon, pretending that it used this expression [one hypostasis and person] in this impious sense . . . let him be anathema.

If anyone shall not call in a true acceptation . . . the holy, glorious and ever-virgin Mary, the Theotokos . . . believing that she bare only a simple man and that God the Word was not incarnate of her . . . [and] shall calumniate the holy synod of Chalcedon as though it has asserted the Virgin to be Theotokos according to the impious sense . . . let him be anathema.

If anyone using the expression “in two natures” does not confess that our one Lord Jesus Christ has been revealed in the divinity and in the humanity, so as to designate by that expression a difference of the natures of which an ineffable union is made without confusion, in which neither the nature of the Word was changed into that of the flesh, nor that of the flesh into that of the Word, for each remained what it was by nature, the union being hypostatic [i.e., in the one Person]; but shall take the expression to divide the parties . . . let him be anathema.

If anyone does not confess that our Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified in the flesh is true Gad and the Lord of Glory and one of the Holy Trinity, let him be anathema.

To further emphasize the point that the Chalcedonian Council was truly orthodox, the Emperor Justinian wrote a doctrinal hymn which is still sung in the Orthodox Church at every divine liturgy. It confesses the Lord Jesus Christ as perfect God and perfect man.

Only-begotten Son and Word of God,
Who for our salvation willed to be incarnate of
the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary,
Who without change became man and was crucified,
Who is one of the Holy Trinity, glorified with
the Father and the Holy Spirit,
O Christ our God, trampling down death by death,
Save us!

The Monothelite Controversy

In the seventh century the question ofhow to understand, define and confess the person and action of Jesus Christ continued to cause divisions among the believers. Some now said that after the Son of God became man, He had just one activity and will—the theandric activity and will of the Word-made—flesh. These people, called monothelites, insisted that the One Person of Christ, in uniting the natures of God and Man in His One Person, fused together the human and divine will and activity in such a way that they no longer could be distinguished.

The sixth ecumenical council met in Constantinople in 680–681. Following the teachings of St Maximus the Confessor who was imprisoned and tortured for his doctrines, it decreed that just as Christ is really fully divine and fully human, the perfect union of Divinity and Humanity in one Person, so also He must have both a real human activity and will and a real divine activity and will according to each of His natures and that these two wills and activities, like the natures themselves, should not be understood to be fused or mingled together into one so as to lose their proper natural characteristics and properties. This decision was based on the fact that since the Son of God remained fully divine in the incarnation, He must continue to have His proper divine activity and will; and that since He became fully human in the incarnation He must also have a complete and perfect human activity and will; and that the salvation of mankind requires that the distinction but not the division or separation of each of these respective activities and wills remain in the incarnate Saviour. The following is part of the definition of faith of the sixth council:

. . . in Him are two natural wills and two natural operations without division, without fusion, without change and without separation according to the teaching of the holy fathers. And these two natural wills are not contrary to one another (God forbid!) . . . but His human will follows, and not as resisting and reluctant, but rather as subject to His divine and omnipotent will . . . For as His most holy and immaculate animated flesh was not destroyed because it was deified but continued in its own state and nature, so also His human will, although deified, was not suppressed, but was rather preserved . . . We glorify two natural operations . . . in the same Lord Jesus Christ our true God, that is to say a divine operation [or action] and a human operation

. . . For we will not admit one natural operation in God and in the creature. . . . believing our Lord Jesus Christ to be one of the Trinity, and after the incarnation our true God we say that His two natures shone forth in His one hypostasis [or person] in which He both performed the miracles and endured the sufferings . . . Wherefore we confess two wills and two operations concurring most fitly in Him for the salvation of the human race.

lconoclastic Controversy

In the eighth and ninth centuries the question of the person and nature of Christ continued in the controversy over the veneration of the holy icons in the Church. At this time many were found, including emperors and secular rulers, who claimed that the veneration of icons is wrong because it is the sin of idolatry. They claimed that as God is invisible and has commanded in the Old Testament law that men are not to make “graven images,” so it is wrong to depict and to honor images of Christ and the saints.

The defenders of the veneration of the holy icons, led by Saints John Damascene and Theodore Studion, claimed that the central point of the Christian faith is that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” and that “we have beheld His glory” (Jn 1.14). Referring to the holy scriptures they insisted that belief in the incarnation of the Son of God calls for the veneration of icons since Jesus Christ is a real man with a real human soul and body, and as such can be depicted. They said that those who were against the holy icons reduced the incarnation to a “fantasy” and denied the true humanity of the Son of God in His coming to man. Thus they made reference to the words of Jesus Himself in His dialogue with Philip:

Philip said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father and we shall be satisfied.”
Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long. and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’”

(Jn 14.8–9).

The defenders of the propriety of icon veneration also referred to the apostolic writings of Saint John and Saint Paul:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands concerning the Word of Life the Life was made manifest, and we saw it . . . (1 Jn 1.1–2).

. . . the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness [in Greek: eikōn] of God (2 Cor 4.4).

He is the image [eikōn] of the invisible God, the first born of all creation; for in Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth . . . all things were created through Him and for Him . . . for in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell . . . (Colossians 1.15–20).

In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by a Son, whom He appointed the heir of all things, through whom also He created the world. He is the reflection of the glory of God and the express image of His person, upholding the universe by the word of His power . . . (Hebrews 1.1–3).

The seventh ecumenical council in Nicea in 787 officially declared that the Christian faith is to be proclaimed “in words and images.” And while making clear the teaching that holy icons may be made; that they are not to be worshipped—for only God Himself is worthy of worship—but are to be venerated and honored; the seventh council also made the following statement about Christ in reference to the veneration of icons:

. . . we keep unchanged all the ecclesiastical traditions handed down to us, whether in writing or verbally, one of which is the making of pictorial representations, agreeable to the history of the preaching of the Gospel, a tradition useful in many respects, but especially in this, that so the incarnation of the Word of God is shone forth in real and not merely in phantasy, for these have mutual indications and without doubt have also mutual significations.

In later times the doctrines of the real divinity and real humanity of Jesus Christ was witnessed and defended by such saints as Simeon the New Theologian (d. 1022) and Gregory Palamas, the Archbishop of Thessalonika (d. 1359) in their teachings about the real sanctification and deification of man through living communion with God through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit in the Church. In and through Christ, the Word incarnate, human persons can be filled with the Spirit of God and can be in genuine communion with God the Father, participating in the uncreated being, life and light of the Most Blessed Trinity. If Jesus Christ were not true God and true Man, this would be impossible. But it is not impossible. It is man’s experience of salvation and redemption in the life of the Church of Christ.


And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried.

Although Jesus did not sin and did not have to suffer and die, he voluntarily took upon himself the sins of the world and voluntarily gave himself up to suffering and death for the sake of salvation. This was his task as the Messiah-Saviour:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good tidings to the afflicted . . . to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound . . . to comfort all who mourn . . . to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning” (Is 61.1–3).

And at the same time, Jesus had to do this as the suffering servant of Yahweh-God.

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised. and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and by his stripes [i.e., wounds] we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before his shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.

By oppression and judgement he was taken away . . . And they made his grave with the wicked, and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the will of the Lord [Yahweh] to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand; he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities.

Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many [or the multitude] and made intercession for the transgressors.
(Is 53)

These words of the prophet Isaiah written centuries before the birth of Jesus tell the story of his Messianic mission. It began officially before the eyes of all in his baptism by John in the Jordan. By allowing himself to be baptized with the sinners though he had no sin, Jesus shows that he accepts his calling to be identified with the sinners: “the Beloved” of the Father and “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1.29; Mat 3.17).

Jesus begins to teach, and on the very day and at that very moment when his disciples first confess him to be the Messiah, “the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus tells immediately of his mission to “go to Jerusalem and suffer many things . . . and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Mt 16.16–23; Mk 8.29–33). The apostles are greatly upset by this. Jesus then immediately shows them his divinity by being transfigured before them in divine glory on the mountain in the presence of Moses and Elijah. He then tells them once more: “The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day” (Mt 17.1–23; Mk 9.1–9).

The powers of evil multiplied against Christ at the end: “The kings of the earth counsel together against the Lord and His Christ” (Ps 2.2). They were looking for causes to kill him. The formal reason was blasphemy, “because you, being a man, make yourself God” (Jn 10.31–38). Yet the deep reasons were more personal: Jesus told men the truth and revealed their stubbornness, foolishness, hypocrisy, and sin. For this reason every sinner, hardened in his sins and refusing to repent, wishes and causes the crucifixion of Christ.

The death of Jesus came at the hands of the religious and political leaders of his time, with the approval of the masses: when Caiaphas was high priest, “under Pontius Pilate.” He was “crucified for us . . . and suffered and was buried” in order to be with us in our sufferings and death which we brought upon ourselves because of our sins: “for the wages of sin are death” (Rom 6.23). In this sense the Apostle Paul writes of Jesus that “having become a curse for us” (Gal 3.13), “for our sake he (God the Father) made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5.21).

Descent Hades

The sufferings and death of Christ in obedience to the Father reveals the super-abundant divine love of God for his creation. For when all was sinful, cursed, and dead, Christ became sin, a curse, and dead for us—though he himself never ceased to be the righteousness and blessedness and life of God Himself. It is to this depth, of which lower and more base cannot be discovered or imagined, that Christ has humiliated himself “for us men and for our salvation.” For being God, he became man; and being man, he became a slave; and being a slave, he became dead and not only dead, but dead on a cross. From this deepest degradation of God flows the eternal exaltation of man. This is the pivotal doctrine of the Orthodox Christian faith, expressed over and again in many ways throughout the history of the Orthodox Church. It is the doctrine of the atonement—for we are made to be “at one” with God. It is the doctrine of redemption—for we are redeemed, i.e., “bought with a price,” the great price of the blood of God (Acts 20.28; 1 Cor 6.20).

Have this mind among yourselves which you have in Christ Jesus who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant [slave], being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2.5–11).

In contemplating the saving and redeeming action of Christ, it has become traditional to emphasize three aspects which in reality are not divided, and cannot be; but which in theory (i.e., in the vision of Christ’s being.and activity as the Saviour of the world) may be distinguished. The first of these three aspects of the redeeming work of Christ is the fact that Jesus saves mankind by providing the perfect image and example of human life as filled with the grace and power of God.

Jesus, the Perfect Image of Human Life

Christ is the incarnate Word of God. He is the Teacher and Master sent by God to the world. He is the embodiment of God Himself in human form. He is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1.15). In Him “the fullness of divinity dwells bodily” (Col 2.9). The person who sees Jesus sees God the Father (Jn 14.9). He is the “reflection of the glory of God and the express image of His person” (Heb 1.3). He is the “light of the world” who “enlightens every man . . . coming into the world” (Jn 8.12, 1.9). To be saved by Jesus Christ is first of all to be enlightened by Him; to see Him as the Light, and to see all things in the light of Him. It is to know Him as “the Truth” (Jn 14.6); and to know the truth in Him.

And you will know the truth and the truth will make you free (Jn 8.31).

When one is saved by God in Christ one comes to the knowledge of the truth, fulfilling God’s desire for His creatures, for “God our Saviour . . . desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2.4). In saving God’s world, Jesus Christ enlightens God’s creatures by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God who is the Spirit of Truth who proceeds from the Father and is sent into the world through Christ.

If you love Me, you will keep My commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; you know Him, for He dwells with you, and will be in you (Jn 14.15–17).

But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you . . . (Jn 15.26).

When the Spirit of Truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth . . . (Jn 16.13).

The first aspect of salvation in Christ, therefore, is to be enlightened by Him and to know the truth about God and man by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, which God gives through Him to those who believe. This is witnessed to in the apostolic writings of Saints John and Paul:

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom, but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit. . . . For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2.13–16).

For [God] has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of His will, according to His purpose which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth. . . . To me . . . this grace was given . . . to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God . . . that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known . . . (Eph 1.8–10; 3.9).

For I want . . . that their hearts may be encouraged as they are knit together in love, to have all the riches of assured understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery in Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col 2.1–3).

But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you know all things I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and know that no lie is of the truth. . . . but the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need that any one should teach you; as His anointing teaches you about everything, and is true and is no lie, just as it has taught you, abide in Him. . . . And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit which He has given to us (1 Jn 2.20–27; 3.24).

The first aspect of man’s salvation by God in Christ is, therefore, the ability and power to see, to know, to believe and to love the truth of God in Christ, who is the Truth, by the Spirit of Truth. It is the gift of knowledge and wisdom, of illumination and enlightenment, it is the condition of being “taught by God” as foretold by the prophets and fulfilled by Christ (Is 54.13; Jer 31.33–34; Jn 6.45). Thus, in the Orthodox Church, the entrance into the saving life of the Church through baptism and chrismation is called “holy illumination.”

For it is God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Cor 4.6).

Jesus, the Reconciler of Man with God

The second aspect of Christ’s one, indivisible act of salvation of man and his world is the accomplishment of man’s reconciliation with God the Father through the forgiveness of sins. This is the redemption and atonement strictly speaking, the release from sins, and the punishment due to sins; the being made “at one” with God.

While we were yet helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Since therefore we are now made righteous by His blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life. Not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our reconciliation (Rom 5.6–11).

Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation (2 Cor 5.17–19).

The forgiveness of sins is one of the signs of the coming of the Christ, the Messiah, as foretold in the Old Testament:

. . . they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more (Jer 31.34).

Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the Lamb that is slain that through Him all sins might be forgiven. He is also the great high priest, who offers the perfect sacrifice by which man is purged from his sins and cleansed from his iniquities. Jesus offers, as high priest, the perfect sacrifice of His own very life, His own body, as the Lamb of God, upon the tree of the cross.

For to this you have been called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in His steps. He committed no sin; no guile was found on His lips. When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten; but He trusted to Him who judges justly. He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Pastor and Bishop of your souls (1 Pet 2.22–25).

The high-priestly offering and sacrifice of the Son of God to His eternal Father is described in great detail in the Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament scriptures.

In the days of His flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to Him who was able to save Him from death, and He was heard for His godly fear. Although He was a Son, He learned obedience through what He suffered, and being made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him, being designated a high priest by God, according to the order of Melchizedek (Heb 5.7–10).

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come . . . He entered once for all into the Holy Place [not made by hands, i.e., the Presence of God] taking . . . His own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore, He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred which redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant (Heb 9.11–15).

According to the scriptures, man’s sins and the sins of the whole world are forgiven and pardoned by the sacrifice of Christ, by the offering of His life—His body and His blood, which is the “blood of God” (Acts 20.28)—upon the cross. This is the “redemption,” the “ransom,” the “expiation,” the “propitiation” spoken about in the scriptures which had to be made so that man could be “at one” with God. Christ “paid the price” which was necessary to be paid for the world to be pardoned and cleansed of all iniquities and sins (1 Cor 6.20; 7.23).

In the history of Christian doctrine there has been great debate over the question of to whom Christ “pays the price” for the ransom of the world and the salvation of mankind. Some have said that the “payment” was made to the devil. This is the view that the devil received certain “rights” over man and his world because of man’s sin. In his rebellion against God, man “sold himself to the devil” thus allowing the Evil One to become the “prince of this world” (Jn 12.31). Christ comes to pay the debt to the devil and to release man from his control by sacrificing Himself upon the cross.

Others say that Christ’s “payment” on behalf of man had to be made to God the Father. This is the view which interprets Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross as the proper punishment that had to be paid to satisfy God’s wrath over the human race. God was insulted by man’s sin. His law was broken and His righteousness was offended. Man had to pay the penalty for his sin by offering the proper punishment. But no amount of human punishment could satisfy God’s justice because God’s justice is divine. Thus the Son of God had to be born into the world and receive the punishment that was rightly to be placed on men. He had to die in order for God to receive proper satisfaction for man’s offenses against Him. Christ substituted Himself on our behalf and died for our sins, offering His blood as the satisfying sacrifice for the sins of the world. By dying on the cross in place of sinful man, Christ pays the full and total payment for man’s sins. God’s wrath is removed. Man’s insult is punished. The world is reconciled with its Creator.

Commenting on this question about to whom Christ “pays the price” for man’s salvation, St Gregory the Theologian in the fourth century wrote the following in his second Easter Oration:

Now we are to examine another fact and dogma, neglected by most people, but in my judgment well worth enquiring into. To whom was that Blood offered that was shed for us, and why was It shed? I mean the precious and famous Blood of our God and High Priest and Sacrifice.

We were detained in bondage by the Evil One, sold under sin, and receiving pleasure in exchange for wickedness. Now, since a ransom belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this offered, and for what cause?

If to the Evil One, fie upon the outrage! If the robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself, and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny, then it would have been right for him to have left us alone altogether!

But if to God the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed. And next, on what principle did the Blood of His only-begotten Son delight the Father, who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being sacrificed by his father, [Abraham], but changed the sacrifice by putting a ram in the place of the human victim? (see Gen 22).

Is it not evident that the Father accepts Him, but neither asked for Him nor demanded Him; but on account of the incarnation, and because Humanity must be sanctified by the Humanity of God, that He might deliver us Himself, and overcome the tyrant [i.e., the devil] and draw us to Himself by the mediation of His Son who also arranged this to the honor of the Father, whom it is manifest He obeys in all things.

In Orthodox theology generally it can be said that the language of “payment” and “ransom” is rather understood as a metaphorical and symbolical way of saying that Christ has done all things necessary to save and redeem mankind enslaved to the devil, sin and death, and under the wrath of God. He “paid the price,” not in some legalistic or juridical or economic meaning. He “paid the price” not to the devil whose rights over man were won by deceit and tyranny. He “paid the price” not to God the Father in the sense that God delights in His sufferings and received “satisfaction” from His creatures in Him. He “paid the price” rather, we might say, to Reality Itself. He “paid the price” to create the conditions in and through which man might receive the forgiveness of sins and eternal life by dying and rising again in Him to newness of life (see Rom 5–8; Gal 2–4).

By dying on the cross and rising from the dead, Jesus Christ cleansed the world from evil and sin. He defeated the devil “in his own territory” and on “his own terms.” The “wages of sin is death” (Rom 6.23). So the Son of God became man and took upon Himself the sins of the world and died a voluntary death. By His sinless and innocent death accomplished entirely by His free will — and not by physical, moral, or juridical necessity - He made death to die and to become itself the source and the way into life eternal. This is what the Church sings on the feast of the Resurrection, the New Passover in Christ, the new Paschal Lamb, who is risen from the dead:

Christ is risen from the dead!
Trampling down death by death!
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

(Easter Troparion)

And this is how the Church prays at the divine liturgy of Saint Basil the Great:

He was God before the ages, yet He appeared on earth and lived among men, becoming incarnate of a holy Virgin;

He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being likened to the body of our lowliness, that He might liken us to the image of His Glory.

For as by man sin entered into the world, and death by sin, so it pleased Thine Only-begotten Son, who was in the bosom of Thee, the God and Father, who was born of a woman, the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, who was born under the law to condemn sin in His flesh, so that those who were dead in Adam might be made alive in Thy Christ Himself.

He lived in this world and gave commandments of salvation; releasing us from the delusions of idolatry, He brought us to knowledge of Thee, the true God and Father. He obtained us for His own chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.

Having cleansed us in water, and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as a ransom to death, in which we were held captive, sold under sin.

Descending through the cross into Sheol — that He might fill all things with Himself — He loosed the pangs of death. He arose on the third day, having made for all flesh a path to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible for the Author of Life to be a victim of corruption. So He became the first—fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the first-born of the dead, that He might be Himself truly the first in all things . . .
(Eucharistic Prayer of the Liturgy of St Basil)

Jesus, the Destroyer of Death

The third and final aspect of the saving and redeeming action of Christ, therefore, is the deepest and most comprehensive. It is the destruction of death by Christ’s own death. It is the transformation of death itself into an act of life. It is the recreation of Sheol—the spiritual condition of being dead—into the paradise of God. Thus, in and through the death of Jesus Christ, death is made to. die. In Him, who is the Resurrection and the Life, man cannot die, but lives forever with God.

Truly, truly I say to you, he who hears my word and believes in Him who sent me has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life (Jn 5.24

I am the Resurrection and the Life! He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die (Jn 11.25–26).

It is Christ Jesus who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us! Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? . . . For I am sure that neither death, not life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, not powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8.34–39).

For in Him the whole fullness of divinity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness of life in Him . . . and you were buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the working of God who raised Him from the dead. And you were dead in trespasses . . . God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this He set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the [demonic] principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them . . . for you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. (Colossians 2.9 ff.)

This is the doctrine of the New Testament scriptures, repeated over and again in many ways in the tradition of the Church: in its sacraments, hymnology, theology, iconography. Christ’s victory over death is man’s release from sins and man’s victory over enslavement to the devil because in and through Christ’s death man dies and is born again to eternal life. In his death sins are no longer counted. In his death the devil no longer holds him. In his death he is born again to newness of life and is liberated from all that is evil, false, demonic and sinful. In a word, he is freed from all that is dead by dying and rising again in and with Jesus.

But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for every one. . . . Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death He might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage (Heb 2.9–15).

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a Man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. [ . . . ] The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15.20 ff; 56–57).


And He rose again from the dead on the third day, according to the Scriptures . . .

Christ is risen from the dead! This is the main proclamation of the Christian faith. It forms the heart of the Church’s preaching, worship and spiritual life. “. . . if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15.14).

In the first sermon ever preached in the history of the Christian Church, the Apostle Peter began his proclamation:

Men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man attended to you by God with mighty works and signs and wonders which God did to him in your midst, as you yourself know—this Jesus delivered up according to a definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised Him up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible for Him to be held by it (Acts 2.22–24).

Jesus had the power to lay down his life and the power to take it up again:

For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of My own accord. I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it again; this charge I have received from My Father (Jn 10.17–18).

According to Orthodox doctrine there is no competition of “lives” between God and Jesus, and no competition of “powers.” The power of God and the power of Jesus, the life of God and the life of Jesus, are one and the same power and life. To say that God has raised Christ, and that Christ has been raised by his own power is to say essentially the same thing. “For as the Father has life in himself,” says Christ, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (Jn 5.26). “I and the Father are one”(Jn 10.30).

The Scriptural stress that God has raised up Jesus only emphasizes once more that Christ has given His life, that He has laid it down fully, that He has offered it whole and without reservation to God—Who then gave it back in His resurrection from the dead.

The Orthodox Church believes in Christ’s real death and His actual resurrection. Resurrection, however, does not simply mean bodily resuscitation. Neither the Gospel nor the Church teaches that Jesus was lying dead and then was biologically revived and walked around in the same way that He did before He was killed. In a word, the Gospel does not say that the angel moved the stone from the tomb in order to let Jesus out. The angel moved the stone to reveal that Jesus was not there (Mk 16; Mt 28).

In His resurrection Jesus is in a new and glorious form. He appears in different places immediately. He is difficult to recognize (Lk 24.16; Jn 20.14). He eats and drinks to show that He is not a ghost (Lk 24.30, 39). He allows himself to be touched (Jn 20.27, 21.9). And yet He appears in the midst of disciples, “the doors being shut” (Jn 20.19, 26). And he “vanishes out of their sight” (Lk 24.31). Christ indeed is risen, but His resurrected humanity is full of life and divinity. It is humanity in the new form of the eternal life of the Kingdom of God.

So it is with the resurrection of the dead: What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raked in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.

Thus, it is written, the first man Adam became a living being; the last Adam [i.e. Christ] became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, then the spiritual.

The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man from heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have home the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven (1 Cor 15.42–50).

The resurrection of Christ is the first fruits of the resurrection of all humanity. It is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, “according to the Scriptures” where it is written, “For Thou doest not give me up unto Sheol [that is, the realm of death], or let Thy Godly one see corruption” (Ps 16.10; Acts 2.25–36). In Christ all expectations and hopes are filled: O Death, where is your sting? O Sheol, where is your victory? (Hos 13.14).

He will swallow up death forever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces . . . It will be said on that day, “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for Him; let us be glad and rejoice in His salvation” (Is 25.8–9).

Come, let us return to the Lord: For He has torn, that He may heal us; He has stricken, and He will bind us up. After two days He will revive us; on the third day He will raise us up, that we may live before Him (Hos 6.1–2).

Thus says the Lord God: Behold I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people . . . And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live . . . (Ezek 37.12–14).

On Death and Resurrection in Christ

Yesterday I was crucified with Him; today I am glorified with Him.

Yesterday I died with Him; today I am made alive with Him.

Yesterday I was crucified with Him; today I am glorified with Him.

Yesterday I died with Him; today I am made alive with Him.

Yesterday I was buried with Him; today I am raised up with Him.

Let us offer to Him Who suffered and rose again for us . . . ourselves, the possession most precious to God and most proper.

Let us become like Christ, since Christ became like us.

Let us become Divine for His sake, since for us He became Man.

He assumed the worse that He might give us the better.

He became poor that by His poverty we might become rich.

He accepted the form of a servant that we might win back our freedom.

He came down that we might be lifted up.

He was tempted that through Him we might conquer.

He was dishonored that He might glorify us.

He died that He might save us.

He ascended that He might draw to Himself us, who were thrown down through the fall of sin.

Let us give all, offer all, to Him who gave Himself a Ransom and Reconciliation for us.

We needed an incarnate God, a God put to death, that we might live.

We were put to death together with Him that we might be cleansed.

We rose again with Him because we were put to death with Him.

We were glorified with Him because we rose again with Him.

A few drops of Blood recreate the whole of creation!

—St Gregory the Theologian, Easter Orations



and ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father . . .

After His resurrection from the dead Jesus appeared to men for a period of forty days after which He “was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God” (Mk 16.19; see also Lk 24.50 and Acts 1.9–11).

The ascension of Jesus Christ is the final act of His earthly mission of salvation. The Son of God comes “down from heaven” to do the work which the Father gives Him to do; and having accomplished all things, He returns to the Father bearing for all eternity the wounded and glorified humanity which He has assumed (see e.g. Jn 17).

The doctrinal meaning of the ascension is the glorification of human nature, the reunion of man with God. It is indeed, the very penetration of man into the inexhaustible depths of divinity.

We have seen already that “the heavens” is the symbolical expression in the Bible for the uncreated, immaterial, divine “realm of God” as one saint of the Church has called it. To say that Jesus is “exalted at the right hand of God” as Saint Peter preached in the first Christian sermon (Acts 2.33) means exactly this: that man has been restored to communion with God, to a union which is, according to Orthodox doctrine, far greater and more perfect than that given to man in his original creation (see Eph 1–2).

Man was created with the potential to be a “partaker of the divine nature,” to refer to the Apostle Peter once more (2 Pet 1.4). It is this participation in divinity, called theosis (which literally means deification or divinization) in Orthodox theology, that the ascension of Christ has fulfilled for humanity. The symbolical expression of the “sitting at the right hand” of God means nothing other than this. It does not mean that somewhere in the created universe the physical Jesus is sitting in a material throne.

The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of Christ’s ascension in terms of the Jerusalem Temple. Just as the high priests of Israel entered the “holy of holies” to offer sacrifice to God on behalf of themselves and the people, so Christ the one, eternal and perfect High Priest offers Himself on the cross to God as the one eternal, and perfect, Sacrifice, not for Himself but for all sinful men. As a man, Christ enters (once and for all) into the one eternal and perfect Holy of Holies: the very “Presence of God in the heavens.”

. . . we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God . . . (Heb 4.14)

For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens. . . . He has no need like those high priests to offer sacrifice daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did this once and for all when he offered up himself.

Now, the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tabernacle which is set up not by man but by the Lord (Heb 7.26; 8.2).

For Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf (Heb 9.24).

. . . when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, then to wait until his enemies should be made a stool for his feet (Heb 10.12–13; Ps 110.1).

Thus, the ascension of Christ is seen as man’s first entry into that divine glorification for which He was originally created. The entry is made possible by the exaltation of the divine Son who emptied Himself in human flesh in perfect self-offering to God.


and He will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead . . .

This Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven, will come the same way as you saw him go into heaven (Acts 1.11).

These words of the angels are addressed to the apostles at the ascension of the Lord. Christ will come again in glory, “not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Heb 9.28).

For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangels’ call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up in the cloud to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thess 4.16–17, the Epistle reading of the Orthodox funeral service).

The coming of the Lord at the end of the ages will be the Day of Judgment, the Day of the Lord foretold in the Old Testament and predicted by Jesus himself (e.g. Dan 7; Mt 24). The exact time of the end is not foretold, not even by Jesus, so that men would always be prepared by constant vigil and good works.

The very presence of Christ as the Truth and the Light is itself the judgment of the world. In this sense all men and the whole world are already judged or, more accurately, already live in the full presence of that reality—Christ and His works—by which they will be ultimately judged. With Christ now revealed, there is no longer any excuse for ignorance and sin (Jn 9.39).

At this point it is necessary to note that at the final judgment there will be those “on the left hand” who will go into “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25.41; Rev 20). That this is the case is no fault of God’s. It is the fault only of men, for “as I hear, I judge and My judgment is just,” says the Lord (Jn 5.30).


God takes no “pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezek 18.22). He “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the Truth”” (1 Tim 2.4). He does everything in His power so that salvation and eternal life would be available and possible for all. There is nothing more that God can do. Everything now depends on man. If some men refuse the gift of life in communion with God, the Lord can only honor this refusal and respect the freedom of His creatures which He Himself has given and will not take back. God allows men to live “with the devil and his angels” if they so desire. Even in this He is loving and just. For if God’s presence as the “consuming fire” (Heb 12.29) and the “unapproachable light” (1 Tim 6.16) which delights those who love Him only produces hatred and anguish in those who do not “love His appearing” (2 Tim 4.8), there is nothing that God can do except either to destroy His sinful creatures completely, or to destroy Himself. But God will exist and will allow His creatures to exist. He also will not hide His Face forever.

The doctrine of eternal hell, therefore, does not mean that God actively tortures people by some unloving and perverse means. It does not mean that God takes delight in the punishment and pain of His people whom He loves. Neither does it mean that God “separates Himself” from His people, thus causing them anguish in this separation (for indeed if people hate God, separation would be welcome, and not abhorred!). It means rather that God continues to allow all people, saints and sinners alike, to exist forever. All are raised from the dead into everlasting life: “those who have done good, to the resurrection of judgment” (Jn 5.29). In the end, God will be “all and in all” (1 Cor 15.28). For those who love God, resurrection from the dead and the presence of God will be paradise. For those who hate God, resurrection from the dead and the presence of God will be hell. This is the teaching of the fathers of the Church.

There is sprung up a light for the righteous, and its partner is joyful gladness. And the light of the righteous is everlasting . . .

One light alone let us shun—that which is the offspring of the sorrowful fire . . .

For I know a cleansing fire which Christ came to send upon the earth, and He Himself is called a Fire. This Fire takes away whatsoever is material and of evil quality; and this He desires to kindle with all speed . . 

I know also a fire which is not cleansing, but avenging . . . which He pours down on all sinners . . . that which is prepared for the devil and his angels . . . that which proceeds from the Face of the Lord and shall burn up His enemies round about . . . the unquenchable fire which . . . is eternal for the wicked. For all these belong to the destroying power, though some may prefer even in this place to take a more merciful view of this fire, worthily of Him who chastises.
(Saint Gregory the Theologian)

. . . those who find themselves in Gehenna will be chastised with the scourge of love. How cruel and bitter this torment of love will be! For those who understand that they have sinned against love undergo greater sufferings than those produced of the most fearful tortures. The sorrow which takes hold of the heart which has sinned against love is more piercing than any other pain. It is not right to say that sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God . . . But love acts in two different ways, as suffering in the reproved, and as joy in the blessed.
(Saint Isaac of Syria)

Thus, man’s final judgment and eternal destiny depends solely on whether or not man loves God and his brethren. It depends on whether or not man loves the light more than the darkness—or the darkness more than the light. It depends, we might say, on whether or not man loves Love and Light Itself; whether or not man loves Life—which is God Himself; the God revealed in creation, in all things, in the “least of the brethren.”

The conditions of the final judgment are already known. Christ has given them Himself with absolute clarity.

When the Son of Man shall come in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. Before Him will be gathered all the nations and He will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and He will place the sheep at His right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at His right hand, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”

Then the righteous will answer Him, “Lord, when did we see Thee hungry and feed Thee, or thirsty and give Thee drink? And when did we see Thee a stranger and welcome Thee, or naked and clothe Thee? And when did we see Thee sick or in prison and visit Thee?”

And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”

Then He will say to those at His left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

Then they also will answer, “Lord, when did we see Thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to Thee?”

Then He will answer them, ““Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.” And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
(Mt 25.31–46, Gospel reading for Meatfare Sunday)

It is Christ who will judge, not God the Father. Christ has received the power of judgment “because He is the Son of Man” (Jn 5.27). Thus, man and the world are not judged by God “sitting on a cloud,” as it were, but by One who is truly a man, the One who has suffered every temptation of this world and has emerged victorious. The world is judged by Him who was Himself hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, in prison, wounded, and yet the salvation of all. As the Crucified One, Christ has justly achieved the authority to make judgment for He alone has been the perfectly obedient servant of the Father who knows the depths of human tragedy by His own experience.

For He will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, He will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil . . . but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good . . . for God shows no partiality. All who have sinned without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified (Rom 2.6ff).

Kingdom of God

And of His kingdom there will be no end . . .

Jesus is the royal Son of David, of whom it was prophesied by the angel at His birth:

He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end (Lk 1.32–33).

Through His sufferings as the Christ, Jesus achieved everlasting kingship and lordship over all creation. He has become “King of kings and Lord of lords,” sharing this title with God the Father Himself (Deut 10.17; Dan 2.47; Rev 19.16). As a man, Jesus Christ is King of the Kingdom of God.

Christ came for no other reason than to bring God’s kingdom to men. His very first public words are exactly those of His forerunner, John the Baptist: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 3.2, 4.17).

All through His life Jesus spoke of the kingdom. In the sermons such as the Sermon on the Mount and the many parables, He told of the everlasting kingdom.

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven . . .

Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

He who does these commandments and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

But seek ye first the kingdom of heaven and its righteousness, and all things will be yours as well.

Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven.
(Mt 5–7)

The mustard seed, the leaven, the pearl of great price, the lost coin, the treasure in the field, the fishing net, the wedding feast, the banquet, the house of the Father, the vineyard . . . all are signs of the kingdom which Jesus has come to bring. And on the night of His last supper with the disciples He tells the apostles openly:

You are those who have continued with me in my trials; as My Father appointed a kingdom for Me, so do I appoint for you that you may eat and drink at My table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Lk 22: 28–30; Reading of the Vigil of Holy Thursday).

Christ’s kingdom is “not of this world” (Jn 18.31). He says this to Pontius Pilate when being mocked as king, revealing in this humiliation His genuine divine kingship. The Kingdom of God, which Christ will rule, will come with power at the end of time when the Lord will fill all creation and will be truly “all, and in all” (Col 3.11). The Church, which in popular Orthodox doctrine is called the Kingdom of God on earth, has already mysteriously been given this experience. In the Church, Christ is already acknowledged, glorified, and served, as the only king and lord; and His Holy Spirit, whom the saints of the Church have identified with the Kingdom of God, is already given to the world in the Church with full graciousness and power.

The Kingdom of God, therefore, is a Divine Reality. It is the reality of God’s presence among men through Christ and the Holy Spirit. “For the Kingdom of God . . . means . . . peace and joy and righteousness in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14.17). The Kingdom of God as a spiritual, divine reality is given to men by Christ in the Church. It is celebrated and participated in the sacramental mysteries of the faith. It is witnessed to in the scriptures, the councils, the canons, and the saints. It will become the universal, final cosmic reality for the whole of creation at the end of the ages when Christ comes in glory to fill all things with Himself by the Holy Spirit, that God might be “all and in all” (1 Cor 15.28).

Holy Spirit

And in the Holy Spirit, Lord and Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father, who together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets . . .

The Holy Spirit bears the title of Lord with God the Father and Christ the Son. He is the Spirit of God and Spirit of Christ. He is eternal, uncreated, and divine; always existing with the Father and the Son; perpetually worshipped and glorified with them in the oneness of the Holy Trinity.

Just like the Son, there was no time when there was no Holy Spirit. The Spirit is before creation. He comes forth from God, as does the Son, in a timeless, eternal procession. “He proceeds from the Father,” in eternity in a divinely instantaneous and perpetual movement (Jn 15.26).

Orthodox doctrine confesses that God the Father is the eternal origin and source of the Spirit, just as He is the source of the Son. Yet, the Church affirms as well that the manner of the Father’s possession and production of the Spirit and the Son differ according to the difference between the Son being “born,” and the Spirit “proceeding.” There have been many attempts—by holy men inspired by God and with a genuine experience of His Trinitarian life to explain the distinction between the procession of the Spirit and the begetting or generation of the Son. For us it is enough to see that the difference between the two lies in the distinction between the divine persons and actions of the Son and the Spirit in relation to the Father, and so as well to each other and to the world. It is necessary to note further that all words and concepts about God and divinity, including those of “procession” and “generation” must give way before the mystical vision of the actual Divine Reality which they express. God may somehow be grasped by men as He has chosen to reveal Himself. However, the essence of His Triune existence remains—and will always remain—essentially inconceivable and inexpressible to created minds and lips. This does not mean that words about God are meaningless. It only means that they are inadequate to the Reality which they seek to express . . .

At this point also it is necessary to note that the Roman and Protestant churches differ in their credal statement about God by adding that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father “and the Son” (filioque)—a doctrinal addition unacceptable to Orthodoxy since it is both unscriptural and inconsistent with the Orthodox vision of God.

With the affirmation of the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and the necessity of worshipping and glorifying him with the Father and the Son, the Orthodox Church affirms that the Divine Reality, called also the Deity or the Godhead in the Orthodox Tradition, is the Holy Trinity.

The Holy Spirit is essentially one in his eternal existence with the Father and the Son; and so, in every action of God toward the world, the Holy Spirit is necessarily acting. Thus, in the Genesis account of creation it is written: “The Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” (Gen 1.2). It is this same Spirit who is the “breath of life” for all living things and particularly for man, made in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1.30; 2.7). Generally speaking the Spirit in Hebrew is called the “breath” or the “wind” of Yahweh. It is He who makes everything alive, the “Giver of life” Who upholds and sustains the universe in its existence and life (e.g. Ps 104.29; Job 33.4).


The Holy Spirit is also he who inspires the saints to speak God’s word and to do God’s will. He anoints the prophets, priests, and kings of the Old Testament; and “in the fullness of time” it is this same Spirit who “descends and remains” on Jesus of Nazareth, making him the Messiah (anointed) of God and manifesting him as such to the world. Thus, in the New Testament at the first epiphany (which means literally showing forth or manifestation) of Christ as the Messiah—his baptism by John in the Jordan—the Holy Spirit is revealed as descending and resting upon him “as a dove from heaven” (Jn 1.32; Lk 3.22, see also Mt 3.16 and Mk 1.9). It is important to note, both here and in the account of the Spirit’s coming on the Day of Pentecost, as well as in other places in the Scriptures, that the words “as” and “like” are used in order to avoid an incorrect “physical” interpretation of the events recorded where the Bible itself is literally speaking in quite a symbolical and metaphorical way.

Jesus begins His public work after His baptism, and immediately refers Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah directly to Himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . .” (Is 61.1; Lk 4.18).

All the days of his life Jesus is “full of the Holy Spirit”—preaching, teaching, healing, casting out devils and accomplishing every sign and wonder of his messiahship by the Spirit’s power (Lk 4.11). It is written that even his self-offering to God on the cross is made “through the eternal Spirit” (Heb 9.14). And it is through the same divine Spirit that he and all men with him are risen from the dead (Ezek 37.1–4).

On the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples of Christ in the form of “tongues as of fire,” with the sound “like that of a mighty rushing wind” (Acts 2.1–4). We note once more the use of “as” and “like.” The coming of the Spirit on Pentecost is the final fulfillment of Christ’s earthly messianic mission, the beginning of the Christian Church. It is the fulfillment of the Old Testamental prophecy that in the time of the messiah-king, the Spirit of God will be “poured out on all flesh” (Joel 2.28; Acts 1.14). It is the condition of the age of the final and everlasting covenant of perfect mercy and peace (Ezek 34.37; Jer 31–33; Is 11.42, 44, 61).

The Christian Church lives by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit alone is the guarantee of God’s Kingdom on earth. He is the sole guarantee that God’s life and truth and love are with men. Only by the Holy Spirit can man and the world fulfill that for which they were created by God. All of God’s actions toward man and the world—in creation, salvation and final glorification—are from the Father through the Son (Word) in the Holy Spirit; and all of man’s capabilities of response to God are in the same Spirit, through the same Son to the same Father.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of life.

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies through the Spirit who dwells in you (Rom 8.11).

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth.

When the Spirit of Truth comes he will guide you into all the Truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come (Jn 16:13; see also Jn 14:25; Jn 15:26).

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of divine sonship.

For all who are led by the Spirit are sons of God. For you did not receive the Spirit of slavery. . . . but you received the Spirit of sonship. When we cry “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Rom 8.14; also Gal 4.6).

The Holy Spirit is the personal presence of the new and everlasting covenant between God and man, the seal and guarantee of the Kingdom of God, the power of the divine indwelling of God in man.

. . . you are a letter from Christ, delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. . . . our sufficiency is from God who has qualified us to be ministers of a new covenant, not in written code but in the Spirit, for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Cor 3.2–6).

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you . . . For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are (1 Cor 3.16; also Rom 6.19).

. . . through him [Christ] we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of apostles and the prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows in a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Eph 2.18–22; also 1 Pet 2.4–9).

In the Holy Spirit men have the possibility of receiving every gift from God, of sharing His divine nature and life, of doing what Christ has done by fulfilling His “new commandment” to love one another even as He has loved us, “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which He has given us” (Rom 5.5).

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control . . . . And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit . . . he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life (Gal 5.22–25; 6.8).



In one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church . . .

Church as a word means those called as a particular people to perform a particular task. The Christian Church is the assembly of God’s chosen people called to keep his word and to do his will and his work in the world and in the heavenly kingdom.

In the Scriptures the Church is called the Body of Christ (Rom 12; 1 Cor 10, 12; Col 1) and the Bride of Christ (Eph 5; Rev 21). It is likened as well to God’s living Temple (Eph 2; 1 Pet 2) and is called “the pillar and bulwark of Truth” (1 Tim 3.15).

One Church

The Church is one because God is one, and because Christ and the Holy Spirit are one. There can only be one Church and not many. And this one Church, because its unity depends on God, Christ, and the Spirit, may never be broken. Thus, according to Orthodox doctrine, the Church is indivisible; men may be in it or out of it, but they may not divide it.

According to Orthodox teaching, the unity of the Church is man’s free unity in the truth and love of God. Such unity is not brought about or established by any human authority or juridical power, but by God alone. To the extent that men are in the truth and love of God, they are members of His Church.

Orthodox Christians believe that in the historical Orthodox Church there exists the full possibility of participating totally in the Church of God, and that only sins and false human choices (heresies) put men outside of this unity. In non-Orthodox Christian groups the Orthodox claim that there are certain formal obstacles, varying in different groups, which, if accepted and followed by men, will prevent their perfect unity with God and will thus destroy the genuine unity of the Church (e.g., the papacy in the Roman Church).

Within the unity of the Church man is what he is created to be and can grow for eternity in divine life in communion with God through Christ in the Holy Spirit. The unity of the Church is not broken by time or space and is not limited merely to those alive upon the earth. The unity of the Church is the unity of the Blessed Trinity and of all of those who live with God: the holy angels, the righteous dead, and those who live upon the earth according to the commandments of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Holy Church

The Church is holy because God is holy, and because Christ and the Holy Spirit are holy. The holiness of the Church comes from God. The members of the Church are holy to the extent that they live in communion with God.

Within the earthly Church, people participate in God’s holiness. Sin and error separate them from this divine holiness as it does from the divine unity. Thus, the earthly members and institutions of the Church cannot be identified as such with the Church as holy.

The faith and life of the Church on earth is expressed in its doctrines, sacraments, scriptures, services, and saints which maintain the Church’s essential unity, and which can certainly be affirmed as “holy” because of God’s presence and action in them.

Catholic Church

The Church is also catholic because of its relation to God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. The word catholic means full, complete, whole, with nothing lacking. God alone is full and total reality; in God alone is there nothing lacking.

Sometimes the catholicity of the Church is understood in terms of the Church’s universality throughout time and space. While it is true that the Church is universal—for all men at all times and in all places—this universality is not the real meaning of the term “catholic” when it is used to define the Church. The term “catholic” as originally used to define the Church (as early as the first decades of the second century) was a definition of quality rather than quantity. Calling the Church catholic means to define how it is, namely, full and complete, all-embracing, and with nothing lacking.

Even before the Church was spread over the world, it was defined as catholic. The original Jerusalem Church of the apostles, or the early city-churches of Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, or Rome, were catholic. These churches were catholic—as is each and every Orthodox church today—because nothing essential was lacking for them to be the genuine Church of Christ. God Himself is fully revealed and present in each church through Christ and the Holy Spirit, acting in the local community of believers with its apostolic doctrine, ministry (hierarchy), and sacraments, thus requiring nothing to be added to it in order for it to participate fully in the Kingdom of God.

To believe in the Church as catholic, therefore, is to express the conviction that the fullness of God is present in the Church and that nothing of the “abundant life” that Christ gives to the world in the Spirit is lacking to it (Jn 10.10). It is to confess exactly that the Church is indeed “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1.23; also Col 2.10).

Apostolic Church

The word apostolic describes that which has a mission, that which has “been sent” to accomplish a task.

Christ and the Holy Spirit are both “apostolic” because both have been sent by the Father to the World. It is not only repeated in the Scripture on numerous occasions how Christ has been sent by the Father, and the Spirit sent through Christ from the Father, but it also has been recorded explicitly that Christ is “the apostle . . . of our confession” (Heb 3.1).

As Christ was sent from God, so Christ Himself chose and sent His apostles. “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you . . . receive ye the Holy Spirit,” the risen Christ says to His disciples. Thus, the apostles go out to the world, becoming the first foundation of the Christian Church.

In this sense, then, the Church is called apostolic: first, as it is built upon Christ and the Holy Spirit sent from God and upon those apostles who were sent by Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit; and secondly, as the Church in its earthly members is itself sent by God to bear witness to His Kingdom, to keep His word and to do His will and His works in this world.

Orthodox Christians believe in the Church as they believe in God and Christ and the Holy Spirit. Faith in the Church is part of the creedal statement of Christian believers. The Church is herself an object of faith as the divine reality of the Kingdom of God given to men by Christ and the Holy Spirit; the divine community founded by Christ against which “the gates of hell shall not prevail” (Mt 16.18).

The Church, and faith in the Church, is an essential element of Christian doctrine and life. Without the Church as a divine, mystical, sacramental, and spiritual reality, in the midst of the fallen and sinful world there can be no full and perfect communion with God. The Church is God’s gift to the world. It is the gift of salvation, of knowledge and enlightenment, of the forgiveness of sins, of the victory over darkness and death. It is the gift of communion with God through Christ and the Holy Spirit. This gift is given totally, once and for all, with no reservations on God’s part. It remains forever, until the close of the ages: invincible and indestructible. Men may sin and fight against the Church, believers may fall away and be separated from the Church, but the Church itself, the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3.15) remains forever.

. . . [God] has put all things under His [Christ’s] feet and has made Him the head over all things for the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.

. . . for through Him we . . . have access in one Spirit, to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow-citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.

. . . Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her, that he might sanctify her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present the Church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish . . . This is a Great Mystery . . . Christ and the Church . . .
(Eph 1.21–23; 2.19–22; 5.25–32)


I confess one baptism for the remission of sins

The way of entry into the Christian Church is by baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt 28.19; the Baptismal Gospel reading in the Orthodox Church).

Baptism as a word means immersion or submersion in water. It was practiced in the Old Testament and even in some pagan religions as the sign of death and re-birth. Thus, John the Baptist was baptizing as the sign of new life and repentance which means literally a change of mind, and so of desires and actions in preparation of the coming of the Kingdom of God in Christ.

In the Church, the meaning of baptism is death and rebirth in Christ. It is the personal experience of Easter given to each man, the real possibility to die and to be “born anew” (Jn 3.3).

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His (Rom 6.3–5; Baptismal Epistle reading in the Orthodox Church; See also Col 2.12; 3.1).

The baptismal experience is the fundamental Christian experience, the primary condition for the whole of Christian life. Everything in the Church has its origin and context in baptism for everything in the Church originates and lives by the resurrection of Christ. Thus, following baptism comes “the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit,” the mystery (sacrament) of chrismation which is man’s personal experience of Pentecost. And the completion and fulfillment of these fundamental Christian mysteries comes in the mystery of Holy Communion with God in the divine liturgy of the Church.

Only persons who are committed to Christ in the Orthodox Church through baptism and chrismation may offer and receive the holy eucharist in the Orthodox Church. The holy eucharist is Holy Communion. As such it is not just a “means of sanctification” for individual believers, a means through which private persons gain ­“communion” with God according to their own private consciences, beliefs and practices. It is rather the all-embracing act of Holy Communion of many persons having the same faith, the same hope, the same baptism. It is the corporate act of many persons having one mind, one heart, one mouth in the service of the one God and Lord, in the one Christ and the one Holy Spirit.

To participate in Holy Communion in the Orthodox Church is to identify oneself fully with all of the members of the Orthodox faith, living and dead; and to identify oneself fully with every aspect of the Orthodox Church: its history, councils, canons, dogmas, disciplines. It is to “take on oneself” the direct and concrete responsibility for everyone and everything connected in and with the Orthodox tradition and to profess responsibility for the everyday life of the Orthodox Church. It is to say before God and men that one is willing to be judged, in time and eternity, for what the Orthodox Church is and for what the Orthodox Church stands for in the midst of the earth.

Entering into the “Holy Communion” of the Orthodox Church through baptism and chrismation, one lives according to the life of the Church in every possible way. One is first of all faithful to the doctrine and discipline of the Church by faithful communion with the hierarchy of the Church who are those members of the Body sacramentally responsible for the teachings and practices of the Church; the sacramental images of the Church’s identity and continuity in all places and all times. When one enters into the community of marriage, a union of one man and one woman forever according to the teaching of Jesus Christ, this union is sanctified and made eternal and divine in the sacramental mystery of matrimony in the Church. When one is sick and suffering, he “calls for the priests of the Church” to “pray over him, anointing him with oil” in the sacramental mystery of holy unction (cf. Jas 5.4). When one sins and falls away from the life of the Church, one returns to the “Holy Communion” of the divine community by the sacramental mystery of confession and repentance. And when one dies, he is returned to his Creator in the midst of the Church, with the prayers and intercessions of the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ and the Spirit. Thus the entire life of the person is lived in and with the Church as the life of fullness and newness in God Himself, the Church which is the mystical presence of God’s Kingdom which is not of this world.

The confession of “one baptism for the remission of sins,” therefore, is the confession of the total newness of life given to men in the Church because Christ is risen.

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory (Col 3.1–4).

Thus, in the Church, the whole of life is the one which begins in the new birth of baptism, the “life hid with Christ in God.” All of the mysteries of the Christian faith are contained in this new life. Everything in the Church flows out of the waters of baptism: the remission of sins and life eternal.

Eternal Life

I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world [ages] to come.

The Orthodox Church does not believe merely in the immortality of the soul, and in the goodness and ultimate salvation of only spiritual reality. Following the Scriptures, Orthodox Christians believe in the goodness of the human body and of all material and physical creation. Thus, in its faith in resurrection and eternal life, the Orthodox Church looks not to some “other world” for salvation, but to this very world so loved by God, resurrected and glorified by Him, tilled with His own divine presence.

At the end of the ages God will reveal His presence and will fill all creation with Himself. For those who love Him it will be paradise. For those who hate Him it will be hell. And all physical creation, together with the righteous, will rejoice and be glad in His coming.

The wilderness and the solitary places will be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom in abundance (Is 35.1).

For behold I create new heavens and a new earth says the Lord, and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create, for behold I create Jerusalem a rejoicing and her people a joy (Is 65.17–18).

The visions of the prophets and those of the Christian apostles about things to come are one and the same:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a great voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God himself will be with them; He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21.1–5).

When the Kingdom of God fills all creation, all things will be made new. This world will again be that paradise for which it was originally created. This is the Orthodox doctrine of the final fate of man and his universe.

It is sometimes argued, however, that this world will be totally destroyed and that God will create everything new “out of nothing” by the act of a second creation. Those who hold this opinion appeal to such texts as that found in the second letter of Saint Peter:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away . . . and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up (2 Pet 3.10).

Because the Bible never speaks about a “second creation” and because it continually and consistently witnesses that God loves the world which He has made and does everything that He can to save it, the Orthodox Tradition never interprets such scriptural texts as teaching the actual annihilation of creation by God. It understands such texts as speaking metaphorically of the great catastrophe which creation must endure, including even the righteous, in order for it to be cleansed, purified, made perfect, and saved. It teaches as well that there is an “eternal fire” for the ungodly, an eternal condition of their being destroyed. But in any case the “trial by fire” which “destroys the ungodly” is in no way understood by the Orthodox in the sense that creation is doomed to total destruction, despised by the loving Lord who created it and called it “very good” (Gen 1.31; also 1 Cor 3.13–15; Heb 12.25–29; Is 66; Rev 20–22).

The Holy Trinity

The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not merely an “article of faith” which men are called to “believe.” It is not simply a dogma which the Church requires its good members to “accept on faith.” Neither is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity the invention of scholars and academicians, the result of intellectual speculation and philosophical thinking.

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity arises from man’s deepest experiences with God. It comes from the genuine living knowledge of those who have come to know God in faith.

The paragraphs which follow are intended to show something of what God has revealed of Himself to the saints of the Church. To grasp the words and concepts of the doctrine of the Trinity is one thing; to know the Living Reality of God behind these words and concepts is something else. We must work and pray so that we might pass beyond every word and concept about God and to come to know Him for ourselves in our own living union with Him: “The Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit” (Eph 2: 18–22).

The Holy Trinity Revealed


In the Old Testament we find Yahweh, the one Lord and God, acting toward the world through His Word and His Spirit. In the New Testament the “Word becomes flesh” (Jn 1.14). As Jesus of Nazareth, the only-begotten Son of God becomes man. And the Holy Spirit, who is in Jesus making him the Christ, is poured forth from God upon all flesh (Acts 2.17).

