The worship services of the Orthodox Church are liturgical. Liturgical worship makes mystically present the earthly life and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is through our worship that we obey the Lord’s command to “Do this in remembrance of me”. Not only do we remember God in our services, we ask for His grace and His mercy, that we might be united with Him in a communion of love. The unification of man with God, sometimes called “deification” or “Theosis”, is the purpose of all of our worship services.
Orthodox worship encompasses all of the senses. We see the images, we hear the singing and join our voices to the choir’s, we smell the sweet fragrance of the incense, and if Orthodox, we partake of Holy Communion which is the Body and Blood of the Lord. You will see people making the sign of the cross on their bodies, making bows, kissing icons and lighting candles.
Visitors are invited to participate as much as you wish.
A daily and weekly cycle of services exists within the Orthodox Church. While the Divine Liturgy is the central worship service of the Church, and is served every Sunday, the Church has an entire daily cycle of services, which begin at sunset and are served at their appointed hour until sunset on the following day, when the cycle begins all over again with the evening service of Vespers. It is common to find monastic communities celebrating the full cycle of services, while in parish life it is more likely that the following services would be celebrated:
- Divine Liturgy
- Hours, Compline, Nocturns
The Divine Liturgy
The central worship service of the Orthodox Church is called the Divine Liturgy (meaning “The Divine Work”). The Divine Liturgy is a Eucharistic (the Greek word for thanksgiving) service and contains two main parts: the Liturgy of the Catechumens, sometimes called the Liturgy of the Word, at which the Scriptures are proclaimed and expounded, and the Liturgy of the Faithful, sometimes called the Liturgy of the Eucharist, in which the gifts of bread and wine are offered and consecrated.
In the Divine Liturgy we are given a foretaste of this “banquet of the Kingdom.” The Church teaches that these gifts, in a mystical manner, truly become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The Lord says, ‘unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day’ (Jn 6:53-54). Thus the Orthodox Church has the Eucharist at the center of Her worship.
In the Orthodox Church the liturgical day begins in the evening with the setting of the sun. This practice follows the Biblical account of creation: “And there was evening and there was morning, one day” (Gen 1:5).
The Vesper (or evening) service in the Church always begins with the chanting of the evening psalm: “…the sun knows it’s time for setting, Thou makest darkness and it is night….” (Psalm 104: 19-20) This psalm, which glorifies God’s creation of the world, is man’s very first act of worship, for man first of all meets God as Creator.
The Matins service of the Church unites the elements of morning psalmody (from the Old Testament book of Psalms) and prayer with meditation on the Biblical canticles (particular selections of sacred texts drawn from various books of the Bible), the Gospel reading (selected readings from the New Testament of the Bible), and the particular theme of the day in the given verses and hymns. The themes of God’s revelation and light are also always central to the morning service of the Church.
Hours, Compline, and Noctures
These services are chanted in monasteries (communities dedicated to a life of abstinence and separation from the secular world) but are seldom used in parish churches except perhaps during Lent and Holy Week (the periods leading up to Easter and the celebration of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection), and on special feast days.
Worship services in the Orthodox Church are celebrated by a priest, a man who has been called upon by his community and set apart for special service to the Church. Each priest is ordained, through the laying on of hands, by a bishop. Each bishop has Apostolic succession–an unbroken line of ordination and common faith, extending back the Apostles themselves. The priest is the servant of his community, and serves only with the blessing of the bishop.
The Traditional Elements of Worship
The Orthodox Church has always made use of vestments, candles, incense, and icons in worship. This is in part due to the rich liturgical heritage that the early Christians received from the Jewish rites of worship in the Temple. The inside of an Orthodox church is to be, as much as possible, a reflection of the heavenly temple. Our worship is to be a reflection of heavenly worship–which was witnessed by the Prophet Isaiah, the Apostle Paul, and others. For this reason, an Orthodox priest will be clothed in rich-colored vestments, candles will adorn the altar and iconostasis, and the air will be permeated by the sweet smell of incense. All of these things are meant to draw our minds upwards, away from the cares of this life, so that we may focus on Christ and the life that is to come.
Holy Communion (Eucharist)
This is the real presence of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, not a sign or a symbol. Therefore only prepared Orthodox Christians may receive Communion since through the use of the word Communion we mean that we are one, in belief and practice.
Those not yet in full union, that is, members of the Orthodox Church, may not receive the Sacred Mystery of Communion. In fact, Orthodox should not receive unless they have recently been to Confession, said the pre-communion prayers and have fasted, preferably from the preceding evening, but at least from the midnight prior to morning reception of the Mystery of Holy Communion.
Orthodox who are not known to the priest should speak to him before the service so he will know they are communicants; just ask a member to send word to him.
The bread (antidoron) given at the end of Liturgy is not Communion, but is given as a sign of fellowship. 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)
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 kneel a good bit at weekday services during the Great Fast.
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 can learn to settle down, and it’s surprising how much even toddlers absorb. It’s no problem if they move about quietly but please be considerate and take them out briefly if they become very noisy.
In the Orthodox Church there are numerous customs and traditions that are important parts of our worship. Some of these customs are universal to the Church, while some may vary from parish to parish, or cultural tradition. The following article Church Etiquette, adapted from an article by Father David Barr of the Antiochian Archdiocese, addresses questions most often asked about how to act in an Orthodox Church.