Questions and Answers

How does the Orthodox Church view the Holy Scriptures? Is it above or equal to Tradition?

What do Orthodox Christians believe about Faith and Works?

How does the Orthodox Church view Holy Communion?

Can Roman Catholics or Protestants receive the Eucharist in an Orthodox Church?

What is the filioque?

Why does Orthodox Christianity honor and bless the Virgin Mary?

Do Orthodox icons border on idolatry?

How does the Orthodox Church explain the continued virginity of Mary after giving birth to Christ?

When is it Appropriate to make the Sign of the Cross in an Orthodox Service?

What is the meaning behind the censing done by the priest or deacon?

What is the meaning of the Divine Liturgy?

How does the Orthodox Church view the Holy Scriptures?  Is it above or equal to Tradition?

The Orthodox Church sees the Holy Scriptures as the inspired and authoritative Word of God.  Scripture is the ruler against which all teaching is measured.  Sometimes the Bible is called the “canon” of faith, where the word “canon” is translated from the original Greek and means a rule in the sense of a ruler that measures distance.  Therefore, Scripture is the measuring stick that all correct Christian teaching is referenced to.  If any teaching contradicts what the Holy Scriptures say, it is discarded as false and therefore, un-Christian.

It is impossible, however, to separate the Holy Scriptures from its interpretation.  All written work –including God-inspired writings—must be interpreted or else they cease to be alive and relevant.  Words in any book mean nothing if they are not explained!  Interpretation of the Holy Scriptures cannot be done apart or separate from Holy Tradition.  Tradition has five basic sources that have been passed on from one faithful generation to the next, from Christ and the Apostles even to the present time: Holy Scripture, the Divine Liturgy, the Creeds and Canons of the Holy Councils, the lives of the saints together with the writings of the Fathers, and finally Orthodox Christian art. 

The Bible is read and interpreted from within the context of Church life according to the Holy Tradition.  No one individual can be the sole and authoritative interpreter of Scripture.  Rather, correct interpretation is done such that it is “collective.”  The Word of God is proclaimed correctly through the texts of the Divine Liturgy, explication of the Christian Faith through her creeds and canons, exemplified through the lives of the saints, represented through the Holy Icons, and lastly, exegeted through the writings of the Fathers of the Church, all guided by the Holy Spirit.  To interpret the Bible from the perspective of Sola Scriptura removes one from the active and living presence of the Holy Spirit who dwells within the Church, guiding mankind to true understanding.  Without an authoritative interpretation of the Bible, any –and therefore every—reading can be deemed correct.  This poses no problem until we find two conflicting interpretations.  Which one is correct?  Can both be accepted as truth?  If we say that we can accept both, then we can accept any, and thus we would be forced into a relativism that produces many gods, but Christ is one and one only.  St. Paul recognized this error when he said, “For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth –as indeed there are many gods and many lords – yet for us there is one God, the Father from whom are all things and for whom we, exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ…” (1 Cor.8:5-6)  The Apostle goes further when he says, “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.  For is someone comes and preaches another Jesus than the one we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough.” (2 Cor.11:3-4)

Thus, it is the Church’s understanding that all of these sources of Tradition hold together in unity.  One is never used in isolation from the others.  It will not work for example, for a person to say, “Well, I can find all that I need to know by staying at home and reading the Bible by myself, and I don’t have to go to Church.” Nor would it work for a person to say, “Well, all I have to do is go to Church and look at the icons and I don’t have to know anything about the Holy Scriptures.”  In both cases, something is being taken outside its context, outside the boundaries, in which it works.  When you take something outside the boundaries in which it functions, it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to.

The Orthodox Church is not Bible only.  The Orthodox Church is not Liturgy only.  The Orthodox Church is not creed, council and canon only.  Rather, everything works together in unity, and when all of these sources of Tradition are accepted as the common fountain of the self-revelation of God, it is our faith that they will bring us to the life to which God has invited His Creation!

What do Orthodox Christians believe about Faith and Works?

The common statement regarding salvation in many mainstream Protestant denominations directly quotes Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God, not because of works, lest anyone should boast.”  The conclusion seems to follow that salvation cannot be earned and that one only need believe (or have faith) in God.  (Note: many early authentic manuscripts of Ephesians contain the article “th” (the) before “faith” in 2:8.  The verse would then read, “For by grace you have been saved through the faith.”)

