SPECIAL SERVICES AND BLESSIGNS OF THE CHURCH
In addition to the Holy Mysteries (or the Sacraments) of the Church, the Orthodox Church counts a number of Special Services and Blessings which are associated with the needs, events, and tasks of our daily lives as well as our lives in the Church. In celebrating these various Services and Blessings, the Church is constantly bearing witness to the presence and action of God in our lives.
The Church’s many Services and Blessings serve to remind us that all of life is important, and that the many events and gifts of life can be directed toward God and receive their fulfillment in Him. For example, the Funeral Service, the Blessing of Waters, and the Entrance into Monastic Life, just to name a few, are very significant for the life of the Church and for the People of God.
The Church likewise blesses individuals on various occasions and for various events, such as trips. The Church also blesses objects such as icons, church buildings, flowers, fields, animals, and food. In so doing, the Church is affirming that every gift, event, and human responsibility is part of our lives in the Lord Jesus and in the Church. Orthodox Christian can point to God as the origin and goal of all good things. Nothing is outside of God's love and concern.
THE BLESSING OF THE LOAVES ("ARTOKLASIA")
The Blessing of the Loaves is a service of thanksgiving through which we express our gratitude for all the blessings of life. This Blessing is usually offered during Vespers or after the Divine Liturgy on feast days and other special occasions, and it reminds us of the miracle of the multiplication of the bread and fish by which Christ fed the multitude.
Oil, wine, wheat, and the loaves of bread, which are presented by the faithful for use in this service, are viewed as the most basic elements necessary for life. The service ends with the hymn, “The rich have become poor and gone hungry, but those who seek the Lord shall never lack any good thing.” After the Service, the blessed bread is cut and distributed to all present.
According to tradition, the Memorial Service is offered on the third, ninth, and fortieth day after a death, as well as on the yearly anniversary of the death. In addition, the Memorial Service is always offered for all of the faithful departed on four "Saturdays of Souls." These are: the two Saturdays preceding Great Lent; the first Saturday of Great Lent; and the Saturday before Pentecost. In the United States, the Service is also offered on Memorial Day.
When the Memorial Service is offered, it is customary for the family of the deceased to bring a dish of boiled wheat to the Church. The wheat, known as kollyva in Greek, is a symbol of the Resurrection. When speaking of the Resurrection, our Lord said: "Unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). The boiled wheat is placed on a table in the center of the nave during the Service, and the Memorial Service is conducted around this table after the Divine Liturgy has concluded.
While death alters, it does not destroy the bond of love and faith which exists among all the members of the Church. Orthodoxy believes that through our prayers, those "who have fallen asleep in the faith and the hope of the Resurrection" continue to have opportunity to grow closer to God. The Church, therefore, prays constantly for the faithful who have died in Christ. We pray that God will forgive the sins of the faithful departed, and that He will receive them into the company of Saints in His Heavenly Kingdom.
THE GREAT BLESSING OF WATER
Theophany, one of the oldest and most important Feast days of the Orthodox Church (which is traditionally called Epiphany in the Christian West), commemorates the manifestation of the Holy Trinity which took place during the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan River.
Orthodoxy believes that, when Christ was baptized, it not only marked the beginning of its public ministry and revealed the Holy Trinity, but also signified that the entire creation is destined to share in the glory of redemption in Christ. Through His baptism, the Lord revealed the value of the created world, and He redirected all of creation toward its Creator. Creation is good, and it belongs to God.
The Service of the Great Blessing of Water is held on the eve of the Feast of the Theophany and on the feast day itself, following the Divine Liturgy. The Great Blessing of Water not only recalls the event of Our Lord's baptism and the revelation of the Holy Trinity, but it also expresses Orthodoxy's belief that creation is sanctified through Christ.
The Blessing affirms that humanity and the created world, of which we are a part, were created to be filled with the sanctifying presence of God. After the Service has concluded, Holy Water is distributed to the faithful and is used to bless homes during the Epiphany season. When the faithful drink this "Epiphany Water," we are reminded of our own baptism.
