CHRISTIAN ORTHODOXY IN THE HOME
The Orthodox family honors the Christian traditions by observing in reverence whatever Christian antiquity has entrusted to us either as instructions of Christ Himself or as practices of the Apostles, their successors, the Holy Fathers, the Martyrs and Saints of the Church. Among these observances, one may count as important and highly significant and valuable for the edification of the Christian family the following:
1. Scripture and Religious Book Reading
The Holy Bible is recognized by the Church as the written part of Christian Tradition. It contains the word of God. It is the source of religious truth and the unmistakable guide to Christian life. Holy Traditions as it is formed in the experience of the Church of Christ, in the Liturgical sources of Christian Spirituality, in the method of interpreting the Bible, in the Church laws, in the objects of religious art, the lives of the Saints, the writings of the Holy Fathers, is also a venerable guide to Christian faith and life, equal in value and authority with written tradition, the Bible itself. The Bible and religious books of devotional character, recognized by the Church as Orthodox and conducive to piety, are highly recommended to be read and kept in the Orthodox home for study and guidance. Consulting the Parish Priest for reading and buying books is recommended, for sometimes people in all innocence and piety may become victims of heretical and atheistic propaganda.
2. Attending Church Services
Every Sunday the Orthodox family observes the day of the Lord commemorating His resurrection and triumph over death. The usual preparation takes place Saturday night when all social affairs are avoided, so that parents and children may go to church together in the morning and worship the Lord in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. They are there on time, not just at any moment of the Divine Liturgy. They are in Church at the Beginning to hear the Doxology and the opening words of the Liturgy “Blessed be the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Upon entering the church, they bow their heads in reverence before God and cross themselves as a sign that they are followers of the crucified Lord, Jesus Christ. They light candles, venerate the icons of the Saints, and take their seat.
In the church no one talks, for church is the place where God speaks and His children listen carefully. God speaks through the service, the readings of the Scriptures, the sermon, the icons, and the Sacrament itself, through which the gift of God is given to all faithful, Orthodox people who are in attendance. This gift is the saving grace of the Holy Spirit which overshadows all present, united in prayer in faith, love and hope.
Only in church is the gift imparted. Only in togetherness of prayer is the Body of the Church formed mysteriously and Christ the head of the Body enlivens the faithful, the members of His Body, by the grace of the Holy Spirit. He feeds them with the Sacrament and strengthens the bond of their unity so that they may be inheritors of His Kingdom. For this reason, the Fathers of the Church emphasize the importance of church attendance.
Those who neglect this duty commit a mortal sin. They miss happy opportunities to be with Christ and contribute by their participation, according to their power, to the salvation of the worshippers and receive from them in return spiritual courage and strength for the work of the salvation. Prayer in togetherness by the living and dead participating before the Altar of Christ, where His Body and Blood are offered “for the remission of sins” by the priest on behalf of all, is prayer of salvation. Private prayers and devo¬tions are prayers of enlightenment and guidance and must culminate in common prayer with the other faithful in Church at the Service of Holy Communion Therefore, it is a sacred duty of the Orthodox family to attend the Sunday Service avoiding all other engagements and work. The excuse one hears from some people here and there that they prefer to pray alone is not simply an excuse but, more than this, hypocrisy. For, in fact, they don’t pray. Those who pray alone feel very deeply the need of praying in Church with others.
3. Contributing to the Work of the Church
It is the privilege and duty of all Christians to participate in the work of the Church both as contributors and workers for the spread of the Kingdom of God. Church contributions in every community and offerings are given gladly, for those who give for the work of Christ must do it wholeheartedly and joyfully. For the general needs and missionary undertakings of the whole Orthodox Church for its institutions and movements to enlighten the faithful, for its administrational requirements, for religious education and publications, all Orthodox families should contribute, be it from their abundance or want. Each one’s yearly offerings for Orthodoxy should be analogous to his earnings and always beyond the prescribed minimum. Treasures of earthly value are temporal, while sustaining the Church for the continuation of the saving mis¬sion of Christ may win eternity and salvation for us all.
