Understanding the Orthodox Church

As I’m reading through Frederica Mathewes-Green’s new book, Welcome to the Orthodox Church, I’m learning some new things as well as getting helpful reminders about things I’ve heard but did not completely understand. Here’s just a sampling.

Why do the Orthodox face East in worship? “Because Christ told us that’s where we will see him when he comes again (Matt. 27:47). . . While the Jewish tradition was to face Jerusalem to pray, and Muslims face Mecca, Christians have always faced east; even in Japan, Orthodox Christians face east.” (p. 14)

Why do some Orthodox churches have no pews? “Sitting down in church is a fairly recent idea. Recall that, for the first fifteen hundred years, the universal expectation on Sunday morning was that God was going to appear in a tangible way, an edible way, of all things, turning ordinary bread and wine into his body and blood. You can understand why people would be standing at attention for that. That God is offering his body as food—offering it even to the lowliest sinner—is astounding, when you think about it. . . .If the focus of the worship was instead on the sermon, and helping the people to understand the Scriptures and how to live a Christian life, it would make sense to give them a place to sit down. Pews began to appear after the Protestant Reformation, in the sixteenth century, and their obvious usefulness made them ubiquitous in time.” (p. 17)

Do the Orthodox worship icons? “Icons are never the object of worship; we don’t pray to them. We don’t even pray in a different way in the presence of icons . . . To us, icons are more like companions—more like a photo of a loved one. . . Icons are treated with respect, the kind of respect you would give to your favorite Bible.” (pp. 4-5)

What’s the role of Mary? “Orthodox Christians look to Mary as our best example for living a Christian life. She is hailed in our hymns as our ‘Captain,’ our ‘Champion Leader,’ an active and vigorous heavenly friend. She is more than a role model, for Christ told St. John at the Cross, and us through him, ‘Behold, your mother’ (John 19:27). . . . you might be shocked by some of the language addressed to her and others saints in Orthodox worship, for it does tend to be effusive. Worship language is often exuberant; it’s not always careful and precise . . . it’s more like the speeches made at a rollicking testimonial dinner, where the guests of honor are praised beyond all bounds. . . So our worship sometimes sounds over the top (‘Save us, O Virgin,’ ‘You are our only hope’), but we know what we mean. Mostly, we mean, ‘Pray for us.’ We don’t mean that Mary has the power to grant eternal salvation, that she was created differently than other humans, or that she supplied some additional saving factor at the Cross. It doesn’t mean that she can (or would) do anything independently from the will of her Son.” (pp. 30-31)

Why pray to the saints? “It [Christ’s victory over death] means that the departed in Christ are actually not dead. Even now, at this moment, they are in God’s presence, worshipping before his throne (Rev. 7:9). . . If you had a big prayer need coming up—say, a job interview—you might ask others to pray for you. When you ask for the prayers of family and friends, you convey the request by phone or e-mail. When you ask the saints, you send the request by prayer. . . .The English word prayer used to refer to any sort of request. A previous generation might well say to a dinner companion, ‘I pray thee, pass the broccoli.’ But with time, the word became restricted to requests made of those in heaven. You’re not worshipping a saint when you make these requests any more than you’re worshipping your friends when you ask for their earthly prayers.” (pp. 34-35)

Welcome to the Orthodox church is from Paraclete Press. It is a paperback with 386 pages and sells for $19.99.

Raised in Charleston, South Carolina, Frederica Mathewes-Green received her B.A. in English from the University of South Carolina and her M.A. in Theological Studies from Virginia Episcopal Theological Seminary.

Considering herself a Hindu, in 1974 Frederica married Gary Mathewes-Green and set off for a back-packing honeymoon in Europe. There she experienced a “totally undeserved miraculous conversion” that changed the course of her life. Returning to the U.S., she and Gary both attended seminary, and Gary became an Episcopal priest. After spending fifteen years in the Episcopal Church, Gary fell in love with Orthodoxy and became a priest of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In 1993 the couple founded the Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Baltimore, Maryland. Frederica’s initial struggle with and eventual reception into the Orthodox Church became the catalyst for her widely acclaimed book, Facing East: A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mystery of Orthodoxy. Two years later, she published At the Corner of East and Now: A Modern Life in Ancient Christian Orthodoxy.

Frederica is a regular columnist for Beliefnet.com and a book reviewer for the Los Angeles Times. She has written hundreds of articles in secular and religious periodicals and has been interviewed extensively in national newspapers, magazines, and television programs, including the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, Time magazine, CNN, MSNBC, and C-SPAN.

Welcome to the Orthodox

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