What to expect when visiting an Orthodox church…
We consider visitors a blessing, and it gives us real joy to welcome you. Because Orthodox Christianity is unfamiliar to most people in this area, here are a few thoughts to help you know what to expect.
We are a small congregation but we try to faithfully uphold the traditions of Orthodox worship as fully as possible. 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, which remind us that we are participating on earth in the worship of the angels and saints in heaven. Virtually the entire service is sung, at St Elias mostly to Byzantine chants and melodies. No organ or other instruments are used. The words are all from Scripture or ancient Christian texts – no rhyming metrical hymns are used. All of our services are in English and Greek with some Arabic, Russian, and Spanish.
Body Worship – Orthodox worship with their bodies as well as with words, so 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. There is no reason to feel self-conscious or embarrassed about “not fitting in.”
Holy Communion (The Lord’s Supper) – Partaking of the Holy Gifts is understood as a sign of membership in the Church and of commitment to the Orthodox Faith, so it is not given to those who are not members of the Orthodox Church. (We invite you to become a member — see below.) In fact, Orthodox should not receive Holy Communion 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 beforehand so he will know they are communicants; just ask a member to send word to him. Members of other religious bodies should not approach for Holy Communion.
Standing (and kneeling) are the Biblical postures for prayer and Orthodox traditionally stand at Sunday services. When visiting, wear comfortable shoes. Even then, for most people, this much standing takes some “getting in shape”, so feel free to sit as much as you wish. We should have enough seats that those who wish to sit can do so, but feel free even to sit on the floor (as many parishioners will) if there is no chair handy. We don’t normally kneel on Sundays, as Sunday is the Day of Resurrection and kneeling is considered penitential; we kneel a good bit at weekday services during Lent. Non-Orthodox visitors are not expected to kneel.
Visitors Welcome – you will not be publicly introduced or called attention to. Orthodox try to keep personal interactions to a minimum during the services, so it may be that no one will greet you until the service is over. After Sunday services we have refreshments in the basement of the church. Please join us there so we can get to know each other. No one will put any pressure on you to join the Church; many people “visit” our Church for years.
The Divine Liturgy – The normal Sunday morning service is called the Divine Liturgy. With sermon, it lasts about an hour and a half, a bit longer during Lent. It includes:
– Responsive 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 dedicated to the Resurrection, and the hymn 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 offering of bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood. It concludes with the Our Father (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, even infants, receive because God’s work in us is not limited to what we can understand intellectually. Faith is a matter of the heart, not just of the mind.
The Hours – You may arrive before the announced 9:30 a.m. starting time and find there is already a service in progress. You are not late, nor did we start early. Divine Liturgy is preceded by a brief service called The Third Hour, which is sung daily in monasteries. Its purpose is like the quiet organ music that precedes worship in many other communities – it helps people meditate and get into the proper frame of mind for worship.
Vespers – The normal Saturday Evening Service is called Great Vespers. It lasts about 45 minutes. It is a preparation for, not a substitute for, worship at the Sunday Liturgy. It consists mainly of singing of Psalms, especially Psalms 104 and 141, the “evening offering” of incense, and the hymns O Gladsome Light and Lord, Now Lettest (Luke 2:29). It has themes of Creation and Resurrection as the “eve” of the Day of Resurrection, the first day of the week. Most of the year at All Saints, we also have a regular Wednesday evening Daily Vespers, similar to Great Vespers, but more subdued and less festive.
Frequently Asked Questions:
What does “Theotokos” mean? Theotokos (Mother of God) is a title for the Virgin Mary. Orthodox love and honor (but do not worship) her because of our union with her Son. The attention given her in the Church also expresses our faith that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man – truly human and born of a woman as we are, yet existing from eternity as the Son and Word of the Father. Thus His human mother can also be called the Mother of God (Luke 1:35,43). In many hymns she is a sign of the Church as the beloved bride of God (Rev. 21:2); her exaltation as “more glorious than the Seraphim” is a sign of the exaltation awaiting all who “hear the Word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28) as she did.
What are Icons? Icons are paintings of Christ and the Saints. They must be painted according to a strict tradition because they are an important way the Faith is handed down and taught. Icons and crosses are kissed (“venerated”), but not worshipped, as a sign of our belief that in Christ God took a physical body, became part of our physical world so we could know Him. Other human beings who unite themselves with Christ become holy and the image of God becomes visible in them so we honor their icons, as well.
Incense, vestments, and candles were apart of Israel’s worship in the Tabernacle and Temple of the Old Testament (Exodus 28; 30:8); Leviticus 16). They carried over into the early Church and are even noted as part of the imagery of heavenly worship in the Book of Revelation (1:12; 8:3-4). In the Liturgy we participate 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 (John 1:4-5; 8:12; Matthew 5: 16).
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 so that they become rooted in our minds. They are chanted or sung rather than spoken so we are less conscious of the personality of the individual reader.
How Can I Join This Church? We don’t hurry anyone to join; many people “visit” for years. But after visiting a while, if you wish to be a member, speak to the priest. Those wishing to be members are received as catechumens (learners), and usually spend about a year attending the services and learning the Faith. Then if they have not already received Christian Baptism they are Baptized, and in any case are Chrismated (anointed with oil as the “Seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit”) and given Holy Communion, which makes them full members.
Adapted from the website of Holy Resurrection Church, Clinton, MS