First Visit to an Orthodox Church

Orthodox worship is different! Some of these differences are apparent, if perplexing, from the first moment you walk into a church. Others become noticeable only over time. Here is some information that may help you feel more at home in Orthodox worship—twelve things I wish I’d known before my first visit to an Orthodox church.

1. Arrival at the church… Am I late!?

During the early part of the service, the church may seem to be in a hubbub, with people walking up to the front of the church, praying in front of the iconostasis (the standing icons in front of the altar), kissing things and lighting candles, even though the service is already going on. In fact, when you came in the service was already going on, although the sign outside clearly said “Divine Liturgy, 9:00.” You felt embarrassed to apparently be late, but these people are even later, and they’re walking all around inside the church. What’s going on here?

In an Orthodox church there is only one Eucharistic service (Divine Liturgy) per Sunday, and it is preceded by the prayers of the Hours before that. There is no break between these services—one begins as soon as the previous ends, and posted starting times are just educated guesses. Altogether, the priest will be at the altar on Sunday morning for over three hours, “standing in the flame,” as one Orthodox priest put it.

As a result of this state of continuous flow, there is no point at which everyone is sitting quietly in a pew waiting for the entrance hymn to start, glancing at their watches approaching 9:00. Orthodox worshippers arrive at any point from the beginning of the Hours (around 8.30) through the early part of the Liturgy. No matter when people arrive, something is likely already going on, so Orthodox don’t let this hamper them from going through the private prayers appropriate to just entering a church. This is sometimes distracting to newcomers, and may even seem disrespectful, but you will soon begin to recognize it as an expression of a faith that is not merely formal but very personal. Of course, there is still no good excuse for showing up after 9:00, but punctuality is unfortunately one of the few virtues many Orthodox lack.

2. Um… Where do I sit?

In the Orthodox tradition, the faithful stand up for nearly the entire service. Really. There aren’t even any chairs, except a few scattered benches at the edges of the room for those who need them. If you find the amount of standing too challenging you’re welcome to take a seat. No one minds or probably even notices. Long-term standing gets easier with practice. Typically, everyone stands up during the Gospel reading, and during censings (then the priest or deacon walks around with incense).

3. What about all the crossing of oneself?

To say that we Orthodox make the sign of the cross frequently would be an understatement. We sign ourselves whenever the Trinity is invoked, whenever we venerate the cross or an icon, and on many other occasions in the course of the Liturgy. But people aren’t expected to do everything the exact same way. Some people cross themselves three times in a row, and some finish by touching the ground in a deep bow. On first entering a church people may come up to an icon, make a “metania”—crossing themselves and bowing with right hand to the floor—twice, then kiss the icon, then make one more metania. This becomes familiar with time, but at first it can seem like secret-handshake stuff that you are sure to get wrong. Don’t worry, you don’t have to follow suit - but you are more than welcome to!

We cross ourselves with our right hands from right to left (“push, not pull”), the opposite of Roman Catholics. We hold our hands in a prescribed way: thumb and first two fingertips pressed together, last two fingers pressed down to the palm. Here as elsewhere, the Orthodox impulse is to make everything we do reinforce the Faith. Do you see the symbolism? (Three fingers together for the Trinity; two fingers brought down to the palm for the two natures of Christ, and his coming down to earth.) This, too, takes practice. A beginner’s imprecise arrangement of fingers won’t get you kicked out!

4. What, no kneelers?

Generally, we don’t kneel. We do sometimes prostrate, especially during Great Lent. This is not like prostrations in the Roman Catholic tradition, lying out flat on the floor. To make a prostration we cross ourselves, kneel, place our hands on the floor and touch our foreheads down between our hands. At first prostration may feel embarrassing, but no one else is embarrassed, so again - don’t worry. (Ladies will quickly learn that full skirts are best for prostrations, as flat shoes are best for standing.)

Sometimes we do this and get right back up again, as during the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, which is used frequently during Lent. Other times we get down and stay there awhile, as during especially somber prayers.

However, not everyone are able to prostrate. Some kneel, some stand with head bowed. Standing there feeling awkward is all right too. No one will notice if you don’t prostrate. In Orthodoxy there is (perhaps surprisingly) a wider acceptance of individualized expressions of piety, rather than a sense that people are watching you and getting offended if you do it wrong.

5. What’s with all the kissing?

We kiss stuff. When we first come into the church, we kiss the icons (the feet or hands of the one depicted, typically). You’ll also notice that communicants kiss the chalice, some kiss the edge of the priest’s vestment as he passes by, the Altar servers kiss his hand when they give him the censer, and we all line up to kiss the cross and the priest’s hand at the end of the service. When we talk about “venerating” something we usually mean crossing ourselves and kissing it.

The usual greeting at the veneration of the Cross is “Christ is in our midst” and your response, “He is and ever shall be.” Don’t worry if you forget what to say. It happens to the best of us.

6. Blessed bread and Communion...

Only Orthodox may take Holy Communion, but anyone may have some of the blessed bread. Here’s how it works: the communion bread, baked by a parishioner, is imprinted with a seal. In the preparation service before the Liturgy, the priest cuts out a section of the bread and sets it aside; it is called the “Lamb.” The rest of the bread is cut up and placed in a large basket, and blessed by the priest.

During the Divine Liturgy, the Lamb is consecrated to be the Body of Christ, and the Chalice of wine is consecrated as His Blood. Here’s the surprising part: the priest places the “Lamb” in the chalice with the wine. When we receive Holy Communion, we file up to the priest, armes crossed in front of us, opening our mouths wide while he gives us a fragment of the wine-soaked bread from a golden spoon. He also prays over us, calling us by our Christian name which we chose when we were baptized.

As we file past the priest after taking Communion, we come to a table where an altar boy typically stand with the bowl of blessed bread. This blessed bread is also available after the service is over (following the veneration of the Cross), and you are welcome to partake of it. It is not Communion.

Visitors are sometimes offended that they are not allowed to receive Communion. Orthodox believe that receiving Holy Communion is broader than me-and-Jesus; it acknowledges faith in historic Orthodox Christian teaching, obedience to a particular Orthodox bishop, and a commitment to a particular Orthodox worshipping community. There’s nothing exclusive about this; everyone is invited to make this commitment to the Orthodox Church. But the Eucharist is the Church’s treasure, and it is reserved for those who have united themselves with the Church. An analogy could be to reserving marital relations until after the wedding.

We also handle the Eucharist with more gravity than many most other Christian groups do, further explaining why we guard it from common access. We believe it is truly the Body and Blood of Christ. We ourselves do not receive Communion unless we are making regular confession of our sins to a priest and are at peace with other communicants. We fast from all food and drink—yes, even a morning cup of coffee—from midnight the night before communion. We prepare through prayer before each Communion.

This leads to the general topic of fasting. When newcomers learn of the Orthodox practice, their usual reaction is, “You must be kidding.” We fast from meat, fish, dairy products, wine and olive oil nearly every Wednesday and Friday, and during four other periods during the year, the longest being Great Lent before Pascha (Easter). Altogether this adds up to nearly half the year. Here, as elsewhere, expect great variation. With the counsel of their priest, people do what they can to keep these fasts, both physically and spiritually. 

The important point is that the fast is not rigid rules that you break at grave risk, nor is it a punishment for sin. Fasting is exercise to stretch and strengthen us, medicine for our souls’ health. In consultation with your priest as your spiritual physician, you can arrive at a fasting practice that will stretch but not break you. Next year you may be ready for more. In fact, as time goes by, and as they experience the camaraderie of fasting together with a loving community, most people discover they start relishing the challenge.

7. Where’s the General Confession?

In our experience, we don’t have any general sins; they’re all quite specific. There is no complete confession-prayer in the Liturgy. Orthodox are expected to be making regular, private confession to their priest.

The role of the pastor is much more that of a spiritual father than it is in other Christian groups. He is not called by his first name alone, but referred to as “Father Firstname.” His wife also holds a special role as parish mother, and she gets a title too, though it varies from one culture to another: We tend to follow the Slavic practice and call her “Matushka”, which means “Mama.”

Another difference you may notice is in the Nicene Creed. If we are saying that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, and you from force of habit add, “and the Son,” you will be alone. The “filioque” (“…and the Son”) was added to the Creed some six hundred years after it was written, and we adhere to the original.

8. The Service is all sung…

Most of the service is congregational singing, led by the choir. Orthodox use no instruments in their worship. The style of music varies as well, from very Oriental-sounding solo chant in an Arabic church to more Western-sounding four-part harmony in a Russian church, with lots of variation in between.

This constant singing can be a little overwhelming at first; it feels like getting on the first step of an escalator and being carried along in a rush until you step off ninety minutes later. It has been fairly said that the Liturgy is one continuous song.

What keeps this from being exhausting is that it’s pretty much the same song every week. Relatively little changes from Sunday to Sunday; the same prayers and hymns appear in the same places, and before long you know it by heart. Then you fall into the presence of God in a way you never can when flipping from prayer book to bulletin to hymnal.

9. Why is the service so long?

Is there a concise way to say something? Can extra adjectives be deleted? Can the briskest, most pointed prose be boiled down one more time to a more refined level? Then it’s not Orthodox worship. If there’s a longer way to say something, the Orthodox will find it. In Orthodox worship, more is always more, in every area including prayer. When the priest or deacon intones, “Let us complete our prayer to the Lord,” expect to still be standing there fifteen minutes later.

