Orthodox Rites of Passage
The term Rites of Passage is an expression used to indicate the traditions, customs and religious practices one experiences as they progress from the cradle to the grave.
The Orthodox Church teaches that a foetus is a person created in the image and likeness of God, as he/she has been given the divine spark of life and is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, the Orthodox Church recognises that abortions are contrary to God's Law and a form of murder.
The Orthodox Church rejects the modern concept that a woman is master (or mistress) of her own body and can do with it as she pleases. Hence, not only abortion, but also suicide are forbidden and seen as grave sins. In pregnancy, a woman does everything possible to ensure that her mental and physical state are healthy for the sake of her unborn child. But, it is also important that she ensures that her spiritual state is healthy, by regularly attending Confession and receiving Holy Communion. An unborn child receives more than nourishment from its mother, it also partakes of Divine Grace from its parents, which will generally sustain it until the child is born and receives the Grace of Baptism and Chrismation.
Should a child die in utero, it is important for the mother to contact her priest for counselling. On the fortieth day special prayers will be said so that the mother may return to the congregation and receive the Sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion.
When a child is born, there are specific prayers for the mother and child, to protect them both from evil whilst the child grows and the mother recovers her health. It is important to contact the priest on the day the child is born, so that he may come to the hospital to read these prayers.
On the eighth day (the first day is the day the child is born), it is customary for the child to be brought to church and the prayers of naming the child are read. Usually the grandmother will bring the child, as the mother is still recovering from delivery and not expected to attend the church until after a forty day period. The practice of the grandmother bringing the child permits the expression of continuity from one generation to the other, and involves the grandparents in a tangible and positive way, on this most important of family occasions. Should there be no grandmothers then one should seek advice from their priest.
On, or about, the fortieth day, the child is brought to church to be baptised. Certainly, if the child is unwell it may be advisable to baptise him/her before the fortieth day. Indeed, in cases of dire emergency, there is a special shortened form of baptism which can be performed immediately after a child is delivered, should this be necessary. However, it is not a sound idea, nor spiritually beneficial, to put off a child's baptism because of any secular considerations. In preparing for Holy Baptism only the spiritual well-being of the child should be a consideration.
Another important aspect of Baptism is the proper selection of godparents. A child's parents need to consider that godparents, called sponsors during the service, are given so that the child may have responsible adults to assist in the spiritual development of the child. Consequently, the appointment of non-Orthodox godparents, or young children not yet mature in their faith, is a nonsense, as neither of these groups can fulfil the obligations required of Orthodox godparents towards their Orthodox godchild. Those who accept the privilege of becoming godparents, need to be mindful, that they will answer to God Himself for how they discharge their spiritual duties.
In the parish of Our Lady's Dormition, baptisms are usually performed on Saturdays, so that the newly baptised and chrismated child may receive its first Communion the next day, at the Sunday liturgy. This is a joyous occasion for the whole parish, for the mother is greeted at the doors of the church by the priest and the prayers for the Churching of Women are read. Then the child is taken to the sanctuary to be presented to the Lord. A boy is carried into the sanctuary whilst a girl is brought to the ambo. When the prayers are completed the child is placed on the ambo for the mother to pick up and bring to Holy Communion first, before the rest of the communicants. The rest of the congregation who have witnessed the rite, then congratulate the mother and child as members of the Body of Christ on Earth. On this occasion the mother is strongly urged to prepare herself for Confession and Holy Communion so as to partake together with her child in the Divine Mysteries.
A child is considered not to be responsible for its sins up to the age of seven years. After the child's seventh birthday, the child should attend Confession prior to receiving Holy Communion. However, as each child matures at its own rate, there will be occasions when a child may be too immature for Confession even at the age of seven years, or on the other hand, be ready for Confession before their seventh birthday. In such cases, parents should discuss the matter with their priest, so that the child is brought to understand and love the Sacrament of Confession, when it is appropriate for the child.
It is important to note that the preparation of a child for Confession differs little from the preparation any Orthodox Christian should undertake when wishing to be reconciled with God. Prayer, fasting and self-examination are key elements of the cleansing process which brings a person to Confession. Following the formal process of confessing one's sins, the penitent must make a commitment to improving one's life and striving to live according to God's Will. Confession without commitment does not reconcile one to God but becomes a travesty of the sacrament. In the case of children, it is the sacred duty of the parents, and godparents, to prepare them for self examination of their sins and repentance.
As the child grows, he/she should be encouraged to participate in the life of the Church and the parish. Boys should be encouraged to serve at the altar or sing in the choir. Girls should also be encouraged to sing in the choir or join in the duties of the parish sisterhood. It is important for children to see church life as a regular and integral part of their lives, and not simply as a Sunday, once a week, activity. Parish schools, youth conferences, Bible study groups and other Orthodox youth organisations all work towards instilling in young people a sense of belonging to the Orthodox Church and living according to God's Will. Furthermore, parents need to read to their children, and encourage them to read for themselves, so as to continually develop their relationship with God and spiritual things.
