Orthodox Christianity

Yesterday was the Orthodox Christmas. It took place two weeks after the ‘Western’ Christmas because the Orthodox Church has never adopted the Gregorian calendar. This is not surprising since the Orthodox Church has never accepted the supremacy of the Pope, so why should it have adopted Pope Gregory’s calendar?

The Orthodox Church is the second largest Christian communion in the world (after Roman Catholicism). Orthodox Christianity originated in the former Byzantine Empire: the Eastern Mediterranean, Asia Minor (now Turkey), Greece, the Levant (Syria, Israel, Lebanon), North Africa and the Balkans. Many people do not know that the Middle East and North Africa used to be Christian before the conquests of the Arabs in the 7th century AD. The Byzantine Empire managed to hold on to Asia Minor for another 300 years but in 1071 it lost the battle of Manzikert against the Seljuq Turks and with it the control over most of what is now Turkey. While some Orthodox congregations remain in the Middle East, Orthodox Christianity is now mainly concentrated in the Balkans, Greece, the Ukraine and Russia.

An amusing anecdote on how the Kievan Rus’, a loose federation of Slavonic tribes regarded by many people in today’s Russia, Ukraine and Belarus as their ancestors, adopted Orthodox Christianity still survives. The Byzantines had sent some missionaries to the Rus’ in the 9th century AD but their efforts apparently failed because sources describe the Rus’ as still rooted in paganism in the 10th century. By the late 980s, however, the leader of the Rus’, Prince Vladimir, decided that it was necessary to adopt a monotheistic religion. He met with representative from several religions. After meeting with Muslims, Vladimir found Islam unsuitable because it outlaws alcoholic drinks. Vladimir is supposed to have said:

“Drinking is the joy of the Rus’, we cannot go without it.”

He also consulted with Jews but rejected their religion, saying that their loss of Jerusalem was evidence of their having been abandoned by God. In 987, Vladimir sent out envoys to study the religions of various countries whose representatives had been urging him to adopt their faiths. In the gloomy churches of the Germans his emissaries saw no beauty; but at Hagia Sophia, the great cathedral of Constantinople, where the full festival ritual of the Byzantine Church was set in motion to impress them, they found their ideal. After their return, they told Vladimir:

“We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth, nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it.”

Other sources say that geopolitical reasons were more important. Vladimir wanted to marry an imperial princess from the Byzantine Empire to strengthen his ties to Constantinople. As a condition for the marriage, he had to adopt Orthodox Christianity. Be that as it may (as my history professor used to say), the Rus’ adopted Orthodox Christianity.

After Vladimir’s baptism, he led the residents of his capital Kiev to the river Dnieper for baptism. This mass baptism became the inaugural event in the Christianization of what later became the Ukraine and Russia. The place of Vladimir’s baptism is now marked by St Vladimir’s Cathedral.

The Baptism of Kievans by Klavdiy Lebedev