For centuries, the two major Christian sects of Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism have been a center of comparison because of the resemblance in both religions’ beliefs and practices. But in my recent visit to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Miami, I have discovered the stark contrasts to what popular notions hold. Particularly, what befell upon me was a revelation that Orthodox Catholicism differs from Roman Catholicism and other conventional Christian churches as far as relevant doctrines, laws, standards for morality, organizational leadership, church services, and religious ceremonies are concerned.
While Orthodox Christianity is generally being compared as similar to Roman Catholicism, its basic and complex theologies both concur to and diverge from that of the Roman Catholic faith. Orthodox Christians generally regard their religious system as a direct continuance of Christ’s ministry; they believe that their very sect is part of a long continuing tradition, otherwise called the Holy Tradition, which started during the first century and remained pure and intact despite the drastic changes that occurred across the world over the centuries (Ware 7-8).
Orthodox Christian belief likewise holds that the Bible is the life giving tome of the church because it contains and uncovers the will of God, reveals the relationship between God and the early Israelites, narrates the events that happened during the ministry of Jesus, as well as Christ’s foundation of the first church (Ware 194-196). Apart from the sacred readable contents of the Bible, Christian Orthodoxy also considers it as the sole living witness to the centuries old tradition the sect continues to practice.
And with blessing from the early church leaders with guidance from the Holy Spirit, the books of the Bible were expressed as the apostles’ way of handing down the tradition from one generation to another. Christian Orthodoxy merits the Nicene Creed with the highest of regard and considers it as a basis of its beliefs (Ware 202). As such, in its belief in the nature of God, Orthodox Christianity employs a Trinitarian concept or one God with three different personas: The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit.
The Orthodox doctrine furthers that God is an omnipotent being that constitutes no physical form, and is therefore a transcendent being (Ware 210-211). A Distinct Orthodox Catholic belief is in the concept that man is an image and likeness of God. This belief is stressed in extreme senses that Orthodox Christianity’s adherents consider humankind’s resemblance to God as a means of carrying the icon of God within the self (Benz 18).
Because of the central idea that man is the image and likeness of God, Orthodox Catholicism’s notion of the original sin differs from most Christian traditions in such a way that the sin committed by Adam and Eve is not morally and spiritually inherited by humans. Instead, original sin is the separation from God’s grace and acquisition of physical and spiritual mortality (Benz 19). And humankind’s separation from God is an action out of free will, particularly when Adam and Eve chose to listen to the serpent’s word and their give in to their urge.
Furthermore, Christian Orthodox belief suggests that the fall of man stained all of God’s creation with sin, and corruption while implying that Adam and Eve’s eviction from paradise is God’s way of avoiding man’s sin, wickedness, and corruption from lasting endlessly (Ware 218-219). The Orthodox Christians’ general concept of sin and corruption meanwhile is milder than any other Christian sect or any other religious system for that matter. Sin, as Orthodox Christian doctrine holds, encompasses a contamination, deformation, and infliction of damage on God’s image.
However despite sin’s vile nature and humanity’s vulnerability to it, man remains as noble beings because of the simple fact that humans are created in the image of God (Benz 19). As much as the beliefs and practices have renewed my perspective of Orthodox Catholicism, the church service I became part of was a very overwhelming experience. I thought my religion was already rich in traditions and customs, but what I saw and experienced in the ceremony brought my knowledge of Orthodox Christianity to new heights as I have seen and distinguished the difference of the ceremony from conventional Christian sects.
Before going to the church, I thought to myself that it is simply going to be a typical service in a Christian place of worship similar to the ones documented in Christian television networks. However, set my eyes on the church, the distinctive style of the structure surprised me as I have observed a slight difference in the church’s architecture. I expected the church to have a dome-shaped top which is a recognizable design of most Christian churches. Except for the cross on the tip of the church’s roof, the external appearance of the church resembles a mosque.
The color scheme, the golden plates on the roof all appear to me as elements of Islamic design. As I entered the church, I have received a warm welcome from the church’s senior warden Gary Popovich. He mentioned that every part of the cathedral was a sanctuary for everyone, even to non-orthodox Christians. As Mr. Popovich gave me a mini tour of the church, the interiors further made me notice the distinction of Orthodox Church structures from that of most Roman Catholic structures.
While both churches are known to have long, wide aisles leading to the altar, Cathedral of Christ the Savior’s hallway leading to the altar was a little compact despite the conventionality of its length. However, the lobby area of the church, or the narthex as it is properly called, was similar to lobbies of other churches in such a way that it has a board which posts announcements of the church’s activities for the week. Mr.
