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The Orthodox View

Church claims unique link with the early Christians

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Most people have a feel for the word "unorthodox." It means unconventional, non-conforming, something done in a different way.

The word "orthodox" is a bit thornier, however.

This Sunday, for instance, many "Orthodox" Catholics will celebrate the visit of the wise men to the manger, while members of the Greek Orthodox Church will celebrate the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan.

Catholics will exchange gifts.

The Orthodox faithful will take holy water home to bless their families.

Both churches trace their roots to early Christianity. But Father John Kaloudis of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Salt Lake City, who respects all religions, believes the roots of the Eastern Orthodox Church run a little bit deeper than others.

"The word 'orthodox' means 'right worship,' " he says. "It's a Greek word. And as a church we claim to have a connection with the early Christian church that is unique. We have the same doctrines, worship services and ethical teachings as early Christians."

Indeed, during the first century, Greece was a hotbed of Christianity. The apostle Paul taught in Corinth and wrote letters to the Corinthians. He did the same with the Ephesians and the Thessalonians.

"From the beginning, there was a strong, vibrant church in Greece," says Father John. "The New Testament was written in Greek because it was a common language."

Also from the beginning, stress fractures began to show in Christianity between its eastern and western branches. For many years, five bishops governed the affairs of the entire church. As Rome gained power and prestige, however, so did the bishop of Rome — the pope. And in the year 1054, there came a "Great Schism." The eastern church split from the western church and went its own way. The eastern church chose Constantinople (now Istanbul) as its core city, the western church — Roman Catholic — chose Rome.

In time, each branch of Christianity would developed its own unique traditions, practices and canon of saints.

"We were two brothers who didn't know each other," says Father John.

Today, there are many distinctions between the Roman Catholic Church and Greek Orthodox Church. Some are superficial — such as the number of cross-bars depicted on the cross and the way believers make the sign of that cross. Other differences, however, are more profound.

Greek Orthodox priests may marry, for instance. Roman priests may not.

The Greek Orthodox Church does not accept the supremacy of the pope and has a different concept of the Holy Trinity.

There is also a difference in the use of icons, or "aids for worship."

The use of icons, in fact, may be the most distinguishing trait of Orthodox churches in Greece, Russia, Bulgaria and other countries.

Icons — in Eastern Church vocabulary — are conventional religious images, usually pictures of Jesus or the saints, that are painted on small wooden panels and other surfaces. Orthodox believers use them to help focus their prayers and to teach religious truths by illustration rather than words. Russian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox churches are famous for the skill and spirit of their iconographic paintings. Some icons are pirated from churches and sold on the black market.

"We believe that icons were used in the early church," says Father John. "I've taken groups of people to the Holy Land and visited a 2nd century church there. On the wall are drawings, like icons."

Some people think the Eastern Church worships the icons, but Father John is quick to point our they are not magic. But some extraordinary occurrences — such as weeping icons — have been documented.

"For us," says Father John. "Icons are windows to heaven."

In recent years there have been attempts to pull the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches closer together. In many ways, they are very much alike. In other ways, however, they remain worlds apart. And so far, attempts at reconciliation have proven the truth of the old adage: "East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet."

Salt Lake City has several Orthodox churches, including the Holy Trinity Cathedral and Prophet Elias Church on Highland Drive. There are also Greek churches in Ogden and Price. For information call 328-9681.

E-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com