4. Private Devotions
In every home the Christian family dedicates a little corner, usually in the bedroom, for the family sanctuary. There one may see the Icon of Christ, of the Virgin Mother, of the Patron Saint, the Holy Cross, the Prayer Book, the Gospel, the marital crowns, dried flowers of Good Friday, Holy Water of the Epiphany, the seal of the Eucharistic Bread and the censer. In this place, the family is united in prayer led by the parents, who read from the prayer book, from the Bible and offer incence. There young and old kneel or stand in prayer before the Icons of the Saints with the vigil light burning as a symbol of sacrifice and of the warmth and vitality of their faith. Incense is offered once a day. Over every bed there is a Cross or the Icon of the Virgin Mary holding the Infant Christ or the Icon of each one’s patron saint.
All religious objects which one may see in an Orthodox family sanctuary are not just articles of decoration. They are symbols offering aid in devotional concentration. They are not objects of idolatrous superstition. In the eyes of the unbeliever they seem ridiculous. But in the eyes of the faithful they are vehicles of grace, treasures of blessing and the means of spiritual concentration and uplifting. They do not represent mere religious art. For every religious picture is not an Icon.
The Holy Icons bear their own artistic characteristics. They depict the spirit and virtue rather than the body of the Saint. For this reason statues are not in use in the Orthodox Church or in Orthodox family sanctuaries.
Pictures of Christ with the Sacred Heart and all other productions of Roman piety are not used, nor recommended by the Orthodox Church. One is really at a loss trying to find a Theological explanation of these pictures of Christ decorated with His heart. For Christ is worshipped not partially but wholly. We have learned to worship the whole Christ “Christus totus” with the two natures, the Divine and the human, united inseparably. How can one separate from the whole Christ His Heart and worship it? How can one detach a part from an undivided unity? Christ is not received by us in Holy Communion. Perhaps Roman Theologians overlook the Christological aspects of this kind of religious art and tolerate its devotional usage as an expression of rather popular piety.
Often in home devotions the neighbors and friends of the Orthodox family are invited to participate. Also, the parish priest is asked to come and bless the house with holy water from time to time and especially during the week of Epiphany (5-12 of January). The Orthodox family asks the priest to come for the devotional service to the Virgin Mary (Paraklesis), to offer the Sacrament of Holy Unction, to pray for the sick, to advise the family when problems and difficulties disturb its serene peace.
As a means of self-sacrifice for the sake of Christ, of self-discipline and will-strengthening, as a kind of healthy diet, as an antidote against temptations and the desire of the flesh, fasting is highly recommended both by the Church and medical science. Our Lord gave us a great example of fasting. He taught His Apostles to fast and pray in order to fight the devil victoriously and overcome all his machinations. In the wilderness Christ fasted forty days and He turned His temptor back in shame. We are all tempted, young and old. The devil is real, as we are real. Satan, the evil spirit of disobedience to the will of God is successful not only when we weaken and are overcome by his temptations, but also when he convinces us that he is not real and does not exist, that there is no sin, that sin is a natural expression of biological necessity, that church-going and Bible-reading, fasting and kneeling in prayer and all religious observances are superstitious inventions of the monks, a “racket” of the Church and so on. Through the Apostles, Christ instituted fasting for the faithful. According to tradition, all Wednesdays and Fridays are fast days when Orthodox Christians abstain from meat and all animal products, except fish. We fast Wednesdays in commemoration of the seizure and torture of Christ, and on Fridays in commemoration of His crucifixion and death. The Church has prescribed periods of fast for the spiritual uplifting of the faithful and their preparation for Holy Communion. They are:
- Advent, the 40 days before Christmas, when fish alone is permitted but not meat or animal products.
- Great Lent, the 50 days before Easter when the Orthodox must abstain from fish and meat alike.
- A few days before the feast of the Apostles, 29-30 of June, when fish is permitted, but not meat.
- The first 14 days of August in commemoration of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary when the Orthodox people abstain from meat and fish.
- The 29th day of August in commemoration of the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist.
- The 14th day of September in honor of the exaltation of the Holy Cross.
