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Liturgy and Life / Theology

Practice of Communion and Confession

How should one pray?


What do the words, "Your own of your own, we offer unto you, on behalf of all, and for all," signify in the Divine Liturgy?

How do the Orthodox view Holy Communion?

What is the Orthodox understanding of atonement?

Why does the Lord call the poor in spirit "blessed"?

Communion with non-Orthodox Christians

What does it mean for us to "mystically represent the Cherubim"?

Why do some people insist on ending the Lord's Prayer with, "and deliver us from the Evil One"?

The Orthodox burial service

Death and suffering among animals in the pre-human world

Praying to the Saints

Orthodox faith and the theory of evolution

Symbolism of the Easter Egg

On judging others

On salvation

On icons and depictions of angels

On death

On predestination

God in the Old and New Testaments

What is considered worshipping God? 

On desire


History and Ecclesiology

Is there a difference in doctrine between the Orthodox Church in America and the Orthodox Church in Russia?

History of the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in America

What is the canonical and theological justification of "autocephaly"?

What is the etymology of stavropegial?

Why don't Christians celebrate Passover?

Who was the first bishop of Jerusalem?

The Passion of Christ and the Jews

The formation of the Biblical canon

Orthodox teaching on other religions


Pastoral Concerns

Baptism in the Orthodox Church

Conversion to the Orthodox faith

Joining the life of the Church

Engagement/betrothal ceremonies and traditions in the Orthodox Church

Interfaith marriage (1)

Conversion of a non-Orthodox

Interfaith marriage (2)

The Orthodox tradition concerning death

On marriage and birth control

On spiritual fatherhood and guidance

Liturgy and Life

Dear Father Robert,

The way Communion and Confession are practiced in your cathedral is obviously different from the way it is practiced in Russia or some other traditionally Orthodox lands (not that such practice is uniform throughout them). What are the origin and meaning of such practice? Doesn't the value of Communion decrease in the eyes of the parishioners, become trivial when it is something they do pretty much every time they come to church? What happens to the discipline of preparation for Communion when it is received every week? Last but not least, how do you define the boundary between the sins that do not preclude one from taking Communion and those that would necessitate a prior Confession?

Many thanks.

Thank you for your important questions.

The frequency as well as the infrequency of receiving the Eucharist has a long history. I hope that my response, while by no means exhaustive, will show that the earlier practice for Christians was to receive the Eucharist frequently. But before getting to that specific question, a few words about the frequency of celebrating the Eucharistic Liturgy are in order. 

Beginning with the New Testament, there is no clear or definitive prescription on how often the Eucharist should be celebrated. However, there are texts in the New Testament that point to a regular Sunday Eucharist wherein one can presume that all present received Holy Communion (Acts 20:7-12; 1 Corinthians 16:2). When we come to the mid-second century, things become a little clearer. In St. Justin Martyr's first Apology (65-67), we read the following:

And on the day which is called the day of the sun there is an assembly of all [emphasis mine] who live in the towns or in the country; and the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the Prophets are read, as long as time permits. Then the reader ceases, and the president [i.e., the bishop or his designate] speaks, admonishing us and exhorting us to imitate these excellent examples. Then we arise all together and offer prayers; and, as we said before, when we have concluded our prayer, bread is brought, and wine and water, and the president in like manner offers up prayers and thanksgivings with all his might; and the people assent with "Amen"; and there is the distribution and partaking by all of the Eucharistic elements; and to them that are not present they are sent by the hand of the deacons.

Based on Justin's text, it is clear that the Sunday Eucharist was the norm in Rome and that all present (i.e., all the baptized) received. In both East and West the frequency of celebrating the Eucharist respectively underwent its own developments. In Cappadocia, St. Basil recommended receiving the Eucharist daily. In his letter (93) to the Patrician Caesaria, he writes:

And also to commune every day, that is to say, to partake of the holy body and blood of Christ, is good and beneficial, since he himself clearly says, "He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood, has everlasting life" [Jn. 6:54]... We for our part, however, commune four times each week: on the Lord's day (Sunday), on the fourth day (Wednesday), on Friday, and on Saturday; and on the other days only when there is a commemoration of a saint.  [Saint Basil goes on to speak about those who receive the presanctified gifts.] For all who live the monastic life in the solitudes, where there is no priest, keep the communion at home and partake of it from their own hands. At Alexandria also and in Egypt, each person, even those belonging to the laity, as a rule keeps the communion in his own home, and partakes of it with his own hands when he so wishes.

In the canons attributed to the Apostles and compiled no later than the middle of the fourth century, there are two canons which call for the excommunication of any clergy or laity who, while attending the Liturgy, do not receive the Eucharist with the rest of the faithful.

Canon 8: "If any bishop, presbyter, or deacon, or any one on the sacerdotal list when the offering is made, does not partake of it, let him declare the cause: and if it be a reasonable one, let him be excused: but if he does not declare it, let him be excommunicated as being a cause of offense to the people and occasioning a suspicion against the offerer, as if he had not made the offering properly."

Canon 9: "All the faithful who come in and hear the Scriptures, but do not stay for the prayers and the Holy Communion, are to be excommunicated as causing disorder in the Church."

As the liturgical cycle develops in both East and West, it is clear that until the time of Constantine, the frequent reception of the Eucharist was an established practice, and that it was not uncommon for the faithful to commune themselves outside the context of the Divine Liturgy. It should also be kept in mind that confessing before each Eucharist was not a requirement. The Liturgy itself provides a superstructure in which personal and corporate confession is made to God. The liturgical cycle provides the preparatory context for receiving Holy Communion.

By the fourth century, there already emerges a tendency to limit the frequency of receiving the Eucharist. Three reasons contributing to this phenomenon are: 1) the Christianization of the empire and hence the fear of nominal Christians approaching the chalice; 2) the spread of the monastic movement and the emphasis on one's impurity, which was seen as barring reception of the Eucharist; and 3) the emphasis on fear and dread when approaching the holy gifts. It is fear and dread that helped to establish a Eucharistic piety which gave rise to a polarity between the worthy and unworthy. Given this piety, there developed a psychology in the Church that supported the idea that one could actually make himself/herself worthy of approaching the chalice, and people consequently forgot that we can draw near to the gifts only because Christ has invited us to do so. While serving as archbishop of Constantinople, Saint John Chrysostom offered to his flock the following words:

What then? Do we not offer [the Eucharistic Sacrifice] every day? ... Many communicate in this sacrifice once in the entire year, others twice, still others frequently... Which ones do we accept with approval? Those who [partake] once, those who [do so] frequently, or those who seldom [do so]? Neither those who once, nor those who seldom [partake], but those [who do so] with a clean conscience, those with pure hearts, those with an irreproachable life. Let such ones approach [to receive communion] continually, but those who are not, not even once! Why so? Because they receive unto their own judgment and condemnation and punishment and retaliation... These things I say not as forbidding you the once-annual coming [to communion], but as wishing you to draw near continually" (Homilies on Hebrews 17.3-4, as quoted by Robert F. Taft, SJ.)

Finally, we need to see that just as the frequency/infrequency of receiving Holy Communion has a history, so too does the frequency/infrequency of going to Confession. Those sins that would preclude one from approaching the Chalice would include: murder, apostasy, adultery, fornication, and character assassination. It is also to be stressed that those approaching the chalice, both clergy and laity, should have a relationship with a confessor.

How should one pray? What should one pray for? I have heard many different methods, such as verbal prayer and contemplative prayer. Others mention constant prayer through repetition of words or sayings. Should you say whatever is on your mind, or stay silent? Sometimes it is hard to stay silent, since the mind can wander easily with nothing to fixate on. As an Orthodox Christian student, what suggestions would you suggest for me?
Thank you for your advice.

Prayer can be divided into two categories: personal and corporate. Both complement each other and both are necessary to each other.

Prayer, while being a natural act, is also something that is learned. This means that it requires effort, attention and regularity.

Personal prayer is more flexible than is often thought. It can take place virtually anywhere and at any time. It can have a structured form that is often dependent on a prayer book; it can also have a less structured or fixed form that takes on a more extemporaneous character. Given this flexibility, it should be kept in mind that using a prayer book helps to create a grounding and mindset for extemporaneous prayer. This is so because the written prayers and structured rules of a prayer book touch upon virtually every facet of life.

Corporate prayer or liturgical prayer, while having fixed forms and times, nevertheless depends on the quality of personal prayer. The experience of corporate prayer - the coming together of God's people to form the body of Christ, particularly in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy - is impacted by how one is immersed in personal prayer. However, it is also true that corporate prayer impacts the quality of personal prayer. The complement of personal and corporate prayer is mutually beneficial and ultimately necessary for the one who seeks to abide in the divine life.

An openness to receiving and being challenged by the Gospel, a desire to enter God's kingdom, and the recognition that all people - regardless of ethnic background - are called into union and communion with the living God, provide a strong foundation for prayer, both personal and corporate.

When personal and corporate prayer are integrated, a person becomes more attuned to the self. Personal and corporate prayer lead to the awareness of one's sins, the desire to repent, the yearning to concelebrate the Divine Liturgy, and to be a partaker of Holy Communion - the bread of immortality: "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" (John 6:55-56).

Becoming aware of the self leads to a keener awareness and understanding of others. Prayer liberates one from loneliness and isolation. It overcomes the drive for self-preservation while exposing the loneliness of a self-centered life. Prayer - personal and corporate - heals the universe divided by sin and mortality. Culminating in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, prayer nurtured by the Holy Spirit unites the many into one new body - into one new creation which is the Body of Christ: "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).

The dynamism of personal and corporate prayer inevitably cultivates the desire to read the Holy Scriptures. Reading the Bible and reflecting upon the word of God is in itself a type of prayer, since it brings us into an ongoing dialog with Jesus Christ. From this dialog, we who are students/disciples of the Master are invited to enter into the realm of silence, in which we encounter and follow the incarnate Word of God. In this encounter, all words, all feelings, and all actions are purified. From the realm of silence come the words of personal and corporate prayer, which express the desire to know and do the will of God.

Father bless + 

Last fall, my family and I came to your cathedral for Sunday Liturgy. During the anaphora, the whole congregation made a full prostration, and I'm wondering the reasons for this custom. I have never seen that before, and had been taught that we don't make prostrations on Sundays except for the veneration of the Holy Cross during Great Lent. 

Thanks for your time, 
Sincerely in Christ.

What you observed at the cathedral was an established parish practice. Canon 20 of Nicaea I (from 325 AD) and Canon 90 of the Council in Trullo (692 AD) forbid kneeling on Sundays. However, one must discern when the law, i.e., canon law, opens the mind and heart to the Spirit, and when it doesn't.

