What to Expect When You Visit an Orthodox Church
This page is meant to answer many of the questions that first-time visitors to the Orthodox Church ask. Hopefully it will help you to understand some of the things you might see that seem unfamiliar to you.
Worship For All the Senses
The first thing you may notice when you visit us is that Orthodox worship engages all the five senses. The burning candles and oil lamps, the color, form, and placement of the Icons, the music of the choir, the smell of the incense, the taste of the Bread and Wine, all work to focus our entire being on the worship the Living God.
Why Are There So Many Candles?Since the Savior Himself taught that He is the Light of the World (John 8:12), our candles and lamps ultimately refer to His radiance. The Light of Christ illumines all humanity - in fact it enlightens the whole world. Some of our light is provided by oil lamps. These recall the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids who kept their vigil for the Bridegroom (Matthew 25:1-13), and help us to remember that we also must keep our watch for His coming again.
Some of our light is provided by wax candles. In Psalm 68 we read that the wicked (i.e., those who hate God) will disperse when they encounter Him in just the same way that wax melts near a fire. Our prayer is that any wickedness in us will vanish as the wax of a candle
vanishes and is consumed by the flame. But more practically, wax candles are simply a convenient and age-old means of providing light by which to see. The faithful light candles as a sign of their fervent prayer to God. We light candles and lamps before icons; we carry them in processions; we place them at various locations throughout the church building - simply to give off illumination. The more candles that are lighted, the more light is generated, and greater is the image of the Empty Tomb of the Lord which shone forth with a brilliance far greater than the light of day.
May I Light A Candle, Too?
Of course. Just purchase one at the candle stand, light it and place it in one of the stands at the front of the Church.
Why Do You Use Incense? Psalm 141 declares "Let my prayer arise in Your sight as incense; the lifting-up of my hands as an evening sacrifice." Incense is thus linked to prayer. In the Apocalypse (8:1-5) we also see this connection in a Christian context. In addition, we show that we honor someone or something when we burn incense before it or them. You will notice that the Gospel Book upon the altar table (the verbal image of Christ), the altar table itself (a sign of the throne of God), the icons (themselves representing the presence of the holy men and women and the events in the history of salvation), and finally all the faithful people who have assembled for worship are censed. (Remember that human beings are made in the image and according to the likeness of God (Genesis 1:27) - thus we are icons, too.)
Why Are There So Many Icons Around?
We read in the Epistle to the Hebrews (12:1-4) that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (literally, the martyrs) who watch after us and urge us on in our race toward Christ. We believe that the saints who have already run their race on earth indeed surround us - as in a stadium, the crowd surrounds the runners in the Olympics. In our homes, as well as in our churches, Orthodox Christians image this reality out by the placement of icons.
Why Do People Kiss Icons When They Enter And Depart From the Church?
It is our belief that human beings have a deep God-given need to express what we feel inside when those feelings are pure and good. Orthodox Christians have great devotion and love for the individuals depicted in many of our icons. We have a great respect and veneration for the biblical and historical scenes depicted in our icons because those events are part of God's plan of salvation for the life of the world. When an Orthodox Christian bows before and/or places a kiss upon an icon, the Gospel Book (or even another Christian) it is a sign of humility and devotion before God Who acts through the individual (or scriptures if that is the case) so that all His people may be brought back to Paradise.
Isn't All That Idolatry?
Are you worshipping your mother, father, husband, wife, son or daughter when you give that person a kiss? Of course not. It is our belief that the outward honor we pay to the material reality goes far beyond to the "prototype." There is also a vast distinction between honor (i.e., veneration or respect) and worship. We worship God alone, and may have no others before Him (Exodus 20). The Orthodox Church has already dealt with the issue of those who could not make that distinction (i.e., the "iconoclasts") in the 8th century 7th Ecumenical Council.
Why Is The Whole Service Sung A Capella?
It is held that the human voice is at its best in song. The voice is the musical instrument created by God Himself. For Orthodox Christians, then, the voice is the one instrument which is most fitting for the praise of God. Now, other traditions within Orthodox Christianity have used pipe organs, pianos, drums, cymbals, bells, etc., in worship. It is the custom of our parish (and most parishes which come from Slavic roots) that there be only the human voice to make a joyful noise to the Lord (Psalm 66).
Why Do The People Stand For The Whole Service?
The Lord once declared that "Whenever two or three are gathered together in My Name, I am in their midst." (Matthew 18:20) Orthodox Christians could not conceive of simply sitting in the presence of the Lord especially while in worship. It is a sign of respect when a judge or even the President of the United States enters a room that those assembled rise up. No less do Orthodox Christians stand (or kneel in humility if it is not a Sunday) before the King of Glory Who comes invisibly upborn by unseen armies of angels. Those who are not able to stand for whatever reason are not, of course, expected to do so.
Must I Stand All The While?
You should do what you feel comfortable doing. Many people get weary after a while. So, they sit down. Others feel more comfortable remaining on their feet so as not to appear conspicuous. Don't worry. We only ask that you stand with us at least during the reading of the Gospel, the Creed, the Eucharistic Prayer ("anaphora"), and the time of Holy Communion.
Who May Receive Holy Communion? The Orthodox Church has never known the practice of "open communion" which is found among many of the denominations. For Orthodox Christians, there must already exist the essential unity of faith between those who partake of the One Bread and the One Cup. Holy Communion is not a means to that unity, but is the fruit of a unity already reached. It is a tragic fact that Christianity is divided into different groups, beliefs, and presuppositions. This division has come about because of the "diabolos" (Greek for "separation, sever, destroy"), i.e., the devil who wishes Christ's flock to be scattered. So, unless you are baptized, chrismated and practicing as an Orthodox Christian in a canonical Orthodox parish, who takes communion regularly, we must ask that you not come forward with the communicants. We all must pray and work for a day when all Christians will be united in faith and in love around the Mystical Wedding Banquet Table of the Lamb of God.
Copyright © 1999, 2000 Orthodox Christian News Service, Inc. All rights reserved.
Story content is Copyright the various content owners.
Contact Father Matthew Tate (Priest in Charge) at 503-381-3588, Deacon Elias at 209-532-7899 or Church Contact