BELIEFS AND PRACTICES
Traditional Belief and Practices of the Ancient Christian Faith
From a pamphlet produced and distributed by:
ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN PRISON MINISTRY
As Orthodox Christians, what do we believe and how do we practice our faith in everyday life? First of all, we believe that we are members of the original historical Church that Jesus Christ established. Jesus told His closest followers (the Apostles) to go and teach other people what He had taught them. The Apostles and those who came after them passed on these teachings to the present time without change or addition.
Next, we believe that the Church is made up of all who have confessed their faith in Christ throughout the centuries and who have taken part in the special sacraments of the Church. Christians follow these practices to show their earnest desire for a deep relationship with the Lord God through continual repentance and striving to keep the commandments of God.
Why must Christians live this way? Sin came into the world through Adam and Eve, our first parents. As a result, everyone is born into sin. Jesus, through His death and resurrection, destroyed the power of Satan and opened a way of salvation to anyone who repents (turns away from sin and to God). Only through repentance and baptism can we become children of God and no longer be slaves to Satan.
From the moment of baptism, an Orthodox Christian sees himself or herself as a stranger in this world and one who is becoming part of the Heavenly Kingdom. Through prayer, worship and unceasing effort, a Christian tries to turn away from evil and turn toward the light of Christ. This constant struggle for spiritual purity is reflected in all relationships of life.
This booklet briefly presents some of the ways Orthodox Christians practice their faith to achieve their desired goal—eternal life in the Kingdom of God.
Prayer is central to the life of an Orthodox Christian. The Church as a whole has various prayer services. In addition, there is a simple and meaningful prayer called the “Jesus Prayer” that is the prayer most often used by Orthodox worshipers to deepen their relationship with God. The prayer is: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This prayer can be prayed anytime, anywhere. For greatest benefit, it is important to learn to pray the Jesus Prayer continually. This process takes much time and concentration and, when achieved, is very rewarding.
Whenever possible, Orthodox Christians pray before icons (images of Jesus Christ or of His saints). Icons are another spiritual aid to worship. Icons themselves are never worshiped (only God is worshiped), though the images of the holy are honored with great humility. Jesus Christ, His mother—the Virgin Mary—and followers of Christ who are the saints, all work together with the Holy Spirit to help us pray from the heart. In remembering the saving work of Jesus and the example of the saints, we often venerate (kiss) icons with great respect. Orthodox worshipers feel very close to the exalted members of the Church who have gone on to eternal life. The use of icons is one example of this relationship.
Prayer involves discipline of the mind. It requires that we struggle against pride, selfishness and indifference toward God. The very heart of the Christian way of life is to have a spiritually healthy mind able to understand and accept with humility the gift of Jesus’ sacrifice—His death on the Cross and His resurrection—and thus gain salvation. We are not just spirit, like the angels, we are both body and soul. Therefore, we must follow our Lord’s teachings about how to use our bodies in ways that are appropriate to living holy lives.
This means that as faithful believers we are to remain pure in body, and are to keep away from all behavior that brings dishonor to ourselves and to God. With great reverence, as Orthodox worshipers, we express the prayer that comes from the heart by various physical actions, including standing, kneeling, making the sign of the Cross, bowing low and lying prostrate with our face to the ground.
SIGN OF THE CROSS
The sign of the Cross is made by joining the first three fingers of the right hand while keeping the ring and little finger closed together against the palm of the hand. With the right hand held in this way, first touch the forehead, then the chest, then the right shoulder, and finally the left shoulder. This action is a confession of faith. The three fingers together represent the Holy Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—Who are three Persons, and, at the same time, are one God. The two fingers represent the divine and the human natures of Jesus Christ joined in one Person. The Cross is the victory sign of Christians. By making the sign of the Cross, as believers, we agree to also take up our own cross and follow Jesus.
THE CHURCH CALENDAR
The Church calendar is very important to Orthodox Christians. Through religious preparation and celebration, we remember and celebrate events in the life of Jesus Christ and His saints. These events will affect basic activities of our lives, such as eating and working.
In general, Orthodox Christians observe the various feast days of the Church by not eating meat or dairy products before the celebration of the Holy Day. The holiday itself is observed by taking part in special prayer services with other believers and by spending the remainder of the day in prayer and thanksgiving.
LITURGICAL OR SACRED TIME
Because Jesus Christ became human and stepped into time, time itself is considered sacred, with each day of the year marked with various special church celebrations, commemorations and religious practices. Time is measured by various cycles: the daily, the weekly, the yearly, and most important of all, the Paschal cycle. The Paschal cycle refers to the annual events that revolve around the celebration of Easter (called “Pascha” by Orthodox Christians). Pascha is the central event of the Christian year. It is called “the Feast of Feasts” and it defines every moment for the Orthodox Christian.
