Of the three main branches of Christianity, Catholicism and Protestantism are familiar to most Americans. They are so ubiquitous, in fact, that not everyone realizes that there is a third branch. Unless you live in select metropolitan areas, you may never have encountered Orthodox Christianity, the faith of many southern and eastern Europeans. The result of a schism with the original church, Orthodoxy is predominant among Greek, Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian and Ukrainian Christians, to name a few. With its strong Greek heritage and long history, the Orthodox Church exhibits a distinct mark of worship that sets it apart from Catholic and Protestant services. Here are some of the unique traditions of the Orthodox Church that you may not have known about.
An expanded Old Testament
The Bible has undergone many translations over the years. In the Orthodox Church, the position of Greek as the liturgical language allows the continued use of the Septuagint, a 3rd-century-BC translation of the Old Testament books. (The New Testament books, of course, were originally written in Greek.) The expansive nature of the Septuagint gives amateur and professional theologians something to talk about – it includes books that Jews, Protestants, and in some cases even Catholics consider it non-canonical. Many of these additional entries, which we know better as the Apocrypha, exist in the Catholic Bible, while a few select books are canonical only for the Orthodox Church.
Religion and art go hand in hand. As a state church of the Byzantine Empire, Orthodox art is uniquely Greek. This means a preference for mosaics, the elaborate patterns of small inlaid stones and rocks that form a larger picture. Just as elaborate stained glass windows and Renaissance murals are arguably the hallmark art of the Catholic Church, mosaics fulfill this same role in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
How is the Orthodox Church organized? Does it feature the definite descending hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, or is it a looser confederation of groups closer to Protestant denominations? The answer is somewhere in the middle. One of the unique traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church is its commitment to meet its members wherever they are. What we call the âOrthodox Churchâ is a group of related but individually led organizations: the Greek Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, and so on. The appropriate Greek term for this organizational structure is autocephalous: each church having its own leader, all being on an equal footing, although it is the Patriarch of Constantinople who is the first among his equals.