THE BASICS OF ORTHODOX CHRISTIANITY
FASTS OF THE ORTHODOX CHURCH
Fasts are established by the Church as a special time, separate from everyday, when a Christian makes a special effort for the cleansing of his soul and body, praying, repenting of his sins, administering the holy Christian Sacraments. A fast is considered abstention from non-Lenten foods: meat, milk, eggs, and sometimes fish.
Fasts are divided into one-day and multi-day fasts.
Multi-day fasts include The Great Fast or Lent, the Fast of the Apostles (known in Russian as Peter’s Fast), the Fast of the Repose of the Virgin Mary or Dormition Fast, and the Christmas Fast.
One-day fasts include the Wednesday and Friday fasts of (almost) every week in memory of the betrayal, the suffering and the death of the Savior.
There are, importantly, some weeks when there is no fast on Wednesday and Friday. This includes the week after Easter, which is treated as one long, bright day, and thus is known as Bright Week; Trinity Week, which is the week after the Descent of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost) until the Saturday before All Saints Sunday; the so-called Yuletide, that is the Afterfeast of the Nativity of Christ until Epiphany (except for the very last day before Epiphany, Epiphany Eve); the week between the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee and that of the Prodigal Son; and Shrovetide (known in Russian as maslenitsa or Cheese Week), which includes Shrove Tuesday (also known as Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday), during which meat is prohibited.
One-day fasts also include the Elevation of the Cross on September 27th, the fast on the day of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist on September 11th, and the Eve of Theophany on January 18th.
PRAYER AND REMEMBRANCE FOR THE DEPARTED
The Church has special maternal concern for the deceased among her flock, a concern equal whether one departed long ago or only recently, a concern equal for the simple layman as it is for kings and patriarchs. This concern corresponds to the teachings about the immortality of the soul, the Day of Judgment, and the Kingdom of Heaven. It is already beyond the power of departed souls to have an influence on their own fate, so only we, living on the earth, can help them at this point. Our prayers, both of the individual and of the Church collectively, our alms, our good works done for one or another of the departed, bring their souls peace and joy in the world beyond.
For collective Church prayers special days are established: Meatfare Saturday, the second, third and fourth Saturdays of the Great Fast, the Tuesday after Quasimodo, the Saturday preceding Pentecost, and St. Demetrius Saturday. Other than the Tuesday after Quasimodo, all these days are Saturdays.
For Church prayer for the departed, parishioners prepare church notes for a remembrance of the deceased. Besides that, offerings are prepared. As a rule, these are foods brought to the church beforehand. On the eve of the prayer, breads, fruits, candies and similar products are brought. One may also bring flour for the Holy Bread, candles or oil for the image-lamps. On the evening before the days of special prayer for the departed there is a night requiem – this is a mass for the repose of the souls. All the troparion, aposticha, singing and reading of the night requiem is consecrated to prayer for the departed.
On the morning of special prayer services for the deceased it is necessary to have a special liturgy for the repose of souls, during which all deceased Christians are remembered. After such liturgies there is a general last rites.
The Tuesday after Quasimodo is the Paschal day for the remembrance of the deceased. It is always the tenth day after Easter, on Tuesday of the second week of Easter. On the eve there is a requiem for the departed, and in the morning there is a liturgy and a general last rites. For regular prayers for the departed on this Tuesday there are added Paschal songs. On this day it is customary to visit the graves of relatives and friends; such visitation is not done on Easter.
Aside from those named, there are other special days. For the Beheading of St. John the Baptist on September 11th, military veterans who were killed at war or who died of their wounds are especially honored. On VE Day (May 9th) we also remember those killed in combat, those who died in hospitals or camps, or those who went missing in action during the days of the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is known in Russia.
All prayers for deceased souls are conducted for Orthodox Christians, that is for baptized people who did not depart this world for the next by their own hand. Those who commit suicide are not remembered in the Church, except for special occasions, about which one can inquire with the priest.
For the whole Universe the greatest holiday is Easter (Pascha) – Christ’s Resurrection. And, every Christian has his own, lesser Pascha. This is the day of remembrance for the Saint with whom the Christian shares a name. In the Church this is known as one’s Saint’s Day or one’s name-day.
Previously a person received a name from the Church at Baptism. It was selected not arbitrarily, but according to certain rules. Most often a child was named in honor of a saint, the remembrance of which occurred on his birthday or on the day he was named or baptized. For girls a displacement of several days was permitted for a remembrance of a woman saint. Under such circumstances, one’s birthday and name-day more often than not coincided and merged into one.
Under other circumstances a child was named based on a vow, in honor of a saint who was chosen beforehand and whose intercession was sought before the child came to be. Such Saints’ Days are noted on the day of remembrance for the saint, and if there are several such days for a given saint, then it falls on that day closest to the child’s birthday.
Nowadays many adults are baptized. How can these people find out what is the day of their namesake? It is necessary to search the church calendar for the closest name-day following their birthday for a saint with the same name. For example a man born in the beginning of July and named Peter would celebrate his name-day on July 12th, while one born at the end of December would celebrate it on January 3rd. If you for some reason have difficulty deciding this important question, consult with a priest.
A Saint’s Day should be passed as one of the Twelve Great Feast days. Even the most negligent Christians would always try to confess and take communion on their name-days (and it is worth recalling that if one’s name-day is on a day of fasting, then the festive celebration should be in accordance with the fasting rules).
What can one do if his conscience is bothering him? How should one be so one’s soul doesn’t pine away?
The Orthodox Church answers: One should do Penance. Penance is the detection of one’s own sin and the decision not to repeat it in the future.
We sin against God, against others and against ourselves. We sin in deed, word and even thought. We sin at the instigation of the devil, under the influence of the surrounding world, and by our own evil desire. “There is no person who lives on the earth and does not commit sin,” goes one prayer for the repose of the departed. But neither is there such a sin as God will not forgive if we repent of it. For the salvation of sinners God became a Man, was crucified and rose from the dead. The Holy Fathers compare the mercy of God with the vastness and depth of the sea, canceling the greatest debts of human lawlessness.
Every day in Orthodox Churches there is confession. It appears that the priest is receiving confession, but the reality is that the Lord Himself receives it, having given the Church’s pastors the authority to pardon sins. "May Our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, through the grace and bounties of His love towards mankind, forgive you all your transgressions. And I, an unworthy Priest, through the power given me by Him, forgive and absolve you from all yours sins," witnesses the priest.
At confession one should not justify oneself, complain about one’s status of life, hide one’s sins with nebulous phraseology such as “I sinned against the Sixth Commandment,” or converse off the topic at hand. One should confess all that the conscience and the Gospel accuse us of, and one should confess unabashedly; after all, it is the sin, not the confession, of which we should be ashamed. Not under any circumstances should we hide something; we can conceal something from the priest, but God sees all!
The Church considers serious, “capital” sins to be: murders, abortions, fighting, unfaithfulness to one’s spouse, fornication and sexual perversions, thefts, blasphemies, sacrilege, hatred of one’s neighbor and cursing him, sorcery and divination, turning for help to psychic “healers” and astrologers, drunkenness, smoking and drug use.
Less serious sins, however, are also detrimental to a person, and serve as a barrier on the road to the Kingdom of Heaven. “Little white lies” and smut can also lead to Hell.
If, while confessing something, we firmly intend to repeat this sin, the repentance has no meaning. You should never come to the sacrament in a state of dispute or serious irreconcilability with your neighbor, for, as Christ said: “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” (Matt 5:23-24) If that person has already died, you must fervently pray for the repose of his soul.
In certain circumstances the priest assigns the one confessing a penance – his own special spiritual medicine, aimed at rooting out the defect. This might be salutations, reading of canons or canticles, a more restricted fast, or a pilgrimage to a holy place, all based on the strength and ability of the one repenting. It is necessary to fulfill the penance with urgency, and only that priest who has imposed it can change it.
The reality of our day has brought the “common confession.” It consists of a priest himself naming the most widespread sins, and then praying a prayer of forgiveness over the sinner. Such a confession is only permitted to those who have no capital sin to confess. But even relatively well-behaving Christians should from time to time examine their souls with a detailed (individual) confession – at least once a month.
One is accountable for one’s sins from the age of seven years. One who is baptized as an adult has no need of penance for the time before Baptism.
ON THE SACRAMENT OF MATRIMONY
The sacrament of matrimony, marriage, is not bestowed on fasts, feast days, or the eve of fasts or feast days.
The sacrament of matrimony is not bestowed:
1) on the eve of a Wednesday or a Friday (that is, on a Tuesday or a Thursday), since that upcoming night is one of fasting; 2) on the Saturdays, since the celebrated night is already consecrated to God; 3) on the eve of Christmastide (December 25th to January 7th O.S., January 7th to January 20th N.S.); 4) during Shrovetide, beginning with Meatfare Saturday; 5) during Bright Week, the first seven days after Pascha (Easter); 6) on the day of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist or on the day of the Elevation of the Cross or on the eve of these days (the fast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist is on August 29th O.S. or September 11th N.S., and that of the Elevation of the Cross is on September 14th O.S. or September 27th N.S.) ; or 7) on any other fast days or feast days or the eve of such days, since Christian couples, by mutual agreement, abstain from conjugal relations at such times.