THE DAILY CYLE
The hours of each day are organized around prayer, both group and individual. Traditionally, there are seven liturgical hours or times of prayer (see Psalm 118:164). They are:
Matins (sunrise), together with the First Hour (6AM)
Third Hour (9 AM)
Sixth Hour (12 Noon)
Ninth Hour (3 PM)
Each of these hours of prayer has religious significance to the Orthodox Christian. The beginning and end of the day are natural times for prayer, since the rising and setting of the sun highlight the importance of light for us and we are reminded of Christ, the Light of the world, Who takes away the darkness of sin, corruption and death. Each new day begins at sunset for the Orthodox Christian (Genesis 1:5).
Vespers and Matins are celebrated by praising God for sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to us, and saying prayers together with the entire Orthodox Christian community whenever possible.
Special prayer times called “Hours” are:
Compline—Giving thanks for the day that has passed; asking protection for the coming night; seeking forgiveness of wrongs committed during the day.
Midnight—The Resurrection of the Lord (Matthew 28:1-8, Mark 16:2-8, Luke 24:1-9, John 20:1); the Second Coming of the Lord (Matthew 25:6, Mark 13:35).
First Hour—The coming of the true Light.
Third Hour—The descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (Acts 2:15,).
Sixth Hour—The crucifixion and passion of the Lord (John 19:14-15).
Ninth Hour—The death and burial of the Lord (Matthew 27:46-60).
THE DIVINE LITURGY
The Sacrament of Holy Communion is consecrated and distributed to prepared Orthodox Christians during the Divine Liturgy: The word “liturgy” means the “work of the people.” The people are the entire local congregation of Orthodox Christians led by their ordained priest or bishop.
The Divine Liturgy usually occurs in the morning after matins and prayers for the first hour are ended. However, it can take place at any time of the day. The Divine Liturgy is not a part of the seven daily hours of prayer. The Divine Liturgy is the celebration of the beginning of the Lord’s union with His people, looking forward to the future age—eternity.
On the days Orthodox Christians receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion, no food or beverage (including water) is consumed until after the Communion is received.
Holy Communion must be received with a clean heart. Holy Confession offers the opportunity to repent of any sins. A priest or bishop hears confessions and offers spiritual counsel, including various forms of penance when appropriate, and offers absolution (forgiveness through the mercy of God).
THE WEEKLY CYCLE
Genesis, the first Book of the Old Testament, tells the story of creation. It emphasizes that God worked His wonders in six days and on the seventh day He rested. With the Resurrection of Christ on the first day of the week, Sunday became “the Lord’s day,” and it continues to be the central theme of the weekly cycle of worship. This theme is reflected in the remembrances, religious practices and prayers that believers are to do each day.
Each Sunday, the Resurrection of Christ is celebrated in the Divine Liturgy with the consecration and distribution of the Holy Eucharist (Communion) to the Faithful.
On Monday, the Holy Angels are remembered.
On Tuesday, Saint John the Baptist and all the prophets are honored.
Wednesday is dedicated to the mystery of the Cross and to the person of the Virgin Mary. It is also remembered as the day on which Christ was betrayed by Judas. Wednesday is a day of fasting throughout the year.
On Thursday, the Holy Apostles and Saint Nicholas are remembered.
Friday is again dedicated to the memory of the Cross and of the Virgin Mary, and it is also remembered as the day of Christ’s death on the Cross. Friday is another day of fasting throughout the year.
On Saturday, martyrs and monastics are remembered— all the people of the Church who gave their lives for the Faith—and many others who suffered in Christ’s Name and lived dedicated lives (often alone), and who died in hope of the Resurrection. Memorial services are held on Saturdays.
Saturday keeps its original honor as the day on which God rested from the creation of the world. However, since the time Jesus Christ rested in the grave on the seventh day and rose again to life on the first day of the week, Saturday has become a day of thanksgiving for the rest we receive in Christ (Hebrews 4:3-11), as we look forward to the resurrection to come. There is therefore no strict fasting on Saturdays, with the exception of Holy Saturday, the day before Pascha (Easter,). In particular, the Saturday evening Vespers service is devoted to preparing the Faithful for the reception of the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ, at the Divine Liturgy on Sunday, the Lord’s day.
