By Fr. Peter Orfanakos

What are the Orders of the Holy Priesthood?

The Sacrament of the Holy Priesthood derives its origin from Christ, the great High Priest, Who was "holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens... a minister in the sanctuary which is set up not by man but by the Lord." (Hebrews 7:26, 8:2) Christ as the heavenly High Priest offered Himself as a sacrifice on the Cross "for all," and conferred His priesthood upon His Apostles. (John 20:21-23, Matthew 28:19-20, Mark 16:15-18, Acts 2:33)

From the Apostles the office of the Priesthood passed on in an unbroken chain to the first clergymen whom they ordained, and through them to their successors. This is called Apostolic succession and it is fundamental teaching in the Orthodox Church because only through it can the clergymen receive the authority to become real representatives of Christ and the Apostles of the Church.

As successors of the Apostles and representatives of Christ in His Church, clergymen continue the work of Jesus. They teach the word of God; offer the Holy Eucharist and administer the other sacraments; they govern the Church and take care of the spiritual needs of the members of their congregations.

The Bishop

There are three orders of the Priesthood: the order of the Bishop, of the Priest and of the Deacon. The first and highest order of Priesthood belongs to the Bishop (the Episcopos). The name Episcopos was given to the successors of the Apostles (Acts 20:28; 1 Timothy 3:1-2; Titus 1:7) and means "Overseer." He is also called the Archpriest or Archierefs, which distinguishes him as being chief over the priests of a specific territory.

All bishops are equal among themselves as they hold the same degree of priesthood, but there are grades in their titles, depending on their administrative power. For instance, the title of Metropolitan is given to a bishop of a great or capital city. The title of Archbishop is given to the chief or first among the bishops of a large area. The title of Patriarch is given to the chief among the Bishops.

The Priest

The second order of the Holy Priesthood is occupied by the Priest. The priest is in charge of a community which he spiritually serves. He administers all the sacraments with the exception of the Sacrament of Holy Ordination, and celebrates all the church services with the exception of the ceremony connected with the consecration of a church. He leads the community in prayer and blesses them in the name of the Lord.

The Deacon

The Deacon holds the third order of the Priesthood. The word Deacon (Diakonos) means "assisstant," (Matthew 20:26; Acts 6:1-7) and he assists the bishop or the priest in the celebration of the sacraments and church services. During services the Deacon recites the litanies, the Gospel readings and other prayers and assists the celebrant bishop or priest in the sanctuary.

The Origin of the Sacred Vestments

In the Early Church, clergymen wore the same kind of garments when celebrating the church services as those worn by other people of that time. Even then however, there was a feeling that the garments of the celebrant clergy should be distinguished in some way from those of the laos (people). The feeling of reverence demanded that the garments of the celebrants should be festive, preferably white in color (a symbol of holiness and purity) and that they be decorated with crosses to distinguish them from ordinary garments.

In the course of time, the fashions of the garments of people changed, but the garments of the celebrants remained unaltered and took on a symbolic meaning. They distinguished the officiating clergymen from the laymen and at the same time reminded them all that the celebrants "are not of the world" (John 17:16) but participants of Christ's glory (John 17:22-24) clothed in the robes and the grace of the Holy Spirit.