Matina Koines, a freshman at Towson State College, is a Greek Orthodox, but many of her acquaintances confuse that with Orthodox Jewry.
"When I try to explain it by saying we're a Catholic Christian faith," said Matina, a member of St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Catheral here, "they think I mean Roman Catholic. They don't understand, but they are intrigued by our religion."
With their Old World ethnic influences and cherished religious traditions aimed at providing a living continuity with the ancient past, Eastern Orthodox Christian churches in the United States are proud of their distinctiveness.
"We want to be eternal first and contemporary second," explained the Rev. John Tavlarides, pastor of St. Sophia's at 36th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW.
Despite the subsequent emergence of Roman Catholicism and Portestantism.Orthodox Christians have attempted to preserve Christianity as they belive it was handed to them by the earliest Christians.
Thus, only by coincidence this year will they be observing Lent, which began last week and Easter on April 10 at the same time as other Christians.
The date of Orthodox Easter was set in 325 by decree that the observance should be scheduled on the Sunday immediately following the first full moon after the vernal equinox (the first day of spring) but after the Hebrew Passover, according to the Biblical sequence of events. The Western calendar used by other christians does not always place Easter after Passover.
On Feb. 27, the first Sunday in Lent, Orthodox Christians commemorated the "Triumph of Orthodox," marking the 9th century occasion restoring icons for spirtual use.
For more than a century, the lconoclasts, or icon-smashers who called the pictures of Christ, the Mother of God and the saints mere idols, warred with the icon venerators who claimed that the flat two-dimensional symbols were important visual aids in worship.
This Sunday, the halfway point through Lent, the Holy Cross will be raised before worshipers at church to admonish them not to be weary from the intensity of fasting and prayer expected of them during the 40-day per-Eater season. The cross will serve as a reminder that Christ died for their sins and that only through self-denial can they have a rewarding life.
Orthodoxy was brought to this country by immigrants of the last 100 years. By now some of the estimated 30,000 Orthodox Christians in the Washington area's Armenian, Russian, other Slavic, Greek, Egyptian and Arabic communities are fourth-generation Americans. They are part of the 6 million Orthodox faithful in the United States, a community twice the size of the longer established Episcopal Church.
Orthodox youth are searching for their cultural roots and encourage retention of ethnic traditions in their churches and family life, according to their priests.
"People want to know where they're from, even though we were Americans," said Demetri Spyropoulus, 17, a student at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda and a member of St. Sophia.
One-third of the 15 Orthodox churches in the metropolitan area are Greek Orthodox, the second largest contingent is the Arabic Syrian Orthodox community. While their liturgical languages, church architecture and some saints and festivals grow out of their own native cultures, the doctrines and religious practices of all Orthodoxy are identical.
Religion and family life are closely linked, particularly on the most important church festivals.
"There is great closeness in our homes, a great sharing of each other's joys and sorrows. We are not ashamed to demonstrate our emotions, and our sacramental life emphasizes this," said the Rev. Demetrios Kalaris, son of Greek and Italian Immigrants and pastor of Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church at 4115 16th St. NW.
"When there is a baptism for example, it's not a simple private affair but a festival, and the congregation joins in. This is where our Greek culture comes out. With everything we do, there is eating, drinking, merriment, joy and exulation," he said.
However, in the tiny Serbian community here, which is split into two churches like a few other Orthodox bodies because of the political differences associated with the Communist takeover of their European motherlands, the ethnic culture is in danger of dying out.
The Rev. Milan Zobenica is a middle-aged man who became a priest eight years ago out of a sense of duty to his floundering church and beloved heritage. He blames the problems on the "melting pot" nature of Washington, the divisions in the church that have scarred the faithful "like a divorce" and the current generation of immigrants who lost the habit of attending church while in Communist Yugoslavia.
"It's clear to me we have something of value, and I want to help perpetunte it," said Father Zobenica, pastor of the 60-family St. Luke Serbian Orthodox Church at 5917 16th St. NW. The other faction, also named St. Luke's meets at the Washington Catherdral.
In the three years Father Zobenica has been in Washington, he has moved his congregation into his own building and found Serbians "who were not aware of their own heritage."
The 15 Orthodox bodies in the United States are bound to hierarchies headquarters in Europe and the Middle East, but the Orthodox Church in America seperated from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1970 and officially became an independent entity.
In a recent address, Metropolitan Philip Saliba, head of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, called for the development of one autonomous Orthodox Church on this continent.
Currently, heads of major Orthodox denominations in the U.S. cooperate in the Standing Conference of Canonieal Orthodox Bishops and in some cities like Washington, Orthodox clergy meet regularly to discuss common concerns.
But only the Orthodox Church in America is independent of a mother church abroad, and even that body has not been officially recognized by the other major Orthodox churches.
Even at St. Mark Orthodox Church, 7124 River Rd., Bethesda, a completely English-speaking congregation, the unchanging quality of Orthodox is proudly guarded.
The Rev. Basil Summer, a former Lutheran pastor who converted to Orthodoxy, wears a black cassock as he travels about town. He has a closely trimmed beard. Until recently, most Orthodox priests wore beards to appeal like men of Jesus' time.
"We don't attempt to mke liturgies relevant," Father Summer said. "We don't change the liturgy for the young person, like having jazz masses. He'll come and say, 'I'm bored, Father.' I usually say, 'I'll give you a few years.' With his inflexibility, young people stay with us. They might drop out for a few years, but they come back."
Orthodox congregations gain converts mainly by intermarriage. They do not approve of proselytizing. Some people such as Father Summr are attracted to the faith in preference to the spiritual practices or from disaffection with the modernizing reforms in their own churches.
'So we feel Catholics and Protestants are wasting their times trying to be relevant," he said.
The Rt. Rev. Papken Varjabedian, an Armentian bishop originally from Jerusalem, said the younger generations in the two American churches here oppose any change to all-English language liturgies. "Even though they cannot speak, read or write it, they understand some Armenian and they want to keep it," Bishop Papken said.
To an outsider, the most striking characteristic of Orthodoxy is its attitude of antiquity in ritual customs and doctrimes observed in the early church. Included are triple imersion of infants in baptism, liturgies unchanged in 1,600 years, prohibition of women clergy since Jesus did not include womenn among his Twelve Apostles and houses of worship similar in many respects to Solomon's temple in ancient Jerusalem.
Orthodox worship contains a sense of mystery characteristic of Roman Catholic high masses as well as traits typical of Catholic masses until a decade ago - chants and prayers in an outmoded language led by a priest at the alter usually with his back to the people.
The churches, built in the form of crosses, are ornately adorned with gilded fixtures, marble, chandeliers, jewels and mosaics depicting as beautifully as possible an atmosphere of heaven on earth.
"Most Christians are wont to go to church and take their troubles," said Father Tavlarides whose congregation of its church to reproduce an 11th century classical Byzantine basilica.
In Orthodoxy it is different. We go to identify with Christ, put awayall worldly cares and meet the King of Glory," he said.