One cannot read the Bible nor the history of the Church without being struck by the numerous references to God the Father, the Son (Word) of God and the Holy Spirit. The New Testament record, and the life of the Orthodox Church is absolutely incomprehensible and meaningless without constant affirmation of the existence, interrelation and interaction of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit towards each other and towards man and the world.



Wrong Doctrines of the Trinity

The main question for the Church to answer about God is that of the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. According to Orthodox Tradition, there are a number of wrong doctrines which must be rejected

One wrong doctrine is that the Father alone is God and that the Son and the Holy Spirit are creatures, made “from nothing” like angels, men and the world. The Church answers that the Son and the Holy Spirit are not creatures, but are uncreated and divine with the Father, and they act with the Father in the divine act of creation of all that exists.

Another wrong doctrine is that God in Himself is One God who merely appears in different forms to the world: Now as the Father, then as the Son, and still again as the Holy Spirit. The Church answers once more that the Son and Word is “in the beginning with God” (Jn 1.12) as is the Holy Spirit, and that the Three are eternally distinct. The Son is “of God” and the Spirit is “of God.” The Son and the Spirit are not merely aspects of God, without, so to speak, a life and existence of their own. How strange it would be to imagine, for example, that when the Son becomes man and prays to his Father and acts in obedience to Him, it is all an illusion with no reality in fact, a sort of divine presentation played before the world with no reason or truth for it at all!

A third wrong doctrine is that God is one, and that the Son and the Spirit are merely names for relations which God has with Himself. Thus, the Thought and Speech of God is called the Son, while the Life and Action of God is called the Spirit; but in fact—in genuine actuality—there are no such “realities in themselves” as the Son of God and the Spirit of God. Both are just metaphors for mere aspects of God. Again, however, in such a doctrine the Son and the Spirit have no existence and no life of their own. They are not real, but are mere illusions.

Still another wrong doctrine is that the Father is one God, the Son is another God, and the Holy Spirit still another God. There cannot be “three gods,” says the Church, and certainly not “gods” who are created or made. Still less can there be “three gods” of whom the Father is “higher” and the others “lower.” For there to be more than one God, or “degrees of divinity” are both contradictions which cannot be defended, either by divine revelation or by logical thinking.

Thus, the Church teaches that while there is only One God, yet there are Three who are God—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—perfectly united and never divided yet not merged into one with no proper distinction. How then does the Church defend its doctrine that God is both One and yet Three?

One God, One Father

First of all, it is the Church’s teaching and its deepest experience that there is only one God because there is only one Father.

In the Bible the term “God” with very few exceptions is used primarily as a name for the Father. Thus, the Son is the “Son of God,” and the Spirit is the “Spirit of God.” The Son is born from the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father—both in the same timeless and eternal action of the Father’s own being.

In this view, the Son and the Spirit are both one with God and in no way separated from Him. Thus, the Divine Unity consists of the Father, with His Son and His Spirit distinct from Himself and yet perfectly united together in Him.

One God: One Divine Nature and Being

What the Father is, the Son and the Spirit are also. This is the Church’s teaching. The Son, born of the Father, and the Spirit, proceeding from Him, share the divine nature with God, being “of one essence” with Him.

Thus, as the Father is “ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same” (Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom), so the Son and the Spirit are exactly the same. Every attribute of divinity which belongs to God the Father—life, love, wisdom, truth, blessedness, holiness, power, purity, joy—belongs equally as well to the Son and the Holy Spirit. The being, nature, essence, existence and life of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are absolutely and identically one and the same.

One God: One Divine Action and Will

Since the being of the Holy Trinity is one, whatever the Father wills, the Son and the Holy Spirit will also. What the Father does, the Son and the Holy Spirit do also. There is no will and no action of God the Father which is not at the same time the will and action of the Son and the Holy Spirit.

In Himself, in eternity, as well as towards the world in creation, revelation, incarnation, redemption, sanctification, and glorification—the will and action of the Trinity are one: from the divine Father, through the divine Son, in the divine Holy Spirit. Every action of God is the action of the Three. No one person of the Trinity acts independently of or in isolation from the others. The action of each is the action of all; the action of all is the action of each. And the divine action is essentially one.

One God: One Divine Knowledge and Love

Since each person of the Trinity is one with the others, each knows the same Truth and exercises the same Love. The knowledge of each is the knowledge of all, and the Love of each is the Love of all.

If taken in distinction, each person of the Trinity knows and loves the others with such absolute perfection, knowledge, and love that there is nothing unknown and nothing unloved of each in the others, and all in all. Thus, if the creaturely knowledge of men can unite minds in full unanimity, and if the creaturely love of men can bring the divided together into one heart and one soul and even one flesh, how incomparably more perfect and absolutely uniting must be the oneness when the Knowers and Lovers are eternal and divine.

The Three Divine Persons

In Orthodox terminology the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are called three divine persons. Person is defined here simply as the subject of existence and life—hypostasis in the traditional church language.

As the being, essence or nature of a reality answers the question “what?”, the person of a reality answers the question “which one?” or “who?” Thus, when we ask “What is God?” we answer that God is the divine, perfect, eternal, absolute . . . and when we ask “Who is God?” we answer that God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The saints of the Church have explained this tri-unity of God by using such an example from worldly existence. We see three men. “What are they?” we ask. “They are human beings,” we answer. Each is man, possessing the same humanity and the same human nature defined in a certain way: created, temporal, physical, rational, etc. In what they are, the three men are one. But in who they are, they are three, each absolutely unique and distinct from the others. Each man in his own unique way is distinctly a man. One man is not the other, though each man is still human with one and the same human nature and form.

Turning to God, we may ask in the same way: “What is it?” In reply we say that it is God defined as absolute perfection: “ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing, and eternally the same.” We then ask, “Who is it?”, and we answer that it is the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In who God is, there are three persons who are each absolutely unique and distinct. Each is not the other, though each is still divine with the same divine nature and form. Therefore, while being one in what they are; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are Three in who they are. And because of what and who they are—namely, uncreated, divine persons—they are undivided and perfectly united in their timeless, spaceless, sizeless, shapeless super-essential existence, as well as in their one divine life, knowledge, love, goodness, power, will, action, etc.

Thus, according to the Orthodox Tradition, it is the mystery of God that there are Three who are divine; Three who live and act by one and the same divine perfection, yet each according to his own personal distinctness and uniqueness. Thus it is said that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are each divine with the same divinity, yet each in his own divine way. And as the uncreated divinity has three divine subjects, so each divine action has three divine actors; there are three divine aspects to every action of God, yet the action remains one and the same.

We discover, therefore, one God the Father Almighty with His one unique Son (Image and Word) and His one Holy Spirit. There is one living God with His one perfect divine Life, who is personally the Son, with His one Spirit of Life. There is one True God with His one divine Truth, who is personally the Son, with His one Spirit of Truth. There is one wise and loving God with His one Wisdom and Love, who is personally the Son, with His one Spirit of Wisdom and Love. The examples could go on indefinitely: the one divine Father personifying every aspect of His divinity in His one divine Son, who is personally activated by His one divine Spirit. We will see the living implications of the Trinity as we survey the activity of God in his actions toward man and the world.

The Holy Trinity in Creation

God the Father created the world through the Son (Word) in the Holy Spirit. The Word of God is present in all that exists, making it to exist by the power of the Spirit. Thus, according to Orthodox doctrine, the universe itself is a revelation of God in the Word and the Spirit. The Word is in all that exists, causing it to be, and the Spirit is in all that exists as the power of its being and life.

This is most evident in God’s special creature, man. Man is made in the image of God, and so he bears within him the unique likeness of God which is eternally and perfectly expressed in the divine Son of God, the Uncreated and Absolute Image of the Father. Thus, man is “logical”; that is, he participates in God’s Logos (the Son and Word) and so is free, knowing, loving, reflecting on the creaturely level the very nature of God as the uncreated Son does on the level of divinity.

Man also is ”spiritual”; he is the special temple of God’s Spirit. The Breath of God’s Life is breathed into him in the most special way. Thus, among creatures man alone is empowered to imitate God and to participate in His life. Man has the competence and ability to become a Son of God, mirroring the eternal Son, reflecting the divine nature because he is inspired by the Holy Spirit as is no other creature. Thus, one saint of the Church has said that for man to be a man, he must have the Spirit of God in him. Only then can he fulfill his humanity; only then can he be made a true Son of God, likened to him who is only-begotten.

On the most basic level of creation, therefore, we see the Trinitarian dimensions of the being and action of God: the Word and the Spirit of God enter man and the world to allow them to be and to become that for which the Father has willed their existence.

The Holy Trinity in Salvation

With man’s failure to fulfill himself in his created uniqueness, God undertakes the special action of salvation. The Father sends forth His Son (Word) and His Spirit in yet another mission. The Word and the Spirit come to the Old Testament saints to make known the Father. The Word, as it were, incarnates himself in the Law (in Hebrew called the “words”) which is inspired by the Spirit. The Spirit inspires the prophets to proclaim the Word of God. Thus, the Law and the Prophets are revelations of God in His Word and His Spirit. They are partial revelations, “shadows” (as the New Testament calls them), prefiguring the total revelation of the “fullness of time” and preparing its coming.

When the time is fulfilled and the world is made ready, the Word and the Spirit come once more—no longer by their mere action and power, but now in their own persons, dwelling personally in the world.

The Word becomes flesh. The only-begotten Son is born as a man, Jesus of Nazareth. And the Spirit who is in him is given to all men to make them also sons of the Father in an eternal development of attaining His perfection by growing forever “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4.13).

Thus, in the New Testament we have the full epiphany of God, the full manifestation of the Holy Trinity: the Father through the Son in the Spirit to us; and we in the Spirit through the Son to the Father.

The Holy Trinity in the Church

The life of the Church is the life of men in the Holy Trinity. In the Church all become one in Christ, all put on the deified humanity of the Son of God. “For as many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3.27). The unity of the Church is the unity of many into one, the one Body of Christ, the one living temple of God, the one people and family of God.

Within the one body there are many individual members. Many “living stones” constitute the living temple. Many brothers and sisters make up the one family of which God is the Father. The unique diversity of each member of the one Body of Christ is guaranteed by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Each unique person is inspired by the Spirit to be a true man, a true son of God in his own distinct way. Thus, as the Body of the Church is one in Christ, the one Holy Spirit gives to each member the possibility of fulfilling himself in God and so of being one with all others in calling God “Father” (See 1 Cor 12).

The Church, then, as the perfect unity of many persons into one fully united organism, is a reflection of the Trinity itself. For the Church, being many unique and distinct persons, is called to be one mind, one heart, one soul and one body in the one Truth and Love of God Himself. The calling of the Church to be one in all things is the prototype of the vocation of all mankind which was originally created by God as many persons in one nature, ultimately destined by God for ever-more-perfect growth in free unity of Truth and Love, in the life of God’s Kingdom.

The Holy Trinity in the Sacraments

The sacraments of the Church portray the Trinitarian character of the life of God and man. Each person is baptized by the Holy Spirit into the one humanity of Christ. Being baptized, each person is given the “seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit” of God in chrismation to be a “christ”, i.e. an anointed son of God to live the life of Christ.

In marriage the unity of two into one makes the new unity a reflection of the unity of the Trinity, and the unity of Christ and the Church. For the family of many persons united in one truth and love is indeed the created manifestation of the one family of God’s Kingdom, and of God Himself, the Blessed Trinity.

In penance once more we renew our new life as sons of the Father through the grace of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, forgiven and reunited into the unity of God in His Church.

In holy unction the Spirit anoints the sufferer to suffer and die in Christ and so to be healed and made alive with the Father for eternity.
The priesthood itself, the ministry of the Church, is nothing other than the concrete manifestation in the Church of the presence of Christ by the same Holy Spirit who makes accessible to all men the action of the Father and the way to everlasting communion in and with Him.

Finally, the “mystery of mysteries,” the Holy Eucharist, is the actual experience of all Christian people led to communion with God the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit through Christ the Son who is present in the Word of the Gospel and in the Passover Meal of His Body and Blood eaten in remembrance of Him. The very movement of the Divine Liturgy—towards the Father through Christ the Word and the Lamb, in the power of the Holy Spirit—is the living sacramental symbol of our eternal movement in and toward God, the Blessed Trinity.

Even Christian prayer is the revelation of the Trinity, accomplished within the third person of the Godhead. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, men can call God “our Father” only because of the Son who has taught them and enabled them to do so. Thus, the true prayer of Christians is not the calling out of our souls in earthly isolation to a far-away God. It is the prayer in us of the divine Son of God made to His Father, accomplished in us by the Holy Spirit who himself is also divine.

For we have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry Abba! Father! The Spirit itself bears witness that we are children of God . . . for we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit itself intercedes for us . . . (Rom 8.15–16, 26).


The Holy Trinity in Christian Life

The new commandment of Christian life is “to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5.48). It is to love as Christ Himself has loved. “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15.12). Men cannot live the Christian life of divine love in imitation of God’s perfection without the grace of the Holy Spirit. With the power of God, however, what is impossible to men becomes possible. “For with God all things are possible” (Mk 10.27).

The Christian life is the life of God accomplished in men by the Spirit of Christ. Men can live as Christ has lived, doing the things that He did and becoming sons of God in Him by the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, once more, the Christian life is a Trinitarian life.

By the Holy Spirit given by God through Christ, men can share the life, the love, the truth, the freedom, the goodness, the holiness, the wisdom, the knowledge of God Himself. It is this conviction and experience which has caused the development in the Orthodox Church of the affirmation of the fact that the essence of Christianity is “the acquisition of the Holy Spirit” and the “deification” of man by the grace of God, the so-called theosis.

The saints of the Church are unanimous in their claim that Christian life is the participation in the life of the Blessed Trinity in the most genuine and realistic way. It is the life of men becoming divine. In the smallest aspects of everyday life Christians are called to live the life of God the Father, which is communicated to them by Christ, the Son of God, and made possible for them by the Holy Spirit who lives and acts within them.

The Holy Trinity in Eternal Life

At the end of the ages Christ will come in the glory of God the Father, He will make the Father known throughout all creation. The Holy Spirit will fill all things and enable all to be in union with God through Christ for eternity. Again we have the presence and action of the Holy Trinity.

What we know and experience now in the world as members of the Church will be manifested in power in the life of the kingdom to come. The essence of life everlasting is the life of the Holy Trinity, the same eternal life given to us already in the mystery of faith.

And I saw no temple in the city, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb [Christ] are the temple of it. And the city had no need of the sun . . . for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb [Christ] is the light thereof . . .

And the throne of God and the Lamb [Christ] shall be in it, and his servants shall see him . . . and they shall see his face . . .
And the Spirit and the Bride [the Church] say Come!

(Rev 21.22; 22.3, 17)

In the eternal life of the Kingdom of God, the Holy Trinity will fill all creation: the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. Every man enlightened by Christ in the Spirit will know the invisible Father. “And this is eternal life, that they may know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent” (Jn 17.3). Such knowledge is possible only by the indwelling of the Spirit of God, “the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph 1.23; 2.22).

Come O Ye People! Let us adore the Three-Personal Godhead, the Son in the Father with the Holy Spirit.

For before all time the Father gave birth to the Son, co-eternal and co-enthroned with Himself.

And the Holy Spirit was in the Father, glorified with the Son.

Adoring One Power, One Essence, One Divinity, let us cry:

O Holy God who made all things by the Son through the cooperation of the Holy Spirit!

O Holy Mighty through whom we know the Father and through whom the Holy Spirit comes ino the world!

O Holy Immortal, the Spirit, the Comforter, who proceeds from the Father and rests in the Son!

O Most Holy Trinity! Glory to Thee!
(The Vespers of Pentecost)


The Bible


The Bible is the book of sacred writings of God’s People of the Old and New Testaments.

The People of God of the Old Testament were the Jews, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whose name was changed by God to Israel (Gen 32.28). These people are also called the Hebrews. They remain forever as God’s chosen people for from them “according to the flesh” Christ, the Son of God, was born (Rom 9.5). This Son of God is Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah-King of Israel and the Savior of the world (See Mt 1–2, Lk 1–2, Rom 8.3, Gal 4.4, Heb 1–5). The Old Testamental writings of the People of Israel remain forever as the Word of God for all who believe in God and wish to know His divine Truth and to do His divine Will.

The People of God of the New Testament are the Christians—those who believe in Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” and who belong to the Church which He has founded upon faith in Himself (See Mt 16.13–20). The People of God of the New Testament also have their holy writings which bear witness to Christ and which are affirmed to be the Word of God.

Thus, the Bible as a book, or a collection of many books, has two main parts. It has the Old Testament writings which prepare the world for the coming of Christ, and, it has the New Testament writings which testify to the fact that Christ has come and has saved the world.

Word of God

The Bible is called the written Word of God. This does not mean that the Bible fell from heaven ready made. Neither does this mean that God dictated the Bible word for word to men who were merely His passive instruments. It means that God has revealed Himself as the true and living God to His People, and that as one aspect of His divine self-revelation God inspired His People to produce scriptures, i.e., writings which constitute the true and genuine expressions of His Truth and His Will for His People and for the whole world.

The words of the Bible are human words, for indeed, all words are human. They are human words, however, which God Himself inspired to be written in order to remain as the scriptural witness to Himself. As human words, the words of the Bible contain all of the marks of the men who wrote them, and of the time and the culture in which they were written. Nevertheless, in the full integrity of their human condition and form, the words of the Bible are truly the very Word of God.

The Bible is truly the Word of God in human form because its origin is not in man but in God, Who willed and inspired its creation. In this sense, the Bible is not like any other book. In the Bible, in and through the words of men, one finds the self-revelation of God and can come to a true and genuine knowledge of Him and His will and purpose for man and the world. In and through the Bible, human persons can enter into communion with God.

All scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3.16–17).

It is the faith of the Orthodox Church that the Bible, as the divinely-inspired Word of God in the words of men, contains no formal errors or inner contradictions concerning the relationship between God and the world. There may be incidental inaccuracies of a non-essential character in the Bible. But the eternal spiritual and doctrinal message of God, presented in the Bible in many different ways, remains perfectly consistent, authentic, and true.


The Bible has many different human authors. Some books of the Bible do not indicate in any way who wrote them. Other books bear the names of persons to whom authorship is ascribed. In some cases it is perfectly clear that the indicated author is in fact the person who actually wrote the book with his own hands. In other cases it is as clear that the author of the book had another person do the actual writing of his work in the manner of a secretary. In still other cases it is the Tradition of the Church, and not seldom the opinion of biblical scholars, that the indicated author of a given book of the Bible is not the person (or persons) who wrote it, but the person who originally inspired its writing, whose name is then attached to it as its author.

In a number of instances the Tradition of the Church is not clear about the authorship of certain books of the Bible, and in many cases biblical scholars present innumerable theories about authorship which they then debate among themselves. It is impossible to establish the authorship of any book of the Bible by scholarship, however, since historical and literary studies are relative by nature.

Because the Orthodox Church teaches that the entire Bible is inspired by God Who in this sense is its one original author, the Church Tradition considers the identity of the human authors as incidental to the correct interpretation and proper significance of the books of the Bible for the believing community. In no case would the Church admit that the identity of the author determines the authenticity or validity of a book which is viewed as part of the Bible, and under no circumstances would it be admitted that the value or the proper understanding and use of any book of the Bible in the Church depends on the human writer alone.


The Bible is the book of sacred writings for God’s People, the Church. It was produced in the Church, by and for the Church, under divine inspiration as an essential part of the total reality of God’s covenant relationship with His People. It is the authentic Word of God for those who belong to God’s chosen assembly of believers, to the Israel of old and to the Church of Christ today and forever.

The Bible lives in the Church. It comes alive in the Church and has the most profound divine meaning for those who are members of the community which God has established, in which He dwells, and to which, through His Word and His Spirit, He has given Himself for participation, communion and life everlasting. Outside of the total life and experience of the community of faith, which is the Church of Christ, “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3.15) no one can truly understand and correctly interpret the Bible.

First of all you must understand that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God (2 Pet 1.20).

Scholars of the Bible can help men to understand its divine contents and meaning. Through their archeological, historical, and literary studies they can offer much light to the words of the scriptures. But by themselves and by their academic work alone, no men can produce the proper interpretation of the Bible. Only Christ, the living and personal Word of God, Who comes from the Father and lives in His Church through the Holy Spirit, can make God known and can give the right understanding of the scriptural Word of God.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. . . . For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known (Jn 1.1–18).

Jesus Christ, the Word of God in human flesh, alone makes God known. And Jesus, besides being Himself the living incarnation of God, the living fulfillment of the law and the prophets (Mt 5.17), is also the One by whom the Bible is rightly interpreted.

And [being risen from the dead] He said to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken. Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into His glory?”

And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning Himself (Lk 24.25–27).

And He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about Me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then He opened their minds to understand the scriptures. . . . (Lk 24.44–45; also Jn 5.45–47).

Jesus Christ remains forever in His Church by the Holy Spirit to open men’s minds to understand the Bible (Jn 14.26, 16.13). Only within Christ’s Church, in the community of faith, of grace, and of truth, can men filled with the Holy Spirit understand the meaning and purpose of the Bible’s holy words. Thus, speaking about those who do not believe in Jesus as the Messiah, the apostle Paul contends that when they read the Bible a “veil” hides its true meaning from them “because only through Christ is it taken away” (2 Cor 3.14).

Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; but when a man turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all [i.e. believers in Christ] with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. Therefore, . . . we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God (2 Cor 3.15–4.4).

In the New Testament, Christ not only provides the correct interpretation of the Bible, He also allows the believers themselves to be directly enlightened by the Holy Spirit and to be themselves “the letter from Christ. … written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor 3.3). Thus is fulfilled the prediction of the old covenant that in the time of the Messiah “they all shall be taught of God” by direct divine inspiration and instruction (Jn 6.45, Is 54.13, Ezek 36.26, Jer 31.31, Joel 2.28, Mic 4.2, et al.). It is only within the living Tradition of the Church under the direct inspiration of Christ’s Spirit that the proper interpretation of the Bible can be made.


Old Testament


The first part of the Bible is called the Torah, which means the Law. It is also called the Pentateuch which means the five books. These books are also called the Books of Moses. They include Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The events described in these books, from the calling of Abraham to the death of Moses, probably took place sometime in the second millennium before Christ (2000–1200 BC).

The Book of Genesis contains the pre-history of the people of Israel. It begins with the story of the creation of the world, the fall of Adam and Eve and the subsequent, quite sinful, history of the children of Adam. It then tells of God’s call and promise of salvation to Abraham, and the story of Isaac and Jacob, whom God named Israel, ending with the settlement of the twelve tribes of Israel—the families of the twelve sons of Jacob—in Egypt, during the time of Joseph’s favor with the Egyptian Pharaoh. In traditional Church language, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are called the patriarchs.


The Book of Exodus relates the deliverance of the people of Israel by Moses from the slavery in Egypt to which they were subjected after the death of Joseph. It tells of the revelation of God to Moses of His divine name of Yahweh—I AM WHO I AM (3.14). It gives the account of the passover and the exodus, and the journey of the Israelites, led by God, through the desert. Also, in this book is the narrative of God’s gift of the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai, and the other laws which God gave to Moses concerning the moral and ritual conduct of His People.
The Book of Leviticus is a further book of laws, primarily concerned with the priestly and ritual offices of the people which were conducted by men taken from the tribe of Levi.

The Book of Numbers concerns itself primarily with a census of the people. It also contains laws given by God to Moses, and further narratives about the movement of God’s People through the wilderness to the land which God promised them.

The Book of Deuteronomy, which means the “second law,” is again primarily a law code in which is told again the story of the Ten Commandments and the institution of the Mosaic laws of moral and ritual conduct. It ends with Moses’ blessing of the people, and his vision of the promised land into which Joshua would lead God’s People after his death, the account of which ends the Books of Moses.

Scholars tell us that the Law was not written by the personal hand of Moses and that the books show evidence of being the result of a number of oral and written traditions transmitted among the People of Israel, containing material of later periods. Nevertheless, in the Tradition of Israel and of the Christian Church, the Law remains essentially connected with Moses, the great man of God to whom “the Lord used to speak . . . face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex 33.11).

The Ten Commandments

  • I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me.
  • You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above. or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them: for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
  • You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
  • Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work: but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth. the sea. and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore, the LORD blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.
  • Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you.
  • You shall not kill.
  • You shall not commit adultery.
  • You shall not steal.
  • You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  • You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his man servant, or his maidservant, or his ox. or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.

(Ex 20.1–17)


Following the Law in the Bible are those books which are called historical. They cover the history of Israel from the settlement in the promised land of Canaan to the first centuries before Christ. They include Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, as well as 1 and 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, and 1 and 2 Maccabees, which in the English Bible includes 3 Maccabees.

In the biblical listing of the Orthodox Church, which is generally that of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, 1 and 2 Samuel are called 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Kings are called 3 and 4 Kings. Also, the so-called apocryphal books, listed above after Esther, are considered by the Orthodox as genuine parts of the Bible. The Old Testament apocrypha is a body of writings considered by the non-Orthodox to be of close association with the Bible, but not actually part of its official canonical contents.

The Book of Joshua begins with the People of Israel crossing over the Jordan River and into the promised land led by Joshua, the successor of Moses. It tells of the victories of the Israelites over the local inhabitants, and the settlement of the twelve tribes in the territories appointed to each by Moses.

The Book of Judges tells of the period when the Israelites were ruled by the “judges” whom God appointed, the most famous being Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson. During this period, the Israelites were often unfaithful to God and given to evil. They were constantly at war with themselves and their neighbors. The book ends with the line: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his eyes” (Judg 23.25).

The Book of Ruth is a very short story of the Moabite woman whom God blessed to be the wife of Boaz, the great-grandmother of David the King.


The books of Samuel and Kings begin with the birth of Samuel, the prophet whom God chose to anoint Saul as the first king of Israel. Until Saul there was no king, for God Himself was to be King for His People. Yet Israel wished to be “like all the nations” and God yielded, with reluctance, to their desires (Sam 8). Saul soon became evil and God sent Samuel to anoint David, the shepherd boy, as king in his place. Saul was enraged and made war against David, but David was merciful to him though he could easily have killed him. During this whole time, the Israelites were constantly at war. Saul finally killed himself rather than be taken in battle, and David became the only king. Having subdued all of his enemies, both within Israel and without, David established a glorious kingdom centered in Jerusalem, the city which he built. David’s son, Solomon, favored by God with great wisdom, enlarged his father’s kingdom and built the great temple for God on Mount Zion. The kingship of David and Solomon lasted from 1000–422 BC.

No sooner had Solomon died, than the kingdom collapsed. Two rival states emerged, Israel and Judah, which were constantly at war with each other and with those around them. This was a time of great decadence and evil that lasted for about three hundred years and ended with the Babylonian Captivity (587–539 BC). It was the time of Elijah and many of the great prophets of God.

Babylon was captured by the Persians led by Cyrus and Darius who restored the Israelites to their homeland. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell of the resettlement of the Jews, and of the rebuilding and the reopening of the temple in Jerusalem.

The two books of Chronicles date from this same period and may well have been compiled by Ezra, although scholars consider them as the work of third century authors, perhaps the same who wrote Ezra and Nehemiah. The Chronicles cover the history of Israel from Adam to the time of Cyrus. They contain numerous genealogies, and show particular interest in David and the Kings as well as in the temple and the priesthood. In the Septuagint Bible the Chronicles are called Paralipomena which means “that which has been left out,” thus indicating their purpose as being to fill in what has been excluded from the earlier historical books of the Bible.

The Book of Esther, and those of 1 and 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, and 1 and 2 Maccabees which, as we have said, are included in the Bible in the Orthodox Church, bring the history of Israel down to New Testament times. They tell of the reorganization of the Jewish community around the temple, the cult and the law as a mere remnant of the great nation, or nations of Israel and Judah, which existed before the time of exile; a struggling remnant constantly in subjugation to external powers. It is mostly the case that the historical books of the Bible were written well after the events described in them actually took place.


The books of the Bible which are commonly called the Wisdom books include Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon, as well as the Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Sirach, also called Ecclesiasticus, and the Wisdom of Solomon from the so-called apocrypha.

The Book of Job, usually dated sometime at the period of exile, is the story of righteous suffering in which the sufferer pleads his cause before God only to “repent in dust and ashes” (42.6) upon seeing the Lord for himself and being confronted by Him with His own defense of His unspeakable and unfathomable majesty. Selections from this book are read on the first days of Holy Week in the Orthodox Church because they deal with the most profound problem facing believers, the problem of suffering, which is brought to its ultimate completion in Christ who is not merely the most perfect of “suffering innocents,” but indeed the Suffering God in human flesh.


The Book of Proverbs, called the “proverbs of Solomon,” undoubtedly comes from Solomon’s time, although scholars place some of the proverbs at a much later date and tell us that the book was put in its present form only after the Babylonian exile. The proverbs are short sayings concerning the proper conduct of wise and righteous persons. They are read in their entirety at the weekday Vesper services of the Church during Great Lent. Selections from the Proverbs are also read at the vigils of a number of feasts of the Church since for Christians the Wisdom of God is personified and embodied in Christ.

Ecclesiastes is a book of common-sense meditations on the vanity of life in this world and the wisdom of fearing God and keeping His commandments which is “the whole duty of man” (11.3). It is traditionally ascribed to Solomon, the Preacher. Scholars place the book in the third century before Christ, however, and find in its message a hellenistic spirit taken over by the Jews in diaspora among the gentile nations.

The same hellenistic spirit and influences of Greek philosophy, but to a much greater degree, are found in both the Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon which come from the same period, the very eve of New Testament times. Of the three books just mentioned, only the Wisdom of Solomon, which is considered to be the last of them written, is read liturgically in the Orthodox Church.

The Song of Solomon—also called the Song of Songs or Canticle of Canticles—is considered by scholars as a Canaanite wedding hymn of uncertain date. In Orthodox Church Tradition it is interpreted as a mystical love story between man’s soul and God. Christian saints of East and West, such as Gregory of Nyssa and Bernard of Clairvaux, have given such a meaning to the book which is in line with the biblical tradition of viewing the interrelationship of God and His People as that of conjugal love (See Hos, Jer 2–3, Eph 5, Rev 21–22). This book is never read in the liturgical services of the Orthodox Church, although certain lines from it are traditionally sung in the Russian Orthodox Church when the bride approaches her bridegroom in the church before the celebration of their marriage.

Although not technically a “wisdom” book, mention may be made at this point of The Prayer of Manasseh from the so-called apocrypha. This penitential prayer of the King of Judah, which for the Orthodox is part of the Bible, is included in the Great Compline service of the Orthodox Church.



The Psalms are the divinely-inspired songs of the People of Israel. They are traditionally called the “psalms of David,” although many of them most certainly come from other authors of much later times. The enumeration and the wording of the psalms differ in various scriptural traditions. The Orthodox Church follows the Septuagint version of the psalter and for this reason the numbers and not seldom the texts of certain psalms are different in Orthodox service books from what they are in the Bibles which are translated from the Hebrew.

In the Orthodox Church, the entire psalter is divided into twenty sections and is chanted each week in those monasteries and churches which perform the entire liturgical office. Various psalms and verses of psalms are used in all liturgical services of the Orthodox Church (see Worship).

Virtually all states of man’s soul before God are found expressed in the psalms: praising, thanking, blessing, rejoicing, petitioning, repenting, lamenting, questioning and even complaining. Many of the psalms are centered in the cultic rituals of the Jerusalem temple and the Davidic kingship. Others recount God’s saving actions in Israelite history. Still others carry prophetic utterances about events yet to come, particularly those of the messianic age. Thus, for example, we find Christ quoting Psalm 8 in reference to His triumphal entry into Jerusalem; Psalm 110 in reference to his own mysterious divinity; and Psalm 22, when, hanging upon the cross, He cries out with the words of the psalm in which is described His crucifixion and his ultimate salvation of the world (See Mt 21.16, 22.44, 27.46).

In the Orthodox Church all of the psalms are understood as having their deepest and most genuine spiritual meaning in terms of Christ and His mission of eternal salvation. Thus, for example, the psalms which refer to the king are sung in the Church in reference to Christ’s exaltation and glorification at the right hand of God. The psalms which refer to Israel’s deliverance are sung in reference to Christ’s redemption of the whole world. The psalms calling for victory over the enemies in battle refer to the only real Enemy, the devil, and all of his wicked works which Christ has come to destroy. Babylon thus signifies the realm of Satan, and Jerusalem, the eternal Kingdom of God. The psalms which lament the innocent suffering of the righteous are sung as the plea of the Lord Himself and all those with Him who are the “poor and needy” who will rise up to rule the earth on the day of God’s terrible judgment. Thus, the psalter remains forever as the divinely-inspired song book of prayer and worship for all of God’s People, and most especially for those who belong to the Messiah whose words the psalms are in their deepest and most divine significance.

Liturgical Division of the Psalter (Kathisma)

  1. Psalms 1–8
  2. Psalms 9–17
  3. Psalms 18–24
  4. Psalms 25–32
  5. Psalms 33–37
  6. Psalms 38–46
  7. Psalms 47–55
  8. Psalms 56–64
  9. Psalms 65–70
  10. Psalms 71–77
  1. Psalms 78–85
  2. Psalms 86–91
  3. Psalms 92–101
  4. Psalms 102–105
  5. Psalms 106–109
  6. Psalms 110–118
  7. Psalm 119
  8. Psalms 120–134
  9. Psalms 135–143
  10. Psalms 144–150








There are sixteen books in the Bible called by the names of the prophets although not necessarily written by their hands. A prophet is one who speaks by the direct inspiration of God; only secondarily does the word mean one who foretells the future. Four of the prophetic books are those of the so-called major prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel.


Most scholars believe that the book of Isaiah is the work of more than one author. It covers the period from the middle of the eighth century before Christ to the time of the Babylonian exile. It tells of the impending doom upon the people of God for their wickedness and infidelity to the Lord. And it foretells the mercy of God upon His People, as well as the gentiles, in the time of His redemption in the messianic age. The famous vision of the prophet in chapter six is included in the eucharistic prayers of the Orthodox Church. Of central importance in Isaiah are the prophecies in the first part of the book, especially chapters six to twelve, concerning the coming of the Messiah-King; and the prophecies at the end of the book, about the salvation of all creation in the suffering servant of the Lord. The entire book of Isaiah is read in the Church during Great Lent, and many selections are read at the vigils of the great feasts of the Church. In the New Testament scriptures there are innumerable quotations of the prophecy of Isaiah made in reference to John the Baptist, and most especially to Christ Himself.


The book of Jeremiah covers the period of the seventh century before Christ and, like Isaiah, prophecies the Lord’s wrath upon His sinful people. Jeremiah, a most reluctant prophet, suffered greatly at the hands of the people and was constantly persecuted for his proclamation of the Word of the Lord. The book is referred to many times in the New Testament. The messianic prophecies of salvation in Jeremiah are often read in the festal services of the Church. The books of Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah from the apocrypha go together with this prophetic book in the Orthodox version of the Bible.


The book of Ezekiel, who was a priest as well as a prophet, is dated at the time of the Babylonian Captivity. Once again, the prophet is directly concerned with God’s righteous anger over the sins of His People, making specific reference to the presence—and the departure—of the Lord’s glory in the Jerusalem Temple. Ezekiel, however, like all of the prophets, is not without hope in the mercy of God. The moving passage about God’s resurrection of the “dry bones” of dead Israel through the breathing in of His Holy Spirit is read over the tomb of Christ at the Great Saturday service of the Orthodox Church.


The prophecy of Daniel, read in the Church at the vigil of Easter, is concerned with the faithfulness of the Jews to their God in the time of forced apostasy. Scholars consider this book among the latest written in the Old Testament, much after the time of the Babylonian captivity in which the story is placed. Central among the book’s messages is the redemption of Israel in the victorious coming of the heavenly Son of Man, who, in the New Testament, is identified with Christ. It is the apocalyptic character of the book—apocalyptic meaning that which refers to the final revelation of God and His ultimate judgment over all creation—which accounts for the placement of Daniel at a date close to New Testament times. The Song of the Three Youths which goes together with Daniel and which is placed by the non-Orthodox among the apocryphal writings, forms a genuine part of the Bible in the Orthodox Church, as do the books of Susanna and Bel and the Dragon, also part of Daniel. The Song of the Youths is part of the matinal office in the Orthodox Church.


Among the books of the so-called minor prophets, Amos and Hosea are the earliest, coming, like the first part of Isaiah, from the middle of the eighth century before Christ. Amos is the great proclaimer of the justice of God against the injustices of His People. Hosea tells of the unwavering love of God which will ultimately triumph over the adulterous harlotry of His People who unfaithfully lust after false gods. The book of Micah dates from approximately the same period and is very similar in content to Isaiah. In Micah is found the prophecy of the Savior’s birth in Bethlehem (5.2–4).


Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah are dated in the later part of the seventh century before Christ. They imitate Jeremiah, prophesying the wrath of a good and just God upon a wicked and unjust people. Like Jeremiah, they also foretell the restoration of Israel by the merciful Lord.

Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, and perhaps Obadiah, belong to the period of the return of God’s People from exile. Zechariah is famous for the oracle of the appearance of the Savior-King, “triumphant and victorious as he is, humble and riding on an ass . . .” (9.9) which referred to Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Malachi, who is ferocious against the sins of the priests, is the last of the prophets before John the Baptist whose coming he foretells, as did the others, to usher in the “great and terrible day of the Lord” (3.1, 4.5) when “the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in his wings” (4.2), a reference made, according to Christians, explicitly to their Lord.


The prophecy of Joel, quoted by Saint Peter in reference to the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), belongs to the apocalyptic style of Daniel as it speaks of the final acts of God in the days of the Lord’s “great and terrible” appearance when He will execute justice and restore the fortunes of His People, delivering “all who call upon the name of the Lord” (2.31–32).


The book of Jonah is most likely a prophetic allegory intended to foretell the Lord’s salvation of the gentiles in the time of His final messianic presence in the world. It was probably written in post-exilic times. It is read in its entirety in the Church at the Easter vigil of Great Saturday as it was directly referred to by Christ Himself as the sign of His messianic mission in the world (Mt 12.38, Lk 11.29).

It must be mentioned at this point, that the variation in names found in English for the prophets, as well as for other persons and places in the scriptures, comes from the different Hebrew and Greek language traditions of the Bible. The Orthodox sources most often tend to follow the Greek. Thus, for example, Elijah becomes Elias, Hosea becomes Osee, Habakkuk becomes Avvakum, Jonah becomes Jonas, etc. Once again we must mention as well that according to Christians, the entire Old Testament finds it deepest meaning and its most perfect fulfillment in the coming of Christ and in the life of His Church.


New Testament


The first books of the New Testament scriptures are the four gospels of Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The word gospel literally means good news or glad tidings. The gospels tell of the life and teaching of Jesus, but none of them is a biography in the classical sense of the word. The gospels were not written merely to tell the story of Jesus. They were written by the disciples of Christ, who were filled with the Holy Spirit after the Lord’s resurrection, to bear witness to the fact that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the promised Messiah-Christ of Israel and the Savior of the world.

In the Orthodox Church, it is not the entire Bible, but only the book of the four gospels which is perpetually enthroned upon the altar table in the church building. This is a testimony to the fact that the life of the Church is centered in Christ, the living fulfillment of the law and the prophets, who abides perpetually in the midst of His People, the Church, through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

The gospels of Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke are called the synoptic gospels, which means that they “look the same”. These three gospels are very similar in content and form and are most probably interrelated textually in some way, exactly how being an ongoing debate among scriptural scholars. They each were written sometime in the beginning of the second half of the first century, and the texts of each of them, as that of St John, have come down to us in Greek, the language in which they were written, with the possible exception of Matthew which may have been written originally in Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

Each of the synoptic gospels follows basically the same narrative. Each begins with Jesus’ baptism by John and His preaching in Galilee. Each centers on the apostles’ confession of Jesus as the promised Messiah of God, with the corresponding event of the transfiguration, and the announcement by Christ of His need to suffer and die and be raised again on the third day. And each concludes with the account of the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord.

Saint Mark


The gospel of Saint Mark is the shortest, and perhaps the first written, of the gospels, although this is a matter of debate. Its author was not one of the twelve apostles and it is the common view that this gospel presents the “tradition” of Saint Peter. The gospel begins immediately with Jesus’ baptism, the call of the apostles, and the preaching of Jesus accompanied by his works of forgiveness and healing. In this gospel, as in all of them, Jesus is revealed from the very beginning by His authoritative words and His miraculous works as the Holy One of God, the divine Son of Man, Who was crucified and is risen from the dead, thus bringing to the world the Kingdom of God.

Saint Matthew


The gospel of Saint Matthew, who was one of the twelve apostles, is considered by some to be the earliest written gospel. There is also the opinion that it was originally written in Aramaic and not in the Greek text which has remained in the Church. It is a commonly-held view that the gospel of Saint Matthew was written for the Jewish Christians to show from the scriptures of the Old Testament, that Jesus, the son of David, the son of Abraham, is truly the Christ, the bearer of God’s Kingdom to men.

The gospel of Saint Matthew abounds with references to the Old Testament. It begins with the genealogy of Jesus from Abraham and the story of Christ’s birth from the Virgin in Bethlehem. Then recounting the baptism of Jesus and the temptations in the wilderness, it proceeds to the call of the disciples and the preaching and works of Christ.

The gospel of Saint Matthew contains the longest and most detailed record of Christ’s teachings in the so-called Sermon on the Mount (5–7). Generally, in the Orthodox Church, it is the text of the gospel of Saint Matthew which is used most consistently in liturgical worship, e.g., the version of the beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer. Only this gospel contains the commission of the Lord to His apostles after the resurrection, “to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (28.19).

Saint Luke


The gospel of Saint Luke, who was not one of the twelve apostles but one of the original disciples, a physician known for his association with the apostle Paul, claims to be an “orderly account . . . delivered by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word” (1.1–4). Together with the book of Acts, also written by Saint Luke for a certain Theophilus, this gospel forms the most complete “history” of Christ and the early Christian Church that we have.

The gospel of Saint Luke, alone among the four canonical gospels, has a complete account of the birth of both Jesus and John the Baptist. Traditionally, the source for these events recorded by Saint Luke is considered to be Mary, the mother of Christ. We must mention at this point that in addition to the four gospels called “canonical” in that they alone have been accepted by the Church as genuine witnesses to the true life and teachings of Christ, there exist many other writings from the early Christian era which tell about Jesus, and especially His childhood, which have not been accepted by the Church as authentic and true. These writings are often called apocryphal (not to be confused with the so-called apocrypha of the Old Testament), or the pseudoepigrapha which literally means “false writings.”

Saint Luke’s gospel is noted for the detail of its narrative, and especially for its record of Christ’s great concern for the poor and for the sinful. Certain parables warning against the dangers of riches and self-righteousness, and revealing the great mercy of God to sinners, are found only in the gospel of Saint Luke, for example, those of the publican and the pharisee, the prodigal son, and Lazarus and the rich man, There is also a very great emphasis in this gospel on the Kingdom of God which Christ has brought to the world and which He gives to those who continue with Him in His sufferings.

The post-resurrection account of the Lord’s presence to the two disciples on the road to Ernmaeus in which only one of the disciples is named, an account found only in Saint Luke’s gospel, gives rise to the tradition that the unnamed disciple was Luke himself.

Saint John


The gospel of Saint John is very different from the synoptic gospels. It is undoubtedly the latest written, being the work of the beloved disciple and apostle of the Lord at the end of his life near the close of the first century. In most Orthodox versions of the Bible, this gospel is printed before the others as it is the one which is first read in the Church’s lectionary beginning at the divine Liturgy on Easter night.

The gospel of Saint John begins with its famous prologue which identifies Jesus of Nazareth with the divine Word of God of the Old Testament, the Word of God Who was ‘in the beginning with God,’ Who ‘is God,’ the One through Whom ‘all things were made’ (1.1–3). This Word of God ‘became flesh,’ and as Jesus, the Son of God, He makes God known to men and grants to all who believe in Him the power of partaking of His own fulness of grace and truth and of becoming themselves ‘children of God’ (1.14ff).

From the first pages of this gospel, following the prologue, in the account of Jesus’ baptism and His calling of the apostles, Jesus is presented as God’s only begotten Son, the Messiah and the Lord. Throughout the gospel, He is identified as well, in various ways, with the God of the Old Testament, receiving the dd vine name of I AM together with the Yahweh of Moses and the prophets and psalms.

The gospel of Saint John, following the prologue, may be divided into two main parts. The first part is the so-called book of ‘signs,’ the record of a number of Jesus’ miracles with detailed ‘commentary’ about their significance in signifying Him as Messiah and Lord (2–11). Because the “signs” all have a deeply spiritual and sacramental significance for believers in Christ, with almost all of them dealing with water, wine, bread, light, the salvation of the nations, the separation from the synagogue, the forgiveness of sins, the healing of infirmities and the resurrection of the dead, it is sometimes thought that the gospel of Saint John was expressly written as a ‘theological gospel’ for those who were newly initiated into the life of the Church through the sacramental mysteries of baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the eucharist. In any case, because of the contents of the book of ‘signs,’ as well as the long discourses of Christ about His relationship to God the Father, the Holy Spirit and the members of His faithful flock, in the latter part of the gospel, the apostle and evangelist John has traditionally been honored in the Church with the title of The Theologian.

The latter half of Saint John’s gospel concerns the passion of Christ and its meaning for the world (11–21). Here most explicitly, in long discourses coming from the mouth of the Lord Himself, the doctrines of Christ’s person and work are most deeply explained. As we have just mentioned, here Christ relates Himself to God the Father, to the Holy Spirit and to His community of believers in clear and certain terms. He is one with God, Who as Father is greater than He, Whose words He speaks, Whose works He accomplishes and Whose will He performs. And through the Holy Spirit, Who proceeds from the Father to bear witness to Him in the world, He remains abiding forever in those who are His through their faith and co-service of God.

The account of the passion in Saint John’s gospel differs slightly from that of the synoptic gospels and is considered by many, in this instance, to be a certain clarification or correction. There are also accounts of the resurrection given which are recorded only in this gospel. The final chapter of the book is traditionally considered to be an addition following the first ending of the gospel, to affirm the reinstatement of the apostle Peter to the leadership of the apostolic community after his three denials of the Lord at the time of His passion. It may have been a necessary inclusion to offset a certain lack of confidence in Saint Peter by some members of the Church.

In the Tradition of the Orthodox Church, a tradition often expressed in the Church’s iconography, the four gospels are considered to be symbolized in the images of the ‘four living creatures’ of the biblical apocalypse, the lion, the ox, the man and the eagle, with the most classical interpretation connecting Matthew with the man, Luke with the ox, Mark with the lion and John with the eagle (Ezek 1.10, Rev 4.7). The four gospels, taken together, but each with its own unique style and form, remain forever as the scriptural center of the Orthodox Church.

Acts of the Apostles


The book of the Acts of the Apostles was written by Saint Luke toward the end of the first century, as the second part of his history for Theophilus about Christ and His Church. The book begins with an account of the Lord’s ascension and the election of Matthias to take the place of Judas as a member of the twelve apostles. Then follows the record of the events of the day of Pentecost when the promised Holy Spirit came upon the disciples of Christ empowering them to preach the gospel of new life in the resurrected Savior to the people of Jerusalem.

The first chapters of the book tell the story of the first days of the Church in Jerusalem and provide us with a vivid picture of the primitive Christian community being built up through the work of the apostles. It tells of the people being baptized and endowed with the gift of the Holy Spirit through repentance and faith in Christ, and continuing steadfast in their devotion “to the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship (communion), to the breaking of the bread and the prayers” (2.42).

Following the description of the martyrdom of the deacon Stephen, the first to give his life for Christ, Acts tells of the conversion of the persecutor Saul into the zealous apostle Paul, and records the events by which the first gentiles were brought into the Church by the direct action of God. There then follows an account of the first missionary activities of Saints Paul and Barnabas, and the famous fifteenth chapter in which the first council of the Church in Jerusalem is described, the council which established the conditions under which the gentiles could enter the Church relative to the Mosaic law which all of the Jewish Christians were then keeping.

The final half of the book describes the missionary activities of the apostle Paul through Syria and Cilicia, into Macedonia and Greece and back again through Ephesus to Jerusalem. It then gives the account of Saint Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem, and his defense before the authorities there. The book ends with the description of Saint Paul’s journey to Rome for trial, closing with the information that “he lived there two whole years . . . preaching the Kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord quite openly and unhindered” to those who came to him in his house of arrest (28.30).


The book of the Acts of the Apostles forms the apostolic lectionary of the Church’s Liturgy during the time from Easter to Pentecost. Selections from it are also read at other feasts of the Church, e.g., Saint Stephen’s Day. It is also the custom of the Church to read the book of Acts over the tomb of Christ on Good Friday, and over the body of a deceased priest at the wake prior to his burial.

Letters of Saint Paul

Fourteen letters, also called epistles, which are ascribed to the apostle Paul are included in the holy scriptures of the New Testament Church. We will comment on the letters in the order in which they are normally printed in the English Bible and read in the Church’s liturgical year.


The letter to the Romans was written by Saint Paul from Corinth sometime at the end of the fifties of the first century. It is one of the most formal and detailed expositions of the doctrinal teaching of Saint Paul that we have. It is not one of the easier parts of the scripture to understand without careful study.

In this letter, the apostle Paul writes about the relationship of the Christian faith to the unbelievers, particularly the unbelieving Jews. The apostle upholds the validity and holiness of the Mosaic law while passionately defending the doctrine that salvation comes only in Christ, by faith and by grace. He discourses powerfully about the meaning of union with Christ through baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit. He urges great humility on the part of the gentile Christians toward Israel, and calls with great pathos and love for the regrafting of the unbelieving Jews to the genuine community of God which is in Christ Who is Himself from Israel “according to the flesh” (9.5) for the sake of its salvation and that of all the world.

The end of the letter is a long exhortation concerning the proper behavior of Christians, finally closing with a long list of personal greetings from the apostle and his co-workers, including one Tertius, the actual writer of the letter, to many members of the Roman Church, urging, once more, steadfastness of faith.

The letter to the Romans is read in the Church’s liturgical lectionary during the first weeks following the feast of Pentecost. Selections from it are also read on various other liturgical occasions, one of which, for example, is the sacramental liturgy of baptism and chrismation (6.3–11).

First Corinthians

The first Christian community in Corinth, was noted neither for its inner peace and harmony, nor for the exemplary moral behavior of its members. The two letters of Saint Paul to the Corinthians which we have in the New Testament, written in the mid-fifties of the first century, are filled not only with doctrinal and ethical teachings, the answers to concrete questions and problems, but also with no little scolding and chastisement by the author, as well as numerous defenses of his own apostolic authority. These letters clearly demonstrate the fact that the first Christians were not all saints, and that the early Church experienced no fewer difficulties than the Church does today or at any time in its history in the world.

After a short greeting and word of gratitude to God for the grace given to the Corinthians, the first letter begins with Saint Paul’s appeal for unity in the Church. There are deep disagreements and dissensions among the members of the community, and the apostle urges all to be fully united in the crucified Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit in Whom there can be no divisions at all (1–3) He then defends his apostleship generally and his fatherhood of the Corinthian Church in particular, both of which were being attacked by some members of the Church. (4) Next, he deals with the problem on sexual immorality among members of the community and the matter of their going to court before pagan judges (5–6). After this comes Saint Paul’s counsel about Christian marriage and his advice concerning the eating of food offered to idols (7–8). Then once again he defends his apostleship, stressing the fact that he has always supported himself materially and has burdened no one.

The divisions and troubles in the Corinthian community were most concretely expressed at the eucharistic gatherings of the Church. There was general disrespect and abuse of the Body and Blood of Christ, and the practice had developed where each clique was having its own separate meal. These divisions were caused in no small part by the fact that some of the community had certain spiritual gifts, for example, that of praising God in unknown tongues, which they considered as signs of their superiority over others. There also was trouble caused by women in the Church, who were using their new freedom in Christ for disruption and disorder.

In his letter Saint Paul urges respect and discernment for the holy eucharist as the central realization of the unity of the Church, coming from Christ, Himself. He warns against divisions in the Church because of the various spiritual gifts, urging the absolute unity of the Church as the one body of Christ which has many members and many gifts for the edification of all. He insists on the absolute primacy and superiority of love over every virtue and gift, without which all else is made void and is destroyed. He tempers those who had the gift of praising God in strange tongues, a gift which was obviously presenting a most acute problem, and calls for the exercise of all gifts and most particularly the simple and direct teaching of the Word of God in the Church. He appeals to the women to maintain themselves in dress and behavior proper to Christians. And finally he insists that “all things should be done decently and in order” (10–14).

The first letter to the Corinthians ends with a long discourse about the meaning of the resurrection of the dead in Christ which is the center of the Christian faith and preaching. The apostle closes with an appeal for money for the poor, and promising a visit, he once again insists on the absolute necessity of strength of faith, humble service and most especially, love.

Second Corinthians

The entire second letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians is a detailed enumeration and description of his sufferings and trials in the apostolate of Christ. In this letter, the apostle once again defends himself before the Corinthians, some of whom were reacting very badly to him and to his guidance and instruction in the faith. He defends the “pain” that, he is causing these people because of his exhortations and admonitions to them concerning their beliefs and. Behavior, and he calls them to listen to him and to follow him in his life in Christ.

Of special interest in the second letter, in addition to the detailed record of Saint Paul’s activities and all that he had to bear for the gospel of Christ, is the doctrine of the apostle concerning the relationship of Christians with God through Christ and the Holy Spirit in the Church. Worthy of special note also, is the apostolic teaching about the significance of the scriptures for the Christians (3–4) and the teaching about contributions, of money for the work of the Church. (9) The closing line of the second letter to the Corinthians, which, like all epistles, forms part of the Church’s lectionary, is used in the divine liturgies of the Orthodox Church during the eucharistic canon.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God (the Father), and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13.14)

Saint Paul’s Hymn to Love

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
(1 Corinthians 13)


The letter of Saint Paul to the Galatians, most likely the southern Galatians (Lystra, Derbe, Iconium), was sent from Antioch in the early fifties. In this most vehement epistle, the apostle Paul expresses his profound anger and distress at the fact that the Galatians, who had received the genuine gospel of Christ from him, had been seduced into practicing “another gospel” which held that man’s salvation requires the ritual observance of the Old Testament law, including the practice of circumcision.