The sacrament of matrimony can be bestowed on a couple if one of the betrothed is not an Orthodox Christian, but solemnly swears to come to the Orthodox faith.
The unbaptized do not get married.
HOME – THE LESSER CHURCH
The family is often called the “home Church.” The Church for believing people begins in the church building when they take part in the Church Sacraments, but continues beyond the threshold of the church building after the service ends, especially among the Christian family. We could say that especially here, among our very closest friends and family we find out whether we are true Christians.
One is more open among those of one’s household than among those whom one is not well-acquainted, or even than among friends. It is often easier to determine what kind of a person one is by examining how his children have grown up and what kind of an environment exists among his family at home: what is most important to him, God or a passion for profit, the Church or a desire to dress fashionably and well, faith or a love of entertainment and diversion?
The home is the school of independent Christian devotion. In the church there is a general order and regulation, but at home a person establishes his own order and imposes his own regulation. The home is the sphere of self-education and self-consciousness. The home and family are the blessed kingdom of human love, in which are brought to maturity the best human virtues. The home is the complex spiritual field of interaction with relatives and with oneself, the school of the will and of the spirit.
RELATIONS WITHIN THE FAMILY
Among the commandments given to Moses by God on Mt. Sinai was the commandment to honor one’s parents. "Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee." (Ex. 20:12)
This commandment not only precludes dishonoring one’s parents, but it at once promises a reward for its fulfillment: prosperity and long life. Those who want to live long and happily need to honor their parents, and should avoid giving them offense or insult.
This commandment encompasses not only one’s mother and father, but also those who are senior in years or position: grandmothers and grandfathers, teachers, supervisors and bosses, and also priests and spiritual fathers. Honoring them is an ordinance of God. One must not justify oneself by saying that one’s parents or bosses are evil and not good, and that therefore the commandment of God should not apply to them. Our job is to do that which is commanded us; it is for this that we will receive our reward. Parents and bosses also have their obligations, commanded to them by God, for the fulfillment of which they will, in turn, be held accountable. But if they should not fulfill those obligations, or not fulfill them in a way that we think they should, that does not free us of our obligations regarding them.
Of course a person who is decent but weak-willed and spiritually lacking might leave the raising of his children, for example, to non-believing grandparents, justifying himself by his business and work. In such a case disappointment and even tragedy are inevitable. Raising children, housekeeping, and ordering the household in a Christian manner are all the general responsibility of a Christian couple.
The New Testament unequivocally tells us that the head of the Christian household should be the husband. He toils in the field of his household together with his helper (his wife), loving her as himself.
In the Holy Scripture the relationship between the husband and wife is compared to the relationship between Christ and the Church. “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it … This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.” (Eph 5:25, 32)
Marriage is a great act of creation of human personality through self-renouncement and unification with another. In marriage people must place boundaries on selfness and pride and join to their spouse for the sake of a general human integrity.
Every member of a family has within that family some duties. The Apostle Paul reminds children to honor their parents: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. Honour thy father and mother; which is the first commandment with promise; That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.” (Eph 6:1-3)
And parents have obligations of their own: “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” (Eph 6:4)
A genuinely good Christian can only be such a person who endeavors for his family to become a home Church.
A home Church is a family that a Christian builds with love, patience, effort and self-renouncement.
WHY DOES THE LORD PERMIT SICKNESS?
The Lord allows sickness, in the first place, because of sin: for its atonement, for the changing of immoral way of life, for the awareness of this immorality and an for understanding that life on earth is a short moment, after which comes eternity, and that what eternity shall be like for someone is based on that person’s life on earth.
Often, children suffer and are sick for the sins of their parents, in order for grief to destroy their thoughtless way of life, causing them to think and change, cleansing themselves from passions and faults.
We suffer sickness also for our humility and to prevent evil and disastrous deeds. Once Jesus Christ walked with His disciples, and the apostles saw a man legless from birth. He sat by the road and asked for alms. The disciples asked: “Why does he have no legs?” Christ answered: “If he had had legs, then fire and the sword would have followed him over the entire earth.”
Frequently the Lord wrenches us out of an accustomed way of life with a disease, saving us from serious trouble, a lesser unpleasantness taking the place of a greater one.
Many diseases are caused by the work of evil spirits. In this case the symptoms of demonic attacks are very similar to those of a natural disease. From the Gospel it is clear that a deformed woman who was healed by the Lord (Luke 13:11-26) suffered from the effect an evil spirit, which caused her infirmity. In such circumstances the medical crafts are powerless, and healing comes about only through the help of God, Who chases out the evil spirits.
