Your First Visit

Attending a new Church for the first time can be a little intimidating, especially if you're not familiar with the way that particular Faith tradition worships.  When it comes to Orthodoxy, the worship is different than any other Church you've probably attended.  To help you prepare for your first visit, and give you a good idea of what to expect in this ancient Christian way of worshipping, here are 12 tips.

1. What’s all this commotion?
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, 9:30.” 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 our Orthodox parish the church Divine Liturgy is preceded by a half hour time of chanting the Psalms called the Hours.  There is often no break between these services—one begins as soon as the previous ends.  So, don't worry if you get there at 9:30 and if feels like you're late.  You're not. 

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 opening hymn to start, glancing at their watches approaching 9:30. Orthodox worshippers arrive at any point from the beginning of the Hours through the early part of the Liturgy, a span of well over an hour. No matter when you arrive, something is sure to be already going on, so there's no need to feel like you're late for the service.  

2. Stand up, stand up for Jesus
In the Orthodox tradition, the faithful stand up for nearly the entire service. Really. In some Orthodox churches, there won’t even be any chairs, except a few scattered at the edges of the room for those who need them. St. Herman's has chairs, and while most people stand for the entire service (sitting only for the short sermon), everyone is welcome to sit if they need to rest their legs.  Long-term standing gets easier with practice.

3. In this sign
To say that we 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 same way. Some people cross themselves three times in a row, and some finish by sweeping their right hand to the floor. 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.

We cross with our right hands from right to left, the opposite of Roman Catholics and high-church Protestants. 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. Can you figure out 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 denounced as a heretic, and as a newcomer you are not required or expected to be making the sign of the cross (although you are certainly welcome to if you want).

4. What, no kneelers?
Generally, we don’t kneel. We do sometimes prostrate. This is not like prostration in the Roman Catholic tradition, lying out flat on the floor. To make a prostration we kneel, place our hands on the floor and touch our foreheads down between our hands. It’s just like those photos of middle-eastern worship, which look to Westerners like a sea of behinds. At first prostration feels embarrassing, but no one else is embarrassed, so after a while it feels OK. Ladies will learn that full skirts are best for prostrations, as flat shoes are best for standing.

Not everyone prostrates. Some kneel, some stand with head bowed; in a pew they might slide forward and sit crouched over. Standing there feeling awkward is all right too. No one will notice if you don’t prostrate. In Orthodoxy there is 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.

One former Episcopal priest said that seeing people prostrate themselves was one of the things that made him most eager to become Orthodox. He thought, “That’s how we should be before God.”

5. With love and kisses
We kiss stuff. When we first come into the church, we kiss the icons (Jesus on the feet and other saints on the hands, ideally). You’ll also notice that some kiss the chalice, the acolytes (altar servers) kiss his hand when they give him the censer, and we all line up to kiss the cross at the end of the service. When we talk about “venerating” something we usually mean crossing ourselves and kissing it.

We kiss each other before we take communion (“Greet one another with a kiss of love,” 1 Peter 5:14). When Roman Catholics or high-church Protestants “pass the peace,” they give a hug, handshake, or peck on the cheek; that’s how Westerners greet each other. In Orthodoxy different cultures are at play: Greeks and Arabs kiss on two cheeks, and Slavs come back again for a third. Follow the lead of those around you.  If you're a newcomer, feel free to simply extend your hand to the person next to you.

The usual greeting is “Christ is in our midst” and response, “He is and shall be.” Don’t worry if you forget what to say. The greeting is not the one familiar to Anglicans, “The peace of the Lord be with you.” Nor is it “Hi, nice church you have here.” Exchanging the kiss of peace is a liturgical act, a sign of mystical unity. Chatting and fellowship is for later.

6. Blessed bread and consecrated bread
Only Orthodox may take communion, but anyone may have some of the blessed bread. Here’s how it works: the round communion loaf, baked by a parishioner, is imprinted with a seal. In the preparation service before the Liturgy, 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.

We also handle the Eucharist with more gravity than many denominations 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.

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 decide to what extent they can keep these fasts, both physically and spiritually—attempting too much rigor too soon breeds frustration and defeat.

 

Nobody’s fast is anyone else’s business. As St. John Chrysostom says in his beloved Paschal sermon, everyone is welcomed to the feast whether they fasted or not: “You sober and you heedless, honor the day…Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast.”

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 doctor, you can arrive at a fasting schedule 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 denominations. 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: either “Khouria” (Arabic), or “Presbytera” (Greek), both of which mean “priest’s wife;” or “Matushka” (Russian), which means “Mama.”  At St. Herman's, the priest's wife is called Matushka.

 

8. Music, music, music
About seventy-five percent of the service is congregational singing. Traditionally, Orthodox use no instruments.  At St. Herman's a choir leads the people in a cappella harmony. 

This constant singing is 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 much of it by heart. 

9. Peter, Paul ... And Mary!

While the Orthodox Church has always honoured it's Saints (heroes of the Faith) throughout history, we have a special love and honour for Mary, the Mother of our Lord.  We often address her as “Theotokos,” which is an ancient Greek word meaing “Mother of God.” In providing the physical means for 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 “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 (and much closer to God than we are). Icons (paintings of Christ and the Saints) surround us to remind us of all the Saints who are joining us invisibly in worship.

10.  Follower or Listener?

When you arrive at St. Herman's, a Greeter at the door will welcome you with a Visitor's Packet (containing some info about our parish, and a note about how you can receive a complimentary copy of parish's choir CD), and a Liturgy book to follow.  Feel free to either follow along in the book, or simply close the book and soak in the sights and sounds of the service.  Dosteovsky once said, "Beauty will save the world."  During the Divine Liturgy, you will experience the beauty of the iconography, the singing, the liturgical movement taking place in the altar area, the aroma of the incense.  Take it all in.  It's very ancient, and very moving.  

11. The three doors
Every Orthodox church will have an iconostasis before its altar. “Iconostasis” means “icon-stand”, and it's a wall adorned with icons.

The basic set-up of two large icons creates, if you use your imagination, three doors. The central one, in front of the altar itself, is called the “Holy Doors” or “Royal Doors,” because there the King of Glory comes out to the congregation in the Eucharist. Only the priest and deacons, who bear the Eucharist, use the Holy Doors.

The openings on the other sides of the icons, 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. Altar service—priests, deacons, altar boys—is restricted to 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: lead congregational singing, paint icons, teach classes, read the epistle, and serve on the parish council.

12. Where does a Canadian fit in?
Doing a Google search for Orthodox Churches in Edmonton will provide you with about 15 different options: Greek, Romanian, Antiochian, Serbian, Ukrainian and so 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 in the world.

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 is going into breaking through those unnecessary walls.

The liturgy is substantially the same in all, though there may be variation in language used and type of music.

At St. Herman's, while we have people from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds (Kenyan, Filippino, Russian, Mexican, Ukrainian, Greek, Moldovan, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Chinese, British, etc.) all of us worship together in the common language of English.  In fact, St. Herman's was specifically started in 1978 to be the first all-English Orthodox Church in Edmonton.  

Orthodoxy may seem very 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 you will come visit us at St. Herman's soon. 

 

SUNDAY SERVICE 9:30 am

 

9930-167 St. (Edmonton, Alberta)

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adapted from an article by Frederica Mathewes-Green, entitled "12 Things I Wish I'd Known"

©2020 by St. Herman of Alaska Orthodox Church.