THE YEARLY CYCLE
In addition to the significance of the different days of the week, each date of the year has its dedication. Each year is considered a Year of Grace, a Year of the Lord. The Church year begins on September first. During each twelve-month period, all the major events of the life of Christ are lived again, as are the events in the life of His Mother and of the saints. Certain days have special practices and commemorations. Some are remembered with prayer and fasting, others with special services and religious traditions. For example, on Theophany and shortly thereafter, the home, office, cell, dorm… (any place the Orthodox believer lives or works) is blessed by the sprinkling of holy water. Theophany is the commemoration of Jesus Christ’s baptism in the Jordan river and the manifestation of the Holy Trinity (Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-22, John 1:29-34).
The Church year is a balance of seasons in which Orthodox Christians worship through fasting or celebrate through thanksgiving and feasting. Each event is important and significant to the believer.
There are two kinds of yearly celebrations: fixed and movable. The fixed feasts are celebrated on the same date each year. For the most part, the movable feasts depend on the celebration of Orthodox Easter, which is always on a Sunday after the first full moon, after the spring equinox and after the celebration of the Jewish passover. The movable feasts are a part of what is called the Paschal cycle.
THE TWELVE GREAT FEASTS
In addition to Pascha (Easter), eight great feasts are celebrated in honor of Jesus Christ and four great feasts in honor of His Mother. These are called the Twelve Great Feasts.
SEPTEMBER 8 The Nativity of the Virgin Mary
SEPTEMBER 14 The Elevation of the Holy Cross (the only major feast day in which fasting is observed)
NOVEMBER 21 The Presentation of the Virgin Mary in the Temple
DECEMBER 25 Christmas (the Nativity of Christ)
JANUARY 6 Theophany (the baptism of Christ)
FEBRUARY 2 Meeting of the Lord in the Temple
MARCH 25 The Annunciation
SUNDAY BEFORE PASCHA Palm Sunday
40 DAYS AFTER PASCHA The Ascension of the Lord
50 DAYS AFTER PASCHA Pentecost
AUGUST 6 The Transfiguration
AUGUST 15 The Falling-asleep of the Virgin Mary
FASTING IN THE ORTHODOX CHURCH
Fasting is an ongoing way of life for the traditional Orthodox Christian. The rules of the Church specify many days and seasons of fasting when believers do not eat any meat or dairy foods or their byproducts.
Everyone is expected to fast with humility and sacrifice according to the traditional practice. Arbitrary individual practices are not encouraged, such as choosing different days to fast or a different kind of fast.
At the same time, the Church realizes that not everyone is able to keep the fast to the same extent because of a variety of personal circumstances. For example, under the guidance of a spiritual father, fasting for fewer days or with fewer restrictions may be acceptable so that the goal, although demanding, is not out of reach of the individual’s ability.
DAYS AND SEASONS WHEN ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS PRACTICE A TRADITIONAL FAST
(Basic vegetarian diet—-no meat, poultry, fish or dairy.)
WEEKLY FAST DAYS
Every Wednesday and Friday
Wednesday: In memory of the betrayal of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Friday: In memory of Jesus’ Passion and Death upon the Cross
SPECIAL FAST DAYS
August 29: In memory of the ;Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.
September 14: In honor of the Elevation of the Holy Cross.
January 5: The Eve of the Theophany of our Lord Jesus Christ.
ORTHODOX FASTING PERIODS
GREAT LENT AND HOLY WEEK Lent begins 40 days before Palm Sunday, on the Monday after Cheesefare Sunday. Lasts until the evening before Palm Sunday. Holy Week is a special Fast in honor of our Lord’s Passion; lasts from evening of Palm Sunday through Holy Saturday
MONDAY AFTER ALL SAINTS’ SUNDAY
(SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST), UNTIL JUNE 29 The Fast of the Holy Apostles Varies in length according to the date of Easter.
AUGUST 1-14 The Fast of the Virgin MaryComes before the Feast of the Falling-asleep of the Virgin Mary August 15.
NOVEMBER 15-DECEMBER 24 The Fast before Christmas December 24 is a day of strict fasting.
EXCEPTIONS TO FASTING RULES
DECEMBER 25-JANUARY 4
(FROM CHRISTMAS TO THE EVE OF THEOPHANY) No fasting during full period.
WEEK FOLLOWING SUNDAY OF THE PUBLICAN AND THE PHARISEE (dates vary) No fasting all week.
WEEK FOLLOWING MEATFARE SUNDAY (dates vary) Fasting all week from meat. Dairy products are allowed.
WEEK FOLLOWING PASCHA (ORTHODOX EASTER) No fasting all week.
WEEK FOLLOWING PENTECOST (dates vary) No fasting all week.
Orthodox Christians are guided by the Church in how to use time throughout the week, month and year. The celebrations and remembrances, along with icons, prayer and fasting, all help to develop a vital spiritual life and a strong growing relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, our God, for all who earnestly seek Him.
As we faithfully follow these practices, our lives as believers will be greatly enriched.