Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What to Expect on your first visit to an Orthodox Church

I wrote this for a family who wanted to visit the Orthodox Church with us.  The parents wanted their children to know what to expect, and what was happening during the service.  It is similar to Frederica's 12 Things I wish I'd Known, except that it is geared towards children.  I wanted to emphasize the theology we have in common, and show them the beauty and meaning in everything we do. Feel free to correct any mistakes I've made!

I'm going to tell you what to expect at the Orthodox Church. You'll probably notice some differences as soon as you come in, so I'll tell you about those first. You are welcome to participate in these things if you want to, and its also okay if you don't. Everything in the Orthodox Church means something, so feel free to ask questions.
  • First, when you come in, the service will already be going on. Don't worry, you're not late. There is a Morning Prayer service (it's called Orthros which means "dawn") before the main worship service (it's called Liturgy which means "work of the people") and people usually come in anytime during the prayer service. You'll know the worship service is beginning when the priest sings loudly, "Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit now and ever and unto ages of ages!"
  •  Second, the walls are covered in icons. Icon is a Greek word that means, "image." The bible tells us that Jesus is the image of the invisible God. (Col 1:15) We can't see God the Father (and there are no images of Him), but we can see Jesus! These images have many meanings, but most importantly for worship, they remind us that we are not worshipping alone. Jesus is there with us (don't forget to look up!), the angels join us, and so do the great cloud of witnesses: the prophets, the apostles, and the faithful followers of Jesus.
  • Third, when people enter the church, they do several things to prepare themselves for worship. They kiss the icons as a way of greeting and honoring Christ, the saints and angels who are with us, and they light candles as they pray to show the light of Christ. They also make the sign of the cross. It is made many times during worship but especially whenever we remember the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; when we begin or end a prayer; or when we honor something like an icon or the Bible. It is a sign of our salvation and that we take up our cross and follow him. (Mark 8:34)
  • Fourth, you may smell or see incense. There are many beautiful bible verses about incense (Psalm 141:2, Malachi 1:11, Revelation 8:3-4) that compare it to our prayers, which rise to God like smoke. I especially like to remember the wise men brought frankincense to the baby Jesus because he deserved to be worshipped, and so we offer it to him, too.
  • Fifth, the people stand through almost the whole service. This is because we are actively involved in the prayer and singing of the church. We sit to listen to the sermon and during the epistle reading. But we stand during the gospel reading as a way of honoring the scriptures about Jesus. If you need to sit down, that's okay, too.

Next, I'll tell you about the worship service. Most of the service is sung, even the prayers, and so it can feel like one long song. However, there is a definite order. In fact, most of it is exactly the same each week. I hope this will help you understand what's going on.

The first half is called the Liturgy of the Word. In this part we pray, sing songs, and read from the Bible.
  •  We begin with prayers called a litany, which are lists of things the deacon says we want to pray for, and the people make the prayer with, "Amen" or "Lord have mercy."
  • We sing songs about Jesus (Only Begotten Son, written in the 6th century), Psalm 103 and146, The Beatitudes, songs that remember Mary and the saint remembered that day, songs that ask the saints in heaven to pray for us (O Apostle John), and others.

Then, something happens called the Little Entrance. It is when they carry the Bible to the altar. A long time ago, they only had one Bible, and it was kept somewhere else, so when they brought it into the church it was very special. Most people have their own bible today, but it is still important to remember that it is special. You will hear someone say, "Wisdom, Let us attend!" That means, "here is the Bible, let us honor it."
  • Then we will sing a special song called the Thrice Holy Hymn. It is similar to the song the angels sing in Isaiah 6: "Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us."
  • There will be two Bible readings, one from the epistles, and one from the gospels. After that the priest will give a short sermon (we call it a homily) about the bible readings or saints remembered today.
  • Then there is another litany of prayers and a prayer for the catechumens (the people who are preparing for baptism).

The second half is called the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Eucharist is a Greek word that means "Thanksgiving," and it refers to communion because Jesus gave thanks before he broke the bread.
  • While the priest prepares the bread and wine, we will sing the Cherubic Hymn. It is sung very slowly and says that we sing to God like the angels in heaven, and we lay aside our earthly cares so that we may receive him.
  • Then the Great Entrance happens. This is when they carry the cup with the bread and wine to the altar. The people honor the bread and wine as special, too. The priest will pray for people who have special needs by name as he carries the cup. Many people, especially children, will touch the priest's robe as he passes by. This is an act of faith, like the woman with the issue of blood who touched Christ's robe, and a way in which we send our prayers with his.
  • Then someone will say, "Let us love one another that with one mind we may confess Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." To show our love for one another, we turn to the people around us and greet them saying, "Christ is in our midst." And the response, "He is and ever shall be."
  • After we show our love for each other, we recite the creed, which is a confession of our faith.
  •  Then there are several prayers: prayers over the Eucharist, the Lord's Prayer, and the prayers before communion.

Finally, someone will say, "Holy things are for the Holy!" and the Orthodox who have prepared to take the communion will go forward to receive it. They don't pass it around on plates because they want to treat it reverently (like the icons and the Bible). When people return to their places, sometimes they have bread, and they may offer you some. This bread is not the communion, but it is blessed, and is a sign of friendship. There will also be some in a bowl on your way out, and you are invited to take some.
  •  After the communion there are a few more beautiful songs including, "We have seen the true light!" and "Let our mouths be filled with thy praise, O Lord!" Then the worship will come to an end, and everyone will sit for some announcements.
  •  When people leave, they file out in a line to kiss a cross or perhaps the Bible that the priest is holding at the front. Many people will also kiss the icons before leaving. If you go through the line, you won't be expected to kiss or say anything. The priest will probably say, "Hi, I'm Father John. Who are you?" But it's also okay, to go out without going through the line.

After church, there is a coffee hour downstairs because most people do not eat before the service. You can come downstairs and get some snacks, visit or play in the playroom. 

No comments: