The Church is a community of disciples living in obedience to the teachings of the Lord, a community envisioned, enlightened and empowered by the Lord. The Church is the Body of Christ, denoting an organic relationship between each believer and the Lord – an organizational relationship, one can severe at will. Metaphorically, the Church is the Bride of Christ, denoting loyalty and purity.
The Son of God came into this world for the salvation of mankind through the transformation of the individual. Born into a society, man grows into his fullness through interactions with people. The Church is a society of transformed individuals – or at least it ought to be. And it has a dual role to play: work for the transformation of the individual and work for the transformation of the society itself. Therefore, the Church is the spring of transformation where the individual lives and grows. To call it meddling is a terminological inexactitude.
Every human soul is precious in the sight of his Maker. Every great movement in history is started by an individual. Martyrs, missionaries, scholars, musicians and artists who have enriched the life of the community are individuals striving for excellence. Individuals are the “living stones” in the edifice of the spiritual temple (1 Peter 2:5).
Coined in the 4th century, Orthodox is a compound of two Greek words, Ortho (right) and Doxa (glory) meaning giving the ‘Right Glory’ to God. Orthos doxadzein was a Greek expression for rightly glorifying through the right doxologia, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit”. The Arian heretics had changed this doxology to suit their heresy – i.e., only the Father is God, and the Son and the Holy Spirit are merely creatures. The Arians thus changed the Doxology into “Glory be to the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit”.
The Orthodox denotes ‘Right Worship’, and originated as a term to describe the Apostolic and Universal Church, which had nothing to do with heretical sects like Arianism and Montanism. The cornerstone of the Orthodox Church is Lord Jesus Christ, incarnate as a human being and testified by the Apostolic witnesses. The Orthodox Churches deny authority of one national Church over other national Churches. And the Orthodox Churches unanimous reject the claim of the Pope that Rome has authority over other Churches except those in West Europe which were historically under it.
The Orthodox worship is unique, heavenly and beautiful. It employs captivating icons or holy pictures, melodious singing, sweet-smelling incense, and majestic services to move the faithful to worship and adore God, fully aware that man is a union matter and soul. If the visible beauty is dazzling, her unseen beauty is even more dazzling; for the Church is the Bride of Christ.
The Orthodox worship knits together praise and teaching. Pay close attention to the liturgies and prayers, and you can learn the cardinal teachings and experience the richness of her spirituality.
The worship service traces its origins back to the Old Testament times when the Hebrews had a treasury of scripture readings, prayers and hymns, which were later enriched by canons by saints down the ages.
Easter, the Feast of Feasts, is the pinnacle of events in the Orthodox calendar. The Church shines in the radiant glory of the risen Christ during this season. Clouds of fragrant incense accompany prayers heavenward; choirs and bells declare the triumph of Life over death, while the faithful greet one another with the holy kiss of peace amid the greeting, “Christ is risen!” The altar doors are left open all the days of that week to show that the gates of Paradise are opened by Christ for us sinners to enter.
In an unbroken stream, the grace of the Holy Spirit which descended on the Apostles at Pentecost comes down to us through His anointed, the High Priests and Priests. Thus the sacred tradition carries the spiritual life of the Church since the Apostolic times. It includes the unwritten acts and teachings of the Lord as well as His disciples. (John 21:25, II Thessalonians 2:15, 3:6). Through them, we are in touch with the spiritual life of all the preceding generations.
Orthodox Faith and Sacraments
We worship God in Trinity, glorifying the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit alike. We believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God, begotten before all ages, and is of essence the same as the Father. We believe Christ incarnate is truly man – and the only one who knew no sin. We worship the Holy Spirit as Lord and Life-giver who proceeds from the Father.
We honour and venerate the Saints and ask of their intercession before God. Of the saints, Mother Mary holds a special place, “more honorable than the Cherubim and more glorious than the Seraphim”.
Baptism and Chrismation are the two sacraments leading to the saving grace of the Church. Baptism by triple immersion washes away our sins and restores the original image of Adam. With Chrismation, we receive the Holy Spirit, becoming partakers of the fullness of Christ.
Sacraments of Confession and the Holy Eucharist enable us to partake of the true Body and Blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine, for the remission of sins, the healing of body and soul, and for Life eternal. Confession is the fourth in the order of sacraments. In confession, Christ gives us – through our confession father – forgiveness of sins, provided our repentance is genuine.