What do the words, "Your own of your own we offer unto you on behalf of all and for all," signify in the Divine Liturgy?

These words are said at the anaphora (Greek, meaning literally, "offering up"). They conclude what is a single prayer divided into two parts: the first being a "remembrance" of salvation history, i.e., the saving works of God, and the second part being a "remembrance" of the mystical supper.

The words, "your own of your own," express the offering up of the entire creation to the Father. Every one and every thing belongs to the Father. All of creation exists to ascend to the Father in Christ by the Holy Spirit. Thus, not only are bread and wine offered at the Divine Liturgy. In the context of the Liturgy - in the context of the Eucharist - the entire creation is raised up to the Father. This is stressed in the prayer for the departed and the living said after the epiklêsis (the prayer of the descent of the Holy Spirit): "Again we offer to you this reasonable worship, for the whole world..."

Our ascent to the Father in Christ and through the Holy Spirit is possible because Christ - the One High Priest - has destroyed the tyranny of sin and death. He has renewed the creation and has opened the way to the Father, enabling us, by the Holy Spirit, to become concelebrants with him.

United in baptism to the One High Priest, we - together with him - offer every one and every thing to the Father for the life of the world and its salvation.

Recently the Roman Catholic and Lutheran communions sighed an agreement regarding salvation. They now agree that we are "saved by grace," but that works are important as well. This agreement was seen as an important step towards union. One important issue still separating Catholics and Lutherans is their opposing views of the Eucharist. Consubstantiation, the Lutheran view, states that the body and blood of Jesus coexist with the bread and wine. Transubstantiation, the Catholic view, states that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus. How do the Orthodox view Holy Communion? What is the sense of the Greek phrase used in the Liturgy which is translated as "making the change by your Holy Spirit"? It is interesting to note that the Hapgood translation uses the word "transmute" instead of "change".

In addition to the Synoptic Gospel references to the Lord's Supper, there are other references to the Eucharist in the New Testament. One that is especially pertinent to your question is John 6:47-60. It is interesting to note the response of the many disciples who found Jesus' teaching about eating his flesh and drinking his blood "a hard saying." Their words should remind us that there are no exhaustive Orthodox explanations of the Eucharist.

Clearly, from the tenor of the Divine Liturgy, receiving Holy Communion is indeed the reception of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The pre- and post-Communion prayers also attest to this. Though some Orthodox Christians have used the term "transubstantiation," its usage with regards to the Eucharist is quite late. Even in the West, "transubstantiation" as a term connected with the Eucharist appears no earlier than the twelfth century.

The earlier Fathers were primarily interested in teaching that the Eucharist: 1) enabled the communicant to become one with Christ [cf. St. Basil the Great, Letter 8.4]; 2) was the very presence of Christ manifested on the altar [cf. St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Corinthians 24.1]; and 3) the means of dwelling in immortality and becoming deified [cf. St. Gregory of Nyssa, Great Catechism 37].

Thus, in the celebration of the Eucharist, the faithful gather to proclaim and reveal God's inaugurated Kingdom. Through the Holy Spirit, the body of believers is "changed" into the living body of Christ. In this ecclesial context, the Holy Spirit changes the bread and wine of this world into the food of God's Kingdom. The bread of this world is changed into the body of Christ, who is the "bread of life" and the "food of immortality." And it is this bread that is imparted to the faithful. Here we must also emphasize the importance of hearing and receiving the Word of God proclaimed through the Scriptures. It is often forgotten that the Liturgy of the Word is also a sacramental event that imparts life to the listeners. 

In the Divine Liturgy, it is the Holy Spirit who is called to "change" bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Why Hapgood uses "transmute" is not clear, since the term implies a change in form, appearance, or nature, which goes beyond the sense of the Greek term metabalôn used here in the Liturgy.

I have been reading extensively in Orthodox theology. I am an evangelical Christian and am interested in the Orthodox understanding of atonement. I have not found a clear explanation of Christ's atoning death, such as you find in our emphasis on substitutionary theory. 

Also, as a unrelated question, I read somewhere that Francis Schaeffer (the father, not his son) said that the greatest indictment against Eastern Orthodoxy was the almost complete conversion of the Middle East to Islam; how would you respond?

Regarding the remark made by Francis A. Schaeffer: The remark is most unfortunate. The emergence of Islam and the establishment of the millet system requires a knowledge of history that goes beyond indictments.

As for your first question, I offer the words of Saint Gregory the Theologian:

The question is: to whom was offered the blood that was shed for us, and why was it offered, this precious and glorious blood of our God, our high priest, our sacrifice? We were held captive by the evil one, for we had been "sold into the bondage of sin" [Romans 7:14], and our wickedness was the price we paid for our pleasure. Now, a ransom is normally paid only to the captor, and so the question is: To whom was the ransom offered, and why? To the evil one? What an outrage! If it is supposed not merely that the thief received a ransom from God, but that the ransom is God himself - a payment for his act of arbitrary power so excessive that it certainly justified releasing us! If it was paid to the Father, I ask first, why? We were not held captive by him. Secondly, what reason can be given why the blood of the Only-Begotten should be pleasing to the Father? For he did not accept even Isaac when he was offered by his father, but he gave a substitute for the sacrifice, a lamb to take the place of the human victim. Is it not clear that the Father accepts the sacrifice, not because he demanded or needed it, but because this was part of the divine plan, since man had to be sanctified by the humanity of God? So that he might rescue us by overcoming the tyrant by force, and bring us back to himself through the mediation of the Son, who carried out this divine plan to the honor of the Father, to whom he clearly delivers up all things? We have said just so much about Christ. There are many more things which must be passed over in silence...

The Bible says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). We are naturally inclined to admire people who demonstrated abundant spirit in their lives, including people glorified as saints. But normally one would associate being “poor” in spirit with a lack of well-recognized spiritual virtues, such as generosity, bravery, charity, etc. So why does the Lord call the poor in spirit “blessed”?

It is interesting that the Contemporary English Version of the Bible renders this verse as: “God blesses those people who depend only on him. They belong to the kingdom of heaven!” Perhaps the translator wanted to avoid inconvenient inquiries such as mine above?

Saint Gregory of Nyssa provides a very good answer to your question. In addressing this very beatitude, he says, "It seems to me that by poverty of spirit, the Word understands voluntary humility... But let no one imagine that humility can be achieved easily and without labor. On the contrary, it needs more effort than the practice of any other virtue."

For Saint Gregory, humility or being poor in spirit enables us to be like Christ. In referring to the kenôsis or self-emptying of the Lord (cf. Philippians 2:5-7), Saint Gregory writes, "What greater poverty is there for God than the form of a servant?"

By becoming like Christ, one is able to acquire the virtues that express both a love for the Lord as well as for our neighbor. Conversely, without being poor in spirit, one cannot be in communion with Christ or one's neighbor. Unless one is poor in spirit, one risks being like the prideful Pharisee, who practices the virtues but excludes himself from God and neighbor. (cf. Luke 18:9 ff).

Greetings in the name of Jesus. I am a Christian from the Baptist tradition and I have had some discussion with my Orthodox friend regarding "Communion" or the "Eucharist." We of the Baptist tradition have what we call "open communion." In other words, all who profess a belief in the saving knowledge and lordship of Jesus Christ may participate in Communion. My Orthodox friend has invited me to your services on several occasions, but it was made clear that unless I was an Orthodox Christian, I could not participate in your observance of Communion. As a fellow believer in our Lord Jesus Christ, I find this to be exclusionary. I do not wish to debate the various doctrines regarding the elements. Unfortunately, these have been debated for centuries. The Scriptures tell us to "continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His purpose" (Philippians 2:12,13); 1 Corinthians 11:28 states that a man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. It is not the Church's place, as I see it, to judge who is worthy to eat and drink.

Acts 2:44 states that "all" the believers were together and had everything in common. They broke bread in their homes and ate together. It seems that, in a world fraught with division, the church of Jesus Christ, which goes beyond the walls of Orthodox, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Lutheran etc., needs to focus more on being inclusionary. To be all of one accord and not judge who is or is not worthy of sharing in Christ's sacrifice and the remembrance thereof. Can I or can I not as a fellow believer participate in the Orthodox observance of Communion/Eucharist?

Throughout its official participation in the ecumenical movement, the Orthodox Church has insisted that the reception of Holy Communion is the "sign" or "expression" of unity, and not the "way" towards unity. 

Striving to live out the Gospel, confessing the Apostolic faith, and belonging to one local church visibly united under one canonical bishop, are necessary prerequisites for inclusion into the body of Christ. Like baptism, the reception of Holy Communion is not a private act, but a communal event, in which each person struggles to remain faithful to the crucified and resurrected Savior.

Your reference to l Corinthians 11:28, "Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup," does not stand alone. It is followed by, "For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself" (11:29). St. Paul is issuing a caveat that continues to be made public in the Orthodox Church at every celebration of the Eucharist.

The reference to Acts 2:24 has a specific context, i.e., the community of disciples. There was one Jerusalem community, and not groups of communities, which came together at specific times. Acts 2:37-42 describes one community united in baptism, the Apostolic teaching, and the breaking of bread.

The Orthodox Church longs for the day when all can draw near to the one bread and cup. Until that time, the issues dividing Christians, i.e., Christology, triadology, anthropology, cosmology, and ecclesiology cannot be ignored. From an Orthodox perspective, there will be no authentic union and communion of Christians until there is resolution of these issues.

In the Cherubic Hymn sung at every Liturgy, we sing, "Let us who mystically represent the cherubim..." What does it mean for us to mystically represent the cherubim? Does "us" refer to all of us assembled together at the Liturgy? Or only to those ministering at the altar?

The oldest extant manuscript referring to the Cherubic Hymn dates back to the eighth century (Codex Barberini 336; cf. Robert Taft, SJ, A History of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: Volume II, The Great Entrance: A History of the Transfer of the Gifts and Other Preanaphoral Rites [Orientalia Christiana Analecta no. 200] [Rome: Pontifical Oriental Institute, 1978]).

To mystically represent the cherubim refers to our "putting aside all earthly cares so we may receive the King of all…" Representing the cherubim points to those who concelebrate the Divine Liturgy (i.e., all the faithful) and who are to maintain vigilance while awaiting the Second Coming of the Lord. Thus, every celebration of the Liturgy is a celebration of the Kingdom which is to come. In the Chrysostom anaphora, we give thanks to our heavenly Father, "who has endowed us with [his] kingdom which is to come." Being like the cherubim ranks us with those who now anticipate and participate in the new creation.

