The world’s second-largest Christian body, with 250 million members, is officially known as the Orthodox Catholic Church. It shared communion with Roman Catholics until the schism of 1054.
Here are ten ways it varies from its Western counterparts.
- Unlike the Roman Catholic denomination, the Orthodox operate as a communion of autocephalous churches, each governed by a bishop (often known as a metropolitan). In practice, these often have a national or regional identity, such as Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox.
- Metropolitans, rather than the pope, are the head of each of the self-governing churches, and together they form the Holy Synod. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople is recognized as the first among equals.
- Advent and Christmas. Advent is longer and Christmas isn’t celebrated until January 7.
- Lent and Pascha. The liturgical calendar differs from those used in Western Christianity, with Easter (Pascha, the Greek preferred term) typically being aligned to Passover. Great Lent is longer, too. The Feast of the Assumption and Pentecost are holy days nearly equal to Pascha.
- The Theotokos. The Virgin Mary, Mother of God, is venerated and central in the liturgical worship. More nuanced, too, than in Roman Catholicism.
- Greek, rather than Latin, as the basis of its Scriptures and theological discourse. It’s a language more suited to nuance and philosophy, so I’m told.
- The priests may marry (unlike Roman Catholicism) but the bishops cannot (unlike Protestants).
- Sensuous richness. Incense, bells, chanting appeal to the nose and ears. An abundance of iconography, especially, surrounds the eyes.
- The iconostasis. An elaborately decorated wall stands between the altar and the congregation. It has three doors – the angel doors, to either side, and the blessed door in the center. The priest passes repeatedly through the central door, which is left open during the service, while the deacon or others may use the side doors, as required.
- You show up for the Sunday service – the Divine Liturgy – you’re likely to think you’re late. The priest, deacon, and psalmists have already been celebrating the Orthos for an hour, sometimes alone, in preparation.
AS AN ASIDE: In 978, Vladimir the Great sent emissaries to study four religions in neighboring regions – Judaism, Islam, Latin Rite (Catholic), and Eastern Rite (Orthodox). Reputedly, he rejected Judaism as lacking power, since it had lost Jerusalem. Islam, because it banned alcohol. Latin Rite because of the political power of its pope. But Eastern Rite, with the sumptuousness of its liturgy in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, won him over. As they wrote, “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth.” And thus, the Russian Orthodox church was born.
Admittedly, this is a superficial overview. I’m hoping for a lot of clarification from more knowledgeable readers.