Frequently Asked Questions

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Index to Questions

What Is Orthodoxy?

Q: “What is Orthodoxy?” How do you describe it without starting a lecture? (i.e. Orthodoxy in 5 sentences or less).

A: Essentially, you could begin with this:

  • The Christian Church which grew up in the eastern parts of the Roman Empire came to be called the Eastern Orthodox Church — especially after the split between the Roman Catholic West and the Byzantine East.
  • Orthodoxy is also the term for the Christian community which, in all humility we are thankful to admit, has maintained correct worship and belief — (“ortho” means “right” or “correct” and “doxos” means “praise” as well as “doctrine”).
  • That is to say, the Christian community which has not added anything unnecessary or deleted anything necessary in its essential world view and way of life and witness.
  • The Orthodox Churches consist of 15 autocephalous (self-governing) local bodies throughout the world, all in communion and constant communication with each other, and all sharing the same dogmatic beliefs, spelled-out in the 4 th century Nicene/Constantinopolitan Creed.
  • Finally, Orthodox Christianity has defined itself as the church community which has continued to preserve the Life of the Holy Spirit within it throughout time (since 33 A.D.) and throughout the world (all over the globe) — not in a wooden or petrified manner, but in a dynamic, living and vital way that (in its life and witness, its liturgy and worship) expresses Heaven on Earth.

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Date of Easter

Q: “Why do we have Easter at a different time than everybody else? People think it’s weird that we celebrate Easter at a different time than everyone else, and I’m not quite sure I know the whole calendar deal well enough to really explain it to them.”

A: The date of the celebration of Easter was defined by the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in the year 325 A.D. The regulations of the First Ecumenical Council concerning the calculation of the date of Easter were handed down to us by the Council of Antioch in 341 A.D. We can, reconstruct the elements of the decision of the first ecumenical council on Pascha in the following way:

  1. “That Easter must always be celebrated on a Sunday.”
  2. “That Easter must never be celebrated on the same day as the Jewish Passover.”
  3. “That Easter should never be celebrated on or before the vernal (spring) equinox of any year.”

It should also be noted that Cyril the Patriarch of Alexandria, in his Paschal Circular, stated: “The Ecumenical Council unanimously voted that the Church of Alexandria, because of its noted astronomers. would announce to the Church of Rome every year the date of Easter, and Rome in turn would announce it to the other Churches.”

As for the variation in Paschal dates between Eastern and Western Christians, this occurs solely upon the difference between the calendars that they use: the Julian for the Eastern Church’s Pascha (the so-called “old style”) and the Gregorian for the Western Church’s Pascha (“new style”).

It can be assumed that one century after the First Ecumenical Council (325 AD) an agreement was reached throughout the Christian world on the time for celebrating Pascha.

Tables for calculating the Paschal date were prepared based on the calendar in use at that time, and Paschal dates were expressed according to the Julian calendar in conjunction with its March 21st date as the date of the vernal equinox). The Eastern Church used the so-called Paschalia compiled in approximately the Sixth century. This Paschalia remains in use in the Eastern Church even to this day.

Thus Pascha was celebrated throughout the Christian Church more or less simultaneously until 1583 AD when the calendar reform of Pope Gregory XIII took place in the West. By then, it had been observed for some time that the Julian calendar had fallen behind the solar time by approximately one day every 128 years and by the end of the Sixteenth century this lagging behind amounted to ten days since the time of the First Ecumenical Council in 325 AD.

According to the calendar, the actual vernal equinox no longer took place on the 21st of March but on the 11th. As a result of this calendar reform (more precisely, its correction or adjustment) all calendar dates were moved forward by ten days (Friday October 4 was followed by Saturday the 15th).

But we in the Christian east use the Julian Calendar for the Palchalion — including the uncorrected designation of the spring equinox, whereas the Western Christian world uses the Gregorian Calendar for the Paschalion — including the corrected designation for the spring equinox.