The heart of this letter to the “foolish Galatians” (3.1) is Saint Paul’s uncompromising defense of the fact -that his gospel is not his but Christ’s, the gospel of salvation not by the law, but by grace and faith in the crucified Savior Who gives the Holy Spirit to all who believe. The apostle stresses the fact that in Christ and the Spirit there is freedom from slavery to the flesh, slavery to the elemental spirits of the universe, and slavery to the ritual requirements of the law through which no one can be saved. For the true “Israel of God” (6.16) in Christ and the Spirit, there is perfect freedom, divine sonship and a new creation. Those “who are led by the Spirit . . . are not under the law” (5.18).

The letter to the Galatians is included in the Church’s liturgical lectionary, with the famous lines from the fourth chapter being the epistle reading of the Orthodox Church at the divine liturgy of Christmas (4.4–7). This letter also provides the Church with the verse which is sung at the solemn procession of the liturgy of baptism and chrismation, and which also replaces the Thrice-Holy Hymn at the divine liturgies of the great feasts of the Church which were once celebrations of the entrance of the catechumens into the sacramental life of the Church (see Worship, “Baptism”).

For as many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ (Gal 3.27).


The letters of Saint Paul to the Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians are called the captivity epistles since they are held to have been written by the apostle from his house arrest in Rome around 60 A.D. In some early sources, the letter to the Ephesians does not contain the words “who are at Ephesus,” thus leading some to think of the epistle as a general letter meant for all of the churches.

Saint Paul’s purpose in the letter to the Ephesians is to share his “insight into the mystery of Christ” (3.4) and “to make all men see what is the plan of the for ages in God Who created all things . . .” (3.9) In the first part of the letter, the apostle attempts to describe the mystery. He uses many words in long sentences, overflowing with adjectives, in his effort to accomplish his task. Defying a neat outline, the main points of the message are clear.

The plan of God for Christ, before the foundation of the world, is “to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1.10) The plan is accomplished through the crucifixion, resurrection and glorification of Christ at the right hand of God. The fruits of God’s plan are given freely to all men by God’s free gift of grace, to Jews and gentiles alike, who believe-in the Lord. They are given in the One Holy Spirit, in the One Church of Christ, “which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (1.23). In the Church of Christ, with each part of the body knit together and functioning properly in harmony and unity, man grows up in truth and in love “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (4.12–16). He gains access to God the Father through Christ in the Spirit thus becoming “a holy temple of the Lord . . . a dwelling place of God” (2.18–22), “filled with all the fullness, of God” (3.19).

In the second part of the letter, Saint Paul spells out the implications of the “great mystery . . . Christ and the Church” (5.32). He urges sound doctrine and love, a true conversion of life, a complete end to all impurity and immorality and a total commitment to spiritual battle. He addresses the Church as a whole; husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves. He calls all to “put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (4.24).

The letter to the Ephesians finds its place in the liturgical lectionary of the Church, with the well-known lines from the sixth chapter being the epistle reading at the sacramental celebration of marriage (5.21–33).


As we have mentioned, the letter of Saint Paul to the Philippians was written at the time of his confinement in Rome. It is a most intimate letter of the apostle to those whom he sincerely loved in the Lord, those who were his faithful partners in the gospel “from the first day until now” (1.5). In this letter, Saint Paul exposes the most personal feelings of his mind and heart as he sees the approaching end of his life. He also praises the Philippian Church as a model Christian community in every way, encouraging and inspiring its beloved members whom he calls his “joy and crown” (4.1) with prayers that their “love may abound more and more with knowledge and all discernment,” so that they “may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with all the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus Christ for the praise and glory of God” (1.10–11).

Of special significance in the letter to the Philippians, besides the mention of “bishops and deacons” (1.1), which hints at the developing structure of the Church, is Saint Paul’s famous passage about the self-emptying (kenosis) of Christ which is the epistle reading for the feasts of the Nativity and and Dormition of the Theotokos in the Orthodox Church, and which has been so influential for Christian spiritual life, particularly in Russia.

Have this mind among yourselves, which you have in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking on the form of a servant (slave), and being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name . . . (2.5–9).

Like all Pauline epistles, the letter to Phillipians has its place in the Church’s normal lectionary.


It is believed that the letter of Saint Paul to the Colossians, written, as we have said, from Rome, was expressly intended to instruct the faithful in Colossae in the true Christian gospel in the face of certain heretical teachings which were threatening the community there. It appears that some form of gnosticism and angel worship had crept into the Colossian Church.

Gnosticism was an early Christian heresy which, in all of its various forms, denied the goodness of material, bodily reality, and therefore, the genuine incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ in human flesh. It made of the Christian faith a type of dualistic, spiritualistic philosophy which pretended to provide a secret knowledge of the divine by way of intellectual mysticism. Gnosis, as a word, means knowledge.

In his letter, Saint Paul stresses that he indeed wishes the Colossians to be “filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (1.9), and that indeed it is true that in Christ “are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2.3). The real point of the Christian gospel, however, is that in Christ, through whom and for whom all things were created (1.16), “the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily” (2.9). It is only through the incarnation of Christ and His death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead, in the most real way, that salvation is given to men. It is given in the Church, through baptism; the Church which is itself Christ’s “body” (1.24, 2.19).

Thus, the apostle insists to the Colossians that Christ is superior to all angels, having “disarmed the principalities and powers (i.e., the angels)… triumphing over them on the cross” (2.15). He warns them, therefore “to see to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and vain deceit, according to human traditions, according to the elemental spirits of the uni-verse and not according to Christ” (2.8). He warns as well that they should “let no one disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, taking his stand on visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind . . .” (2.18)

The content and style of the letter to the Colossians is very similar to Ephesians. Following the doctrinal instructions of the letter, their spiritual implications for the believer are spelled out with moral exhortations for a life lived in conformity to Christ and in total service to Him. Like the other letters of Saint Paul, the letter to Colossians is read in its turn in the liturgical services of the Church.


It is generally agreed that Saint Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians are the first of the apostle’s epistles, and are also the earliest written documents of the New Testament scriptures. They were most likely sent from Corinth, at the end of the forties, in response to the report brought from Timothy that certain difficulties had arisen in the Thessalonian Church about the second coming of Christ and the resurrection of the dead.

In both of his letters to the Thessalonians, Saint Paul repeats the same doctrine. He urges patient steadfastness of faith and continual love and service to the Lord and the brethren in the face of the many persecutions and trials which were confronting the faithful. He affirms that the Lord will come “like a thief in the night” (1 Thess 5.2) when all satanic attacks against the faith have been completed. But in the meantime, the Christians must continue “to do their work in quietness” (2 Thess 3.12) without panic or fear, and without laziness or idleness into which some had fallen because of their belief in the Lord’s immediate return.

Concerning the resurrection from the dead, the apostle teaches that as Jesus truly rose, so will all “those who have fallen asleep” (Thess 4.14).

For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven . . . and the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord (1 Thess. 4.16–17).

This entire passage (1 Thess 4.16–17) is the epistle reading at the funeral liturgy in the Orthodox Church. Both letters to the Thessalonians are included in the liturgical lectionary during the Church year.


The letters of Saint Paul to Timothy and Titus are called the pastoral epistles. Although some modern scholars consider these letters as documents of the early second century, primarily because of the developed picture of Church structure which they present, Orthodox Church Tradition defends the letters as authentic epistles of Saint Paul from his house arrest in Rome in the early sixties of the first century.

The two letters to Timothy are of similar contents, having the same purpose to teach “how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3.15).

In his first letter to Timothy, Saint Paul urges his “true child in the faith” (1.2), who was in Ephesus, to “wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience” (1.18–19). He urges that prayers “be made for all men” by the Church (2.1) and that “good doctrine” be preserved and propagated, most particularly in times of difficulties and defections from the true faith (4.6, 6.3). In the letter, the apostle counsels all in proper Christian belief and behavior, giving special advice, both professional and personal, to his co-worker Timothy whom he counsels not to neglect the gift which he received “when the elders laid their hands” upon him (4.14).

The main body of the first letter to Timothy describes in detail the requirements for the pastoral offices of bishop, deacon and presbyter (priest or elder), and offers special instructions concerning the widows and slaves. The rules concerning the pastoral ministries have remained in the Orthodox Church, being formally incorporated into its canonical regulations.

Of special note in the first letter to Timothy is Saint Paul’s confession of sinfulness which has become part of the pre-communion prayers of the Orthodox Church.

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first (1 Tim 1.15).

In his second letter to Timothy, Saint Paul again urges his “beloved child” to “rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands” (1.2, 6). He stresses the absolute necessity for “sound doctrine” in the Church, calling for a firm struggle against “godless chatter” and the “disputing over words” (2.14,16) particularly in “times of stress” when the gospel is attacked by men of “corrupt mind and counterfeit faith” who are merely “holding the form of religion but denying the power of it” (3.1–8). As in his first letter, the apostle specifically mentions the need for the firm adherence to the scriptures (3.15).

The expression of Saint Paul in this letter, that the leaders of the Church must be found “rightly handling the word of truth” (2.15), has become the formal liturgical prayer of the Orthodox Church for its bishops.


Saint Paul’s letter to Titus in Crete is a shorter version of his two letters to Timothy. The author outlines the moral requirements of the bishop in the Church and urges the pastor always to “teach what befits sound doctrine” (1.9, 2.1). It tells how both the leaders and the faithful members of the Church should behave.

Sections of the letter to Titus about the appearance of “the grace of God . . . for the salvation of all men . . . by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit which He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (2.11–3.7) comprise the Church’s epistle reading for the feast of the Epiphany.

Generally speaking, each of the pastoral epistles is included in the Church’s continual epistle lectionary, coming in the Church year just before the beginning of Great Lent.


In his letter to Philemon written from his Roman imprisonment, Saint Paul appeals to his “beloved fellow worker” (1.1) to receive back his runaway slave Onesimus who had become a Christian, “no longer as a slave, but as a beloved brother . . . both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (16) He asks Philemon to “receive him as you would receive me” (17) and offers to pay whatever debts Onesimus may have towards his master.


Virtually none of the modern scriptural scholars think that Saint Paul is the author of the letter to the Hebrews. The question of the exact authorship of this epistle was questioned early in Church Tradition with the general consensus being that the inspiration and doctrine of the letter is certainly Saint Paul’s, but that perhaps the actual writer of the letter was one of Saint Paul’s disciples. The letter is dated in the second half of the first century and is usually read in the Church as being “of the holy apostle Paul.”

The letter to the Hebrews begins with the clear teaching about the divinity of Christ, affirming that God, Who “in many and various ways . . . spoke of old to our fathers” has “in these last days . . . spoken to us by a Son, Whom He appointed the heir of all things, through Whom He also created the world” (1.1–2).

He (the Son of God) reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of His nature (or person), upholding the universe by the word of His power (1.3).

Christ, the divine Son of God, was made man as the “apostle and high priest of our confession” (3.1), “the great shepherd of the sheep” (13: 20), “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12.2), whom God sent to “taste of death for everyone” (2.9).

He Himself . . . partook of the same nature (of human flesh and blood), that through death He might destroy him who has the power of death,, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage . . . (being) made like His brethren in every respect, so that He might become a merciful and faithful highpriest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself has suffered and been tempted, He is able to help those who are tempted (2.14–18).

The main theme of the letter to the Hebrews is to compare the sacrifice of Christ to the sacrifices of the priests of the Old Testament. The Old Testament priests made continual sacrifices of animals for themselves and the sins of the people, entering into the sanctuary of the Jerusalem temple. Christ makes the perfect and eternal sacrifice of Himself upon the cross, once and for all, for the sins of the people and not for Himself, entering into the heavenly sanctuary, not made by hands, “to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (9.24). This is the perfect and all fulfilling sacrifice of the one perfect high priest of God Who was prefigured in the mysterious person of Melchizedek, in the Old Testament, as well as in the ritual priesthood of the Levites under the old law which was “but a shadow of the good things to come” and not yet the “true form of these realities” (10.1, See Gen 14, Ex 29, Lev 16, Ps 110).

Through the perfect sacrifice of Christ, the believers receive forgiveness of sins and are “made perfect” (11.40), being led and disciplined by God Himself Who gives His Holy Spirit that through their sufferings in imitation of Christ, His people “may share in His holiness” (12.10). This is effected, once again, not by the ritual works of the law which “made nothing perfect” (7.19), but by faith in God, without which “it is impossible to please Him” (11.6).

The letter to the Hebrews, which is read in the Orthodox Church at the divine liturgies during Great Lent, ends with the author’s appeal to all to “be grateful for receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken” and to “offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire” (12.28). It calls as well for love, faith, purity, generosity, strength, obedience and joy among all who believe in “Jesus Christ (Who) is the same yesterday and today and for ever” (13.8).

Letters of Saint James


According to Church Tradition, the letter of James was written not by either of the apostles, but by the “brother of the Lord” who was the first bishop of the Church in Jerusalem (see Acts 15, Gal 1.19). The letter is addressed to the “twelve tribes in the dispersion” which most probably means the Christians not of the Jerusalem Church.

The main purpose of the letter of James is to urge Christians to be steadfast in faith and to do those works which are called for by the “perfect law” of Christ which is the “law of liberty” (1.25, 2.12). It aims to correct the false opinion that because Christians are freed from the ritual works of the Mosaic law through faith in Christ, they need not do any good works whatsoever and are not subject to any law at all. Thus, the author writes very clearly against the doctrine of salvation by “faith alone” without the good works that the believer must necessarily perform if his faith is genuine.

What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works. Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness;” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone (2.14–24).

First among the good works which the letter insists upon most vehemently is the work of honoring and serving the poor and lowly without partiality and selfish greed which is the cause of all wars and injustices among men (2.1–7). The author is passionately opposed to any “friendship with the world” which makes man an “enemy of God” because of covetousness (4.1–4). He calls the rich to “weep and howl for the miseries which are coming” to them because of the “luxuries and pleasures” which they have attained at the expense of others whom they have exploited (5.1–6).

Together with his despising of wealth, James teaches the absolute necessity of “bridling the tongue,” the “little member” which is a “fire” that man uses to boast, slander, condemn, swear, lie and speak evil against his brethren, “staining the whole body” and “setting aflame the whole cycle of nature” (3.1–12).

If anyone thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is in vain. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (1.26–27).

The teaching of the letter of James that “every good gift and perfect gift is from above coming down from the Father of lights” (1.17) has become part of the dismissal prayer of the divine liturgies of the Orthodox Church. The letter of James also provides the Church with the first epistle reading for its sacrament of the unction of the sick.

Is any among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is any among you sick? Let him call for the presbyters (elders) of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed (5.13–16).

Letters of Saint Peter


Most modern scholars do not think that Saint Peter actually wrote the two letters called by his name. They consider the first letter as coming from the end of the first century and the second letter from the first half of the second century. The Tradition of the Church, however, maintains the testimony of the letters themselves, ascribing them to the foremost leader of Christ’s apostles writing from “Babylon,” which was the early Church’s name for Rome, on the eve of his martyrdom there in the latter half of the first century (see 1 Pet 5.13, 2 Pet 1.14).

The first letter of Saint Peter is a passionate plea to all of “God’s People” to be strong in their sufferings in imitation of Christ and together with Him, maintaining “good conduct among the Gentiles,” subjecting themselves without malice or vindictiveness to “every human institution for the Lord’s sake” (2.11–13).

Special instructions and exhortations to godliness are addressed first to the whole Church which is a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (2.9), and then in turn to the slaves (2.18), to the husbands and wives (3.1–7) and to the presbyters [elders] whom the author, as a “fellow presbyter and a witness of the sufferings of Christ,” calls to “tend the flock of God . . . not by constraint, but willingly, not for shameful gain, but eagerly, not as domineering over those in [their] charge, but being examples to the flock” (5.1–4).

Throughout the letter, the analogy is constantly drawn between the sufferings of Christ and the sufferings of Christians which is for their salvation.

But if when you do right and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps. He committed no sin; no guile was found on His lips. When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten; but He trusted to Him Who judges justly. He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian [literally Bishop] of your souls (2.20–25).

The second letter of Saint Peter is sometimes considered to be a sermon addressed to those who were newly baptized into the Christian faith. The author wishes before his death to “arouse . . . by way of reminder” (1.13, 3.1) what God has done for those who are called, that they might “escape from the corruption that is in the world through passion, and become partakers of the divine nature” (1.3–4). He warns against the appearance of “false prophets” and “scoffers” who would lead the elect astray by their “destructive heresies” and denials of “the Master who bought them” thus causing them to fall back to a life of sin and ignorance as “the dog turns back to his own vomit and the sow is washed only to wallow once more in the mire” (2.1–22, 3.1–7). The author makes special warning against the perversion of the holy scriptures, both those of the Old Testament and those of Saint Paul, “which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction” (3.16, 1.20).

The third chapter of the second letter of Saint Peter is sometimes wrongly interpreted as teaching the total destruction of creation by God at the end of the world. The Orthodox interpretation is that it is only sin and evil that will be “dissolved with fire” on the “day of God,” and that the “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” wilt be the same “very good” world of God’s original creation, but purified, renewed and purged of all that is contrary to His divine goodness and holiness (3.8–13).

The reminiscence in the second letter of Saint Peter about the transfiguration of Christ is the epistle reading at the Church’s feast of this sacred event (1.16–18). Readings from both letters are found in the Church’s lectionary, with selections from the first letter being read at the vigil of the feast of Saints Peter and Paul.


Letters of Saint John


The three letters of Saint John were written by the Lord’s beloved apostle who also wrote the fourth gospel. They were written at the close of the first century and have as their general theme a fervent polemic against the heretical “antichrists” who were changing the doctrines of Christ and denying His genuine appearance “in the flesh” for the salvation of the world, denying thereby both “the Father and the Son” (l Jn 2.22, 4.3, 2 Jn 7).

The first letter of Saint John is the simplest and deepest exposition of the Christian faith that exists. Its clarity concerning the Holy Trinity and the Christian life of truth and of love in communion with God makes it understandable without difficulty to anyone who reads it. It is the best place to begin a study of the Christian faith generally, and the Bible in particular.The first letter begins in the same way as Saint John’s gospel to which it is most similar in its entire content and style.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life . . . we proclaim also to you, so that you may have communion with us; and our communion is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing this that our joy may be complete (1.1–14).

The first letter of Saint John proclaims that Jesus is truly “the Christ,” the Messiah and Son of God who has come “in the flesh” to the world as “the expiation of our sins, and not ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (2.2). Those who believe in Christ and are in communion with Him and His Father have the forgiveness of sins and the possibility not to sin any more (1.5–2.12). They “walk in the same way in which He walked” (2.6) being the “children of God” (3.1, 5.1). They know the truth by the direct inspiration of God through the anointment [chrisma] of the Holy Spirit (2.20–26; 6.7). They keep the commandments of God, the first and greatest of which is love, and so they are already recipients of eternal life, already possessing the indwelling of God the Father and Christ the Son “by the Spirit which He has given us” (2.24–3.24).

Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God has sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him.

In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the expiation of our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and His love is perfected in us.

By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His own Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent His Son as the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him and he in God. So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him (14.7–16).

The hatred of others is the sure sign that one does not love God (4.20) and is “in the darkness still” (2.9–11). The one who hates his brother is “a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (3.15). Those who love God are hated by the world which is in the power of the evil one” (5.19, 2.15–17).

The first letter of Saint John is part of the Church’s lectionary, with special selections from it being read at the feast of the apostle John.
The second letter of Saint John is addressed to the “elect lady and her children” which is obviously the Church of God and its members. Again the truth of Christ is stressed and the commandment of love is emphasized.

And this is love, that we follow His commandments; this is the commandment, as you have heard from the beginning, that you follow love. For many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Look to yourselves, that you may not lose what you have worked for, but may win a full reward. Anyone who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son (6–9).

The third letter of Saint John is addressed to a certain Gaius praising him for the “truth of his life” (3) and “urging him not to Imitate evil but imitate good” (11). “No greater joy can I have than this”, writes the beloved apostle, “to hear that my children follow the truth” (4).

Letter of Saint Jude


It has been questioned whether “Jude, the servant of Jesus Christ and the brother of James” who wrote the letter of Saint Jude is the “Judas, the brother of James” (Lk 6.16, Acts 1.13), one of the twelve apostles, “not Iscariot” (Jn 14.22). In the Tradition of the Church, the two have usually been identified as the same person.

The letter of Saint Jude is a general epistle which the author “found it necessary to write to those who are called,” appealing to them “to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (1–3).

For admission has been secretly gained by some who long ago were designated for condemnation, ungodly persons who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord Jesus Christ (4).

These “scoffers,” some of whom the faithful may be able to save “by snatching them out of the fire” (23), are those who “defile the flesh, reject authority and revile the glorious ones” (8). They are those who follow their “ungodly passions … [and] set up divisions, worldly people devoid of the Spirit” (18–19) who have entered the Church,

Jude commands those who are faithful to resist the ungodly.

But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. . . . (21).

Of special interest in the letter, which is sometimes read in Church, is the mention of the archangel Michael (9), as well as the evil angels “that did not keep their own position but left their proper dwelling (with God) and have been kept by Him in eternal chains in the nether gloom until the judgment of the great day” (6). Generally speaking, there is a definite apocalyptic tone to the letter of Saint Jude.

Book of Revelation


The Book of Revelation, also called the Apocalypse which means that which has been disclosed, and also called the Revelation to Saint John, is traditionally considered to be the work of the Lord’s apostle who later wrote the fourth gospel and the letters. It is dated in the middle of the last half of the first century.

Saint John received his vision “on the island called Patmos.” He was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” when he received God’s command to write the letters “to the seven churches of Asia” (1.4–10). Each of the seven messages contains the words of Christ for the specific church (2–4).

Following the seven letters in the book of Revelation, the apostle records his vision of God on His throne in heaven being hymned unceasingly by angels, the “living creatures”, and the “twenty four elders”: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, Who was and is and is to come” (4).

There then follows the prophecies of the seven seals and the seven angels (5–11), and the visions of the “women clothed with the sun” and Michael and his angels engaged in battle with the “dragon” (12). Next come the images of the “beast rising from the sea” and the “other beast rising from the earth” (13). Then comes the vision of the Lamb and those who are saved by God, with the angels coming to earth from heaven bearing their “bowls of wrath” (14–16). The image of the “great harlot” follows (17), with the final prophecy about the “downfall of great Babylon” (18). The end of the book of Revelation describes the wonderful vision of salvation, with the multitude of those “blessed . . . who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” in the midst of the great celestial assembly of angels who sing glory to God and to Jesus, His word and His Lamb, the Alpha and the Omega, the King of kings and the Lord of lords. It is the image of the Kingdom of God and of Christ, the Heavenly Jerusalem foretold by the prophets of old in which the righteous shall reign forever with God (19–22).

Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exalt and give Him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and the Bride (the Church) has made herself ready. . . . (19.6–7).

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. . . . And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a great voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them and they shall be His People, and God Himself will be with them; He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (21.1–4).

And He Who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new” (21.5).

It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without price from the fountain of life. He who conquers shall have this inheritance, and I will be his God and he shall be My son (21.6–7).

There was a certain hesitation on the part of the early Church to include the book of Revelation in the canonical scriptures of the New Testament. The reason for this was obviously the great difficulty of interpreting the apocalyptic symbols of the book. Nevertheless, since the document carried the name of the apostle John, and since it was inspired by the Holy Spirit for the instruction and edification of the Church, it came to be the last book listed in the Bible, although it is never read liturgically in the Orthodox Church.

It is indeed difficult to interpret the book of Revelation, especially if one is unfamiliar with the images and symbols of the apocalyptic writings of the Bible, that is the Old Testament, and of the Judeo-Christian Tradition. There exists, however, a traditional approach to the interpretation of the book within the Church which offers insight into its meaning for the faithful.

The wrong method of interpreting the book of Revelation is to give some sort of exclusive meaning to its many visions, equating them with specific, concrete historical events and persons, and to fail to understand the symbolical significance of the many images which are used by the author following biblical and traditional sources.

First of all, the letters to the seven churches have both a historical and a universal meaning. The messages are clear and remain relevant to situations which have always existed in the Church and which exist today. For example, many older churches in all ages of history can he identified with the Church of Ephesus. Those under persecution can be compared with the Church in Smyrna. And not a few—perhaps some in America right now—can be judged with the Church in Laodicea. The seven letters remain forever as “prototypical” of churches that will exist until Christ’s kingdom comes.

The visions and prophecies of the main body of the book of Revelation present great difficulties, but mostly to those interpreters who would attempt to apply them to one or another historical event or person. If the general vision and prophecy of the book is seen as revealing the correlation between events “in heaven” and events “on earth,” between God and man, between the powers of goodness and the powers of evil, then, though many difficulties obviously remain, some will also immediately disappear.

In the book of Revelation, one comes to understand that the Kingdom of God is always over all and before all. One sees as well that the battle between the righteous and the evil is perpetually being waged. There are always the faithful who belong to the Lamb, being crowned and robed by Him for their victories. There are always the “beasts” and the “dragons” which need to be defeated. The “great harlot” and the “great Babylon” are forever to be destroyed. The “heavenly Jerusalem” is perpetually coming, and one day it will come and the final victory will be complete.

One notices as well that there is a universality and finality about the symbols and images of the book of Revelation, a meaning to be applied to them which has already been revealed in the scriptures of the Old Testament. Thus, for example, the image of Babylon stands for every society which fights against God, every body of persons united in wickedness and fleshliness. The image of harlotry universally applies as well to all who are corrupted by their passions and lusts, unfaithful to God Who has made them and loves them. The symbolic numerology also remains constant, with the number 666 (13.18), for example, symbolizing total depravity, unlike 7 which is the symbol of fulness; and the number 144,000 (14.3) being the symbol of total completion and the full number of the saved, the result of the multiplication of 12 times 12—the number of the tribes of Israel and the apostles of Christ. Thus, through the images of the book of Revelation, a depth of penetration into universal spiritual realities is disclosed which is greater than any particular earthly reality. The insight into the meaning of the book depends on the inspiration of God and the purity of heart of those who have eyes to see and ears to hear and minds willing and able to understand.

In the Orthodox Church, the book of Revelation has great liturgical significance. The worship of the Church has traditionally, quite consciously, been patterned after the divine and eternal realities revealed in this book. The prayer of the Church and its mystical celebration are one with the prayer and celebration of the kingdom of heaven. Thus, in Church, with the angels and saints, through Christ the Word and the Lamb, inspired by the Holy Spirit, the faithful believers of the assembly of the saved offer perpetual adoration to God the Father Almighty.

The book of Revelation, although never read in the Orthodox Church, bears witness to the divine reality which is the Church’s own very life.

The Spirit and the Bride [the Church] say, “Come.” And let him who hears say, “Come.” And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price.

“Surely I am coming soon” [says Jesus, the Lord].

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (22.17, 20)


Salvation History

Word and Spirit

It is the constant testimony of the Bible and the Church that God acts toward the world through His Word and His Spirit.

God created all things by His Word and His Spirit. He created man in His divine image and likeness to partake of His Word and to live by His Spirit. All of the holy people of God received the Word of God and the Spirit of God. The patriarchs, prophets, and apostles all proclaimed the Word which came to them from God by the Spirit of God. The law of Moses and the prophets, the psalms and all the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God, written and interpreted by men through the Spirit of God. Always and everywhere in the Bible and in the Church, God reveals Himself and acts in man and the world by His Word and His Spirit.

The central affirmation of the Christian Faith and the very essence of its gospel and life is that the Word of God became man as Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of Israel and the Lord and Savior of the world. Jesus of Nazareth is the divine Word of God in human form. He is the personal Word of God Who was “in the beginning with God,” the Word “by whom all things were made” (Jn 1.2). He is the uncreated Word of God according to Whose image all men are created. He is the Word of God Who came to the patriarchs and prophets and Who is incarnate in the Bible in scriptural form. He is the Word of God Who died on the cross and is risen from the dead. He is the Head of the Church which is His Body, and the King of the Kingdom of God. He is the Word of God with Whom and through Whom the Holy Spirit comes to the world.

The Holy Spirit of God comes personally to men from the Father through Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God. He comes to those who believe in Christ and belong to Him through faith and repentance and baptism in His Church. He is the Spirit Who descended upon the disciples on Pentecost, who also is the One by whose power the world was created and continued to exist. He is the Spirit breathed into men by God to make them live according to His divine likeness. He is the Spirit Who inspired the Law, and the prophets and the entire holy scripture, providing for its production and preservation, as well as for its interpretation ir the life of the faithful. He is the same Holy Spirit Who abides in the Church, making possible the fulness of its sacramental and spiritual life. He is the Spirit of God Who, by His presence with men in the world, is the pledge and the promise of God’s Kingdom to come. He is the Holy Spirit of God Who will one day, on the Day of the Lord, fill all creation with the presence of God.

Thus, the entire creation, the salvation and glorification of the world, the whole of what we call “salvation history,” depends on God and His Word and His Spirit, the Most Holy Trinity, Who in the Church and in the Kingdom, “fills all in all” (Eph 1.23).


The Bible begins with the story of creation and the making of man. Although the Bible often lists the generations of men from the creation of Adam (Chron 1.1, Lk 4.38), the history of salvation, in the most proper sense, begins with Abraham, the forefather of Israel and the first ancestor of Christ, “according to the flesh.”

The story of creation, and specifically of Adam and Eve, gives the divine revelation about the absolute sovereignty of God over all of creation. It tells of the goodness of all things that exist, and the superiority of man over other beings. It shows how the origin of evil does not lie in God but in His most perfect creature whose free act of sin brought wickedness and death to the world.


The chapters of Genesis 1–11 are called the “prehistory” of salvation because with little exception, such as that of the righteous Noah, these chapters are almost exclusively the record of sin. They begin with man’s original rebellion against God, and tell of the first act of man’s children as being brotherly murder. They record God’s sadness in creating the world when He “saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of his heart was only evil continually,” and that the earth was “corrupt . . . filled with violence . . . for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth” (Gen 6.5–12). They end with the symbolic account of the ultimate impudence of men who sought “to make a name for themselves” by building “a tower with its top in the heavens” (Gen 11.4). Through the story of the tower of Babel is shown the prideful arrogance of man which results in the division of the nations and the scattering of men “over the face of all the earth” (Gen 11.9).

The pre-history of salvation, the story of sin, is the original counter-symbol of salvation in Christ. The events of these first chapters of the Bible, before the calling of Abraham, find their proper interpretation in the saving events of the coming of Christ and the Holy Spirit in the new and final covenant of God with His People.

Christ is the True Adam. The original Adam was merely “a type of him who was to come” (Rom 5.14).

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.
Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living soul;” the last Adam [Christ] became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven
(1 Cor 15.21–22, 45–49).

The word Adam in Hebrew comes from “adamah” which means earth. The word Christ, in Hebrew, Messiah, means the “anointed” of God. As Christ is the new Adam, so His mother Mary is the new Eve, for she is the true “mother of all living,” which is the meaning of the name given to the original “helper” of man (Gen 3.20). The biblical symbolism continues with the Church of Christ being the true “ark of salvation” in which “every living thing” is saved (Gen 6.14, 1 Pet 3.20–22). And the events of Pentecost reverse the tragedy of Babel, when through the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Church of Christ, all national divisions are overcome and all men “from over the face of all the earth” are brought into unity by God in Christ.

Thus the pre-history of man’s sin is the counter-symbol of his righteousness in God which is realized in Christ, the “child of Abraham” in whose children all of the families of the earth are blessed by God (Gen 12.3).


Salvation history, properly so-called, begins with Abram, whom God named Abraham which means “father of a multitude.” Abraham was the first patriarch of the people of Israel. The word patriarch means “the father of the people.” In the person and life of Abraham, the central events of the salvation of the world by Christ in the New Testament have been prefigured.


God made the first promise of His salvation of all the people of the earth to Abraham, with whom He also made His covenant to be faithful forever.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing . . . and in you all families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12.1–3, See also 17.1–8, 22.1–18).

The fulfillment of the promise to Abraham comes in Jesus Christ. He is the descendent of Israel’s first father in whom all the families of the earth are blessed. Thus, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, sings at her time of waiting for the Savior’s birth, that all generations will call her blessed because the fulfillment has come from God “as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity forever” (Lk 1.55, see also Zachariah’s Song in Lk 1.67–79). All through the New Testament the claim is made that God’s promise to Abraham is fulfilled in Jesus.

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to off springs,” referring to many; but, referring to one, “And to your offspring,” which is Christ (Gal 3.16).

The faith of Abraham is prototypical of al those who in Christ are saved by faith. The New Testament stresses faith as necessary for salvation. The model for this faith is Abraham.

Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness (Gen 15.6, Rom 4.3).

Abraham’s faith was united to his works, and was expressed in his works.

Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness;” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone (Jas 2.21–24).

God tested Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac as a burnt offering. Abraham believed and trusted in God. He obeyed his will, and went to the mountain to slay his child. God stopped him and placed a ram in Isaac’s place saying “for now I know that you fear God, seeing that you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen 22.12). Then once more God made the promise that “by your descendants shall all of the nations of the earth be blessed . . .” (Gen 22.18).

The sacrifice of Isaac is not only a testimony to Abraham’s faith. It is also the original sign that God Himself does what He does not allow the first and foremost of His People to do. No ram is put in the place of God’s Son, His only Son Jesus, when He is sacrificed on the cross for the sins of the world.

The perfect priesthood of Christ is also prefigured in Abraham’s life. It is the priesthood of Melchizedek, the King of Peace. It is the priesthood in which the offering is bread and wine. It is the priesthood which is before that of the Levites, and the one which is that of the Messiah, Who is “a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Ps 110.4, Heb 5–10).

So also Christ did not exalt Himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by Him Who said to Him, “Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee”; as He says also in another place, “Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek.”

In the days of His flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to Him Who was able to save Him from death, and He was heard for His godly fear. Although He was a Son, He learned obedience through what He suffered; and being made perfect He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek (Heb 5.5–10).

For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him; and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, and has neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest for ever (Heb 7.1–3).

The most sublime of the New Testament revelations, that of the Holy Trinity, was also prefigured in Abraham’s life. This is the famous visit of the three angels of God to Abraham under the oaks of Mamre.

And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, “My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I fetch a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on . . . since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said” (Gen 18.1–5).


Abraham addresses the three angels as one, calling them Lord. They eat in his presence and foretell the birth of Isaac from Sarah in her old age. In this visitation of God to Abraham, the Orthodox Church sees the prefiguration of the full revelation of the Holy Trinity in the New Testament.

Because there can be no depiction of God the Father and the Holy Spirit in human form, Orthodox iconography has traditionally painted the Holy Trinity in the form of the three angels who came to Abraham. The most famous icon of the Holy Trinity, the one often used in the Church on the feast of Pentecost, is that of Saint Andrew Rublev, a disciple of Saint Sergius of Radonezh in Russia in the fourteenth century.

Thus the salvation of the world which has come in Christ was prefigured in the life of Abraham, as well as the Christian doctrine about faith and works and the Christian revelations about the sacrifice, the priesthood, and even the most Holy Trinity. Truly in Abraham every aspect of the final covenant in Christ the Messiah was foreshadowed and foretold.



The central event of the entire Old Testament history is the passover and exodus.

Abraham’s son Isaac was the father of Jacob whom God named Israel which means &rldquo;he who strives with God” (Gen 32.28). God renewed His promise to Isaac and Jacob, and continued the covenant with them that He had made with Abraham.

Jacob had twelve sons who became the leaders of the twelve tribes or houses of Israel. The sons of Jacob sold their youngest brother Joseph into slavery in Egypt. With the help of God, Joseph gained the favor of the Egyptian pharaoh and became a great man in Egypt. In a time of famine, Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt for food. Joseph recognized them and brought all of the people of Israel into Egypt with him. When Joseph died, the people of Israel were put into slavery by the Egyptians for four hundred years (See Gen 24–50).

God raised up Moses to lead His people out of bondage in Egypt. He appeared to Moses in the burning bush and revealed His Name to him.

Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And He said, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord (Yahweh), the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations” (Ex 3.14–15).

Moses returned to Egypt and after many trials with the Egyptian pharaoh and after many plagues, which God sent upon the Egyptians, he led the people of Israel out of slavery. The exodus, which means the escape or the departure, from Egypt took place on the night called the passover.

God, through Moses, ordered the Israelites to select lambs, to kill them and place some blood on the two doorposts and the lintel of their houses. Standing up, clothed and ready to escape, they were to eat the lambs in the night.

In this manner you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat in haste. It is the Lord’s passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you, upon the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt. This day shall be a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as an ordinance forever (Ex 12.11–13).

Thus, the passover and exodus took place. At midnight the Lord slew the Egyptian firstborn. The houses marked with blood were spared when the Lord passed over. During the tumult, the Israelites began to escape. They made their exodus through the Red Sea. By this time, the Egyptian horsemen were in pursuit. At the sea, Moses prayed to God. He lifted his rod over the waters and “The Lord drove the sea back by a strong East wind all night, and made the sea dry land . . . ” (Ex 14.21) The Israelites passed through the sea on foot. The pursuing chariots of the Egyptians were caught in the waters and were drowned.

And Israel saw the great work, which the Lord did against the Egyptians, and the people feared the Lord; and they believed in the Lord and in His servant Moses (Ex 14.31).

In the wilderness on the other side of the sea, the people of Israel began to complain. There was no food and drink in the desert. Moses prayed to the Lord, Who provided water for the people to drink and manna, the “bread from heaven,” for the people to eat (Ex 15–16). God led the people through the desert by a cloud and a pillar of fire.

On Mount Sinai, Moses received the Ten Commandments and the laws of morality and worship from the Lord Who “used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex 33.11). Moses was allowed to behold the glory of the Lord in the smoke and clouds on the mountaintop and he himself shone with the majesty of God (Ex 34.29).

Moses was not granted to cross the Jordan and to enter the promised land. He died and was buried near Mount Nebo in the land of Moab. This is where he had looked across the Jordan River into the land where his successor Joshua would lead the people.

The passover and exodus was the central event in Israelite history. It was remembered in all generations as the great sign of God’s fidelity and favor to His People. It was sung about in the psalms and recalled by the prophets. It was celebrated annually together with Pentecost, as the chief celebration of the People of God. And, consequently, it was also the main event of the Old Testament to be fulfilled perfectly and eternally in the time of Christ, the Messiah of God.

In Jesus Christ the ultimate meaning and universal purpose of the passover and exodus are revealed and accomplished. Jesus Christ is Himself the New Passover. He is the Passover Lamb, which is slain for the deliverance and liberation of all men and the whole world from the powers of evil. The real “pharaoh” is the devil. He holds all men in slavery. The real deliverer is Jesus. He leads the people from the captivity of sin and death into the “promised land” of the Kingdom of God.

As the people pass through the wilderness of life in this world, they are fed by Jesus, the true Bread of Life, the true “bread from heaven.”

Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which came down from heaven, and gives life to the world.”

“I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.”

“I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness and they died. This is the bread, which comes down from heaven that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this meal, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

“Truly, truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him. As the living Father has sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever” (Jn 6.25–59).

Jesus is not only the true “bread from heaven,” He is also the true “living water.” He is the One Whom, if men drink of Him, they will never thirst again.

“If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” (Jn 7.37)

“. . . whoever drinks of the Water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4.14).

Saint Paul, speaking of the exodus and the rock, which Moses struck, from which the spring of water flowed, says plainly that this refers to Christ.

I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ. (1 Cor 10.1–4)

Thus it is that Jesus Christ fulfilled the passover and exodus in the events of His life. This fulfillment came to its climax at the time of His crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus was killed at the feast of the passover to show that the old passover has been completed and the new passover has begun. When the paschal lamb was being killed in the temple, Jesus, the Lamb of God, was being crucified on the cross outside the city.

When the great day of the passover, which that year was the Sabbath, was being observed as the rest from work, Jesus lay dead, resting from all His work, in the tomb. When the “day after Sabbath” dawned, the first day of the week, the day of God’s original creation, Jesus arose from the dead.

All of this took place that the New Passover and New Exodus could be effected, not from Egypt into Canaan, but from death to life, from wickedness to righteousness, from darkness to light, from earth to heaven, from the tyranny of the devil to the glorious freedom of the Kingdom of God. The death and resurrection of Christ is the true passover-exodus of the People of God. Those who are marked with Christ’s blood are spared from the visitation of death.

Jesus inaugurated the celebration of the new passover at the last supper with His disciples, which was the paschal meal. He told them that no longer would they keep the passover feast in remembrance of the old exodus. They now would keep the paschal celebration in remembrance of Him.

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when He was betrayed took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, “This is My body which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes (1 Cor 2.23–26; see also Mat 26.26–29, Mk 14.22–25, Lk 22.14–19).

In the same letter, Saint Paul also says:

. . . Christ our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1 Cor 5.7–8).

Of great importance also in the new passover of Christ is the new gift of God’s law, the law not written on tablets of stone, but on human hearts by the very Holy Spirit of God (See 2 Cor 3, Jer 31.31–34, Ezek 36.26–27, Joel 2.28–29).

The giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai is fulfilled in the time of the Messiah in the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Disciples of Christ in the upper room on the feast of Pentecost. In the Old Testament, this was the festival of the reception of the law, fifty days after the passover (Acts 2). Thus, once again, in the time of the Messiah, the old event is completed in the new and final one: the exterior law of Moses is completed by the interior law of Christ, the “perfect law, the law of liberty” (Jas 1.25, 2.12), the “law of the Holy Spirit” (Rom 8.2).

For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death. For God had done (in Christ) what the law (of Moses), weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin . . . in order that the just requirements of the law (of Moses) might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (Rom 8.2–4, See also 2 Cor 3, Gal 3–5).

Thus the apostle John writes: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn 1.17).

Within the total fulfillment and perfection of the passover-exodus of the Old Testament in the time of the Messiah, it must be noted as well that the crossing of the Jordan into the promised land corresponds to baptism in Christ into the Kingdom of God. Also worthy of note is the symbolic fact that the one who actually crossed the Jordan and brought the people into the “land flowing with milk and honey,” was not Moses but Joshua, whose name in Greek is Jesus, thus prefiguring the One Who was to come of the same name, which means Savior, the One Who began His messianic mission of bringing the Kingdom of God by His baptism in the Jordan River.

Thus, every aspect of the old passover-exodus is completed in Christ, perfectly, totally and forever. All of this is renewed and relived in the Church of Christ each year on Easter and Pentecost, and on each Sunday, the Day of the Lord. Whenever the Church gathers, it celebrates the perfect passover of Christ the Lamb of God, Who is also the divine I AM Who exists eternally with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, Who was slain for the life of the world.


In the Old Testament, God was to be the King of His People. But wishing to be like the other nations, the Israelites asked the Lord for a human king.

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint for us a king to govern us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds which they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, hearken to their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shah reign over them” (1 Sam 8.4–9).

So Samuel recounted to the people all that would happen to them if they lived like the other nations having a man as their king. The king would send their sons to war. He would put all the people to work for him. He would take their best animals and crops. He would make the people his slaves.

“And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; and they said, “No! but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” And when Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Hearken to their voice, and make them a king” (1 Sam 8.18–22).

Israel received its king. The first was Saul who became demented. The second was David the Shepherd who ruled well. The third was Solomon who was known for his wisdom and who built the temple to God in Jerusalem. But then there was a division of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and strife among them because of their sins, which resulted in a succession of captivities to various foreign powers from which the people never finally escaped.

The psalms and prophets of the Old Testament constantly recalled God’s people to the reality that only the Lord is king. He alone is the True Shepherd of His People. He alone is the One Who rules and Who is to be served and obeyed.

I will extol Thee, my God and King,
and bless Thy name for ever and ever.
Every day I will bless Thee,
and praise Thy name for ever and ever.
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised,
and His greatness is unsearchable,

All Thy works shall give thanks to Thee, O Lord,
and all Thy saints shall bless Thee!
They shall speak of the glory of Thy kingdom and tell of Thy power,
to make known to the sons of men Thy mighty deeds,
and the glorious splendor of Thy kingdom.
Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
and Thy dominion endures throughout all generations.

(Ps 145.1–3, 10–13)

The prophets called all of the earthly kings, the “shepherds of Israel,” to repentance before the divine King of heaven, but their words were mostly to no avail.

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ho, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the crippled you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them” (Ezek 34.1–6).

The psalms and the prophets of the Old Testament also foretold the time when God would rule His People directly. He would be the shepherd of all nations, ruling through the Messiah-King Who would come from the house of David, the King of Whose kingdom there would be no end.

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government will be upon His shoulder,
and His name will be called
“Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Of the increase of His government and of peace there will be no end,
upon the throne of David, and over His kingdom,
to establish it, and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this
(Is 4.6–7).

“Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and He shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In His days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which He will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness’” (Jer 23.5–6).

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one is to be ruler in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in travail has brought forth;
then the rest of his brethren shall return
to the people of Israel.
And He shall stand and feed His flock
in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now
He shall be great
to the ends of the earth
(Mic 5.2–4)

For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad, so will I seek out my sheep; and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice (Ezek 34.11–12, 15–16).

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on an ass,
on a colt the foal of an ass.
I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and He shall command peace to the nations;
His dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth
(Zech 9.9–10).

The king of the final kingdom of God is Jesus Christ. He is the One Shepherd and Lord. He is the One “of whose kingdom there will be no end.” Thus, the angel Gabriel speaks to Mary at the announcement of His birth:

He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Lk 1.32–33).

All of His life, Jesus was preparing the everlasting Kingdom of God. He came to bring this Kingdom to men. He is the Son of David, Who will reign forever. He is the One Who announces the gospel of the Kingdom of God (Mt 4.23, 9.35).

Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, He answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Lk 17.20–21).

The Kingdom of God is in the midst of men when Christ is present. He Himself is the King Who gives the Kingdom of God to those who are this.

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom”  (Lk 12.32).

You are those who have continued with Me in My trials; as My Father appointed a kingdom for Me, so do I appoint for you that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom . . . Lk 22.28–30).

All of the preaching and parables of Christ concerning the Kingdom of God speak of Himself as the King. Those who believe in Jesus and obey Him will reign with Him in His Kingdom which has been prepared “ from the foundation of the world” for those who love Him (Mt 25.34). His Kingdom is the everlasting kingdom which is “not of this world,” but of God the Father (Jn 18.36).

The gospel narratives of the crucifixion of Christ place Him in His role as King, All of the mockery and torment of Jesus is given to Him as the “King of the Jews.” This was the accusation against Him and the title nailed to the cross. Thus, the irony is complete as the scriptures are fulfilled in the words of Pilate when, after Jesus had sat down on the judgment seat, Pilate proclaimed to the people, “Behold, your king!” (Jn 19.14).

Jesus is the King. He is one with God, the “King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Tim 6.5). He is the One “highly exalted” over all principalities and powers, the One before Whom every knee shall bow “In heaven, and on earth and under the earth” (Phil 2.9–11, also Eph 1.20–23). He is the One Who, at the end of the ages when He “comes in His kingdom” with all the heavenly powers, will destroy every evil, and rule over all creation forever as the prophets predicted.

. . . and the Lamb (Christ) will conquer them [the wicked], for He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with Him are called and chosen and faithful (Rev 17.14).

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! He who sat upon it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name inscribed which no one knows but Himself. He is clad in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which He is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, followed Him on white horses. From His mouth issues a sharp sword with which to smite the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron He will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On His robe and on His thigh He has a name inscribed, King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev 19.11–16).

Then He showed me the river of the water of Life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall worship Him; they shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever (Rev 22.1–5).



When speaking of Abraham, we mentioned how Jesus Christ is the “priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” As the “priest for ever,” Jesus is also the completion and fulfillment of the Old Testament priesthood of the Levites.

In the Old Testament, God ordered Moses to build the tabernacle with a sanctuary for worship and sacrifice.

And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst, According to all that I show you concerning the tabernacle, and all of its furniture, so you shall make it (Ex 25.8–9).

In the tabernacle there was a sanctuary surrounded by a court yard. Within the sanctuary was the “most holy place.” A special ark was built to hold the tables of the covenant law surrounded by two cherubim. The ark was kept in the most holy place. Above the ark of the covenant was the mercy seat from which Moses would speak to the people (Ex 25.14–22).

In the sanctuary, special tables were placed which held “plates and dishes for incense” and “flagons and bowls with which to pour libations.”

. . .of pure gold you shall make them. And you shall set the bread of the Presence on the table before me always (Ex 25.28–30).

There also was the golden altar upon which the animal sacrifices were offered.

A lampstand of gold, with “seven lamps for it” which were lighted with pure olive oil, was placed in the sanctuary. And between the various part of the tabernacle, curtains were hung.

And you shall make a veil of blue and purple and scarlet stuff and fine twined linen; in skilled work shall it be made, with cherubim; and you shall hang it upon four pillars of acacia overlaid with gold, with hooks of gold, upon four bases of silver. And you shall hang the veil from the clasps, and bring the ark of the testimony in thither within the veil; and the veil shall separate for you the holy place from the most holy. You shall put the mercy seat upon the ark of the testimony in the most holy place. And you shall set the table outside the veil, and the lampstand on the south side of the tabernacle opposite the table; and you shall put the table on the north side. And you shall make a screen for the door of the tent, of blue and purple and scarlet stuff and fine twined linen, embroidered with needlework. And you shall make for the screen five pillars of acacia, and overlay them with gold; their hooks shall be of gold, and you shall cast five bases of bronze for them. You shall make the altar of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits broad; the altar shall be a square, and its height shall be three cubits. And you shall make horns for it on its four corners; its horns shall be of one piece with it, and you shall overlay it with bronze (Ex 26.31–27.2).

The priests of the tabernacle were to be the Levites, the men from the tribe of Levi.

Then bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the people of Israel, to serve me as priests . . . (Ex 28.1)

God commanded that special vestments be made for the priests to wear when serving in the sanctuary (Ex 28). He also ordered that special oil be blended for the anointing of all of the utensils of the tabernacle, as well as for the anointing of the priests. He also ordered special incense to be made for burning in the holy place.

. . . you shall consecrate them [the furniture and utensils], that they may be holy; whatever touches them will become holy. And you shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests. And you shall say to the people of Israel, “This is my holy anointing oil throughout your generations.” (Ex 30.29–31)

And the incense which you shall make according to its composition, you shall not make for yourselves; it shall be for you holy to the Lord (Ex 30.37).

God also provided a very detailed code concerning worship and the offering of the various sacrifices. He explained which animals should be selected and how they should be killed. He told which offerings should be made on which occasions and for what purposes. He gave instructions about offerings for peace and for praise, for thanksgiving and mercy, for forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God in times of transgression. He also told which feasts should be observed, when they should be kept and how they should be celebrated, The books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are filled with such specific and detailed instructions.

While passing through the desert and into the promised land, the People of God carried the tabernacle with them. They set it up in each place where they camped. Finally, after the crossing of the Jordan River and the settlement in Canaan, the city of Jerusalem was established by David the king. David’s son Solomon was then commanded by God to build the temple in which the worship of God would take place and the ritual sacrifices would be offered.

In the four hundred and eightieth year after the people of Israel came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel . . . he began to build the house of the Lord (1 Kg 6.1).

The house of the Lord was of the same pattern as Moses’ tabernacle. It had the outer court, the inner sanctuary and the most holy place in which the ark of the covenant was kept. It had the altars for incense, libations and burnt offerings. It had the lampstands and the table for the bread of the Presence. It had all of the utensils and vestments necessary for the service of the Lord (see 1 Kg 6–8).

When Solomon finished building the temple (c. 960 BC), he conducted a great celebration of dedication.

Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the Lord to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim.

There was nothing in the ark except the two tab lets of stone, which Moses put there at Horeb, where the Lord made a covenant with the people of Israel, when He brought them out of the land of Egypt. And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord. Then Solomon said, “The Lord has set the sun in the heavens, but has said that He would dwell in thick darkness. I have built thee an exalted house, a place for thee to dwell in for ever” (1 Kg 8.6, 9–13).

Solomon then blessed the people and addressed them concerning the building of the temple which the Lord promised David that his son would build. He then offered a long prayer of dedication, asking God to be with the people and to receive their prayers offered in the temple.

“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built! Yet have regard to the prayer of thy servant and to his supplication, O Lord my God, hearkening to the cry and to the prayer which Thy servant prays before Thee this day; that Thine eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which Thou hast said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that Thou mayest hearken to the prayer which Thy servant offers toward this place. And hearken Thou to the supplication of Thy servant and of Thy people Israel, when they pray toward this place; yea, hear Thou in heaven Thy dwelling place; and when Thou hearest, forgive” (1 Kg 8.27–30).

Thus, the temple which Solomon built to the Lord became the sole place for the formal worship and the priestly sacrifices of the People of God. The temple was destroyed during the time of Babylonian captivity, and was restored in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah only to be defiled again by foreign invaders, and finally destroyed completely by the Romans in the year 70 AD.

It was prophesied in the Old Testament that the time would come when the glory of the Lord would fill all creation. It was foretold that in the time of the Messianic King, God would dwell in men as in His holy temple. The ritual sacrifices of the temple would cease, as the perfect and everlasting covenant of mercy and peace would be accomplished between God and man (see Isa 55.3, 61.1–11, 66.18–23, Jer 31.31–34. Ezek 34.22–31, 37.24–28).

When Jesus came, the new and everlasting covenant between God and man was established forever. The temple of God became the body of Christ, which was the assembly of His people filled with the Holy Spirit of God. Indeed, one of the accusations against Jesus at the time of His crucifixion was that He said that He would destroy the temple in Jerusalem.

The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple He found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers at their business. And making a whip of cords, He drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and He poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And Ne told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for thy house will consume me.” The Jews then said to Him, “What sign have you to show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But He spoke of the temple of His body. When therefore He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken (Jn 2.13–22).

Now the chief priests and the whole council sought false testimony against Jesus that they might put Him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days.’” And the high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” But Jesus was silent. And the high priest said to Him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mt 26.59–64).

In Christ, the Messiah, human persons become the temple of the Living God. The deacon Stephen, the first Christian martyr, bore witness to this and died for his testimony (see Acts 7.44–59). The apostle Paul also taught this explicitly, as did the apostle Peter.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For He is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in His flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that He might create in Himself one new man in place of two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Eph 2.13–22).

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are (1 Cor 3.16–17).

Come to Him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and he who believes in Him will not be put to shame” (1 Pet 2.4–6).