- One or more days before one may receive Holy Communion. Six hours before Holy Communion no food or drink, water included, is permitted. Alcoholic beverages during fasting are not permitted except a little wine on Sundays.
In case of illness, fasting is not kept. It is however, necessary that the parish priest be informed to prescribe something else instead of fasting, such as alms-giving, work for the poor, extra prayers, etc.
6. Preparation for Holy Communion
The first necessary step in preparation for Holy Communion is confession. Orthodox people may ask for confession when they feel its need. However, confession is always required a few days before Holy Communion. It is obligatory at least once a year. The second step is fasting. One day of complete fasting and abstinence from meat, fish, foods cooked in olive oil, and alcoholic products is enough, provided that one also abstains from the other pleasures of the flesh, concentrating on prayer and Scripture readings. On all Saturdays of the year, whether during a fast period or not, the use of olive oil is permitted. The only exception to this rule is Saturday of Holy Week, a day of religious expectation and mourning.
Orthodox Christians receive Holy Communion at least four times a year. Christmas, Easter, the feast of the Apostles (June 29-30), and the feast of the Assumption (August 15). However, in every Liturgy, the people are expected to approach and receive the Lord. Christian Orthodox families are instructed by their parish priests to approach the Holy Chalice and receive the Body and Blood of Christ once a month, or as often as they feel ready to receive the food of redemption. The night before Holy Communion the members of the family read prescribed prayers and go to bed early, avoiding social engagements. Before going to Church, children ask their parents to pardon them, while parents ask the pardon of their children.
7. The Eucharistic Bread and Artoklasia
The loaf of bread which is used in Church for the Holy Liturgy is called the Eucharistic Bread (Prosforon). Every Orthodox family prepares this bread at home as often as possible. It is made of pure flour and yeast, and is scaled with the seal bearing the inscription “Jesus Christ Conquers,” IC XC. The seal is kept in the family sanctuary. This bread is to be sent to Church early, together with the family Diptych on which the names of the living and the dead arc written for the priest in order that he may pray for them during the Divine Liturgy. The Christian family also prepares the five loaves of special bread for the Artoklasia service, usually offered at the conclusion of the Great Vesper Services. This Service, a remnant of the Suppers of Love of the Ancient Christians, a reminder of the miracle of feeding of the Five Thousand with five loaves (Mark 6: 3 8-44), is a thanksgiving for the virtuous lives of the Saints, their martyrdom, zeal and love of Christ. During the service, the priest offers prayers for the enlightenment and salvation of those who pre¬pared and offered the loaves, and of all who will partake of them. All Christian families, at least once a year, must provide for such an offering and service, which is very ancient, beautiful, and conducive to piety and brotherly love.
8. Prayer for the Newly-Born
On the birth of a baby the parish priest is invited to the home or hospital to offer prayers for the mother and her baby. On the fortieth day after birth the mother takes the baby to Church where the priest conducts the service of Churching in the Narthex. In case of miscarriage the mother goes to Church for the prayers of forgiveness which the priest offer for her benefit. After Baptism the mother takes the baby to Church for Holy Communion as often as possible and prays for its growth in life and in faith. All baptized Orthodox Christians, young and old, wear a Cross or a medal with the head of Christ and the Virgin Mary, blessed in Church for their safety and protection.
9. Religious Education
It is the duty of all Christian parents to see that their children receive proper religious instruction, so that they may know their religion, live according to the commandments of Christ and understand the services which they attend in church. For this reason it is of great necessity that all children attend their Or¬thodox Sunday School classes, and attend their parochial school classes to learn Greek, the liturgical language of their Church, the language of the New Testament, which their parents and friends speak. There the children will learn beautiful prayers, memorize passages of the Bible, learn the story of Jesus, His Parables and Miracles, the story of His Passion and Resurrection, the story of the Church and of the Saints.
Neglect of this duty will be paid by the parents dearly when they discover later that their children have become victims of impious disobedience to God’s will and to theirs, tools of irreverent individuals and organs of Communism and atheism. All the efforts of the Church are focused on a more complete and methodically religious education of Orthodox Youth. Without, however, the full and sincere co-operation of Orthodox parents the task will remain incomplete.