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Standing in Church

Q: “Why do we have to stand throughout the entire service?”

A: We stand as a way of showing our respect in the presence of God, Who is very much present and the focal point of our liturgical worship. When the President enters for the State of the Union Address, everybody stands. When a judge enters the courtroom, everybody stands. In the “old days” we used to stand when a teacher entered the classroom. Standing is simply our way of honoring the One in Whose presence we find ourselves during church services. There are other times when we kneel (i.e., make full prostration) or even sit (especially for the Old Testament Lessons or even readings from the Psalms), but in prayer at Liturgy, we stand.

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Long Services

Q: “Why are the church services so long?”

A: Our services are not really long, when you realize just what it is that we do. We gather, we chant psalms, we pray, we proclaim / hear the Scriptures, we hear the homily, we pray some more, we offer our gifts to God, we receive the Holy Communion, we give thanks, we are dismissed. That’s a lot. To squeeze that much in in less than 90 minutes would really be pushing it. Quality activity takes time.

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Incense in Church

Q: “Why do we use incense?”

A: At Vespers, we chant “Let my prayer arise in Your sight as incense, and the lifting-up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.” (Ps. 141:2) This comes from the manner of worship that God had ordered to be made in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness and the Temple in Jerusalem (Exod. 37:25-29) In the Book of Revelation, incense is likened to the prayer of the saints rising to the Throne of God. (5:8) Smoke is also a symbol for the very presence of God. (Exod. 19:16-20)

We cense the Gospel Book on the altar, we cense the altar, then the icons and frescoes in the sanctuary, we cense the icons in the church, and finally, we cense the faithful. This is a means of honoring them all.

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Noninstrumental Music

Q: “Why doesn’t the choir sing anything modern, and why are there no instruments?”

A: Most of our hymnography comes from the Bible itself. Or at least hymns that are based on biblical language and images. Some of these hymns go back 3,000 years, others were written during the first and second centuries after the Resurrection of the Savior.

We have hymnography that has been composed every century since then. We even have hymns that were composed and appointed to be sung only within the past decade — for new feasts and commemorations. But the language and style are traditional. As for the melodies, some of them go back very early, whereas others are written in our own days.

The human voice is the “instrument” that God Himself created. Many Orthodox believe that this is the instrument that best suits our worship of God. There are some Orthodox churches which employ an organ, but this is not as common as the more ancient tradition of a cappella singing. Ethiopian, Eretrian and Coptic churches employ drums, rattles and little symbols in their services.

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Book of Revelation

Q: “What is the meaning of the book of Revelation? Was there a reason why it was written so cryptically and metaphorically?”

A: The Book of Revelation is also called the Apocalypse — which means that which has been revealed or disclosed. It is traditionally considered to be the work of the Lord’s apostle who later wrote the fourth gospel and the letters. There was a certain hesitation on the part of the early Church to include the book of Revelation in the New Testament. The reason for this was the great difficulty of interpreting the symbols of the book. Nevertheless, since the document carried the name of the apostle John, and since it was inspired by the Holy Spirit for the instruction and edification of the Church, it came to be the included in the Bible, although it is never read liturgically in the Orthodox Church.

It is very difficult to interpret the book of Revelation, especially if one is unfamiliar with the images and symbols of the apocalyptic writings of the Old Testament. There exists, however, a traditional approach to the interpretation of the book within the Church which offers insight into its meaning for us. No matter how bleak or horrible things can get; no matter how much the devil seems to be in control of world events; no matter how much we seem to feel abandoned by God — in the end, “The kingdoms of the world have become the kingdom of our God and of His Christ, and He shall reign unto the ages of ages.” (Apoc. 11:15) Ultimately apocalyptic literature is given by God to assure His people that despite the way things look, He is Almighty.

The image of Babylon stands for every society which fights against God, every body of persons united in wickedness and fleshliness. The image of harlotry universally applies as well to all who are corrupted by their passions and lusts, unfaithful to God Who has made them and loves them.

