When I introduce myself as Orthodox, I am often asked the same question: “Orthodox what? Orthodox Jew?”
Time and again, I find myself explaining that “Orthodox” means “Eastern Orthodox” and refers to the second-largest body of Christians in the world, most of whom live in the lands of Russia, Eastern Europe, Greece and the Balkan states, the Middle East, Ethiopia, Egypt and parts of India.
But what is Eastern Orthodoxy? The answer is to a large extent a historical matter. So, pardon me if I indulge in a little storytelling from the past.
It’s my feeling that a great many who do not know about the Orthodox Church are in such a position because they have heard only the story of Christianity from particular standpoints.
One version of the story goes like this: Once upon a time, a small band of fisherman went around the Roman Empire telling people that a man named Jesus was the Son of God, that he had lived and taught, been crucified and raised from the dead and had ascended into heaven, and that he would one day return to judge the world. Until then, everyone needed to confess Jesus as Lord, be baptized and live a godly life.
Before they died or were martyred for their faith by the hostile authorities, these apostles (literally, “ones who are sent”) managed to convert a small group of Christians who met in the catacombs of Rome, where they sang songs and remembered Jesus’ sacrifice with bread and wine (or was it grape juice?).
Unfortunately, this generation also suffered at the hands of a hostile pagan establishment, being crucified, thrown to the lions and horribly tortured.
Then, for some reason, the Emperor Constantine decided to convert to Christianity, legalizing the faith overnight and later making it the official religion, in the hopes that adherence to the true faith would save his crumbling empire.
But it was too late. Weakened and corrupted by its decadent leaders, Rome fell to barbarians from the north, who overran western Europe and kicked off the Dark Ages.
According to some, Christianity also entered a moral Dark Age at this point. The Church became a mere institution, with a despotic pope at its head.
Corruption flourished, only coming to an end when Martin Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others started the Protestant Reformation.
Free from the tyranny of the Catholic Church, with its dead works, indulgences and idolatries, Christians were once again free to read the Bible and to rediscover in its pages a genuine and personal faith in Jesus Christ, much like those early believers.
That’s one version, anyway.
From another point of view, the Roman Catholic Church actually sustained the cultural and religious life of Europe through its Dark Ages, offering a beacon of learning and faith that led to the Renaissance in the 16th century, when Michelangelo, Leonardo and the rest of those geniuses got to work.
And in all of this, the papacy maintained a living link to the chief apostle, Peter, to whom Christ gave responsibility for the Church until he returned.
Yes, there were good popes and bad popes over the years, but the institution itself (the “rock” of Peter’s throne) remained a continuing testimony that the Church has endured and preserved the faith intact throughout the centuries.
These Protestant and Catholic versions of history are so brief and simplistic as to be almost offensive, but the reality is these stories are all that most people will ever know of the life of Christianity through the centuries.
In an age when religious pluralism lies at the centre of so many of our cultural and social conflicts, isn’t it time we educated ourselves a little more thoroughly?
For that reason, I am going to attempt to retell the above story, in a little more detail and from a slightly different standpoint, in the hopes of adding a few more dimensions to our collective current knowledge of Christianity.
Along the way, you may learn some rather surprising facts.
For instance, were you aware that writings exist documenting Christian worship practices from as early as 70 A.D., barely one generation after the disciples of Christ? That the Roman Empire did not actually end in the fourth century, but continued and flourished uninterrupted in the East for more than 1,100 years?
Did you know that Rome was not the centre of the faith, but that there were five ancient centres, each of which still contribute to the richness of Christianity?
Concerning those and other tidbits, a lot more next time.
St Nicholas Orthodox Mission is at 635 Tranquille Rd. in North Kamloops, in the OLPH Parish Centre.
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