Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Faith Works 4-22-06
Jeff Gill

Beyond Easter

So, Easter’s over, right?
Not for much of Christendom, which celebrates the "season of Easter" right through Pentecost, which isn’t ‘til June 4 this year.
I say "much" of the Christian landscape, not only because a number of Protestant Christian bodies don’t pay much attention to liturgical calendars, but there is one major branch of Christianity that hasn’t even had Easter yet!
In the Orthodox Christian world, Easter is tomorrow (so their Pentecost is June 11). One of the differences between Eastern and Western Christendom is how they date the observance of Easter, and who tells them that decision.
Before diving into the roots of that variation, let me announce a small proposal. Through the "season of Easter," for Christians and anyone who lives among and around us – that should cover everyone, shouldn’t it? – I’m going to try to do a brief series of columns explaining the different branches or denominations of Christianity, and where they come from. These questions come up in conversation and my e-mailbag fairly often, and I hope this will be of interest to many, if not most.
Stepping back into the heart of the story, it should be noted that Christians represent a sort of Jewish heresy, if you will. Jesus and the early church (read the first few chapters of the book of Acts in the New Testament) lived and worked and worshiped in the context of Second Temple Judaism, among Pharisees and Saducees and Essenes just for starters among competing schools of thought in Jerusalem. The relationship between Jewish followers of "the Way" and Gentile (or everyone else) followers marked much of the first century development in what was first called in Antioch, now Syria, "Christian."
Roman officials saw Christian groups as Jewish sectarians, and treated them that way for some years, but by the time of Emperor Nero, it was handy to give this group their own standing, if only to blame them for burning down Rome and burning them in retailiation.
For the next two centuries, Christians worshiping in house churches (Google "Dura-Europos" for some interesting sidelights) and in catacombs, or underground cemeteries, had to avoid both Roman officials who wanted them to worship Caesar, and Jewish authorities who wanted to make it clear they weren’t responsible for these illegal sectarians.
What we now call Eastern versus Western Christianity is often known in this country as an ethnic church. Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox or Serbian Orthodox groups tend to look like national churches, but big-O "Orthodoxy" as the biggest group in the Eastern branch of the Christendom has more in common than language and culture.
Most Orthodox churches today will claim that their liturgy, or "order of worship," ties them back closer to the church of the apostles than any other group. Their distinctiveness does go back to the years following 325 AD, and the Roman Emperor Constantine, who wanted to secure the eastern half of his empire by moving the capital, at least in part, to the city of Byzantium which he re-named Constantinople. Just like an emperor, huh?
At this point, Christianity had spread throughout (and beyond) the borders of the Roman Empire, and what Constantine didn’t think he could govern in one piece as an empire probably was going to be challenging as a religious body. Back in Rome, the traditions around the leader, or bishop of Rome as the primary leader in the church went back to Peter’s location in the imperial capitol and his and Paul’s death there in Nero’s persecutions.
But Constantinople, newly named and with a new imperial court, had long acknowledged a patriarch, or revered leader in Byzantium, who now had the formal title "Patriarch of Constantinople." The man in this office is, to this day 1700 years later, considered "primus inter pares," or first among equals with fellow patriarchs and metropolitans in the Orthodox Christian community. Much of the robing and ritual in Orthodoxy echoes the formal dress and court rituals of the eastern Roman empire, which it has now long survived.
We’ll touch lightly on Orthodoxy in America towards the end of this series, but next week we’ll return to Rome, and look at the development of Roman, western Christianity, known in this country as the Roman Catholic Church.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; contact him through