Young people should be actively encouraged to regularly participate in the Sacraments and have a daily rule of prayer. The best form of encouragement is always parental example. Parents need to remember that the spiritual seeds they plant in their children at a young age, although to all appearances seem to have been forgotten during the teenage years, will come to fruition when their children are grown and have need to teach their own children. The important thing is not to ignore their spiritual growth, but gently remind them of their Christian obligations.
Before young people decide to marry, they need to seriously consider the implications of marriage. All marriages will have a period of adjustment and stress, and mixed marriages, whether because of faith or nationality, have their own obstacles and these should be addressed and agreed upon well in advance of any permanent commitment to each other. Marriage, in the Orthodox Church, is not a social contract but a sacrament, which unites two individuals into one being, based on an indissoluble bond of love.
There are many traditions and much symbolism associated with the wedding preparations and the marriage service itself. It is important to discuss the symbolic meaning of the service with the priest, so that one may be able to partake of this holy mystery at a deeper and more meaningful level.
The marriage service consists of two distinct parts: the Betrothal and the Crowning. The Betrothal service is conducted at the entrance to the church and culminates in the exchange of wedding rings. The bridal party then moves to the centre of the church where the Crowning is performed. This part of the service reminds one that marriage is a form of sacrifice, no less meaningful than the sacrifice of the martyrs, and that a good Christian marriage is pleasing to God and a genuine path to salvation.
Many believe, through ignorance, that the service of anointing the sick is a form of the Last Rites and a preparation for death. This is totally opposite to the true nature of the sacrament of healing. St James instructs that if one is sick, to call the presbyters (priests) of the Church to pray for us, and anoint the sick one with blessed oil and wine, for the healing of the soul and the body. Consequently, the Orthodox Church always seeks the Sacrament of Anointing the Sick as one of healing and not one of extreme unction.
The Orthodox Church is ever mindful of the spiritual state of the dying and has a number of prayers which assist the soul to pass from this world into God's care. First, and most important of all, is the necessity of ensuring that a priest is called to hear the last confession and administer Holy Communion to the dying. This singularly important moment, depends upon the family of the dying person making arrangements early enough for the priest to visit the person in question, whilst he/she is still able to communicate. If the dying person is beyond communicating, the priest will not be able to administer Holy Communion, but would generally read the Canon for the Departure of the Soul from the Body. If the person is already deceased when the priest arrives, then he will read the Canon After the Departure of the Soul from the Body. As it may not be possible for the family of the departed to be present at this time, it is important for the family to have a requiem (panikhida) sung in church, when the family is able to assemble. This service is referred to as the Panikhida of the First Day.
The burial service is usually conducted on the third day as the traditional teaching of the Church is that the soul leaves this world on the third day and commences its ascent to God. However, there may be circumstances when this is not possible and other arrangements may be made in consultation with the priest.
As a general rule, the Russian Orthodox Church does not conduct the burial service for suicides, cremations or non-Orthodox persons. However, there are exceptions to the general rule and each case is investigated on its own merits. If an exception is made, the exemption will be granted by the local bishop after all the facts of the individual case are placed before him by the parish priest. One should not be reticent to speak to the priest about any extenuating circumstances which may effect the possibility of a loved one receiving a Christian burial.
Traditionally, the Church celebrates a panikhida for the deceased on the ninth day, when it is said that the soul has finally reached the Throne of God. According to the teaching of St Basil the New and the Blessed Theodora, about the Trials of the Toll Houses, the ninth day also marks the beginning of the period of weighing up of one's sins and virtues, which continues until the fortieth day. On the fortieth day, tradition teaches that the soul receives its conditional judgement which remains in place until the Great Day of Judgement at the end of time. Consequently, the Church celebrates another panikhida for the repose of the soul of the departed beseeching God to be merciful to the departed and give them a place of spiritual comfort in His Presence.
A panikhida is then celebrated each year on the anniversary of the death of the loved one, as this day has now become their birthday in the Eternal Kingdom.
The Orthodox Church teaches that it is important to pray for the departed as this bring spiritual comfort to their soul. Furthermore, lighting a candle in church, or having the departed commemorated at the proskomedia (during the Divine liturgy) also brings great spiritual benefit. Finally, the giving of alms in memory of the dead, has traditionally been seen by the Church, as beneficial to both the donor, and to the one in whose name the alms are given.
These Rites of Passage are but a short summary of what all Russian Orthodox Christians should know about the important moments of their lives. This summary, whilst touching on all the Rites of Passage, is by no means exhaustive, as in different parishes various traditions and practices may apply. Imperial Russia, in which the Russian Orthodox Church grew for a thousand years, was so large, and encompassed some many varying traditions, peoples and customs, that clergy scattered throughout the world by the Russian Revolution of 1917, brought their local traditions with them, and applied them to parish life outside Russia. No one tradition is more right or wrong than another, provided that it conforms to the usage and canons of the Orthodox Church.
For your own enlightenment, please feel free to discuss the issues raised here with your parish priest.
Mitred Archpriest Michael Protopopov