For many people, their first visit to an Orthodox Christian worship service will feel quite odd…like being taught for the first time the correct way to grip a golf club…or being taught for the first time how to drive a car with a clutch and a stick-shift. If you’re coming to us from a Protestant tradition, not only will it feel like you’re a treasured guest in a different country, but even more far-reaching, it will probably feel more like you’ve gone to another planet (not of this world). It can feel pretty overwhelming. So, here are a few tips to help make your first visit to our Orthodox Church feel a little less awkward.
1. Am I welcome?
You sure are! The people at Saint John Church consider it a great blessing to have guests join us! In fact, you’ll often find people hanging out around the front door just because they care enough to make sure that you feel welcomed and your questions are answered. If you’re just here to explore the Orthodox Christian Faith, please let us know. Many of the people at Saint John’s were once in your shoes, so they can relate to how you must be feeling on your first visit. At the end of our worship service, please get in line to receive a piece of the blessed bread from our priest, Father Allan (don’t worry, it’s not communion), and introduce yourself as a newbie. Then make your way next door, into our hall for coffee hour. Our folks would love to get to know you a little better…and we hope you might take a little time to get to know us. We hope that you soon discover…if you’re here, you’re home!
2. How should I dress?
In an Orthodox Church, there is a great sense of reverence & holiness. Of course, Church is never meant to be a fashion show for the clothes-horse. But, also remember…we’ve all come to stand in God’s presence and to offer worship to Him in all His magnificence. For men, it’s best to leave the gaudy sports-jersey or the shorts at home in favor of something more modestly respectful. For women, it’s better to leave the Daisy-Dukes or the provocative nightclub attire at home in favor of something more modest. This is a time when we’re here to direct all attention to God, not to ourselves. Years ago, people put on their “Sunday-best” to go to Church. There was once a time when dress clothes were often referred to as “Sunday-clothes.” In all areas of our lives, we should offer Christ our best…and the same is true of our dress. We should begin habits of worship, where we come to offer Christ our best in everything we do and are. Thus, we should dress modestly, not in a flashy way that would bring attention to ourselves. Our dress should always be becoming of a Christian – especially at church. You may not have much, but make sure you’re offering Him the best and most modest of what you do have.
3. What in the world is a “liturgy”?
Orthodox Christian worship is “liturgical,” primarily involving a pattern of worship—a call and response of prayer—that involves both the priest and the people in the pews. From the very beginning, God’s worship instructions to His people, the Israelites, followed a pattern. When we read the prophets’ portrayals of the worship in heaven, we soon discover that the worship pattern that God gave the Israelites followed after that pattern of worship already taking place in heaven. In heaven there’s incense and splendid vestments, and all of God’s creation gathered around in His light to offer praise and worship to Him. The Greek word for “liturgy” literally means, “the work/ministry of God with His people.” So, our Orthodox Christian liturgy involves acts of worship that include offering the ritual of worshipful thanksgiving to God; offering public service to others out of gratitude to God; as well as the blessing of offering a charitable gift. Our Sunday morning service is called the “Divine Liturgy.” This liturgy involves adoration of God, while He’s doing His work in us, beginning from the altar…and then from there extending out into the all of the people of the parish…and then from there extending out even further, applying to every other part of our lives.
4. All rise!
In Orthodox Christian liturgical worship, you’ll discover that we stand a lot. Why? Well, when you find yourself in court, and the judge walks in, what do you do? You stand in deference to the honorable role that he holds. When the President of the United States walks in, what do you do? You stand, out of respect for the significance of his office. When the King of Glory enters and fills the room, what do you do? You stand, in exaltation of His majesty, saying, “Here I am Lord, send me!” So plan ahead, by wearing some comfortable shoes. Don’t worry, with a little practice, you’ll soon find that standing for worship begins to feel more and more natural. Of course, it stands to reason that the more you get to know our Lord, the more there will also be times that it’s only natural to also bow down low—prostrate on your face—in awe of the great magnitude of His love.
5. The Sound of Music
Most of Orthodox liturgical worship is chanted or sung. It’s not normal for everything to be in song…and that’s the point. In fact, we might say, it’s other-worldly. That’s because, when you read the descriptions of worship in heaven, the angels are constantly singing in adoration of God. Thus, when you step into an Orthodox Christian worship service, you’re mystically joining in with the worship that’s already taking place in heaven…“not of this world.” Of course there will be a spoken sermon (homily) by the priest…and a few of the prayers he says are spoken, and the parish recites the creed and a couple of the prayers together…but most is sung—almost like one, continuous song. You’ll notice as well that much of the singing has a bit of an Oriental/Byzantine/Middle Eastern feel to it. This reflects the historical origins of the Church—the musical traditions from which it was born. At Saint John Church, everyone participates in the singing of the liturgy, because it’s one important, engaging part part of our participation with God’s work/ministry in us.
6. What’s with all the pictures?
At the front of the Church and on the walls all around you, you’ll see a plethora of pictures…what we call “icons”—from the Greek word for “images.” In Orthodox worship, we consider these images to be windows to heaven. They depict Christ and the saints who have come before us, who are cheering us on and interceding to God on our behalf, as Hebrew 12:1 describes the “great a cloud of witnesses…” who surround us. Orthodox Christians believe that when people die they continue to be alive in Christ, who is the One who conquered death and the One who is the God of the living.