It is rightly stated that no one can save himself through his works.  One cannot say enough prayers nor do enough “good deeds” to earn salvation.  Salvation is a free gift of God!  In His great love for mankind, He just gives it to us.  That’s what grace is.  But the question, “What is salvation?” must first be answered in order for this to make sense.

A common question among Christians is, “Are you saved?/Have you been saved?”  An appropriate response to this question is, “From what?”  Salvation is not just a state that one can dwell in, nor is it a product that one can possess.  Salvation means being set free from something.  In other words, if there is no imminent danger, then one need not be saved.  If nothing is “coming to get you” then you are safe.  So what is it that mankind needs to be saved from?  Sin!  The Apostle Paul tells us in his Epistle to the Romans that, “Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to any one as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience which leads to righteousness?  But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” (Rom.6:16-18)  Note that at no point does the Apostle say that we have been “set free” except from within the context of sin and death.  That is why he can go further to say, “When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.  But then what return did you get…?  The end of those things is death.  But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life.  For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom.6:20-23)  What the Apostle is trying to say to us is that through our faith in God and not through adherence to the Mosaic Law, fulfilled in the sacrament of Baptism (for Romans 6 is the baptismal chapter) we who once were enslaved to sin –and were bound to receive its wages: death—have been set free.  But we are not just simply free; we are free from sin and its ghastly outcome.  He then says that we have become slaves of God.  In Christ we no longer suffer the pain of sin and the agony of death, but we experience the joy of being in the household of God.  The beauty of being a slave of God is that the ultimate outcome is eternal life in Christ Jesus!

However, and this is where it can get tricky, eternal life is the goal that lies ahead of us, we have not yet attained it.  By becoming a slave of God, “the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life.” (Rom.6:22)  You see, eternal life is the end of sanctification, it has yet to come.  For the time being we must remain in sanctification.  And earlier in 6:19, Paul told us to “yield your members to righteousness for sanctification.”  We must submit to righteousness for sanctification! (It is interesting to note that v.19 is a translation of the Greek: “parasthsate ta melh umwn doula (douleuein) th dikaiosunh eiV agiasmon” which literally reads “present your members to be enslaved to righteousness for sanctification” An appropriate translation might read “to enslave your members to righteousness for sanctification”.  Also note that the word “sanctification” is the same word that is translated as “holiness”.)  What it all means is that once we have been saved from sin, we are able to inherit eternal life.  And to do so, one must remain in sanctification until the Lord comes again.  And to remain in sanctification, one must be enslaved to righteousness.  And every slave knows that the master has laws by which he must abide.  In the Christian’s case it is no longer the Law of Moses, but the Law of Christ!  This is precisely why Paul begins chapter 8 of Romans with, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death.” (8:1-2)

It would then follow that faith and works are harmonious rather than juxtaposed to one another.  For the works of the Lord give flesh to the faith of the believer who has submitted his life to Christ.  Works incarnate faith, making it whole and complete.  It is not sufficient simply to believe that Jesus is Lord without manifesting our faith in action.  For even the demons believe that Jesus is the Son of God.  In the Gospel of Luke we hear, “And in the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon; and he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Ah! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are, the Holy One of God.'” (Lk.4:33-34; cf Mt.8:28-34)  As the Epistle of James rightly puts it, “Faith without works is dead.” (cf. Jam. 2:17, 26) 

It is the Lord Jesus Christ who alone is the judge who shall return in glory to separate the sheep from the goats (cf Mt. 25:31-46).  He alone shall decide who truly had faith and whose “faith was in vain” (Gal.3:4).  For although we, “walk by faith and not by sight,” (2 Cor.5:7) we know that, “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body.” (2 Cor.5:10), and that Christ is, “…coming soon, bringing [His] recompense, to repay every one for what he has done.” (Rev.22:12)   That means that even faithful Christians are not free from the dread Judgment Seat of Christ.

Thus it becomes abundantly clear that those who are faithful to Jesus Christ and are baptized into His Name, have been set free from sin and death.  And it also becomes clear, then, that faith is not a possession, but rather the corresponding action to a commitment in someone.  They have voluntarily been enslaved to the new Law of the Spirit of life for righteousness unto sanctification unto eternal life.  And in the Grace of God, the Lord Himself gives us this “Law of the Spirit of life” when He says to the faithful believers, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” (Jn.13:34)  And with God we see that above all, His desire is for Love!  He gives us the New Law of the Spirit of Life:  LOVE!  Glory be to God in all things for the Apostle already proclaimed this maxim when he said, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love!” (Gal. 5:6)

How does the Orthodox Church view Holy Communion?

