Russian Orthodox Beliefs & Practices

by Michael H. Jenkins
An iconic depiction of Russian Orthodox saints.

An iconic depiction of Russian Orthodox saints.

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The Eastern Orthodox faith is the second-largest Christian church in the world, with nearly 300 million adherents. It is a faith diverse in its geography, spanning Eastern Europe, Russia and parts of the Middle East. While the church as a whole retains an identity and theology, the self-governing bodies of which it is comprised often take on a national flavor. Russian Orthodoxy reflects both its Orthodox heritage and the culture of its native land.

Theology and Belief

While a self-governing (or autocephalous) body, the Russian Orthodox Church does follow the fundamentals of Orthodox theology. Among the most important components are a belief in the Holy Trinity. The Orthodox Church follows a doctrine of hypostases, which posits that the Trinity is composed of three distinct divine persons, without overlap. They are bound together by a shared divine essence, or ousia, which is without beginning or end and immaterial. Perhaps the most central belief in all Christianity is the doctrine of resurrection. Orthodox beliefs hold that Jesus Christ was crucified and died and then subsequently descended into Hell and returned three days later, both fully human and fully divine. Upon his return, he brought with him the promise of salvation and spiritual immortality, which he offered to every human being. All religious observances in the Orthodox faith are directly or indirectly connected to this core tenet. As in many other Christian denominations, salvation in the Orthodox faith is a result of forgiveness from sin. The faith holds that sin is innate to human beings as a result of human free will, but can be overcome by a process of deification. This should not be misinterpreted as meaning that an individual becomes God, but rather part of the divine nature by a union with the savior.

Church Organization

The Russian Orthodox Church is a self-governing body of the Orthodox faith, in full communion with other autocephalous churches. Since 1322, albeit with some interruptions, the church has been headed by the Patriarch of Moscow, currently Kirill I. While the Patriarch has extensive authority, he does not exercise full power over matters of the faith. Instead, this falls to the church organization. The lowest level of organization within the church is the parish, or prihod in Russian, located in one church and headed by a priest who is responsible for the congregation. Above the parish level, the church is organized around bishops, who are responsible for a collection of parish churches called an eparchy -- roughly analogous to a Western diocese. There are currently 213 eparchies in the Russian Orthodox Church. Effectively, the highest level of authority in the Russian Orthodox Church is held by the Local Council, a group comprised of all the bishops and archbishops of the church in addition to representatives of the clergy and the people. The Council is directly responsible for matters of the faith, although it does not convene full time. When it is not in session, the highest authority is vested in the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. Composed of seven permanent members and chaired by the Patriarch, the Holy Synod is responsible for nearly all matters governing the faith and its adherents.

Orthodoxy in Practice

Imbued with the Eastern tradition, Russian Orthodox services differ greatly from their Western counterparts. While many Western churchgoers remain seated during the majority of the service, in the Russian Orthodox tradition it is common for the congregation to remain standing during the proceedings. The most common structure of the service follows a set three-part pattern. The Liturgy of Preparation involves the officiant entering and preparing the place of worship. The Liturgy of the Catachumens, the first public part of the service, involves a series of opening prayers preceding the entrance procession of the Gospel book and the Epistle and Gospel readings. The third portion of the service, the Liturgy of the Faithful, is the preparation for and the dispensation of the Eucharist. While this part is generally open to visitors, they may not be allowed to take part in Holy Communion. Following the Eucharist, further prayers and readings may be offered before the officiant blesses and dismisses the faithful. Visitors should be prepared for a longer service than is typical for many Western branches of Christianity. The Orthodox conception of time is different, positing that during the service, earthly time fades into the background and the divine takes over.

Art and Architechture

In addition to its rich liturgy and theology, the Russian Orthodox Church has an equally full artistic tradition. Russian Orthodox Iconography is a distinct and easily recognizable art form. The eastern influence is strong, with use of rich gold and darker-hued colors. Typical iconic art will feature biblical scenes or the depiction of past saints or other religious figures. The art makes limited use of perspective, instead presenting the figure in two dimensions to make viewing equal regardless of the angle of sight. Gold is the color most strongly associated with the Heavenly Kingdom, and Russian Orthodox churches are typically topped by golden domes. While there are many styles employed throughout history, the "onion dome" is most strongly associated with Russian architecture. Both inside and out, Russian churches tend to make use of a great deal of vertical space, drawing the eye upward toward heaven. Toward that end, Orthodox churches often avoid electric lighting and use candles, creating an otherworldly feel.

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