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First Visit to an Orthodox Church: 12 Things I Wish I’d Known - Part 1

March 14, 2005 Length: 53:06

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Program Notes - March 13, 2005

First Visit to an Orthodox Church--Twelve Things I Wish I'd Known

© Frederica Mathewes-Green

1) What's all this commotion?

a) 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 at 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?

b) In an Orthodox church there is only one Eucharistic service (Divine Liturgy) per Sunday, and it is preceded by an hour-long service of Matins (or Orthros) and several short preparatory services 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.

c) 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 9:30. Orthodox worshippers arrive at any point from the beginning of Matins through the early part of the Liturgy, a span of well over an hour. No matter when they arrive, something is sure to be 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 distracting to newcomers, and may even seem disrespectful, but soon you 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 9:30 but punctuality is unfortunately one of the few virtues many Orthodox lack.

OLIC comments: Some of this depends on the Church that you visit. Various parishes are more or less “punctual”, and may have more or less movement. Orthodox people are comfortable showing up anywhere during the first half hour or more of the service. Orthodox liturgy on Sunday morning is a seamless transition from the Morning Prayer (Matins) to what is called the Divine Liturgy. If you are not familiar with the structure of the prayer cycles you will have no clue where you are in the services. In fact if you ARE familiar, half the time you won’t know where you are. Our suggestion to newcomers is for a few services don’t try to follow service books unless you have someone beside you who is VERY familiar with what is going on. The changeable hymns, seasonal differences etc. make it impossible to put together a worship book for every service, much like the song service and scripture reading/sermon topic during a protestant worship. It is more important to grasp the “culture of worship” of the early Church before learning the exact structure, words and parts. If you listen carefully to the prayers you will hear scripture. 90% or more of the prayers are straight from scripture. You will hear scripture used in worship in a way you never dreamed.

2) Stand up stand up for Jesus.

a) 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. Expect variation in practice: some churches, especially those that bought already-existing church buildings, will have well-used pews. In any case, 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.

OLIC comments: One of the scary things about attending an Orthodox worship service is not knowing when to sit, stand or kneel. A rule of thumb is do what the majority of the people seem to be doing. As Frederica says, there is variation in practice so you might see a few people who will stand when everyone else is sitting or kneeling. This is where “personal piety” is a premium in Orthodox worship. We do what we have been taught in worship. Some parishes sit during the hymn about Mary, but some are taught to stand before the “Queen Mother”, the Mother of God (you wouldn’t sit in front of Queen Victoria or even the President’s wife). But again the demon of judging has to be kept in check.

3) In this sign.

a) 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 (push, not pull), 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.

OLIC comments: The sign of the cross is one of those rome-o-phobia bugaboos for most protestants. You can look at it several ways. One is it is like wearing a cross only you can’t forget it when you “put it on” every time you think of God in Trinity or remember something that touches your heart. We are literally covering ourselves with the cross of Christ and reminding ourselves we are taking it up when we make the sign of the cross. The other thing is in every culture people know how to curse someone with their hands. In the culture of the kingdom of Christ we know how to bless someone with our hands.

4) What? No Kneelers?

a) 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 awhile it feels OK. Ladies will learn that full skirts are best for prostrations, as flat shoes are best for standing.

b) 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 some congregations do during part of the Eucharistic prayer. 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.

c) 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."

OLIC comments: This was one of the things that actually attracts people to Orthodoxy: prostration before God. Sometimes we feel we need to do something other than sit there or stand during a worship service. We read in the Bible about people bowing down to the earth before God and also to those in authority like kings and angels etc. This is indeed one of the things that is hard to get used to doing and you might feel awkward but, hey, if you do it when everyone else is doing it, don’t worry.

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