We welcome all who seek the fullness of God, and we are truly glad to welcome visitors to our Church. Since Orthodox Christianity is unfamiliar to most people in this area — it was new to many of us as well — we have written this to help you know what to expect.
What You Will Find
On Sunday morning we usually have around 30 people in Church, about a third of them children. The beauty of Orthodox worship must be experienced to be understood. The Divine Liturgy expresses the entire Christian faith in a continuous song of praise and prayer addressed to God. It is focused on God, not on us. There is nothing just for amusement or entertainment. Since much of the service is the same every week, worshippers know it and can participate personally, either by singing along or just by prayerful attention. Worshippers are surrounded by icons (pictures of Christ and the saints), which remind us that we are participating while on earth in the worship of all the angels and saints in heaven. The entire service (except for the sermon) is sung, mostly to chants and melodies of Russian origin. No organ or other instruments are used. The words are all from Scripture or ancient Christian texts — no rhyming metrical hymns are used. All our services are in the English language, with a few short parts done in languages of traditionally Orthodox cultures out of respect and gratitude for preserving the faith for 2000 years.
Participating in the Services
Body Worship. Orthodox worship with their bodies as well as with words. You will see that people at times bow, make the sign of the Cross, etc. If you are not Orthodox, of course no one expects you to do these things — just sit or stand and listen, and participate to the degree that you wish.
Communion is understood by Orthodox as a sign of membership in the Church and an act of commitment to the Church, so it is not given to non-Orthodox. In fact, Orthodox should not receive unless they have recently been to Confession and have eaten and drunk nothing since the night before. Orthodox who are not known to the priest should speak to him so he will know they are communicants; just ask a member to send word to him. The bread and wine at the side are not Communion, but are like a fellowship meal, called antidoron. This is frequently given to visitors as a gift out of love. The bread is blessed and set apart before communion and should be eaten reverently.
Children. We don’t segregate children during the services because we believe it is appropriate and beneficial for them to be in the services as much as possible. It may take a few visits, but young children can learn to settle down, and it’s surprising how much even toddlers absorb. It’s no problem if they move about quietly — we have a number of children ourselves and are used to some movement — but please be considerate and take them out briefly if they become very noisy, especially during the sermon.
Standing (and kneeling) are the Biblical postures for prayer and Orthodox traditionally stand at most services. But for most people this takes some “getting in shape”, so feel free to sit as much as you wish. We have enough seats for those who wish to sit. We don’t normally kneel on Sundays, as Sunday is the Day of Resurrection and kneeling is considered penitential; we do kneel a good bit at weekday services during Lent.
Visitors Welcome. Orthodox try not to talk during the services, so it may be that no one will greet you until the service is over. After Sunday services we have a fellowship coffee hour, a time of food and drink together; you’re invited to join us there so we can get to know each other. No one will put any pressure on you to join the Church if you are not interested in doing so.
The Divine Liturgy. The normal Sunday morning service is called the Divine Liturgy. With sermon, it lasts about an hour and a half. It includes:
- A series of petition prayers called litanies
- Praise, usually Psalms 103 and 147 and the Beatitudes (St. Matthew 5: 3-12)
- Procession with the Gospel Book
- Hymns of the day, on Sundays especially of the Resurrection, and a hymn to the Trinity: Holy God
- Epistle and Gospel readings and sermon
- The Great Entrance, a solemn procession carrying the Gifts of bread and wine to the altar, representing the offering of our lives to God
- The Nicene Creed, the summary of the Faith
- The Eucharistic Prayer. We “lift up our hearts” to join the angels in singing Holy, Holy, Holy and offering thanksgiving (Eucharist) to God for all His works, especially remembering Christ’s saving work, and asking the Holy Spirit to transform our Gifts into Christ’s Body and Blood. It concludes with the Lord’s Prayer.
- Communion: Orthodox who are prepared by repentance and fasting receive the Holy Gifts as a means of union with Christ. Our children receive because God’s work in us is not limited to what we can understand.
Incense, vestments, and candles are part of the imagery of heavenly worship in the Book of Revelation. In the Liturgy we participate while still in this world in the worship of the angels and saints in heaven. Many people buy candles and place them in the church as an offering of light to the Lord, who told us to let our light shine.
Standard prayers and hymns are used rather than extemporaneous or modern ones because they contain the accumulated insights of many centuries of Christians, and most of them are packed with Biblical quotations. They are repetitious because that way they become rooted in our hearts. They are chanted or sung rather than spoken so that our conversation with God would be uniquely special and that we are less conscious of the personality of the individual reader.
The Church Building and Worship
Normally an Orthodox Church is divided into three distinct parts: Narthex (entry way), Nave (main body) and Altar. The narthex symbolizes the created world, made and blessed by God in the beginning as “very good,” but now fallen and alienated from the Source of Life. The nave constitutes the Church Herself, the Mystical Body of Christ made up of Her members both past, present, and yet to come. The Altar area, joined to the nave by an icon screen (iconostasis ) shows the Kingdom of God—the Kingdom “to come,” but in Christ and the Church a Reality already accessible to the faithful. the west-to-east axis of the church building constitutes the progression of all Christian life: World -> Church -> Kingdom. Across the iconostasis there is also, on the north-to-south axis, another theme. The central, or “Royal” doors, lead from the nave to the Altar Table, the Throne of God. On the left (northern) side of these doors is an icon of the Incarnation, the first coming of Christ as a Child born of the Virgin Mary. On the right side of the Doors is an icon of Christ as He will appear on the “Last Day,” in glory. It is here between the first and second comings of Christ that the Church gathers and meets Him Who promised to be with us always. In front of the Royal Doors the faithful receive the Eucharist, partake of the Messianic Banquet to come even here and now, and are united to Christ. Before the Doors the two axes intersect—the world, Church, and Kingdom to come encounter the Lord Jesus Christ Who came, IS, and will come again.
Icons (Greek: image) on the walls of the church depict scenes from the Holy Gospel, Sacred Church history, or Saints. Icons are also placed on stands in the church for veneration by the faithful. Icons are not merely decorative art. They are neither subjective nor sentimental, but a window into the spiritual world. Veneration is not to the paint or wood of an icon but to that other world from which shines Christ Himself, the “light that lightens every man that comes into the world” (John 1).
Candles are used extensively in Orthodox worship, on the Altar and by icons, signifying the light of Truth given by the One that illuminates the world with spiritual radiance. Candles are part of our offering to God, symbolizing our soul’s burning love for God and His Church. Pews are not traditionally found in Orthodox churches. We stand, as much as we are able, before the living God during Services as humble and reverent participants in worship and not mere observers.