Is there such a thing as Orthodox Culture?

The answer to the question of the existence of Orthodox Culture is not only a strong affirmative one, but also historically rooted in the formation of the Early Christian community. 

So, what is, then, Orthodox Culture and where does it come from? How was it established and what effect has it had on people over the centuries?

Clearly, Christianity has it’s roots in first century Judaism. The early Christians were Jews who recognized their Messiah in the person of Jesus Christ. They continued to practice their Judaic traditions until the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD.

After the destruction of the Temple and their expulsion from the Jewish synagogues (around the years 95-98 AD) on account of their influence on the rest of the members of the synagogue – converting them to the crucified and risen Jesus Christ – these early Jewish Christians had to develop their own practices apart from the rest of the Jews. Hence, we see the beginning of a new culture, rooted in Judaism (various traditions and practices, especially the Ten Commandments), but further informed and shaped by the “Good News” of the Messiah who had revealed salvation in a new way, elevating those who would follow His teaching to new heights of spiritual existence. Christians were asked to live under a new commandment; to love God with all their heart and mind, to love one another, to even love their enemies, to acquire purity of heart through meekness, control of their lusts and vices and a complete trust and surrender to God’s mercy and loving care. New culture was being created based on the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Baptism in the name of the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” was now the door into this new illumination and life. Regularly partaking of the Gifts, which the Lord Jesus Christ left them through His words at the Last Supper, His Body and Blood, becomes now the center of their gatherings (the Eucharist), where the sacrifice is now bloodless, since the Lamb of God was sacrificed once and for all. People approached the Holy Eucharist as the antidote to death and the door to eternal life. The expectation of eternal life, a better existence beyond the sufferings of the present one provided hope then and continues to do so for those who realize how transient and fleeting this world is. The spiritual power provided by surrendering to Christ as the Savior provides the ability to transcend the difficulties of this life.

The central event of Christianity becomes now the new Passover – Pascha, the Resurrection of the Lord. Forty days of fasting and self-denial are established as the path to the Passion of the Lord, a return to the Garden of Eden, a new ascend to the top of Mount Sinai, where God is now fully revealed in the person of the Risen Lord, shining His Light in the World. Like the ascend of Moses of old, the primary goal of this Lenten period is for the human passions to be reigned in, for the Christian to gain control over his/her sinful urges and manage to offer himself to God purified from desires and sins through fasting, confession, prayer and almsgiving so that he may encounter the Lord on the summit. The encounter transforms the person, lifts him/her up for the worldly to the heavenly. It provides, joy, hope and love beyond human understanding.

The ancient Psalms continued to be used to sing glory to God, but new prayers and hymns were also developed to express the new truths, which Christ had revealed. New music was now added to the hymns to make Christian gatherings beautiful to the ear. Incense, just as in the old Jewish worship, was also used to bring fragrance to the space through the sense of smell, signifying also the payers of the faithful rising up to God. The daily worship cycle continued to begin at sunset, but the Sabbath was now moved to reflect the centrality of the Resurrection to the “first day of the week”, the new Sabbath, which was now renamed as “the Lord’s Day”, the Day of the New Creation. The worship cycle of the year also moved on from the ancient Jewish feasts (which were now seen as prefigurations of the events of Christ’s life) to reflect the New Revelation of the life, teachings and miracles of the Messiah – everything always centered on the Primary Event, the Resurrection and transformation of humanity in Christ. 

As people died in the persecutions, they were declared martyrs, witnesses to the new way of life of the Kingdom of God which is already present in us. The days of their martyrdom became signposts of salvation, birthdays into the Kingdom of God, and were placed on the calendar. People visited their tombs and remembered their lives and sacrifice drawing their witness for strength and courage to fight the good fight. The culture of the veneration of the martyrs and saints was established.

Beautiful paintings depicting the life and miracles of Jesus were introduced to beautify the worship space, but also as teaching tools for those who could not read the Holy Scriptures. The culture of the veneration of the Holy Icons was established.

Christians remembered the words of the Lord to the Samaritan woman that God is Spirit and can be worshipped everywhere. Hence, beautiful buildings (???? – Temples) began to appear everywhere as replacements of the Jewish Temple. These buildings were dedicated and consecrated following the ancient Jewish practice as found in the Old Testament and a culture of sanctification of the places of Christian worship was established. The relics of the martyrs were placed in the holy altars to continually remind Christians that the Church, founded on Christ was being nourished and strengthened by the witness of those who loved Him much and sacrificed their earthly lives so that they may become partakers of the Divine Life.

Controversies with regard to the expression of the Faith arose. This gave the leaders of the Church the opportunity to develop a process of dealing with conflicts. The culture of the Local as well as the Ecumenical Councils was formed. Tremendous theological treatises were written. The Faith was being slowly further clarified as the Holy Fathers, inspired by their faith in the Risen Lord and the power of the Holy Spirit dealt with both theological as well as disciplinary issues. The Creed of Faith was formulated, the books of the New Testament were sorted out, the Holy Canons, dealing with governance and moral behaviors, were established. 

During the fourth and fifth centuries (after its liberation from persecutions) Christianity became a significant force, which slowly transformed the cruel and lustful Greco-Roman society to a gentler, more peace-loving culture than any previous one in the history of humanity. The teachings of Christ about human behavior, as found in the Holy Scriptures of the New Revelation (the New Testament), were slowly implemented as laws by the new Christian Roman Empire. This Empire (known today as the Byzantine Empire) lasted for over a thousand years, providing in its embrace the experience of the Kingdom of God on earth within the culture and traditions of the Orthodox Church. It is this same culture that we have inherited. It is this same culture that can transform us today, as well, if we enter and embrace it.

Fr. Panayiotis Papageorgiou, Ph.D.

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