First-time visitors to an Orthodox Church usually have many questions about what to expect and we hope this page will help answer some of your questions
Upon Entering the Church
The first thing that you may notice when you visit is that our worship engages all the senses. The burning candles and oil lamps, the color, form and placement of the icons, the music of the choir, and the fragrance of the incense all work to focus our entire being on the worship of the Living God.
Upon entering the Church, Orthodox Christians bow, cross themselves three times, then enter and proceed to venerate the icons. To venerate an icon means to bless oneself and bow before the icon, twice, then to reverentially kiss the icon, and then to bless oneself and bow a third time.
Icons are images of Christ, of His angels, of His saints, and of events such as the Birth of Christ, His Transfiguration, His Death on the Cross, and His Resurrection. Icons actually participate in, and thus reveal, the reality they express in the image we see and experience the prototype. An icon of Christ, for example, reveals something of Christ Himself to us. Icons are windows to heaven, not only revealing the glory of God, but also becoming to the worshiper a passage into the Kingdom of God. Orthodox Christians do not worship icons, but we honor them greatly because of their participation in heaven’s reality.
Signs of the Cross and Bows
Orthodox Christians worship with our bodies; making signs of the Cross and bows.
The Sign of the Cross is an important expression of our faith. In fact, it has been said that as long as Orthodox Christians are taught to properly make the Sign of the Cross, the Orthodox Faith will remain safe, since this symbol encapsulates so much of our core theology. In the Orthodox Churches, the Sign of the Cross is made with the right hand. The thumb is joined with the first two fingers at the tip, symbolizing the Holy Trinity. The remaining two fingers are closed at the palm symbolizing the dual nature of Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Who entered time as the God-Man Jesus Christ. The Sign of the Cross begins with the right hand touching the forehead, the abdomen, the right shoulder, and finally the left shoulder. The Sign of the Cross is typically made at the mention of the Holy Trinity, when the priest blesses the congregation, at the beginning and end of the reading of the Holy Gospel, and as a response to the petitions in the litanies.
A bow of reverence is made when entering and leaving the church, passing in front of the altar, and in front of the holy icons. This bow is a sign of respect and submission to God, and to God’s people.
In the manner of the Heavenly and the Old Testament Church, Orthodox Christians have maintained the custom, since apostolic times, of standing during divine services. St. Innocent continues the tradition. We believe that in church we stand in the very presence of God, and that we join the saints and heavenly hosts in joy and prayer and worship. We do provide benches and a few chairs for the elderly and infirm who are unable to stand.
To stand before God and His holy saints during the church services is the only acceptable posture for the faithful, both for the ones who art serving, and the ones praying, for does a servant sit before his master The faithful are all servants of the Lord, redeemed by His blood. (Luke 17: 10; 1 Cor. 6:19, 20)
We do not kneel but we do sometimes prostrate. To make a prostration we kneel, place our hands on the floor and touch our foreheads down between our hands.
St. Innocent also retains the ancient Orthodox custom by which the men and women stand on opposite sides of the Church (men on the left, women on the right).
It is held that the human voice is at its best in song. The voice is the musical instrument created by God Himself. For Orthodox Christians then, the voice is the one instrument which is most fitting for the praise of God. Therefore all services are sung to reflect the heavenly music of the angels. The divine words of the services are much too precious to simply speak in normal, spoken form. Rather, they are couched in golden melodies fit for the worship of Almighty God. With the exception of the sermon, which is spoken, all parts of the services are sung.
The normal Sunday morning service is called the Divine Liturgy. In the Divine Liturgy, all the elements of Orthodoxy come together. The Divine Liturgy is spiritual, the Divine Liturgy teaches doctrine, the Divine Liturgy embodies Tradition, the Divine Liturgy is material. The Divine Liturgy is a combination of the two forms of Old Testament worship that the original Church simply continued after being founded on Pentecost Day. To cease worshipping God the way He had been worshipped for centuries did not even occur to the Church. The exception was that all forms of sacrifice were abandoned as Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection was and remains the ultimate divine sacrifice.
Thus, the first part of the Liturgy, the synaxis, is modeled after the services in the synagogues at the time of Jesus’ life. The second part, the eucharistic sacrifice, is modeled after the priestly worship in the Temple of Jerusalem. The sacrifice of Christ upon the cross is celebrated through partaking of his body and blood in Holy Communion.
Please understand that non-Orthodox visitors are not permitted to receive Holy Communion in the Orthodox Church. Reception of the Divine Gifts identifies a person with the Orthodox body of believers exclusively. It has been thus since the first Mystical Supper in the upper room. While no one at all is considered worthy of Holy Communion, including the clergy, the Orthodox Church does not admit any Orthodox person to Communion who is not prepared. An indispensable element of preparation for Holy Communion is considered to be regular participation in the Mystery of Holy Confession. Another indispensable element is total fasting, preferably from the preceding evening, but at least from the midnight prior to morning reception of the Mystery of Holy Communion.