We're glad that you're coming to visit. I thought I'd write to let you know a little of what happens at an Orthodox church service.
There's also a great video about it"Overview of the Orthodox Liturgy" where you can see short clips of the Sunday morning service.
But I remember the first time I went to visit an Orthodox church service. I was a little nervous, but determined to have an open mind, and to do what everyone else was doing. People told me not to worry, that nobody really minds what you do, but I didn't really believe it. Now I know it's true. Even amongst regular attenders there are different ways of doing things. So relax, observe and follow along if you wish.
On entering the church people make the sign of the cross over themselves. I was impressed at the way that a change in attitude, of presence came over people when they did this. It seemed to be a preparation for worship.
People then enter and light a candle. The candle represents that Jesus, the light of the world is in each one of us. Feel free to light a candle. My children love doing this. It's a physical way of praying for them, a way of being spiritually involved with their bodies.
In any Orthodox church you will see icons all around. These remind us of all the Christians who have gone before us. These are the people who have struggled to live for Jesus, and been triumphant. These are the people who have passed over to the other side and are now alive with Jesus in heaven, the cloud of witnesses who now cheer us on as we finish our race.
People may kiss the icons. It's as if they are kissing a photo of someone in their family. We kiss the icon as a sign of acknowledgement, respect and love for our Christian brothers and sisters who have gone before us.
Actually there's quite a bit of kissing that goes on in the Orthodox church. I must admit it freaked me out at first. I did it, but I didn't like it, until I discovered that to kiss someone is to receive and accept them. So to kiss the cross (the priest holds a small cross for people to kiss at the end of the service) is to accept and receive the blessing from Christ. Anyone can kiss the cross to receive Christ's blessing, so feel free to follow other members of the church to kiss the cross.
Up the front, you will see a picture of Jesus as a child at his first coming to earth, and a picture of Jesus at his second coming. Everything that the priest does occurs in between. That's where we are, worshipping God after Jesus came to earth as a baby, and before his return.
The service is pretty much always the same. It's all written in the service booklet. But do you think I could follow the service booklet for my first few visits? No way. I found it better to close the book, and watch everything that was happening. Someone nearby will be more than happy to show you the page we're up to if do want to read along.
In the service book there is a little cross sign to show you where to cross yourself. Basically this is everytime the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is mentioned. To do this, hold your thumb and first two fingertips of your right hand together (for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and place your other two fingers into the palm of your hand. These two fingers represent that Jesus was both human and divine. Now touch your head, then your heart, then your right shoulder, and then your left shoulder.
There might be a lot of standing. Again, feel free to sit if you need to. It's a long service if you're not used to it.
There is a popular article entitled 12 things I wish I'd known before visiting an Orthodox church, by gifted writer Frederica Matthewes-Green. It's worth a read, although not everything she describes happens in exactly the same way at our church. I've included a little bit here of what she says about communion.
"Only Orthodox may take communion, but anyone may have some of the blessed bread. Here's how it works: the round communion loaf is imprinted with a seal. The priest cuts out a section of the seal 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 Eucharistic prayer, 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 communion, we file up to the priest, standing and 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 first name or the saint-name which we chose when we were baptized or chrismated (received into the church by anointing with blessed oil).
As we file past the priest, we come to an altar boy holding the basket of blessed bread. People will take portions for themselves and for visitors and non-Orthodox friends around them. If someone hands you a piece of blessed bread, do not panic; it is not the eucharistic Body. It is a sign of fellowship.
Visitors are sometimes offended that they are not allowed to receive communion. Orthodox believe that receiving communion is broader than me-and-Jesus; it acknowledges faith in historic Orthodox doctrine, 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."
Every action and object has a purpose in an Orthodox church service. Nothing happens without a reason. So if you see something you'd like to know more about, please ask "Why?". We'd rather you asked, than go away wondering. We won't be offended, we promise.
These were some of my first impressions of the Orthodox church service. Others may have different first impressions.
Over time, this time to worship God becomes very special to us. Thanks for allowing us to share it with you. We look forward to seeing you.
(Published in sections: Orthodoxy Explained :: News :: )