Jesus Christ is not only the living temple of God—God Himself in human flesh—through whom all men become God’s temple in the Holy Spirit; Jesus is also the one great high priest and the one perfect sacrificial offering, Who assumes and fulfills the entire Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament which was merely a “shadow” of the “reality” to come. Upon the cross, Jesus sacrificed Himself. He rose from the dead and entered the sanctuary in heaven. After this, there is no other priesthood and no other sacrifice well-pleasing to God (see Heb 6–10).

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tabernacle (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) He entered once for all into the Holy place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but His own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God (Heb 9.11–14).

For Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer Himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the Holy Place yearly with blood not his own; for then He would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, He has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for Hint (Heb 9.24–28).

Consequently, when Christ came into die world, He said, “Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired, but a body hast thou prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings thou hast taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘lo, I have come to do thy will, O God,’ as it is written of me in the roll of the book.” When He said above, “Thou hast neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then He added, “Lo, I have come to do thy will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands daily at His service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God, then to wait until His enemies should be made a stool for His feet. For by a single offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified  (Heb 10.5–14).

In the Church of Christ, there is only one priesthood and one sacrifice. It is the priesthood of Jesus and the sacrifice of the Cross. The entire Church of Christ is a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet 2.4). The ordained clergy of the Church exists to manifest and realize the unique priesthood of Jesus in the community which is the “body of Christ” (1 Cor 12.27).

In the Kingdom of God, Christ, the great High Priest and Lamb will rule. He Who “was dead and is alive again” (Rev 2.8) will govern all creation which will be the dwelling place of God.

And I saw no temple in the heavenly city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it, and its gates shall never be shut by day—and there shall be no night there; they shall bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean shall enter it, nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev 21.22–27).

Thus, the Old Testament temple, the priesthood and the sacrifices are all fulfilled in Christ Who is Himself the Temple and the Priest and the Sacrificed Lamb of the Kingdom of God which exists for His People whom He has made “a kingdom, priests to His God and Father” (Rev 1.16, 6.10).




The Old Testament is filled with prophecy. Prophecy means the direct inspiration of God to speak His words to the world. There were many prophets in the Old Testament, not only those whose names are given to the prophetic books of the Bible, but many others, including Moses, Elijah, Samuel and Nathan.

In the Old Testament, many prophecies were made concerning the history and destiny of the people of Israel and of the whole human race. Usually the prophecies told what God would do in response to the wickedness and unfaithfulness of His People. The prophecies foretold the tragedies coming to Israel because of the sins of the People. They also foretold the ultimate mercy and forgiveness of God Who is faithful to His promises, Who will not be angry forever, but Who will restore the fortunes of His People and bring all nations to His everlasting Kingdom.

The ultimate act of God’s mercy and compassion is His sending of His Son as the Messiah of Israel. Jesus, as we have seen, is the final King of God’s Kingdom which reigns forever. He is the great high priest Who brings completion and perfection to man’s priestly sacrifices to God. He is also the last and final Prophet Who ushers in the time when God creates a whole people of prophets, a whole assembly of those who are taught directly by God to know His Will and to speak His Words in the world.

Thus, in the Gospel of Saint John, it is recorded that the people recognized Jesus not merely as a prophet or one of the prophets, but as the final Prophet Whom God would send at the end of the ages.

When the people saw the sign which He had done [the feeding of the five thousand], they said, “This is indeed the Prophet Who is come into the world!” (Jn 6.14)

When they heard these words (about the living water), some of the people said, “This is really the Prophet.” Others said, “This is the Christ” (Jn 7.40).

Saint Peter refers to the same appearance of Christ as the Prophet, in his preaching to the people outside the temple in Jerusalem.

Moses said, “The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet from your brethren as He raised me up. You shall listen to Him in whatever He tells you. And it shall be that every soul that does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people” (Acts 3.22–23).

Jesus is “that prophet” whom Moses spoke about in the Old Law (Dt 18.15). But even Moses and all the prophets of old did not realize that “that prophet” would be the divine Son and the uncreated Word of God in human flesh.

Jesus, as the final Prophet, is more than a prophet. He is radically different from the prophets of old. He is the “teacher come from God” (Jn 3.2), Who “speaks as one having authority” (Mt 7.24, Mk 1.22), Who speaks not His own words, but the words of the Father Who sent Him (Jn 14: 24). But He is even more than this because He is Himself the divine Word of God in human flesh.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men (Jn 1.1–4).

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father (Jn 1.14).

And from His fulness have we all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only Son who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known (Jn 1.16–18).

As the Word of God in human flesh, Jesus fulfills the prophecy of the great prophets of old who wrote that in the Messiah’s time, all men would be taught directly by God.

For a brief moment I forsook you,
but with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,
says the Lord, your Redeemer.
For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,
says the Lord, who has compassion on you.
All your sons shall be taught by the Lord,
And great shall be the prosperity of your sons.
In righteousness you shall be established;
you shall be far from oppression, for you shall not fear;
and from terror, for it shall not come near you

(Is 54.7–8, 10, 13–14).

But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more (Jer 31.33–34).

As the Prophet and the incarnate Word of God, Jesus is the Way, the Truth, the Life, and the Light of the world.

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by Me. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; henceforth you know Him and have seen Him” (Jn 14.6–7).

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8.12).

Jesus shares His gift of prophecy with all who belong to Him. He gives the Holy Spirit to all of His disciples that they too might know the Father and speak His words and be themselves “the light of the world.”

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Mt 5.14–16).

. . . and you will be dragged before governors and kings for My sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you up, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you (Mt 10.18–20).

The full possibility for men to prophesy is given in the gift of the Holy Spirit Who came to Christ’s disciples on Pentecost and continues to come upon all who in the Church are baptized into Christ. This full outpouring of the Spirit of God on all flesh was itself prophesied by Joel in the Old Testament. Thus once again, the apostle Peter bears witness:

But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day: but this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days
I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.’”

(Acts 2.14–18)

The apostle Paul concurs with Peter as he insists that prophecy is the first of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the Church of the Messiah.

Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy (1 Cor 14.1).

In the Kingdom of God, all prophecy will cease, for the final and perfect presence of God will be given. Then Christ, the Word of God, will be present in all of His divine glory, manifesting God the Father to the whole of creation.


The God of the Old Testament was the Holy God. The word holy means separate, different, unlike anything else that exists.

The Holy God of the Old Testament revealed Himself to His chosen people who were able to behold His glory. The glory of the Lord was a special divine manifestation of the Person and Presence of God. It consisted in the vision of light, majesty and beauty and was accompanied by the voice of the Lord and His holy angels. It created in the persons who observed it overwhelming feelings of fear and fascination, as well as profound convictions of peace, well-being, and joy.

In this way did Moses experience the Holy God in His divine glory on Horeb, the mountain of God., before the passover, and in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt.

And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and to, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And He said, “Here am I.” Then He said, “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And He said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God (Ex 3.2–6).

Moses said, “I pray thee, show me thy glory.” And He said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” He said, “you cannot see My face; for man shall not see Me and live.” And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by Me where you shall stand upon the rock; and while My glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by; then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen” (Ex 33.18–23).

Other select persons of the Old Testament also experienced the presence of divine holiness and the glory of God. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Elijah, and Ezekiel had such experiences, as did Isaiah whose classic vision has become a standard part of the Church’s liturgical prayer.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and His train filled the temple. Above Him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
and the whole earth is full of his glory.”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke, And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.” And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall 1 send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”
(Is 6.1–8)

The psalms also sing of the holiness of God and proclaim that all creation speaks of God’s glory (see Ps 8, 19, 93, 104, 148, et al.).

The main teaching of the Old Testament and the foundation of all of its life was that God’s people should share in His holiness. This was the purpose of the entire Law of Moses in its commandments of morality and worship.

For I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls upon the earth. For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy (Lev 11.44–45).

The people were to be holy and to gain the wisdom and righteousness of God through their service and worship of Him. All of the so-called Wisdom writings of the Old Testament, and all of the teachings of the prophets and psalms are centered around this same fundamental fact: God’s people should acquire and express the holiness, wisdom, glory, and righteousness of God Himself. This, and nothing else is the meaning and purpose of man’s life as created and guided by God.

The ultimate perfection of God’s purpose for man is fulfilled in Christ. He alone is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. He alone is the “Holy One of God” (Mk 1.24, Lk 1.35, 4.34). He alone is perfectly righteous and wholly without sin. Thus, Saint Peter speaks of Jesus to the people after the event of Pentecost.

The God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified His servant Jesus, whom you delivered up and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release Him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses (Acts 3.13–15).

The apostle Paul concurs with the teaching of Peter by referring to Christ not merely as holy, righteous and wise, but as Himself the very holiness, righteousness and wisdom of God Himself in human flesh.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness, and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord” (1 Cor 1.22–24, 30–31).

The glory of God is revealed in the person of Christ. This is the consistent witness of the apostles who beheld the “Kingdom of God come with power” on the mountain of the Transfiguration (see Mt 17.1–6, Mk 9.2–7, Lk 9.28–36).

And the Word became flesh and dwell among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father (Jn 1.14).

Now if the dispensation of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such splendor that the Israelites could not look at Moses’ face because of its brightness, fading as this was, will not the dispensation of the Spirit be attended with greater splendor? For if there was splendor in the dispensation of condemnation, the dispensation of righteousness must far exceed it in splendor. Indeed, in this case, what once had splendor has come to have no splendor at all, because of the splendor that surpasses it. For if what faded away came with splendor, what is permanent must have much more splendor. Since we have such a hope, we are very bold.

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Cor 3.7, 18, 4.6).

In and through Christ, by means of the Holy Spirit, all men can share in the glory of God and become participants in God’s own holiness.

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us to His glory and excellence, by which He has granted to us His precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet 1.3–4).

The participation of men in the “nature of God” already begins in the Church of Christ, the final fruit of the salvation history of the Old Testament. In the Church, the Kingdom of God is present which is “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14.17). In the Church of Christ already begins that perpetual praise of the Holy God which exists now in the heavens and will fill all creation when Christ comes in the glory of His Kingdom at the end of the ages.

Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is to come!
(Rev 4.8b).

And he said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent His angel to show His servants what must soon take place. And behold, I am coming soon.” Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book (Rev 22.6–7).

Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy. Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense, to repay every one for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and every one who loves and practices falsehood. I Jesus have sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, the bright morning star (Rev 22.11–16).

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord be with all the saints. Amen (Rev 22.20–21).


Volume II - Worship

The Church Building

Church Building


In the long history of the Orthodox Church a definite style of church architecture has developed. This style is characterized by the attempt to reveal the fundamental experience of Orthodox Christianity: God is with us.
The fact that Christ the Immanuel (which translated means “God with us”) has come, determines the form of the Orthodox church building. God is with man in Christ through the Holy Spirit. The dwelling place of God is with man. “The Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands,” says Saint Stephen quoting the Old Testament prophets. Saint Paul says that men are the temples of God:

“Christ Jesus himself [is] the cornerstone, in Whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in Whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Eph 2.21–22).

The words of Saint Peter are very much the same.

“Come to him [Christ] to that living stone . . . and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house . . . to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2.4–5).

“We are the temple of the living God . . .” (2 Cor 6.16). And it is exactly this conviction and experience that Orthodox Church architecture wishes to convey.


Orthodox Church architecture reveals that God is with men, dwelling in them and living in them through Christ and the Spirit. It does so by using the dome or the vaulted ceiling to crown the Christian church building, the house of the Church which is the People of God. Unlike the pointed arches which point to God far up in the heavens, the dome or the spacious all-embracing ceiling gives the impression that in the Kingdom of God, and in the Church, Christ “unites all things in himself, things in heaven and things on earth,” (Eph 1.10) and that in Him we are all “filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3.19).

The interior of the Orthodox Church building is particularly styled to give the experience of the unity of all things in God. It is not constructed to reproduce the upper room of the Last Supper, nor to be simply a meeting hall for men whose life exists solely within the bounds of this earth. The church building is patterned after the image of God’s Kingdom in the Book of Revelation. Before us is the altar table on which Christ is enthroned, both as the Word of God in the Gospels and as the Lamb of God in the eucharistic sacrifice. Around the table are the angels and saints, the servants of the Word and the Lamb who glorify him—and through him, God the Father—in the perpetual adoration inspired by the Holy Spirit. The faithful Christians on earth who already belong to that holy assembly “. . . fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God . . .” (Eph 2.19) enter into the eternal worship of God’s Kingdom in the Church. Thus, in Orthodox practice the vestibule symbolizes this world. The nave is the place of the Church understood as the assembly and people of God. The altar area, called the sanctuary or the holy place, stands for the Kingdom of God.


Altar Table

We have mentioned how the entire church building is centered around the altar table. The altar table does not merely symbolize the table of the last supper. It is the symbolic and mystical presence of the heavenly throne and table of the Kingdom of God; the table of Christ the Word, the Lamb and the King of the ever-lasting life of God’s glorified dominion over all of creation.


The Book of the Gospels is perpetually enthroned on the altar table. It is on the altar table that we offer the &rldquo;bloodless sacrifice” of Christ to the Father. And from the altar table we receive the Bread of Life, the Body and Blood of the Lord’s Passover Supper. This table is the “table of God’s Kingdom” (Lk 13.29).

In Orthodox Tradition the altar table is often carved wood or stone. It is usually vested with colorful material to show its divine and heavenly character. It should always be a simple table of proportional dimensions, often a perfect cube, and is always free-standing so that it may be encircled.

On the altar table one always finds the antimension. This is the cloth depicting Christ in the tomb which contains the signature of the bishop and is the permission for the local community to gather as the Church. “Antimension” means literally “instead of the table.” Since the bishop is the proper pastor of the Church, the antimension is used instead of the bishop’s own table which is, obviously, in his own church building, the cathedral—the place where the bishop has his chair (cathedra).

The antimension usually contains a relic (normally a part of the body) of a saint which shows that the Church is built on the blood of the martyrs and the lives of God’s holy people. This custom comes from the early Church practice of gathering and celebrating the eucharist on the graves of those who have lived and died for the Christian faith. Usually, a relic of a saint is embedded in the altar table itself as well.

Also on the altar table there is a tabernacle, often in the shape of a church building, which is a repository for the gifts of holy communion that are reserved for the sick and the dying. Behind the altar table there is usually a seven-branched candle stand which comes from the Old Testamental tradition of the Jewish temple. Generally speaking, the Jerusalem temple is highly valued in the Orthodox Christian tradition of worship and church construction as a “prototype” of the true worship “in spirit and truth” of the Kingdom of God (Jn 4.23).


Oblation Table

As we face the altar area the table of oblation on which the bread and wine are prepared for the liturgy stands on the left side of the altar table. The chalice—the cup for the wine—and the diskos—the round plate, elevated on a stand, for the bread—are kept on this table. These vessels are normally decorated with iconographic engravings, Christian symbols, and the sign of the cross.

On this table there is also a special liturgical knife—symbolically called the spear—which is used for cutting the eucharistic bread, and a liturgical spoon for administering holy communion to the people. There are also special covers for the chalice and diskos and a cruciform piece of metal called the star which holds the cover over the eucharistic bread on the diskos. A sponge and cloths for drying the chalice after the liturgy are also usually kept here. The oblation table is decorated in a manner similar to that of the altar table.

Above the table of oblation (the table on which the gifts for holy communion are prepared), which stands in the altar area to the left of the altar table, one might find various icons. A favorite one is that of Christ praying in Gethsemene: ‘Let this cup pass. . . .’ Another is that of the Nativity, although this is due to a symbolical interpretation of the Divine Liturgy which is not indicative of the fundamental liturgical tradition of the Church.

The Church Building

Sign of the Cross

Also found on the altar table is a small hand cross used for blessing and for veneration by the faithful. The sign of the cross is used throughout the church building: on the holy vessels, stands, tables, and vestments.

The cross is the central symbol for Christians, not only as the instrument of the world’s salvation by the crucified Christ, but also as the constant witness to the fact—that men cannot be Christians unless they live with the cross as the very content of their lives in this world. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mk 8.34).

For these reasons Christians place upon themselves the sign of the cross. The Orthodox place their first two fingers and thumb together to form a sign of the Triune God and cross themselves from the head to the breast and from shoulder to shoulder, right to left. This unique and all-embracing symbol shows that the cross is the inspiration, power and indeed the very content of our lives as Christians; and that man’s mind, heart and strength must be given to the love of God and man.



In the Orthodox Church the clergy vest in special clothing for the liturgical services. There are two fundamental Christian vestments, the first of which is the baptismal robe. This robe, which is worn by bishops and priests at the service of holy communion and which should always be white, is the “robe of salvation”: the white garment in which every Christian is clothed on his day of baptism, symbolizing the new humanity of Jesus and life in the Kingdom of God (Rev 7.9ff).

The second fundamental vestment for Christian clergy is the stole or epitrachelion which goes around the neck and shoulders. It is the sign of the pastoral office and was originally made of wool to symbolize the sheep—that is, the members of the flock of Christ—for whom the pastors are responsible. Both bishops and priests wear this vestment when they are exercising their pastoral office, witnessing to the fact that the ministers of the Church live and act solely for the members of Christ’s flock.

As the Church developed through history the vestments of the clergy grew more numerous. Special cuffs for deacons, priests, and bishops were added to keep the sleeves of the vestments out of the way of the celebrants during the divine services. When putting on their cuffs, the clergy read lines from the psalms reminding them that their hands belong to God.

A special belt was added as well to hold the vestments in place. When putting on the belt the clergy say psalms which remind them that it is God who “girds them with strength” to fulfill their service. Only the bishops and priests wear the liturgical belt.

All orders of the clergy wear a special outer garment. Deacons, sub-deacons, and readers wear a robe called a sticharion. It is probably the baptismal garment, decorated and made more elaborate. Deacon and sub-deacons also wear a stole called the orarion, probably originally a piece of material upon which were inscribed the liturgical litanies and prayers (orare means to pray). The deacon still holds up the orarion in a position of prayer when he intones his parts of the divine services. The sub-deacon’s orarion is placed around his back in the sign of the cross.

Priests wear their white baptismal robe over which they have their pastoral stole, cuffs and belt. They also wear a large garment called a phelonion which covers their entire body in the back and goes below their waist in front. This vestment was probably developed from the formal garments of the early Christian era and, under the inspiration of the Bible, came to be identified with the calling of the priestly life. When putting on his phelonion, the priest says the lines of Psalm 132:

Thy priests, O Lord, shall clothe themselves in righteousness, and the saints shall rejoice with joy always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

The bishops traditionally probably also wore the phelonion over which they placed the omophorion, the sign of their episcopal office as leading pastor of the local church. When the Christian empire was captured by the Turks in the fifteenth century, however, the Christian bishops of the East were given civil rule over all Christians under Turkish domination. At that time, since there was no longer a Christian empire, the bishops adopted the imperial insignia and began to dress as the Christian civil rulers used to dress. Thus, they began to wear the sakkos, the imperial robe, and the mitre, the imperial crown. They also began to stand upon the orlets (the eagle) during the divine services and to carry the staff which symbolized more their secular power than their pastoral office. At that time as well, the word despota (vladyko or master)—a title for temporal rather than spiritual power—was used in addressing the bishops, and the clergy began to grow long hair which was also a sign of earthly rule in former times. In the seventeenth century, during the reform of Patriarch Nikon, the Russian Church adopted these same forms for its bishops.

In the Church some of these new insignia were “spiritualized” and given a Biblical meaning. Thus, the mitres became signs of Christian victory, for the saints receive their crowns and reign with Christ (Rev 4.4). The eagle became the sign of the flight to the heavenly Jerusalem since it is the classical Biblical symbol of Saint John and the fourth gospel (Rev 4.7; Ezek 1.10). The staff became the symbol of Aaron’s rod (Ex 4.2), and so on. It should be understood, however, that these particular insignia of the bishop’s office are of later and more accidental development in the Church.

In relation to the bishop’s service in the Orthodox Church, the use of two special candelabra with which the bishop blesses the faithful also developed. One of these candelabra holds three candles (trikiri - on right) while the other holds two candles (dikiri - on left). These candelabra stand for the two fundamental mysteries of the Orthodox faith: that the Godhead is three Divine Persons; and that Jesus Christ, the Saviour, has two natures, being both perfect God and perfect man.

Bishops and priests in the Orthodox Church also wear other special garments. There are, first of all, two pieces of cloth: one square (nabedrennik) and one diamond-shaped (epigonation or palitsa). The former is worn only by priests as a sign of distinction, while the latter is always worn by bishops and is given to some priests as a special distinction of service. Probably these cloths were originally “liturgical towels.” Their symbolical meaning is that of spiritual strength: the sword of faith and the Word of God. They hang at the sides of their wearers during divine services.

There are also clerical hats which carry special meaning in some Orthodox Churches—the pointed hat (skufya) and the cylindrical one (kamilavka). The kamilavka is normally worn by all Greek priests, but only by some clergy in other national Orthodox churches as a special distinction. The kamilavka may be black or purple; monks, and by extansion all bishops, wear it with a black veil. The skufya is worn by monks and, in the Russian tradition, by some of the married clergy as a special distinction, in which case the hat is usually purple. Also in the Russian tradition certain married clergy are given the honor of wearing a mitre during liturgical services. In other Orthodox churches the mitre is reserved only for bishops and abbots of monasteries (archimandrites). Generally speaking, especially in the West, the use of clerical headwear is declining in the Orthodox Church.

Finally, it must be mentioned that bishops and priests wear the cross. The bishops also wear the image of Mary and the Child (panagia—the “all holy”). In the Russian tradition all priests wear the cross. In other churches it is worn liturgically only by those priests given the special right to do so as a sign of distinction.

As the various details of clerical vestments evolved through history, they became very complex and even somewhat exaggerated. The general trend in the Church today is toward simplification. We can almost certainly look forward to a continual evolution in Church vestments which will lead the Church to practices more in line with the original Christian biblical and sacramental inspiration.

The Orthodox Church is quite firm in its insistence that liturgical vesting is essential to normal liturgical worship, experienced as the realization of communion with the glorious Kingdom of God, a Kingdom which is yet to come but which is also already with us in the mystery of Christ’s Church.

Christian Symbols

The Orthodox Church abounds with the use of symbols. These symbols are those realities which have the power and competence of manifesting God to men, signs which carry us beyond ourselves and themselves into the genuine union and knowledge of things eternal and divine.

Among the Christian symbols we have already mentioned are the icons, the sign of the cross, and the vestments of liturgical celebration. In addition, we can mention the use of various colors which have their particular significance, as well as the use of light, normally the natural light of candles, which leads us to Christ, the Light of the world and of the Kingdom of God. Generally speaking, light is a universal symbol for the mystical presence of God as the True, the Beautiful and the Good. This is witnessed in almost all religions, philosophies, and artistic expressions.


The Orthodox Church follows the Bible in its use of incense (Ex 30.8, Ps 141.2; Lk 1.9; Rev 8.3). Incense is the symbol of the rising of prayers, of spiritual sacrifice and of the sweet-smelling fragrance of the Kingdom of God.

The Church also uses bread, wine, wheat, oil, water, flowers and fruits as signs of God’s love, mercy, goodness, life and the very presence given to man in creation and salvation. Indeed, all elements of creation find the “truth” of their very being and existence as expressions and manifestations of God, as “symbols” of his presence and action in the world for man. This is the reason for their use in this way in the Church.


Among the more graphic Christian symbols in the Church are the initials and letters of Christ’s name; the triangle of the Trinity; the circle of eternity; the fish which stands for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour; the eye of God’s omnipresence; the anchor of hope; the rock of faith; the flame of God’s consuming presence; the vine which Jesus named himself—“I am the vine, you are the branches” (Jn 15.5); the alpha and the omega (Rev 1.8); the crown and staff of Christ’s kingship; and many others—all of which indicate some aspect of the saving presence and action of God in the world.

The use of symbols is a mode of revelation and communion which passes beyond that of mere verbal or intellectual communication. The death of symbols comes when they are artificially invented, rationally explained, or reduced to mere “illustrations” whose meaning is not immediately grasped by man on the level of his living spiritual vision and experience.



The Sacraments

The Sacraments

The sacraments in the Orthodox Church are officially called the “holy mysteries.” Usually seven sacraments are counted: baptism, chrismation (or confirmation), holy eucharist, penance, matrimony, holy orders and the unction of the sick.

The practice of counting the sacraments was adopted in the Orthodox Church from the Roman Catholics. It is not an ancient practice of the Church and, in many ways, it tends to be misleading since it appears that there are just seven specific rites which are “sacraments” and that all other aspects of the life of the Church are essentially different from these particular actions. The more ancient and traditional practice of the Orthodox Church is to consider everything which is in and of the Church as sacramental or mystical.

The Church may be defined as the new life in Christ. It is man’s life lived by the Holy Spirit in union with God. All aspects of the new life of the Church participate in the mystery of salvation. In Christ and the Holy Spirit everything which is sinful and dead becomes holy and alive by the power of God the Father. And so in Christ and the Holy Spirit everything in the Church becomes a sacrament, an element of the mystery of the Kingdom of God as it is already being experienced in the life of this world.

Viewing the Church as the new and eternal life of the Kingdom of God given to man by God through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit, we understand first of all that for life to exist there must be birth. The birth into the eternal life of God is the mystery of baptism. But birth is not enough for living; there must be the ongoing possibility of life: its power, energy and force. Thus, the mystery of chrismation is the gift of the power to live the life of Christ which is born in man by baptism. It is the gift of the “all-holy and good and life-creating Spirit” to man.

Life also must be sustained. This is normally done by eating and drinking. Food is the nourishment which keeps us alive. It is man’s communion with creation which keeps him existing. But, naturally speaking, our normal eating and drinking does not keep us alive forever. Our natural communion with the world is a communion to death. We need eating and drinking of a special food which nourishes us for eternal life. This food is the “mystical supper of the Son of God,” the body and blood of Christ, the mystery of the holy eucharist—the communion to Life Itself.

For life to be truly perfect, holy and good, there must also be a particular mystery about marriage and the bearing of children. In this world all who are born are born to die, and even the most perfect of human love stands under the condemnation: “. . . until death do you part.” The mystery of Christian marriage transforms human love, childbearing, and family communities into realities of eternal proportion and significance. In marriage we are blessed by God for unending friendship and love. We are blessed so that the fruit of our love, the begetting of our children and the life of our families will be not “unto death” but unto life everlasting.

Until the final establishment of the Kingdom of God, our life remains under the attack of its demonic enemies: sin, sickness, suffering, sorrow and death. The mystery of penance is the remedy for spiritual sickness. It allows us to turn again to God, to be taken back, to be forgiven and to be received once more into the life of God from which our sins have separated us. And the mystery of holy unction is the remedy for our physical sickness which is the power of sin over our bodies, our inevitable union with suffering and death. Holy unction allows us to be healed; to suffer, not “unto death” but, once more, unto life everlasting. It is the incorporation of our wounds into the life-creating cross of Christ.

The mystery, finally, which allows the perfection of divine life to be ours in all of its fullness and power in this world is the mystery of the Church itself. And most specifically within the Church, we have the mystery of holy orders: the sacrament of priesthood, ministry, ­teaching and pastoral care. The clergy of the church—bishops, priests, and deacons—exist for no other purpose than to make manifest, present and powerful in the Church the divine life of the Kingdom of God to all men while still living in this world.

Thus, from birth to death, in good times and bad, in every aspect of worldly existence, real life—life as God has created and saved and sanctified it to be—is given to us in the Church. This is Christ’s express purpose and wish, the very object of his coming to the world: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10.10).

The Church as the gift of life eternal is by its very nature, in its fullness and entirety, a mystical and sacramental reality. It is the life of the Kingdom of God given already to those who believe. And thus, within the Church, everything we do—our prayers, blessings, good works, thoughts, actions—everything participates in the life which has no end. In this sense everything which is in the Church and of the Church is a sacrament of the Kingdom of God.



The practice of baptism as a religious symbol did not begin with Jesus. Baptism, which means literally the immersion in water, was practiced among the people of the Old Testament as well as the people who belonged to pagan religions. The universal meaning of baptism is that of “starting anew,” of dying to an old, way of life and being born again into a new way of life. Thus, baptism was always connected with repentance which means a moral conversion, a “change of mind,” a change in living from something old and bad to something new and good.

Thus, in the Gospel we find John the Baptist baptizing the people as a sign of repentance in preparation for the Kingdom of God which was coming to men with Christ the Messiah. Christ himself was baptized by John not because he was sinful and needed to repent, but because in allowing himself to be baptized he showed that indeed he was God’s “Beloved Son,” the Saviour and Messiah, the “Lamb of God who takes upon himself the sins of the world” (See Mt 3, Mk 1, Lk 3, Jn 1–3).

In the Christian Church the practice of baptism takes on a new and particular significance. It no longer remains merely a sign of moral change and spiritual rebirth. It becomes very specifically the act of a person’s death and resurrection in and with Jesus. Christian baptism is man’s participation in the event of Easter. It is a “new birth by water and the Holy Spirit” into the Kingdom of God (Jn 3.5).

Baptism in the Church begins with the rejection of Satan and the acceptance of Christ. Before being baptized, a person—or his sponsors or godparents for him—officially proclaims the symbol of Christian faith, the Creed. Because the godparent speaks on behalf of the child, sponsors his entrance into the Church and “receives” the child out of the baptismal waters into the Church and cares for his spiritual life, the godparent himself must be a member of the Church.

After the proclamation of faith, the baptismal water is prayed over and blessed as the sign of the goodness of God’s creation. The person to be baptized is also prayed over and blessed with sanctified oil as the sign that his creation by God is holy and good. And then, after the solemn proclamation of “Alleluia” (from Hebrew, meaning “God be praised”), the person is immersed three times in the water in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Through the act of immersion, the baptized person dies to this world and is born again in the resurrection of Christ into eternal life. He is clothed with the “garments of salvation” symbolized by the white baptismal robe which is the “new humanity” of Jesus himself who is the new and heavenly Adam (See Jn 3, Rom 5, 1 Cor 15). Thus, the words of the Apostle Paul are chanted as the newly-baptized is led in procession around the baptismal font three times as the symbol of his procession to the Kingdom of God and his entrance into eternal life: “For as many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Alleluia” (Gal 3.27).

In ancient times this procession was made from the baptistery to the church where the newly-baptized received Holy Communion at the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. Baptisms were normally done in connection with the Easter Liturgy; our present procession around the church building on Easter night is nothing more than our remembrance that we are baptized, that we have left the life of this world to enter the eternal life of the Risen Christ in the Kingdom of God. This new life is given to us in the life of the Church, most specifically in the Divine Liturgy.

Before the baptismal procession and the reading of the Epistle and the Gospel is fulfilled in the reception of Holy Communion, however, the newly-baptized is given the gift of the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of Chrismation.


In the sacrament of Chrismation we receive “the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit” (See Rom 8, 1 Cor 6, 2 Cor 1.21–22). If baptism is our personal participation in Easter—the death and resurrection of Christ, then chrismation is our personal participation in Pentecost—the coming of the Holy Spirit upon us.

The sacrament of chrismation, also called confirmation, is always done in the Orthodox Church together with baptism. Just as Easter has no meaning for the world without Pentecost, so baptism has no meaning for the Christian without chrismation. In this understanding and practice, the Orthodox Church differs from the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches where the two sacraments are often separated and given other interpretations than those found in traditional Orthodoxy.

Chrismation, the gift of the Holy Spirit, is performed in the Orthodox Church by anointing all parts of the person’s body with the special oil called holy chrism. This oil, also called myrrh is prepared by the bishops of the Church on Holy Thursday. It is used in chrismation to show that the gift of the Spirit was originally given to men through the apostles of Christ, whose formal successors in the world are the bishops of the Church (see Acts 8.14; 19.1–7).

In chrismation a person is given the “power from on high” (Acts 1–2), the gift of the Spirit of God, in order to live the new life received in baptism. He is anointed, just as Christ the Messiah is the Anointed One of God. He becomes—as the fathers of the Church dared to put it—a “christ” together with Jesus. Thus, through chrismation we become a “christ,” a son of God, a person upon whom the Holy Spirit dwells, a person in whom the Holy Spirit lives and acts—as long as we want him and cooperate with his powerful and holy inspiration.

Thus, it is only after our chrismation that the baptismal procession is made and that we hear the epistle and the gospel of our salvation and illumination in Christ.

After the baptism and chrismation the person newly-received into God’s family is tonsured. The tonsure, which is the cutting of hair from the head in the sign of the cross, is the sign that the person completely offers himself to God—hair being the symbol of strength (Jud 16.17). Thus, until the fifteenth century the clergy of the Orthodox Church—the “professional Christians,” so to speak—wore the tonsure all their lives to show that their strength was in God.

The Rite of Churching

Together with being baptized and chrismated, the new-born child is also “churched.” The rite of churching imitates the offering of male children to the temple according to the law of the Old Testament, particularly the offering of Christ on the fortieth day after his birth (Lk 2.22). Because of this fact, baptism in the Orthodox tradition came to be prescribed for. the fortieth day or thereabouts. In the New Testament Church both male and female children are formally presented to God in the Church with special prayers at this time.

Also at this time, once more in imitation of Old Testament practice, the mother of the new-born child is also “churched.” Here we have the specific example of the purification ritual of Jesus’ mother Mary (Lk 2.22). In the Orthodox tradition the churching of the mother is her re-entry into the assembly of God’s people after her participation with God in the holy act of birth and after her separation from the Liturgy during her confinement. Thus, the mother is blessed to enter once more into communion with the mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Divine Liturgy of the Church from which she has been necessarily absent.

The new mother should be churched before the baptism of her infant so that she can be present at the sacramental entrance of her child into the Kingdom of Christ. The official service book indicates that this should be done.

It is also the Orthodox tradition that the mysteries of baptism and chrismation, called officially “holy illumination,” are fulfilled in the immediate reception by the “newly-enlightened” of Holy Communion in the eucharistic liturgy of the Church. This is the case with infants as well as adults.

The Epistle of Baptism-Chrismation

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His. We know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For He who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him. The death He died he died to sin, once for all, but the life He lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Rom 6.3–11)

The Gospel of Baptism-Chrismation

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Mt 28.16–20)

Holy Eucharist

The Holy Eucharist is called the “sacrament of sacraments” in the Orthodox tradition. It is also called the “sacrament of the Church.” The eucharist is the center of the Church’s life. Everything in the Church leads to the eucharist, and all things flow from it. It is the completion of all of the Church’s sacraments—the source and the goal of all of the Church’s doctrines and institutions.

As with baptism, it must be noted that the eucharistic meal was not invented by Christ. Such holy ritual meals existed in the Old Testament and in pagan religions. Generally speaking the “dinner” remains even today as one of the main ritual and symbolic events in the life of man.

The Christian eucharist is a meal specifically connected with the Passover meal of the Old Testament. At the end of his life Christ, the Jewish Messiah, ate the Passover meal with his disciples. Originally a ritual supper in commemoration of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, the Passover meal was transformed by Christ into an act done in remembrance of him: of His life, death and resurrection as the new and eternal Passover Lamb who frees men from the slavery of evil, ignorance and death and transfers them into the everlasting life of the Kingdom of God.

At the supper Christ took the bread and the wine and ordered his disciples to eat and drink it as his own Body and Blood. This action thus became the center of the Christian life, the experience of the ­presence of the Risen Christ in the midst of his People (see Mt 26; Mk 14; Lk 22; Jn 6 and 13; Acts 2.41–47; 1 Cor 10–11).

As a word, the term eucharist means thanksgiving. This name is given to the sacred meal-not only to the elements of bread and wine, but to the whole act of gathering, praying, reading the Holy Scriptures and proclaiming God’s Word, remembering Christ and eating and drinking his Body and Blood in communion with him and with God the Father, by the Holy Spirit. The word eucharist is used because the all-embracing meaning of the Lord’s Banquet is that of thanksgiving to God in Christ and the Holy Spirit for all that he has done in making, saving and glorifying the world.


The sacrament of the eucharist is also called holy communion since it is the mystical communion of men with God, with each other, and with all men and all things in him through Christ and the Spirit. The eucharistic liturgy is celebrated in the Church every Sunday, the Day of the Lord, as well as on feast days. Except in monasteries, it is rarely celebrated daily. Holy Communion is forbidden to all Orthodox Christians on the week days of Great Lent except in the special communion of the Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified Gifts (see below) because of its joyful and resurrectional character. The eucharist is always given to all members of the Church, including infants who are baptized and confirmed. It is always given in both forms—bread and wine. It is strictly understood as being the real presence of Christ, His true Body and Blood mystically present in the bread and wine which are offered to the Father in his name and consecrated by the divine Spirit of God.

In the history of Christian thought, various ways were developed to try to explain how the bread and the wine become the Body and Blood of Christ in the eucharistic liturgy. Quite unfortunately, these explanations often became too rationalistic and too closely connected with certain human philosophies.

One of the most unfortunate developments took place when men began to debate the reality of Christ’s Body and Blood in the eucharist. While some said that the eucharistic gifts of bread and wine were the real Body and Blood of Christ, others said that the gifts were not real, but merely the symbolic or mystical presence of the Body and Blood. The tragedy in both of these approaches is that what is real came to be opposed to what is symbolic or mystical.

The Orthodox Church denies the doctrine that the Body and the Blood of the eucharist are merely intellectual or psychological symbols of Christ’s Body and Blood. If this doctrine were true, when the liturgy is celebrated and holy communion is given, the people would be called merely to think about Jesus and to commune with him “in their hearts.” In this way, the eucharist would be reduced to a simple memorial meal of the Lord’s last supper, and the union with God through its reception would come only on the level of thought or psychological recollection.

On the other hand, however, the Orthodox tradition does use the term “symbols” for the eucharistic gifts. It calls, the service a “mystery” and the sacrifice of the liturgy a “spiritual and bloodless sacrifice.” These terms are used by the holy fathers and the liturgy itself.

The Orthodox Church uses such expressions because in Orthodoxy what is real is not opposed to what is symbolical or mystical or spiritual. On the contrary! In the Orthodox view, all of reality—the world and man himself—is real to the extent that it is symbolical and mystical, to the extent that reality itself must reveal and manifest God to us. Thus, the eucharist in the Orthodox Church is understood to be the genuine Body and Blood of Christ precisely because bread and wine are the mysteries and symbols of God’s true and genuine presence and manifestation to us in Christ. Thus, by eating and drinking the bread and wine which are mystically consecrated by the Holy Spirit, we have genuine communion with God through Christ who is himself “the bread of life” (Jn 6.34, 41).

I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh (Jn 6.51).

Thus, the bread of the eucharist is Christ’s flesh, and Christ’s flesh is the eucharistic bread. The two are brought together into one. The word “symbolical” in Orthodox terminology means exactly this: “to bring together into one.”

Thus we read the words of the Apostle Paul:

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when He was betrayed took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, “This is My body which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. Do this, as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death, until He comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread and drinks the cup in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord (1 Cor 11.23–26).

The mystery of the holy eucharist defies analysis and explanation in purely rational and logical terms. For the eucharist—and Christ Himself—is indeed a mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven which, as Jesus has told us, is “not of this world.” The eucharist—because it belongs to God’s Kingdom—is truly free from the earth-born “logic” of fallen humanity.


The sacrament of penance is our formal act of reconciliation with God in the Church when sin has severed us from the Church’s life. Because penance is the way to communion with God when that communion has been broken by sin, it is often referred to in Church Tradition as the renewal of baptism, or as the reestablishment of that condition of life with God which was given to men in the basic sacraments of inauguration into the Christian life.

Not every sin requires the necessity of formal penance through sacramental ritual. This is obvious because Christians are never completely without sin. Certain grave sins or the prolonged separation from Holy Communion, however, do call for the act of sacramental penance. Also, Christians living in communion with Christ are expected to make use of this sacrament periodically in order to humble themselves consciously before God and to receive guidance in the Christian life from their pastor in the Church. It is the teaching of the Orthodox Church that sacramental penance is necessary for those receiving Holy Communion when they have committed grave sins or when they have been separated from the eucharistic meal for a long time.

The sacrament of penance exists in the Church to allow for the repentance and reconversion of Christians who have fallen away from the life of faith. There are three main elements to the act of formal penance. The first is a sincere sorrow for sins and for the breaking of communion with God. The second is an open and heartfelt confession of sins. At one time this confession was done publicly before all men in the midst of the Church, but in recent times it is usually done only in the presence of the pastor of the Church who stands in behalf of all. The third element of penance is the formal prayer of absolution through which the forgiveness of God through Christ is sacramentally bestowed upon the repentant sinner.

The fulfillment of penance consists in the reception of Holy Communion and the genuine reconciliation of the repentant sinner with God and all men according to the commandments of Christ. From this there obviously follows the necessity of a sincere attempt by the penitent to refrain from sin and to remain in faithful obedience to God and in uprightness of life before Him and all people.

The sacrament of penance, like all sacraments, is an element of the life of the Church which presupposes a firm belief and conviction that Christ himself is present in the Church through his Holy Spirit. A person without the experience of Christ in the Church will not understand the meaning of sacramental penance and the need for the open and public confession of sins. When the Church is experienced as the new life in Christ and as the genuine communion with God in his kingdom already present with men in sacrament and mystery, then not only will sacramental penance and the confession of sins be understood, but it will be cherished as the great mystery of God which it is: the unique possibility for reunion with God through the forgiveness of Christ who has come to save sinners who confess their sins and who sincerely desire to change their lives according to the ways which he himself has given.

In a word, the Orthodox Church strictly adheres to the teaching of the Bible that only God can forgive sins, that he does so through Christ in the Church, that his conditions are genuine repentance and the promise of change which are witnessed by confession; and that confession, by definition, is the open and public acknowledgment of sin before God and all mankind.

Holy Unction

Christ came to the world to “bear the infirmities” of men. One of the signs of his divine messiahship was to heal the sick. The power of healing remains in the Church since Christ himself remains in the Church through the Holy Spirit.

The sacrament of the unction of the sick is the Church’s specific prayer for healing. If the faith of the believers is strong enough, and if it is the will of God, there is every reason to believe that the Lord can heal those who are diseased.

Is any among you sick, let him call for the presbyters of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed (Jas 5.14–16; see also Mk 6.13).

The sacrament of anointing is a “sobornal” sacrament in the traditional Orthodox practice. This means that as many of the faithful as possible are gathered to participate in the prayers. The rite itself calls for seven priests, seven readings from the epistles and gospels, seven prayers and seven anointings with oil specifically blessed for the service. Although it is not always possible to perform the sacrament in this way, the normal procedure is still to gather together as many priests and people as possible.

The express purpose of the sacrament of holy unction is healing and forgiveness. Since it is not always the will of God that there should be physical healing, the prayer of Christ that God’s will be done always remains as the proper context of the sacrament. In addition, it is the clear intention of the sacrament that through the anointing of the sick body the sufferings of the person should be sanctified and united to the sufferings of Christ. In this way, the wounds of the flesh are consecrated, and strength is given that the suffering of the diseased person may not be unto the death of his soul, but for eternal salvation in the resurrection and life of the Kingdom of God.

It is indeed the case that death inevitably comes to man. All must die, even those who in this life are given a reprieve through healing in order to have more time on the earth. Thus, the healing of the sick is not itself a final goal, but is merely “instrumental” in that it is given by God as a sign of his mercy and as a grace for the further opportunity of man to live for him and for others in the life of this world.

In the case where a person is obviously in the final moments of his earthly life, the Church has special prayers for the “separation of soul and body.” Thus, it is clear that the sacrament of holy unction is for the sick-both the physically and mentally sick-and is not reserved for the moment of death. The sacrament of unction is not the “last rites” as is sometimes thought; the ritual of the anointing itself in no way indicates that it should be administered merely in “extreme” cases. Holy unction is the sacrament of the spiritual, physical, and mental healing of a sick person whatever the nature or the gravity of the illness may be.


The Wedding at Cana

Marriage was not invented or instituted by Christ. The Lord, however, gave a very specific meaning and significance to human marriage. Following the Old Testament Law, but going beyond its formal precepts in His messianic perfection, Jesus taught the uniqueness of human marriage as the most perfect natural expression of God’s love for men, and of his own love for the Church.

According to Christ, in order for the love of a man and woman to be that which God has: perfectly created it to be, it must be unique, indestructible, unending and divine. The Lord himself has not only given this teaching, but he also gives the power to fulfill it in the sacrament of Christian marriage in the Church.

In the sacrament of marriage, a man and a woman are given the possibility to become one spirit and one flesh in a way which no human love can provide by itself. In Christian marriage the Holy Spirit is given so that what is begun on earth does not “part in death” but is fulfilled and continues most perfectly in the Kingdom of God.

For centuries there was no particular ritual for marriage in the Church. The two Christians expressed their mutual love in the Church and received the blessing of God upon their union which was sealed in the holy eucharist of Christ. Through the Church’s formal recognition of the couple’s unity, and its incorporation into the Body of Christ, the marriage became Christian; that is, it became the created image of the divine love of God which is eternal, unique, indivisible and unending.

When a special ritual was developed in the Church for the sacrament of marriage, it was patterned after the sacrament of baptism-
chrismation. The couple is addressed in a way similar to that of the individual in baptism. They confess their faith and their love of God. They are led into the Church in procession.

They are prayed over and blessed. They listen to God’s Word. They are crowned with the crowns of God’s glory to be his children and witnesses (martyrs) in this world, and heirs of the everlasting life of his Kingdom. They fulfill their marriage, as all sacraments are fulfilled, by their reception together of holy communion in the Church.

There is no “legalism” in the Orthodox sacrament of marriage. It is not a juridical contract. It contains no vows or oaths. It is, in essence, the “baptizing and confirming” of human love in God by Christ in the Holy Spirit. It is the deification of human love in the divine perfection and unity of the eternal Kingdom of God as revealed and given to man in the Church.

The Christian sacrament of marriage is obviously available only to those who belong to the Church; that is, only for baptized communicants. This remains the strict teaching and practice of the Orthodox Church today. Because of the tragedy of Christian disunity, however, an Orthodox may be married in the Church with a baptized non-Orthodox Christian on the condition that both members of the ­marriage sincerely work and pray for their full unity in Christ, without any coercion or forceful domination by either one over the other. An Orthodox Christian who enters the married state with a non-Orthodox Christian must have the sacramental prayers and blessings of the Church in order to remain a member of the Orthodox Church and a participant in the sacrament of holy communion.

According to the Orthodox teaching, only one marriage can contain the perfect meaning and significance which Christ has given to this reality. Thus, the Orthodox Christian tradition encourages widows and widowers to remain faithful to their spouses who are dead to this world but alive in Christ. The Orthodox tradition also, by the same principle, considers temporary “living together,” casual sexual relations, sexual relations with many different people, sexual relations between members of the same sex, and the breakdown of marriages in separation and divorce, all as contrary to the human perfection revealed by God in Christ. Through penance, however, and with the sincere confession of sins and the genuine promise of a good life together, the Orthodox Church does have a service of second marriage for those who have not been able to fulfill the ideal conditions of marriage as taught by Christ. It is the practice of the Church as well not to exclude members of second marriages from the sacrament of holy communion if they desire sincerely to be in eucharistic fellowship with God, and if they fulfill all other conditions for participation in the life of the Church.

Because of the realization of the need for Christ in every aspect of human life, and because, as well, it is the firm Christian conviction that nothing should, or even can, be done perfectly without Christ or without his presence and power in the Church by the Holy Spirit, two Christians cannot begin to live together and to share each other’s life in total unity—spiritually, physically, intellectually, socially, economically—without first placing that unity into the eternity of the Kingdom of God through the sacrament of marriage in the Church.

According to the Orthodox teaching as expressed in the sacramental rite of marriage, the creation of children, and the care and love for them within the context of the family, is the normal fulfillment of the love of a man and woman in Christ. In this way, marriage is the human expression of the creative and caring love of God, the perfect Love of the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity which overflows in the creation and care for the world.

This conviction that human love, imitative of divine love, should overflow itself in the creation and care for others does not mean that the procreation of children is in itself the sole purpose of marriage and the unique and exclusive justification and legitimization of its existence. Neither does it mean that a childless couple cannot live a truly Christian life together. It does mean, however, that the conscious choice by a married couple not to have a family for reasons of personal comfort and accommodation, the desire for luxury and freedom, the fear of responsibility, the refusal of sharing material possessions, the hatred of children, etc., is not Christian, and can in no way be considered as consonant with the biblical, moral and sacramental teachings and experience of the Orthodox Church about the meaning of life, love and marriage.

In light of the perspective offered above, the control of the conception of children in marriage is a very delicate matter, discouraged in principle and considered as perhaps possible only with the most careful examination of conscience, prayer and pastoral guidance.

The abortion of a child already conceived is strictly forbidden in the Orthodox Church, and cannot be justified in any way, except perhaps with the greatest moral risk and with the most serious penitence in the most extreme cases such as that of irreparable damage to the mother or her probable death in the act of childbirth. In such extreme situations, the mother alone must take upon herself the decision, and all must be prepared to stand before God for the action, asking His divine mercy.

Holy Orders

It is the conviction of the Orthodox that Christ is the only priest, pastor and teacher of the Christian Church. He alone guides and rules his people. He alone forgives sins and offers communion with God, his Father.

It is also the Orthodox conviction that Christ has not abandoned his people, but that he remains with his Church as its living and unique head. Christ remains present and active in the Church through his Holy Spirit.

The sacrament of holy orders in the Christian Church is the objective guarantee of the perpetual presence of Christ with his people. The bishops, priests, and deacons of the Church have no other function or service than to manifest the presence and action of Christ to his people. In this sense, the clergy do not act in behalf of Christ or instead of Christ as though he himself were absent. They are neither vicars of Christ, nor substitutes for Christ nor representatives of Christ.

Christ is present now, always, and forever in his Church. The sacramental ministry of the Church—the bishops, priests, and deacons—receive the gift of the Holy Spirit to manifest Christ in the Spirit to men. Thus, through His chosen ministers, Christ exercises and realizes His unique and exclusive function as priest, perpetually offering Himself as the perfect sacrifice to the Father on behalf of His human brothers and sisters. Through His ministers in the Church, Christ also acts as teacher, Himself proclaiming the divine words of the Father to men. He acts as the good shepherd, the one pastor who guides His flock. He acts as the forgiver and healer, remitting sins and curing the ills of men—physical, mental and spiritual. He acts as bishop, overseeing the community which He has gathered for Himself (1 Pet 2.25). He acts as deacon (which means servant or minister) for He alone is the suffering servant of the Father Who has come “not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20.28).

The sacrament of holy orders takes its name from the fact that the bishops, priests and deacons give order to the Church. They guarantee the continuity and unity of the Church from age to age and from place to place from the time of Christ and the apostles until the establishment of God’s Kingdom in eternity.

As the apostles received the special gift of God to go forth and to make Christ present to men in all of the manifold aspects of his person and work, so the clergy of the Church receive the gift of God’s Spirit to maintain and to manifest Christ’s presence and action in the churches.

It is the doctrine of the Church that the clergy must strive to fulfill the grace given to them with the gift of the “laying on of hands” in the most perfect way possible. But it is also the doctrine of the Church that the reality and effectiveness of the sacraments of the Church ministered by the clergy do not depend upon the personal virtue of the ministers, but upon the presence of Christ who acts in his Church by the Holy Spirit.


The bishops are the leading members of the clergy in the sense that they have the responsibility and the service of maintaining the unity of the Church throughout the world by insuring the truth and unity of the faith. and practice of their respective churches with all of the others. Thus, the bishops represent their particular churches or dioceses to the other churches or dioceses, just as they represent the Universal Church to their own particular priests, deacons, and people.

In the Orthodox Church, the office of bishop is the leading Church ministry. The word bishop (episkopos, in Greek) means overseer. Each of the bishops has exactly the same service to perform. No bishop is “over any other bishop in the Church” and, indeed, the bishop himself is not “over” his church, hut is himself within and of the Church as one of its members. He is the one who is responsible and answerable before God and man for the life of his particular church community.

All bishops of the Orthodox Church are bishops of a particular geographical territory called a diocese. They usually receive their title from the main city in the territory. A bishop of the chief city of a region which has within it other bishops with their own particular dioceses is usually called the metropolitan or archbishop. “Metropolitan” merely means “bishop of the metropolis,” the main city. The title of archbishop means “leading bishop” of an area, but sometimes the title is given to certain bishops for personal or honorary reasons. The title of patriarch belongs to the bishop of the capitol city of a region containing other metropolitanates and dioceses. Today this usually means a national church.

When the bishops of an area meet in council, as they must do periodically according to Church Law, the metropolitan presides; or in the case of a large territory or national church, the patriarch. Once again, however, it must be clearly understood that sacramentally all bishops are identical and equal. None is “higher” than the others as far as their sacramental position is concerned; none is “over” the others as far as their life in the Church is concerned.

In purely human and practical matters, the metropolitans and patriarchs guide and preside over areas greater than their own particular dioceses, but they are not superior or more powerful as far as their bishop’s office is concerned. No bishop in Orthodoxy is considered infallible. None has any “powers” over or apart from his priests, deacons and people or the other bishops. All are servants of Christ and the Church.

Since the sixth century it has been the rule in the Orthodox Church that the bishops be single men or widowers. They are also usually in at least the first degree of monastic orders.


The priests of the Church, also called presbyters, are those who assist the bishop in his work. In the present day, the priests normally exercise the function of pastors of the local churches or parishes, a function which was normally done by the bishops in early times. The priests head the local congregations of Christians. They preside at the celebration of the liturgy. They teach, preach, counsel and exercise the ministries of forgiveness and healing.

The priests in the Church are assigned by the bishop and belong to the specific congregations which they serve. No one receives the gift of the priesthood personally or individually. Apart from his bishop and his own particular parish community, the priest has no “powers” and, indeed, no services to perform. Thus, on the altar table of each Christian community headed by the priest as pastor, there is the cloth called the antimension signed by the bishop which is the permission to the community to gather and to act as the Church of God. Without the antimension, the priest and his people cannot function legitimately, and the actions of the assembly cannot be considered as being authentically “of the Church.”

In the Orthodox Church a married man may be ordained to the priesthood. His marriage, however, must be the first for both him and his wife, and he may not remarry and continue in his ministry if his wife should die. If a single man is ordained, he may not marry and retain his service.


The deacons of the Church originally assisted the bishops in good deeds and works of charity. In recent centuries the diaconate has become almost exclusively a liturgical function in which the deacons assist at the celebration of the divine liturgy and other Church services. In more recent times, the diaconate has been extended to many as a permanent position for full or part-time service to the work of the Church. In the office of deacon, the men may now not only assist the priest and bishop in liturgical services, but will often head educational programs and youth groups, do hospital visitation and missionary work and conduct projects of social welfare. In these cases the deacons are not necessarily taken from the professional schools of theology, but are chosen directly from the local parish community. The Church’s rules about marriage are the same for the deacons as they are for the priests.