7. When Orthodox Christians pray to Mary and the saints, isn’t that idolatry?
It’s important to understand the difference between the meanings of the two words, “pray” and “worship.” We Orthodox consider God to be the only one worthy of worship. Although we give honor to the saints as heroes of the faith…the only one we worship is God. However, the word “pray” has a distinctly different meaning. It simply means, “to ask.” Anyone who’s ever read any Shakespeare will remember that this is the origin of that word, in English. For instance, in Hamlet, act 5, scene 1, Claudius says, “I pray thee, good Horatio, wait upon him.” Claudius is simply requesting that Horatio wait. He’s making a prayer (a request) and it’s neither worship, nor idolatry. As Christians, we make requests of God…and we also make requests of our trusted, spiritually mature Christian friends that they pray to God for us. In James’ universal epistle to the Church (James 5:14-16), he advises, “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” In Hebrews 12:23, Saint Paul refers to the “great cloud of witnesses,” of those saints who had gone before us as, “the righteous made perfect.” So it stands to reason that if “the prayer of a righteous person avails much”…and those saints who have gone before us are “the righteous made perfect,” then who is there better to ask to pray for us than the heroes of the faith who have gone before us? Since we all need a great deal of help as we struggle through this life, we make a lot of requests of these heroes of the faith (saints) to pray to God on our behalf. So why not become friends with these intercessors? We also sing occasional songs honoring them for “fighting the good fight,” and running the race with perseverance all the way to its end. Christians have done that from the earliest times.
8. Why does the priest turn his back on the people so much?
Actually, the priest isn’t turning his back the people. Rather he’s leading the people in facing toward the anticipation of Christ’s coming. Jesus said, “For just as the lightning flashes from the east to the west, so also will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:27). And our Lord does come to us in the Eucharist and in the rest of the sacramental life of the Church. Ever since the time of the Apostles, Christians have faced east while praying. We do this to practice for all of life, where we should always have a mystical anticipation of the coming of Christ in every encounter with any other person, or any other part of God’s creation. Of course, there are a few times when the priest doesn’t face toward the east, but rather, turns toward the people. He faces them to bless them, to give the sermon, to lead them in “The Lord’s Prayer,” and to cense the people with incense.
9. Can I receive communion with everyone else?
The Eucharist is the central and most intimate part of Orthodox Christian worship. When Saint Paul speaks of the intimate relationship between husbands and wives in Ephesians 5:21-33, he concludes by saying that he’s using this description of marriage to actually illustrate the profound mystery of Christ and His Church. For us, the Eucharist is the nuptial chamber where that marriage between Christ and His Church is consummated—where the two mystically become, “one flesh.” When civilized people invite guests into their home, they try to offer enough hospitality that those guests feel as welcome as possible in their homes. However, there’s one place in a civilized person’s home where guests may not enter…the marriage bed. To civilized people, even the most beloved guests are not welcome to enter into that level of intimacy. Likewise, when people who are not baptized Orthodox Christians come as beloved guests to our Church, we want to do everything possible to show you hospitality and to make you feel welcome in our home…however, we ask that you respectfully refrain from partaking of the chalice. Instead, get into line with the rest of the people coming up for communion, and when you come to the priest, tell him, “I’m not an Orthodox Christian. My name is ________. May I please have a blessing.” The priest will happily offer you a blessing…after which, we invite you to take a piece of the blessed bread from the large bowl of bread being held up by one of our altar-servers. That bread is not communion. Rather, in Greek, it’s called, “antidoron,” which means, “instead of the gifts.” This is our way of offering you our hospitality.
20. Isn’t it boring to use the same Liturgy week after week?
How often do you breathe air? It’s a pretty safe bet that you breathe air over and over again, moment after moment. Why do you do that? Isn’t it boring? How often do you drink water? Aren’t you drinking it every day, and in fact, several times each day? Why do you keep drinking water, when water is so boring? It’s because, no matter how boring you might feel they are, you need to breathe air and you need to drink water to live. It’s a fact of life! As you mature, you begin to discover that there’s such complexity to both air and water that they aren’t boring at all. In fact, they’re both quite amazing. The same is true of the Divine Liturgy. We need it to live…and we need to participate in it regularly to live. That too is a fact of life! It’s multi-layered, with so much complexity, that if we pay close attention, we’ll continually find buried treasures. The more you immerse yourself in its complexity, the more you’ll experience its transformative power to offer you life.
11. Why is so much attention given to Mary?
In the Orthodox Church, Mary has a lot of significance for us. We refer to her as the Theotókos, which is a Greek word for, “Mother of God.” One of the first things you notice when you walk into Saint John Church is a giant icon of Mary behind the altar. On the Holy Doors in front of the altar, there is the scene of the Archangel Gabriel’s Annunciation to her. She’s also on an icon just to the left of the Holy Doors in front of the altar. She’s in several other icons as well. She’s featured prominently in our prayers and in some of our hymns and in particular Church seasons. We begin the Church year with her birth…and the Church year ends with her death. When we consider all the hundreds of thousands of saints who ever lived, Orthodox Christians give Mary a place of honor as, “the first among equals.” Among the many metaphorical and poetic names the Church has for her, one of them is, “Our Champion Leader.” Why? It’s because Mary was the first (as the Protestants are fond of saying) to have Jesus come live inside of her. She was also the first to bear Him forth into the world…just as all Christians are supposed to bear forth Christ into the world. In essence, Mary shows us exactly what it means to be a follower of her Son, Christ, the Lord. So we constantly make Mary present in the life of the Church and we ask for her prayers to help us grow in unity with her Son. We don’t worship her, but instead, we look to her for inspiration as we learn to live Christian lives. “Commemorating our most holy, pure, blessed, and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, with all the saints, let us commend ourselves and one-another and our whole life to Christ our God.”