Popovich however added that apart from the usual acknowledging of guests, the narthex is also significant in that tables are set up there during Easter to bless food that would be taken home by adherents after days of fasting and abstinence in the Lenten season. And in days of divine service and obligation, candles and offerings are sold in the narthex. As I was to be part of the Eastern Orthodox Communion for a day, Mr. Popovich toured me to the inner areas of the church. We then proceeded to the main area of the church, which, Mr. Popovich regarded as the nave.
This area is where the people stay during divine services, and is thus considered sacred ground. Along the walls and the ceiling of the nave of the cathedral, I noticed numerous portraits of individuals considered holy by Orthodox Catholics including a large portrait of Christ in the ceiling. Mr. Popovich was about to give me a guided tour of what he calls an iconostasis or the room where all of the religious figures and paintings were placed, when he told me to be prepared because the service was about to start. So I proceeded to the nave to participate in the upcoming service.
Although I did not clarify if there was any appropriate attire for adherents, I wore the conventional clothing reserved for church attendance. As the service started, everyone gathered in the nave of the cathedral. I first noticed that no one among the people in attendance was wearing casual clothing. The people around me had conservative clothing; the males wore formal attire with collared shirts and sleeves with cuffs. The females were all wearing mid-length and long skirts as well as blouses with sleeves. In addition, most of the women, though not all of them, sported head scarves during the service.
Furthermore, apart from the clothing, I also noticed the cathedral’s segregation scheme. All the males were on the right hand side of the nave, while the females were on the right wing of the nave. While I was fascinated by the formality of the people in the church, I never asked them the relevance of wearing such clothing. I simply thought that the sanctity of their church together with the value they uphold for their tradition includes dressing well during services. Mr. Popovich informed me prior to the service that what I am going to be part of was the evening services otherwise the Vespers.
I recall senior warden Popovich previously discussed that the Vespers begins at 9 in the evening, an hour which was actually based on the exact time of Christ’s death: 3:00 pm or the 9th hour in antiquated time. The service starts with the priest’s ceremonial blessing and continued with the usual beginnings, which, is basically a sequence of prayers that include the trisagion or the common hymn in almost every Orthodox liturgical service (Perry & Melling 190). The service then proceeded with the recital of the Lord’s Prayer before the actual scripture reading of psalms took place.
The reader read about three psalms before reciting another short hymn called the troparion (Perry & Melling 37). Another hymn called the theotokion followed the troparion, the hymn was sung in honor of the mother of God. Particularly, the hymn honors the virgin mother of God for the incarnation of Christ through her. The singing of the hymn also coincided with the entrance of the clergy; the clergy coming from the Holy Doors signified that the creation of the world also marks man’s selection to live in paradise (Perry & Melling 295).
As the service was progressing, I took a small window of time to look around and observe what was happening around me. In doing so, I noticed that most people get distracted at what they do knowing that an unfamiliar person is present to witness what they do, but I felt their utmost dedication to their obligations to God because my very presence did not even cause them to be distracted at what they do. Similarly, as much as it was a rare occasion for me to be part of their usual service, they must have felt that it was also a rare occasion to have an outsider among them, yet their dedication remained pure and untainted.
A series of readings soon followed, after the clergy’s entrance, another series of hymns, the Phos Hilaron and the Prokeimenon marked a transition of the service to epistle reading. During the epistle reading, the adherents hear the words of God for enlightenment. For the first part, the reader read a passage from the Bible’s Old Testament. At the time, the reading was taken from the book of Elijah which announced what message God’s promised messiah would bring. After the reading of the scriptures, the Vespers was concluded by the Litany of Fervent Supplication and the final blessing of the presiding clergy.
During the Litany of Fervent Supplication, the adherents pray that God may grant all Christians mercy. The litany is a responsorial prayer wherein the reader asks for mercy in every aspect and the people respond with the words “Grant it, O Lord. ” After the final blessing has been given, the crowds of people are dismissed accordingly. Based on what I have seen in the liturgical service I attended, Orthodox Catholicism is a religion filled with tradition, symbolisms and customary ceremonies.
But true service to God is not really measured by the traditions, the customs, and other rituals of sacrifice and praise; the true essence of serving God lies in a person’s obedient and relentless faith. Ultimately, the sacrifices and the customs do not matter if a person has little or weak faith. Works Cited Benz, Ernst. “The Eastern Orthodox Church: Its Thought and Life” New Jersey: Aldine Transaction, 2008 Parry, Ken & David Melling. “The Blackwell Dictionary of Eastern Christianity” Malden, MA. : Blackwell Publishing, 1999. Ware, Timothy. “The Orthodox Church: New Edition”. New York: Penguin Books, 1997