The symbolic numerology also remains constant, with the number 666 (13:18), for example, symbolizing total depravity, unlike 7 which is the symbol of fullness; and the number 144,000 (14:3) being the symbol of total completion and the full number of the saved, the result of the multiplication of 12 times 12 — the number of the tribes of Israel and the apostles of Christ. Thus, through the images of the book of Revelation, a depth of penetration into universal spiritual realities is disclosed which is greater than any particular earthly reality.

The insight into the meaning of the book depends on the inspiration of God and the purity of heart of those who have eyes to see and ears to hear and minds willing and able to understand. But why the obscure symbolism? It is usually considered to be a language which many in the Church could recognize (though not fully understand), but could not be recognized (and not understood at all) by the Roman Empire and Roman authorities, who were the focal point of many of the criticisms and charges found in the text. Babylon equals Rome and this world; the Beasts equal the Roman Emperor and those with him who were in the service of Satan; etc.

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Romance before Marriage

Q: “What does our church teach about boyfriends and girlfriends and what is appropriate behavior?”

A: Human persons are sexual beings: male and female. The sexual character of human persons has a positive role to play in human spirituality. Like all things human, the expression of one’s sexuality must be sanctioned by God and inspired with the Holy Spirit, used for the purposes God has intended.

St. Paul writes, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? … Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (I Cor. 6:13-20)

The teaching of St. Paul about sexuality is similar to his teaching about eating and drinking and all bodily functions. They are given by God for spiritual reasons to be used for His glory. In themselves they are holy and pure. When misused or adored as an end in themselves, they become the instruments of sin and death.

Thus, according to the revelation of God, sexual relations are holy and pure only within the community of marriage, with the ideal relationship being that between one man and one woman forever. That is why those who are not married and those who choose by the will of God not to marry must abstain from all sexual relations.

And like all things human, through its misuse and abuse, sexuality can be perverted and corrupted, becoming an instrument of sin rather than the means for glorifying God and fulfilling oneself as made in His image, and according to His likeness.

Concerning appropriate behavior, the best thing to do is to talk with your priest, talk with your boyfriend or girlfriend and then set mutually-agreed upon guidelines that you intend to follow. Peer pressure is very powerful. But God’s grace is much more powerful — in fact it can be all-powerful, if we work with God.

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Q: “Why can’t we eat meat on certain days or during certain months? Why can’t we have breakfast before church on Sundays?

A: Orthodox Christians abstain and fast on Wednesday in remembrance of the betrayal of Christ and on Fridays in remembrance of His crucifixion and death. In Matthew’s Gospel, Christ says, “When you fast do not be like the hypocrites,” which indicates that the Jews fasted — it also indicates that Christ assumes that one fasts, for He says “when you fast” not “if you fast.”

Fasting and abstinence are not something that only developed alongside Christianity; rather, it is a practice that had been followed by the Jews, and even Scripture mentions that Christ fasted. The purpose of fasting is not to “give up” things, nor to do something “sacrificial.”

The purpose of fasting is to learn discipline, to gain control of those things that are indeed within our control but that we so often allow to control us. In our culture food dominates the lives of many people. We have eating disorders, diets galore, weight loss pills, liposuction treatments, stomach stapling — all sorts of things that proceed out of the fact that we often allow food to control us. We fast in order to discipline ourselves, to regain control of those things that we have allowed to get out of control. Giving up chocolate — unless one is controlled by chocolate — is not fasting. Further, as we sing during the first week of Great Lent, “while fasting from food, let us also fast from our passions.”

By fasting we place ourselves in the Hands of God and let Him take control of our lives. We also fast and abstain before receiving Holy Communion as a means of preparing ourselves to feast at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb of God and partake of His Body and Blood. Finally, we fast on certain days or during certain seasons as a means of disciplining and preparing ourselves for the upcoming feast (Christmas, Theophany, Pascha, etc.).

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Orthodox Knowledge of the Bible

Q: “You Orthodox don’t seem to know the Bible very well. Don’t you read it? Don’t you learn about it in Sunday School? I bet you can’t even tell me who the 12 patriarchs are or the 12 apostles?

A: Orthodox Christians have always known theirs to be a “biblical Church.” The Bible plays a key role in every aspect of our life, from personal meditation to the public Liturgy. Although we hear it in church all the time, it is true that we more often venerate the Bible than read it.

The Bible is “inspired” by the Holy Spirit. Although it is written in human language, with human limitations, it is God’s Word in the sense that the biblical authors were guided in their writing to convey all that is necessary for us to “know” God and to enter into eternal communion with Him. Taking up the Word of God, we truly read by the power and grace of God Himself, who desires all of us to hear His voice and respond to it with faith and with love.

The Bible is God’s living Word addressed personally to each of us. To be nourished by it as we can be, we need to take it off the shelf or coffee table, dust it off, open it up, and read. Every time we do, we can experience God Himself speaking to us: in our own language but with His power, wisdom and healing grace. As for the 12 patriarchs or the 12 apostles, well, lists that give those are easy to look up if you have a concordance.

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Creation and Evolution

Q: “Do you believe that God created the world in 6 days? Do you believe in evolution?

A: We believe that God did in fact create the world in 6 days — the Creation account in Genesis affirms this. However, we would also affirm that the word “day” in Genesis, Chapter One indicates much more than a 24-hour day. The word “day” in the Bible can mean a thousand years; a long (and indefinite) period of time; an aeon; an age.

So we do not state that God created the world in the space of just under a week as we know a week. He might have. He might not have. It doesn’t really matter anyway. The main point of the creation story is that God created everything that exists out of nothing — not the exact amount of time that it took.

If by evolution you refer to the theories and teachings of Charles Darwin, the Orthodox Church surely does not subscribe to evolution in any manner. Orthodoxy firmly believes that God is the Creator of all things and that human beings, created in the image and likeness of God, are unique among all created beings.

At the same time Orthodoxy is not literalist in its understanding of the accounts of creation in Genesis. There are writings by Orthodox Christians which attempt to balance the creation accounts of Genesis with a certain ongoing — evolutionary, if you will — process which, on the one hand, affirms that while humans may have evolved physically under the direction and guidance and plan of the Creator, their souls could not have evolved any more than the powers of reasoning, speaking, or the ability to act creatively could have simply evolved.

In such a scenario the Creator intervened by breathing His Spirit into man and giving him life, as stated in Genesis. Such thinking, however, while admitting the possibility that the Creator guided a process of physical evolution, is not identical with the theories of Charles Darwin, which implies that man’s soul also evolved and denies the active participation on the part of the Creator.

In short, then, Orthodoxy absolutely affirms that God is the Creator and Author of all things, that He is actively engaged with His creation, and that He desires to restore His creation to full communion with Himself through the saving death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. This, unlike Darwinism, is not a matter of ideology but, rather, a matter of theology. Orthodoxy has no problem with evolution as a scientific theory, only with evolution — as some people may view it — eliminating the need for God as Creator of All.

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Q: “Why do we call our ministers “priests”? Catholic priests can’t get married. Our clergy can. And aren’t priests the pagan guys who worship Apollo or Hindu gods and goddesses?

A: The word that is used in the New Testament for the council of elders in a Christian community is “presbyter” (1 Tim. 5:17; James 5:14; Rev. 4:4). This is one of the three-fold orders of the ministry as we know it today. Middle English for “presbyter” is “prester” and we get the word “priest” as a modern version of that. The term “priest” as applied to Greek, Roman and Hindu religion is different than the concept of “presbyter” or elder.