Why do some people insist on ending the Lord's Prayer with "and deliver us from the Evil One"? If we define evil as nothingness, that is, evil doesn't exist by itself but inside goodness, a negation, a mutilation, a defect, etc., then why would we "hypostasize" evil by referring to "the evil one"?

Thank you for your question.

That evil has no hypostasis of its own requires some explanation. First, we need to remember that creation is inherently good. There is nothing spiritual or material that God created with an evil nature. This also means that since there is nothing created that is evil by nature, then there is no hypostasis that is created evil.

Yet we cannot deny that evil exists. And here we encounter a paradox. On the one hand, there is nothing created that is evil. On the other hand, evil can only exist and can only be manifested hypostatically, i.e., personally. This is so because evil has no parallel existence with what is good. Evil has no existence of its own but stems from the good. It exists because of the misuse of free will which leads a person away from the source of goodness. What is good became distorted and acts accordingly. Consequently, while evil has no existence of its own, it does exist hypostatically/personally. Thus, we can refer to the evil one and we can pray the Lord's Prayer asking that we be delivered from the evil one or, as Vladimir Lossky points out, the evil doer.

Could you please explain why we leave the coffin open for the family to pay their last respects to the dead relative, and also why the congregation kiss the coffin at the end of the burial ceremony?

Also: why does our Church not recognize cremation?

The casket is left open during the Orthodox burial service in order to stress the sacredness of the body. All who are members of Christ are members of his kingdom and therefore belong to the community of the saints. For this reason it is not unusual to equate the body of the deceased, who in life was immersed in the rhythm of the Church, with the relics of a saint. Consequently, the veneration of the body at the end of the funeral service signifies its sacredness.

There are at least two reasons why the Orthodox Church is averse to cremation: 1) cremation is associated with paganism; 2) because the body is considered to be sacred, cremation is perceived as a form of desecration. However in countries such as Japan, where cremation is the law, the Orthodox Church will first celebrate the funeral service with the body present in the church. After the funeral service the body is cremated.

What exactly is the Church's position on the existence of death and suffering among animals in the pre-human world? Is there any dogmatic basis for taking a certain position with regard to this or similar questions? It is very often said that "Adam's sin led to the death of creation" and that the whole creation is suffering because of human sin. I always struggle with these words and try (unsuccessfully) to understand what they really mean. Do they mean that there was no death or animal suffering in the pre-human world? Probably not.

Some people suggest to contemplate the meaning of the word "death" and point out that we should never project the uniquely human tragic aspect of "death" onto the realm of animals and plants. After all, animals were not created immortal. I agree with that, and this thought certainly gives me some comfort. However, even in nature we see death not just as a termination of being. We see violent death and suffering (among animals) of all sorts that seem to be an integral part of the fabric of natural life. Is that how it was supposed to be? What are your thoughts on that?

I will not be able to give an exhaustive answer to your multifaceted and important question. Nevertheless, I do hope that what follows can be used as a point of departure from which to continue refining the answer. Basically, your question zeroes in on the existence of death and suffering among animals in the pre-human world.

All created life is by nature mortal. Only God is immortal, for his nature alone is uncreated. Prior to the creation of human beings, plant and animal life came into existence by the creative Word and Spirit of God. This means that all of creation was and is bound to the Creator. All of created existence is dependent upon the Creator. This implies that God did not create in order to establish an autonomous parallel to himself. God created so as to share his life beyond or outside of himself. Even the sin of Adam could not totally sever the created order from having a relationship with God.
Though bound to death by nature, the human person was created to share in God's immortality. Yet, the sin of Adam introduced death to those created in the image and likeness of God. St. Athanasius of Alexandria (fourth century) states this very clearly. In his treatise On The Incarnation of the Word of God - a classic of patristic literature - he writes: "...for as I said before, though they [human beings] were by nature subject to corruption, the grace of their union with the Word made them capable of escaping from the law of their own nature..." Strictly speaking, this means that immortality was a gift of the Creator to the human race. The human race was destined and set apart from the vegetative and animal orders to share a unique union with God, i.e., a relationship that would overcome the very mortality of its created nature. For the human race, mortality and therefore a return to created nature is a consequence of the ancestral sin, i.e., the Fall of Adam. But what about death in the animal (and vegetative) order(s)?

Though there is nothing explicit in the first two chapters of Genesis regarding the death and suffering of animals, there is an interesting reference to how all animals are to sustain themselves. "And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food" (Gen. 1:30). This verse is an extension of verse twenty-nine, which refers to human beings living off "every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth and every tree with seed in its fruit..."

These two verses lend themselves to the idea that prior to the sin of Adam, there was universal harmony in the creation. This harmony was characterized by peace and not violence. Within this peaceful harmony human beings and animals maintained a symbiotic relationship that was free of mutual fear [Note: St. John Chrysostom (fourth/fifth centuries) would not agree entirely with this approach, though he does tell his congregation in Antioch that before sin entered the world, humans did not fear the animals (cf. his Homilies on Genesis 9)]. Within this state of harmony and peace, humans did not struggle among themselves for survival. Animals likewise were not driven to subdue their own kind in order to live. The survival of the fittest was not yet an established principle or law of nature.

Because the human being is considered by many Church Fathers to be a microcosm, i.e., consisting of the material and immaterial elements of creation, the sin of Adam had cosmic consequences. Created to share in immortal life, the human being became a prisoner of his mortal nature. Saint Gregory of Nyssa (fourth century) stresses how the fall of Adam caused the human being to take on the characteristics of the animals, including mortality: "Mortality, ...derived from the nature of irrational creatures [i.e., the animals], provisionally clothed the nature created for immortality" (Catechism 8). Elsewhere, St. Gregory writes about the self-preservation of human beings, which is a consequence of the Fall. Because of Adam's sin, what was characteristic of the irrational animals was acquired by the human being: " ...for those qualities with which dumb/brute life was armed for self-preservation, when transferred to human life, became passion" (On The Making of the Human Being 18). Here, St. Gregory perceives animal life before the Fall to be violent. In contrast to the Genesis account of animals and humans being sustained by vegetative life, St. Gregory’s understanding of animal life before the sin of Adam is more in line with the data gleaned from the findings of paleontologists. For him, self-preservation is a natural characteristic of animals. Yet, in spite of the incongruity between Scripture and St. Gregory, there is nevertheless agreement with regards to human mortality. Sin made the human being like the animals. It clothed the one created in the image and likeness of God in death. And it is death, or rather the fear of death, that introduced (the negative) passions into human existence. Adam's sin followed by the fear of death introduced among humans the instinct of self-preservation and hence the struggle for the survival of the fittest. Sin introduced chaos, including suffering and misery, into human existence. The Fall of Adam added suffering and misery to the mortal nature of humans.

The Fall of Adam resulted in cosmic death, which is first and foremost separation from God. This includes the separation of animals from God. Cosmic death is dis-integration. Creation, no longer harmonious, is simultaneously in the process of self-preservation and self-destruction. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes: 

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:19-23).

For St. Paul, all of creation will be set free from "its bondage to decay." The Greek word phthora (verse twenty-one) is very rich. It can mean corruption, decay, ruin, corruptibility, and mortality. Is it not possible that liberation from decay refers to the eschatological liberation of both humans and animals from mortality? With Christ's incarnation, death, and resurrection, everyone and everything is being changed. Thus, even though animals were subject to mortality and suffering before and during the reign of the first Adam, might not this change during the reign of the second Adam?

Hi, I am a Lutheran who has questions about Orthodoxy, which I hope you will be able to answer for me. Being a Lutheran, I naturally have a problem with the Orthodox doctrine of invoking saints in prayer. I can see no Scriptural backing for this doctrine. To that, you would probably say that Holy Tradition sustains such a doctrine. I cannot find any record of a Church Father before the fourth or fifth century supporting such a practice. All I can find are quotes like this one from Epiphanius of Salamis: "Although Mary is holy and to be honored, nevertheless she is not meant to be adored." If you could find some early Church Fathers supporting the invocation of saints that would be great.

Also on that subject (though I have a question about specific prayers to saints): Orthodox claim that they only ask the saints to pray on behalf of themselves and others and not to do anything else (i.e., use their own power to help the situation). With this in mind I do not see how "Most Holy Theotokos, save us" or St. Nektarios' hymn "O Virgin Pure" make sense. They both seem to grant Mary (and in other prayers, other saints) their own special powers. And I don't understand why they are repeatedly invoked in remembrance at the end of prayers ("remembering Mary and all the saints, we..."), because then you aren't even asking for their prayers. It would seem to me that the only reason you would say that would be to hope they have some sort of a special pull with God; God owes them a favor or two.

If you could help me out with both of those things that would be great (of primary importance is the first paragraph - I would really like to see quotations from early Church Fathers about invoking the saints in prayer). Thank you for your time.

Thank you for your questions.

Your claim that there is no Scriptural evidence supporting intercessory prayer is not convincing. Though there is no "official" dominical or apostolic injunction to pray to the saints, there are nevertheless examples where one either seeks the prayers of others or one entreats the Lord on behalf of others.

In his letters, St. Paul certainly asks for the prayers of particular communities. In his first letter to the Thessalonians (5:25), the Apostle asks the saints of the local Church to pray for him. In St. Paul's second letter to the same Church, after he has spoken about its current sufferings and the impending righteous judgement of God upon its persecutors, he assures the faithful that he is always praying for them (1:11). St. James exhorts the presbyters to pray over and to anoint the sick in his epistle (5:14).

Among the most well-known accounts of intercession in the Gospels is the healing of the centurion's slave (Lk. 7:2 ff.). In this account, the centurion, a Gentile, turns to the elders from among the Jews to ask Jesus to heal his slave. In addition to asking these elders, the centurion also has his friends go to Jesus and entreat him to offer the word of healing for his slave. There is also the account of the Syrophoenician woman, another Gentile, who courageously approaches Jesus on behalf of her possessed daughter (Mk. 7:24 ff.). And there is also the father of the boy with an unclean spirit. The father, whose faith is weak, draws near to Jesus, asking him to deliver his son from his torment (Mk. 9:14 ff.). In these Gospel accounts, those drawing near to Jesus are seeking to save, by their prayers or entreaties, those whom they love.

Regarding the Theotokos and all the saints: it is simply a misconception to think that the holy ones of God have their own special powers. All power and glory attributed to the saints comes from and belongs to God. Nevertheless, God calls all to share in his power and glory. Among the examples in the Acts of the Apostles, there are two accounts which help make this point clear. The shadow of St. Peter was able to heal the sick and suffering (5:12-16). The "handkerchiefs or aprons" carried away from the body of St. Paul and placed on those who were sick or demon-possessed also conveyed healing (19:11-12). So too with the relics of God's holy ones. Orthodox Christians recognize that the bodies of God's saints, even after death, are to be venerated and that they also possess miraculous healing powers.