The original Liturgy lasted something over five hours; those people must have burned with love for God! The Liturgy of St. Basil edited this down to about two and a half, and later (around 400 A.D.) the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom further reduced it to about one and a half. Most Sundays we use the St. John Chrysostom liturgy, although for some services (e.g., Sundays in Lent, Christmas Eve) we use the longer Liturgy of St. Basil.

10. What about the Virgin Mary?

A constant feature of Orthodox worship is veneration of the Virgin Mary, the “champion leader” of all Christians. We often address her as “Theotokos,” which means “She who gave birth to God.” In providing the physical means for the eternal God to become man, she made possible our salvation.

But though we honor her, as Scripture foretold (“All generations will call me blessed,” Luke 1:48), this doesn’t mean that we think she or any of the other saints have magical powers or are demi-gods. When we sing “Most Holy Theotokos, save us,” we don’t mean that she grants us eternal salvation, but that we seek her prayers for our protection and growth in faith. Just as we ask for each other’s prayers, we ask for the prayers of Mary and other saints as well. They’re not dead, after all, just departed to the other side. Icons surround us to remind us of all the saints who are joining us invisibly in worship.

11. The three doors

Every Orthodox church will have an iconostasis bin front of the Altar. “Iconostasis” means “icon-stand”, and it can be as simple as a large image of Christ on the right and a corresponding image of the Virgin and Child on the left. In a more established church, the iconostasis is usually a literal wall, adorned with icons.

The iconostasis has three doors. The central one, in front of the Altar Table itself, is called the “Holy Doors” or “Royal Doors,” because there the King of Glory comes out to the congregation in the reading of the Gospel and in Holy Communion. Only the priest and deacons use the Holy Doors.

The openings on the other sides of the icons, if there is a complete iconostasis, have doors with icons of angels; they are termed the “Deacon Doors.” Altar servers and others with business behind the Altar use these, although no one is to go through any of the doors without an appropriate reason. Altar service—priests, deacons, altar boys—is restricted to males (but only those with special permission, not all males). Females are invited to participate in every other area of church life. Their contribution has been honored equally with men’s since the days of the martyrs; you can’t look at an Orthodox Altar without seeing Mary and other holy women. In most Orthodox churches, women do everything else men do (with the proper blessing): lead congregational singing, paint icons, teach classes, read during services, and serve on the parish council.

12. What about all the ethnicities? Where do I, as an American, fit in?

Searching online you might see a multiplicity of Orthodox churches in a larger city: Greek, Russian, Romanian, Antiochian, Serbian, OCA, and on and on. Is Orthodoxy really so tribal? Do these divisions represent theological squabbles and schisms? Not at all. All these Orthodox churches are one Church. The ethnic designation refers to what is called the parish’s “jurisdiction” and identifies which bishops hold authority there. There are about 6 million Orthodox in North America and 250 million in the world, making Orthodoxy the second-largest Christian communion.

The astonishing thing about this ethnic multiplicity is its theological and moral unity. Orthodox throughout the world hold unanimously to the fundamental Christian doctrines taught by the Apostles and handed down by their successors, the bishops, throughout the centuries. One could attribute this unity to historical accident. We would attribute it to the Holy Spirit.

Why then the multiplicity of ethnic churches? These national designations obviously represent geographic realities. Since North America is also a geographic unity, one day we will likewise have a unified national church—an American Orthodox Church. This was the original plan, but due to a number of complicated historical factors, it didn’t happen that way. Instead, each ethnic group of Orthodox immigrating to this country developed its own church structure. This multiplication of Orthodox jurisdictions is a temporary aberration and much prayer and planning are going into breaking through those unnecessary walls.

Currently, the largest American jurisdictions are the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, The Orthodox Church in America (Russian roots), and the Antiochian Archdiocese (Arabic roots). The Liturgy is substantially the same in all, though there may be variations in language used and type of music.

I wish it could be said that every local parish eagerly welcomes newcomers, but some are still so close to their immigrant experience that they are mystified as to why outsiders would be interested. Visiting several Orthodox parishes will help you learn where you’re most comfortable. You will probably be looking for one that uses plenty of English in its services. Many parishes with high proportions of converts will have services entirely in English.

Orthodoxy seems startlingly different at first, but as the weeks go by it gets to be less so. It will begin to feel more and more like home, and will gradually draw you into your true home, the Kingdom of God. I hope that your first visit to an Orthodox church will be enjoyable, and that it won’t be your last.


Adapted from Frederica Mathewes-Green

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