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Virgin Mary

Q: “Why do you worship the Virgin Mary? You have a big picture of her right up front in your church. You pray to her and sing hymns to her a lot. Christians are supposed to worship only God.

A: We worship only God — the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Bible makes that commandment very clear. (Exod. 20:2-6) We do affirm that the Mother of God the Word is “more honorable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious that the seraphim” — whose womb is more spacious than the heavens because it contained Him Whom nothing could contain.

Because the Virgin Mary was called “full of grace” by the Archangel Gabriel (Luke 1:28) and “most blessed among all women” by her kinswoman Elizabeth (Lk. 1:42), we also consider her in this light. Her will was in synch with God’s and for this she is honored by the faithful for her vital role in the Incarnation of the Savior. The fresco in the apse of the church depicts the Christ Child on His mother’s lap — affirming the Incarnation.

But if one were to look directly above, if standing in the nave of the church, one would see the great fresco of Christ All-sovereign, Pantokrator — the image of the invisible God. There we depict the One Who receives our worship. Worship is not the same thing as veneration, honor or respect.

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Q: “Why do we have icons, and why do we kiss them and bow before them? Isn’t that what the Bible calls idolatry?

A: It has been said that icons are like windows into the Kingdom of Heaven. Now, even though they are made of wood, pigment, and perhaps gold leaf — and thus solid, not being able to be seen through — they do depict something of the Kingdom.

They depict the transcendent realm; the decisive moments when God entered into cosmic history; the holy men, women and children who were themselves transparent to the Kingdom. Far from being realistic “snapshots,” icons are supposed to present a spiritual, transcendent and therefore (ever)lasting reality. Icons are our family picture gallery: they depict that great “cloud of witnesses” that surround us (Hebrews 12:1) As with any family, a picture or an article of clothing or something used by a love one is considered to be very dear.

Our veneration of the icon is essentially an act of thanksgiving or devotion that passes through the icon and goes to the prototype (say, for example St. Nicholas or the Virgin Mary) but even through them to the Ultimate Prototype, God Himself. We bow ourselves down in humility before many different “things:” Before the icons; before the Mysteries of Holy Communion; before the Holy Cross; before the Book of the Gospels; even before each other — as bearing the image and likeness of God. St. John of Damascus once wrote that he bows down not before material things, but rather, he bows down in worship of the One Who created matter and Who even became a physical being for our salvation.

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Why Is Church so Boring?

Q: “Why is it that when we are in church we stand all the time without saying or singing anything? My friends say that at their church they sing and stand and sit and kneel in church. They say that it looks like we aren’t really worshipping, but just standing there, bored and not really getting in to the service.

A: Our worship is quite active. Not simply passive at all. We stand. We prostrate or kneel. We move in procession. We should be attentively listening to the words that are being chanted by the choir, the clergy, or the readers.

There are many times when we are also encouraged to voice our prayers and praises along with those who are leading the chanting. We can chant the responses to the Litanies; the liturgical dialogues between clergy and faithful; the Creed (Symbol of the Faith); the refrains and psalm verses; the Lord’s Prayer; the “Amens;” etc. If you choose to remain silent, that is up to you, but an active participation in our worship is anything but “just standing there.”

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Q: “My Protestant friends pray together a lot. They get in a circle and sometimes hold hands and take turns praying for each other, themselves, etc. I feel kind of uncomfortable when they ask me to join them because I’m not used to praying in the first place, and when I do pray, I don’t pray like that. Why don’t we pray like them? They don’t’ seem to pray like us — I mean, like The Our Father and other prayers we use.

A: There is nothing to prevent us from praying with other Orthodox Christians in an informal manner (i.e., by extemporizing and bringing before God various needs and concerns). But this is only one of many types of prayer. There is the formal kind, where a Prayerbook or the Psalms can be used — individually or wherever two or three are gathered in Christ’s Name. There is the more formal liturgical (i.e., during worship in church) form of prayer.