Remembering the Theotokos and all the saints in the services signifies that we and they make up the communion of the saints. We are joined with them in the body of Christ, which is his Church. We remember them because we love them and are one with them. We remember them because we affirm that the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ not only saves, but also sanctifies and transfigures us and all creation. With them, we intercede for each other and for the life and salvation of the world.

Dear Father,
Many thanks about the Q+A service you are providing.

I am Greek Orthodox and now work in medicine. As a teenager, I remember asking an Orthodox theologian at school whether the theories of the evolution of species were compatible with Orthodoxy. He responded that yes, the theories could be compatible, because the Old Testament is more concerned about why God created the world, not so much how he created it, and the description of the Creation should not be taken literally, but more like a metaphor, much like Christ's parables. He added that as long as I understand that the evolution of organism, including humans, still requires God's involvement and oversight, then there was no problem in believing them as an explanation of the physical origin of the world, but not the spiritual origin of the world.

This explanation made perfect sense to me. Recently, however, I heard an interview on the radio of an Orthodox priest (unfortunately I do not recall his name) who was very dismissive of the idea of evolution, saying he could never accept our Orthodox beliefs to be in line with a theory that suggests humans came from apes.

This has been very confusing for me. As a scientist, I work with evolutionary principles every day (e.g., studying the evolution of viruses and bacteria) and so far it has been very important for me to feel that my religious beliefs were in harmony with my work. I would be most grateful if you could let me know of your opinion in this matter.

Thank you for your question.

What you were told as a teenager regarding the compatibility of the Old Testament and evolution is certainly an acceptable approach to be taken by Orthodox Christians. I would just add the following: 1) The Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, should not be used as scientific text books. The primary purpose of the Scriptures is to reveal not only the origin of creation, as is the case of the first two chapters of Genesis, but to reveal the relationship of God and all created existence culminating in the creation of human beings. We should add that the very core of human salvation and hence the renewal of all created existence is accomplished by the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the pre-eternal Word and Son of God; and 2) Evolution is a theory with convincing supportive data. Though there are still gaps in the evolutionary chain, Orthodox Christians need to take the discoveries and theories of science seriously. There is nothing in the theory of evolution which precludes God's involvement in creating, sustaining, guiding, and saving the creation.

If the Orthodox Church is to engage the world in the twenty-first century, it must not turn its back on science. Also, Orthodox scientists are encouraged to study the faith. There is no reason why faith and science should be at odds with each other. On the contrary, science and theology should be synthesized into a clear and compelling proclamation of the Gospel.

Dear Father Robert,

I would greatly appreciate if you could find time to recommend me a list of appropriate literature regarding the symbolism of the Easter egg.

My questions are the following:

  • Easter eggs are traditionally dyed red, which symbolizes the Blood of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer. Where can I find a reference to this tradition and its origins?
  • What is the symbolism of the Easter egg and its theological meaning?
  • It is traditional to crack Easter eggs against each other, until the hard shell gets broken. As I recall, the hard shell symbolizes the tomb of Jesus, whilst the act of cracking it is a symbol of Jesus' resurrection from the dead and a hope for the believers for salvation and eternal life. Is there is any mentioning of this tradition in any philosophical or religious texts?
  • Finally, are any of those traditions of a Byzantine origin, or did they appear during the later development of Orthodoxy?

Thank you for your questions.

I'm afraid I cannot recommend any serious reading material regarding the origin, symbolism, and theology of the Pascal egg. It seems, however, that the egg in Christian and non-Christian cultures alike symbolizes life. What you say about the egg and its red dye, as well as its relationship to the tomb and resurrection, does carry some cache.

It seems that we can surmise that the egg: 1) is a symbol of life; 2) that its red dye points to the crucifixion; 3) that cracking the egg has a connection to the Lord's resurrection and destruction of death; and finally, 4) the exchanging of eggs signifies the end of the Fast.

In general, while symbolism plays an important role in the life of the Orthodox Church, it is imperative for us to remember that every symbol - whether it be a word, act or object - is always opened to the infinite. In other terms, if symbolic meaning or definition is exhaustible, then the reality of eternity and the infinite is also exhaustible. This, of course, cannot be the case.

Question: On Judging Others

As I read the Bible and the sayings of the Desert Fathers, I understand that there is a strong emphasis against judging others. There are, however, Scriptural references that seem to indicate that judgment is sometimes proper. Matthew 18:15 would seem to involve a judgment upon someone whom I perceived to have wronged me. Galatians 6:1 would also seem to require a "judgment" to determine that a brother had been caught in sin. I understand that there is a difference between passing judgement upon an individual, and judging what is right and wrong from a Christian point of reference, but I'm not certain that I always have a clear understanding of where those lines are drawn. Thank you in advance for your response.

Thank you for your question.

When our Lord exhorts us not to judge (Matt. 7:1 f.f), he is not telling us to be indifferent or apathetic. Making a judgment is a response to someone or something. In fact, every time we give an "answer" we are judging or assessing. It's interesting that in Greek the compound verb apokrinomai, "to answer," literally means "to come from making a judgement." The word "discernment" (diakrisis) likewise implies arriving at an understanding or insight that is "derived from judging." Indeed, falsehood, injustice, prejudice, abuse, etc. must be recognized as such and exposed. Yet, in exposing someone's fault or sin, our judgment must be constructive and not destructive. Our judging must be for the healing and overall welfare of the person or persons who have severed communion with us and with others. Both Matt. 18:15 and Gal. 6:1 see judging as that which restores communion and therefore edifies, heals, and ultimately saves. Even when true judgment is rejected (Matt. 18:17), the one offering judgment is to continue striving for communion with the separated.

Unfortunately, the act of judging often takes on another dynamic. Rather than healing, it seeks to harm; rather than restoring, it seeks to destroy; rather than saving, it seeks to damn. All of this is due either to self-righteous pride or to a vengeful spirit caused by personal trauma. In either case, the judge assumes the place of Christ and therefore becomes numbered with the separated.

Question: On Salvation

Dear Father,
I am a cradle Orthodox Christian as they call it. I've studied the Scriptures and am also studying the early and later Fathers in the faith. I accept Orthodoxy and believe Christ was the atoning sacrifice for the believers. However, I disagree on one thing with the Church: I don't believe a true believer can lose his or her salvation (i.e., via free will). I believe that nothing will separate the true believer in Christ from the salvation in Christ. Some call this "eternal security" or "perseverance of the saints," but I don't care for these labels, nor do I consider myself a Calvinist. I have gotten into arguments with Pentecostals who agree with the Orthodox Church that you can lose your salvation, and they point out cases where people turned away from the faith. To me, such people were not real believers converted in the heart in the first place. I believe with James that a real faith is a living faith (one where the believer shows his faith by his works, not without them), but I think that if you are truly converted with his Spirit within you, you will never want to leave him, and that, yes, you must grow in Christ (divinization), but if I am growing and feeling my salvation is not a "done deal," so to speak, I do not feel peace when I live my life (for this life is not forever but eternity is!). But when I turn my heart to the trust that Jesus has already saved me, I feel freedom, breath a sigh of relief, and this gives me a peace and love and power to go out and do good, study the Scriptures, fast, pray. In other words, when I feel that my eternity is secure, it is then that I feel awakened in joy and power to live as a Christian. Is this wrong?

One Orthodox brother said that if I don't agree with the Church on this point, then I am not a true Orthodox and angrily said I should "go join the Protestants." Does believing in the perseverance of the saints mean I cannot be truly Orthodox?

To best answer your question I quote the words we sing at the end of every celebration of the Divine Liturgy:

"We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit, we have found the true faith, worshipping the undivided Trinity who has saved us." Indeed, in and through and by Christ we are endowed with salvation. It is lost when we decide to ignore it or to forfeit it.

Question: On Death

My understanding has been that part of the rationale for iconography is that God became man and dwelt among us, therefore he had an appearance that we could observe and it is therefore appropriate to depict him in an icon. It is also my understanding that since humans are icons of God, being made in his image, it is appropriate to venerate icons of the saints. My question is about icons of angels, who are often referred to as the "bodiless ones" in Orthodoxy, and especially the icon of the Trinity, which portrays God as a threefold form of man. In addition, I am confused by the fact that none of the human forms in the Trinity icon resembles Christ. Any explanation would be appreciated. Thank you.

You seem to have a good general understanding regarding the existence of the icon. The invisible pre-eternal Son and Word of God became visible by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. He who cannot be contained is contained in the flesh. St. John of Damascus says this about the existence and veneration of the icon: "In former times God, who is without form or body, could never be depicted. But now, when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take his abode in matter; who worked out my salvation in matter which wrought my salvation! I honor it, but not as God" (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 1.16).

As for the depiction of angels, though they are bodiless they can be depicted. Here, we need to keep in mind that, though angels are bodiless or immaterial, they nevertheless are circumscribable. Paradoxically, while angels are characterized as bodiless, because they are created they have form and therefore parameters that can be delineated. This is attested to by the various manifestations of angels in both the Old and New Testaments. Depictions of cherubim are referred to in Exodus 25:18 and 26:31. Only God, because he is uncreated, is without form and therefore uncircumscribable and unable to be depicted before the incarnation. 

The icon of the Trinity simultaneously has a hierarchical and conciliar order that is revealed from left to right in the image. There is perfect harmony and unity among the three persons (hypostases). If you have a copy of the famous Trinity icon by St. Andrei Rublev, you will notice that this harmony and unity are further expressed in a communion of persons by the inner lines of the figures on the left and right which form a chalice. The angel in the center wears the garments of Christ as he is depicted as an adult. The inner garment is purple and the cloak is blue.

I come from a Evangelical background and I am very interested in becoming a part of the Orthodox Church. However, I was wondering how the Church interprets Ecclesiastes 9:5, where it says, "The dead know nothing." Doesn't this contradict the Orthodox view of prayers to the saints or the departed? Thank you.

Thanks for your question. To help appreciate the verse you refer to in the Book of Ecclesiastes (9:5), there is need to go back to the beginning of the text: "Vanity of vanities... all is vanity." From the outset, the author conveys to his audience the passing and therefore fading-away of every one and every thing.