In addition to the bishops, priests and deacons who comprise the central ordained ministries in the Church, the Orthodox tradition also has special blessings for the particular ministries of sub-deacons and readers. In the early church there were also special prayers and blessings for other Church ministries such as exorcists, doorkeepers, deaconesses, and lay-preachers; the latter still function in some churches today. Also in most churches today there are special ceremonies of blessing and installation of lay workers in the Church such as members of the parish council, catechists, choir singers and leaders of various organizations and projects.



The funeral service in the Orthodox Church, although not considered as specifically sacramental, belongs among the special liturgical rites of the People of God.

We have already seen that the Church has a particular sacramental service for the consecration of human suffering, and special prayers for the departure of the soul from the body in death. When a person dies, the Church serves a special vigil over the lifeless body, called traditionally the parastasis or panikhida, both of which mean a “watch” or an “all-night vigil.”

The funeral vigil has the basic form of Matins. It begins with the normal Trisagion Prayers and the chanting of Psalm 91, followed by the special Great Litany for the dead. Alleluia replaces God is the Lord, as in Great Lent, and leads into the singing of the funeral troparion.

The troparion and the kontakion of the dead, as all hymns of the funeral vigil, meditate on the tragedy of death and the mercy of God, and petition eternal life for the person who is “fallen asleep.”

Thou only Creator Who with wisdom profound mercifully orderest all things, and givest unto all that which is useful, give rest, O Lord, to the soul of Thy servant who has fallen asleep, for he has placed his trust in Thee, our Maker and Fashioner and our God (Troparion).

With the saints give rest, O Christ, to the soul of Thy servant where sickness and sorrow are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting (Kontakion).

Psalm 119, the verbal icon of the righteous man who has total trust in God and total devotion and love for his Divine Law—the verbal icon of Jesus Christ—is chanted over the departed, with its praises and supplications for life in God. It is this same psalm which is chanted over the tomb of Christ on Great Friday.

It is the psalm which sings of the victory of righteousness and life over wickedness and death.

My soul cleaves to the dust, give me life according to Thy word (119.25).

Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; and give me life in Thy ways (119.37).

Behold, I long for Thy precepts; in Thy righteousness give me life (119.40).

Thy testimonies are righteousness forever; give me understanding that I may live (119.144).

Plead my cause, and redeem me; give me life according to Thy promise (119.154).

This entire psalm together with the verses and prayers that go with it, the canon hymns of the service, and the special funeral songs of Saint John of Damascus all are a meditation on life and death. They are, in the context of the new life of the Risen Christ who reigns in the Church, a lesson of serious instruction for those who are immune to the full tragedy of sin and its “wages” which are death.

Sometimes men criticize the funeral vigil for its supposed morbidity and gloom; they say that there should be more words of resurrection and life. Yet the vigil itself is not the Church’s “final word” about death. It is simply the solemn contemplation upon death’s tragic character, its horrid reality and its power as that of sin and alienation from God. The realization of these facts, which particularly in the modern age is so strikingly absent, is the absolute condition for the full appreciation and celebration of the victorious resurrection of Christ and his gracious gift of eternal life to mankind. Without such a preparatory meditation on death, it is doubtful whether the Christian Gospel of Life can be understandable at all.

Thus it is not at all ironic that the same Saint John of Damascus who wrote the joyful canon sung by the Church on Easter Night is also the author of the Church’s songs of death, which are indeed unyielding in their gravity and uncompromising in their bluntness and realism about the inevitable fact of the final fate of fallen human existence.

What earthly sweetness remains unmixed with grief? What glory stands immutable on the earth? All things are but feeble shadows, all things are most deluding dreams, yet one moment only, and death shall supplant them all. But in the light of Thy countenance, O Christ, and in the sweetness of Thy beauty, give rest to him whom Thou hast chosen, for as much as Thou lovest mankind.

I weep and lament when I think upon death, and behold our beauty created in the likeness of God lying in the tomb disfigured, bereft of glory and form. O the marvel of it! What is this mystery concerning us? Why have we been delivered to corruption? Why have we been wedded unto death? Truly, as it is written, by the command of God Who giveth the departed rest (Funeral Hymns).

As the funeral service is now nornally served, the Beatitudes are chanted after the canon and the hymns of Saint John, with prayer verses inserted between them on behalf of the dead. The epistle reading is from First Thessalonians (4.13–17). The gospel reading is from Saint John (5.24–30). A sermon is preached and the people are dismissed after giving their “final kiss” with the singing of the final funeral song: Eternal Memory.

It has to be noted here that this song, contrary to the common understanding of it, is the supplication that God would remember the dead, for in the Bible it is God’s “eternal memory” which keeps man alive. Sheol or Hades or the Pit, the biblical realm of the dead also called Abaddon, is the condition of forsakenness and forgottenness by God. It is the situation of non-life since in such a condition no one can praise the Lord; and the praise of the Lord is the only content and purpose of man’s life; it is the very reason for his existence. Thus, this most famous and final of the Orthodox funeral hymns is the prayer that the departed be eternally alive in the “eternal rest” of the “eternal memory” of God—all of which is made possible and actual by the resurrection of Jesus Christ which is the destruction of the Pit of Death by the splendor of Divine Righteousness and Life (see Ps 88; Hos 13.14; 1 Cor 15; Eph 4.9; Phil 2.5–11; 1 Pet 3).

The vigil of the dead should normally be fulfilled in the eucharistic liturgy in which the faithful meet the Risen Lord, and all those who are alive in him, in the glory of his Kingdom of Life. The fact that the funeral vigil, in recent years, has lost its preparatory character and has simply been transformed into the funeral service itself, separated from the eucharistic liturgy, is a sad fact which allows neither for the proper appreciation of the vigil itself nor for the full Christian vision of the meaning of life, death and resurrection in Christ, the Church and the Kingdom of God.

The fact that the Divine Liturgy, when it is preserved with the funeral vigil, is served before it and is made into something mournful, converted into a “requiem mass” offered “on behalf of the dead,” is also an innovation of recent centuries under old Roman Catholic influence which further distorts the Christian understanding and experience of death in Christ.



Although not considered as one of the sacraments of the Church since it is not essential to the Christian life as such and is not a necessary element for the very existence of God’s People, monasticism has played an important role in Christian history and is highly valued by the Orthodox Church.

In the Orthodox Tradition the monastic calling is considered to be a personal gift of God to the individual soul for his salvation and service to the Body of Christ. The monastic vocation is the calling to personal repentance in a life dedicated solely to God. The ultimate Christian virtue of love is sought by the monk or nun primarily through prayer and fasting, and through the exercise of the Christian virtues of poverty, chastity, humility and obedience.

The monastic Christian does not normally exercise any particular ministry in the Church such as that of priest, pastor, teacher, nurse or social worker. The monk is normally a layman and not a cleric, with each monastery having only enough clergy to care for the liturgical and sacramental needs of the community itself.

In Orthodox Christian history many missionaries, teachers and bishops have come from men with monastic vocations. For centuries the bishops have been traditionally selected from among the monks. These additional callings, however, are considered to be acts of God’s will expressed in his people, and are not the purpose or intention of the monastic vocation as such. Indeed, one must enter a monastery only in order to repent of his sins, to serve God and to save his soul according to the ideals of monastic ascetism. The ceremony of monastic profession indicates this very clearly. Thus, for example, Saint Herman of Alaska was first dedicated to the monastic life, and only then, in obedience to his spiritual father, left his solitude to become a great missionary.

The Monastic Ranks

The Orthodox monastic tradition has four classical ranks that apply equally to men and to women. The first step is that of novice, which in church terminology is called the rank of obedience. At this first stage the candidate for monastic profession simply lives in the monastery under the direction of a spiritual father or mother.

The second step is that of riasa-bearer, which means that the person is more formally accepted into the community, and is given the right to wear the monastic robe, called the riasa. At this stage the candidate is not yet fully committed to the monastic life.

The third rank is that of the small schema which means that the person is a professed monastic. He or she now receives a new name and wears the monastic schema (a cloth with the sign of the cross), the veil and the mantle (mantia). At this stage the person pledges to remain in the monastic community in perpetual obedience to the spiritual leader and to the head of the monastery, called the abbot or abbess (igoumenos or igoumenia). The service of profession, in addition to the hymns and prayers, includes a long series of formal questioning about the authenticity of the calling, the tonsuring (i.e., the cutting of the hair), and the vesting in the full monastic clothing.

The final rank of the monastic order is that of the great schema. This last step is reserved for very few, since it is the expression of the most strict observance of the monastic ideals, demanding normally a state of life in total seclusion in perpetual prayer and contemplation. With this final profession a new name is again received, and a new monastic insignia—the great schema—is worn.

In the Orthodox tradition there is no prescribed length of time that a person must remain in one or another of the monastic ranks. This is so because of the radically personal character of the vocation. Thus, some persons may progress rapidly to profession, while others may take years, and still others may never be formally professed while still remaining within the monastic community. The decision in these matters is made individually in each case by the spiritual director and the head of the community.

Types of Monasticism

Although the Orthodox Church does not have religious orders as the Latin Church does, there are in Orthodoxy different styles of monastic life, both individually and in community. Generally speaking some monasteries may be more liturgically oriented, while others may be more ascetic, while still others may have a certain mystical tradition, and others be more inclined to spiritual guidance and openness to the world for the purpose of care and counseling. These various styles of monasticism, which take both a personal as well as a corporate form, are not formally predetermined or officially legislated. They are the result of organic development under the living grace of God.

In addition to the various spiritual styles of monastic life, three formal types of organization may be mentioned. The first is that of coenobitic monasticism. In this type all members of the community do all things in common. The second form is called idiorhythmic in which the monks or nuns pray together liturgically, but work and eat individually or in small groups. In this type of monasticism the persons may even psalmodize and do the offices separately, coming together only for the eucharistic liturgy, and even then, perhaps, only on certain occasions. Finally, there is the eremitic type of monasticism where the individual monks or nuns are actually hermits, also called anchorites or recluses. They live in total individual seclusion and never join in the liturgical prayer of the community, except again perhaps on the most solemn occasions. In the rarest of cases it may even happen that the Holy Eucharist is brought to the monk or nun who remains perpetually alone.

In the Orthodox Church today in the Western world there are only a few communities with a genuinely monastic life. In the traditional Orthodox countries monasticism still thrives, although with greatly reduced numbers due to the political and spiritual conditions. In recent years, in some places, there has been a renewed interest in monasticism, particularly among the more educated members of the Church.

The Daily Cycles of Prayer


Prayer is essential to Christian life. Jesus Christ himself prayed and taught men to pray. One who does not pray to God cannot be a follower of Christ.


In the Orthodox Church all prayer is Trinitarian. We pray in the Holy Spirit, through Jesus the Son of God, and in his name, to God the Father. We call God “our Father” because Jesus has taught us and enabled us to do so. We have the capability of addressing God as Father because we are made sons of God by the Holy Spirit (see Rom 8).

In the Church we also address prayers to Christ and the Holy Spirit, the Divine Persons who are one with God the Father and exist eternally in perfect unity with him, sharing his divine being and will.

In the Church we also pray to the saints—not in the same way as we pray to the Persons of the Holy Trinity, but as our helpers, intercessors, and fellow-members of the Church who are already glorified with God in his divine presence. Foremost among the saints and first among the mere humans who are glorified in God’s Kingdom is Mary, the Theotokos and Queen of Heaven, the leader among our saintly intercessors before God. We can also pray to the holy angels to plead our cause before God.

In the traditional catechism of the Church three types of prayer are listed: asking, thanking, and praising. We can add a fourth type which can be called lamenting before God, questioning him about the conditions of life and the meaning of our existence, particularly in times of tragedy and confusion. We very often find all four kinds of prayer in the Bible.

Sometimes prayer is defined as a dialogue with God. This definition is sufficient if we remember that it is a dialogue of silence, carried on in the quiet of our hearts. In the Orthodox Church a more ancient and traditional definition of prayer calls it the lifting of the mind and heart to God, the standing in his presence, the constant awareness and remembrance of his name, his existence, his power and his love. This is the kind of prayer which is also called “walking in the presence of God.”

The purpose of prayer is to have communion with God and to be made capable of accomplishing his will. Christians pray to enable themselves to know God and to do his commandments. Unless a person is willing to change himself and to conform himself to Christ in the fulfillment of his commandments, he has no reason or purpose to pray. According to the saints, it is even spiritually dangerous to pray to God without the intention of responding and moving along the path that prayer will take us.

Praying is not merely repeating the words of prayers. Saying prayers is not the same as praying. Prayer should be done secretly, briefly, regularly, without many words, with trust in God that he hears, and with the willingness to do what God shows us to do (see Mt 6.5–15; Lk 11 and 18; Jn 14–17).

The Orthodox Church follows the Old Testament practice of having formal prayers according to the hours of the day. Christians are urged to pray regularly in the morning, evening and at meal times, as well as to have a brief prayer which can be repeated throughout the day under any and all circumstances. Many people use the Jesus Prayer for this purpose: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Of course, the form of the prayer is secondary and may vary from person to person. It is the power of the prayer to bring us to God, and to strengthen us in doing his divine will that is essential.

The prayers of a person at home differ from those in church, since personal prayer is not the same as the communal prayer of the Church. The two types of prayer are different and should not be confused.

When we go to church to pray, we do not go there to say our private prayers. Our private prayers should be said at home, in our room, in secret, and not in church (Mt 6.5–6). This does not mean that we do not bring our personal cares, desires, troubles, questions and joys to the prayer of the Church. We certainly can, and we do. But we bring ourselves and our concerns to church to unite them to the prayer of the Church, to the eternal prayer of Christ, the Mother of God, the saints and the brothers and sisters of our own particular church community.

In church we pray with others, and we should therefore discipline ourselves to pray all together as one body in the unity of one mind, one heart and one soul. Once again this does not mean that our prayers in church should cease to be personal and unique; we must definitely put ourselves into our churchly prayer. In the Church, however, each one must put his own person with his own personal uniqueness into the common prayer of Christ with his Body. This is what enriches the prayer of the Church and makes it meaningful and beautiful and, we might even say, “easy” to perform. The difficulty of many church services is that they are prayers of isolated individuals who are only physically, and not spiritually, united together.

The formal Church services are normally rather long in the Orthodox Church. This is so because we go to church not merely to pray. We go to church to be together, to sing together, to meditate on the meaning of the faith together, to learn together and to have union and communion together with God. This is particularly true of the Divine Liturgy of the Church (see “The Divine Liturgy,” below). If a person wants merely to pray in the silence of his heart, he need not—and, indeed, he should not go to the church services for this purpose. The church services are not designed for silent prayer. They exist for the prayerful fellowship of all God’s people with each other, with Christ and with God.


In the Orthodox Church the liturgical day begins in the evening with the setting of the sun. This practice follows the Biblical account of creation: “And there was evening and there was morning, one day” (Gen 1.5).

The Vespers service in the Church always begins with the chanting of the evening psalm: “. . . the sun knows it’s time for setting, Thou makest darkness and it is night . . .” (Ps 104.19–20). This psalm, which glorifies God’s creation of the world, is man’s very first act of worship, for man first of all meets God as Creator.

Bless the Lord, oh my soul, O Lord my God, Thou art very great . . .

O Lord, how manifold are Thy works! In wisdom hast Thou made them all. The earth is full of Thy creatures (Ps 104.24).

Following the psalm, the Great Litany, the opening petition of all liturgical services of the Church is intoned. In it we pray to the Lord for everyone and everything.

Following this litany a number of psalms are chanted, a different group each evening. These psalms normally are omitted in parish churches though they are done in monasteries. On the eve of Sunday, however, sections of the first psalm and the other psalms which are chanted to begin the week are usually sung even in parish churches.

Psalm 141 is always sung at Vespers. During this psalm the evening incense is offered:

Lord, I call upon Thee, hear me. Hear me, O Lord.

Let my prayer arise in Thy sight as incense.

And let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice. Hear me, O Lord (Ps 141.1–2).

At this point special hymns are sung for the particular day. If it be a Church feast: songs in honor of the celebration are sung. On Saturday evenings, the eve of the Lord’s Day, these hymns always praise Christ’s resurrection from the dead.

The special hymns normally end with a song called a Theotokion which honors Mary, the Mother of Christ. Following this, the vesperal hymn is sung. If it be a special feast or the eve of Sunday, the celebrant will come to the center or the church building with lighted candles and incense. This hymn belongs to every Vespers service.

O Gladsome Light of the holy glory of the Immortal Father, heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ. Now we have come to the setting of the sun and behold the light of evening. We praise God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For it is right at all times to worship Thee with voices of praise, O Son of God and Giver of Life, therefore all the world glorifies Thee.

Christ is praised as the Light which illumines man’s darkness, the Light of the world and of the Kingdom of God which shall have no evening (Is 60.20, Rev 21.25).

A verse from the Psalms, the prokeimenon, follows—a different one for each day, announcing the day’s spiritual theme. If it be a special day, three readings from the Old Testament are included. Then more evening prayers and petitions follow with additional hymns for the particular day, all of which end with the chanting of the Song of Saint Simeon:

Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation: which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people. A light for revelation to the Gentiles, and to be the glory of Thy people Israel (Lk 1.29–32).

After proclaiming our own vision of Christ, the Light and Salvation of the world, we say the prayers of the Thrice-Holy (trisagion) through to the Our Father. We sing the main theme song of the day, called the Troparion, and we are dismissed with the usual benediction.

The service of Vespers takes us through creation, sin, and salvation in Christ. It leads us to the meditation of God’s word and the glorification of his love for men. It instructs us and allows us to praise God for the particular events or persons whose memory is celebrated and made present to us in the Church. It prepares us for the sleep of the night and the dawn of the new day to come. On the evening before the Divine Liturgy, it begins our movement into the most perfect communion with God in the sacramental mysteries.


The morning service of the Church is called Matins. It opens with the reading of six morning psalms and the intoning of the Great Litany. After this, verses of Psalm 118 are sung:

God is the Lord and has revealed himself unto us.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

The Troparion is then sung and, if it be a monastery, various groups of psalms which differ each day are read. Once again there are hymns on the theme of the particular day. On major feast days, special praises and psalms are sung, which on the Lord’s Day sing of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. On major feasts and on Sundays, the Gospel is also read.

After the Gospel there is a long intercessory prayer followed by a set of hymns and readings called the Canon. These songs are based on the Old Testamental canticles and conclude with the song of Mary, the so-called Magnificat (Lk 1.46–55). The Great Doxology is chanted followed by the morning litanies. The troparion is also repeated once again before the congregation is dismissed to begin the activities of the day.

The Matins service of the Church unites the elements of morning psalmody and prayer with meditation on the Biblical canticles, the Gospel reading, and the particular theme of the day in the given verses and hymns. The themes of God’s revelation and light are also always central to the morning service of the Church. Sometimes, particularly in churches of the Russian tradition, the Matins and the Vespers services are combined to form a long vigil service. On special feast days, the blessing of bread, wheat, wine, and oil is added to the Vespers, even when it is served separately from Matins. The faithful partake of the blessed food and are anointed with the oil as a sign of God’s mercy and grace.

Hours, Compline and Nocturne

In addition to the liturgical services of Vespers and Matins, there are also the services of the Hours, Compline, and Nocturne. These services are chanted in monasteries but are seldom used in parish churches except perhaps during Lent and Holy Week, and on special feast days.

The services of Hours are called the First, Third, Sixth and Ninth. These “hours” conform generally to the hours of six and nine in the morning, noon, and three in the afternoon. The services consist mostly of psalms which are generally related to the events in the passion of Christ which took place at that particular hour of the day. The Third Hour also refers to the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples on Pentecost.

The troparia of the given day or of the feast being celebrated are added to the Hours. During the first days of Holy Week as well as on certain major feasts, the Gospel is also read during the Hours. On days when there is no Divine Liturgy, the so-called Typical Psalms which include elements of the Divine Liturgy such as the liturgical psalms, the Beatitudes, and the Creed are read after the Ninth Hour.

Compline is called the “after-dinner” service of the Church. Its name, both in Greek and Slavonic, indicates this. It is a service of psalms and prayers to be read following the evening meal; after Vespers has been served. On days when Vespers is connected to the Divine Liturgy, such as the eves of Christmas and Epiphany, Great Compline is added to Matins to form a Vigil service. During the first week of Great Lent, the Penitential Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete is read at the Compline Service.

Nocturne is the midnight service of the Church. In monasteries it usually begins the all-night vigil of the monks. It contains a number of psalms together with the normal prayers found in other services, such as the call to worship, the Thrice-Holy, the Our Father, the Troparion, etc. Its theme is obviously the night and the need for vigilance. In the parishes, it is known almost exclusively as the service preceding Easter Matins at which the winding-sheet depicting the dead Saviour is taken from the tomb and is placed on the altar table.

The Church Year

Church Year

Although the first of September is considered the start of the Church year, according to the Orthodox Church calendar, the real liturgical center of the annual cycle of Orthodox worship is the feast of the Resurrection of Christ. All elements of Orthodox liturgical piety point to and flow from Easter, the celebration of the New Christian Passover. Even the “fixed feasts” of the Church such as Christmas and Epiphany which are celebrated according to a fixed date on the calendar take their liturgical form and inspiration from the Paschal feast.

The Easter cycle of worship begins with the season of Great Lent, preceded by the special pre-lenten Sundays. The lenten order of worship fulfills itself in Holy Week and the Great Day of Christ”s Resurrection. Following Easter there are the fifty days of paschal celebration until the feast of Pentecost. Every week of the year is then considered in the Church”s worship as a “Sunday after Pentecost.” The weeks are counted in this way (First Sunday, Second Sunday, etc.) until the pre-lenten season begins again when the weeks are given their name and central content of worship in view of the annual return of Easter.

There are two special liturgical books for the Easter cycle of worship, the Lenten Triodion and the Easter Triodion (literally the Flower Triodion), which is also called the Pentecostarion. These books are called Triodions because of the “three odes” which are often sung during the church services of these seasons.

The Sundays and weeks following Pentecost also have their special book called the Octoechos which literally means the “eight tones.” The Octoechos contains the services for each day of the week. Sunday is always dedicated to the Resurrection of Christ. Wednesdays and ­Fridays commemorate Christ’s suffering and crucifixion. Monday’s theme is the “bodiless powers”the angels. Tuesday is dedicated to the memory of John the Baptist, Thursday to the apostles and Saint Nicholas, and Saturday to the Theotokos with the memory of the departed.

On each day of the week, beginning with the eve of the Lord’s Day, the services are sung in the same “tone” or musical melody. There are eight sets of services in eight different “tones” (hence, the name Octoechos), sung in a revolving pattern throughout the year. Thus, for example, on the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost there would be Tone 1; the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, Tone 2; the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, Tone 3, and so on until the 10th Sunday which is again Tone 1. This cycle of “tones” exists for every week of the year, although when the lenten season approaches the emphasis falls once more upon the preparation for the celebration of Easter.

In addition to the Easter cycle of worship with the “weeks after Pentecost,” and existing together with it, is the Church’s worship for each particular day of the year, each of which is dedicated to certain saints or sacred events. Each month has a special liturgical book called the Menaion which contains the specific service for each day of that month. The solemnity of the day is proportionate to the importance and popularity of the given saints or events to be commemorated.

There are twelve major feast days of the Church which are universally celebrated: the Nativity, Epiphany, Presentation to the Temple (called the “Meeting of the Lord”) and Transfiguration of Christ; the Nativity, Annunciation, Presentation to the Temple and Dormition of Mary; the Exaltation of the Cross; and, from the Paschal cycle, the feast of the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem, the feast of the Lord’s Ascension and the feast of Pentecost. Easter is not counted among the twelve major feasts of the Church since it is considered by itself as “the feast of feasts.”

Different Orthodox churches emphasize the other days of the year according to their particular relevancy and significance. Thus, the day of Saint Sergius would be greatly celebrated in Russia, Saint Spiridon in Greece, and Saint Herman in America. Some days, such as Saints Peter and Paul, Saint Nicholas, and Saint Michael, also enjoy a universal popularity in the church.

Major Feasts of the Church

September 8 The Nativity of Mary the Theotokos
September 14 The Exaltation of the Cross
November 21 The Presentation of the Theotokos to the Temple
December 25 The Nativity of Christ
January 6 The Epiphany: The Baptism of Christ
February 2 The Meeting of Christ in the Temple
March 25 The Annunciation
August 6 The Transfiguration of Christ
August 15 The Dormition of the Theotokos

Calculated according to the Spring Equinox and the Jewish Passover

Palm Sunday The Entry into Jerusalem
PASCHA Christ’s Resurrection
Ascension The Ascension of Christ
Pentecost The Descent of the Holy Spirit

The feast of Christmas has its own cycle of prayer patterned after Easter. There is a forty-day lent preceding it and a post-feast celebration following it. The feasts of Mary’s Dormition and Saints Peter and Paul also have traditional lenten preparations of shorter duration. Most of the major feasts have a prefestal preparation of liturgical prayer, and a post-festal glorification. This means that the feast is called to mind and is glorified in the Church’s liturgical services in anticipation of its coming and is also celebrated in songs and prayers for some days in the Church after its passing.



The paschal season of the Church is preceded by the season of Great Lent, which is itself preceded by its own liturgical preparation. The first sign of the approach of Great Lent comes five Sundays before its beginning. On this Sunday the Gospel reading is about Zacchaeus the tax-collector. It tells how Christ brought salvation to the sinful man and how his life was greatly changed simply because he “sought to see who Jesus was” (Lk 19.3). The desire and effort to see Jesus begins the entire movement through lent towards Easter. It is the first movement of salvation.


The following Sunday is that of the Publican and the Pharisee. The focus here is on the two men who went to the Temple to pray—one a pharisee who was a very decent and righteous man of religion, the other a publican who was a truly sinful tax-collector who was cheating the people. The first, although genuinely righteous, boasted before God and was condemned, according to Christ. The second, although genuinely sinful, begged for mercy, received it, and was justified by God (Lk 18.9). The meditation here is that we have neither the religious piety of the pharisee nor the repentance of the publican by which alone we can be saved. We are called to see ourselves as we really are in the light of Christ’s teaching, and to beg for mercy.

prodigal son

The next Sunday in the preparation for Great Lent is the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. Hearing the parable of Christ about God’s loving forgiveness, we are called to “come to ourselves” as did the prodigal son, to see ourselves as being “in a far country” far from the Father’s house, and to make the movement of return to God. We are given every assurance by the Master that the Father will receive us with joy and gladness. We must only “arise and go,” confessing our selfinflicted and sinful separation from that “home” where we truly belong (Lk 15.11–24).


The next Sunday is called Meatfare Sunday since it is officially the last day before Easter for eating meat. It commemorates Christ’s parable of the Last Judgment (Mt 25.31–46). We are reminded this day that it is not enough for us to see Jesus, to see ourselves as we are, and to come home to God as his prodigal sons. We must also be his sons by following Christ, his only-begotten divine Son, and by seeing Christ in every man and by serving Christ through them. Our salvation and final judgment will depend upon our deeds, not merely on our intentions or even on the mercies of God devoid of our own personal cooperation and obedience.

. . . for I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, I was a stranger and you took Me in, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and in prison and you visited Me. For truly I say to you, if you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to Me (Mt 25).

We are saved not merely by prayer and fasting, not by “religious exercises” alone. We are saved by serving Christ through his people, the goal toward which all piety and prayer is ultimately directed.


Finally, on the eve of Great Lent, the day called Cheesefare Sunday and Forgiveness Sunday, we sing of Adam’s exile from paradise. We identify ourselves with Adam, lamenting our loss of the beauty, dignity and delight of our original creation, mourning our corruption in sin. We also hear on this day the Lord’s teaching about fasting and forgiveness, and we enter the season of the fast forgiving one another so that God will forgive us.

If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you your trespasses (Mt 6.14–18).




Great Lent

The season of Great Lent is the time of preparation for the feast of the Resurrection of Christ. It is the living symbol of man’s entire life which is to be fulfilled in his own resurrection from the dead with Christ. It is a time of renewed devotion: of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. It is a time of repentance, a real renewal of our minds, hearts and deeds in conformity with Christ and his teachings. It is the time, most of all, of our return to the great commandments of loving God and our neighbors.

In the Orthodox Church, Great Lent is not a season of morbidity and gloominess. On the contrary, it is a time of joyfulness and purification. We are called to “anoint our faces” and to “cleanse our bodies as we cleanse our souls.” The very first hymns of the very first service of Great Lent set the proper tone of the season:

Let us begin the lenten time with delight . . . let us fast from passions as we fast from food, taking pleasure in the good words of the Spirit, that we may be granted to see the holy passion of Christ our God and his holy Pascha, spiritually rejoicing.

Thy grace has arisen upon us, O Lord, the illumination of our souls has shown forth; behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the time of repentance (Vespers Hymns).

It is our repentance that God desires, not our remorse. We sorrow for our sins, but we do so in the joy of God’s mercy. We mortify our flesh, but we do so in the joy of our resurrection into life everlasting. We make ready for the resurrection during Great Lent, both Christ’s Resurrection and our own.

Lenten Fasting


A special word must be said about fasting during lent. Generally speaking, fasting is an essential element of the Christian life. Christ fasted and taught men to fast. Blessed fasting is done in secret, without ostentation or accusation of others (Mt 6.16; Rom 14). It has as its goal the purification of our lives, the liberation of our souls and bodies from sin, the strengthening of our human powers of love for God and man, the enlightening of our entire being for communion with the Blessed Trinity.

The Orthodox rules for lenten fasting are the monastic rules. No meat is allowed after Meatfare Sunday, and no eggs or dairy products after Cheesefare Sunday. These rules exist not as a Pharisaic “burden too hard to bear” (Lk 11.46), but as an ideal to be striven for; not as an end in themselves, but as a means to spiritual perfection crowned in love. The lenten services themselves continually remind us of this.

Let us fast with a fast pleasing to the Lord. This is the true fast: the casting off of evil, the bridling of the tongue, the cutting off of anger, the cessation of lusts, evil talking, lies and cursing. The stopping of these is the fast true and acceptable (Monday Vespers of the First Week).

The lenten services also make the undeniable point that we should not pride ourselves with external fasting since the devil also never eats!

The ascetic fast of Great Lent continues from Meatfare Sunday to Easter Sunday, and is broken only after the Paschal Divine Liturgy. Knowing the great effort to which they are called, Christians should make every effort to fast as well as they can, in secret, so that God would see and bless them openly with a holy life. Each person must do his best in the light of the given ideal.

In addition to the ascetic fasting of the lenten season, the Orthodox alone among Christians also practice what is known as eucharistic or liturgical fasting. This fasting does not refer to the normal abstinence in preparation for receiving the holy eucharist; it means fasting from the holy eucharist itself.

During the week days of Great Lent the regular eucharistic Divine Liturgy is not celebrated in Orthodox churches since the Divine Liturgy is always a paschal celebration of communion with the Risen Lord. Because the lenten season is one of preparation for the Lord’s Resurrection through the remembrance of sin and separation from God, the liturgical order of the Church eliminates the eucharistic service on the weekdays of lent. Instead the non-eucharistic services are extended with additional scripture readings and hymnology of a lenten character. In order that the faithful would not be entirely deprived of Holy Communion on the lenten days, however, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is celebrated on Wednesday and Friday evenings.

Even during Great Lent, Saturday (the Sabbath Day) and Sunday (the Lord’s Day) remain eucharistic days, and the Divine Liturgy is celebrated. On Saturdays it is the normal Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, usually with prayers for the dead. On Sundays it is the longer Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great.

The well-known teaching that Saturdays and Sundays are never days of fasting in the Orthodox Church, an issue emphasized centuries ago when controversy arose with the Latin Church, refers only to this eucharistic-liturgical fast. During Great Lent, even though the eucharistic fast is broken on Saturdays and Sundays, the ascetical fast continues through the weekends since this fasting is an extended effort made from Meatfare Sunday right to Easter itself.

Lenten Services

The weekday services of Great Lent are characterized by special lenten melodies of a penitential character. The royal gates to the altar area remain closed to signify man’s separation through sin from the Kingdom of God. The church vesting is of a somber color, usually purple. The daily troparia are also of an intercessory character, entreating God through his saints to have mercy on us sinners.

At the Matins the long Alleluia replaces the psalm: God is the Lord . . . the Psalmody is increased. The hymnology refers to the lenten effort. Scripture readings from Genesis and Proverbs are added to Vespers, and the Prophecy of Isaiah to the Sixth Hour. Each of these books is read nearly in its entirety during the lenten period. Epistle and gospel readings are absent because there are no Divine Liturgies.

At all of the lenten services the Prayer of Saint Ephraim of Syria is read. It supplicates God for those virtues especially necessary to the Christian life.

O Lord and Master of my life: take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power and idle talk.

But grant rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Thy servant.

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou unto ages of ages. Amen.

The Vespers service which begins the lenten season is called the Vespers of Forgiveness. It is customary at this service for the faithful to ask forgiveness and to forgive each other. At the Compline services of the first week of lent the Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete is read. This is a long series of penitential verses based on Biblical themes, to each of which the people respond: Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me. This canon is repeated at Matins on Thursday of the fifth week.

On Friday evening of this same fifth week, the Akathistos Hymn to the Mother of God is sung; and the Saturday Divine Liturgy also honors the Theotokos.

The first Saturday of Great Lent is dedicated to the memory of Saint Theodore of Tyre. The second, third, and fourth Saturdays are called Memorial Saturdays since they are dedicated to the remembrance of the dead.

On Memorial Saturdays the liturgical hymns pray universally for all of the departed, and the Matins for the dead, popularly called the parastasis or panikhida, is served with specific mention of the deceased by name. Litanies and prayers are also added to the Divine Liturgy at which the scripture readings refer to the dead and their salvation by Christ.

Saturday, even during the non-lenten season, is the Church’s day for remembering the dead. This is so because Saturday, the Sabbath Day, stands as the day which God blessed for life in this world. Because of sin, however, this day now symbolizes all of earthly life as naturally fulfilled in death. Even Christ the Lord lay dead on the Sabbath Day, “resting from all of his works” and “trampling down death by death.” Thus, in the New Testament Church of Christ, Saturday becomes the proper day for remembering the dead and for offering prayers for their eternal salvation.

Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts

As we already have seen, the eucharistic Divine Liturgy is not celebrated in the Orthodox Church on lenten weekdays. In order for the faithful to sustain their lenten effort by participation in Holy Communion, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is served. The service is an ancient one in the Orthodox Church. We officially hear about it in the canons of the seventh century, which obviously indicates its development at a much earlier date.

On all days of the holy fast of Lent, except on the Sabbath, the Lord’s Day, and the holy day of the Annunciation, the Liturgy of the Presanctified is to be served (Canon 52, Quinisext, 692).

The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is an evening service. It is the solemn lenten Vespers with the administration of Holy Communion added to it. There is no consecration of the eucharistic gifts at the presanctified liturgy. Holy Communion is given from the eucharistic gifts sanctified on the previous Sunday at the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, unless, of course, the feast of the Annunciation should intervene; hence its name of “presanctified.”

The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is served on Wednesday and Friday evenings, although some churches may celebrate it only on one of these days. It comes in the evening after a day of spiritual preparation and total abstinence. The faithful who are unable to make the effort of total fasting because of weakness or work, however, normally eat a light lenten meal in the early morning.

During the psalms of Vespers, the presanctified gifts are prepared for communion. They are transferred from the altar table where they have been reserved since the Divine Liturgy, and are placed on the table of oblation. After the evening hymn, the Old Testamental scriptures of Genesis and Proverbs are read, between which the celebrant blesses the kneeling congregation with a lighted candle and the words: “The Light of Christ illumines all,” indicating that all wisdom is given by Christ in the Church through the scriptures and sacraments. This blessing was originally directed primarily to the catechumens—those preparing to be baptized on Easter—who attended the service only to the time of the communion of the faithful.

After the readings, the evening Psalm 141 is solemnly sung once again with the offering of incense. Then, after the litanies of intercession and those at which the catechumens were dismissed in former days, the presanctified eucharistic gifts are brought to the altar in a solemn, silent procession. The song of the entrance calls the faithful to communion.

Now the heavenly powers [i.e., the angels] do minister invisibly with us. For behold the King of Glory enters. Behold the mystical sacrifice, all fulfilled, is ushered in.

Let us with faith and love draw near that we may be partakers of everlasting life. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.

After the litany and prayers, the Our Father is sung and the faithful receive Holy Communion to the chanting of the verse from Psalm 34: “O taste and see how good is the Lord. Alleluia.” The post-communion hymns are sung and the faithful depart with a prayer to God who “has brought us to these all-holy days for the cleansing of carnal passions,” that he will bless us “to fight the good fight, to accomplish the course of the fast, and to attain unto and to adore the holy resurrection” of Christ.

The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is traditionally considered to be the work of the sixth-century pope, Saint Gregory of Rome. The present service, however, is obviously the inspired liturgical creation of Christian Byzantium.

Sundays of Lent


Each of the Sundays of Great Lent has its own special theme. The first Sunday is called the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. It is a historical feast commemorating the return of the icons to the churches in the year 843 after the heresy of iconoclasm was overcome. The spiritual theme of the day is first of all the victory of the True Faith. “This is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith” (1 Jn 5.4). Secondly, the icons of the saints bear witness that man, “created in the image and likeness of God” (Gen 1.26), becomes holy and godlike through the purification of himself as God’s living image.


The Second Sunday of Lent is the commemoration of Saint Gregory Palamas. It was Saint Gregory (d.1359) who bore living witness that men can become divine through the grace of God in the Holy Spirit; and that even in this life, by prayer and fasting, human beings can become participants of the uncreated light of God’s divine glory.


The Third Sunday of Lent is that of the Veneration of the Cross. The cross stands in the midst of the church in the middle of the lenten season not merely to remind men of Christ’s redemption and to keep before them the goal of their efforts, but also to be venerated as that reality by which man must live to be saved. “He who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10.38). For in the Cross of Christ Crucified lies both “the power of God and the wisdom of God” for those being saved (1 Cor 1.24).


The Fourth Sunday of Lent is dedicated to Saint John of the Ladder (Climacus), the author of the work, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. The abbot of Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai (6th century) stands as a witness to the violent effort needed for entrance into God’s Kingdom (Mt 10: 12). The spiritual struggle of the Christian life is a real one, “not against flesh and blood, but against . . . the rulers of the present darkness . . . the hosts of wickedness in heavenly places . . .” (Eph 6.12). St John encourages the faithful in their efforts for, according to the Lord, only “he who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt 24.13).


The Fifth Sunday recalls the memory of Saint Mary of Egypt, the repentant harlot. Mary tells us, first of all, that no amount of sin and wickedness can keep a person from God if he truly repents. Christ himself has come “to call sinners to repentance” and to save them from their sins (Lk 5.32). In addition, Saint Mary tells us that it is never too late in life—or in Lent—to repent. Christ will gladly receive all who come to him even at the eleventh hour of their lives. But their coming must be in serious and sincere repentance.






Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday

The week following the Sunday of Saint Mary of Egypt is called Palm or Branch Week. At the Tuesday services of this week the Church recalls that Jesus’ friend Lazarus has died and that the Lord is going to raise him from the dead (Jn 11). As the days continue toward Saturday, the Church, in its hymns and verses, continues to follow Christ towards Bethany to the tomb of Lazarus. On Friday evening, the eve of the celebration of the Resurrection of Lazarus, the “great and saving forty days” of Great Lent are formally brought to an end:

Having accomplished the forty days for the benefit of our souls, we pray to Thee, O Lover of Man, that we may see the holy week of Thy passion, that in it we may glorify Thy greatness and Thine unspeakable plan of salvation for our sake . . . (Vespers Hymn).


Lazarus Saturday is a paschal celebration. It is the only time in the entire Church Year that the resurrectional service of Sunday is celebrated on another day. At the liturgy of Lazarus Saturday, the Church glorifies Christ as “the Resurrection and the Life” who, by raising Lazarus, has confirmed the universal resurrection of mankind even before His own suffering and death.

By raising Lazarus from the dead before Thy passion, Thou didst confirm the universal resurrection, O Christ God! Like the children with the branches of victory, we cry out to Thee, O Vanquisher of Death: Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord! (Troparion).

Christ —the Joy, the Truth and the Light of All, the Life of the world and its Resurrection—has appeared in his goodness to those on earth. He has become the Image of our Resurrection, granting divine forgiveness to all (Kontakion).

At the Divine Liturgy of Lazarus Saturday the baptismal verse from Galatians: As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ (Gal 3.27) replaces the Thrice-holy Hymn thus indicating the resurrectional character of the celebration, and the fact that Lazarus Saturday was once among the few great baptismal days in the Orthodox Church Year.

Because of the resurrection of Lazarus from the dead, Christ was hailed by the masses as the long-expected Messiah-King of Israel. Thus, in fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament, He entered Jerusalem, the City of the King, riding on the colt of an ass (Zech 9.9; Jn 12.12). The crowds greeted Him with branches in their hands and called out to Him with shouts of praise: Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! The Son of David! The King of Israel! Because of this glorification by the people, the priests and scribes were finally driven “to destroy Him, to put Him to death” (Lk 19.47; Jn 11.53, 12.10).

Palm Sunday

The feast of Christ’s triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, Palm Sunday, is one of the twelve major feasts of the Church. The services of this Sunday follow directly from those of Lazarus Saturday. The church building continues to be vested in resurrectional splendor, filled with hymns which continually repeat the Hosanna offered to Christ as the Messiah-King who comes in the name of God the Father for the salvation of the world.

The main troparion of Palm Sunday is the same one sung on Lazarus Saturday. It is sung at all of the services, and is used at the Divine Liturgy as the third antiphon which follows the other special psalm verses which are sung as the liturgical antiphons in the place of those normally used. The second troparion of the feast, as well as the kontakion and the other verses and hymns, all continue to glorify Christ’s triumphal manifestation “six days before the Passover” when he will give himself at the Supper and on the Cross for the life of the world.

Today the grace of the Holy Spirit has gathered us together. Let us all take up Thy cross and say: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest! (First Verse of Vespers).

When we were buried with Thee in baptism, O Christ God, we were made worthy of eternal life by Thy resurrection. Now we praise Thee and sing: Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord! (Second Troparion).

Sitting on Thy throne in heaven, and carried on a foal on earth, O Christ God, accept the praise of angels and the songs of children who sing: BIessed is he who comes to recall Adam! (Kontakion).

At the vigil of the feast of Palm Sunday the prophecies of the Old Testament about the Messiah-King are read together with the Gospel accounts of the entry of Christ into Jerusalem. At Matins branches are blessed which the people carry throughout the celebration as the sign of their own glorification of Jesus as Saviour and King. These branches are usually palms, or, in the Slavic churches, pussy willows which came to be customary because of their availability and their early blossoming in the springtime.

As the people carry their branches and sing their songs to the Lord on Palm Sunday, they are judged together with the Jerusalem crowd. For it was the very same voices which cried Hosanna to Christ, which, a few days later, cried Crucify Him! Thus in the liturgy of the Church the lives of men continue to be judged as they hail Christ with the “branches of victory” and enter together with Him into the days of His “voluntary passion.”

Holy Week

In the Orthodox Church the last week of Christ’s life is officially called Passion Week. In popular terminology it is called Holy Week. Each day is designated in the service books as “great and holy.” There are special services every day of the week which are fulfilled in all churches. Earthly life ceases for the faithful as they “go up with the Lord to Jerusalem” (Matins of Great and Holy Monday).


Each day of Holy Week has its own particular theme. The theme of Monday is that of the sterile fig tree which yields no fruit and is condemned. Tuesday the accent is on the vigilance of the wise virgins who, unlike their foolish sisters, were ready when the Lord came to them. Wednesday the focus is on the fallen woman who repents. Great emphasis is made in the liturgical services to compare the woman, a sinful harlot who is saved, to Judas, a chosen apostle who is lost. The one gives her wealth to Christ and kisses his feet; the other betrays Christ for money with a kiss.

On each of these three days the Gospel is read at the Hours, as well as at the Vespers when the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is served. The Old Testamental readings are from Exodus, Job, and the Prophets. The Gospel is also read at the Matins services which are traditionally called the “Bridegroom” services because the general theme of each of these days is the end of the world and the judgment of Christ. It is the common practice to serve the Bridegroom services at night.


Behold, the bridegroom comes in the middle of the night and blessed is the servant whom he shall find watching, and unworthy the servant whom he shall find heedless. Take care then, O my soul, and be not weighed down by sleep that you will not be given over unto death and be excluded from the Kingdom. But rise up and call out: Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou O God, by the Theotokos have mercy on us (Troparion of the First Three Days).

During the first three days of Holy Week, the Church prescribes that the entire Four Gospels be read at the Hours up to the point in each where the passion of Christ begins. Although this is not usually possible in parish churches, an attempt is sometimes made to read at least one complete Gospel, privately or in common, before Holy Thursday.



Holy Thursday

mystical supper

The vigil on the eve of Holy Thursday is dedicated exclusively to the Passover Supper which Christ celebrated with his twelve apostles. The main theme of the day is the meal itself at which Christ commanded that the Passover of the New Covenant be eaten in remembrance of Himself, of His body broken and His blood shed for the remission of sins. In addition, Judas’ betrayal and Christ’s washing of His disciples feet is also central to the liturgical commemoration of the day.

In cathedral churches it is the custom for the bishop to re-enact the foot washing in a special ceremony following the Divine Liturgy. At the vigil of Holy Thursday, the Gospel of Saint Luke about the Lord’s Supper is read. At the Divine Liturgy the Gospel is a composite of all the evangelists’ accounts of the same event. The hymns and the readings of the day also all refer to the same central mystery.


When Thy glorious disciples were enlightened at the washing of their feet before the supper, then the impious Judas was darkened by the disease of avarice, and to the lawless judges he betrayed Thee, the Righteous Judge. Behold, O lover of money, this man because of avarice hanged himself. Flee from the insatiable desire which dared such things against the Master! O Lord who deals righteously with all, glory to Thee (Troparion of Holy Thursday).

In the regions of the Master, at the Table of Immortality, in the high place, with minds lifted up, come, O ye faithful, let us eat with delight (Ninth Ode of the Canon of Matins).

The Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil is served on Holy Thursday in connection with Vespers. The long gospel of the Last Supper is read following the readings from Exodus, Job, Isaiah and the first letter of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians (1 Cor 11). The following hymn replaces the Cherubic Hymn of the offertory of the liturgy, and serves as well as the Communion and Post-Communion Hymns.

Of Thy mystical supper, O Son of God, accept me today a communicant, for I will not speak of Thy mystery to thine enemies, neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss, but like the thief will I confess Thee: Remember me, O Lord, in Thy kingdom.

The liturgical celebration of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday is not merely the annual remembrance of the institution of the sacrament of Holy Communion. Indeed the very event of the Passover Meal itself was not merely the last-minute action by the Lord to “institute” the central sacrament of the Christian Faith before His passion and death. On the contrary, the entire mission of Christ, and indeed the very purpose for the creation of the world in the first place, is so that God’s beloved creature, made in His own divine image and likeness, could be in the most intimate communion with Him for eternity, sitting at table with Him, eating and drinking in His unending kingdom. Thus, Christ the Son of God speaks to His apostles at the supper, and to all men who hear His words and believe in Him and the Father who sent Him:

Fear not, little flock, it is Your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom (Lk 12.32).

You are those who have continued with Me in My trials; as My Father appointed a Kingdom for Me, so do I appoint for you that you may eat and drink at My table in My Kingdom . . . (Lk 22.28–31).

In a real sense, therefore, it is true to say that the body broken and the blood spilled spoken of by Christ at His last supper with the disciples was not merely an anticipation and preview of what was yet to come; but that what was yet to come—the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven—came to pass precisely so that men could be blessed by God to be in holy communion with him forever, eating and drinking at the mystical table of His kingdom of which there will be no end.

Thus the “Mystical Supper of the Son of God” which is continually celebrated in the Divine Liturgy of the Christian Church, is the very essence of what life in God’s Kingdom will be for eternity.

Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the Kingdom of God (Lk 14.15).

Blessed are those who are invited to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev 19.9).


Holy Friday

Matins of Holy Friday are generally celebrated on Thursday night. The main feature of this service is the reading of twelve selections from the Gospels, all of which are accounts of the passion of Christ. The first of these twelve readings is Jn 13.31–18.1. It is Christ’s long discourse with his apostles that ends with the so-called high priestly prayer. The final gospel tells of the sealing of the tomb and the setting of the watch (Mt 27.62–66).

The twelve Gospel readings of Christ’s passion are placed between the various parts of the service. The hymnology is all related to the sufferings of the Saviour and borrows heavily from the Gospels and the prophetic scriptures and psalms. The Lord’s beatitudes are added to the service after the sixth gospel reading, and there is special emphasis given to the salvation of the thief who acknowledged Christ’s Kingdom.

The Hours of Holy Friday repeat the Gospels of Christ’s passion with the addition at each Hour of readings from Old Testamental prophecies concerning man’s redemption, and from letters of Saint Paul relative to man’s salvation through the sufferings of Christ. The psalms used are also of a special prophetic character, e.g., Ps 2, 5, 22, 109, 139, et al.

There is no Divine Liturgy on Good Friday for the same obvious reason that forbids the celebration of the eucharist on the fasting days of lent (see “Lenten Fasting,” below).





Holy Saturday

The first service belonging to Holy Saturday—called in the Church the Blessed Sabbath—is the Vespers of Good Friday. It is usually celebrated in the mid-afternoon to commemorate the burial of Jesus.


Before the service begins, a “tomb” is erected in the middle of the church building and is decorated with flowers. Also a special icon which is painted on cloth (in Greek, epitaphios; in Slavonic, plaschanitsa) depicting the dead Saviour is placed on the altar table. In English this icon is often called the winding-sheet.

Vespers begins as usual with hymns about the suffering and death of Christ. After the entrance with the Gospel Book and the singing of Gladsome Light, selections from Exodus, Job, and Isaiah 52 are read. An epistle reading from First Corinthians (1.18–31) is added, and the Gospel is read once more with selections from each of the four accounts of Christ’s crucifixion and burial. The prokeimena and alleluia verses are psalm lines, heard often already in the Good Friday services, prophetic in their meaning:

They divided my garments among them and for my raiment they cast lots (Psalm 22.18).

My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me (Ps 22.1).

Thou hast put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep (Ps 88.6).

After more hymns glorifying the death of Christ, while the choir sings the dismissal song of Saint Simeon, the priest vests fully in his dark-colored robes and incenses the winding-sheet which still lies upon the altar table. Then, after the Our Father, while the people sing the troparion of the day, the priest circles the altar table with the winding-sheet carried above his head and places it into the tomb for veneration by the faithful.

The noble Joseph, when he had taken down Thy most pure body from the Tree, wrapped It in fine linen and anointed It with spices, and placed It in a new tomb (Troparion of Holy Saturday).

The Matins of Holy Saturday are usually celebrated on Friday night. They begin in the normal way with the singing of God is the Lord, the troparion The Noble Joseph, and the following troparia:

When Thou didst descend to death O Life Immortal, Thou didst slay hell with the splendor of Thy Godhead! And when from the depths Thou didst raise the dead, all the powers of heaven cried out: O Giver of Life! Christ our God! Glory to Thee!

The angel standing by the grave cried out to the women: Myrrh is proper for the dead, but Christ has shown himself a stranger to corruption.

In place of the regular psalm reading the entire Psalm 119 is read with a verse praising the dead Saviour chanted between each of its lines. This particular psalm is the verbal icon of Jesus, the righteous man whose life is in the hands of God and who, therefore, cannot remain dead. The Praises, as the verses are called, glorify God as “the Resurrection and the Life,” and marvel at his humble condescension into death.

There is in the person of Jesus Christ the perfect unification of the perfect love of man toward God and the perfect love of God toward man. It is this divine human love which is contemplated and praised over the tomb of the Savior. As the reading progresses the Praises become shorter, and gradually more concentrated on the final victory of the Lord, thus coming to their proper conclusion:

I long for Thy salvation, O Lord, Thy law is my delight (Ps 119.174).

The mind is affrighted at Thy dread and strange burial.

Let me live, that I may praise Thee, and let Thy ordinances help me (119.175).

The women with spices came early at dawn to anoint Thee.

I have gone astray like a lost sheep, seek Thy servant, for I do not forget Thy commandments (119.176).
By Thy resurrection grant peace to the Church and salvation to Thy people!

After the final glorification of the Trinity, the church building is lighted and the first announcement of the women coming to the tomb resounds through the congregation as the celebrant censes the entire church. Here for the first time comes the clear proclamation of the good news of salvation in Christ’s resurrection.

The canon song of Matins continues to praise Christ’s victory over death by His own death, and uses each of the Old Testamental canticles as a prefigurative image of man’s final salvation through Jesus. Here for the first time there emerges the indication that this Sabbath this particular Saturday on which Christ lay dead—is truly the most blessed seventh day that ever existed. This is the day when Christ rests from His work of recreating the world. This is the day when the Word of God “through Whom all things were made” (Jn 1.3) rests as a dead man in the grave, saving the world of His own creation and opening the graves:

This is the most blessed Sabbath on which Christ sleeps, but to rise again on the third day (Kontakion and Oikos).

Again, the canon ends on the final note of the victory of Christ.

Lament not for Me, Mother, beholding Me in the grave, the son whom you have born in seedless conception, for I will arise and be glorified, and will exalt with glory, unceasingly as God, all those who with faith and love glorify you (Ninth Ode of the Canon).

As more verses of praise are sung, the celebrant again vests fully in his somber vestments and, as the great doxology is chanted, he once more censes the tomb of the Savior. Then, while the congregation with lighted candles continually repeats the song of the Thrice Holy, the faithful—led by their pastor carrying the Gospel Book with the winding-sheet of Christ held over his head—go in procession around the outside of the church building. This procession bears witness to the total victory of Christ over the powers of darkness and death. The whole universe is cleansed, redeemed and restored by the entrance of the Life of the World into death.

As the procession returns to the church building, the troparia are sung once again, and the prophecy of Ezekiel about the “dry bones” of Israel is chanted with great solemnity:

“And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, O my people. And I will put my spirit within you and you shall live . . .” (Ezek 37.1–14).

