A Visitor's Introduction to the Orthodox Church

To be offered to visiting groups and prior to weddings and baptisms, especially when the congregation includes non-Orthodox Christians


It is important to realize that the average visitor to an Orthodox Church often has little or no knowledge of Orthodox Church history or, may have some knowledge, but appreciates hearing it put into perspective when compared to Catholicism or Protestantism.

It is not necessary to use all the information below, but select aspects most appropriate to the make-up of the audience. Most of this talk is used for to visiting groups (various Protestant and Catholic groups, students from the local seminary, college students or local grade school and high school classes).

The introduction tries to keep an irenic tone, purposely avoiding a polemic confrontational, or triumphalistic one.

Site-Specific Background Information

In some ways this talk is specific to the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Lancaster, PA which contains exquisite iconography, large murals, a unique hand-carved iconostas, very wide Royal Doors, and soft filigree designs (not ostentatious) surrounding each icon. There are openings between each of the six main icons giving a sense of openness between the altar and nave. The icons on the iconostas are full figured, about seven feet high with gold leaf backgrounds. The Royal Doors are low, one third as high as the iconostas and are never closed during services. Unlike some Russian Churches, which tend to keep the action in the altar confined to just the clergy with frequently closed doors, our parish opts for openness, with as much congregational participation as possible. There is a constant flow of action among worshippers, clergy and cantors. The seven stained glass windows were carefully designed by a master artist and kept relatively simple with just symbols giving prominence to the mural icons them. These windows do not contain figures of saints.

Introduction to the Orthodox Church

The Church is usually filled with guests at this point.

Good afternoon and welcome to Annunciation Church. Since some of you are not from an Orthodox Christian background, you may appreciate a brief introduction to the Orthodox Church.

Visualize for a moment the Mediterranean Sea in southeastern Europe. On the eastern side there is located the small country of Palestine, today called Israel. (I make hand gestures to indicate the round Mediterranean with a western and eastern side). This country is only 90 miles long and about 30 miles wide, yet it is perhaps the most contested piece of real estate in history. Three worldwide religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) lay claim to Palestine and consider the city of Jerusalem to be holy ground.

Over the past 2,000 years, battles, wars, and crusades have been carried out in an attempt to claim parts of Palestine, especially Jerusalem. The Hebrews built the Temple of Solomon there, not far from which the Christians built the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on the site from which Christ was resurrected. Moslems erected their sacred Dome of the Rock Mosque on the same location where the Hebrew Temple once stood.

After his Resurrection, Christ appeared to his disciples in Jerusalem and commanded them to preach his gospel (Good News) to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. His followers obeyed his command and the Christian Church spread throughout the world. The Church immediately took root across the Mediterranean basin in the Apostolic Era. St. Paul made missionary journeys into Galatia (present day Turkey), to the island of Cyprus, and to Greece. Hence the region of Greece, from which the founding members of this parish Church came, has a continuous Christian legacy of 2,000 years. The Apostle Paul visited and wrote letters to the Philippians, Thessalonians, and Corinthians, and he preached in Athens - all of which are cities of Greece. Later he preached in Rome where he eventually was martyred.

Five main centers arose in the early Church, located in Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, Alexandria, and Constantinople. The bishop of each of these cities came to be known as a Patriarch. The Patriarch offered his pastoral leadership within his Episcopal See.

  • Jerusalem was the city where the Christian faith began;
  • Antioch in Syria was the city where the followers of Jesus were first called "Christians" (Acts 11:26);
  • Rome was the capital of the Roman Empire where the Roman Emperor sat;
  • Alexandria was a great learning center in the time of Jesus, with the largest library in the world; and
  • Constantinople became the capital of the Roman Empire when Emperor Constantine the Great built this city on the Bosporus where Byzantium stood and renamed it after himself (literally the "city of Constantine").

As the Christian Church continued to spread, Christians from Rome took the gospel into Western Europe and eventually into the western hemisphere. Christians located in the eastern side of the Mediterranean missionized the northern Slavic nations, the people to the south in Africa, and those to the east as far as India.

For the first thousand years, the Christian Church remained basically intact and believed the same thing. It recognized and abided by the teachings of the first Seven Ecumenical Councils (325 to 787 A.D.). This Church believed in a Triune God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), in the dual nature of Jesus Christ the Savior (God-Man), in the resurrection of the dead, the second coming of Christ and in eternal life. All of these beliefs are taught by the Holy Scriptures and remain the doctrine of all Christians to the present time, whether Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Protestant.

The Great Schism occurred in 1054 A.D. which separated the Christian Church into two parts, the Western Church known as the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Church known as the Orthodox Church. The Roman Patriarch (the Pope) headed the Western Roman Catholic Church. The other four Patriarchs of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria and Constantinople headed the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The Western Church found the center of its authority in the Pope (Patriarch) of Rome. The Eastern Church was firmly and historically committed to a conciliar approach to authority by which decisions of faith, doctrine, canon law and discipline are made through Ecumenical Councils. In 1517 A.D. a devout Roman Catholic monk in Germany opposed abuses of the Roman Pope that were occurring at that time. His protest came to be known as the Protestant Reformation and began a third great movement in Christianity. This Reformation occurred in the Western Church, not the Eastern Church. Thus today we have inherited three historic traditions in Christianity known as Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

What distinguishes Orthodoxy from Roman Catholicism and Protestantism?

That is a common question.

Orthodoxy continues to abide by the beliefs and teachings of the historic Seven Ecumenical Councils of the first thousand years of Christianity. It has neither added nor subtracted any basic doctrine from that period. It considers itself the ancient, historic, apostolic, catholic (universal with an intact comprehensive faith) Church.

As you walk into an Orthodox Church such as ours, you will immediately notice the elaborate art and architecture which includes all these visual images which we call "icons". Icons portray that which we believe. Two icons of our sanctuary emphasize the Christian belief in the Holy Trinity. Notice the prominent icon known as the "Pantocrator" in the dome or ceiling. The Pantocrator is a Greek word used in the book of Revelation and means "the All Governing One" or "the Almighty". We see two persons of the Trinity in this icon: God the Creator and Jesus Christ the Savior holding the book of the Gospels.

In the large mural icon on the high wall behind the altar, there appears an icon of Pentecost. Pentecost, which literally means fifty from the Greek word "pentikosti", refers to the day Christ sent the Holy Spirit upon the Church in fulfillment of his promise, fifty days after His Resurrection. Notice high in the center the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and the tongues of fire painted above the heads of the apostles as described in Acts 2 of the New Testament.

In the two middle panels on the north and south walls of the Nave, there appear two very large icons of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. These point to two bedrock beliefs of all Christians, namely that Christ was willingly crucified for the sins of the world and for our salvation, and that he rose again on the third day. His resurrection points to the Christian belief in life after death, love over hate, God over the Devil.

The large mural icon on this front panel next to the Resurrection Icon is an icon of The Great Commission in which Christ, speaking to his disciples just before his Ascension into heaven, commands them to take his gospel to the nations (Matthew 28:19-20).

The rest of the large mural icons in our nave include Christ welcoming Children, Sts. Peter & Paul and St. Photini the Samaritan woman, all missionaries and martyrs of the apostolic period, Sts. Cyril & Methodius, missionaries of the 9th century to the Slavic nations of eastern and northern Europe, St. Kosmas Aitolos, missionary/evangelist of the 18th century in the Balkan nations. On the back wall we have smaller portable icons of various saints and events from the life of Christ. We place each icon on a stand in front of the nave on the feast day of that particular saint. The Orthodox faithful commemorate the saint in liturgical hymns and prayers which mention his/her virtues and outstanding Christian qualities worthy of emulation. Orthodox Christians venerate (not worship) icons by standing before them, making the sign of the cross and kissing them as a gesture of pious respect.

In the front of the Church you notice a large icon screen called The Iconostas. It stands between the nave and altar of the sanctuary and contains the principle persons of our faith. The doors in the center, called The Royal Doors, include two pillars of the Church, Sts. Peter and Paul. The Icon of Christ the Lord always appears in the first panel to the right as you face the iconostas. The Icon of Mother of God (Virgin Mary), also called The Theotokos (Birth-Giver of God), always appears first to the left. She is honored first among saints by Orthodox as the mother of the Savior. To the right of Christ is the Icon of John the Baptist, whom Jesus described as the greatest of all the prophets and saints (Matthew 11:11).

The second icon to the left is the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary Icon, representing the name of our parish Church. In each parish the Icon of the Patron Saint or Feast of the Church is placed here. On the two doors on the north and south sides of the iconostas, our parish has included the Archangels Michael and Gabriel. Processions of alter servers and clergy will exit and enter the altar from these doors during services. Notice the series of six smaller icons at the top of the iconostas. These portray the life of Christ as follows from left to right: His Birth, His Presentation to the Temple at 40 Days, His Baptism, His Transfiguration, His Crucifixion, and His Resurrection.

The large mural icon in the apse behind the altar is called The Platytera. It portrays the Theotokos (Birth-Giver of God), the Virgin Mary holding the child Jesus in her bosom. This prominently displayed icon emphasizes the incarnation, God becoming a man through a woman and the Holy Spirit. It does not intend to extol the Virgin Mary alone. The birth of Jesus the Christ becomes the connecting link between God and humans, between heaven and earth symbolized by the ceiling and floor of the sanctuary. The unique event of the Incarnation eradicates the barrier of sin which kept God and humans separated ever since the Fall (Original or Ancestral Sin).

To your right in front of the iconostas is the Cantor's Stand. Each Orthodox Church has a cantor, who chants responses during services. The Cantor may have one or several assistants. Next is the Bishop's Throne. When the Bishop (known as the Metropolitan) of the district (known as a Metropolis) visits the parish, he stands here as a sign of his pastoral leadership and authority. Every parish priest serves under the bishop of the metropolis with his blessing.

The pulpit stands to the left. The celebrating clergyman normally preaches the sermon from here.

The stained glass windows of our nave contain symbols of seven mysteries (sacraments) which include Baptism, Chrismation (Confirmation), Confession, Communion, obligatory for an Orthodox Christian, and the three optional ones of Marriage, Holy Unction or Healing, and Ordination.

In order to get a more personal understanding of the Orthodox faith and its worship, we invite you to come to the Divine Liturgy any Sunday at 10:00 AM.

Thank you for listening and God bless you.