More philosophical than theological, Ecclesiastes (see chapter 3) focuses on the various aspects of life and the inevitable return of all existence to dust (verse twenty). It is from this perspective that 9:5 should be read, i.e., that based on the author's meditation on life, there is death and the cessation of existence. Yet, given this harsh reality, the author is also aware of the permanence of God and that his ways are inscrutable: "As you do not know how the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything" (11:5). Given this, 9:5 can be read from two perspectives. On the one hand, everything ceases after death and indeed "the dead know nothing." On the other hand, death is a mystery fathomed only by God, who "will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil" (12:14). Even if the author tended towards the former, the Orthodox Church interprets 9:5 and all other biblical texts that refer to the permanence of death and subsequent non-existence in light of Christ's death and resurrection. The death of the God-Man has conquered death and has freed all the captives of hell, beginning with Adam and Eve. Because the death and resurrection of Christ have universal consequences, all of humanity - past, present, and future - is embraced by divine love and care. 

Therefore, we pray for the dead and to the dead (God's holy ones), since God, before the ages, chose all of humanity to be in Christ, so "that we should be holy and blameless before him. He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will... as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth" (Ephesians 1:4-10). In Christ and with the sealing of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13 and 4:30), all the children of God, those who precede the incarnation and those who come after it, are drawn into a new and more intimate relationship with the Father. In Christ, the relationship of persons - the living and the dead - continues.

I was wondering about the Orthodox belief regarding the doctrine of predestination - as in "election," God "choosing," etc. I guess this is primarily a Calvinist doctrine. I've never believed in predestination in this sense, but frequently I am confused about it when I read the Scriptures.

As you indicate in your email, the teaching of John Calvin regarding predestination is not accepted by the Orthodox Church. As for biblical texts that point to "election" or "(pre)destination," they can be interpreted in a broader sense. For example, in St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians we read, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in every spiritual blessing, in the heavenly places, in Christ, just as he elected [chose] us in him before the foundation of the world... He predestined us to be his adopted sons through Jesus Christ according to the intention of his will..." (1:4-5).

Clearly, "election" and "predestination" are key terms in this verse. Yet, they point to the fact that God desires, before the foundation of the world, for all to be his sons and daughters. As St. Paul continues, God desires in the fullness of time to unite in Christ or, more literally, to re-capitulate in Christ, "things in heaven and things on earth" (1:10).

The re-capitulation in Christ of every one and every thing (this is the thrust of verse ten) can be understood in two ways: 1) when the fullness of time is reached, all will be saved, and all will be united in Christ; and 2) though God desires every one and every thing to be united under the headship of Christ, it will be up to all reasonable and understanding beings to choose to accept or reject God's plan. "God desires all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4). Yet, in either case, human will is neither canceled nor rendered neutral. Some patristic writings stress that even in hell, the human will can change.

From the Old to the New Testament, there seems to be some disparity in the way God is presented. How can God issue specific instructions to someone with multiple wives (without condemnation) in Deuteronomy and yet Jesus condemns adultery?

Another question I have may be based on a misunderstanding. I was told by an Orthodox friend that God does not really get angry as we understand it, but again, in the Old Testament, he states repeatedly that his anger and wrath and vengeance will be visited on certain peoples.

It seems that in the Old Testament God is condoning the killing of people who do wrong, but in the New Testament, Jesus is preaching mercy. How can I understand Jesus being God, when he seems so different from the God in the Old Testament?

Thank you for any enlightenment you can share.

The tension between the understanding of God in the Old Testament, together with the acts of violence associated with him, and the New Testament has existed since the time of the formation and completion of the New Testament canon. Some have tried to alleviate this tension by ignoring the Old Testament in its entirety; others have interpreted the "violent texts" using allegory, i.e, by saying that these texts have no real historical basis and are to be understood as having a spiritual significance. From this perspective, the conquest of enemies would be associated with the conquest of sin. 

That you would question the divinity of Jesus based on the description of God in the Old Testament is strange. It is the Son and Word of God who is the foundation of both the Old and New Testaments. Prior to his incarnation, the Logos of God is being revealed in the Law and the Prophets. These texts, when interpreted as preparing for the coming of the Messiah, help to break away from creating a duality of divine persons, i.e., the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. Jesus, as the incarnate Son and Word of God, is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. The word "fulfillment" is a polyvalent term that can mean completion, perfection, and even end. It is Jesus as the New Torah, the New Law, who always has to be the standard for interpreting the Old Testament.

What is considered worshipping God?

Thank you for your question.

The very basis of worship is the encounter with God. Because of this encounter, a re-orientation of life begins. What nurtures this re-orientation (or repentance) is an ever growing love and desire for God, for those around us, and for ourselves. It is this dynamic of love that offers us the possibility of transforming all of life into worship. It is this dynamic which brings us into a community of fellow worshippers, where our personal prayer is joined to the prayer of a particular community.

Question: On Desire

Having explored numerous different religions throughout the years, it wasn’t until I met my Greek partner that I became fully aware of Christian orthodoxy. As a bit of a background, I am a confirmed Roman Catholic (at the push of my family in younger years) but have long seen myself ideologically aligned with Buddhism, specifically in the fundamental idea of Nirvana through a ridding oneself of desire. While I am now familiar with a basic knowledge of the orthodox doctrine, I was wondering if you could help me understand how this aforementioned idea might find itself paralleled in your beliefs. That is, having become briefly familiar with Christian orthodoxy I seem to have found a belief system that honours my admiration for Jesus Christ as a historical and spiritual figure while leaving aside much of the aspects I have long disliked about Catholicism, such as the papacy. Yet in order for me to vest myself further in orthodoxy I seek to find a parallel between this Buddhist thought, in which this church understands desire as being of detriment to inner peace and to what role or to which extent this notion plays in a Christian orthodox idea of “heaven”. While this message may not be perfectly articulated, I hope that you might understand what I’m hoping to learn and may be of help there. I am not in the vicinity of your parish but came across your page online and thought I would reach out. 

Thanks in advance,

To begin addressing your question regarding “desire" I think we need to bear in mind its twofold nature which in turn manifests itself accordingly. 

The first type of desire, which I think you are referring to, seeks to possess so as to dominate and control. This kind of desire not only deprives one of inner peace but also creates a veil clouding one's inner vision. Consequently, one is unable to see or understand clearly the self as needing to be in union and communion with the other. This type of desire is never satisfied and ultimately leaves one in a state of existential isolation and loneliness.

The second type of desire is antithetical to the first. It seeks union and communion with the other. This type of desire is driven by love for the other and is free of the need to wield power over the other. From this type of desire ensues inner peace which in turn begins to remove the inner veil of ignorance that distorts the perception of reality and the way one relates to reality.

It should be stressed that “ridding oneself of desire” or becoming dispassionate does not lead to a stoic outlook on life. For an Orthodox Christian, dispassion (in Greek “apatheia”) is the antithesis of what is commonly understood as apathy or disinterest. “Apatheia” leads to the proper use of desire which extends the love of Christ to everyone and everything. This type or expression of desire is also never satisfied. This is so because unselfish desire/unselfish love seeks an ever deepening communion with the other.

Inner peace, dispassion, “apatheia,” are rooted and sustained in a life that seeks union and communion with Christ. In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul speaks of Christ as our peace who overcomes the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile. “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one,and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (2:14) We can extend this to mean that the one in Christ and therefore  the one who yearns to love Christ even when confronted with exclusion, hatred and violence by the other is able to transcend these and all barriers because of the un-waning love for the other. 

I hope this is of some help. 


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History and Ecclesiology

I live in Russia, but right now I'm attending Boston University, and I was wondering if there is any difference between your church's beliefs and those of the Russian Orthodox Church, and if there is, would that prevent me from attending your parish?

Thank you.

There is no difference in doctrine between the Orthodox Church in America and the Orthodox Church in Russia. In fact, the original Orthodox missionaries to North America came from Russia. Of the eight monks and two novices of the original mission most came from Valaam (Finnish/Karelian: Valamo) Monastery on Lake Ladoga (Finnish/Karelian: Laatokka). Among the Valaam missionaries was the monk Herman, who on August 7, 1970, became the first Orthodox saint of North America. I suggest that you read my response to the question on the origin of the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America found in this section of the cathedral website. This historical outline will help to describe the relationship between our two Churches over the past century.

I don't understand the origin or the legitimacy of the OCA. Weren't all of these parishes once part of other national Churches, i.e., wasn't your parish once Russian Orthodox?

The Orthodox Church in America (OCA) traces its origin to the Russian mission established in Kodiak, Alaska in 1794.
Many Orthodox living in America are not aware that until the Russian Revolution (1917-1918), there was one canonical archdiocese in North America. This archdiocese, also known as the “Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church in North America” (later known as the “Russian Metropolia”), was the outcome of a growing mission extending from Alaska down to San Francisco and across to New York. The ethnic make-up of the North American Archdiocese was heterogeneous. Indigenous Native Americans/First Nations peoples, Russians, Arabs, Greeks, Serbs, and Albanians, as well as converts from other Christian Churches, created the multicultural profile of the Archdiocese. In fact, the first bishop consecrated in North America was the newly glorified (i.e., canonized) Raphael Hawaweeny – an Arab from Damascus, Syria.

Due to the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, ecclesiastical disintegration quickly followed in North America. Cut off from its mother Church, the North American Archdiocese was unable to prevent the establishment of parallel jurisdictions. Immigrants from Eastern Europe, Greece, the Middle East, and the Balkans sought from their respective mother churches the canonical legitimacy for the creation of jurisdictions based not on geography (the historical and canonical principle for the creation of dioceses and jurisdiction) but solely on ethnic background.

Because of the internal chaos that the Church in Russia had to contend with, and due to the attempts made by the “Living Church” (a Bolshevik-supported institution) to gain control of ecclesiastical property in North America, the America mission capitulated to jurisdictional pluralism. Yet, in spite of losing its multiethnic and multicultural profile, what remained as the North American Archdiocese of the Russian Orthodox Church declared itself to be autonomous in 1924 at its fourth All-American Council convened in Detroit, Michigan. This declaration of autonomy was in fact an affirmation of what had been the case since 1917.

It was always the intent of the North American Archdiocese to maintain its spiritual ties with the Church in Russia. However, this was not to be. In 1933, under pressure by the state, the Church in Russia began to require that American clergy take an oath of allegiance to the Soviet government. Needless to say, this was impossible. Consequently, the Moscow Patriarchate set up its own jurisdiction in North America. Subsequently, relations between the two Churches were strained to the point that sacramental communion was dissolved.

The autocephaly of 1970 was a way to restore full communion between the Moscow Patriarchate and the North American Metropolia. In addition, the tomos or decree of autocephaly recognized that the Metropolia was a canonically self-governing church. 