Ordination, Marriage, and Holy Unction complete the sacramental mysteries of the Church. By the laying-on of hands, a High Priest transmits divine grace to the one being ordained, linking him to the grace that descended on the Apostles at Pentecost. Divine grace sanctifies the union of the bride and the groom in matrimony. (Orthodox Priests are usually married but High Priests come from the monastic tradition). The sacrament of Holy Unction heals infirmities of the body and soul.
Almost everything you see in an Orthodox church symbolises some aspect of the Divinity.
An Open Church: Traditionally, the Orthodox churches have no pews or chairs. We stand and worship in reverence and humility before God. The absence of rigid pews gives us freedom to move about in the church and feel at home. We are free to venerate icons and lighted candles, as well as to bow at certain times during the worship.
Candles: Candles burn on the altar, signifying the light of Truth given by the Lord – the light that illumines all life and spread radiance across the world. Candles also symbolise our soul’s burning love of God and the spiritual joy and triumph of the Church. Burning symbolises sacrifice. It burns and becomes less and less. The principle of self-emptying is also seen in the candles.
The Sanctuary: Raised above the nave – where people stand – the sanctuary is the Holy of Holies where the Holy Eucharist is celebrated. The altar at the centre of the sanctuary is known as the Holy Throne, because the Lord God Himself is present on it.
Holy pictures draw instant attention and open the beholder’s eyes to certain spiritual truths. They are the silent preachers on the wall, inspiring the seekers of Truth to a higher level of awareness. The icons are an integral part of the Orthodox worship. Derived from the Greek word ‘eikon’, which means likeness or image, icons of Christ and His saints and martyrs have profoundly influenced the life and worship of the community.
Because the Word became flesh, it is possible to portray the glory of God in the person of Jesus Christ. At first glance, the icons may seem austere and strange because they reflect not the natural beauty of the material world but the spiritual beauty of the Kingdom. Icons are venerated, not worshipped. Free from the carnal and sentimental style of the Western religious art, a true icon is painted after much fasting and prayer and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Icons remain an ageless window into the spiritual realm; and as you keep gazing, you begin to realise the true beauty and order of all things, visible and invisible.
The Church was founded by Jesus Christ himself, as a divine institution (St. Matthew 16:18). Simon Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Son of God is the cornerstone of faith upon which the Church is built. Even in Apostolic times, heresies began to appear, so much so that St. Paul had to warn the churches in such terse terms: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel that is different from the one we preached to you, may he be condemned to hell” (Galatians 1: 8). The Orthodox Churches accepted the Apostolic teachings and preserved them for posterity.
From the very beginning, local churches were independent. The first three ecumenical synods codified the faith and practices of the Church refuting the teachings of the heretics. A controversy sprang up at the council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) on how the divine nature and human nature of Jesus Christ were united. Among the Churches that accepted the decisions of the Chalcedon council were the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches like the Greek Orthodox Church and Churches of the Byzantine tradition.
The Churches that did not agree with the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon are known as the Oriental Orthodox Churches. They are:
1 The Antiochian or Syrian Orthodox Church
2 The Armenian Orthodox Church
3 The Coptic or Egyptian Orthodox Church
4 The Ethiopian Orthodox Church
5 The Malankara Orthodox Church
With the expansion of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church claimed authority over other Churches, which they rejected. In A.D. 1054, as a result of the disagreement over the authority of the Roman Bishop, the Church split into two: Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. The Roman Catholic Church eventually added certain new doctrines and practices in the Church.
The Reformation of the 16th century questioned the practices of the Roman Catholic Church and new churches began to come up in different countries, known as the Protestant churches. Later, splinter groups like Pentecostals emerged, based on individual interpretation of the Bible. All of them reject the Apostolic faith.
What are the main differences between the Churches?
The Malankara Orthodox Church is in communion with other Oriental Orthodox Churches – the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. We have close relationship with the Eastern Orthodox Churches of the Byzantine tradition – like the Greek Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Rumanian Orthodox Church. Theologians have come to a consensus regarding the Christological controversies between these Churches. So the faith of the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox Churches is the same.
The Orthodox Church and the Protestant churches differ mainly on the concept of the ‘Church’. To the Protestants and sectarian groups, the Church is the fellowship of the living people only, but to the Orthodox Church, the Church is the communion of believers, both the living and the departed. In these days of ecumenism, we have better relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. But the areas of disagreement continue.