Holy Tradition

The Orthodox Church is often referred to as a "traditional" church. Many people associate this description with food festivals, cultural clothing, and liturgical languages. In fact, there is a significant and crucial distinction between these aspects of culture and what we in the Orthodox Church refer to as "Holy Tradition."

Holy Tradition is the faith taught by our Lord Jesus to His disciples and passed down in the church from one generation to the next without change. It consists of the core tenets of faith that were preserved in the church primarily by their passing down to the leadership of the church through "Apostolic succession". One generation of leaders maintain and teach the faith, being sure to pass it down to the next generation without addition, subtraction or change.

Many coming from Protestant (especially evangelical) backgrounds believe that Tradition as described here stands in contrast to the Holy Bible, which they regard as the sole and supreme authority in doctrinal matters. In fact, however, the Bible itself speaks about Tradition many times. For example, St. Luke appeals to Tradition in writing his New Testament Gospel:

Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed. (Lk 1:1-4)

We see here in this passage that St. Luke's desire is to write down the oral traditions the disciples of Christ have been teaching.

St. Paul also appeals to Holy Tradition when he says to the Thessalonians:


So then, brothers, stand firm, and cling to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter. 2 Thessalonians 2:15


The sight and smell of incense is one of the defining characteristics of liturgical worship in the Orthodox Church. Many view the use of incense and censers as something that existed in the Old Testament as a symbol and is now unnecessary, but the Bible is very clear that incense is an acceptable and beautiful tool to use in worship.


It goes without saying that incense played a very large role in Old Testament worship. The Lord commanded Moses to make an altar to burn incense on (Exodus 30:1) and gave specific instructions on how the incense was to be made and when it was to be offered. 


In the book of Malachi, we see a prophecy concerning the continuation of the use of incense in worship that goes beyond Jewish prayers: "For from the rising of the sun, even to its goign down, My name shall be great among the Gentiles; in every place incense shall be offered to My name, and a pure offering; for My name shall be great among the nations" (Mal 1:11). This prophecy is fulfilled in the offering of incense by Christians, among whom the vast majority were Gentiles. 


There are also examples in the New Testament regarding the use of incense. In the book of Revelation we read about the 24 priests who, "fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls of incense, which are the prayers of the saints" (Rev. 8:3,4).


In addition, we see that the Magi bring frankincense as a gift to Christ at His birth. This symbolized His role as the great High Priest.


In general, incense has the benefit of being a source of contemplation for those who attend the service. Children may not understand the sermon or have the attention span necessary to benefit from all of the liturgical prayers, but can still be effected through the smelling and seeing of incense. For them as well as us, seeing and smelling incense immediately puts us in a spiritual mindset. Our prayers and souls rise up to God in the heavens as the incense rises to the ceiling of the church.


"Let my prayer be set before you as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice" (Ps. 141:2).


In both the Old and New Testament, fasting is not only seen practiced but commanded of God's people. In the Orthodox church, we have several periods in the year in which we fast, most notably the fast of Lent before the Feast of the Resurrection, and the fast that precedes the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas). 


In doing this, the Orthodox Church is following the traditions set down in the Holy Bible regarding fasting. While many Christian denominations believe in and profess the importance of fasting, scheduled communal fasts have all but disappeared from the majority of faiths. In doing so, the argument is made that Christ commanded those who fast to fast in secret, and so fasting is something that should be done only on an individual level according to the desires and needs of the person alone.


However, the fact that fasting should not be done in a hypocritical showy manner, does not negate communal fasting. It is the same principle as when our Lord Jesus commanded prayer and charity to also be done in secret. Despite this command, we do not see anything wrong in praying together in Church. In the New Testament, we see that the disciples, "Raised their voice to God with one accord" (Acts 4:24). Was their prayer in violation of Christ's command to pray in secret? By the same token, while individuals may fast from time to time, this does not negate a general fast shared by the community of believers.


In the Coptic tradition there are two levels of fasting depending on the season:

  1. Completely vegan fast (as in Lent, Jonah's Fast, and Wednesdays and Fridays)

  2. Vegan fast with fish permitted (as in the Nativity Fast, Apostles' Fast, and St. Mary's Fast)


In addition to a change in what is eaten, there should be a period of abstaining from food and drink entirely for a part of the day as the individual is able and under the guidance of his or her spiritual father


Each member of the church is expected to keep the fasts as they are able, with the guidance of their spiritual father. The very young and sick are typically exempted from fasting.


Fasting is one tool that is available to us that allows us to learn the virtue of discipline and self-sacrifice. In the same way we are able to deny ourselves of certain types of food for a period of time,