Orthodox parents are invited to work for the Sunday School, for the church choir, for the parochial Greek School where the language of the New Testament is taught; to co-operate with their priest in teaching the children to observe the Orthodox Traditions and customs at home; to read the Bible and religious books and pamphlets with them, explaining the Liturgy and other Church services; to fast and go to Church and wear the Cross or medal with the figure of Christ or that of His Mother, blessed in Church for them, as tokens of Orthodox piety and a means of protection.
It is necessary that Christian parents teach their children primarily by their own example. They should go to church together with their children. They should attend church meetings and religious and educational lectures and discussions, and not just demand that their children go to Sunday School. They should contribute without judging others who contribute either little or nothing. They should know that in their family, where Christ reigns, tolerance is to be practiced. Criticism of others and gossip about others is out of place, contrary to the spirit of brotherhood and the peace of the community and family. When in company or in the presence of children, people dare to criticize others who are absent or speak against religion, the clergy and the Church in general, Christian parents and all pious Orthodox people should protest and remind the gossips to practice self-examination and be tolerant, for sin is common to all, laity and clergy alike. Before condemning religion and the Church, one must try to gain acquaintance with Christ and live the ideals of His religion, then speak. Usually, ignorance and half-knowledge and intolerance are responsible for the condemnation of religion and all those who, though religious, have performed sinful acts.
10. Memorials for the Dead
The visit of death is inevitable. It is a fact which certainly will come to all. Those, however, who believe in Christ have no fear of death, for it has been overcome in the Resurrection of Christ. It is natural to mourn and feel sorrowful when we lose our loved ones. Yet, though we experience sorrow we must recognize the fact that for the deceased a more beautiful life is prepared near Christ.
We mourn but we pray so that they may find rest in Christ and forgiveness. For this reason as tokens of the immortality of their soul we prepare the memorials (Kolyva), the boiled wheat (John 12:24, 1st Corinthians 15: 1 7), which we bring to Church to be blessed at the Divine Liturgy when special prayers are to be offered for our beloved dead (II Maccabees 1 2:46). In case of serious sickness the parish priest is notified to come for the last rites and administer the Sacraments of Confession and Communion to the sick.
After death the priest offers prayers either at home or at the funeral.
The priest is also asked to visit the grave with the relatives to pray for the repose of the departed (Trisagion).
According to the teachings of the Church, the results of the Resurrection are placed in the realm of the future. Nevertheless, their initial meaning is pictured in the Sacrament of Baptism. For in Baptism we both die and rise, or rather we are initiated in the Death and Resurrection of Christ. (Romans 6:3-5). Those who are baptized “put on Christ.” They become members of the Body of Christ. Death for them has lost its final destruction. Death could not destroy Christ. How can he destroy the member of Christ’s body.
On the last day, the bodies of all the dead in Christ will rise in their glorified form (1 Corinthians 15:43). The glorified body and the soul will compose again their indestruction unity as Christ, the God-man, both before and after His Resurrection, was and is an indivisible unity.
In the course of our life after Baptism, we must prove through our conduct, that we are devoted living members of the Body of Christ. Because only in this manner the pledge of the Resurrection will be consummated as an actual and personal event. If we live and die in sin, we are, both in this life and in the life to come, fallen members of the Body of Christ, Our soul, after death, will live in an unhappy expectancy of the resurrection of its partner, the body, to experience with it the final and eternal separation from the Body of Christ.
In our life on earth we are excommunicated from the Church, the Body of Christ, either by our own decision to live in opposition to the commandments of Christ, or by the official pronouncement of the Church because of apostasy, heresy, or conduct betraying our conscious and planned enmity to the will of God and the growth of the Church.
In the life to come at the consummation of the Resurrection, we are excommunicated, cut off eternally from the Body of Christ, and communion with those who are in Christ; because we are preferring the deadly bitterness of sin to the life-giving joy of being with Christ.
Nobody knows our state of mind and the extent of our contrition, sorrow and repentance when death is approaching. Only God knows His own. Only God knows the penitential agony. Ours is the duty to pray for the repose of all members of the Body of Christ. Ours is the brotherly obligation to pray for their reinstatement, if they are fallen, in the Body of Christ.
