10 Things You should Known Before Your First Visit to an Orthodox Church
1. There is movement before and during worship
During the early part of the service the church you may see 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, 10:30 am." What's going on here?
In an Orthodox church there is only one Eucharistic service (Divine Liturgy) per Sunday, and it is preceded by an hour service of Matins or Orthros (9:30 am). One begins as soon as the previous ends. Matins is a preliminary service celebrating the good news of Resurrection of Christ which make the liturgy possible which follows.
Orthodox worshipers arrive at any point from the beginning of Matins through the early part of the Liturgy.
2. We Stand When We Pray
The liturgy at Saints Constantine and Helen begins at 10:30 am. By 11:00 am we hear the reading of the Epistle (everyone sits) and then the Gospel lesson for the day is read (everyone stands). The liturgy continues until 11:40 am when Communion is first given to children who depart for Sunday School and the parents remain in Church for the conclusion of the liturgy around noon. Following the announcements the sermon is given and Church is dismissed around noon.
3. People Make the Sign of the Cross
4. Orthodox People Venerate
The reason for kissing the hand of the priest has to do with our understanding that during the liturgy the hands of the priest are the hands that give out the body and blood of Christ (communion). It is also the laying on of hands that ordinations are done by the bishops. The laying on of hands goes back to the Apostles in the Orthodox Church.
We greet each other before we take communion ("Greet one another with a kiss of love," 1 Peter 5:14). The usual greeting is "Christ is in our midst" and response, "He is and always shall be." Don't worry if you forget what to say. Some of the faithful greet each other by shaking hands, while others kiss each other on each cheek. This greeting or "kiss of peace" is a liturgical act, a sign of mystical unity.
5. Blessed bread and consecrated bread.
Visitors should not be offended that they are not allowed to receive communion. It is important to know that communion is not given out as a means of hospitality. Anyone who is not Orthodox may receive holy communion if they wish to attend classes and convert to Orthodox Christianity. 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, and have full knowledge of what holy communion is.
We also handle the Eucharist with more gravity than many denominations do, further explaining why we guard it from common access. We believe it has been changed from ordinary bread and wine to the Body and Blood of Christ. Holy communion is a sacrament of the church, and not a symbolic gesture or right of passage. 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.
6. How do we greet the clergy?
7. Hymnology That Draws Us To Pray
8. The Virgin Mary
We honor her, as Scripture foretold ("All generations will call me blessed," Luke 1:48). When we sing "Through the intercession of the Theotokos, Savior, 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. One reference to the saints surrounding us Hebrews 12:1 - "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses..."
9. The three 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's Doors." Altar boys and others with business behind the altar use these, although no one is to go through any of the doors without an appropriate reason.
10. How does a "non-Greek" fit in?
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 variation in language used and type of music.
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. We hope that your first visit to an Orthodox church will be enjoyable, and that it won't be your last.
(From St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral)
Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church
43404 30th St W; Lancaster, CA 93536 USA