Some teach that Communion –more properly called the Lord’s Supper—is only a sign or symbol of the reality celebrated by Jesus Christ before His Crucifixion and Resurrection.  (The Orthodox Church uses the word “Eucharist” for Communion.  The word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek meaning “thanksgiving.”)  Most of Christendom, however, believes that it is far more than just a symbolic act.  The Orthodox Church has always believed that we receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist.  The bread and wine is changed by a descent of the Holy Spirit into the crucified Body and Blood of the Lord.  (cf St. Nicholas Cabasilas)

St. Paul institutes the Lord’s Supper when in 1 Corinthians he says, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks (Gr. eucharistisas), he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is broken for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.’  In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1Cor.11:23-26 and parallels)

Notice how Jesus himself begins with thanksgiving!  And he says “this is my Body,” not “this is a symbol of my Body.”   Jesus institutes the first Eucharistic meal and states that future celebrations of it are in truth the celebration of his live-giving flesh and blood.  (Note: the word “remembrance” in 1 Corinthians 11 is the Greek “anamnesis” which is the same title that the Orthodox Church uses for the Eucharistic Prayer in which the words of Scripture are repeated verbatim during the Divine Liturgy.)

Further, in John 6:53 we read, “Then Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.'” The Church receives this passage at face value—nothing added, nothing taken away.  In the Eucharist we become partakes of the Body and Blood of Christ.  Just as the new birth (John 3) gives us life through water and the Holy Spirit, so the Body and Blood of Christ sustain His life in us.

The consecration of the gifts into the Body and Blood of the Lord are done by the descent of the Holy Spirit, and not by any human being.  Irrespective of the sinfulness of the one celebrating the Divine Liturgy, the elements are changed into the true presence of the Lord.  Receiving the holy Eucharist is an actual partaking of the “heavenly manna.”  We are actually seated at the Lord’ table and eat today, what is the bread of tomorrow.  By partaking of the Eucharist we enter into the Kingdom of God and are seated at His heavenly banquet.  And the bread He feeds us with is not a bread that will pass away, but the very Bread of Life: the Son and Word of God who has become flesh. (Jn. 1:14)   This is a great mystery that speaks to the great love for mankind by our God and Father in Heaven!

Can Roman Catholics or Protestants receive the Eucharist in an Orthodox Church?

Receiving the sacraments in the Orthodox Church is reserved for Orthodox Christians only.  While this is by no means an attempt to safeguard an esoteric group of Christians, it is the unity of faith and the correct understanding thereof that allows one to receive the sacraments.

While Roman Catholics and some Protestant denominations are similar in some aspects of the faith to the Orthodox Church, there are certain fundamental differences that prohibit us from intercommunion.  For example, a major theological disparity exists between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches in regards to the Holy Spirit.  Orthodoxy maintains that “the Spirit proceeds from the Father, and together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified.” (Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed)  Roman Catholicism says that “the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, and together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified.”   This additional phrase in the Roman version of the Nicene Creed (commonly known as the “filioque”) not only disregards the universal Church’s admonition that the Creed cannot be altered, but it also reflects a serious theological error.  Scripture is abundantly clear that the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone (cf Jn.15:26; 14:16, 26), and furthermore, in the hopes of safeguarding the divinity of Christ, the unity of the Trinity is destroyed by subordinating the Spirit to the Father and the Son. (A more comprehensive examination of the “filioque” will be presented in a subsequent FAQ.)

Regardless of whose position is correct, there is most certainly a difference of opinion.  How can we commune at the Lord’s Table together when we do not even understand the Holy Spirit –who transforms the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ—in the same fashion?  In other words, how can we claim that the Spirit of God transforms the elements into the Eucharist, when we cannot agree on the proper understanding of that same Spirit of God!  And in all of this discussion, we haven’t even discussed the fact that for many Protestant Christians, the Eucharist is only a symbolic act!

While intercommunion is prohibited for Orthodoxy, it remains our fervent prayer that the entire Christian faith will unite. Receiving Communion together is not the means to unity, but rather the crown of unity. We pray for this unity in every Divine Liturgy and ask God that He might make us into One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church!