There is individual, contemplative or meditative prayer where we use no words but rather simply remain still and at peace in the Presence of God. Prayer can be thanksgiving, intercession on behalf of others, petition for ourselves, etc. Most of the time, however, many Orthodox rely on the set texts of prayers (such as the Our Father, “O Lord and Master of my life…,” “O Heavenly King,” and the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”) as the primary means of praying. But simply to sit quietly, reflecting on a passage from the Bible or an event in your life is also prayer.

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Q: “Why do we have to confess to a priest?

A: In the early Church, one confessed one’s sins in the presence of the entire faith community. When this became impractical, it was the priest who “stood in” for the community, as its presiding officer and as its witness to the penitent’s repentance.

Of course we can confess directly to God — even a casual reading of the daily prayers reveals that we should do this – but we often find that we need help and advice in overcoming the very things we have confessed.

We do not confess “to” the priest; rather, we confess to God “in the presence of” the priest who, as the prayer before Confession clearly states, is God’s “witness” and who, having witnessed our confession of sins offers pastoral advice on how we can better our lives and overcome the very things we confess. Just as one would not attempt to diagnose, much less cure, one’s own physical ailments, so too one should not attempt to diagnose, much less cure, one’s own spiritual ailments.

We confess in the presence of the priest to acknowledge that our sins, whether we wish to accept it or not, affect the entire faith community on the one hand, and that we cannot “heal ourselves” on the other. The priest is there to help us overcome those things for which we seek forgiveness, to give advice that a friend or neighbor might not be in a position to give, and to bear witness on behalf of the faith community, of which he is the spiritual father, that we have indeed repented and been forgiven by God.

When we refuse to confess what we have done, we commit a second sin — a sin of pride, by which we are unwilling to acknowledge what we have done to another person, often justifying this by thinking, “Well, I didn’t really hurt anyone.” We also sin by thinking that we are “pulling the wool over” God’s eyes, which we cannot do. He knows our hearts and He alone judges the sincerity of our repentance — and a key element in genuine repentance is acknowledging to God and to others that we are indeed sinners.

So continue to ask God daily for forgiveness, but please do not overlook the need everyone has — including priests! — to seek guidance and direction in overcoming sin. And never forget that, if it true that God often heals the physically ill by guiding the hands of a surgeon, He also heals the spiritually ill by guiding the words and advice of a priest.

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One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church

Q: “Why do we say “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” in the Nicene Creed?

A: The Church is one because God the Father, God the Son and the Holy Spirit are one — though three separate Persons, they are one God; one divinity. There can only be one Church and not many. And this one Church, because its unity depends on the Holy Trinity, may never be broken. Thus, according to Orthodox doctrine, the Church is indivisible. The Savior prayed to His Father, “May they be one, as You, Father, are in me and I in you…” (John 17:11)

The Church is holy because God is holy, and because Christ and the Holy Spirit are holy. The holiness of the Church comes from God. The members of the Church are holy to the extent that they live in communion with God. In the Church, people participate in God’s holiness. Sin and error separate them from this divine holiness as it does from the divine unity. Thus, the earthly members and institutions of the Church cannot be identified as such with the Church as holy. The faith and life of the Church can be affirmed as “holy” only because of God’s presence and action in them.

The Church is also catholic because of its relation to God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. The word catholic means full, complete, whole, all-embracing, with nothing lacking. (The Latin word “catholicos” means “universal” but the Greek word “Katholon” means “according to the whole” — a different emphasis: one of quality rather than quantity.) God alone is full and total reality; in God alone is there nothing lacking.

The word apostolic describes that which has a mission, that which has “been sent” to accomplish a task. Christ Himself chose and sent His apostles. “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you … receive the Holy Spirit,” the risen Christ says to His disciples. Thus, the apostles go out to the world, becoming the first foundation of the Christian Church. The Church in its earthly members is itself sent by God to bear witness to His Kingdom, to keep His word and to do His will and His works in this world.

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