What to Expect at Services
We welcome all who seek the fullness of God. We are blessed to have many visitors, and we are truly glad to welcome visitors to our Church. Because Orthodox Christianity is unfamiliar to most people in this area, we have written this to help you know what to expect.
On Sunday morning we usually have 90 – 120 people in Church, many of them children. The beauty of Orthodox worship must be experienced to be understood. The Divine Liturgy expresses the entire Christian faith in a continuous song of praise and prayer addressed to God. It is focused on God, not on us. There is nothing just for amusement or entertainment. Since much of the service is the same every week, worshipers know it and can participate personally, either by singing, serving, or just by prayerful attention. Worshipers are surrounded by icons (pictures of Christ and the saints), which remind us that we are participating while on earth in the worship of all the angels and saints in heaven. The entire service (except for the sermon) is sung to melodies and chants originating in Eastern Europe. No organ or other instruments are used, but an a cappella choir. The words are all from Scripture or ancient Christian texts — no rhyming metrical hymns are used. Our services are in the English language.
Participating in the Services
- Physical Worship — Orthodox worship with their bodies as well as with words. You will see that people at times bow, make the sign of the Cross, etc. If you are not Orthodox, of course no one expects you to do these things — just stand or sit and listen, and participate to the degree that you wish.
- Communion is understood by Orthodox as a sign of membership in the Church and an act of commitment to the Church, so it is not given to non-Orthodox. In fact, Orthodox should not receive unless they have recently been to Confession and have not eaten or drunk since the midnight before. Orthodox who are not known to the priest should speak to him so he will know they are communicants; just ask a member to send word to him. The cubes of bread offered in thelarge bowls are not Communion, but called antidoron. This is frequently given to visitors as a gift out of love. The bread is blessed and set apart before Communion and should be eaten reverently.
- Standing (and kneeling) are the Biblical postures for prayer and Orthodox traditionally stand at Sunday services. But for most people this takes some “getting in shape”, so feel free to sit as much as you wish. We have enough seats for those who wish to sit. We don’t normally kneel on Sundays, as Sunday is the Day of Resurrection and kneeling is considered penitential; we kneel a good bit at weekday services during Lent.
- Children — we don’t have a nursery during the services because we believe it is appropriate and beneficial for children to be in the services as much as possible. It may take a few visits, but young children learn to adapt, and it’s surprising how much even toddlers absorb. It’s no problem if they move about quietly — we have a number of children in the parish and are used to movement — of course if you feel that you need to take your child out of church briefly, it is okay.
- Visitors Welcome — Orthodox try not to talk during the services, especially during communion, so it may be that no one will greet you until the service is over. After Sunday services we have Common Meal, a time of food and drink together in the hall (downstairs); you’re invited to join us there so we can get to know each other. No one will put any pressure on you to join the Church; many people “visit” our Church for years.
The Divine Liturgy
The main Sunday morning service is called the Divine Liturgy. With sermon, it lasts about an hour and a half. It includes:
- Responsive prayers called litanies.
- Praise, usually Psalms 103 and 147 and the Beatitudes (St. Matthew 5: 3-12)
- Procession with the Gospel Book
- Hymns of the day, on Sundays especially of the Resurrection, and the hymn, “Holy God.”
- Epistle and Gospel readings and sermon
- The Great Entrance, a solemn procession carrying the Gifts of bread and wine to the altar, representing the offering of our lives to God
- The Nicene Creed, the summary of the Faith
- The Eucharistic Prayer. We “lift up our hearts” to join the angels in singing Holy, Holy, Holy and offering thanksgiving (Eucharist) to God for all His works, especially remembering Christ’s saving work, and asking the Holy Spirit to transform our Gifts into Christ’s Body and Blood. It concludes with the Lord’s Prayer.
- Communion. Orthodox who are prepared by repentance and fasting receive the Holy Gifts as a means of union with Christ. Our children receive because God’s work in us is not limited to what we can understand.
The normal Saturday Evening Service is called Great Vespers. It lasts about 45 minutes. Orthodox Christians, like the Jews before them, believe the new day starts on the evening before. Great Vespers is a preparation for, not a substitute for, worship at the Sunday Liturgy. It consists mainly of singing of Psalms, especially Psalms 104 and 141, the “evening offering of incense,” and the hymns “O Gladsome Light” and “Lord, Now Lettest (Luke 2:29).” It has themes of Creation and Resurrection as the “eve” of the Day of Resurrection, the first day of the week.
Frequently Asked Questions
What does Theotokos mean?
Theotokos (Mother of God) is a title for the Virgin Mary. Orthodox love and honor (but do not worship) her because of our union with her Son. The attention given her in the Church also expresses our faith that Jesus Christ is truly human, born of a woman as we are, yet mysteriously has always been God, so His human mother can be called the Mother of God. In many hymns she is a sign of the Church as the beloved bride of God; her exaltation as “more glorious than the Seraphim” is a sign of the exaltation awaiting all who “hear the Word of God and keep it” as she did.
What are Icons?
Icons are paintings of Christ and the Saints. They must be painted according to a strict tradition because they are an important way the Faith is handed down and taught. Icons and crosses are kissed (“venerated”), but not worshiped, as a sign of our belief that in Christ God took a physical body, and became part of our physical world so we could know Him. Other human beings who unite themselves with Christ become holy and the image of God becomes visible in them so we honor their icons, as well.
Incense, vestments, candles are part of the imagery of heavenly worship in the Book of Revelation. In the Liturgy we participate while still in this world in the worship of the angels and saints in heaven. Many people buy candles and place them in the church as an offering of light to the Lord, who told us to let our light shine.
Standard prayers and hymns are used rather than extemporaneous or modern ones because they contain the accumulated insights of many centuries of Christians, and most of them are packed with Biblical quotations. They are repetitious because that way they become rooted in our minds. They are chanted or sung rather than spoken so we are less conscious of the personality of the individual reader.
How can I join this church?
We don’t hurry anyone to join; some people “visit” for years. We offer inquirers class, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule time to chat. There are no obligations to join while attending these classes. If, after learning the basic teachings of the Orthodox Faith, you desire to join the Church, then speak to the priest about becoming a catechumen (Greek "learner". The catechumenate is the initial stage of membership before the Orthodox Christian initiation rites of Baptism and Chrismation (anointing with sacred oil as the “Seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit”). Along with special prayers for the catechumens during church services, they are taught the Christian disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving and participation in the sacramental life.
Adapted from St. Athanasius Church, our sister parish near Lexington, KY