What is the filioque?

The Latin word “filioque” literally translates as “and the Son.”  This term has been the ultimate source for great debate and schism between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches.

In the year 325 A.D., 318 bishops of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church met in the city of Nicaea on the eastern coast of present day Turkey.  (Note: the term “catholic” means “universal” and should not be confused with Roman Catholic.  The Orthodox Church is the true catholic Church.)  The entire Church convened in order to refute the heresy of Arios who denied the divinity of Christ.  A creedal formula was drafted at this Council to delineate the correct teaching of the Christian Church in accordance with the Scriptures and holy Tradition.  The creed those 318 fathers produced has come to be know as the Nicene Creed and is the official statement of belief for Orthodox Christianity.  In the year 381, the Church met in council once again, this time in Constantinople (which is present day Istanbul in Turkey) to defend the truth of the Gospel against heretical teachings.  While gathered together, the universal Church (which included bishops and representatives from Rome) made some final additions to the Nicene creedal statement, along with the caveat that anyone who adds or detracts from this Creed shall be anathema.

What was produced speaks of one God in three persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  It speaks of one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church and one baptism for the remission of sins.  And it was accepted by the entire Christian Church as the official creedal formula.

The phrase in question read as follows:  “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified.”

Many years after these councils, the heresy of Arios was still rampaging through the Western part of the Roman Empire.  It even ended up in churches as far west as Spain.  In attempts to defend the divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Roman church spoke unilaterally and added the phrase “filioque” to the Creed.  The addition made the phrase in question read as follows:  “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son (filioque), who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified.”  The hopes were that if the Spirit of God proceeds from the Son as well as the Father, then the Son must also be divine as is the Father.

The error of this addition was inappropriate for numerous reasons.  First, no one part of the one Christian Church could speak unilaterally for the entire Church.  This was the reason for gathering in council, so that the entire Church could be present to decide on matters of faith.  Secondly, per the warning of the council in 381, the Creed cannot be altered in any fashion.  Lastly, while attempting to preserve the proclamation of Christ’s divinity by refuting the heresy of Arios, the unity of the Trinity was torn asunder by the subordination of the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son.

Trinitarian theology posits one God in three persons.  The essence of God –whatever the divine essence may be—is shared fully by each of the three persons of the Trinity.  God the Father is fully divine, God the Son is fully divine and God the Spirit is fully divine.  The essence of the divine unites the three persons of the Trinity into one God, not three.

Next, each of the three persons of the Trinity are distinct from one another.  God does not wear different masks at different times in history, but rather each person is active differently and at different times throughout history.  God the Father is the voice, God the Son is the baptized and God the Spirit is the descending one as we read in the Baptism accounts in the four Gospels.  The three persons of the Trinity are unified in essence and distinct in person. 

Furthermore, Trinitarian theology maintains that God the Father, and God the Father alone, is the source of the other two persons of the Trinity.  The Father does not create the Son or the Spirit, but rather, in perfect freedom and love, begets the Son before time and creation (Jn.17:24) and from Him proceeds the Spirit (Jn.15:26).  There is no Scriptural revelation that claims that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. 

Thus, the addition of the term “filioque,” while well intended, created theological discrepancies between two parts of the one Church and became the backbone of the monster of schism.  It is interesting to note that the most recent and updated version of the Roman Catholic Catechism teaches the Nicene Creed without the filioque.  May God hear our prayer and reunite us with our beloved Christian brethren!

Why does Orthodox Christianity honor and bless the Virgin Mary?

When turning to the Holy Scriptures to hear what God says about Mary, the key passage is from the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. (1:26-49)  The archangel Gabriel calls the Virgin Mary “highly favored” with God and the most “blessed” of all women (1:28).  The Church can never do less.  In Luke 1:42-43, Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, also calls Mary “blessed,” and “the mother of my Lord.”  Should we not make the same confession?  For centuries the Church with one voice has called Mary the mother of God.  If God was not in her womb, then we are dead in our sins.  By calling her the “mother of God” we do not mean, of course, that she is mother of the Holy Trinity.  She is mother of the eternal Son of God in his humanity.  Thus we call her “Theotokos” or God-bearer.