The Orthodox Church in America has been one of the strongest voices in the United States and Canada calling for the establishment of one local and canonical Church in America and the end to jurisdictional pluralism.

What is the canonical and theological justification of "autocephaly"? It seems to me that it helps foster the kind of ethnocentrism and nationalism that is antithetical to the Church's mission, and impedes the Orthodox churches from speaking in one, catholic voice.

The Church is a local phenomenon, in which the Christian community gathers around its bishop and makes present in time and space the living body of Christ. History reveals that as the Church spread and the diocesan structure - corresponding to the territorial divisions of the empire - developed, it was the "one" bishop in "one" city who manifested the unity of the Christian community. History also teaches us, by way of the canons, that one bishop in one city was essential for the life of the Church. The reason is obvious since two (or more) bishops in one city would divide the body of Christ. Canon 8 of the first ecumenical council of Nicaea (325) makes this point when referring to the reception of non-Orthodox, i.e., Novatian bishops. The canon maintains that repentant Novatian clergy were to be ordained by Orthodox hierarchs and integrated into the clergy of the universal Church. In the case of a repentant Novatian hierarch living where there was already an Orthodox bishop present, the former was be integrated at the rank of priest. However, the canon continues, if the ruling bishop were so disposed, the repentant bishop could keep his title as an honorary distinction, or become what was called a chorepiskopos (Greek, meaning "bishop of the land" or "rural bishop"), akin in function to modern-day auxiliary bishops. Of utmost importance was the insistence that there be only "one" ruling or functioning local bishop (cf. also Canon 50 of 1 Nicaea, which stresses one bishop in one city).

Rather than contributing to ethnic or national divisions, an autocephalous church would insure that, by having one bishop in one city, parallel churches or jurisdictions such as we find in America could not exist. Therefore, autocephaly speaks of a local/territorial Church that is self-governing. That autocephalous Churches throughout the world identify themselves as ethnic communities not only undermines the canons, but also weakens - if not totally ignores - the missionary mandate of the Gospel. For this reason, the Council of Constantinople (1872) condemned the creation of two Churches (Greek and Bulgarian) in one territory. This council denounced "phyletism" - the heresy of racism - which would have allowed for a plurality of ecclesial administrations in one location to minister specifically to various ethnic groups there.

An autocephalous Church in America would put an end to the plurality of ethnic jurisdictions. It would provide the way to restoring the integrity of Orthodox ecclesiology, which teaches that the one body of Christ embraces in one place all people, all nations. An autocephalous Church would provide the context in which the Gospel could be concretely proclaimed with one mouth and one heart.

Father, please forgive my obscure question, but what is the etymology of stauropegial/stavropighial? It apparently means "outside the diocesan structure" or "pertaining to the primate." I know the Greek stauros means "cross," but the rest escapes me. The word appears in the phrase "...actual reported adult membership...from all the diocesan and stavropighial parishes of the OCA..." at the top of the last page of the Pre All-American Council Report Fair Share Resolution.

Thanks for your time.

G. W. H. Lampe's Greek Patristic Lexicon defines τὸ σταυροπήγιον as “a fixture of a Cross by a bishop on the site of a new Church.” In his very useful and well-documented book, The Church of the Ancient Councils (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), Archbishop Peter (L’Huillier) traces the adjective stauropêgiakos to the verb pêgnymi, which means "to attach with nails" or "to pierce."

From a historical perspective, patriarchal stauropegia appear after the last phase of iconoclasm in the ninth century. These were monasteries that were not under the direct jurisdiction of the local bishop, but rather under the patriarch of the local Church. Archbishop Peter states that "these monasteries are thus designated because at their foundation the patriarchal Cross was attached to them, marking the direct jurisdiction of the patriarch" (The Church of the Ancient Councils, p. 311) Thus, since Metropolitan Tikhon is the current primate of the Orthodox Church in America, all stavropegial communities are directly under his jurisdiction.

I was wondering why we don't celebrate Passover. Jesus was holding a seder the night of the Last Supper, so where along the line did that become something that we did not consider part of our religion?

For Christians, the death and resurrection of Christ form the "new" Passover. The Greek word Pascha (Πάσχα) is derived from the Hebrew pesakh (פֶסַח), which means "to pass over" and refers to God "passing over" or "skipping" the homes of the Israelites in the last of the Ten Plagues that afflicted Egypt (cf. Exodus 12:27). For Israel, Passover marked its liberation from Egypt. From a Christian perspective, the Jewish Passover was a prefiguration of Christ’s "passover" from death to life.

While Christians do not hold a seder, we cannot disassociate the "Passover" of Israel from the "Passover" of the Lord. In the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, Jesus is presented as the new Moses who leads not only Israel, but also the Gentiles, from the bondage of sin to the freedom of salvation, and from death to life.

Dear Father, 

Thank you for providing this service. I am writing to you from the United Arab Emirates. My question is: Who was the first bishop of Jerusalem? He would be the first leader of the Christians after the ascension of Jesus. Is this correct? 

I don't like to take a lot of your time. I would appreciate a short answer and any Biblical references.
Thank you.

Though the term "bishop" is not used in the Acts of the Apostles, it is clear that James was the first leader of the Church in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 15:13 ff.). In the Ecclesiastical History of Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea (fourth century), James, the brother of the Lord, is referred to as the first bishop of Jerusalem (Ecclesiastical History 4.5).

My son is reading the New Testament in his high school religion class (he attends a Roman Catholic school) and was distressed to find that two of the apostles blame the death of Jesus Christ directly on the Jews. He is worried that then by definition as a Christian, one has to be anti-Semitic if one believes that the Bible is the word of God. Please help him with this.

Do you know which texts and apostles your son is referring to? You need to keep stressing that Christians are not to hate anyone.

The roots of Christianity are Jewish. The first Christians were Jewish and did not break their ties with Judaism. The Gospel of Saint Luke tells us that after the ascension of the Lord, his disciples "returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were continually in the temple blessing God" (24:52-53).

The Gospel accounts make it very clear that the death of the Lord involved both Jews and Gentiles. Jesus is tried by both the Sanhedrin presided over by Caiaphas (Matthew 26) and by the Gentiles, led by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. According to the Lukan text, Pilate and Herod (the governor of Galilee) did not find Jesus guilty of the charges brought against him (23:13-16), yet it is Pilate who gives into the wishes of the angry crowd demanding the release of Barabbas and the crucifixion of Jesus.

Finally, it is important for all Christians to remember that Jesus' passion and death are voluntary. Jesus wills to be delivered into the hands of sinful men (Mark 9:30-32); he wills to offer himself for the life of the world.

I read and hear Protestants say that the longer canon of Scriptures, such as we have in the Orthodox Church, was not accepted or fixed until the Western Council of Trent. Yet the East obviously accepted the deuterocanonical books apart from the Western decision. When did the Eastern Churches fix their evidently even longer canon as including the deuterocanonical books (for example 3 & 4 Maccabees)? And if the decision was not at an ecumenical council, how could it be considered authoritative?

You raise an important question regarding the formation of the biblical canon. A simple answer cannot be given since the history of the canon, both East and West, is long and complicated.

In the West, at the Council of Trent (which spread over a period of 18 years, 1545-63), it was affirmed that the books of the "Apocrypha" (meaning "hidden" in Greek), i.e., those books of the Old Testament which were not included in the Hebrew collection of Scriptures, were to be included in the Christian Scriptural canon. In other terms, Trent declared that the Apocrypha were also divinely inspired texts. In fact, it was St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) who placed these books, originally written in Greek, on equal footing with the Hebrew books. The Council of Trent was for all intents and purposes catching up with St. Augustine's "expanded" canon.

As for the development of the canon in the East, the deuterocanonical or Apocryphal books were not accepted as part of the canon. This was so because the East adhered initially to the Hebrew canon. Hence, these books were not on an equal footing with the Hebrew books. As for the Septuagint (LXX), i.e., the Greek translation of the Hebrew canon, the East placed the deuterocanonical books in a category of their own. In his festal Letter 39, St. Athanasius of Alexandria lists the following books of the Old Testament:

... Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings, among which 1 and 2 are considered one book, as are 3 and 4. After this we find the Chronicles, taken as one book. Then the book of Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, and Job. Then the twelve prophets, as one book. Then Isaiah, Jeremiah with Baruch, Lamentations and the Epistle [of Jeremiah], then Ezekiel, and Daniel... But to be more precise, I find it necessary to say that in addition to these, there are also other works not included but which have been decreed by the Fathers to be read by those who will soon be accepted [i.e., the catechumens], or by those who want to learn the word of piety: The Wisdom of Solomon, Esther, Judith, Tobit, the teaching said to be of the Apostles [i.e., the Didache] and the Pastor [i.e., The Shepherd of Hermas] [Note: these last two texts were at various times included in the New Testament canon].

St. Athanasius goes on to say that the texts comprising the canon and those which are for reading and edifying the listener are not to be referred to as "Apocryphal." For St. Athanasius, the Apocryphal texts - meaning, things that were hidden or secreted away - were simply "the inventions of the heretics."

There are other texts which make similar distinctions. One such text is the Synopsis of Holy Scripture (fourth or fifth century), wrongly attributed to St. Athanasius. It refers to three categories of books: 1) those which are canonized; 2) those which are disputed (Greek: antilegomena); and 3) those which are apocryphal. The antilegomena correspond to the deuterocanonical books that are used to edify catechumens and the baptized. As for the Apocrypha, these books were forbidden to be read in or outside the Eucharistic gathering (see also Canon 59 of Laodicaea [fourth century]).

While not all the lists of canonical books agree with one another, there is a consistent attempt in the East to remain within the number of books found in the Hebrew canon. Compare for example the letter of Melitos of Sardis (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4.26), the lists of St. Athanasius, Canon 60 of Laodicaea (a later insertion), and Apostolic Canon 85 (fourth century) [Note: In the list of Meletos, Esther, Nehemiah and Lamentations are omitted. This is so because Nehemiah was included with Ezra, and Lamentations with Jeremiah. Esther is omitted perhaps because of a scribal error.].

That no ecumenical council drew up the current list of canonical books should not be unsettling. Local councils as well as certain episcopal letters became recognized as expressing the life and faith of the universal Church, e.g., the local councils of Constantinople in the fourteenth century (which defended the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas regarding the distinctions between essence and energies). From a dogmatic perspective, these councils are just as important as any of the seven Ecumenical Councils.