The Christian attitude toward disease consists of a quiet acceptance of God’s will, a realization of one’s general sinfulness and of those specific sins, on account of which the disease was sent; the Christian attitude is one of repentance and changing of one’s lifestyle.
Prayer, fasting, almsgiving and other good works move the Lord, and He sends down to us healing. If we go to doctors, we still have to ask God’s blessing for the healing, trusting the doctors with the body but not with the soul.
WHEN WILL THE END OF THE WORLD COME?
In the fall of 1992, out of the blue, the not-so-quiet life of St. Petersburg was unusually interrupted. From the pages of newspapers, from the windows of streetcars, from other advertisements imposingly resounded the words: “October 28th is the Second Coming of Christ.” South Korean missionaries, firmly convinced of their own special omniscience, took upon themselves a “great” task: in roughly one month to convince an unenlightened Russia of the need to repent, forget earthly troubles, and await the end of the world.
The less time that remained until the declared date, the more charged with anticipation the atmosphere became. The fire was further fueled by all the swelling burdens of the first year of “reforms,” from which people wanted to escape to heaven, to the kingdom of the righteous. And then the day came….
The South Koreans were by far not the first to predict the exact date of the Second Coming. Such “prophets” quite regularly appear once or twice a century. They were present in old Russia, during the time of the great dissent, among the old-believers. At that time they predicted God’s Judgment for the year 1703, which, by a strange coincidence, was the year that St. Petersburg was founded. In the Twentieth Century the predictions started to come more often, especially with the appearance of the Seventh Day Adventists.
Tragic has been the fate of those people who believe the false prophets. The best case for them has often been disappointment and desperation, the worst case – suicide. Deceivers have collected “dividends” from their lies in the form of money and goods from those deceived – after all, who needs earthly riches if tomorrow is the end of the world?
Of course the South Korean missionaries turned out to be deceivers. On October 28th, 1992, the Lord did not come to judge the living and the dead. Instead of that, in order to excuse the panic they caused, the eastern soothsayers “put off” the date to… 2116 (with a calculation that, by that time, even the great-grandsons of the witnesses of this embarrassment would be dead).
A non-religious person, observing this story, could easily be left with the impression that “Judgment Day is an old wives’ tale”, and that the end of the world would never come, not even after a nuclear war.
But the Church teaches differently. The seventh part of the Creed goes: “I BELIEVE IN . . . one Lord Jesus Christ . . . Who . . . shall come again, with glory, to judge both the living and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end.” But the exact date of the Second Coming is hidden from the world. From the pages of the Gospel we hear our Savior’s words of caution: “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons” (Acts 1:7), “But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.” (Mark 13:32) Anyone who presumes to declare the day and year of the end of the world is a deceiver and an enemy of Orthodoxy.
In the face of this, however, the Lord did not leave us without indications of the time of the Final Judgment. He gave us signs by which it is possible to make a conclusion regarding the approach of the end times. Based on the words of Christ (Matt 24, Mark 13, Luke 21), the Apostle Paul (2 Thes 2) and St. John the Divine (Revelation), one can distinguish the following signs and precursors:
- the preaching of the Gospel throughout the world;
- the appearance of numerous false prophets, working a variety of “wonders” for the seduction of people, and false christs, passing themselves off as Christ;
- wars, great and small;
- the fall of society’s morals through the spread of lawlessness in the world;
- epidemics of diseases and earthquakes in the world;
- discord and religious strife, the appearance of those who openly curse the Church;
- a general exhaustion of people because of fear of coming disasters;
- a decline of love of one for another.
In completion of the disasters, before the Second Coming there will appear an Antichrist – an enemy of Christ and a complete contrast to Him (from Greek: “anti” = “against”). He will be elevated to the pinnacle of power and will unite under his dominion for three and one half years all nations and religions. The preparations for the appearance of the Antichrist, which will be completed in the world by the powers of darkness, the Apostle Paul called the “mystery of lawlessness.” The dominion of the Antichrist will be a time of great sorrows, and persecutions of the church previously unseen. The Lord will put an end to it, Who will come to earth “as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west” (Matt 24:27). Before the Second Coming there shall appear in the sky a Cross – a sign of God, seen by all. Then will be fulfilled the time of existence of our world, and will begin the eternal Kingdom of the Glory of God.
Are we close to the day of the Final Judgment? It is impossible to say for sure, but many signs of the end of the world are wholly or partially coming true before our eyes. But a devout ascetic of the Twentieth Century, the monk-priest Seraphim, answering this question, said: “It is already later than you think.”