The memorials are offered with this purpose. They have nothing to do with entrance or exit or the soul from the Roman Catholic property, Purgatory. The memorials are prayers of love for the dead. They are expressions of the brotherly unity of the living and of the dead, aiming to influence the Father of all to show mercy for the departed, so that they may be permitted to feel, according to the measure of their ability, the beatific vision of God, and at the final Judgment Day may be counted with the Saints. “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from sin” (II Maccabees 12:46). “With the Saints repose, 0 Lord, the souls of Thy servants, where there is no pain, nor sorrow, nor sighing, but life eternal.”
The memorials (Kolyva) are offered:
- The third day after death, in commemoration of the three days that our Lord remained dead.
- The ninth day after death as a reminder to the living that the earthly life is ephemeral and temporary.
- The fortieth day after death to denote that the period of mourning is concluded. For it is written that when Moses died, the people mourned in this manner the loss of their leader and prophet.
- Once a year, on the anniversary of one’s death, as a commemoration of one’s passing from the transitory life of the earth to the Eternal Life of Heaven.
- Memorials are also prepared on the three Saturdays previous to the commencement of the Great Lent, and on the Saturday before Pentecost Sunday (Psychosavata).
11. The Sign of the Cross
The Orthodox Christians often cross themselves, or inscribe the sign of the cross on their body. This devotional and pious act is as ancient as the Church. It may be considered:
- As a silent declaration.
- As a prayer.
- As a confession of faith.
It is a declaration, because by inscribing the cross on our body we prove that we are followers of the crucified Christ.
It is a prayer, because by inscribing it on our bodies we bring to our mind the fact of the Crucifixion of Christ from which springs up the power of salvation.
It is confession of faith, because opening our prayer we cross ourselves and say: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
The Orthodox Christians make the sign of the cross upon themselves in the following fashion. The thumb, the fore-finger and the middle-finger are united as symbolic of the oneness of God in the three persons of the Holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. The forehead first is touched, then the breast, then the right shoulder and last the left shoulder. Followers of the Roman Catholic touch first the left shoulder and then the right, We touch first the right as a reminder of the position of glory that our Lord Jesus Christ the God-man took at the right hand of God the Father after His ascension.
The Orthodox Christians make the sign of the cross when they start their prayers, when they enter the Church and venerate the Holy Gospel, the Holy Cross and the Icons of the Saints, when the names of the three persons of the Holy Trinity, the name of the Virgin Mary and of the Saints are pronounced in the Service; also at the prayer before and after meals, and on any occasion, as an act of piety.
12. Respect to the Clergy
The Orthodox Christians respect and love their clergy. Knowing that the clergy are servants of God and man, devoting their life for the salvation of their flock, the Orthodox people express their gratitude and respect to them on every occasion.
First, the priest is addressed as “Father” by all, for he is the spiritual father of his flock; he is their teacher, confessor, sanctifier and healer.
Second, when people greet their priest they kiss his hand as an expression of respect, as recognition of his priesthood, as a veneration to the holiness of his sacred duties.
The fact that the priest handles the Holy of Holies, that is, the Body and Blood of Christ, when he offers the Divine Liturgy, is recognized by the people, at all times throughout the world, as a great and awesome privilege.
The hands that touch and offer the Bloodless Sacrifice on the Holy Altar; the hand that give to us the Body and Blood of Christ; the hands that Baptize and anoint us with the Holy Chrism; the hands that absolve us in forgiveness; the hands that bless our wedlock and anoint our bodies with the healing oil of the Sacrament of Holy Unction; the hands that sprinkle upon us the holy water of sanctification; the hands that bless us, alive and dead, these hands are instruments of salvation. For this reason, Orthodox Christians through the centuries have kissed the hand of their priest, as we continue to do. We kiss the hand of our priest when we greet him either in church when he distributes, at the end of the Liturgy, the blessed bread (Antidoron), or outside the church whenever we meet him.
We close these remarks with the words of St. Paul: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life and imitate their faith; Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings. Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls as men who will have to give account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (Hebrews 13:7-9; 13:17).