It is my opinion that having some familiarity with various religious movements and worship services that differ significantly from one’s own is helpful in promoting inter-religious dialogue and understanding. To that end, I have visited several services of Christian and non-Christian sects, and have found the experiences very interesting. In this series, I offer a preview as to what to expect for the benefit of those who are considering doing likewise.
Because the Protestant Reformation was a western movement against Roman Catholicism in particular, Eastern Orthodoxy is generally less understood by Western Christians than Roman Catholicism (a summary comparison can be found here). Due to their divergent histories and cultural differences that have had 1,500 years or so to develop, Eastern Orthodox worship services will often seem the most foreign. (Also the most beautiful.)
There is only one main service each Sunday, but it is broken up into several parts. The one you will probably want is the last one – the Eucharistic service (or “Divine Liturgy” – note that technically the Divine Liturgy has two parts: the liturgy of the word/catechumen and the liturgy of the faithful). There is no obvious transition between these parts and the stated times are estimated, so try to show up toward the end of “Matins” if you want to see the entire Eucharistic service.
Dress is typically “nice.” You do not necessarily need a suit, but the more casual you dress, the more out of place you might feel. Business casual with subdued colors is probably safest for men, dresses for women. There is usually no childcare or Sunday school, so if you are bringing children you’ll have them with you the whole time. Services are long by modern standards (often 1.5 – 2 hours) and there is a lot of standing, so keep that in mind.
Orthodox churches are built in the shape of a horizontal cross with the top facing east. When you walk in you will enter a transition space called the Narthex (which forms the bottom of the cross shape). This is where one prepares to enter the worship space (the Nave), so it is time to get serious. For westerners, things start seeming very foreign right about now. One key to understanding a lot of what you will experience in the service is that Orthodox worship is very physical. Material representations of spiritual realities abound. Candles, which represent Jesus, the light of the world, can be lit for prayers. Icons representing Christ and the saints are available to be kissed (kissing in Orthodoxy is not worship, it is an expression of acceptance or thanks but it initially seems awkward to most westerners). You need do neither, but you may wish to observe for a few minutes before you head inside the Nave. One can enter the Narthex at any time, but entering the Nave (main body of the building) usually should not be done when the priest is facing/addressing the congregation in an official position.
Like many churches, they may have handouts – so just take anything given to you, tell them you are visiting if they ask (they may pair you up with someone if you like), and go in to find a place to sit (which you will not spend much time doing!).
Once you have found somewhere to sit/stand you will see a lot of things to look at. Icons will probably be plentiful. These are pictures of biblical and post-biblical saints used to remind us that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1) and that the Kingdom of God is present. There will be an iconostasis (“icon-stand”) up front which often takes the form of a wall of icons and three doors. The middle one stands in front of the altar (the place of preparation of the Eucharist) and is called the “Holy” or “Royal” door. The others are called the “Deacon’s Doors.” During the service various actions are taken by the priests, deacons, altar boys, etc. Bells are rung, incense is lit,processions are made. It’s all very busy.
There is a lot of responsive readings, singing, and other actions (making the sign of the cross, kissing things, kneeling, singing, etc.) during the service. These can vary greatly (even within local congregations), so don’t feel awkward about just watching. Most of the singing is done by the choir so you don’t even have to sing along. You probably will not stand out too much as long as you stand/sit when everyone else does. You can try to follow along in the various schedules and service books provided, but don’t feel bad if you lose your place. For your first visit it might be best to just take it all in. Some, much, or all of the service may be in another language – in these cases if the service book has translation you might find it interesting.
The sign of the cross is made often – as one takes a seat, before kissing icons, whenever the Trinity is mentioned, etc. This is not some cultic secret symbolism – doing so represents the cross (obviously), the Trinity (Father/Son/Holy Spirit), and loving God with our mind, heart, and strength. It’s an ancient action that transcends Catholic/Orthodox practices. You don’t need to to do it, but know that’s what is going on. If you really want to do it right, In Orthodoxy the sign of the cross is made using the right hand and by placing one’s thumb against the first two fingers (re-representing the trinity) and the remaining two fingers pressed into to palm (representing the dual natures of Christ). You touch your forehead, sternum, right shoulder, left shoulder, and can end with an open palm against your heart. In the service book there is a little cross to show when to cross oneself, but people do it at different times and in different ways (once, three times in a row, big moves, small moves, sometimes going to the floor and back up). There is also some bowing.
Another ancient feature of Orthodox worship is the veneration of Mary, (a.k.a., “Theotokos” which means “Mother of God”). The Orthodox do not believe some of the things that Roman Catholics do about Mary (e.g., her Immaculate Conception and role as Mediatrix), but they still honor her greatly (Luke 1:48). When they sing/pray “Holy Theotokos, save us,” they don’t mean eternal salvation, but are asking for her prayers for our protection and growth in faith. Again, you may simply choose to not participate, but it is good to know that this is not some cultic Mary-worship.
There is a lot of kissing of things in Orthodox worship. It can be worshipful (only when directed to God), signal veneration (of Mary and other saints), and can also simply show respect and love for others. Kissing icons is something you’ll see before you even get into the main sanctuary. Before “communion” there is a time of exchanging greetings and during this time there may be kissing involved (on the cheek). It’s a cultural thing, don’t panic. There is probably no easy escape, so just be prepared! If you are greeted by “Christ is in our midst” the response is, “He is and shall be.” Don’t worry if you forget what to say.
The Eucharist (“communion”) is a bread/wine mixture administered on a spoon by the priest. It is not to be taken by non-Orthodox. They’re not being mean – they are keeping non-Orthodox from lying in a sense, because the Eucharist here represents faith in Orthodox doctrine, obedience to the bishop, and a commitment the community. Since you would not be expressing these things it is not appropriate to participate. There is no “priestly blessing” offered during this sacrament like there is in some western churches, so when it comes time to go forward, you stay where you are (or move for people to pass and then return). There are a variety of reasons why people (even Orthodox) do not go forward, so, again, you probably will not stand out. If someone notices you did not go up for communion they may bring you a piece of blessed bread. This is not part of the Eucharist, it is a sign of fellowship – so it is fine to accept and eat it. This is the high point of the service, but it’s not over yet. There will be more singing and announcements before dismissal.
At the end people will often go forward to kiss the cross, the hand of the priest, some relic of veneration, and / or receive more of the blessed bread. You may participate in this or not. If not, you may simply leave when your row exits.
Coffee hour follows after the service. As many will fast before the service, there will be food and refreshments afterward where people can talk and get to know one another. This is the social portion of the service and is open to all and a good time to ask clarifying questions and get to know the people.
For more of what to expect in Orthodox worship, try these helpful links: