VISITING AN ORTHODOX CHURCH FOR THE FIRST TIME
Visiting an Orthodox Church for the first time is both an exciting and a joyous experience. Perhaps this is your first encounter with Christian Orthodoxy, with the Eastern Church – that is, the ancient faith, the church of the Apostles, as it worships today guided by the Holy Spirit.
If so, this could also be a slightly bewildering experience, especially if you are unfamiliar with the Christian East. In Christian Orthodoxy, we worship with all of our senses – with sight (for example, with beautiful and profound icons), with smell (for example, with incense), and with taste (for example, with the Sacraments of the Church). Some things may look familiar to you, and perhaps other things less so. But, of course, fear not! This quick guide is meant to prepare you for your first visit to an Orthodox Christian Church.
When you first enter an Orthodox Church, you will usually find yourself in the narthex of the church. This is the room located in the area just before you enter the church proper. The narthex is used to light candles as we say our first prayers, for venerating icons of the feast day, and for saying hello to familiar people we may know in the community. In the early eras of the church, the narthex was reserved for the catechumens, or those seeking to learn more about the faith, but who were not yet baptized and chrismated. To this day, the sacrament of Baptism begins with prayers said in the narthex of the church.
Then proceed into the nave of the church, or the central area of the church, for worship and prayer. Here, please find a seat and participate in the Divine Liturgy. The Divine Liturgy is the main worship service of the Orthodox Church. There are a number of such divine liturgies of the Orthodox Church, but the one that is celebrated most often is that of St. John Chrysostom – which dates from around the fourth century.
Sometimes, the doors between the narthex and the nave of the church will be closed; this is because especially important prayers are being said during the Divine Liturgy, such as the Lord’s Prayer, the Nicaean Creed, or the consecration of the Holy Gifts. Please feel free to ask a member of the Parish Council, usually stationed at the candle stand (or pangari in Greek) in the narthex, if you have any questions about when it is proper to enter the nave of the church.
During the Divine Liturgy, you will see members of the congregation crossing themselves often, as they follow along with the beautiful and moving prayers of the service. Orthodox Christians join three fingers together to make the sign of the cross, for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – and we make the sign of the Cross very often.
As the Divine Liturgy progresses, you will see the priest, or the deacon if there is one present, cense the icons in the church as well as the congregation a number of times. This comes from Psalm 141:2, “Let my prayer arise before you like incense.” As the text of the Divine Liturgy also makes clear, “we lift our hearts” – and our prayers – “to the Lord” in this way.
The Epistle lesson will be read, followed by the Gospel reading for the day. For much of the Divine Liturgy, the priest stands facing, along with the congregation, Eastward – in anticipation of the Second Coming of the Lord.
Separating the area with the Holy Table (or the altar) from the rest of the church is the iconostasis, or the “icon stand.” This is the large screen with icons affixed to it, located at the front of the church. Here, we see icons of Christ, of the Virgin Mary, of St. John the Baptist, of the patron saint of the church, and of the Archangels. This icon screen serves to remind us of the holy nature of the church and of actions taking place in it. In this way, the icon screen delineates the “Holy of Holies” – the area around the altar – as being a very sacred place, just as was the case in the Temple in Jerusalem during the time of Christ.
At the focal point of the Divine Liturgy is the consecration of the Holy Gifts, so that we may continually encounter the Risen and Glorified Lord in our lives. Those Orthodox Christians in good standing – that is, those who have prepared themselves through fasting, prayer, good works, and confession will proceed to receive Holy Communion. The priest will say the name of the person receiving communion and will pray that his or her sins are forgiven and that the Lord will remember them in His Heavenly Kingdom. The congregation receives Holy Communion from one chalice to signify that community and fellowship are at the heart of Christian life.
All those in attendance, however, are welcome to receive the blessed (but not consecrated) bread which is distributed at the end of the Divine Liturgy. This is the extra bread that was not used for Holy Communion, and it is called Antidoron in Greek, or “Instead of the Gifts.”
Please don’t hesitate to introduce yourself – and a warm welcome to our community and to an Orthodox Christian Church. Welcome!