I've been learning about the Orthodox faith in my theology class and I was wondering if you could provide some insight on the Orthodox teaching on other religions. How are other religions viewed in Orthodox Christianity? Does one need to be Orthodox to be saved? Is Orthodox Christianity viewed as the only path to God, or do other religions have truth also? And if one of the main teachings of Jesus was to promote understanding, how does the Orthodox Christian view of other religions correlate with Jesus' idea?

Your questions are extremely interesting and apropos to the religious pluralism that makes up our social context and which beckons Christians to engage in serious inter-religious dialog. To begin answering your questions from an Orthodox perspective will take more than a few sentences.

Any serious attempt to study the history of religions from an Orthodox perspective acknowledges that God has always revealed himself. This means that prior to Christianity, God had always made himself known. This is attested to by the Old Testament. As a record of the interaction of God and humanity, we find God in the Old Testament revealing himself before the incarnation to pagans and to those who were later incorporated into the covenant made with Abraham. This universal acknowledgement of God's revelation to all people at all times is expressed in Orthodox worship. In the Liturgy of St. Basil, which is celebrated mainly on the Sundays of Great Lent prior to Pascha, the celebrant, before the recitation of the Creed and the words of institution, recites a prayer asking God to accept the offering of the gathered community which includes these words: 

Look upon us, O God, and behold this our service, and accept it as you accepted the gifts of Abel, the sacrifices of Noah, the whole burnt-offerings of Abraham, the sacred offerings of Moses and Aaron, the peace offerings of Samuel. Even as you received at the hands of the holy Apostles this true worship, so also, O Lord ...  accept these gifts [i.e., the bread and wine] at the hands of us sinners...

Given this prayer, it is clear that God's revelation, love and salvation are offered to all. Nevertheless, it needs to be stressed that from an Orthodox perspective, divine truth, love, and salvation have their beginning and end in the person of Jesus Christ. Consequently, taking our lead from St. Paul,"whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious..." (Philippians 4:8) is inextricably bound to Jesus Christ. To appreciate this fundamental teaching of the Orthodox Church, one has to understand concepts such as truth, goodness, and beauty as having their existence and manifestation in the person of Jesus. Many would associate truth as being related to concepts and tenets based on a philosophy, ideology, sociology, science, economics, mathematics, etc.. Yet it is Christ who proclaims that he is "the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), through whom all come to the Father.

By affirming both the universality and centrality of Christ, the Orthodox Church embraces the truth that is found in all religions. This is possible because all truth, regardless of where it is found and proclaimed, points to Christ. All who seek to be saved and "come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4) - all who strive to live their lives according to the truth - are, from an Orthodox perspective, responding to the call of Christ. Whether or not these seekers know the name of Christ makes no difference. All would be considered Christians, i.e., disciples of Christ, based on their love for the truth. A Christian apologist of the second century, St. Justin the Martyr, has this to say about those who yearned for the truth before the incarnation: "We have been taught that Christ is the firstborn of God, and we have declared that he is the Logos, of whom every race of man were partakers, and those who lived according to the Logos are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists, as among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them." (Apology 1.46) For St. Justin, the idea of Christ - who, as truth, is the pre-eternal Logos of God - exists in every human being in seminal form. Thus, the concept of truth is not limited to a particular people living at a particular time. Nevertheless, it is the incarnate Logos, Jesus Christ, who manifests in his very person the fullness of truth.

Given the statements above, we can attempt to answer the question of salvation outside the Church. On the one hand, the Orthodox Church adheres to the teaching of St. Cyprian of Carthage (third century), who emphasized that outside of the Church there is no salvation (extra ecclesiam nulla salus). Applying this teaching in a very narrow way leaves no room for discussion regarding salvation for those who are outside the Church. On the other hand, while the Orthodox Church accepts St. Cyprian's teaching, it understands that the limits or boundaries of the Church are more inclusive than exclusive. The texts cited above help to show that the boundaries of the Church embrace humanity's sojourn with God in a very comprehensive way. The history of the Church binds past, present, and future together. Christ - as the beginning, center, and end of history - joins to himself all who love him: all who seek after the truth and who care for those around them. This is affirmed by St. Irenaeus of Lyons (second century): 

Christ did not come only for those who, since the time of the Emperor Tiberius, have believed in him, nor has the Father exercised his providence only in favor of people now living, but in favor all without exception, right from the beginning, who have feared God and loved him and practiced justice and kindness towards their neighbors and desired to see Christ and hear his voice, in accordance with their abilities and the age in which they were living. ... There is only one and the same God the Father, and his Word has been present to humanity from all time, although by diverse dispositions and manifold operations, he has from the beginning been saving those who are saved, that is, those who love God and follow his Word, each in his own age" (Against Heresies 4.22.2, 4.28.2).
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Pastoral Concerns

I would like to get baptized/baptize my child in the Orthodox Church. How do I go about it?

Baptism in the Orthodox Church requires an uncompromising commitment to Christ and his Church. Before speaking about baptism, you must attend the cathedral, or any other parish you may want to become part of, regularly, i.e., at least every Sunday. After one year or even longer, we can then begin to think about a program of catechesis which would last one to two years.

If you are interested in having your child baptized in the Orthodox Church, then again: you need to become a part of an Orthodox parish. This means you need to make a commitment to attending the parish regularly with your child and to help with its ongoing needs.

How does one who hasn't been baptized go about converting to Orthodox Christianity?

The best way to begin is to find an Orthodox parish and start attending it regularly. Establish a relationship with the priest and his community. In time, you and the parish priest can begin a dialog that could lead to formal study and the catechumenate.

I was baptized as a child in Russia, but have no real knowledge of everyday church life and customs. I feel committed to the Orthodox Church and would like to find out how to start my journey to a life with the Church.

The first step of your journey should point and ultimately lead to an Orthodox parish. It is the parish that provides the context for learning and living the faith. Regular attendance at the services, culminating in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, is a must. It is in the context of liturgical and therefore communal worship that we have the opportunity to acquaint ourselves with the life of the Church. In the context of worship, we encounter the crucified and resurrected Christ, who is "the Way, the Truth, and the Life."

By regularly attending the services of the Church, you will become more attuned to receiving the Gospel proclaimed in word, image, and hymns. You will also be able to meet other Orthodox Christians who strive to live their faith in our pluralistic and secularistic society. 

Should you make a commitment to belong to an Orthodox parish, you will eventually bring what you receive from the Christian community into your personal life. Thus, the rhythm of the Church, i.e., its feasts and fasts, will become the rhythm of your life. The prayer of the Church will become the foundation upon which you develop your own personal prayer. 

As you become rooted in the life of a parish - as your life in Christ matures - you will discover the reciprocity of corporate and personal life. Not only will the parish community influence your life, but your life will also impact the spiritual growth and maturity of the parish.

Dear Father,

My daughter has become engaged. Our family was invited by the other side's family to celebrate this event. Would you please refer me to any sources of information on the engagement ceremony/ traditions in the Orthodox church? 

The first part of the marriage service in the Orthodox Church is the formal engagement or betrothal. It is during this rite that rings are exchanged as an expression of promising oneself to another. In some parishes, this rite is celebrated apart from the crowning or marriage service. In the event that the formal betrothal is broken, those involved, should they wish to marry someone else, would be viewed as entering a second marriage, even though the engagement service is not the actual rite of matrimony.
The rite of betrothal can be found in any wedding service book of the Orthodox Church.

I have a question regarding interfaith marriages. My fiancée is Greek Orthodox, and although we are both Christians, there are major differences among our marriage traditions. I would like some advice as to how it would be possible to integrate both traditions and beliefs in our marriage ceremony. We would like a combination of both. Is it possible? Thank you.

Not knowing your Christian background allows me to speak only in generalities. To overcome the inherent difficulties arising from "mixed" Christian marriages requires much love, patience, and a mutual desire to truly understand the other's tradition.

If you are planning to marry in the Orthodox Church, it is impossible to combine the Orthodox rite of marriage with another Christian rite of matrimony. And though you may invite a non-Orthodox minister or priest to your wedding, he or she may not concelebrate. If you are planning to marry outside the Orthodox Church, bear in mind that your fiancée will find herself separated (at least temporarily) from the Eucharist.

In either case, you and your fiancée should be seeking the guidance of an Orthodox priest who knows both of you and your situation.

Hello Father!

Please help me convert my boyfriend who is Muslim! I would like to know where I can find the differences between our faiths and to explain why we believe what we believe. I know my faith is the true one, but I cannot succeed in this attempt if I don't have reliable sources. ... Father, please help me because every time I see him I realize that we were meant for each other. I want us to get married in church. Father, I hope that this is not one of devil's stratagems. I really love this man and I want him to be saved too. Thank you so much, Father!

I'm sorry you find yourself in this very difficult situation. Is there a local parish priest you can talk to who at the very least can offer you moral support?

Your letter raises many important questions regarding the Orthodox Church and its sojourn in a pluralistic culture. Too often in America, the Orthodox Church functions as if it were still in a religiously monolithic context.

As for converting your beloved, you need to discern if he is indeed willing to take such an important step. Is this gentleman open to Christ and his Gospel, or are your discussions more or less of the theoretical sort, which in the end lead both of you back to your respective corners? If you conclude that conversion is not a possibility, then you need to think ahead of what your lives would be like in the event of your getting married, which would be outside the Church. As you know, there are often accompanying problems - especially with regards to raising children - when an Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christian are joined in marriage. In your case, where your spouse is a non-Christian, how would you raise your children - as Christians or Muslims? If your beloved has no desire to receive Christ, on what will you both build your marriage? To think that the love you have for each other is sufficient to sustain the relationship is very risky. You would not want to venture into the unknown without Christ as your guide and foundation.

If you are confident that there is the possibility of serious dialog, then you need to know your faith. This means that you are obliged not only to pray, but also to study and ultimately experience the life in Christ. This is why it is imperative to root yourself in a vibrant Orthodox community, which will nurture you spiritually and intellectually. Before reading anything, including the Bible, you should introduce your beloved to a community of committed and spiritually balanced Orthodox Christians. This encounter can make a strong and positive impression, which in turn will advance your dialog.

I found your website after Googling "Russian Orthodox marriage." There is a surprising lack of information on Russian Orthodoxy. Your church's website was one of the most informative I have come across.

My question has to do with interfaith marriage. I was baptized and raised Methodist in the midwestern United States. My fiancé was baptized Russian Orthodox in Western Siberia. He moved to the United States about nine years ago, at the age of twenty-one. Neither of us attend a church. Honestly, until we started discussing marriage, we never really discussed religion. I had some unfortunate experiences with the clergy of my childhood church and have not attended a church regularly since. My fiancé is telling me that he might want to marry in the Orthodox Church. He does not attend church, so he does not have a priest with whom I could discuss these things. 

My questions:

  • Does the church allow interfaith marriage? Is this decision left up to individual parishes to decide? 
  • If we could marry without my having to convert, are we required to make any kinds of promises or vows to the church? 
  • Is it acceptable to have a secular vow ceremony outside the church, and then have an Orthodox ceremony later? 
  • Does the Orthodox Church require pre-marital counselling? 
  • What other things should I know or ask?

Thank you so much for you time.

Before getting to your questions, it is imperative that you and your fiancé discuss attending a local Orthodox parish if you are seriously contemplating being married in the Church. Unless this basic commitment is made, the answers to your questions will be of no real value, since marriage, being a sacrament of the Church, cannot be celebrated unless there is a desire on the part of the couple to lead the life of the Gospel within the local parish community. The desire to know and love Jesus Christ and to immerse oneself into the life of his Church is fundamental to being married in the Church. Without a commitment to Christ and his Church, a church wedding is reduced to a mere ritual cut off from its very life source. In the case of your fiancé, it should be stressed that being baptized into the Church presupposes attending, on a weekly basis, an Orthodox parish. Therefore it is of the utmost importance that you and your fiancé make contact with an Orthodox priest and his parish.

Regarding your questions:

1. Marriage between an Orthodox Christian and non-Orthodox Christian is permitted, provided the latter has been baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The marriage between an Orthodox Christian and a non-Orthodox Christian is not a decision left up to the local parish community. "Mixed marriages" within the context of the Orthodox Church extends back to the tenth century.

2. Based on the above, you will not be obliged to become an Orthodox Christian. If you seek to be married in the Orthodox Church, it is expected that your fiancé will strive to become a regular communicant of the parish in which the marriage takes place.

3. "Civil marriages" are discouraged. Because marriage is a sacrament of the Orthodox Church, it is more than a legal contract between two parties. Should you and your fiancé contract a "civil marriage," your fiancé (and you) will still need to decide if you want to become part of an Orthodox parish, should you still want a church wedding.

4. Because of the seriousness of the marriage union, pre-marital counselling is necessary.

5. For now, I think the basics have been covered.

Should you have further questions, feel free to ask. I hope you and your fiancé find the way to Christ and his Church.

I've heard that after a loved one dies, we are not to celebrate anything for forty days: no Christmas trees, no dancing, no listening to music; we should wear black, etc. How about food: what types are allowed and not allowed? Also, does this apply to all members of the family, i.e., if my grandmother or uncle dies, do I practice this as well or just the "immediate" family, such as my mother and father? 

It is a practice among the Orthodox that the mourning period of a close relative can extend from forty days to one year. As Orthodox Christians, we belong to the Church of the Cross and Resurrection. Unfortunately, the cult of the dead often overshadows the resurrection. As Orthodox Christians, we cannot allow the reality of death to supersede the reality of new life in Christ. Therefore, mourning in its various manifestations, i.e., dress, diet, social intercourse, etc. should not become separated from the Church's joyous proclamation that "through the cross joy has come to all the world." The cross and resurrection cannot be veiled by uncontrollable grief and hopelessness.

Mourning for the dead is a communal and personal process that requires Christ's cross and resurrection to be its foundation. The reality of death, especially that of a loved one, causes great pain and sorrow. Even our Lord wept at the grave of his beloved friend Lazarus. But as we mourn, we must always keep in mind that our Lord has already destroyed death by his own death on the cross. The Lord's cross is our victory over death. Therefore, our mourning for the deceased must be tempered with the joyous and life giving events of Christ's death, burial, and resurrection.

Dear Father,

A statement had been made to me, to which I am not sure how to respond as an Orthodox Christian.

An individual of Catholic faith stated to me that "divorce" and "use of artificial birth control" were not in the early church, but Orthodoxy now "allows" both divorce and the use of artificial birth control. They stated that Catholicism is the true faith because divorce and use of artificial contraception are still not allowed. 

How do I properly answer this statement that the individual made? As an Orthodox Christian, how should I answer them?

Thank you for your time.

Divorce and birth control are issues that are of concern for many Christians, especially Orthodox and Roman Catholics. It is clear from the New Testament that our Lord was critical of divorce. In the earliest Gospel, St. Mark records a brief discussion between Jesus and some Pharisees about divorce. Basically, the Pharisees attempt to test Jesus by asking him if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. Jesus responds, "What did Moses command you?" They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away." But Jesus said to them, "For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder" (cf. Mark 10:2-9). Interestingly, this same Gospel also refers to Jesus speaking to his disciples about divorce and how a woman can also initiate the process (10:10-12).

With regards to the first part of your question, it is clear that according to St. Mark, divorce initiated by either husband or wife renders them as adulterers, should they enter a subsequent marriage. In the Gospel according to St. Luke (16:18), the Lord states that "every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery."

It is in the Gospel according to St. Matthew that an additional detail is included in the exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees: "For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery." The Orthodox Church has relied on this text to allow for divorce and remarriage. However, it should be stressed that two subsequent marriages are permitted. It should also be stressed that if the betrothed have both been previously married, the wedding takes on a more penitential tone, stressing that second and third marriages are in no way taken lightly. After the exchanging of rings, a prayer is said which includes the following: "Purge away our sins, and forgive the transgressions of your servants, calling them to repentance, granting them remission of their iniquities, purification from their sins, and pardon of their errors, whether voluntary or involuntary." There was even a time when crowns were forbidden and the reception of the Eucharist was not permissible for two years in the case of couples entering a second union. Couples entering a third marriage were barred from Communion for five years.

Given the above, the Orthodox Church has always recognized that couples are married only once. Yet, the question often arises, with regards to second and third marriages, as to which union constitutes the first and only union. For example, can a marriage in which one or both spouses are abusive and/or unfaithful be considered a real marriage? The answer seems very clear, NO. Unfortunately, there are confessors and spiritual fathers who will counsel a husband or wife who is being abused to persevere for the sake of martyrdom in this life and a crown of glory in the next. Such advise is not only cruel, but also leaves the abused and unloved spouse no alternative but to remain in a relationship that is ultimately self-destructive.

From an Orthodox perspective, unchastity is often understood in a broader perspective and not limited to adultery. Clearly, marriage is not intended for the spiritual or physical destruction of husband, wife, and children. It is a way to salvation in Christ that is based on mutual love and care for the other. Unless there is love and reverence for the other based on love and reverence for Christ, unless there is an environment that is safe for both spouses and children, unless there is a relationship being forged that is creative there can be no marriage. That the Orthodox Church recognizes divorce signals that it recognizes that a marriage either never existed or that the love of two persons, over a period of time, ceased to sustain the marital union, resulting, even under the most amicable circumstances, in a polarity of persons.

The issue of birth control is related to how marriage is understood. If the primary purpose of marriage and therefore physical intimacy is procreation then birth control is absolutely forbidden. This is the approach of the Roman Catholics. Consequently, the only form of birth control permitted for Roman Catholics is the rhythm method. Many Orthodox bishops and priests follow this approach regarding both marriage and what is understood as natural birth control. One needs to also keep in mind that in the early Church birth control was often identified with methods intended to induce abortion.

Physical intimacy between spouses comes from a desire for oneness for the other and therefore transcends the desire for offspring. This is not to say that married couples should not want to have or be encouraged to have children. Yet, procreation has to proceed from love between spouses. It should not supersede the mutual love of spouses. Mutual love is the basis for procreation, if indeed procreation is possible. This raises the question regarding infertile couples. If a couple is unable to procreate, are they married? Certainly, provided one's infertility was not known prior to marriage and kept as a secret.

When the focus and emphasis of marriage moves from procreation to the mutual love of spouses, it becomes possible to speak about safe and responsible birth control, i.e., birth control that does not result in abortion. The "Morning After" pill or any intra-uterine device (IUD) that would destroy an embryo are forbidden. Given the many safe and acceptable contraceptives that are now available, spouses can choose what best suits their needs as they nurture their love for each other. Finally, the intimacy between spouses is not exclusively physical. Intimacy is the entirety of a shared life that includes physical desire and the enjoyment of the other, but also trials and sufferings that become part of the fabric of life. Such comprehensive intimacy leads to the Kingdom of God.


I have a question to ask: What does a beginner in Orthodoxy do when there is no one to turn to as a spiritual father who can guide them as to what spiritual disciplines and practices would be right for them at their level of awareness? I read that it is dangerous to try to be one's own spiritual father, but if there is a real lack of a true guide, where does one turn? Orthodoxy is not very well represented in the area where I live, and this creates a real problem for one who has a deep hunger and desire to learn and grow in the faith.

Thank you for answering.

Your question is difficult to answer. Not knowing you personally, there is no way I can determine your level of spiritual maturity. Consequently, I can only offer some general advice that will hopefully be of some help.

Authentic spiritual fathers and mothers are not easy to find. This is due in great part to the mystique that has developed around the ministry of the elder. As your question implies, Orthodox spiritual literature stresses the importance of being under the guidance of a spiritual father/mother. Historically, this was especially the case for those men and women who sought to work out their salvation in the desert as monks and nuns. Over time, the elder assumed a prominent role in the life of monastic communities and in the lives of those living in the "world" and attending local parishes. The mystique of the spiritual father/mother is great and has granted him/her tremendous authority and prominence in monastic and parochial settings. Yet, when the spiritual father/mother falls into the sin of pride - when he/she ceases to become less, so that Christ might become more in the life of the disciple, and when the spiritual master succumbs to the power and glory of the world - then the relationship between teacher and student becomes distorted and ultimately destructive. I'm afraid that many who purport to be spiritual fathers and mothers are wolves in sheep's clothing.

That you live in an area where "Orthodoxy is not very well represented" makes your quest that more difficult. Therefore, continue to pray, work and study. Ideally, a vibrant liturgical life, culminating in the celebration of the Eucharist, becomes the context from which your life is nurtured. If there is no parish where you can breathe and grow, do not become discouraged. Most importantly, do not strive to conform your life as a Christian to the stories and descriptions you have encountered in Orthodox spiritual literature. Make sure your life is grounded in the ordinary. Do not isolate yourself from others. Try to discover the face of Christ in all you meet. Too often, those seeking to enrich their spiritual lives fool themselves into thinking that this is only possible when one is doing extraordinary things with extraordinary people. Sadly, we forget that the extraordinary can only be discovered - can only be encountered - in the ordinary. Our Lord assures us that if we seek after his Kingdom and its righteousness, all that we need to live, grow, and rejoice will be given to us.