With the victorious lines of the psalms calling God to arise, to lift up his hands, to scatter his enemies and to let the righteous rejoice; and with the repeated singing of Alleluia, the letter of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians is read: “Christ our paschal lamb has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5.6–8). The Gospel about the sealing of the tomb is read once more, and the service is ended with intercession and benediction.

The Vespers and Matins of the Blessed Sabbath, together with the Divine Liturgy which follows, form a masterpiece of the Orthodox liturgical tradition. These services are not at all a dramatic re-enactment of the historical death and burial of Christ. Neither are they a kind of ritual reproduction of scenes of the Gospel. They are, rather, the deepest spiritual and liturgical penetration into the eternal meaning of the saving events of Christ, viewed and praised already with the full knowledge of their divine significance and power.

The Church does not pretend, as it were, that it does not know what will happen with the crucified Jesus. It does not sorrow and mourn over the Lord as if the Church itself were not the very creation which has been produced from his wounded sides and from the depths of his tomb. All through the services the victory of Christ is contemplated and the resurrection is proclaimed. For it is indeed only in the light of the victorious resurrection that the deepest divine and eternal meaning of the events of Christ’s passion and death can be genuinely grasped, adequately appreciated and properly glorified and praised.

On Holy Saturday itself, Vespers are served with the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great. This service already belongs to the Passover Sunday. It begins in the normal way with the evening psalm, the litany, the hymns following the evening Psalm 141 and the entrance with the singing of the vesperal hymn, Gladsome Light. The celebrant stands at the tomb in which lies the winding-sheet with the image of the Savior in the sleep of death.

Following the evening entrance which is made with the Book of the Gospels, fifteen readings from the Old Testament scriptures are read, all of which relate to God’s work of creation and salvation which has been summed up and fulfilled in the coming of the predicted Messiah. Besides the readings in Genesis about creation, and the ­passover-exodus of the Israelites in the days of Moses in Exodus, there are selections from the prophecies of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Daniel, Zephaniah, and Jonah as well as from Joshua and the Books of Kings, the Canticles of Moses, and of the Three Youths found in Daniel are chanted as well.

After the Old Testament readings the celebrant intones the normal liturgical exclamation for the singing of the Thrice-Holy Hymn, but in its place the baptismal verse from Galatians is sung: As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Alleluia (Gal 3.27).

As usual in the Divine Liturgy the epistle reading follows at this point. It is the normal baptismal selection of the Orthodox Church (Rom 6.3–11). “If we have been united with him in a death like his we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6.5).

At this time the royal gates are closed, and the celebrants and altar servers change their robes from the dark vestments of the passion into the bright vestments of Christ’s victory over death. At this time all vestings of the church appointments are also changed into the color signifying Christ’s triumph over sin, the devil and death. This revesting takes place while the people sing the verses of Psalm 82: “Arise O Lord and judge the earth, for to Thee belong all the nations.”

After the solemn chanting of the psalm verses, to which are often added the hymn glorifying Christ as the New Passover, the Living Sacrifice who is slain, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world; the celebrants emerge from the altar to announce over the tomb of Christ the glad tidings of his victorious triumph over death and his command to the apostles: “Make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded . . .” (Mt 28.1.20). This Gospel text is also the reading of the baptismal ceremony of the Orthodox Church.

The Divine Liturgy then continues in the brilliance of Christ’s destruction of death. The following song replaces the Cherubic Hymn of the offertory:

Let all mortal flesh keep silent and in fear and trembling stand, pondering nothing earthly-minded. For the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords comes to be slain, to give himself as food to the faithful.

Before him go the ranks of angels: all the principalities and powers, the many-eyed cherubim and the six-winged seraphim, covering their faces, singing the hymn: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

In place of the Hymn to the Theotokos, the ninth ode of the matinal canon is sung once again: “Lament not for Me, Mother . . . for I will arise” (see above). The communion hymn is the line of the psalm: “The Lord awoke as one asleep, and arose saving us” (Ps 78.65).

descent hades

The Divine Liturgy is fulfilled in the communion with him who lies dead in his human body, and yet is enthroned eternally with God the Father; the one who, as the Creator and Life of the World, destroys death by his life-creating death. His tomb—which still stands in the center of the church—is shown to be, as the Liturgy calls it: the fountain of our resurrection.

Originally this Liturgy was the Easter baptismal liturgy of Christians. It remains today as the annual experience for every Christian of his own dying and rising with the Lord.

But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him (Rom 6.8–9).

Christ lies dead, yet he is alive. He is in the tomb, but already he is “trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” There is nothing more to do now but to live through the evening of the Blessed Sabbath on which Christ sleeps, awaiting the midnight hour when the Day of our Lord will begin to dawn upon us, and the night full of light will come when we will proclaim with the angel: “He is risen, he is not here; see the tomb where they laid him” (Mk 16.6).


Easter Sunday: The Holy Pascha

A little before midnight on the Blessed Sabbath the Nocturne service is chanted. The celebrant goes to the tomb and removes the winding-sheet. He carries it through the royal doors and places it on the altar table where it remains for forty days until the day of Ascension.

At midnight the Easter procession begins. The people leave the church building singing:

The angels in heaven, O Christ our Savior, sing of Thy resurrection. Make us on earth also worthy to hymn Thee with a pure heart.


The procession circles the church building and returns to the closed doors of the front of the church. This procession of the Christians on Easter night recalls the original baptismal procession from the darkness and death of this world to the light and the life of the Kingdom of God. It is the procession of the holy passover, from death unto life, from earth unto heaven, from this age to the age to come which will never end.

Before the closed doors of the church building, the resurrection of Christ is announced. Sometimes the Gospel is read which tells of the empty tomb. The celebrant intones the blessing to the “holy, consubstantial, life-creating and undivided Trinity.” The Easter troparion is sung for the first time, together with the verses of Psalm 68 which will begin all of the Church services during the Easter season.

Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee from before his face!

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life (Troparion).

This is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!

The people re-enter the church building and continue the service of Easter Matins which is entirely sung.


The canon hymns of Christ’s resurrection, ascribed to Saint John of Damascus, are chanted with the troparion of the feast as the constantly recurring refrain. The building is decorated with flowers and lights. The vestments are the bright robes of the resurrection. The Easter icon stands in the center of the church showing Christ destroying the gates of hell and freeing Adam and Eve from the captivity of death. It is the image of the Victor “trampling down death by his own death.” There is the continual singing and censing of the icons and the people, with the constant proclamation of the celebrant: Christ is risen! The faithful continually respond: Indeed He is risen!

It is the day of resurrection ! Let us be illumined for the feast! Pascha! The Pascha of the Lord! From death unto life, and from earth unto heaven has Christ our God led us! Singing the song of victory: Christ is risen from the dead! (First Ode of the Easter Canon).

Following the canon, the paschal verses are sung, and at the conclusion of the Easter Matins, the Easter Hours are also sung. In general, nothing is simply read in the Church services of Easter: everything is fully sung with the joyful melodies of the feast.

At the end of the Hours, before the Divine Liturgy, the celebrant solemnly proclaims the famous Paschal Sermon of Saint John Chrysostom. This sermon is an invitation to all of the faithful to forget their sins and to join fully in the feast of the resurrection of Christ. Taken literally, the sermon is the formal invitation offered to all members of the Church to come and to receive Holy Communion, partaking of Christ, the Passover Lamb, whose table is now being set in the midst of the Church. In some parishes the sermon is literally obeyed, and all of the faithful receive the eucharistic gifts of the Passover Supper of Easter night.

The Easter Divine Liturgy begins immediately with the singing once more of the festal troparion with the verses of Psalm 68. Special psalm verses also comprise the antiphons of the liturgy, through which the faithful praise and glorify the salvation of God:

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Sing of his name, give glory to His praise.

Let all the earth worship Thee and praise Thee! Let it praise Thy name, O most High!

That we may know Thy way upon the earth and Thy salvation among all nations.

Let the people thank Thee, O God! Let all the people give thanks to Thee.

The troparion is repeated over and over again. The baptismal line from Galatians replaces the Thrice-Holy Hymn. The epistle reading is the first nine verses of the Book of Acts. The gospel reading is the first seventeen verses of the Gospel of Saint John. The proclamation of the Word of God takes the faithful back again to the beginning, and announces God’s creation and re-creation of the world through the living Word of God, his Son Jesus Christ.

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God . . . all things were made through him . . . In Him was life and the life was the light of men. . . .

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth . . . we have beheld His glory, glory of the only-begotten Son of the Father, and from His fullness have we all received grace upon grace (Jn 1.1–17).

The Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom continues, crowned in holy communion with the Passover Lamb at his banquet table in God’s Kingdom. Again and again the troparion of the Resurrection is sung while the faithful partake of Him “Who was dead and is alive again” (Rev 2.8).

In the Orthodox Church the feast of Easter is officially called Pascha, the word which means the Passover. It is the new Passover of the new and everlasting covenant foretold by the prophets of old. It is the eternal Passover from death to life and from earth to heaven. It is the Day of the Lord proclaimed by God’s holy prophets, “the day which the Lord has made” for His judgment over all creation, the day of His final and everlasting victory. It is the Day of the Kingdom of God, the day “which has no night” for “its light is the Lamb” (Rev 21.22–25).

The celebration of Easter in the Orthodox Church, therefore, is once again not merely an historical reenactment of the event of Christ’s Resurrection as narrated in the gospels. It is not a dramatic representation of the first Easter morning. There is no “sunrise service” since the Easter Matins and the Divine Liturgy are celebrated together in the first dark hours of the first day of the week in order to give men the experience of the “new creation” of the world, and to allow them to enter mystically into the New Jerusalem which shines eternally with the glorious light of Christ, overcoming the perpetual night of evil and destroying the darkness of this mortal and sinful world:

Shine! Shine! O New Jerusalem! The glory of the Lord has shone upon you! Exult and be glad O Zion! Be radiant O Pure Theotokos, in the Resurrection of your Son!

This is one of the main Easter hymns in the Orthodox Church. It is inspired by Isaiah’s prophecy and the final chapters of the Book of Revelation, for it is exactly tile New Creation, the New Jerusalem, the Heavenly City, the Kingdom of God, the Day of the Lord, the Marriage Feast of the Lamb with His Bride which is celebrated and realized and experienced in the Holy Spirit on the Holy Night of Easter in the Orthodox Church.

Post-Easter Sundays

Saint Thomas Sunday: Antipascha

Every day during the week of Easter, called Bright Week by the Church, the paschal services are celebrated in all their splendor. The Easter baptismal procession is repeated daily. The royal gates of the sanctuary remain open. The joy of the Resurrection and the gift of the Kingdom of eternal life continue to abound. Then, at the end of the week, on Saturday evening, the second Sunday after Easter is celebrated in remembrance of the appearance of Christ to the Apostle Thomas “after eight days” (Jn 20.26).

It is important to note that the number eight has symbolical significance in both Jewish and Christian spiritual tradition. It signifies more than completion and fullness; it signifies the Kingdom of God and the life of the world to come since seven is the number of earthly time. The sabbath, the seventh day, is the blessed day of rest in this world, the final day of the week. The “first day of the week,” the day “after Sabbath”; stressed in all of the gospels as the day of Christ’s Resurrection (Mk 16.1, Mt 28.1, Lk 24.1, Jn 20.1, 19), is therefore also “the eighth day,” the day beyond the confines of this world, the day which stands for the life of the world to come, the day of the eternal rest of the Kingdom of God (see Heb 4).


The Sunday after Easter, called the Second Sunday, is thus the eighth day of the paschal celebration, the last day of Bright Week. It is therefore called the Antipascha, and it was only on this day in the early church that the newly-baptized Christians removed their robes and entered once again into the life of this world.

In the Church services the stress is on the Apostle Thomas’ vision of Christ and the significance of the day comes to us in the words of the gospel:

Then He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see My hands; and put out your hand, and place it in My side; do not be faithless, but believing.” Thomas answered Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen Me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (Jn 20.27–29).

We have not seen Christ with our physical eyes nor touched His risen body with our physical hands, yet in the Holy Spirit we have seen and touched and tasted the Word of Life (1 Jn 1.1–4), and so we believe.

At each of the daily services until Ascension Day we sing the Easter Troparion. At each of the Sunday services beginning with Antipascha, we sing the Easter canon and hymns, and repeat the celebration of the “first day of the week” on which Christ rose from the dead. At all of the liturgies the epistle readings are taken from the Book of Acts telling us of the first Christians who lived in communion with the Risen Lord. All of the gospel readings are taken from the Gospel of Saint John, considered by many to be a gospel written particularly for those who are newly-baptized into the new life of the Kingdom of God through death and new birth in Christ, in the name of the Holy Trinity. The reason for this opinion is that all of the “signs”—as the miracles in Saint John’s Gospel are called—deal with sacramental themes involving water: wine and bread. Thus, each of the Sundays after Thomas Sunday with the exception of the third, is dedicated to the memory of one of these “signs.”

The Myrrhbearing Women


The third Sunday after Pascha is dedicated to the myrrhbearing women who cared for the body of the Saviour at his death and who were the first witnesses of His Resurrection. The three troparia of Holy Friday are sung once again and from the theme of the day:

The noble Joseph, when he had taken down Thy most pure body from the Tree, wrapped it in fine linen and anointed it with spices, and placed it in a new tomb.

When Thou didst descend to death, O Life Immortal, Thou didst slay hell with the splendor of Thy Godhead.

The angel came to the myrrhbearing women at the tomb and said: Myrrh is fitting for the dead, but Christ has shown Himself a stranger to corruption! So proclaim: The Lord is risen, granting the world great mercy.


The Paralytic

The fourth Sunday is dedicated to Christ’s healing of the paralytic (Jn 5). The man is healed by Christ while waiting to be put down into the pool of water. Through baptism in the church we, too, are healed and saved by Christ for eternal life. Thus, in the church, we are told, together with the paralytic, “to sin no more that nothing worse befall you” (Jn 5.14).

The Feast of Mid-Pentecost


In the middle of this fourth week, the middle day between Easter and Pentecost is solemnly celebrated. It is called the feast of Mid-Pentecost, at which Christ, “in the middle of the feast” teaches men of his saving mission and offers to all “the waters of immortality” (Jn 7.14). Again we are reminded of the Master’s presence and his saving promise: “If anyone is thirsty let him come to Me and drink” (Jn 7.37). We think also once again of our death and resurrection with Christ in our baptism, and our reception of the Holy Spirit from him in our chrismation. We “look back to one, and anticipate the other” as one of the hymns of the feast puts it. We know that we belong to that kingdom of the Risen Christ where “the Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price” (Rev 22.17; Is 55.1).

In the middle of the feast, O Saviour, fill my thirsting soul with the waters of godliness, as Thou didst cry unto all: If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink! O Christ God, Fountain of life, glory to Thee! (Troparion).

Christ God, the Creator and Master of all, cried to all in the midst of the feast of the law: Come and drink the water of immortality! We fall before Thee and faithfully cry: Grant us Thy bounties, for Thou art the Fountain of our life! (Kontakion).

The Samaritan Woman


The fifth Sunday after Easter deals with the woman of Samaria with whom Christ spoke at Jacob’s Well (Jn 4). Again the theme is the “living water” and the recognition of Jesus as God’s Messiah (Jn 4.10–11; 25–26). We are reminded of our new life in Him, of our own drinking of the “living water,” of our own true worship of God in the Christian messianic age “in Spirit and in Truth” (Jn 4.23–24). We see as well that salvation is offered to all: Jews and Gentiles, men and women, saints and sinners.

The Blind Man

blind man

The sixth Sunday commemorates the healing of the man blind from birth (Jn 9). We are identified with that man who came to see and to believe in Jesus as the Son of God. The Lord has anointed our eyes with his own divine hands and washed them with the waters of our baptism (Jn 9.6–11).

Jesus used clay of spittle and told the man to wash in the waters of Siloam. He did so because it was the Sabbath day on which spitting, clay-making and washing were strictly forbidden. By breaking these ritual laws of the Jews, Jesus showed that He is indeed the Lord of the Sabbath, and, as such, that He is equal to God the Father Who alone, according to Jewish tradition, works on the Sabbath day in running His world.

There is scandal over the healing of the blind man on the Sabbath day. He is separated from the synagogue because of his faith in Christ. The entire Church follows this man in his fate, knowing that it is those who do not see Jesus as the Lord who are really blind and still in their sins (Jn 9.41). The others have the light of life and can see and know the Son of God, for “you have seen Him, and it is He who speaks to you” (Jn 9.37).

I come to Thee, O Christ, blind from birth in my spiritual eyes, and call to Thee in repentance: Thou art the most radiant Light of those in darkness! (Kontakion).


Jesus did not live with His disciples after His resurrection as He had before His death. Filled with the glory of His divinity, He appeared at different times and places to His people, assuring them that it was He, truly alive in His risen and glorified body.

To them He presented Himself alive after His passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the Kingdom of God (Acts 1.3).


It should be noted that the time span of forty days is used many times in the Bible and signifies a temporal period of completeness and sufficiency (Gen 7.17; Ex 16.35, 24.18; Judg 3.11; 1 Sam 17.16; 1 Kg 19.8; Jon 3.4; Mt 4.2).

On the fortieth day after His passover, Jesus ascended into heaven to be glorified on the right hand of God (Acts 1.9–11; Mk 16.19; Lk 24.51). The ascension of Christ is His final physical departure from this world after the resurrection. It is the formal completion of His mission in this world as the Messianic Saviour. It is His glorious return to the Father Who had sent Him into the world to accomplish the work that He had given him to do (Jn 17.4–5).

. . . and lifting His hands He blessed them. While blessing them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy (Lk 24.51–52).

The Church’s celebration of the ascension, as all such festal celebrations, is not merely the remembrance of an event in Christ’s life. Indeed, the ascension itself is not to be understood as though it were simply the supernatural event of a man floating up and away into the skies. The holy scripture stresses Christ’s physical departure and His glorification with God the Father, together with the great joy which His disciples had as they received the promise of the Holy Spirit Who was to come to assure the Lord’s presence with them, enabling them to be His witnesses to the ends of earth (Lk 24.48–53; Acts 1.8–11; Mt 28.20; Mk 16.16–14).

In the Church the believers in Christ celebrate these very same realities with the conviction that it is for them and for all men that Christ’s departure from this world has taken place. The Lord leaves in order to be glorified with God the Father and to glorify us with himself. He goes in order to “prepare a place” for and to take us also into the blessedness of God’s presence. He goes to open the way for all flesh into the “heavenly sanctuary . . . the Holy Place not made by hands” (see Hebrews 8–10). He goes in order send the Holy Spirit, Who proceeds from the Father to bear witness to Him and His gospel in the world, making Him powerfully present in the lives of disciples.

The liturgical hymns of the feast of the Ascension sing of all of these things. The antiphonal verses of the Divine Liturgy are taken from Psalms 47, 48, and 49. The troparion of the feast which is sung at the small entrance is also used as the post-communion hymn.

Thou hast ascended in glory O Christ our God, granting joy to Thy disciples by the promise of the Holy Spirit. Through the blessing they were assured that Thou art the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world! (Troparion).

When Thou didst fulfill the dispensation for our sake, and didst unite earth to heaven, Thou didst ascend in glory, O Christ our God, not being parted from those who love Thee, but remaining with them and crying: I am with you and no one will be against you! (Kontakion).

Pentecost: The Descent of the Holy Spirit

In the Old Testament Pentecost was the feast which occurred fifty days after Passover. As the passover feast celebrated the exodus of the Israelites from the slavery of Egypt, so Pentecost celebrated God’s gift of the ten commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai.

In the new covenant of the Messiah, the passover event takes on its new meaning as the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection, the “exodus” of men from this sinful world to the Kingdom of God. And in the New Testament as well, the pentecostal feast is fulfilled and made new by the coming of the “new law,” the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples of Christ.

When the day of Pentecost had come they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed as resting upon each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit . . . (Acts 2.1–4).

The Holy Spirit that Christ had promised to his disciples came on the day of Pentecost (Jn 14.26, 15.26; Lk 24.49; Acts 1.5). The apostles received “the power from on high,” and they began to preach and bear witness to Jesus as the risen Christ, the King and the Lord. This moment has traditionally been called the birthday of the Church.

In the liturgical services of the feast of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit is celebrated together with the full revelation of the divine Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The fullness of the Godhead is manifested with the Spirit’s coming to man, and the Church hymns celebrate this manifestation as the final act of God’s self-disclosure and self-donation to the world of His creation. For this reason Pentecost Sunday is also called Trinity Day in the Orthodox tradition. Often on this day the icon of the Holy Trinity—particularly that of the three angelic figures who appeared to Abraham, the forefather of the Christian faith—is placed in the center of the church. This icon is used with the traditional pentecostal icon which shows the tongues of fire hovering over Mary and the Twelve Apostles, the original prototype of the Church, who are themselves sitting in unity surrounding a symbolic image of “cosmos,” the world.

On Pentecost we have the final fulfillment of the mission of Jesus Christ and the first beginning of the messianic age of the Kingdom of God mystically present in this world in the Church of the Messiah. For this reason the fiftieth day stands as the beginning of the era which is beyond the limitations of this world, fifty being that number which stands for eternal and heavenly fulfillment in Jewish and Christian mystical piety: seven times seven, plus one.

Thus, Pentecost is called an apocalyptic day, which means the day of final revelation. It is also called an eschatological day, which means the day of the final and perfect end (in Greek eschaton means the end). For when the Messiah comes and the Lord’s Day is at hand, the “last days” are inaugurated in which “God declares: . . . I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”; This is the ancient prophecy to which the Apostle Peter refers in the first sermon of the Christian Church which was preached on the first Sunday of Pentecost (Acts 2: 1 7; Joel 2: 28–32).

Once again it must be noted that the feast of Pentecost is not simply the celebration of an event which took place centuries ago. It is the celebration of what must happen and does happen to us in the Church today. We all have died and risen with the Messiah-King, and we all have received his Most Holy Spirit. We are the “temples of the Holy Spirit.” God’s Spirit dwells in us (Rom 8; 1 Cor 2–3, 12; 2 Cor 3; Gal 5; Eph 2–3). We, by our own membership in the Church, have received “the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit” in the sacrament of chrismation. Pentecost has happened to us.

The Divine Liturgy of Pentecost recalls our baptism into Christ with the verse from Galatians again replacing the Thrice-Holy Hymn. Special verses from the psalms also replace the usual antiphonal psalms of the liturgy. The epistle and gospel readings tell of the Spirit’s coming to men. The kontakion sings of the reversal of Babel as God unites the nations into the unity of his Spirit. The troparion proclaims the gathering of the whole universe into God’s net through the work of the inspired apostles. The hymns “O Heavenly King” and “We have seen the True Light” are sung for the first time since Easter, calling the Holy Spirit to “come and abide in us,” and proclaiming that “we have received the heavenly Spirit.” The church building is decorated with flowers and the green leaves of the summer to show that God’s divine Breath comes to renew all creation as the “life-creating Spirit.” In Hebrew the word for Spirit, breath and wind is the same word, ruah.

Blessed art Thou, O Christ our God, who hast revealed the fishermen as most wise by sending down upon them the Holy Spirit: through them Thou didst draw the world into Thy net. O Lover of Man, Glory to Thee (Troparion).

When the Most High came down and confused the tongues, he divided the nations. But when he distributed the tongues of fire, he called all to unity. Therefore, with one voice, we glorify the All-Holy Spirit! (Kontakion).

The Great Vespers of Pentecost evening features three long prayers at which the faithful kneel for the first time since Easter. The Monday after Pentecost is the feast of the Holy Spirit in the Orthodox Church, and the Sunday after Pentecost is the feast of All Saints. This is the logical liturgical sequence since the coming of the Holy Spirit is fulfilled in men by their becoming saints, and this is the very purpose of the creation and salvation of the world. “Thus says the Lord: Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I your God am holy” (Lev 11.44–45, 1 Pet 1.15–16).

Nativity of Christ


The celebration of the feast of the Nativity of Christ in the Orthodox Church is patterned after the celebration of the feast of the Lord’s Resurrection. A fast of forty days precedes the feast, with special preparatory days announcing the approaching birth of the Saviour. Thus, on Saint Andrew’s Day (November 30) and Saint Nicholas Day (December 6) songs are sung to announce the coming birthday of the Lord:

Adorn yourself, O Cavern. Make ready, O Manger. O Shepherds and wisemen, bring your gifts and bear witness. For the Virgin is coming bearing Christ in her womb (Vesperal Hymn of Saint Nicholas Day).

On the eve of Christmas, the Royal Hours are read and the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil is served with Vespers. At these services the Old Testament prophecies of Christ’s birth are chanted, emphasizing the prophecy of Micah which foretells Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Saviour, and the prophecies of Isaiah about the appearance and character of the Messiah:

The Lord Himself will give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel, which translated is, God with us (Is 7.14–15).

God is with us, understand all ye nations, and submit yourselves, for God is with us (Is 8.9).

For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulders, and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end (Is 9.6–7).

The Vigil of Christmas begins with Great Compline, highlighted once again by the solemn chanting of God is with us and the words of the prophecy of Isaiah. At Compline there is also the singing of the Troparion and Kontakion of the feast along with the special hymns glorifying the Saviour’s birth. There are also the special long litanies of intercession and the solemn blessing of the five loaves of bread together with the wheat and the wine of which the faithful partake and the oil with which they are anointed. This part of the festal vigil, which is done on all great feasts, is called the litya (in Greek, the artoklasia or the breaking of the bread).

At the beginning of the Christmas Matins, which together with Compline form the Christmas Vigil, the six matinal psalms begin as usual with the words: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will among men” (Lk 2.14).

At the Christmas services these words of the angelic song are normally sung with great solemnity rather than being chanted as at the daily service. The Christmas Matins proceed as usual. The gospel reading from Matthew (1.18–25) tells of the birth of Christ, and all of the hymns and verses glorify His appearance on earth:

Christ is born, glorify Him. Christ is from heaven, go to meet Him. Christ is on earth, be ye lifted up. Sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing out with gladness, all ye people. For He is glorified (First Ode of the Christmas Canon).

The Christmas Liturgy begins with psalms of glorification and praise. The troparion and kontakion mark the entrance with the Book of the Gospels. The baptismal line from Galatians 3.27 once again replaces the Thrice-Holy. The Epistle reading is from Galatians:

But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So through God, you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir (Gal 4.4–7).

The Gospel reading is the familiar Christmas story from Matthew (2.1–12), and the liturgy continues in the normal fashion. A specific two-day celebration follows, dedicated to Mary the Theotokos and Saint Stephen, the First Martyr. The period of Christmas rejoicing extends to Epiphany during which time the Christmas songs are sung and fasting and kneeling in prayer are not called for by the Church.

The feast of Christmas is formally entitled the Nativity in the Flesh of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ. At Christmas we celebrate the birth as a man of the Son of God, the one who together with the Father and the Holy Spirit is truly God from all eternity. Thus, we sing in the Church.

Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One, and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One! Angels, with shepherds, glorify Him! The wise men journey with the star! Since for our sake the Eternal God is born as a little child (Kontakion).

The feast of Christmas was not a separate Church feast for the first four centuries of Christian history. It was celebrated with Epiphany in the one great feast of God’s appearance on earth in the form of the human Messiah of Israel. The Nativity began to be celebrated as such on the twenty-fifth of December in order to offset the pagan festival of the Invincible Sun which occurred on that day. It was established by the Church quite consciously as an attempt to defeat the false religion of the heathens. Thus, we discover the troparion of the feast making a polemic against the worship of the sun and the stars and calling for the adoration of Christ, the True Sun of Righteousness (Mal 4.2), who is Himself worshiped by all of the elements of nature.

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, has shone to the world the light of wisdom! For by it, those who worshiped the stars were taught by a star to adore Thee, the Sun of Righteousness and to know Thee, the Orient from on high [Lk 1.78, translated as Dawn or Day spring]. O Lord, glory to Thee! (Troparion).

Thus, the feast of Christmas is the celebration of the world’s salvation through the Son of God who became man for our sake that, through him, we might ourselves become divine, sons of God the Father by the indwelling of his Holy Spirit in us.


Circumcision of Christ

The sixth of January is the feast of the Epiphany. Originally it was the one Christian feast of the “shining forth” of God to the world in the human form of Jesus of Nazareth. It included the celebration of Christ’s birth, the adoration of the Wisemen, and all of the childhood events of Christ such as His circumcision and presentation to the temple as well as His baptism by John in the Jordan. There seems to be little doubt that this feast, like Easter and Pentecost, was understood as the fulfillment of a previous Jewish festival, in this case the Feast of Lights.

Epiphany means shining forth or manifestation. The feast is often called, as it is in the Orthodox service books, Theophany, which means the shining forth and manifestation of God. The emphasis in the present day celebration is on the appearance of Jesus as the human Messiah of Israel and the divine Son of God, One of the Holy Trinity with the Father and the Holy Spirit.


Thus, in the baptism by John in the Jordan, Jesus identifies Himself with sinners as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1.29), the “Beloved” of the Father whose messianic task it is to redeem men from their sins (Lk 3.21, Mk 1.35). And he is revealed as well as One of the Divine Trinity, testified to by the voice of the Father, and by the Spirit in the form of a dove. This is the central epiphany glorified in the main hymns of the feast:

When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan the worship of the Trinity was made manifest! For the voice of the Father bare witness to Thee, calling Thee his Beloved Son. And the Spirit, in the form of a dove, confirmed the truthfulness of his Word. O Christ our God, who hast revealed Thyself and hast enlightened the world, glory to Thee (Troparion).

Today Thou hast appeared to the universe, and Thy Light, O Lord, has shone on us, who with understanding praise Thee: Thou hast come and revealed Thyself, O Light Unapproachable! (Kontakion).

The services of Epiphany are set up exactly as those of Christmas, although historically it was most certainly Christmas which was made to imitate Epiphany since it was established later. Once again the Royal Hours and the Liturgy of Saint Basil are celebrated together with Vespers on the eve of the feast; and the Vigil is made up of Great Compline and Matins.

The prophecies of Epiphany repeat the God is with us from Isaiah and stress the foretelling of the Messiah as well as the coming of His forerunner, John the Baptist:

The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make His path straight. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God (Is 40.3–5; Lk 3.4–6).

Once more special psalms are sung to begin the Divine Liturgy of the feast, and the baptismal line of Galatians 3.27 replaces the song of the Thrice-Holy. The gospel readings of all the Epiphany services tell of the Lord’s baptism by John in the Jordan River. The epistle reading of the Divine Liturgy tells of the consequences of the Lord’s appearing which is the divine epiphany.

For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright and godly lives in this world, awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds (Titus 2.11–14).

The main feature of the feast of the Epiphany is the Great Blessing of Water. It is prescribed to follow both the Divine Liturgy of the eve of the feast and the Divine Liturgy of the day itself. Usually it is done just once in parish churches at the time when most people can be present. It begins with the singing of special hymns and the censing of the water which has been placed in the center of the church building. Surrounded by candles and flowers, this water stands for the beautiful world of God’s original creation and ultimate glorification by Christ in the Kingdom of God. Sometimes this service of blessing is done out of doors at a place where the water is flowing naturally.

The voice of the Lord cries over the waters, saying: Come all ye, receive the Spirit of wisdom, the Spirit of understanding, the Spirit of the fear of God, even Christ who is made manifest.

Today the nature of water is sanctified. Jordan is divided in two, and turns back the stream of its waters, beholding the Master being baptized.

As a man Thou didst come to that river, O Christ our King, and dost hasten O Good One, to receive the baptism of a servant at the hands of the Forerunner [John], because of our sins, O Lover of Man (Hymns of the Great Blessing of Waters).

Following are three readings from the Prophecy of Isaiah concerning the messianic age:

Let the thirsty wilderness be glad, let the desert rejoice, let it blossom as a rose, let it blossom abundantly, let everything rejoice . . . (Is 35.1–10).

Go to that water, O you who thirst, and as many as have no money, let them eat and drink without price, both wine and fat . . . (Is 55.1–13).

With joy draw the water out of the wells of salvation. And in that day shall you say: Confess ye unto the Lord and call upon his Name; declare his glorious deeds . . . his Name is exalted . . . Hymn the Name of the Lord . . . Rejoice and exult . . . (Is 12.3.6).

After the epistle (1 Cor 1.10–14) and the gospel reading (Mk 1.9–11) the special great litany is chanted invoking the grace of the Holy Spirit upon the water and upon those who will partake of it. It ends with the great prayer of the cosmic glorification of God in which Christ is called upon to sanctify the water, and all men and all creation, by the manifestation of his saving and sanctifying divine presence by the indwelling of the Holy and Good and Life-creating Spirit.

As the troparion of the feast is sung, the celebrant immerses the Cross into the water three times and then proceeds to sprinkle the water in the four directions of the world. He then blesses the people and their homes with the sanctified water which stands for the salvation of all men and all creation which Christ has effected by his “epiphany” in the flesh for the life of the world.

Sometimes people think that the blessing of water and the practice of drinking it and sprinkling it over everyone and everything is a “paganism” which has falsely entered the Christian Church. We know, however, that this ritual was practiced by the People of God in the Old Testament, and that in the Christian Church it has a very special and important significance.

It is the faith of Christians that since the Son of God has taken human flesh and has been immersed in the streams of the Jordan, all matter is sanctified and made pure in Him, purged of its death-dealing qualities inherited from the devil and the wickedness of men. In the Lord’s epiphany all creation becomes good again, indeed “very good,” the way that God Himself made it and proclaimed it to be in the beginning when “the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” (Gen 1.2) and when the “Breath of Life” was breathing in man and in everything that God made (Gen 1.30; 2.7).

The world and everything in it is indeed “very good” (Gen 1.31) and when it becomes polluted, corrupted and dead, God saves it once more by effecting the “new creation” in Christ, his divine Son and our Lord by the grace of the Holy Spirit (Gal 6.15). This is what is celebrated on Epiphany, particularly in the Great Blessing of Water. The consecration of the waters on this feast places the entire world—through its “prime element” of watering the perspective of the cosmic creation, sanctification, and glorification of the Kingdom of God in Christ arid the Spirit. It tells us that man and the world were indeed created and saved in order to be “filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3.19), the “fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1.22). It tells us that Christ, in Who in “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,” is and shall be truly “all, and in all” (Col 2.9, 3.11). It tells us as well that the “new heavens and the new earth” which God has promised through His prophets and apostles (Is 66.2; 2 Peter 3.13; Rev 21.1) are truly “with us” already now in the mystery of Christ and His Church.

Thus, the sanctification and sprinkling of the Epiphany water is no pagan ritual. It is the expression of the most central fact of the Christian vision of man, his life and his world. It is the liturgical testimony that the vocation and destiny of creation is to be “filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3.19).

Meeting of the Lord

Meeting Lord

Forty days after Christ was born He was presented to God in the Jerusalem Temple according to the Mosaic Law. At this time as well His mother Mary underwent the ritual purification and offered the sacrifices as prescribed in the Law. Thus, forty days after Christmas, on the second of February, the Church celebrates the feast of the presentation called the Meeting (or Presentation or Reception) of the Lord.

The meeting of Christ by the elder Simeon and the prophetess Anna (Lk 2.22–36) is the main event of the feast of Christ’s presentation in the Temple. It was “revealed to Simeon by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Lk 2.26) and, inspired by the same Spirit, he came to the Temple where he met the new-born Messiah, took Him in his arms and said the words which are now chanted each evening at the end of the Orthodox Vespers service:

Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation which Thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for the revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Thy people Israel (Lk 2.29–32).

At this time as well Simeon predicted that Jesus would be the “sign which is spoken against” and that He would cause “the fall and the rising of many in Israel.” He also foretold Mary’s sufferings because of her son (Luke 22.34–35). Anna also was present and, giving thanks to God “she spoke of Jesus to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk 2.38).

In the service of the feast of the Meeting of the Lord, the fact emphasized is that Christ, the Son and Word of God through Whom the world was created, now is held as an infant in Simeon’s hands; this same Son of God, the Giver of the Law, now Himself fulfills the Law, carried in arms as a human child.

Receive him, O Simeon, whom Moses on Mount Sinai beheld in the darkness as the Giver of the Law. Receive him as a babe now obeying the Law. For he it is of whom the Law and the Prophets have spoken, incarnate for our sake and saving mankind. Come let us adore him!

Let the door of heaven open today, for the Eternal Word of the Father, without giving up his divinity, has been incarnate of the Virgin in time. And as a babe of forty days he is voluntarily brought by his mother to the Temple, according to the Law. And the elder Simeon takes him in his arms and cries out: Lord now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, O Lord, who has come to save the human race—glory to Thee! (Vespers Verses of the Feast).

The Vespers and Matins of the feast of the Meeting of the Lord are filled with hymns on this theme. The Divine Liturgy is celebrated with the lines from the canticle of Mary forming the prokeimenon and the words of Simeon being the verses for the Alleluia. The gospel readings tell of the meeting, while the Old Testament readings at Vespers refer to the Law of the purification in Leviticus, the vision of Isaiah in the Temple of the Thrice-Holy Lord, and the gift of faith to the Egyptians prophesied by Isaiah when the light of the Lord shall be a “revelation to the Gentiles” (Lk 2.32).

The celebration of the Meeting of the Lord in the church is not merely a historical commemoration. Inspired by the same Holy Spirit as Simeon, and led by the same Spirit into the Church of the Messiah, the members of the Church also can claim their own “meeting” with the Lord, and so also can witness that they too can “depart in peace” since their eyes have seen the salvation of God in the person of his Christ.

Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos, Full of Grace! From you shone the Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God, enlightening those who sat in darkness! Rejoice and be glad, O righteous elder; you accepted in your arms the Redeemer of our souls who grants us the resurrection (Troparion).

By Thy nativity, Thou didst sanctify the Virgin’s womb. And didst bless Simeon’s hands, O Christ our God. Now Thou hast come and saved us through love. Grant peace to all Orthodox Christians, O only Lover of man (Kontakion).

It is customary in many churches to bless candles on the feast of the Meeting of the Lord.




The transfiguration of Christ is one of the central events recorded in the gospels. Immediately after the Lord was recognized by His apostles as “the Christ [Messiah], the Son of the Living God,” He told them that “He must go up to Jerusalem and suffer many things . . . and be killed and on the third day be raised” (Mt 16). The announcement of Christ’s approaching passion and death was met with indignation by the disciples. And then, after rebuking them, the Lord took Peter, James, and John “up to a high mountain”—by tradition Mount Tabor—and was “transfigured before them.”

. . . and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became white as snow and behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with Him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish I will make three booths here, one for You and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is My Beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces with awe. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead” (Mt 17.1–92, see also Mk 9.1–9; Lk 9.28–36; 2 Pet 1.16–18).

The Jewish Festival of Booths was a feast of the dwelling of God with men, and the transfiguration of Christ reveals how this dwelling takes place in and through the Messiah, the Son of God in human flesh. There is little doubt that Christ’s transfiguration took place at the time of the Festival of Booths, and that the celebration of the event in the Christian Church became the New Testamental fulfillment of the Old Testamental feast in a way similar to the feasts of Passover and Pentecost.

In the Transfiguration, the apostles see the glory of the Kingdom of God present in majesty in the person of Christ they see that “in Him, indeed, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” that “in Him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 1.19, 2.9). They see this before the crucifixion so that in the resurrection they might know Who it is Who has suffered for them, and what it is that this one, Who is God, has prepared for those who love Him. This is what the Church celebrates in the feast of the Transfiguration.

Thou wast transfigured on the mount. O Christ God, revealing Thy glory to Thy disciples as they could bear it. Let Thine everlasting light shine upon us sinners. Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Giver of Light, glory to Thee (Troparion).

On the mountain wast Thou transfigured, O Christ God, and Thy disciples beheld Thy glory as far as they could see it; so that when they would behold Thee crucified, they would understand that Thy suffering was voluntary, and would proclaim to the world that Thou art truly the Radiance of the Father (Kontakion).

Besides the fundamental meaning which the event of the Transfiguration has in the context of the life and mission of Christ, and in addition to the theme of the glory of God which is revealed in all of its divine splendor in the face of the Saviour, the presence of Moses and Elijah is also of great significance for the understanding and celebration of the feast. Many of the hymns refer to these two leading figures of the Old Covenant as do the three scripture readings of Vespers which tell of the manifestation of the glory of God to these holy men of old (Ex 24.12–18; 33.11–34.8; 1 Kg 19.3–16).

Moses and Elijah, according to the liturgical verses, are not only the greatest figures of the Old Testament who now come to worship the Son of God in glory, they also are not merely two of the holy men to whom God has revealed himself in the prefigurative theophanies of the Old Covenant of Israel. These two figures actually stand for the Old Testament itself: Moses for the Law and Elijah for the Prophets. And Christ is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets (Mt 5.17).

They also stand for the living and dead, for Moses died and his burial place is known, while Elijah was taken alive into heaven in order to appear again to announce the time of God’s salvation in Christ the Messiah.

Thus, in appearing with Jesus on the mount of Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah show that the Messiah Saviour is here, and that He is the Son of God to Whom the Father Himself bears witness, the Lord of all creation, of the Old and New Testaments, of the living and the dead. The Transfiguration of Christ in itself is the fulfillment of all of the theophanies and manifestations of God, a fulfillment made perfect and complete in the person of Christ. The Transfiguration of Christ reveals to us our ultimate destiny as Christians, the ultimate destiny of all men and all creation to be transformed and glorified by the majestic splendor of God Himself.

There is little doubt that the feast of the Transfiguration of Christ belonged first to the pre-Easter season of the Church. It was perhaps celebrated on one of the Sundays of Lent, for besides certain historical evidence and the fact that today St Gregory Palamas, the great teacher of the Transfiguration of Christ, is commemorated during Lent, the event itself is one which is definitely connected with the approaching death and resurrection of the Saviour.

. . . for when they would behold Thee crucified, they would understand that Thy suffering was voluntary (Kontakion).

The feast of the Transfiguration is presently celebrated on the sixth of August, probably for some historical reason. The summer celebration of the feast, however, has lent itself very well to the theme of transfiguration. The blessing of grapes, as well as other fruits and vegetables on this day is the most beautiful and adequate sign of the final ­transfiguration of all things in Christ. It signifies the ultimate flowering and fruitfulness of all creation in the paradise of God’s unending Kingdom of Life where all will he transformed by the glory of the Lord.


The feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary comes nine months before Christmas on the twenty-fifth of March. It is the celebration of the announcing of the birth of Christ to the Virgin Mary as recorded in the Gospel of Saint Luke.


In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of His kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no husband?” And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the Child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her (Lk 1.26–38).

The services of the feast of the Annunciation, the Matins and the Divine Liturgy, stress again and again the joyous news of the salvation of men in the birth of the Saviour.

Today is the beginning of our salvation, the revelation of the eternal mystery. The Son of God becomes the Son of the virgin, as Gabriel announces the coming of Grace. Together with him let us cry to the Theotokos: Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with you (Troparion).

A special feature of this feast is the Matinal Canon which has the character of a dialogue between the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. Also among the more popular elements of the feast is the Magnification which has the form of our own salutation to the virgin mother with the words of the archangel:

With the voice of the archangel we cry to Thee, O Pure One: Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee! (Magnification).

The celebration of the Annunciation, therefore, is the feast of our own reception of the glad tidings of salvation, and our own glorification of the maiden Mary who becomes the Mother of God in the flesh.

Because the feast of the Annunciation normally comes during the season of Great Lent, the manner of celebration varies from year to year depending upon the particular day on which it falls. If the feast comes on a weekday of Lent, which is the most common case, the Divine Liturgy of the feast is served in the evening with Vespers and thus is celebrated after a full day of total abstinence. When this ­happens, the fasting rules for the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts are followed. The Divine Liturgy of the Annunciation is the only celebration of the eucharistic liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom allowed on a weekday of Great Lent.

Nativity of the Theotokos


In addition to the celebration of the Annunciation, there are three major feasts in the Church honoring Mary, the Theotokos. The first of these is the feast of her nativity which is kept on the eighth of September.

The record of the birth of Mary is not found in the Bible. The traditional account of the event is taken from the apocryphal writings which are not part of the New Testament scriptures. The traditional teaching which is celebrated in the hymns and verses of the festal liturgy is that Joachim and Anna were a pious Jewish couple who were among the small and faithful remnant—“the poor and the needy”—who were awaiting the promised messiah. The couple was old and childless. They prayed earnestly to the Lord for a child, since among the Jews barrenness was a sign of God’s disfavor. In answer to their prayers, and as the reward of their unwavering fidelity to God, the elderly couple was blessed with the child who was destined, because of her own personal goodness and holiness, to become the Mother of the Messiah-Christ.

Your nativity, O Virgin, has proclaimed joy to the whole universe. The Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God, has shone from you, O Theotokos. By annulling the curse he bestowed a blessing. By destroying death he has granted us eternal life (Troparion).

By your nativity, O most pure virgin, Joachim and Anna are freed from barrenness; Adam and Eve from the corruption of death. And we, your people, freed from the guilt of sin, celebrate and sing to you: The barren woman gives birth to the Theotokos, the Nourisher of our Life (Kontakion).

The fact that there is no Biblical verification of the facts of Mary’s birth is incidental to the meaning of the feast. Even if the actual background of the event as celebrated in the Church is questionable from an historical point of view, the divine meaning of it “for us men and for our salvation” is obvious. There had to be one born of human flesh and blood who would be spiritually capable of being the Mother of Christ, and she herself had to be born into the world of persons who were spiritually capable of being her parents.

The feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, therefore, is a glorification of Mary’s birth, of Mary herself and of her righteous parents. It is a celebration as well of the very first preparation of the salvation of the world. For the “Vessel of Light,” the “Book of the Word of Life,” the “Door to the Orient,” the “Throne of Wisdom” is being prepared on earth by God Himself in the birth of the holy girl-child Mary.

The verses of the feast are filled with titles for Mary such as those in the quotations above. They are inspired by the message of the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments. The specific Biblical readings of the feast give indications of this.

At Vespers the three Old Testamental readings are “mariological” in their New Testamental interpretation. Thus, Jacob’s Ladder which unites heaven and earth and the place which is named “the house of God” and the “gate of heaven” (Gen 28.10–17) are taken, to indicate the union of God with men which is realized most fully and perfectly—both spiritually and physically—in Mary the Theotokos, Bearer of God. So also the vision of the temple with the “door ‘to the East’” perpetually closed and filled with the “glory of the Lord” symbolizes Mary, called in the hymns of the feast “the living temple of God filled with the divine Glory” (Ezek 43.27–44.4). Mary is also identified with the “house” which the Divine Wisdom has built for himself according to the reading from Proverbs 9.1–11.

The Gospel reading of Matins is the one read at all feasts of the Theotokos, the famous Magnificat from Saint Luke in which Mary says: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden, for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Lk 1.47).

The epistle reading of the Divine Liturgy is the famous passage about the coming of the Son of God in “the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of man” (Phil 2.5–11) and the gospel reading is that which is always read for feasts of the Theotokos—the woman in the crowd glorifies the Mother of Jesus, and the Lord himself responds that the same blessedness which his mother receives is for all “who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk 11.27–28).

Thus, on the feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, as on all liturgical celebrations of Christ’s Mother, we proclaim and celebrate that through God’s graciousness to mankind every Christian receives what the Theotokos receives, the “great mercy” which is given to human persons because of Christ’s birth from the Virgin.

Entrance of the Theotokos to the Temple


The second great feast of the Theotokos is the celebration of her entrance as a child into the Jerusalem Temple which is commemorated on the twenty-first of November. Like the feast of her nativity, this feast of Mary is without direct biblical and historical reference. But like the nativity, it is a feast filled with important spiritual significance for the Christian believer.

The texts of the service tells how Mary was brought as a small child to the temple by her parents in order to be raised there among the virgins consecrated to the service of the Lord until the time of their betrothal in marriage. According to Church tradition, Mary was solemnly received by the temple community which was headed by the priest Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist. She was led to the holy place to be “nourished” there by the angels in order to become herself the “holy of holies” of God, the living sanctuary and temple of the Divine child who was to be born in her.

There is no doubt that the verses of the Old Testamental Psalm 45, used extensively in the services of the feast, provided a great inspiration for the celebration of Mary’s consecration to the service of God in the Jerusalem Temple.

Hear, O Daughter, and consider and incline your ear; forget your people and your father’s house, and the king will desire your beauty. Since he is your Lord, bow to him . . .

The princess is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes, in many-colored robes she is led to her king, with her virgin companions, her escort, in her train.

With joy and gladness they are led along, as they enter the palace of the king.

Instead of your fathers shall be your sons; you will make them princes in all the earth. I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations, therefore, the peoples will praise you forever and ever (Ps 45.10–17).

The Orthodox Church understands these words of the psalm to be a prophecy directly related to Mary the Theotokos. According to the Gospel of Saint Luke which is read at the Vigil of each of her feasts, Mary herself speaks the following words:

My soul magnifies the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for He has regarded the low estate of His handmaiden. For behold, hence-forth all generations shall call me blessed; for He who is mighty has done great things for me and holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation (Lk 1.47–50).

The main theme of the feast of Mary’s entrance to the Temple, repeated many times in the liturgical services, is the fact that she enters the Temple to become herself the living temple of God, thus inaugurating the New Testament in which are fulfilled the prophecies of old that “the dwelling of God is with man” and that the human person is the sole proper dwelling place of the Divine Presence (Ezek 37.27; Jn 14.15–23; Acts 7.47; 2 Cor 6.11; Eph 2.18–22; 1 Pet 2.4; Rev 22.1–4).

Today is the preview of the good will of God, of the preaching of the salvation of mankind. The Virgin appears in the temple of God, in anticipation proclaiming Christ to all. Let us rejoice and sing to her: Rejoice, O Divine Fulfillment of the Creator’s dispensation (Troparion).

The most pure Temple of the Saviour, the precious Chamber and ­Virgin, the Sacred Treasure of the Glory of God, is presented today to the house of the Lord. She brings with her the grace of the Spirit, which the angels of God do praise. Truly this woman is the Abode of Heaven! (Kontakion).

The fortieth chapter of Exodus about the building of the tabernacle is read at Vespers, together with passages from the First Book of Kings and the Prophecy of Ezekiel. Each one of these readings all end with exactly the same line, “for the glory of the Lord filled the house [tabernacle] of the Lord God Almighty” (Ex 40.35; 1 Kg 8.11; Ezek 44.4).

Once again on this feast, the Old Testament readings are interpreted as symbols of the Mother of God. This “glory of the Lord” is referred to the Mother of Christ and it “fills” her and all people after her who “hear the word of God and keep it” as the Gospel of the festal liturgy proclaims (Lk 11.37–28). The epistle reading at the Divine Liturgy also proclaims this very same theme (Heb 9.1–7).

Thus, the feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple is the feast which celebrates the end of the physical temple in Jerusalem as the dwelling place of God. When the child Mary enters the temple, the time of the temple comes to an end and the “preview of the good will of God” is shown forth. On this feast we celebrate—in the person of Christ’s mother—that we too are the house and tabernacle of the Lord.

. . . We are the temple of the living God, as God said, “I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (2 Cor 6.16; Is 52.11).

Dormition of the Theotokos


The feast of the Dormition or Falling-asleep of the Theotokos is celebrated on the fifteenth of August, preceded by a two-week fast. This feast, which is also sometimes called the Assumption, commemorates the death, resurrection and glorification of Christ’s mother. It proclaims that Mary has been “assumed” by God into the heavenly kingdom of Christ in the fullness of her spiritual and bodily existence.

As with the nativity of the Virgin and the feast of her entrance to the temple, there are no biblical or historical sources for this feast. The Tradition of the Church is that Mary died as all people die, not “voluntarily” as her Son, but by the necessity of her mortal human nature which is indivisibly bound up with the corruption of this world.

The Orthodox Church teaches that Mary is without personal sins. In the Gospel of the feast, however, in the liturgical services and in the Dormition icon, the Church proclaims as well that Mary truly needed to be saved by Christ as all human persons are saved from the trials, sufferings and death of this world; and that having truly died, she was raised up by her Son as the Mother of Life and participates already in the eternal life of paradise which is prepared and promised to all who “hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk11.27–28).

In giving birth, you preserved your virginity. In falling asleep you did not forsake the world, O Theotokos. You were translated to life, O Mother of Life, and by your prayers, you deliver our souls from death (Troparion).

Neither the tomb, nor death, could hold the Theotokos, who is constant in prayer and our firm hope in her intercessions. For being the Mother of Life, she was translated to life, by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb (Kontakion).

The services of the feast repeat the main theme, that the Mother of Life has “passed over into the heavenly joy, into the divine gladness and unending delight” of the Kingdom of her Son (Vesperal hymn). The Old Testament readings, as well as the gospel readings for the Vigil and the Divine Liturgy, are exactly the same as those for the feast of the Virgin’s nativity and her entrance into the Temple. Thus, at the Vigil we again hear Mary say: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my Saviour” (Lk 1.47). At the Divine Liturgy we hear the letter to the Philippians where Saint Paul speaks of the self-emptying of Christ who condescends to human servitude and ignoble death in order to be “highly exalted by God his Father” (Phil 2.5–11). And once again we hear in the Gospel that Mary’s blessedness belongs to all who “hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk 11.27–28).

Thus, the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos is the celebration of the fact that all men are “highly exalted” in the blessedness of the victorious Christ, and that this high exaltation has already been accomplished in Mary the Theotokos. The feast of the Dormition is the sign, the guarantee, and the celebration that Mary’s fate is, the destiny of all those of “low estate” whose souls magnify the Lord, whose spirits rejoice in God the Saviour, whose lives are totally dedicated to hearing and keeping the Word of God which is given to men in Mary’s child, the Saviour and Redeemer of the world.

Finally it must be stressed that, in all of the feasts of the Virgin Mother of God in the Church, the Orthodox Christians celebrate facts of their own lives in Christ and the Holy Spirit. What happens to Mary happens to all who imitate her holy life of humility, obedience, and love. With her all people will be “blessed” to be “more honorable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim” if they follow her example. All will have Christ born in them by the Holy Spirit. All will become temples of the living God. All will share in the eternal life of His Kingdom who live the life that Mary lived.

In this sense everything that is praised and glorified in Mary is a sign of what is offered to all persons in the life of the Church. It is for this reason that Mary, with the divine child Jesus within her, is called in the Orthodox Tradition the Image of the Church. For the assembly of the saved is those in whom Christ dwells.

It is the custom in some churches to bless flowers on the feast of the Dormition of the Holy Theotokos.