When the Church blesses an individual, or object, or event with the water, we are affirming that those baptized, their surroundings, and their responsibilities are sanctified through Christ and brought into the Kingdom of the Father through the Holy Spirit.
In addition to the Great Blessing of Water, there is a Lesser Blessing of Water service which can take place at any time during the year. Usually, it is celebrated when a home is blessed, on the first day of the month, the beginning of the school year, or with the beginning of new responsibilities.
While the Orthodox Church, of course, worships God alone, the Church does venerate certain individuals who have been important human instruments of God in the history of salvation. Among those so venerated is Mary, the Mother of God, the Holy Theotokos. The Orthodox Church greatly honors Mary because she was chosen to give birth to the Son of God.
As one of the hymns of the Church declares:
"By singing praise to your maternity, we exalt you as a spiritual temple, Theotokos. For the One Who dwelt within your womb, the Lord who holds all things in his hands, sanctified you, glorified you, and taught all to sing to you ... "
The most beautiful and poetic service of the Orthodox Church in honor of the Mother of God is called the Akathist Hymn. The word “Akathist” comes from the Greek word, Akathistos, which means “without sitting.” The congregation stands throughout this service out of respect for Mary and her unique role in our salvation in Christ. The Akathist Hymn is chanted in four parts during the first four Fridays of Great Lent. On the fifth Friday, the entire service is chanted.
THE SERVICE OF SUPPLICATION ("PARAKLISIS")
The Service of Supplication, which is also known as Paraklisis in Greek, is a service that is offered especially at times of sickness, temptation, or discouragement. The various prayers of this service ask the Christ the Lord for guidance, personal strength, and healing. Many of the hymns and prayers are directed toward Mary, the Holy Theotokos, and they ask for her intersession.
Orthodoxy affirms that each of us, with Mary, the Saints, and the faithful departed is united in a bond of faith and love in Christ. Therefore, just as in this life we can turn to each other for prayer, the Church believes that we can also turn to Mary - the human being closest to God - and ask her to pray to God for us.
This belief is expressed in the hymn which says:
"O never failing protectress of Christians and their ever-present intercessor before the Creator; despise not the petitions or sinners who have recourse to you, by your goodness extend your help to us to call upon you with confidence. Hasten, O Theotokos, to intercede for us, O you who have always protected those who honor you."
There are two forms of the Service of Supplication: the Greater Paraklisis, and the Lesser Paraklisis. The Lesser Service of Supplication is briefer and is offered most frequently. Both forms of the Service are offered during the first fourteen days of August which precedes the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos (celebrated on August 15th).
The death of a Christian not only affects the family of the departed, but also the entire Church, for we are all part of the Body of Christ. The Orthodox Funeral Service emphasize the reality of death as well as the victorious Resurrection of Christ through which the power of death is conquered.
The Funeral Service comforts those who mourn; it is also the means through which the Church prays for one of its members who has died in the faith. Orthodoxy views the end of physical existence only as the termination of one stage of life. God's love is stronger than death, and the Resurrection of Christ bears witness to this power.
The Orthodox Funeral consists of three services. First, there is a Vigil Service after death, which is usually conducted at the time of the wake. This service is called the Trisagion Service. The Church prays to Christ "to give rest with the Saints to the soul of Your servant where there is neither pain, grief, nor sighing but life everlasting." While the Church prays for the soul of the deceased, great respect is also paid to the body. Orthodoxy believes the body of the Christian is sacred since it was the Temple of the Holy Spirit. The body will share also in the final restoration of all creation after the Second Coming of the Lord. The Funeral Service is continued at the Church, where the body is brought on the day of burial. Ideally, the Divine Liturgy is celebrated. After the Funeral Service, the congregation offers its farewell to the deceased, and the Trisagion Service is repeated at the graveside.