Furthermore, not only does Elizabeth call her blessed, by Mary herself, inspired by the Holy Spirit, says, “All generations shall call me blessed” (Luke 1:48).  This biblical prophecy explains the Orthodox hymn, “It is truly right to bless you, O Theotokos, the Mother of our God.” (called the megalynarion)  One cannot believe one part of Scripture and reject other parts.  One cannot believe the Bible and ignore Mary. 

Orthodox Christians bless her in obedience to God, fulfilling these holy words.  We do not worship Mary.  Worship is reserved for the Trinity alone.  We honor and venerate her, as the Scriptures teach.

It is important to secure Mary’s identity as Theotokos in order to protect the identity of her Son, “the Son of the Highest” (Luke 1:32), God in the flesh.  Jesus assumed his human flesh from her!  Mary’s role is essential in understanding that Jesus is both fully God and fully man.

Do Orthodox icons border on idolatry?

In Orthodox Christianity, icons are never worshipped, but they are honored and venerated.  Worship is reserved for God alone.  The second Commandment says, “you shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness or anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Ex. 20:4-5).  The warnings here are, first, that we are not to depict images of things which are limited to heaven and therefore unseen, and second, we never bow down to or worship created, earthly things.  Does this condemn all imagery in worship?  The Scriptures tell us emphatically no!

Just five chapters after the giving of the Ten Commandments, God, as recorded in Exodus 25, gives his divine blueprint, if you will, for the tabernacle.  Specifically in verses 19 and 20 he commands images of cherubim to be placed above the mercy seat.  Also, God promises to meet and speak with us through this imagery! (Ex.25:22)

In Exodus 26:1, Israel was commanded in no uncertain terms to weave “artistic designs of cherubim” into the tabernacle curtains.  Are these images?  Absolutely!  In fact they could well be called Old Testament icons.  And they are images which God commanded to be made.

Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, Orthodox iconography never creates images of God the Father.  If no one has seen God, then how can he be portrayed? To do so would border on idolatry.  For, “no one has ever see God…” (Jn.1:18; cf Ex.33:20).  Similarly, the Holy Spirit is never represented except as a dove, which we receive in the Baptismal accounts from Scripture. 

The question, however, remains of what to do with the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God.  Can he be depicted in holy icons?  Realizing that because no one has seen God the Father and does not know what he “looks like,” he cannot be portrayed.  However, the Son of God became a human being and can therefore be depicted in holy images since we know what humanity looks like.  To deny the embodiment of Christ in image is tantamount to the refutation of the Incarnation (the Son of God becoming human).  Simply put, because God became man, we are able to portray images of him for veneration.  One will notice that no icon of Christ is a portrait trying to capture the subtleties of what the Lord looked like, but rather a symbolic representation of the Lord to teach us that in truth, God did “empty himself and take on the form of a servant for our salvation” (Phil.2:7). 

Analogous to this is the representation in sacred icons of the saints.  These men and women were faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ until their last breath and remain for us as examples of the Christian ideal.  Their images offer us encouragement and renewed hope that to walk in the newness of life is possible!  Again, no icons –or the saints themselves, for that matter—are ever worshipped.  God alone is worthy to be praised.  But we venerate their images and ask for their intercessory prayers that God might have mercy on our souls!

How does the Orthodox Church explain the continued virginity of Mary after giving birth to Christ?

The Orthodox Christian Church maintains the ever-virginity of the Theotokos, for by so doing, the Incarnation of the Son and Word of God is preserved.  It is biologically impossible that a child can be born of a woman without the seed of an earthly father.  If Christ was born of the Virgin without an earthly father, then by all means, his birth must be divine by sheer fact of its impossibility. 

The infancy narrative in Matthew and Luke were written precisely to preserve the early Church’s teaching of the Incarnation of Christ in the Virgin Mary.  This belief was not an impossibility in the mind of early Christian saints, for with God, all things are possible.  Saint Ambrose, in his Synodal Letter 44 writes, “Why is it so hard to believe that Mary gave birth in a way that is contrary to the law of natural birth and remained a virgin, when contrary to the law of nature the sea looked at Him and fled, and the waters of the Jordan returned to their source (Ps 113:3)?  Is it past belief that a virgin gave birth when we read that a rock issued water (Ex 17:6), and the waves of the sea were made solid as a wall (Ex. 14:22)?  Is it past belief that a Man came from a virgin when a rock bubbled forth a flowing stream (Ex. 20:11), iron floated on water (2Kg. 6:6), a Man walked upon the waters (Mt.14:26)?

Since her inception, the Christian Church has always maintained that the Theotokos was virgin before birth, during birth, and after birth.  In traditional Orthodox iconography we find evidence of this belief when we look at any icon of the Theotokos.  One will notice three stars written on the Virgin.  One star on each shoulder and one on her forehead, each one symbolizing her ever-virginity (i.e. one for before birth, one for during birth and one for after birth).  This belief is as old as the very faith itself.

Modern exegesis, however, tries to undermine this belief, most often by comparing Matthew 1:24-25 which reads: “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.” with Matthew 12:46 which reads: “While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him.”

The conclusion, one assumes, is that Joseph did not “know” Mary until she had given birth to a son, and that obviously after Jesus’ birth he “knew” her as is evidenced by the mention of brothers in 12:46.  While at first glance this reading appears to contain validity, the evidence actually supports otherwise.

First, the tradition of the Holy Orthodox Church posits that Joseph had had a previous wife to whom was born numerous children.  In this case, Jesus would have had half-brothers/sisters.  Secondly, a common appellation in first century Palestine was to call a close relative (perhaps a cousin) brother.  This is even a common practice in modern day America where we often refer to non-blood related men and women as “uncle” or “auntie.”  In either case, Mary would have had no other children.

In truth, the explanation is much simpler.  When one examines the original Greek text of Matthew 1:25 he will find that the verb in question, “to know/knew” implying sexual intercourse, is in the imperfect tense.  This is significant because the focus of the verse is now no longer upon the word “until.”  The imperfect tense functions in the following manner:  An imperfect action is an action that has begun at some point in the past and which is not yet complete.  Compare:  The future tense says, “I will open the door” (an action that has not yet begun).  The past tense says, “I have opened the door” (an action that was begun and completed in the past, otherwise know as a perfect tense). The imperfect tense says, “I am opening the door.” (an action that has begun at some point in the past but has not yet reached completion)  In other words, in the imperfect tense the action of opening the door is an action that has already begun at some point in the past but is not completed yet.  The door will remain in the act of “opening” until it is finally “opened.”   It will continue to be an imperfect (unfinished) action until such time as it becomes a perfect/past action (completed).  What this explanation means is, Matthew deliberately chose a tense for the verb “to know” that implies the fact that Joseph’s not knowing Mary has already begun and is still not yet complete.  Thus, Joseph’s not knowing Mary started with the angel’s visit and hasn’t yet been completed!  It would make more sense –even in the Greek—to say that Joseph did not know Mary in a past tense.  But the evangelist’s choice of tense reflects the Church’s stance that Mary was indeed virgin before, during and after birth.  Simply by choosing the imperfect tense over the past tense, Matthew proffers the early Christian belief that Mary is ever-virgin.  A masterful stroke with one word!   To God belongs glory!

When is it Appropriate to make the Sign of the Cross in an Orthodox Service?

The Cross of Jesus Christ is called “Precious and Life-Giving” by Orthodox Christians.  It is on the tree of the Cross that Jesus tramples down Death by death and grants mankind salvation from Sin and Death.  God takes a symbol of defeat and horror and turns it into THE symbol of life!

As a remembrance of Christ’s saving victory, Orthodox make the sign of the Cross at specific times during every Divine service.  The sign of the Cross is made is the following manner:  the thumb, index finger and middle finger are placed together symbolizing the Triune God in His Oneness.  The ring finger and pinky are placed in the palm of the hand to remind us of Christ’s dual nature, both fully divine and fully human.  The motion of making the sign of the Cross is: first to touch the forehead, next the chest (heart), followed by the right shoulder and lastly the left shoulder.

The first instance of making the sign of the Cross is every time the name of the Trinity is invoked.  Whenever we hear “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” we make the sign of the Cross.  Other such instances include the exclamations sung by the priest at the end of each set of litanies (the petitional prayers that the deacons say).  One such instance is, “For unto Thee do we ascribe all glory, honor and worship; to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.”

Another appropriate time to make the sign of the Cross is on every occasion that the priest gives us a blessing.  This blessing can be done with the priest’s hand or with the blessing cross.  The priestly blessing is given during every Divine service and upon greeting him outside of the Church.  The same blessing is given by bishops.

You will also notice Orthodox making the sign of the Cross after receiving the Holy Eucharist, during the phrase, “And I believe in the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father, who together with the Father and Son is worshipped and glorified…” during the recitation of the Nicene Creed, and also at the conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer.

One does not have to be an Orthodox Christian in order to make the sign of the Cross.  Anyone who believes in God’s salvation may make the sign of the Cross with reverence and devotion!

What is the meaning behind the censing done by the priest or deacon?

The Psalmist is quoted as saying, “Let my prayer arise in Thy sight as incense and the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice.” (Ps 140)  Censing is done in the Orthodox Church as a reminder to lift our hearts in prayer up to God.

While there are many historical factors contributing to the institution of censing in the Church, it is the censer itself that carries the greatest meaning behind this act.  The censer is a liturgical article made up of a carriage (to hold the charcoal and incense), four strings and twelve bells.  Three strings represent each person of the Holy Trinity, while the fourth string symbolizes their one essence/nature.  The twelve bells represent the twelve Apostles who proclaimed the Gospel of Christ.  When the priest censes the people, it is a question being posed:  Do you hear and accept the preaching of the Apostles: The preaching of the consubstantial Trinity?  The appropriate response is to bow indicating that you do hear and believe.  It is also appropriate to make the sign of the Cross at this time. 

The smoke from the censer is released by burning sweet smelling incense on a piece of hot charcoal.  As the smoke rises, we are reminded to let our prayers arise to God in similar fashion.  May the Lord God hearken unto all of our prayers!

What is the meaning of the Divine Liturgy?

For Orthodoxy, the Divine Liturgy is an ushering into the present, the reality of God’s Kingdom which is to come.  It is the most sacred time in our lives when humanity reaches its ultimate created intention: to worship and praise God in His holy house.  To enter the church for the Divine Liturgy is not something that is of this world, but truly belongs to the age which is to come.

At each Divine Liturgy we commemorate the life of Jesus Christ.  As Fr. Alexander Schmemann, a noted Orthodox theologian or our era says, “The Divine Liturgy is a re-presentation of the Life of Christ.”  (Introduction to Liturgical Theology, SVS Press)  The Divine Liturgy unfolds in two distinct parts.

The first part of the Liturgy is called “The Liturgy of the Word.”  In this part we hear the prayers for all mankind: the sick, the suffering, our civil leaders, those who travel and those who have departed this life.  Christological hymns dating to the second and third century are sung.  A small entrance with the Book of Gospels is made.  Hymns commemorating the Resurrection of Christ are sung along with hymns for the patron saint of the church and for the feast being celebrated that day.  The Liturgy of the Word concludes with a reading by a layman of a specific text from the Epistles of St. Paul, followed by a selection from one of the four Gospels read by the clergy, capped by the Homily/Sermon.  It is then that the Word of God is made present among us through the hearing and the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

When the homily is finished, the second part of the Divine Liturgy immediately begins which is called “The Liturgy of the Eucharist/Thanksgiving.”  It is during this part that the very same Word of God that was proclaimed will become the Word of God made flesh.  There is a great censing done by the priest, followed by a great entrance in which the gifts to be offered and sanctified are prepared and carried from a small table on the side of the altar to the Holy Table itself.  These gifts will be offered to God who will transform them from bread and wine into the very Body and Blood of Christ through the descent of His Holy Spirit.  The Eucharist will then be distributed to faithful Orthodox Christians who have prepared themselves through prayer, fasting and a recent confession. 

In partaking of the Eucharist, Orthodox Christians eat today, the bread of tomorrow.  (Cf the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.”  More properly rendered from the original Greek as “Give us this day the bread of tomorrow” implying the Kingdom which is to come)   It is a true partaking of the Heavenly Banquet in God’s Kingdom.  The mystery is that God gives us today the very life-giving food of His Son’s flesh and blood unto the remission of our sins.  In very truth we are seated at God’s Heavenly Table!  And in truth, God Himself is seated at the head of that Table, present among us!

Because God is the reference for all that we do in the Divine Liturgy, it is proper to say that we are in the Lord’s House, gathered around the Lord’s Table, reciting the Lord’s Prayer and partaking of the Lord’s Body and Blood.  We therefore approach the Divine Liturgy with reverence and awe, thanking God for all of His wonderful and saving acts!

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