Elevation of the Cross

The Elevation of the Cross, celebrated on the fourteenth of September, commemorates the finding of Christ’s Cross by Saint Helen, the mother of the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century; and, after it was taken by the Persians, of its recovery by the Emperor Heraclius in the seventh century at which time it was “elevated” in the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem. From this latter event the “universal elevation” of the Cross was celebrated annually in all of the churches of the Christian Empire.


The day of the Elevation of the Cross became, as it were, the national holiday of the Eastern Christian Empire similar to the Fourth of July in the United States. The Cross, the official emblem of the Empire which was placed on all public buildings and uniforms, was officially elevated on this day by the bishops and priests. They blessed the four directions of the universe with the Cross, while the faithful repeated the chanting of “Lord have mercy.” This ritual is still done in the churches today after the solemn presentation and elevation of the Cross at the end of the Vigil service of the holy day following the Great Doxology of Matins.

The troparion of the feast which was, one might say, the “national anthem” sung on all public occasions in the Christian Empires of Byzantium and Russia, originally petitioned God to save the people, to grant victory in war and to preserve the empire “by the virtue of the Cross.” Today the troparion, and all the hymns of the day, are “spiritualized” as the “adversaries” become the spiritually wicked and sinful including the devil and his armies, and “Orthodox Christians” replace the names of ruling officials of the Empire.

O Lord, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance. Grant victories to the Orthodox Christians over their adversaries; and by the virtue of Thy Cross, preserve Thy habitation (Troparion).

As Thou was mercifully crucified for our sake, grant mercy to those who are called by Thy name; make all Orthodox Christians glad by Thy power, granting them victories over their adversaries, by bestowing on them the invincible trophy, Thy weapon of peace (Kontakion).

The holy day of the Elevation of the Cross, although it has an obviously “political” origin, has a place of great significance in the Church today. It remains with us as a day of fasting and prayer, a day when we recall that the Cross is the only sign worthy of our total allegiance, and that our salvation comes not by “victories” of any earthly sort but by the only true and lasting victory of the crucifixion of Christ and our co-crucifixion with him.

When we elevate the Cross and bow down before it in veneration and worship to God, we proclaim that we belong to the Kingdom “not of this world,” and that our only true and enduring citizenship is with the saints in the “city of God” (Eph 2.19; Heb 11.10; Rev 21–22).

The first Old Testamental reading of the Vespers of the day tells of the “tree” which changes the bitter waters into sweetness—the symbol of the Tree of the Cross (Ex 15.22–16.1). The second reading reminds us that the Lord chastens and corrects those whom He loves and that Divine Wisdom is “a Tree of life to those who lay hold upon her and trust in her, as in the Lord” (Prov 3.11–18). Again the reference is to the Cross which is, as the epistle reading of the day proclaims, “to those who are called . . . the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1.24).

The third Old Testament reading is from the Prophecy of Isaiah which tells of the “city of the Lord” where both Jews and Gentiles will live together and “shall bow themselves down” at the place of God’s feet and “shall know that I the Lord am Thy Saviour and Thy Redeemer, the mighty One of Israel” (Is 60.11–16). Here we have the direct reference to God’s city where men shall worship at His feet; and together with the psalm line repeated constantly during the services which calls us to “bow before His footstool,” we have once again the reference to the Holy Cross (Ps 99.5, 110.1, et al.).

Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy holy resurrection, we glorify (Hymn of Veneration before the Cross).

This central hymn of the Elevation of the Cross which lasts for eight days in the Church is sung many times. It replaces the Thrice-Holy of the Divine Liturgy. The normal antiphons are also replaced by special verses from the psalms which have direct reference to Christ’s crucifixion on the Cross (Ps 22, 74, 99). At the Matins, in the gospel reading from Saint John, Christ says that when He is elevated on the Cross He will draw all men to Himself (Jn 12.28–36). The long gospel reading at the Divine Liturgy is the passion account from this same gospel.

Thus, at the Elevation of the Cross the Christians make their official rededication to the crucified Lord and pledge their undivided allegiance to Him by the adoration of His holy feet nailed to the life-creating Cross. This is the meaning of this holy day of fasting and repentance in the Church today.

Other Feasts

On each day of the year the Orthodox Church commemorates certain saints or sacred events in its history. In addition to the twelve major feast days mentioned above, the entire Orthodox Church celebrates a number of other days with special liturgical and spiritual solemnity.

john baptist
peter paul

First among the feasts universally celebrated by all the Orthodox are those of Saint John the Baptist (on left) of whom Christ has said that “among those born of women there has arisen none greater” (Mt 11.11; Lk 7.28).

The feasts of the apostles are also celebrated in all the churches, particularly the feast of Saints Peter and Paul (on right) which is preceded by a prescribed fasting period.

Certain other saints are especially venerated throughout the world as well, such as Saints Nicholas (on left) and George, the Prophet Elias and the Archangel Michael, together with the hierarchs, Saints Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, and Gregory the Theologian.

Each local church also has its own particularly holy days. In the Greek Church Saints Spiridon, Demetrios, Nektarios, and others are highly venerated, just as Saints Sergius, Seraphim, Tikhon, and Vladimir are in the Russian Church; Saint Sava (on right) in the Serbian Church; and Saint Herman in the American Church.

In addition to those special festal days of the particular national churches, there exists also the practice for certain cities, towns and monasteries to have liturgical celebrations of holy persons or events proper to their own particular interests and desires. Thus there exist certain saints, for example, which are celebrated with great solemnity in just a very few places in the Church, perhaps even in just one particular place where they have a special importance for the faithful.

It is necessary to note that in the Orthodox Church the liturgical feasts are not “institutions” which are legislated by some ecclesiastical authority apart from the interest and consent of the people. The feasts of the Church, and even the canonization of saints, always follows from the living devotion of the Christian people. If there were no popular interest and veneration of a certain holy person, there would be no official canonization and no liturgical festival established in his or her honor. Once a person is recognized as a saint, however, and it is agreed that God himself is presenting this person as a living witness to himself and his Kingdom, then the Church hierarchy will set the day of the feast and will compose the proper liturgical service and hymns to be used in the celebration. The frequency and fervor of the celebration will then depend solely upon the will of the people, and once established the feast could only disappear organically, in a way similar to its appearance. It would not, and indeed it really could not be “disestablished” by the decree of any church authority.


The Divine Liturgy

The Divine Liturgy

The word liturgy means common work or common action. The Divine Liturgy is the common work of the Orthodox Church. It is the official action of the Church formally gathered together as the chosen People of God. The word church, as we remember, means a gathering or assembly of people specifically chosen and called apart to perform a particular task.

The Divine Liturgy is the common action of Orthodox Christians officially gathered to constitute the Orthodox Church. It is the action of the Church assembled by God in order to be together in one community to worship, to pray, to sing, to hear God’s Word, to be instructed in God’s commandments, to offer itself with thanksgiving in Christ to God the Father, and to have the living experience of God’s eternal kingdom through communion with the same Christ Who is present in his people by the Holy Spirit.

The Divine Liturgy is always done by Orthodox Christians on the Lord’s Day which is Sunday, the “day after Sabbath” which is symbolic of the first day of creation and the last day—or as it is called in Holy Tradition, the eighth day—of the Kingdom of God. This is the day of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, the day of God’s judgment and victory predicted by the prophets, the Day of the Lord which inaugurates the presence and the power of the “kingdom to come” already now within the life of this present world.

The Divine Liturgy is also celebrated by the Church on special feast days. It is usually celebrated daily in monasteries, and in some large cathedrals and parish churches, with the exception of the week days of Great Lent when it is not served because of its paschal character.

As the common action of the People of God, the Divine Liturgy may be celebrated only once on any given day in an Orthodox Christian community. All of the members of the Church must be gathered together with their pastor in one place at one time. This includes even small children and infants who participate fully in the communion of the liturgy from the day of their entrance into the Church through baptism and chrismation. Always everyone, always together. This is the traditional expression of the Orthodox Church about the Divine Liturgy.

Because of its common character, the Divine Liturgy may never be celebrated privately by the clergy alone. It may never be served just for some and not for others, but for all. It may never be served merely for some private purposes or some specific or exclusive intentions. Thus there may be, and usually are, special petitions at the Divine Liturgy for the sick or the departed, or for some very particular purposes or projects, but there is never a Divine Liturgy which is done exclusively for private individuals or specific isolated purposes or intentions. The Divine Liturgy is always “on behalf of all and for all.”

Because the Divine Liturgy exists for no other reason than to be the official all-inclusive act of prayer, worship, teaching, and communion of the entire Church in heaven and on earth, it may not be considered merely as one devotion among many, not even the highest or the greatest. The Divine Liturgy is not an act of personal piety. It is not a prayer service. It is not merely one of the sacraments. The Divine Liturgy is the one common sacrament of the very being of the Church itself. It is the one sacramental manifestation of the essence of the Church as the Community of God in heaven and on earth. It is the one unique sacramental revelation of the Church as the mystical Body and Bride of Christ.

As the central mystical action of the whole church, the Divine Liturgy is always resurrectional in spirit. It is always the manifestation to his people of the Risen Christ. It is always an outpouring of the life-creating Spirit. It is always communion with God the Father. The Divine Liturgy, therefore, is never mournful or penitential. It is never the expression of the darkness and death of this world. It is always the expression and the experience of the eternal life of the Kingdom of the Blessed Trinity.

Basil Great
Saint Basil the Great

The Divine Liturgy celebrated by the Orthodox Church is called the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. It is a shorter liturgy than the so-called Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great that is used only ten times during the Church Year. These two liturgies probably received their present form after the ninth century. It is not the case that they were written exactly as they now stand by the saints whose names they carry. It is quite certain, however, that the eucharistic prayers of each of these liturgies were formulated as early as the fourth and fifth centuries when these saints lived and worked in the Church.

Saint John Chrysostom

The Divine Liturgy has two main parts. The first part is the gathering, called the synaxis. It has its origin in the synagogue gatherings of the Old Testament, and is centered in the proclamation and meditation of the Word of God. The second part of the Divine Liturgy is the eucharistic sacrifice. It has its origin in the Old Testament temple worship, the priestly sacrifices of the People of God; and in the central saving event of the Old Testament, the Passover (Pascha).

In the New Testament Church Jesus Christ is the Living Word of God, and it is the Christian gospels and apostolic writings which are proclaimed and meditated at the first part of the Divine Liturgy. And in the New Testament Church, the central saving event is the one perfect, eternal and all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the one great High Priest who is also the Lamb of God slain for the salvation of the world, the New Passover. At the Divine Liturgy the faithful Christians participate in the voluntary self-offering of Christ to the Father, accomplished once and for all upon the Cross by the power of the Holy Spirit. In and through this unique sacrifice of Christ, the faithful Christians receive Holy Communion with God.

For centuries it was the practice of the Church to admit all persons to the first part of the Divine Liturgy, while reserving the second part strictly for those who were formally committed to Christ through baptism and chrismation in the Church. Non-baptized persons were not permitted even to witness the offering and receiving of Holy Communion by the faithful Christians. Thus the first part of the Divine Liturgy came to be called the Liturgy of the Catechumens, that is, the liturgy of those who were receiving instructions in the Christian Faith in order to become members of the Church through baptism and chrismation. It also came to be called, for obvious reasons, the Liturgy of the Word. The second part of the Divine Liturgy came to be called the Liturgy of the Faithful.

Although it is generally the practice in the Orthodox Church today to allow non-Orthodox Christians, and even non-Christians, to witness the Liturgy of the Faithful, it is still the practice to reserve actual participation in the sacrament of Holy Communion only to members of the Orthodox Church who are fully committed to the life and teachings of the Orthodox Faith as preserved, proclaimed and practiced by the Church throughout its history.

In the commentary on the Divine Liturgy which follows, we will concentrate our attention on what happens to the Church at its “common action.” By doing this we will attempt to penetrate the fundamental and essential meaning of the liturgy for man, his life and his world. This will be a definite departure from the interpretation of the Divine Liturgy which treats the service as if it were a drama enacted by the clergy and “attended” by the people, in which each part stands for some aspect of Christ’s life and work (e.g., the prothesis stands for Christ’s birth, the small entrance for the beginning of his public ministry, the gospel for his preaching, the great entrance for Palm Sunday, etc.). This latter type of interpretation of the Divine Liturgy is an invention, which, although perhaps interesting and inspiring for some, is nevertheless completely alien to the genuine meaning and purpose of the Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Church.



Before the actual beginning of the Divine Liturgy, the priest enters the Church with special prayers (photo #1), and puts on his liturgical vestments (photos #2-6).
Entrance Prayers #1: Read before the Royal Doors
The Vesting #2: The Sticharion represents the Baptismal Garment
#3: The Stole or Epitrachilion represents the dignity of the office of Priest
#4: The Belt or “Zone” represents the wisdom and strength of the office of Priest
#5: The Cuffs or “Epimanikia” represents the reminder that the Priest is tied against sin
#6: “Phelonion” represents the Priest putting on the gifts of the Holy Spirit
#7: A Priest Fully Vested
#8: The Priest washes his hands before beginning any of the sacred functions of the Divine Liturgy
He then goes to the table of oblation to prepare the bread and wine for Holy Communion. This part of the liturgy is called the prothesis or proskomede, which means preparation.
The Diskos (L) and Chalice (R) before the start of the Proskomedia
In its present form, the prothesis probably dates from the fourteenth century. When a bishop is celebrating the Divine Liturgy, the prothesis is performed just before the offertory procession called the Great Entrance. Otherwise it is done before the beginning of the Liturgy of the Word.

At the prothesis the priest first cuts a large cube of bread from the loaf of bread, traditionally called the prosphora, which means the offering. This cube of bread is called the Lamb. It stands for Christ, the “Bread of life . . . which came down from heaven,” the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 3.24, 6.32–15).
The prothesis begins.
While the priest is cutting the Lamb from the prosphora bread, he recites a verse from the Prophecy of Isaiah: “He was lead as a lamb to the slaughter . . .” (Is 53.7–8). He cuts the Lamb so that the seal with which the prosphora bread is sealed is on top, in the center. The seal is a square with the symbols of Jesus Christ (IC XC) on the top and The Victor (NI KA) on the bottom. The Lamb is then cut from the bottom in the sign of a cross so that it can be easily broken into four pieces at the time of Holy Communion in the liturgy. The priest also symbolically pierces the side of the Lamb with the liturgical knife, traditionally called the spear, reciting the words of John 19.34–35.
The wine and water are poured into the Chalice
The next prosphora is blessed
After having poured wine mixed with water into the chalice, the priest then places a piece of bread on the diskos next to the Lamb in remembrance of the Theotokos.
The Lamb and the portion of bread for the Theotokos, the Mother of God
Then pieces of bread are placed on the diskos in memory of John the Baptist, the prophets, apostles, hierarchs, martyrs, monastic saints, healers, and the whole company of the righteous with special mention of the saints commemorated on that particular day. Finally a piece of bread is placed on the diskos in memory of the saint whose liturgy is being celebrated.
The particles of bread are taken from the prosphora
And placed on the Diskos
In addition, pieces of bread are placed on the diskos for the bishop of the given church, for the civil authorities of the country and for all the faithful both living and dead, once more with particular mention by name of those particularly remembered by the local community.
Names of the living and the dead are given to the Priest for commemoration during the prothesis
The commemorations are completed
The diskos and the chalice are then covered with special covers.
Individual covers are placed over both the Diskos and Chalice
While the priest recites Psalm 93, and other psalm verses with the offering of incense.
Finally, the Aer is placed over both the Chalice and Diskos and Incenseis offered over the Holy Gifts as the Priest reads the prayers
He finally recites in conclusion the following prayer:
O God, our God, who didst send down the Heavenly Bread, the Food for the whole world, our Lord and God Jesus Christ, to be our Savior, Redeemer, and Benefactor, blessing and sanctifying us; Bless this offering, and accept it upon Thy heavenly altar. Remember those who offer it and for whom it is offered, for Thou art good and lovest mankind. Preserve us blameless in the celebration of Thy divine mysteries. For sanctified and glorified is Thy most honorable and majestic name; of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
The small dismissal and benediction follow this prayer, thus ending the service of the prothesis. The prothesis is a rather late development in the history of the Divine Liturgy. It signifies the fathering of the entire Church of God into one great assembly: Christ the Head, together with the Theotokos and all the members of his Body, those already glorified with him in the presence of the Father, together with all of the faithful disciples on earth. The prothesis clearly shows that the eucharistic liturgy is always the action of the entire Church, with its head Jesus Christ, and is always offered “on behalf of all and for all.”


Blessed is the Kingdom

Following the prothesis the priest (or deacon) incenses the altar, the icons, and the entire church.
Incense is offered to God
The Priest censes throughout the entire Church
While incensing the altar table he recites lines which confess the fullness of Christ’s presence, in the grave, in death, in paradise, at the right hand of the Father, “filling all things, Thyself uncircumscribed.” He also recites Psalm 51: “Have mercy on me, O God.”
After incensing, the clergy pray “O Heavenly King”, begging for the presence of the Holy Spirit.
They recite the angelic salutation: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will towards men.”
The royal doors of the iconostasis are opened and the Liturgy begins.
The first exclamation of the Divine Liturgy reveals the key to the entire celebration:
Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.
With these words the celebrant announces the source and the goal of the divine service of the People of God, the very context and contents of the entire liturgical action. It is the Kingdom of God brought to the world by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and mystically reigning already in the faithful disciples of Christ by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

The Kingdom of God is eternal life in communion with God in loving obedience to his divine will. It is life in union with the Blessed Trinity; life lived toward the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. It is the life which Christ has given to men by his incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and glorification. It is the life to be lived already in this world by the People of God.

To bless the Kingdom of God means to love it as one’s most precious possession. The response of the people to the proclamation of blessing by the priest is with the word Amen, which means so be it. This is the solemn affirmation that indeed the blessing of God’s Kingdom is fitting and proper. It is the official confirmation that this Kingdom is indeed the “pearl of great price” for the faithful, which once having found it, they will love it and serve it and desire to have it forever (Lk 13.14).

Only the Divine Liturgy and the other sacraments and services of the Church which were originally integrated into the eucharistic celebration, such as baptism, chrismation, and marriage begin with the solemn blessing of the Kingdom of God.


Great Litany


After the opening proclamation, the Great Litany is chanted. This litany begins every liturgical service of the Orthodox Church, as well as virtually all sacraments and special services. It is the all-embracing prayer of the Church for everyone and everything. It consists of petitions to which the people respond: Lord have mercy.

The Great Litany begins with prayers “in peace” and “for peace.” The people then proceed in the litany to pray for their eternal salvation; for the welfare of God’s churches and for the union of all; for the faithful and God-fearing of the particular community; for the bishops, priests, deacons and all the people of the Church; for the nation and its institutions for which all are responsible: the president, civil authorities and armed forces; for the given city and country and for all cities and countries; for good weather and abundant crops; for travelers, for the sick, the suffering and those in captivity.

Finally, after asking God for the deliverance from everything harmful and negative and for his divine help, salvation, mercy and protection, the people remember the Theotokos and all the saints and commend themselves and each other and all their life to Christ their God.

The Great Litany then ends with a doxology proper to the Holy Trinity to whom are due all glory, honor and worship forever. Once more the prayer is completed by the Amen of the people.


After the Great Litany, psalm verses are chanted proper to the particular occasion. These psalm verses are called the antiphons because they were, and sometimes still are sung by the people in two choirs, each responding antiphonally to the other. There are three sets of antiphons at each Divine Liturgy.

Historically the antiphons were chanted by the people in solemn procession to the church where the Divine Liturgy of the day was to be celebrated. Today, although they are now part of the service itself, they still form the joyful preparation for entrance into the worship of Christ through the Word of the Gospel and the offering and receiving of Holy Communion.

The psalms normally sung as the antiphons at the Divine Liturgy of the Lord’s Day are Psalms 103 and 146. On feast days other psalms are used with particular relevance to the special celebration. To these psalm verses, refrains are added proper to the occasion.

Following the second antiphon, a hymn by the Emperor Justinian, Only-begotten Son, is always sung. It is a hymn of faith in the divinity of Christ and his incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection as “one of the Holy Trinity” for the salvation of men.

In addition to the two sets of antiphons and the singing of Only-begotten Son, which belong to every Divine Liturgy, a third antiphon is chanted which on normal Sundays in most Orthodox Churches is the Beatitudes of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount according to the Gospel of Saint Matthew (Mt 5.3–12). The Beatitudes are sung with the refrain taken from the words of the Good Thief on the Cross: Remember us, O Lord, when Thou comest in Thy Kingdom (Lk 23.42). On festal occasions special psalm verses with the singing of the Troparion of the day constitute the third antiphon at the Divine Liturgy.

Small Entrance


During the singing of the third antiphon, whether it be the Beatitudes or the Troparion of the day, the so-called Small Entrance is made. The Small Entrance is the solemn procession of the clergy to the altar led by the Book of the Gospels. If the bishop is celebrating, the Gospel Book is brought out to him in the center of the church in the midst of the people where he has been standing from the beginning of the liturgy.

After the exclamation: “Wisdom! Let Us Attend!” the clergy enter the royal gates of the iconostasis while all sing the Hymn of Entrance:

O come, let us worship and fall down before Christ. O Son of God . . . Save us who sing unto Thee: Alleluia.

A special line is added before the final phrase of the entrance hymn at each liturgy, proper to the celebration. Thus, for example, on the Lord’s Day this line would always be, “Who rose from the dead.”


If the priest is serving the Divine Liturgy alone, or with a deacon, the Small Entrance is made by the clergy circling the altar table and coming to the middle of the church with the Gospel Book in order to enter through the royal gates of the iconostasis accompanied by the Hymn of Entrance.


The Small Entrance is the first significant movement of the Divine Liturgy. It follows the primary liturgical action which is the gathering of the faithful into the one community of the Church of God. The Small Entrance is the movement of the entire Church through its Head Jesus Christ, in the person of the celebrant, to the altar which symbolizes the Kingdom of God. It is the movement made possible by the Gospel of Christ, the Way to the Kingdom. It can only be accomplished by following Jesus, the Living Word of God in human flesh (Jn 1.1–18).

There can be no approach to God the Father but through Christ, the Son of God (Jn 14.6). There can be no communion with God the Father except by the fulfillment of his commandments which are given by Jesus and proclaimed in the words of his Gospel. Thus it is the Gospel of Christ, the Son and Word of God, which takes us into the realm of the Father and into the eternal life of the Blessed Trinity whose Kingdom we enter and experience in the Divine Liturgy of the Church.

Technically speaking, the Small Entrance is not completed when the clergy enter the sanctuary and stand before the altar table. It is completed only with the singing of the Thrice-Holy Hymn during which the clergy proceed to the place behind the altar table (called the High Place), at which time the chief celebrant turns and blesses the people with the solemn biblical greeting: “Peace be, unto all!”


While the clergy are still before the altar table, the people sing the troparia and kontakia of the day. These are hymns which praise the saving events or holy persons celebrated liturgically at the particular gathering. On Sundays these songs always praise Christ’s resurrection from the dead.

While these hymns are being sung, the celebrant of the liturgy prays before the altar for the general absolution and forgiveness of sins of the entire assembly so that all of the people might be made worthy by God “to stand before the glory of Thy holy altar and to offer worship and praise which are due unto Thee.” There then follows the singing of the Thrice-Holy Hymn of the angels which perpetually resounds in the presence of the Kingdom of God. “Holy God! Holy Mighty! Holy Immortal! Have mercy on us!” (Is 6.1–5).

This version of the Thrice-Holy Hymn is of very ancient origin. It is a hymn to the Holy Trinity in whose presence the Christians now find themselves at the liturgy. It is within the presence of the Kingdom of God that men are made competent by Christ and the Holy Spirit to hear, to understand and to do the Word of God which will be announced to them from the throne of the Father.




During the solemn singing of the Thrice-Holy Hymn to the Most Holy Trinity, the clergy proceed to the High Place behind the altar table, blessing Christ who “sits upon the throne of glory, upon the cherubim. . . .” From this place, as we have already mentioned, the celebrant turns and blesses the people with the Peace of Christ. After the Peace is returned, the Epistle of the Divine Liturgy is chanted, usually by a layman of the Church or one in the minor order of Reader.

The epistle reading in traditional Church language is called the apostle or the apostolic reading. This is so since the reading may be taken from the Acts of the Apostles as well as from one of the apostolic letters of the New Testament scriptures. The word epistle means letter. We should note here that the only book of the New Testament writings which is not read liturgically in the Orthodox Church is the Book of Revelation because of its apocalyptic character.

There is a series of epistle readings prescribed in regular order for each day of the Church Year, with the exception of the week days of Great Lent when the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated. There are also special epistle readings prescribed for particular Church celebrations. Thus at any given Divine Liturgy more than one epistle lesson may be chanted.

Before the actual reading of the epistle, an appointed verse from the Psalter is sung called the prokeimenon, which literally means, “that which goes before.” As usual, the prokeimenon, with its verse, is suited to the particular liturgy and prepares the people to listen to the Word of God.




A reading from one or more of the four Christian Gospels follows the reading of the epistle at the Divine Liturgy. In between these two proclamations of the Word of God, Alleluia is solemnly chanted, once more interspersed by verses from the Psalms. At this time incense is also offered, with the incensing of the Gospel Book, the icons, the reader and all of the people.


The Alleluia and the incensing at this moment in the Divine Liturgy signify the very presence of God with his People, teaching them himself through Christ the Word and the Holy Spirit (Jn 6.45). God is with men in the Church, revealing himself and his Holy Will to the world. The Gospel is God’s glad tidings of salvation, his official good news to mankind. It contains and proclaims his presence and his power among men.

The proclamation of the Gospel in the Church is a sacramental act. It is a form of man’s communion with God. It is an element of the liturgical mystery in and through which God is united with his People, and his People with him.

Just as for the epistle readings, there are prescribed readings from the Gospels for each liturgical day of the year, as well as special readings for particular Church celebrations. Thus, once more, there may be several different readings from the Gospels at any given Divine Liturgy.

Following the proclamation of the Word of God through the words of the Holy Gospel, a liturgical sermon or homily is preached. The sermon normally proclaims, and not seldom explains, the significance of the Divine Word received at the particular liturgy for the life of the People of God and the destiny of the world. In Orthodox Tradition, the sermon is an essential part of the eucharistic liturgy and participates in its general sacramental character.

Fervent Supplication


Following the readings from the holy scriptures and the liturgical sermon, the Liturgy of the Word, also called the Liturgy of the Catechumens, comes to an end with the so-called Litany of Fervent Supplication. This litany is the one through which the people pray for their own particular needs, as well as those of the entire Church, their neighbors, their country and the entire world.

At this time the intercessions are not made generally, as in the Great Litany, but very specifically on behalf of all persons in need of God’s blessings, strength and guidance. Thus prayers are made for the sick, the suffering, the needy, the afflicted and the departed by name; as well as for such specific things as national guidance, deliverance from some particular threat, etc. Also at this time special prayers of thanksgiving and praise may be offered in response to some particular blessing of God. Because the offertory will follow, prayers are also made at the end of the litany “for those who bring offerings and do good work” in the particular community.

After the completion of the Litany of Fervent Supplication, the catechumens are prayed for and dismissed from the Divine Liturgy since, as not yet baptized, they are not competent to offer and to receive the eucharistic gifts. In the early Church all those under penance for their sins, and all who for one reason or another were not receiving Holy Communion, also left the liturgical gathering at this time.

At present the dismissal of the catechumens has become only theoretically significant since it is not the case that non-communicants, or even the non-baptized, leave the gathering for the eucharistic part of the service which, we have noted, is still officially called the Liturgy of the Faithful.

After the prayer that God would illumine the catechumens with the Gospel of Truth and unite them to his Holy Church, granting them “in due time the laver of regeneration, the remission of sins and the robe of incorruption” in baptism; and after their theoretical dismissal from the liturgy, two prayers are read for the faithful who are already members of the Church, that God would hear their prayers and would make them worthy to offer and to receive the gifts of Holy Communion:

And enable us also whom Thou hast placed in this Thy service by the power of the Holy Spirit, blamelessly and without offence, in the pure witness of our conscience to call upon Thee . . .

. . . to worship Thee blamelessly with fear and with love, and to partake without condemnation of Thy Holy Mysteries, and to be accounted worthy of Thy Heavenly Kingdom. . . .

Offertory: Great Entrance

It is now time for the sacrificial offering to God. There is only one true and acceptable offering with which God is pleased. It is the offering of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God Who offers Himself eternally to the Father for the sins of the world.

In Christ men can offer themselves and each other and all men and the entire world to God. Christ has united all things in Himself, and has taken all things upon Himself. Thus, in and through Him, men can offer all that they are, and all that they have, to God the Father. They can do this because they are in Christ, and have received the Holy Spirit from Him.

At this moment in the Divine Liturgy the celebrant prays for himself, confessing his personal unworthiness and affirming that the only Priest of the Church is Jesus:

For Thou art the One who offers and the One who is offered, the One who receives and the One who is given, O Christ our God . . .

cherubic hymn

The altar table, the icons and all of the people are incensed once again as the Cherubic Hymn is sung:

Let us who mystically represent the cherubim and sing the Thrice-holy Hymn to the life-creating Trinity, now lay aside all earthly cares.

The Gifts of bread and wine which stand for Christ, and in him, for all men and the entire world of God’s creation—for Life itself—are now offered to God. They are carried in solemn procession from the table of oblation, into the middle of the church, and through the royal doors of the iconostasis to the altar table. This procession is called the Great Entrance as distinct from the Small Entrance that was made earlier with the Book of the Gospels. In some Orthodox Churches the offertory procession of the Great Entrance is made around the entire nave of the church building, and so it is actually of greater length and solemnity than the small procession with the Gospel Book.


During the offertory procession of the Great Entrance, the celebrant once again prays to God on behalf of all with the prayer of the Crucified Thief: “Remember, O Lord in Thy Kingdom.” The bread and wine are placed on the altar table and the people conclude the Cherubic Hymn:

That we may receive the King of all who comes invisibly upborne by the angelic hosts. Alleluia.

At this time the celebrant quietly recites verses which call to remembrance the absolute perfection and total sufficiency of Christ and His self-offering. For the Lord Who “fills all things” with Himself makes even His tomb “the fountain of our resurrection.”

The Cherubic Hymn and the meditative verses of the celebrant just mentioned are a late addition to the Divine Liturgy. They were added in the imperial era of Byzantium in order to enhance the essential liturgical act of the offertory which is the movement of the Church offering itself to God the Father through its Head, High Priest and King Jesus Christ who is also the Suffering Servant, the Lamb of God and the New Passover; the sole sufficient sacrifice which is perfect, total and fully acceptable to the Father.

In the liturgical offertory, the faithful give themselves in sacrifice to God together with Christ. They do so through the Holy Spirit as those who have died and risen with Christ in baptism. In order for the liturgical act of offering to be genuine and true, it must be the living expression of the Church’s constant and total self-offering to God. If each member of the Church is not in perpetual sacrifice with Christ to the Father and is not “bearing his cross” by the power of the Spirit, the offertory entrance of the Divine Liturgy becomes a sterile symbol devoid of reality. As such it is done not as a movement towards God, but unto condemnation and judgment.


Thus, once again a litany is chanted and a prayer is made that God would be merciful, because of the sacrifice of Christ, and would accept His people and their offering in spite of their sins; and would allow them worthily to offer the Gifts and to receive Holy Communion with God.

O Lord God Almighty, who alone art holy, who acceptest the sacrifice of praise from those who call upon Thee with their whole heart. Accept also the prayer of us sinners, and bear it to Thy holy altar, enabling us to offer unto Thee gifts and spiritual sacrifices for our sins and for the errors of the people. Make us worthy to find grace in Thy sight that our sacrifice may be acceptable unto Thee, and that the Good Spirit of Grace may dwell upon us, and upon these Gifts here offered, and upon all Thy People . . .

At this time in the Divine Liturgy the gifts of money for the work of the Church, the propagation of the Gospel and the assistance of the poor and the needy are collected and offered to God.



Love and Faith

Before the Divine Liturgy can proceed further, there are two conditions which must be fulfilled by the faithful. These are the solemn expressions of love and of faith which are essential to the Christian life, and without which there can be no self-offering and no communion with God. Therefore at this time the proclamation is made from the altar: “Let us love one another that with one mind we may confess” . . . the faithful people continue . . . “Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in essence and undivided.”

Love is the foundation of life. This is the fundamental Christian truth. Without love there can be no life, no truth and no communion with God, for God is Love (1 Jn 4.8,16). Thus Jesus Christ has taught that the whole Old Testament Law and the Prophets depend on the two great commandments of love for God and men, and He has given his own “new commandment” that His disciples should love “even as I have loved you” (Jn 13.34).

Thus at the Divine Liturgy the Christians are continually called to love. The outward expression of this love in the liturgy today is the kiss of peace exchanged by the celebrating clergy, which in times past was certainly exchanged among the faithful people as well. Without this love, the liturgy cannot go on.

Following the call to love, the Symbol of Faith, also called the Creed, is chanted. The traditional introduction to the recitation of the creed in the liturgy is the exclamation: “The Doors! The Doors! In wisdom, let us attend!” The doors referred to here are the doors of the church building, and not the doors of the iconostasis as some have been known to think, since this is a call to assure that all catechumens and non-communicants have left, and that now no one may enter or leave the liturgical assembly. The historical reason for such an exclamation in the Divine Liturgy was not only that order might be kept in the church, but that the Creed might be pronounced only by those who had already officially pronounced it at baptism, and continued to confess it within the life of the Church.

The recitation of the Symbol of Faith at the Divine Liturgy stands as the official acknowledgment and formal acceptance by each individual member of the Church of his or her own baptism, chrismation and membership in the Body of Christ. The recitation of the Creed is the only place in the Divine Liturgy, with the exception of the very similar pre-communion confession of faith, where the first person pronoun is used. All through the liturgy the community prays in the plural we. Only here does each person confess for himself his own personal faith: I believe.

No person can believe for another. Each must believe for himself. A person who believes in God, in Christ, in the Holy Spirit, in the Church, in baptism and in life eternal, in short, a person who affirms and accepts his baptismal membership in the Church, is competent to participate in the Divine Liturgy. A person who cannot do this, cannot participate. He simply is not able to, since this specific faith is the specific requirement for membership in the Orthodox Church and for participation in its Divine Liturgy. Without this faith, the movement of the liturgy cannot proceed further. With it, and its official acknowledgment in the chanting of the Creed, the liturgical action goes on.


It is the custom in the Church for the clergy to fan the eucharistic gifts during the singing of the Creed. This fanning was an act of veneration used toward the earthly emperor in the Byzantine period, during which time it was incorporated into the Church’s liturgy, and used as an act of veneration toward the “presences” of the Heavenly King in the midst of His People, namely towards the book of the Gospels and the eucharistic gifts. (In some churches special liturgical fans are carried by the altar servers at all processions and expositions of the Gospel book and the eucharistic gifts.)




Eucharistic Canon: Anaphora


Now begins the part of the Divine Liturgy called the eucharistic canon. It is also called the anaphora, which means the lifting-up or the elevation. At this time the gifts of bread and wine which have been offered on the altar are lifted up from the altar to God the Father, and receive divine sanctification by the Holy Spirit who comes to change them into the very Body and Blood of Christ.

The general form of the eucharistic canon is that of the Old Testamental Passover ritual, now fulfilled and perfected in the new and everlasting covenant of God with men in the person and work of Jesus Christ the Messiah, “our Paschal Lamb Who has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 4.7; See also Heb 5–10). Thus the eucharistic anaphora begins:

Let us stand aright! Let us stand with fear! Let us attend! That we may offer the Holy Oblation in peace.

The people respond: A mercy of peace! A sacrifice of praise!

The Holy Oblation is Christ, the Son of God who has become the Son of Man in order to offer Himself to His Father for the life of the world. In His own person Jesus is the perfect peace offering which alone brings God’s reconciling mercy. This is undoubtedly the meaning of the expression a mercy of peace, which has been a source of confusion for people over the years in all liturgical languages.

In addition to being the perfect peace offering, Jesus is also the only adequate sacrifice of praise which men can offer to God. There is nothing comparable in men to the graciousness of God. There is nothing with which men can worthily thank and praise the Creator. This is so even if men would not be sinners. Thus God himself provides men with their own most perfect sacrifice of praise. The Son of God becomes genuinely human so that human persons could have one of their own nature sufficiently adequate to the holiness and graciousness of God. Again this is Christ, the sacrifice of praise.

Thus, in Christ, all is fulfilled and accomplished. In Him the entire sacrificial system of the Old Testament, which is itself the image of the universal striving of men to be worthy of God, is fulfilled. All possible offerings are embodied and perfected in the offering of Christ on the Cross. He is the offering for peace and reconciliation and forgiveness. He is the sacrifice for supplication, thanksgiving and praise. In Him all of men’s sins and impurities are forgiven. In Him all of men’s positive aspirations are fulfilled. In Him, and in him alone, are all of men’s ways to God, and God’s ways to men, brought into one Holy Communion. Through Him alone do men have access to the Father in one Holy Spirit (Eph 2.18; Also Jn 14, 2 Cor 5, Col 1).

The celebrant now addresses the congregation with the Trinitarian blessing of the Apostle Paul (2 Cor 13.14). This is the more ­elaborate Christian salutation than the simple Peace (Shalom) of the Old Testament:

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father,and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

And the people respond: And with your spirit.

The grace of Christ comes first. In this grace is contained the fullness of the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit. The celebrant offers this entire abundant outpouring of the inner life of the Holy Trinity to the People of God. And they in turn respond with the prayer that this “fullness of God” would be with his spirit as well.

The eucharistic dialogue continues:

Let us lift up our hearts!

We lift them up unto the Lord!

Let us give thanks unto the Lord!

It is meet and right to worship the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; the Trinity one in essence and undivided.

As men in Christ lift up the eucharistic gifts, they lift up their hearts as well. In the Bible the heart of man stands for his whole being and life. Thus in the anaphora, as the Apostle Paul has stated, the whole man is taken up into that realm where Christ is now seated at the right hand of God.

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God (Col 3.1–3).

The manner of lifting up oneself to God is through thanksgiving. The word eucharist in Greek means thanksgiving. The eucharistic Divine Liturgy is preeminently the action of lifting up one’s heart and giving thanks to God for all that He has done for man and the world in Christ and the Holy Spirit: creation, salvation and eternal glorification.

The original sin of man, the origin of all of his trouble, corruption and ultimate death, is his failure to give thanks to God. The restoration of communion with God, and with all creation in him, is through thanksgiving in Christ. Jesus is the only man truly grateful, humble and obedient to God. In him, as the only Beloved Son of God and the only perfect Adam, all men can lift up their hearts and give thanks to the Lord: “For there is . . . one mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all . . .” (1 Tim 2.5).


It should be noted here that the affirmation “it is meet and right” is expanded into a longer form only in the Slavic tradition of the Church. In other churches it remains in this simple and more ancient form.

With hearts lifted up to the Lord, and thanksgiving rendered to God, the prayer of the eucharistic canon continues:

It is meet and right to sing of Thee, to bless Thee, to praise Thee, to give thanks to Thee and to worship Thee in every place of Thy dominion. For Thou art God ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same, Thou and Thine only-begotten Son and Thy Holy Spirit. Thou it was who brought us from non-existence into being, and when we had fallen away, didst raise us up again, and didst not cease to do all things until Thou hadst brought us up to heaven and hadst endowed us with Thy Kingdom which is to come. For all these things we give thanks to Thee, and to Thine only-begotten Son and to Thy Holy Spirit; for all things of which we know and of which we know not, whether manifest or unseen; and we thank Thee for this liturgy which Thou hast found worthy to accept at our hands, though there stand by Thee thousands of archangels and hosts of angels, the Cherubim and the Seraphim, six-winged, many eyed, who soar aloft, borne on their pinions, singing the triumphant hymn, shouting, proclaiming and saying:

Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord of Sabaoth! Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory! Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!

At this point in the Divine Liturgy man’s thanksgiving to God the Father for all that he has done in Christ and the Spirit is brought to its climax. The man in God remembers all things and is grateful to God. His remembrance and his thanksgiving take him into the very Presence of the Kingdom to the Throne of the Father to sing the Thrice-Holy Hymn with the angelic choirs (Is 6.1–5).


Through Christ and the Holy Spirit, the man of faith is transported in spirit to be with his Lord. The limitations of this age are left behind through grateful remembrance of Christ and his accomplishment of salvation. Thus the eucharistic prayer continues with the whole focus of attention brought to that One Man and that one night in which the Divine Son gave himself as food for the faithful, offering himself in sacrifice for the life of the world.

With these blessed powers, O Master, Who lovest mankind, we also cry aloud and say: Holy art Thou and all-holy, Thou and Thine only-begotten Son and Thy Holy Spirit! Holy art Thou and all-holy, and magnificent is Thy glory! Who hast so loved Thy world as to give Thine only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. Who when He had come and had fulfilled all the dispensation for us. in the night in which He was given up—or rather gave Himself up for the life of the world—He took bread in His holy, pure and blameless hands; and when He had given thanks and blessed it, and hallowed it and broken it, He gave it to his holy disciples and apostles saying:

Take! Eat! This is My Body which is broken for you for the remission of sins. Amen.

And likewise after supper, He took the cup saying: Drink of it all of you! This is My Blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins! Amen.

Remembering this saving commandment and all those things which have come to pass for us: the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand of God the Father, the second and glorious coming.

Thine own of Thine own we Offer unto Thee, in behalf of all and for all!


As the celebrant intones these last words which proclaim that all that is offered to the Father is already his—for every creature and all of creation are his, together with the Beloved Son and the Holy Spirit who are uncreated and divine—the eucharistic gifts are lifted up and elevated towards the heavens. It is the sign that the faithful Christians have been exalted together with their Lord into the Kingdom of God.

For Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands . . . but into heaven itself now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf . . . we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all . . . for when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God . . . for by a single offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified (Heb 9.24, 10.10–14).

Heaven and earth are now blended into one, filled with the glory of God. The ages past and the ages still to come are brought into unity. The night, the supper, the cross, the tomb, the resurrection, the ascension, the kingdom to come—all merge together in the eucharistic moment of the Divine Liturgy. Man is with God in a holy communion which is “not of this world.” All boundaries of time and of space are utterly broken. All walls of division are totally destroyed. Man’s sins are forgiven in Christ, his impurities are cleansed, his corruption is healed. His mortal nature is restored to immortality with God. His created humanity is filled with the Uncreated Divinity of the All-Holy Trinity. It only remains now to seal this action by the invocation of the Spirit of God.




After the elevation of the eucharistic gifts to the Father, the celebrant of the Divine Liturgy prays for the Holy Spirit to come upon them, and upon all of the people, and to change (or as the Liturgy of Saint Basil says, to show) the bread and wine offered in remembrance of Christ to be the very Body and Blood of the Lord.

The prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit is considered by the Orthodox to be an essential part of the Divine Liturgy. It is called the epiklesis, which means literally the calling upon or the invocation.


The Orthodox Church believes, as it prays, that the Holy Spirit is always “everywhere and fills all things.” The invocation of the Holy Spirit at the Divine Liturgy is the solemn affirmation that everything in life which is positive and good is accomplished by the Spirit of God. Creation, salvation, eternal glorification; the entire work of God in making and saving the world is accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is the one who dwelt in Jesus making him the Christ. He is the one by whom Christ was incarnate of the Virgin Mary. He is the one who led Christ to the cross as the innocent Victim, the one who raised Him from the dead as the triumphant Victor.

He is the one who guarantees the indwelling of God with men in the Holy Communion of the Church and in the life of the Kingdom to come.


Again we offer unto Thee this reasonable and bloodless worship, and we ask Thee, and pray Thee, and supplicate Thee: Send down Thy Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts here offered. And make this bread the precious Body of Thy Christ.

And that which is in this cup, the precious Blood of Thy Christ.


Making the change by the Holy Spirit.

That these gifts may be to those who partake for the purification of soul, for remission of sins, for the communion of the Holy Spirit, for the fulfillment of the Kingdom of Heaven; for boldness towards Thee, and not for judgment or condemnation.

In the Orthodox Churches of the Slavic tradition, the Prayer of the Third Hour is added to the epiklesis. It is a prayer asking the Lord to send the Holy Spirit to the Church right now as He did “at the third hour” to His holy apostles and disciples on Pentecost. This prayer was added to emphasize the necessity of the Holy Spirit in the sacramental action of the Divine Liturgy, and to affirm that nothing at all may be done in Christ without the specific intervention of the Spirit of God.




The holy eucharist is offered in remembrance of Christ. “Do this in remembrance of Me.” Remembering Christ, and offering all things to God in and through Him, the Church is filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit. At the Divine Liturgy, the Holy Spirit comes “upon us and upon the gifts here offered.” Everything is filled with the Kingdom of God. In God’s Kingdom nothing is forgotten. All is remembered, and is thereby made alive. Thus, at this moment in the Divine Liturgy the faithful, remembering Christ, remember all men and all things in him, especially Christ’s mother, the Holy Theotokos, and all of the saints.

It is important to note here that as the Divine Liturgy is the real presence and power of the unique saving event of Christ for His people in all of its manifold elements and aspects, it is always offered for all who need to be saved. Thus the liturgical sacrifice is offered for Mary and all of the saints, as well as for the whole Church and the entire universe of God’s creation.

Again we offer unto Thee this reasonable worship for those who have fallen asleep in the faith: ancestors, fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics, and every righteous spirit made perfect in faith.

And especially for our most holy, most pure, most blessed and glorious Lady, Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary.


While the choir sings a hymn to the Theotokos, which often changes during the Church Year according to the various seasons and celebrations, the celebrant incenses the consecrated gifts and continues to ask God to remember John the Baptist, the saints of the day, the departed faithful, the whole Church and the entire world. Following the specific remembrance of the bishop of the given church, the people sum up all of the remembrances with the words: “And all mankind!”

There then follow even more prayers asking God to remember the city, the country, the travelers, the sick, the suffering, the captives, the benefactors of the Church, those who themselves “remember the poor” and all of the people. There is also the provision made at this point in the liturgy for remembering by name persons in need of special mercy from God.

In the Liturgy of Saint Basil, which is generally much longer and much more detailed than that of Saint John Chrysostom the ­remembrances are very specific and numerous, going on for more than three pages in the liturgical service book.

It is necessary to remember once again that remembrance in the Orthodox Church, and particularly the remembrance of God and by God, has a very special meaning. According to the Orthodox Faith, expressed and revealed in the Bible and the Liturgy, divine remembrance means glory and life, while divine forgetfulness means corruption and death. In Christ, God remembers man and his world. Remembering Christ, man remembers God and his Kingdom. Thus the remembrances of the Divine Liturgy are themselves a form of living communion between heaven and earth (see “Funerals,” above).


Our Father

Following the remembrances of the Divine Liturgy, the people pray to God to allow them to worship “with one mouth and one heart.” They then wish each other “the mercies of our Great God and Saviour Jesus Christ”; and, “having remembered all of the saints,” they sing the litany in which they beg God to receive the eucharistic gifts “upon His holy, heavenly and ideal altar,” and to “send down in return his divine grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Ending the litany with the prayer for “the unity of the Faith and the Communion of the Holy Spirit,” the faithful commend their lives to Christ asking to be made worthy “with boldness and without condemnation to dare to call upon the Heavenly God as Father and to say: ‘Our Father, Who art in heaven. . . ’.”

our father

In the Old Testament the People of God did not dare to address God in prayer with the intimate name of Father. Only in Christ and because of Christ can men have such boldness. Only Christians can properly use the Lord’s Prayer that was taught to them by the Son of God. Only those who have died and risen with Christ in baptism, and have received the power to become sons of God by the Holy Spirit in chrismation are enabled to approach the All-mighty God Most High as their Father (Jn 1.12; Mt 6.9; Rom 8.14; Gal 4.4).

In the early Church the Lord’s Prayer was taught to people only after they had become members of Christ through baptism and chrismation. Just before receiving the gifts of Holy Communion “for remission of sins, for forgiveness of transgressions, for the communion of the Holy Spirit and for the inheritance of the Kingdom of Heaven,” the faithful who have become children of God in Christ and the Spirit exercise their gift of divine sonship in the Saviour. They dare pray to God as to their very own Father.



After the Our Father, the children of God receive Holy Communion. The celebrant again offers the Peace of Christ to the people, and with bowed heads they pray together for their worthy participation in Holy Communion. The celebrant prays that Christ Himself would come to distribute His Body and Blood.

Attend O Lord Jesus Christ our God, out of Thy holy dwelling place, from the throne of the glory of Thy kingdom and come to sanctify us, O Thou who sittest on high with the Father and art here invisibly present with us, and by Thy mighty hand impart unto us Thy most pure Body and precious Blood, and through us to all of the people.


The consecrated Lamb is then elevated with the proclamation: “Holy Things are for the holy!” The people respond: “One is Holy! One is the Lord Jesus Christ! To the glory of God the Father, Amen.” The celebrant then breaks the Lamb into four pieces according to the way it was cut at the prothesis.


One piece of the sanctified bread (IC) is put into the chalice together with a cup of hot water which symbolizes the living character of the Risen Christ whose body and soul are reunited and filled with the Holy Spirit in the glorified life of the Kingdom of God.


The clergy then receive Holy Communion from the bread (XC), and drink from the consecrated cup. While the clergy participate in the Holy Mysteries, the people sing a special communion verse that changes according to the celebration. They may sing other hymns proper to the season as well, especially if the communion of the clergy takes a long time.


The faithful people receive Holy Communion on a spoon. They are given both the consecrated bread (NIKA), and the sanctified wine. The communion of the faithful is always from the gifts offered and sanctified at the given Divine Liturgy. Holy Communion is never taken from any “reserve.” As we have mentioned, all who are members of the Church through the sacraments of baptism and chrismation, including small children and infants, may partake of Holy Communion.


During the communion of the faithful the people sing: Receive the Body of Christ, Taste the Fountain of Immortality, Alleluia. Before the reception of Holy Communion generally, the following prayer is recited by all. It is each person’s act of personal commitment to Christ, with faith in Him and the Sacred Mysteries of His Church.

I believe O Lord and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first (see 1 Tim 1.15).

I believe also that this is truly Thine own most pure Body, and that this is truly Thine own most precious Blood. Therefore I pray Thee: Have mercy upon me and forgive me my transgressions.

And make me worthy to partake without condemnation of Thy most pure Mysteries, for the remission of sins and unto life everlasting.

Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant. For I will not speak of Thy Mystery to Thine enemies, neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss; but like the thief will I confess Thee: “Remember me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom.”

May the communion of Thy Holy Mysteries be neither to my judgment, nor to my condemnation, O Lord, but to the healing of soul and body.

Following Holy Communion in some churches it is the custom of the people to take some bread and wine. This helps them to receive the holy gifts, and to have something more to eat since they have been fasting.


After the communion of the people, the celebrant blesses them with the words: “O Lord, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance.” The people sing in response:

We have seen the True Light! We have received the Heavenly Spirit! We have found the True Faith! Worshiping the Undivided Trinity, Who has saved us.


The celebrant then blesses the faithful with the eucharistic chalice in which the gifts not received are still present, as he takes them to the table of oblation where the youngest member of the clergy consumes them. During the removal of the consecrated gifts the people sing:

Let our mouths be filled with Thy praise O Lord, that we may sing of Thy glory; for Thou hast made us worthy to partake of Thy Holy, Divine, Immortal and Life-creating Mysteries. Keep us in Thy holiness, that all the day we may meditate upon Thy righteousness. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

A litany of thanksgiving is then sung to the Lord with prayers of gratitude that he has blessed his people with participation in the “heavenly and immortal mysteries.” The prayers also ask God to keep the whole day “perfect, holy, peaceful and sinless;” that through the reception of Holy Communion, God would “make straight our path, strengthen us all in Thy fear; guard our lives, make firm our steps. . . .”

The songs and prayers following Holy Communion in the Divine Liturgy, as all parts of the holy service, presuppose that the members of the Church are partaking in the eucharistic mysteries and are receiving the gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood. The offertory, the anaphora, the epiklesis, the remembrances, the Our Father, and the communion itself all affirm the active participation of the faithful.

Thus it is obvious from the text of the Divine Liturgy as it is always served in the Orthodox Church that the reception of Holy Communion on the part of the people is a regular and normal part of the liturgy and the life of Christians. It is not to be reserved for special days or seasons, but is to be done prayerfully and carefully at all times when the Divine Liturgy is celebrated.

It may happen that all members of the Church are not prepared to receive Holy Communion at the Divine Liturgy. It is even reasonable to expect that this will often be the case, given the present conditions of life and the great number of people who are just nominally Christians. However, be that as it may, it must be very forcefully affirmed, without any reservations or doubts, that the prayers, hymns and actions of the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church presuppose the regular and normal participation of all of the people in Holy Communion; and that the failure on the part of the faithful to receive the Holy Mysteries of Christ is to deprive the Divine Liturgy of its essential meaning and purpose.

Benediction and Dismissal

After giving thanks to God for His gift of Holy Communion, the people are commanded by the celebrant of the liturgy to depart in peace. They respond to this command with the words: “In the Name of the Lord.”


A final prayer is read in the center of the Church, or at the icon of Christ, called the ambo prayer, in which the priest asks God’s blessing and peace upon all of his people, the Church and the world. In this prayer the believers also affirm with the Apostle James that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights” (Jas 1.17). Following this prayer which gives God “glory, thanksgiving, and worship,” the people sing three times: “Blessed be the Name of the Lord henceforth and forevermore.”

At this point the pastor of the community normally makes his announcements, greets his people and gives them his own personal blessing. The final benediction of the Divine Liturgy is then pronounced following the exclamation of glory to Christ as “our God and our Hope.”


The final liturgical blessing is the blessing of Christ. It always begins on the Lord’s Day with reference to His resurrection from the dead. On other days other references may be made to some saving aspect of the Lord’s person and work. In this final benediction the mercy and salvation of Christ, the Lover of Men, is called down upon his people through the intercessions of the Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary, and by the prayers of the saints of the day, the saint whose liturgy is served, the saints of the particular church, as well as all other saints especially venerated by the local community, such, for example, as Saint Herman of Alaska in the American Church.


After the final benediction, the people venerate the Cross held by the celebrant, and receive pieces of the bread from which the eucharistic offering was taken at the beginning of the liturgy. This bread is called the antidoron which means literally “in place of the gifts”, since it used to be given only to those who did not actually receive Holy Communion at the liturgy. Today usually all of the people take pieces of this bread for themselves, as well as for others absent from church.

The act of dismissal in the Divine Liturgy is as much a liturgical and sacramental action as was the original act of gathering. It is the final critical step of the entire movement of the liturgy. In their dismissal from the liturgical gathering, the People of God are commanded to go forth in peace into the world to bear witness to the Kingdom of God of which they were partakers in the Liturgy of the Church. They are commanded to take everything that they have seen and heard and experienced within the Church and to make it alive in their own persons within the life of this world. Only in this way can the presence and power of the Kingdom of God which is “not of this world” extend out of the Church and into the lives of men.

Those who have seen the True Light, who have received the Heavenly Spirit, who have found the True Faith at the liturgy of the Church; those who have partaken of the holy, divine, immortal and life-creating mysteries of Christ, become competent to make the very same proclamation and testimony that was made by the apostles and by all true Christians in every age and generation. It is for this reason that the Church of God and its Divine Liturgy exist.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—the Life was manifest and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the Eternal Life which was with the Father, and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have communion with us; and our communion is with the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ. And we are writing that your joy may be full (1 Jn 1.14).


Volume III - Church History

First Century

Christ and the Apostles

The first century of the Christian era begins with the birth of Jesus Christ from the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem. Christ lived, preached, did mighty acts, was crucified, rose again, and ascended into Heaven in the first several decades of the first century. After His Ascension into Heaven, God sent the Holy Spirit upon Christ’s disciples on the Feast of Pentecost (Acts 2), empowering them to take Christ’s Gospel to the ends of the known world.


During His life on earth, Jesus selected disciples—first the Twelve (Mt 10.2–4) and then the Seventy (Lk 10.1). He trained them to be the leaders of His Church. After Pentecost, the Apostles preached the Gospel of Christ far and wide. We do not know exactly where all the Apostles traveled, but we know a good deal about the missionary journeys of Saint Paul, which are recorded in the Book of Acts (chs. 13–28). In his extensive travels Saint Paul founded many churches in Asia Minor and Greece. All the Twelve Apostles (including Saint Matthias, who took Judas’s place—Acts 1.15–26) except Saint John, as well as many of the Seventy, died as martyrs for their faith in Christ.

The Gospels and Epistles, and all of the 27 writings which the Church eventually selected to be the New Testament Scriptures, were written in the first century. Also in this time, Christian communities were established in the main cities of Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, and Egypt, and even as far as Armenia and India.

Because the Church in Antioch was growing so much, Saints Paul and Barnabas went there to preach and teach. It was there that the followers of Christ were first called Christians (Acts 11.19–30). Also, this Church sent forth Saints Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (Acts 13.1). Antioch probably surpassed Jerusalem as the leading Christian center by the time the Christians fled from Jerusalem shortly before the outbreak of the Jewish Revolt against the Romans in 66 A.D.

The Church was also established in Rome. The natural prestige of the Church in Rome as the capital of the Empire was enhanced when the two greatest Apostles, Saints Peter and Paul, were both martyred there under Emperor Nero around 67 A.D. Their graves became important places of pilgrimage, and their common feastday (June 29) was established in the Church by the middle of the second century.

Though the first Christians were Jews, the early Christians wrote in Greek, the prevalent language in the Roman Empire. Even the Church in Rome used Greek until the beginning of the third century.


Second Century

The Church

The Christian Church was at first an urban phenomenon which only later spread to the rural areas. It was composed mainly of people from what we would call today the “middle classes” of society. It is not true that Christianity gained its foothold in the world primarily among uneducated and backward people who were looking for heavenly consolation in the face of oppressive and unbearable living conditions on earth.

Saint Cornelius the Centurion

The most important decision the Church had to make during the first century was whether non-Jewish people (Gentiles) could be received into the Church by faith in Christ without being required to follow the ritual requirements of the Mosaic Law, including circumcision. Based on Saint Paul’s understanding of the Old Testament, and on Saint Peter’s testimony about how the Roman centurion Cornelius and his household received the Holy Spirit even while Peter was still speaking to them (Acts 10 and 11), the first council of the Church, held in Jerusalem in about 49 A.D., decided that Gentile converts would not be subject to the Mosaic Law (Acts 15). Held under the leadership of Saint James, the Brother of the Lord and the first Bishop of Jerusalem, this council is considered the prototype of all subsequent Church councils.

While the Christian Church entered Roman imperial society “under the veil” of Judaism, quite soon it became separated from the Jewish faith. The Church embraced all those, of whatever ethnic background, who through belief in Jesus as Lord and Christ, and through repentance from sin, were incorporated into Christ’s Body, the Church, through Baptism. After Baptism, with the laying on of hands of an Apostle or one ordained by an Apostle, the new Christians received the gift of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2.37–39 and 8.14–17), and then participated in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Eucharist.

The separation of the Church from Judaism was made sharper when the Roman army in 70 A.D. crushed the revolt of the Jews against the rule of Rome. The Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple, putting an end to the worship and animal sacrifice (at first done in the Tabernacle, and then in the Temple) that was central to Judaism since the time of Moses. For the Christians, the destruction of the Temple was the fulfillment of Christ’s prophecy (Mt 24.1–2), and the final proof that the Lord Jesus had indeed given the Kingdom to all those who believed in Him, both Jews and Gentiles.

The Church was founded in each place as a local community. It often met in private houses, such as that of Saints Priscilla and Aquila—first in Ephesus (1 Cor 16.19) and then in Rome (Rom 16.3–5). These early congregations were led by those called bishops (overseers) or presbyters (elders) who received the laying-on-of-hands (ordination) from the Apostles (see Acts 14.23). As the Apostles themselves were called to spread the Gospel throughout the whole world, they did not serve as bishops, i.e., local leaders, of any particular Christian community in any place.

Each of the early Christian communities had its own unique character and challenges, as the New Testament writings reveal. Each church had great concern for the others, and they were all called to teach the same doctrines and to practice the same virtues, living together the same life of fellowship and sacramental worship in Christ and the Holy Spirit. Saint Luke writes that the first Church in Jerusalem “continued steadfastly in the Apostles’ doctrine and communion, in the breaking of the bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2.42). The bonds of love and faith were so strong among the first Christians that they “had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need” (Acts 2.44–45).

Thus, the preaching and interpretation of God’s gospel in Jesus, the basic structure of the Church, and the essential character of Christian worship were all firmly in place by the end of the first century.

The Apostolic Fathers

Saint Polycarp of Smyrna

Among the most famous of the Christian leaders and martyrs of the second century were the bishops Saint Clement of Rome (d. c. 102), Saint Ignatius of Antioch (d. c. 110), and Saint Polycarp of Smyrna (d. c. 157). Their writings, along with the Didache (the Teachings of the Twelve Apostles), the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the stirring Account of the Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp, which strongly attests to the veneration of martyrs and their relics, comprise the literature known as the Apostolic Fathers. Written in the years ­immediately after the era of the original Apostles, these invaluable writings provide a fascinating glimpse into what the Church believed, how it was structured, and how the Christians lived and worshiped in these early years. As such, these writings can be considered the sequel to the Book of Acts, and to the New Testament writings in general.




The Apologists

Martyr Justin the Philosopher

While the literature of the Apostolic Fathers was addressed to Christians for their instruction and edification, other Church leaders of the second century were writing to the outside world, explaining and defending Christianity—especially to those who were persecuting Christians out of misunderstanding and ignorance. These writings are called Apologies, or Defenses of the Faith, and their authors are called Apologists. The leading Apologists were the philosopher Saint Justin Martyr (d.c. 165); Saint Quadratus of Athens; Athenagoras of Athens; Saint Melito, Bishop of Sardis (d.c. 190); Saint Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch (d.c. 190); and Minucius Felix of western North Africa (d.c. 235). Often writing directly to the Roman emperor, the Apologists did much to help Christianity gain intellectual and social “respectability” in the greater Roman society.

Many of the Apologists also wrote essays and other things for the Church. Saint Melito of Sardis, for example, wrote a magnificent and long liturgical poem called “On Pascha.” In it we find wording almost identical to some of the language in the hymns for Great and Holy Friday. He writes about the Lord’s crucifixion:

He who hung the earth is hanging.
He who fixed the heavens in place has been fixed in place.
He who laid the foundations of the universe has been laid on a tree.
The Master has been profaned.
God has been murdered
(ch. 96).


Protecting the Church from Falsehood and Heresy

Near the end of the first century and on into the second century, many false writings about Christ were produced. Some of these were the so-called apocryphal writings (not to be confused with the Old Testament Apocrypha), or pseudepigrapha (see volume one on Scripture). These writings, each one usually bearing the name of an Apostle or another prominent New Testament figure in an attempt to give it more authority, introduced into Christian circles many fanciful, legendary stories about the childhood of Christ, the life of the Virgin Mary, and the activities of the Apostles.

Together with the pseudepigrapha, there also appeared the false teachings of Gnosticism, a group of related heresies which sought to transform Christianity into a kind of spiritualistic, dualistic, and intellectualistic philosophy (see Scripture). The first of the great Church Fathers, Saint Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (c. 130–c. 200), wrote a monumental work called Against Heresies, which powerfully refuted the various forms of Gnosticism.


In this work, Saint Irenaeus emphasized three crucial ways by which to distinguish heretical groups from true Christian Churches. First, all the true Churches, no matter where they are located, hold the same basic doctrines, known together as the rule of faith. In contrast, the various Gnostic groups disagree among themselves in their beliefs.

Second, all the authentic Churches can trace their origins back to one of the original Apostles, with their bishops coming down in direct descent from that Apostle; this is known as apostolic succession. The Gnostic groups, however, could not claim a similar lineage back to the Apostles.

Third, whereas the various Gnostic groups each had their own writings which they followed, the true Churches only considered the Gospels according to the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to be divinely inspired. Saint Irenaeus’s strong affirmation of these four Gospels helped to solidify the first crucial step in the very long and tremendously important process by which the organized Church selected the 27 books which would eventually comprise the New Testament Scriptures. In this canonization process the Church had to determine which of the many writings circulating among the various Christian communities were to be accepted as Scripture, and which ones were to be rejected.

The canonization process was not completed until the end of the 4th century. In fact, the earliest list of exactly the 27 New Testament books that we have today was not compiled until in 367 A.D. This list, drawn up by Saint Athanasius the Great, was based on the usage of his Church in Alexandria, Egypt.

Another dangerous threat to the stability and integrity of the Church in the 2nd century arose in about the year 160 in central Asia Minor—the sect known as Montanism. This strict, rigorist, fundamentalistic group arose partly in protest to what was perceived as a growing laxity of spiritual fervor and moral purity among the majority of Christians. Like many such groups throughout Christian history, they were overly apocalyptic, being convinced that Christ would return in their own day. And they also had an over-emphasis on supernatural manifestations such as prophecy, and probably also speaking in tongues.

Montanism was founded by a man named Montanus, who claimed that he and his two prophetesses, Priscilla and Maximilla, were the chosen instruments for the dawning of the End Times and a new, purer, more spiritually advanced Age of the Spirit. However, they prophesied in a strange, frenzied way, contrary to Saint Paul’s injunctions in 1 Cor 14.32–33 and 40. Also, some of their “prophetic” messages contradicted the Gospels and Saint Paul’s epistles—for instance, they forbade fleeing from persecution (violating Christ’s words in Mt 24.16); and they strictly prohibited second marriages (superseding Saint Paul’s words in 1 Cor 7.9 and 1 Tim 5.14). For these reasons, and also because of the movement’s judgmentalism and divisiveness, the Church condemned Montanism in several local councils in Asia Minor by the year 200.

The Quartodeciman Controversy

We also find near the end of the second century the first time occasion when the bishop of Rome tried to exert his authority over a group of Christians living outside of his area of jurisdiction—Rome and the surrounding region. This occurred in about 190, when Pope Victor I (ruled 189–199), the first Latin-speaking bishop of Rome, attempted to excommunicate the Christians in Asia Minor who were celebrating Pascha on the 14th of the Jewish month of Nisan, no matter what day of the week it fell on. Hence these Christians came to be known as Quartodecimans (i.e., the “Fourteeners”).

Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea (d. c. 340), the first great Church historian, in his History of the Church, reports that a number of bishops, including Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, “very sternly rebuked Victor” for this action, even though they agreed with him that Pascha should always be celebrated on a Sunday. Victor’s announcement of excommunication was ignored by the Quartodecimans, who continued their custom. When the First Ecumenical Council, in 325, mandated that all the Churches celebrate Pascha at the same time, most of the remaining “Quartodecimans” aligned their practice with that of the rest of the universal Church.

Church Order and Liturgy

In the writings of The Apostolic Fathers, the Apologists, and other early Fathers like Saint Irenaeus, it is seen that, at least by the middle of the second century, each local Christian Church was headed by one bishop who presided over a “college” of presbyters or elders, and who guided the more socially-oriented work of the deacons. Thus Saint lgnatius of Antioch writes in his letters:


I exhort you to strive to do all things in harmony with God: the bishop is to preside in the place of God, while the presbyters are to function as the council of the apostles, and the deacons, who are most dear to me, are entrusted with the ministry [diakonia; i.e., good works] of Jesus Christ (Letter to Magnesians 6.1).

Take care, then, to partake of one Eucharist; for one is the Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one the cup to unite us with His Blood, and one altar, just as there is one bishop assisted by the presbytery and the deacons, my fellow servants (Letter to Philadelphians 4).

Where the bishop appears, there let the people be, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic Church (Letter to Smyrneans 8.2).

Saint Ignatius was the first to use the term catholic to describe the Church. It is an adjective of quality that tells how every authentic Church is—namely, full, perfect, complete, and whole, with nothing lacking of the fullness of the grace, truth, and holiness of God.

To comment on one more of these early writings, the Didache is a kind of brief manual on Christian living and various Church practices compiled probably by the middle of the second century, but including material most likely coming from as early as the late first century. It contains several passages relating to Baptism and the Eucharist:

Baptize as follows: after explaining all of these points, baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, in running water. But if you do not have running water, use whatever is available. . . . And prior to baptism, both he who is baptizing and he who is being baptized should fast, along with any others who can (Didache 7.1–4).

Let no one eat and drink of your Eucharist except those who are baptized in the name of the Lord (Didache 9.5).

On the Lord’s own Day [i.e., Sunday], assemble in common to break bread and give thanks [i.e., the Eucharist; the word itself means ‘thanksgiving’]; but first confess your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure. However, no one quarreling with his brother may join your assembly until they are reconciled; for your sacrifice must not be defiled (Didache 14.1–2).

An early description of Christian worship,
by Saint Justin Martyr, c. 155 AD


And on the day which is called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together in one place, and the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits.

Then, when the reader has concluded, the president verbally instructs and exhorts us to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray. And as I said before, when we have ended our prayer, bread and wine and water are brought. And the president in like manner offers up prayers and thanksgivings according to his ability, and the people give their assent by saying ‘Amen.’ And there is a distribution to each and a partaking by everyone of the Eucharist, and to those who are absent a portion is brought by the deacons.

And those who are well-to-do and willing give as they choose, each as he himself purposes. The collection is then deposited with the president, who supports orphans and widows, and those who are in want owing to sickness or any other cause, and those who are in prison, and strangers who are sojourning with us. In a word, he takes care of all those who are in need.

Sunday is the day on which we hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead.
(First Apology 67)

Third Century



The third century opened with relatively widespread persecution of Christians under Emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193–211). The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas vividly recounts the victorious suffering of some of those who were martyred in Carthage (western North Africa) at this time. Also in this wave of persecution, in Alexandria in Egypt, Origen’s father, Saint Leonides, was martyred. And when Clement, the head of the important catechetical school there, fled the city, the brilliant and fervently pious Origen was appointed by Bishop Demetrius to be the head of the school, even though he was only about 18 years old.

The Christian Church lived in relative peace from the death of Septimius Severus to the time of Emperor Decius (r. 249–251). But very soon after Decius came to power, he inaugurated an intense persecution of Christians throughout the whole empire. This wave of persecution ended with his death in 251, but another wave began in 257 under Emperor Valerian (r. 253–260). In these times, not only were the Christians forced to sacrifice to the imperial gods, but also the higher clergy were specifically sought out to be executed, in the erroneous expectation that by eliminating the Church’s leaders, Christianity would wither and die.

Then, after Valerian’s death, his son, Emperor Gallienus (r. 260–268), stopped the policy of general persecution, and the Christians once more lived in relative peace, until the beginning of the next century. During this period, there was ongoing, steady growth in Church membership, which perhaps reached up to ten percent of the population in the Empire by the year 300—or about 6,000,000.


The Lapsed

The persecutions by Decius and Valerian, as well as the peaceful times which preceded and followed, brought a great interior crisis to the Christian Church in the third century. The question arose about how to care for the “lapsed”—Christians who had denied Christ under the threat of torture and execution, but who afterwards wanted to return to the Church. This sin of apostasy, as well as the sins of murder and adultery, were considered the three most heinous sins, and many in the Church thought that it was entirely inappropriate, if not downright impossible, for the Church, as the pure Bride of Christ, to offer the possibility of repentance and forgiveness for such sins. Hence, they felt that such sinners must endure lifelong excommunication.

Gradually, however, through the first half of the third century, most of the bishops were realizing that as the Body of Christ, the All-Merciful One Who came “not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Mt 9.13), the Church must allow for the possibility of heartfelt repentance for even the worst of sins. They were careful to stipulate, though, that such repentance must be worked out through a lengthy period of penitence, after which absolution and restoration to Eucharistic communion would be given through the proper channels under the authority of the bishops.

Many rigorists in the Church, however, refused to accept this pastoral decision. They preferred a concept of the Church as “the society of the pure” rather than as “the hospital for sinners.” One such figure was the illustrious Carthaginian theologian and Apologist, Tertullian (c. 160–c. 220), known as “the Father of Latin theology” for his prolific, insightful writings on many topics. But he always had rigorist tendencies. This made him susceptible to the claims of the Montanists, whom he joined in about 205, despite their having been officially condemned by several Church councils. Very sadly, he died outside the Church.

Another rigorist who objected to the Church offering the possibility of repentance for the worst sins was Hippolytus (c. 170–c. 235), a leading priest and theologian in Rome. He felt strongly that Bishop Zephyrinus (r. 198–217) of Rome and his successor Bishop Callistus (r. 217–222) were too “soft on sin” since they held a more lenient view.

Hippolytus also accused these two of being too “soft on heresy,” as they were slow to condemn the teaching of Sabellius, another priest in Rome. Sabellius taught that “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” were just three different names for God, rather than being the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity. As a result, in 217 Hippolytus refused to recognize the newly elected Callistus as the legitimate bishop of Rome and started his own church. Thus he became the first of over twenty different anti-popes in the history of the Roman Church.

But as it happened, some time after 230, both Hippolytus and Bishop Pontianus (r. 230–235) of Rome, during a brief period of persecution, were sent to the mines in Sardinia, where they were reconciled before their deaths. This is what made it possible for Hippolytus to be recognized as Saint Hippolytus.

After the Decian Persecution, a new rigorist sect arose in opposition to the Church’s policy of offering repentance to those who had lapsed and denied Christ during that period of persecution. This was Novatianism, founded by Novatian, a leading priest of Rome who led his followers into schism upon refusing to accept the authority of the newly elected Bishop Cornelius (r. 251–253), who favored mercy towards the lapsed if they were sincerely repentant. The virulent sect of Novatianism spread quickly through the Empire; it was still in existence in the 5th century.


The greatest defender of the Catholic Church at this time was Saint Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (c. 200–258), who strenuously opposed the so-called “pure Church” of the Novatianists—and especially the divisiveness of that movement. Although a great reader of Tertullian (most of whose works were written before he became a Montanist), Saint Cyprian defended the Catholic Church, with Her unbroken apostolic succession of bishops, against the newly formed spiritualistic “churches” of the rigorists, or maximalists. He stated in one of his most famous works, entitled On the Unity of the Church, which he wrote to prevent schism occurring in his own church:

Does he who does not hold this unity of the Church think that he holds the Faith? Does he who strives against and resists the Church trust that he is in the Church, when moreover the blessed Apostle Paul teaches the same thing, and sets forth the sacrament of unity, saying, ‘There is one body and one spirit, one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God’ [Eph 4.4]?

And this unity we ought firmly to hold and assert, especially those of us who are bishops, who preside in the Church, that we may also prove the episcopacy itself to be one and undivided. . . . The episcopacy is one, each part of which is held wholly by each one. The Church also is one. . . .

Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adulteress is separated from the promises of the Church; nor can he who who forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father who does not have the Church for his mother (On the Unity of the Church 4–6).

Saint Cyprian also strongly resisted the second attempt by a bishop of Rome to dictate to a Church beyond her territory. This occurred when Bishop Stephen I (r. 254–257) tried to force the Church of Carthage to receive converts from schismatic or heretical Christian groups by anointing with oil, or even just by a statement of faith, rather than by baptism, as long as the heretical baptism had been done with the proper form. Cyprian, taking a more rigorist stance on this issue, insisted that any sacraments done by those outside the canonical Church have no validity whatsoever; as he said, “How can he who does not have the Spirit impart the Spirit?”

While the Church through the centuries has generally taken Stephen’s approach on this difficult issue, Cyprian was certainly right in resisting Rome’s pretension to have authority over the Church of Carthage. As he said concerning such jurisdictional matters, “None of us claims to be a bishop of bishops or resorts to tyranny to obtain the consent of his brethren. Each bishop in the fullness of his freedom and his authority retains the right to think for himself; he is not subject to any other and he does not judge others.” And as in the time of Bishop Victor’s attempt to force the Quartodecimans to accept Roman practice, strong protests were raised by bishops from across the Empire against Bishop Stephen’s imperious attitude.

Development of Theology

The third century also witnessed the emergence of the first formal school of Christian theology. It was located in Africa—in Alexandria, Egypt. Founded in about 180 A.D. by Pantaenus, a converted Stoic philosopher, the school was developed and strengthened by Clement (d. c. 215), and crowned by the outstanding theologian and scholar Origen (c. 185–254). Whereas Tertullian strongly rejected any alliance between “Athens and Jerusalem”—that is, between pagan philosophy and Christian revelation—the Alexandrians insisted that Greek philosophy was preparation for the Christian Gospel. They affirmed that the glimmers of truth discerned by the great pagan philosophers, poets, and dramatists all point to, and are fulfilled and completed by, the truth of the Christian Faith. Hence, Christianity can be seen to be the Highest Philosophy, the culmination of all human philosophical endeavor. Thus, Origen wrote to his illustrious disciple Saint Gregory the Wonderworker (c. 213–c. 270),

I desire you to take from the philosophy of the Greeks what may serve as a course of study or a preparation for Christianity, and from geometry and astronomy what may serve to explain the sacred Scriptures, in order that all that the philosophers say about geometry and music, grammar, rhetoric, and astronomy, we may say about philosophy itself, in relation to Christianity.

The work of Origen was phenomenal. He wrote numberless treatises on many themes. He is known as the “Father of Biblical Criticism” for the Hexapla, his monumental, six-fold, critical (meaning trying to determine the most accurate text) edition of the Old Testament, and for his commentaries on most of the books of the Bible. He is also known as the “Father of Systematic Theology,” mostly for his work called On First Principles, the first of its kind, in which he systematically treated all the major doctrines of the Christian Faith. In general, his work laid the foundation for virtually all subsequent theological scholarship in the Greek Church.

However, in some of his works Origen made use of various problematic Platonistic teachings as he tried to explain certain mysteries of the Faith which the Church had not yet officially clarified. In time, these Platonistic speculations led to various heresies, mostly among certain monks who considered some of these questionable teachings to be dogma. As this problem increased, by the middle of the 6th century, out of a pastoral concern to put an end to these divisive heresies, the Church took the drastic step of condemning Origen himself, as well as his erroneous teachings, at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in the year 553.

Saint Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria

Among the major theologians of the third century who also must be mentioned are Saint Dionysius the Great, Bishop of Alexandria (d. 264); Saint Gregory the Wonderworker, Bishop of Neocaesarea in Cappadocia (d.c. 270); and Saint Methodius, Bishop of Olympus in western Asia Minor (d. 311). Saint Dionysius, the dynamic bishop of Alexandria from 247 until his death in 264, was noted for his efforts in helping to end disputes of various kinds among and within the Churches around the Mediterranean Basin. He led the opposition to the heretical teachings of Paul of Samosata, Bishop of Antioch, and may have died at the first council in Antioch that condemned Paul’s erroneous speculations about the Holy Trinity and about Christ.

It is interesting to note that when Paul did not cease his erroneous teachings, a subsequent council in Antioch, held in 268, reaffirmed the condemnation of his speculations and deposed him as bishop. However, he refused to give up the episcopal throne and residence. Finally, in 272 the Church appealed to Emperor Aurelian (r. 270–275), who had recently won back Antioch from the Kingdom of Palmyra, to remove Paul by force. This he did, after conferring with “the bishops of the religion in Italy and Rome” (as presumably impartial judges, as reported by Bishop Eusebius in his History of the Church VII.30.19), who assured him that the Church in the East had indeed acted properly in deposing Paul.

This was apparently the first time the Church ever appealed to the civil authorities for assistance. It is perhaps a sign of the Church’s growing &lquo;self-confidence” regarding its place and stature in Roman society that it would make such a request from the emperor, who just as easily could have been persecuting Christians. It also can be seen as prophetic of the alliance of the Church with the State that will gradually develop during the fourth century.

Concerning Saint Gregory the Wonderworker, it is said that upon his return to his hometown of Neocaesarea after his five years in Palestine, there were only 17 Christians; but at his death, after being bishop for about 30 years, there were only 17 pagans. Though Gregory was converted to Christianity by Origen, and though Origen was his teacher for five years, there is no evidence of Origen’s problematic, misleading speculations in Gregory’s writings.

And Saint Methodius, a prolific writer and important theologian, was one of the first Christian leaders to point out and refute various erroneous speculations in Origen’s works. Methodius’s only work which comes down to us in its entirety is called The Symposium, or the Banquet of the Ten Virgins. Interestingly, this treatise contains an especially positive understanding of marriage and marital relations, even though its overarching theme is praise for a life of consecrated virginity. He died as a martyr near the end of the Diocletian Persecution.

Liturgical Development


Writings also exist from the third century which give many insights into the canonical and liturgical life of the Church in this era. These are the so-called Teachings of the Apostles from Syria, and the Apostolic Tradition of Saint Hippolytus of Rome, the last Church leader in the West who wrote in Greek. The former gives regulations concerning the hierarchical offices and the sacramental practices in the Church of Syria, and it describes the liturgical assembly. The latter gives similar information, in a more lengthy and detailed way, about the Church in Rome—though it probably also reflects influence from Alexandria. It contains the text of the oldest fixed Eucharistic prayer in Church history that we possess, as well as the form for the sacraments of Baptism, Chrismation, and Ordination.

Baptism and Chrismation in the
Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus

And when he who is to be baptized goes down to the water, let him who baptizes lay a hand on him, saying thus: “Dost thou believe in God the Father Almighty?”

And he who is being baptized shall say: “I believe.”

Let him forthwith baptize him once, having laid his hand upon his head. And after this, let him say: “Dost thou believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, Who was crucified in the days of Pontius Pilate; and died and was buried; and He rose the third day living from the dead; and ascended into heaven; and sat down at the right hand of the Father; and will come to judge the living and the dead?”

And when he says: “I believe,” let him baptize him the second time.

And again let him say:

“Dost thou believe in the Holy Spirit in the Holy Church, and the resurrection of the flesh?”

And he who is being baptized shall say: “I believe.”

And so let him baptize him the third time.

And afterwards when he comes up from the water, he shall be anointed by the presbyter with the Oil of Thanksgiving, saying:

“I anoint thee with holy oil in the Name of Jesus Christ.”

And so each one drying himself with a towel, they shall now put on their clothes, and after this let them be together in the assembly (Church).
And the Bishop shall lay his hand upon them, invoking and saying:

“O Lord God, who didst count these Thy servants worthy of deserving the forgiveness of sins by the laver of regeneration, make them worthy to be filled with Thy Holy Spirit and send upon them Thy grace, that they may serve Thee according to Thy will, for to Thee is the glory, to the Father and to the Son with the Holy Spirit in the Holy Church, both now and ever and world without end. Amen.”

After this, pouring the consecrated oil from his hand and laying his hand on his head, he shall say:

“I anoint thee with holy oil in God the Father Almighty and Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit.”

And sealing him on the forehead, he shall give him the kiss of peace and say: “The Lord be with you.”

And he who has been sealed shall say: “And with thy spirit.”

And so he shall do to each one severally.

Thenceforward they shall pray together with all the people. But they shall not previously pray with the faithful before they have undergone all these things.

And after the prayers, let them give the kiss of peace.

Eucharist in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus

Celebrant: “The Lord be with you.”

People: “And with thy spirit.”

Celebrant: “Lift up your hearts.”

People: “We have them in the Lord.”

Celebrant: “Let us give thanks to the Lord.”

People: “That is proper and right.”

Celebrant: “We thank Thee God through Thy beloved servant Jesus Christ Whom Thou hast sent in the latter times to be our Savior and Redeemer and the messenger of Thy counsel, the Logos Who went out from Thee, through Whom Thou hast created all things, Whom Thou wast pleased to send out from heaven into the womb of the Virgin, and in her body He became incarnate and was shown to be Thy Son born of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin. In order to fulfill Thy will and to make ready for Thee a holy people, He spread out His hands when He suffered in order that He might free from sufferings those who have reached faith in Thee.

“And when He gave Himself over to voluntary suffering, in order to destroy death, and to break the bonds of the devil, and to tread down hell, and to illuminate the righteous, and to set up the boundary stone, and to reveal the Resurrection, He took bread, gave thanks, and said: ‘Take, eat, this is My body which is broken for you.’ In the same manner also He took the cup, and said: ‘This is My blood which is poured out for you. As often as you do this you keep My memory.’

“When we remember His death and His resurrection in this way, we bring to Thee the bread and the cup, and give thanks to Thee, because Thou hast thought us worthy to stand before Thee and to serve Thee as priests.

“And we beseech Thee that Thou wouldst send down Thy Holy Spirit on the sacrifice of the Church. Unite them, and grant to all the saints who partake in the sacrifice, that they may be filled with the Holy Spirit, that they may be strengthened in faith in the truth, in order that we may praise and laud Thee through Thy servant, Jesus Christ, through Whom praise and honor be to Thee in Thy Holy Church now and forevermore. Amen.”

Fourth Century


Greatmartyr Demetrius

Early in the fourth century began the longest and most extensive persecution ever waged against the Church. It was started in 303 by Emperor Diocletian (r. 284–305), at the urging of his deputy emperor in the East, Galerius, who began to suspect the loyalty and valor of the Christian soldiers in the military. During this nine-year persecution, soldier-martyrs like Saint George of Nicomedia proved their courage in enduring fearsome tortures and death on behalf of the true emperor, the King of Glory. Among the other more well-known martyrs of this period are Saint Katherine the Greatmartyr of Alexandria; Saint Panteleimon of Nicomedia; Saint Demetrius the Greatmartyr of Thessalonica and his friend Saint Nestor; Saints Agapia, Chionia, and Irene of Aquileia; and the 20,000 Martyrs of Nicomedia.

After Diocletian abdicated the throne in 305, Galerius became the Emperor in the East. He continued the attack against Christianity until he was on his deathbed, when he asked the Christians to pray for him. After his death in 311, his former deputy emperor, Maximin, renewed the persecution for another year, until he was overthrown by Licinius.

Meanwhile, Constantine was proclaimed emperor in the West in York, England, in 306, upon the death of his father, the deputy emperor Constantius. In 312, as Constantine was moving with his troops towards Rome to fight against Maxentius, the tyrannical ruler there, he had a vision or a dream that dramatically changed the course of history. He saw in the sky the Cross or Labarum (Chi Rho: XP) of Christ with the words, “In this sign, conquer.” He placed this Christian symbol on his troops’ tunics and shields, and they won the battle—known as the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.

Saints Constantine and Helen

With this Christ-inspired victory, Constantine not only became the sole emperor in the West; he also became a stronger believer in the God of the Christians. So he acted very quickly to bring the era of persecution of Christians to an official end. In February of 313, Constantine met Licinius, the ruler of the Eastern half of the empire, in Milan. Together they issued the Edict of Milan giving freedom to Christians to practice their Faith in the empire—as well as affirming general religious freedom for everyone. Now recognized as a legal entity, the Church expanded and flourished greatly during the 4th century—so much so that in the last decade of the century, Emperor Saint Theodosius the Great (r. 379–395), with advice from Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (c. 339–397), made Christianity the official state religion of the Empire.

forty martyrs
Forty Martyrs of Sebaste

In about 320, the eastern emperor Licinius began persecuting Christians in the military. The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste and the Greatmartyr Theodore Stratelates died for Christ in this time. Partly because of this betrayal by Licinius of the Edict of Milan, Constantine led his troops against him. By 324 Constantine had defeated Licinius, thus becoming sole emperor of the whole empire, both East and West.

Excerpts from the Edict of Milan

When with happy auspices I, Constantinus Augustus, and I, Licinius Augustus, had arrived at Milan, and were enquiring into all matters that concerned the advantage and benefits of the public, among the other measures directed to the general good, or rather as questions of highest priority, we decided to establish rules by which respect and reverence for the Deity would be secured, i.e, to give the Christians, and all others, liberty to follow whatever form of worship they chose, so that whatsoever divine and heavenly powers that exist might be enabled to show favor to us and to all who live under our authority. . . . we have given the said Christians free and absolute permission to practice their own form of worship. . . .

With regard to the Christians, we also give this further ruling. In the letter sent earlier to Your Dedicatedness, precise instructions were laid down at an earlier date with reference to their places where earlier on it was their habit to meet. We now decree that if it should appear that any persons have bought these places either from our treasury or from some other source, they must restore them to these same Christians without payment and without any demand for compensation, and there must be no negligence or hesitation. . . . All this property is to be handed over to the Christian body immediately, by energetic action on your part, without any delay.

And since the aforesaid Christians not only possessed those places where it was their habit to meet, but are known to have possessed other places also, belonging not to individuals but to the legal estate of the whole body, i.e., of the Christians, all this property, in accordance with the law set forth above, you will order to be restored without any argument whatever to the aforesaid Christians.

In the next year Emperor Constantine had a dream which he believed was given to him by God, directing him to build a magnificent Christian city at the site of the ancient town of Byzantium. Very strategically located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, this city was officially dedicated in 330 as Constantinople (meaning “City of Constantine”), the new imperial capital. The emperor helped to build churches there, in particular the Church of the Holy Apostles, where he was buried upon his death in 337.

Saint Helen

Another highlight of his reign was the visit of his mother, Saint Helen, to Palestine. There she made pilgrimage to the holy sites of Christ’s life. With divine guidance she made a discovery that inflamed the heart of the Christian world. Near the hill of Golgotha outside Jerusalem, she found the True Cross on which Christ was crucified. Constantine helped to build churches at some of these sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and Jerusalem quickly became a great center of pilgrimage for the entire Christian world.

The era of Constantine is sometimes seen in the West as the beginning of the corruption of the pure Christianity of the Early Church. During the fourth century, millions more people become Christians, many of whom may not have had the spiritual fervor of the early Christians. But for Orthodox Christians, the great importance of Constantine is that with his conversion to the true faith, what was only a seemingly impossible dream now became possible: namely, the conversion of the entire society—the whole empire—to Christ.

Constantine not only allowed the Church to operate freely; he also specifically helped it in many ways. He restored or made restitution for properties that Christians had lost during the Diocletian Persecution. He sponsored copies of the Scriptures to be produced. He helped many churches to be built. He entrusted the Church with substantial amounts of tax revenue to use for charitable work. He gave the Lateran Palace to the bishop of Rome to be his residence. And he made it easier for the populace to attend church on Sunday by making it a weekly holiday—thus forming, along with Saturday (the Sabbath), the weekend which we still have. This was not an arbitrary decision on his part; rather, he was honoring Sunday as “the Lord’s Day,” the day of Christian worship from the very beginning (Rev 1.10; Acts 20.7; 1 Cor 16.2; also Saint Justin Martyr, First Apology 67).

In addition, Constantine began to bring Christian influence into the law code. In 316 a law was passed prohibiting branding criminals on the face “because man is made in God’s image.” He ended the special taxation of single people (which Augustus Caesar had instituted to try to reverse a downward trend in the population of Italy in his day), thus honoring the Christian practice of consecrated virginity. Constantine also made grants of money to poor families to help them support their children, thus discouraging the practice of exposure of infants by parents who felt they could not provide for them. And he exempted Christian clergy from every form of civic duty—so that, in his words, “they will be completely free to serve their own law at all times. In thus rendering wholehearted service to the Deity, it is evident that they will be making an immense contribution to the welfare of the community”” (Eusebius, History of the Church 10.5).

Another typical Western view is that Constantine initiated the process whereby the Eastern Church became subject to and dominated by the Emperor—a state of affairs called caesaropapism. In reality, while there were some notable exceptions, most of the time the Eastern Church functioned in harmony with the State in a relationship known as symphonia. In this arrangement, the Church was responsible for the spiritual welfare of the people, while the Emperor was responsible for their physical and material well-being. The Emperor had the responsibility to defend and protect the realm; thus he was also seen as defending and protecting the Faith of the realm. But this did not mean that he was dominating the Church. Rather, he was helping to assure that it could continue to function in peace.

The emperor sometimes recognized the need to help the Church to resolve internal disputes. At such times he would use his authority to summon Church councils. Thus, it was an emperor or empress who called each of the Seven Great Ecumenical Councils (called “Ecumenical” because they were received by the entire Church). But this does not mean that the State was interfering in its life. Rather, the emperor or empress acted in collaboration with Church leaders in calling these councils, and allowed the Church to reach its own decisions during the councils.

Sadly, however, some emperors did use their authority to support heretical teachings. The most prominent and grievous example is the era of the six Iconoclastic emperors in the 8th and 9th centuries.

For all of Constantine’s great efforts on behalf of the Christian Church and in promoting its influence in his vast domain, and for his own repentance and life of faith, he is revered in the Eastern Church as Saint Constantine the Great, Equal-to-the-Apostles. He and his illustrious mother, Saint Helen, are honored together on May 21. Interestingly, he is not considered a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, no doubt partly because of his permanent removal of the imperial capital from Rome to Constantinople.

The Donatist Schism

Though the Church was free from external persecution in the era of Constantine, inner troubles soon arose to disturb its peace. First, there was the Donatist Schism that erupted in western North Africa. This was a schism between those who supported a certain Majorinus—soon afterwards succeeded by Donatus—to be the bishop of Carthage, and those who supported the regularly elected bishop, Caecilian. The Donatists opposed Bishop Caecilian because he was willing to grant the possibility of repentance to those who had lapsed during the Diocletian Persecution, and because one of the bishops who consecrated him allegedly had surrendered holy books to the authorities.

In an attempt to help the Church resolve this conflict, Constantine summoned the parties to Rome to appear before a commission led by Pope Miltiades. When this commission decided in favor of Bishop Caecilian, the Donatists refused to accept the judgment. They complained to Constantine that the matter had been judged too hastily and by too few other bishops. Yielding to their request to reopen the case, the emperor summoned a much larger council to address the problem. This Council of Arles (in Gaul—modern day France) in 314 also decided against the Donatists.

But still the Donatists refused to be reconciled with Bishop Caecilian, and in 316 Constantine resorted to the use of force to try to bring the schism to an end. Unfortunately, this gave the movement an aura of martyrdom. Fueled by the anti-Roman feelings of the native Berber population of the region, the schism became more deeply entrenched than ever.

Constantine stopped using force against the Donatists in 321, but the schism continued into the next century. The Church in western North Africa never fully recovered from this grievous schism, so that when the Muslims swept across this region in the 7th century, there was little resistance from the Christians, and Christianity was virtually obliterated there.



Shortly after the beginning of the Donatist schism, the Arian controversy arose. Arius, an Alexandrian presbyter, began teaching some time before 318 that the Logos, the Word of God who became man—Jesus Christ—is not the divine Son of God. For Arius, the Son of God is not the pre-existent, eternally existing, uncreated Second Person of the Holy Trinity, but a created being—created out of nothing, like everything else, by God the Father.

According to Arius, God is not the uncreated Holy Trinity. Rather, God is the Father, the Creator, alone. For Arius, God the Father created His Logos, or Word, or Son, as the first and greatest of His creatures. This Logos then earned the right to be worshiped as God because of His constant devotion to the Father. Thus the Son became God’s instrument for the salvation of the world, being born as the man Jesus. Hence, for Arius, Jesus Christ is not the uncreated, divine Son of God having exactly the same uncreated divine nature that God the Father has. Rather, He is a created being, as is the Holy Spirit.

Saint Lucian

Saint Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria (r. 312–328), tried to convince Arius to stop this teaching that directly subverted the Bible and the traditional teaching and worship of the Church. But Arius refused to desist. Instead, he appealed far and wide for support. He found his most powerful ally in Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia, his former classmate in the Christian school at Antioch led by Saint Lucian (d. 312). Ironically, it was this Arian-sympathizing Bishop Eusebius who eventually became the court theologian to Emperor Constantine in his later years, and who baptized him on his deathbed in 337.






The First Ecumenical Council

Saint Nicholas

Soon after Emperor Constantine took up residence in Nicomedia, the eastern capital, after his victory over Licinius, he was chagrined to learn of this new controversy that was troubling the whole Eastern Church. So, with the advice of St Hosius, Bishop of Spain (c. 257–357), his theological advisor, he summoned the largest council of bishops ever held up to that point. It opened on May 20, 325, in the city of Nicea, near Nicomedia. Constantine himself gave the opening address. According to tradition, 318 bishops were in attendance, including the famous and greatly beloved Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra in Lycia, and Saint Spyridon, Bishop of Tremithus in Cyprus.

Saint Spyridon

This council, known now as the First Ecumenical Council, decreed that the Logos, the Word and Son of God, is uncreated, ever-existent, and fully divine. He is begotten—that is, “born” or generated—from the Father, and not made or created by Him. He is of one essence (in Greek, homoousios) with the Father. He is true God of true God, the Word of God by Whom all things were made (Jn 1.3; Heb 1.2). It is this uncreated, only-begotten, divine Son of God Who became man from the Virgin Mary as Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world.

The Council of Nicea also decreed a number of canons (i.e., Church regulations) concerning various issues of order and discipline in the Church. Canon 6 confirmed the jurisdictional authority of Alexandria over Egypt and the neighboring regions of Libya and Pentapolis, “since the like is customary for the Bishop of Rome also [meaning that the Roman Church, in a corresponding way, had jurisdictional authority only over Rome and its neighboring territory—at that time, most likely central Italy]. Likewise in Antioch and the other provinces let the Churches retain their privileges.” This canon clearly ratifies the ancient practice of the Churches in the major cities each having full jurisdictional authority only over the surrounding region.

Concerning the lapsed, Canon 11 offered the possibility of restoration to Eucharistic communion, but only after a period of 12 years of heartfelt contrition, in three stages:

Concerning those who have fallen without compulsion, without the spoiling of their property, without danger or the like, as happened during the tyranny of Licinius, this Synod declares that, though they have deserved no mercy, they shall be dealt with mercifully. Those who were previously communicants, if they heartily repent, shall spend three years among the hearers; for seven years they shall be prostrators; and for two years they shall join the people in prayers, but still as yet without receiving the Eucharistic gifts.

Canon 20 prohibited the practice of penitential kneeling during the Church’s Sunday Liturgy, as well as during the entire Pentecostarion season.


The Nicene Council also established guidelines for determining the date of the annual celebration of Pascha—thus helping to bring the Quartodecimans’ practice to an end.

Finally, this council affirmed once and for all, at least for the Eastern Churches, the propriety of allowing married men to be ordained as deacons, presbyters, and at that time even bishops, and to still have a normal married life. While the Roman Church during the 4th century began trying to force its clergy to be celibate, it was not until the 12th century that it was finally able to enforce this rule.




Saint Athanasius and his defence of Nicea

The doctrinal definition of the Nicene Council was not universally accepted throughout the Church for a long time. The Arian controversy raged for over five more decades, and because several Christian emperors in this period gave their support to the Arianizers, the defenders of the Nicene Faith were greatly persecuted. With imperial support, Church councils were held in Milan, Sirmium, Rimini, Seleucia, and elsewhere, to try to articulate the mystery of Christ’s divinity and humanity, but all with varying degrees of Arian influence.

Saints Athanasius and Cyril

Saint Athanasius (c. 298–373) attended the Nicene Council as a deacon of the Church in Alexandria. Though only 27 years old, he was a leader at that council in promoting the crucial word homoousios as most fitting to affirm the truth that the Son of God has the same uncreated divine nature as God the Father.

Athanasius became Bishop of Alexandria in 328, upon the death of Saint Alexander. As the anti-Nicene party, led by Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, gained strength, Bishop Athanasius was one of the first to be attacked through slander and intrigue. This group managed to get him exiled from his see in 335. Altogether, this fearless champion of Nicene Orthodoxy suffered exile five times for his valiant and eloquent defense of the Christian Faith. Near the end of his life, his pastoral, forgiving outreach to his former enemies greatly helped to bring Arianism to an end. For all this and more, he is revered in Church Tradition as Saint Athanasius the Great.




New Heresies

Compounding the problems for the Church in these middle decades of the 4th century, new heresies arose. One was Macedonianism—named after Macedonius, an archbishop of Constantinople. The Macedonians accepted the Nicene declaration about Christ being “of one essence with the Father,” but they denied that the Holy Spirit was fully divine, saying that He was a created being. Because of this belittling of the Spirit, this group was also called the Pneumatomachians (meaning “fighters against the Spirit”).

Saint Basil the Great

The Church Father who led the battle against this heresy was Saint Basil the Great (c. 330–379). In his work called On the Holy Spirit, he refuted Macedonianism by pointing out from the Holy Scriptures and the sacramental life of the Church all the things that the Holy Spirit does as the “the Spirit of God” and “the Spirit of Christ.” Following Saint Athanasius in his Letters to Serapion, Saint Basil never called the Holy Spirit “God.” The first holy father to do this was Saint Gregory the Theologian.

Saint Basil is also remembered for his wise and firm guidance of the rapidly growing monastic movement, thus keeping it safely within the confines of the Church. His Longer and Shorter Rule, written for the monastic movement, emphasized the communal form of monasticism—as he writes, “since man is by nature a social creature”—with each monastery headed by its abbot, under the authority of the local bishop.

Another new heresy was Apollinarianism, which originated with the speculations of Apollinaris of Laodicea about how Christ can be both divine and human at the same time. He deduced that when the pre-eternal Word of God, the Logos, entered the body of Jesus, the Logos took the place of Jesus’ soul. In such a scheme, Jesus is denied having full and complete humanity.

Saint Gregory the Theologian

Saint Gregory the Theologian (c. 330–389), Bishop of Sasima and then of Constantinople refuted Apollinarianism. As he declared, whatever belongs to human nature that Christ did not take to Himself has not been saved and healed. If Jesus had no human soul, He simply was not a human being, and humanity is not saved.

Saint Gregory, Saint Basil the Great’s best friend, is also remembered for finally refuting the Arians by his brilliant and beautiful preaching that won him the title “The Theologian.” This title has been given to only two others in the history of the Church: Saint John the Theologian, the Apostle and Evangelist, and Saint Symeon the New Theologian (949–1022).





The Second Ecumenical Council

Emperor Theodosius the Great came to the imperial throne of the eastern part of the Roman Empire in 379. A strong supporter of the Nicene Faith, he wanted to help the Church finally put an end to the various forms of Arianism which had cropped up since the Council of Nicea. He also understood that Macedonianism and Apollinarianism had to be addressed. In 381 he called a Church council in Constantinople which would come to be known as the Second Ecumenical Council.

This council condemned all forms of Arianizing doctrines by reaffirming the doctrinal statement, or creed, which had been proclaimed at the Nicene Council. It also condemned Macedonianism, and proclaimed the divinity of the Holy Spirit in a paragraph added to the Creed of Nicea. It is this Creed, the combined work of the first two Ecumenical Councils, which Orthodox Christians we recite at baptismal services and the Divine Liturgy. Also known as the Symbol of Faith, it is the most important Christian creed ever written. This council also condemned the teachings of Apollinaris.

The canons adopted at this council reaffirmed the fundamental principle of Church organization—that each region is self-governing:

The bishops are not to go beyond their dioceses to churches lying outside of their bounds, nor bring confusion on the churches. But let the Bishop of Alexandria, according to the canons, alone administer the affairs of Egypt. And let the bishops of the East manage the East alone, with the privileges of the Church in Antioch, which are mentioned in the canons of Nicea, being preserved. And let the bishops of the Asian Diocese [i.e., western Asia Minor] administer the Asian affairs only; and the Pontic bishops [in northcentral Asia Minor] only Pontic matters; and the Thracian bishops [in Thrace; directly west of Constantinople] only Thracian affairs. . . . it is evident that the synod of every province will administer the affairs of that particular province, as was decreed at Nicea (Canon 2).

Canon 3 from this council is also significant:

The Bishop of Constantinople, however, shall have the prerogative of honor after the Bishop of Rome, because Constantinople is New Rome.

This canon affirmed that the Church in Constantinople, the new imperial capital called “New Rome,” would naturally assume leading importance, though the Church in Old Rome would retain its traditional position as “first among equals.”

Saint Gregory of Nyssa

At this time the bishop of Old Rome was Pope Damasus (r. 366–384), who was intent on extending the power of his see as much as possible. He rejected this canon, despite its assurance that Old Rome still had “the prerogative of honor.” This is a clear sign of a growing ­difference in basic understanding of the Church between East and West, which will be a major cause of the Great Schism of 1054.

Saint Gregory the Theologian, Saint Gregory of Nyssa—the other of the three great Cappadocian Fathers, along with his older brother, Saint Basil the Great—and Saint Meletios, Bishop of Antioch, were leaders at the Second Ecumenical Council.






Liturgical Development

Saint Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem

In the 4th century, the Eucharistic prayers of the two most prominent liturgies of the Eastern Church—the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great, and the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople (d. 407)—were substantially formulated. The catechetical sermons of Saint John Chrysostom, together with those of Saint Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem (d. 386), show that the sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation were being celebrated in the fourth century almost exactly as they are done in the Orthodox Church today.

By this time, the 40-Day Great Lent and the Feast of Pascha (Easter) were well established. And the Feast of the Nativity of Christ (Christmas) was separated from the Feast of Theophany (Epiphany), thus becoming a separate feast of the Church (see Worship).






With the end of the era of persecution and the rapid growth of Christianity in the cities, many Christians, both men and women, were drawn to wilderness areas to serve God alone, and to fight the devil. Some lived completely in isolation as hermits. Others lived near famous elders to be led by their spiritual guidance. And still others gathered together to live in communities—the first monasteries.

Saint Paul of Thebes

The ascetical life led by the monastics came to be seen as a white, bloodless martyrdom, marked by constant dying to one’s passions and desires. Not rejecting the world as something evil, the monastics served the world in the most effective way possible—by their constant prayer for the whole world, and by giving spiritual counsel to those who came to visit them.

Saint Anthony the Great

Monasticism began in Egypt in the 3rd century. Saint Paul of Thebes (c. 230–340) was apparently the first hermit in the Egyptian desert. He was seen by Saint Anthony the Great (c. 250–356), the one traditionally considered to be the founder of monasticism, who lived in isolation for many years before allowing disciples to begin living around him. The very vivid and dramatic Life of Anthony, written by Saint Athanasius the Great, did much to popularize monasticism, especially in Western Europe. The 38 “sayings” of Anthony in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers remain to this day a superb teaching of the Christian spiritual life.

Saint Martin of Tours

The Life of Saint Martin of Tours (d. 397), written by Sulpicius Severus, was intentionally modeled on the Life of Anthony. Saint Martin was a Roman soldier who became a Christian after beholding a vision of Christ in which the Lord commended him for giving half his cloak to a cold beggar. Together with Saint Hilary of Poitiers (c. 315–367), who is known as the “Saint Athanasius of the West” for his ardent defense of the Nicene Faith, Saint Martin established the first monastery in Gaul (modern-day France).

Saint Pachomius

Communal, or cenobitic, monasticism was founded in Egypt by Saint Pachomius (c. 290–346). His monastic Rule greatly influenced Saint Basil the Great, as well as Saint John Cassian (c. 360–435), who founded two monasteries in southern Gaul with the ethos of Egyptian monasticism, as well as Saint Benedict of Nursia (c. 480–c. 550), whose Rule guided nearly all of Western monasticism for some 500 years.

One of the first monks to write about the spiritual and ascetical life was Saint Macarius the Great (c. 300–390) of Egypt. The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, traditionally ascribed to him or his disciples, are some of the most powerful spiritual treatises ever written. Evagrius of Ponticus (346–399), a disciple of Saint Macarius, also wrote important spiritual works, but some of his writing is considered to be tinged with Origenistic teachings.

Saint John Chrysostom

Saint John Chrysostom

Saint John Chrysostom (c. 347–407) lived for several years as a monk in the caves near his hometown of Antioch. However, he so injured his health through his severe asceticism that he came back into the city to live. Eventually he was ordained as a presbyter and given the major preaching duties in the cathedral in Antioch. Having been trained in rhetoric by Libanius of Antioch, one of the last great pagan rhetoricians of the ancient world, John flourished as a preacher, coming to be known as the Golden-Mouth (this is what “Chrysostom” means).

Many of Saint John’s sermons were preached in series as he went through various books of the Bible verse by verse. He eloquently interpreted and explained the texts with great practical wisdom and deeply penetrating spiritual fervor. Hence he is honored in the Church as not only the greatest preacher who ever lived, but also as the greatest Biblical commentator in the Eastern Church.

Saint Olympias

In 398 Saint John was made Archbishop of Constantinople. Partly because he alienated Empress Eudoxia, and many others, through his forthright preaching against luxury and ostentation, he was unjustly deposed and exiled to eastern Asia Minor in 404. In his many years of preaching he had said much about accepting and bearing innocent suffering patiently and nobly. Especially in these years of exile, he practiced what he preached. He wrote many letters from exile, including many to his closest friend and co-worker, the Deaconess Saint Olympias, encouraging her to stand firm in hope.

He died in 407 on a forced march to a place of further exile, near modern Abkhazia. In spite of all his unjust trials and suffering, his last words were “Glory to God for all things!”

In 438 his relics were brought to Constantinople in triumph. When his coffin was brought into the Great Church there, his voice was said to have rung out, “Peace be with you all!”