Guidelines for visiting an Orthodox Church

Sarah Wagner

In my experience, I have found visiting different Orthodox churches a very rewarding experience. Not only does it give me a different perspective on what it means to worship God, it reminds me of the vast deepness of richness of the Christian faith throughout the centuries.

However, to many Protestants, visiting an Orthodox church can be very intimidating. Not only is the whole idea of the Orthodox Church foreign, the barriers of language, ethnicity, and protocol can make the whole thing seem to be more trouble than it is worth.

First, there are a few basic points about Orthodox churches that should be mentioned:

#1 - There are many different kinds of Orthodox churches. Some of them arose because of splits over the interpretation of a theological tenant at an early church council, these churches would be the Coptic Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Syrian Orthodox, Eritrean Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, and Nestorian (Assyrian Church of the East) churches. Others are branches of the Orthodox Church of Constantinople which hold their liturgy in their own national language, the most wide spread of these are the Greek Orthodox and the Russian Orthodox, but there are many others, such as Latvian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, etc. To confuse matters, some of these Orthodox churches later recognized the Pope of Rome and are the Coptic Catholic, Greek Catholic, Syrian Catholic, etc. In any case, differences between these churches are mostly just in theology and language. Because of differences in theology and hierarchy, some of these churches may regard other churches to be heretics.

#2 - Icons are more prevalent in some Orthodox churches than others. According to Church teaching, Icons are not to be worshipped, but should respected and honored. Most icons depict various saints that are important to that church. A saint is simply a person who, because of the life they lived, showed a resolute faith and because of this they are undoubtedly in heaven. Following Hebrews 13 they are also in "the crowd of witnesses" and are cheering us on as we run the race of faith. Because of this, icons serve as a visual reminder of a Christian life and faith that should be strived for and also that the saint depicted is supporting us.

#3 - Icons are very valuable. They are painted by special people called "iconographers" who take what they do very, very, very seriously. An icon can cost a lot of money, depending upon its size and the skill of the iconographer. Also, the way it is painted is so important that an icon serves as a "window to heaven" and it actually represents the person depicted watching over us from heaven. Because of this, old and detoriating icons are not simply thrown in the trash, but are respectfully put away.

#4 - If anything in the service strikes you as very strange and makes you uncomfortable remind yourself that you are not in a cult and that these people are simply expressing their worship of God in the way that makes sense to them according to the culture they came from. The practice of genuflecting and removing shoes can look very Islamic, until you learn that these practices were stolen by Muhammad from the Christians! In the same way, many practices in Buddhism and Hinduism are believed by many who study comparative religions to be borrowings from Christianity. So, instead of jumping to the conclusion that what is going on is pagan, realize that the influence of Christianity was very widespread in antiquity. On the other hand, a Greek Orthodox friend explained to me that the liturgy is based on the practices in the Jewish Temple as practiced before it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. The more I think on this the more it makes sense. 

#5 - While some people at an Orthodox church may understand some things about Protestantism, the general view is that the Protestant movement was a schism away from the church laid down by Jesus through the Apostles. They do not hold you as an individual responsible for this but simply care about your spiritual life and want to help you grow as a Christian.

#6 - The importance placed on Mary can look very strange, until you realize that the mystery of the Incarnation is of utmost importance, and Mary plays a central part in this, hence her importance. In Orthodox tradition, Mary is the Mother of the Church and without her sacrifices and her obedience and her spirituality, we would be lost in our own sins. So she is revered above the other saints and more than one miracle in the church will be attributed to her. While all this is strange from a Protestant standpoint, accept that the people understand what they are doing and that they are not worshipping Mary. 


So here I have compiled my own list of Do's and Don't, drawn from my own experience and what I gathered from various sources, on how to make a visit to an Orthodox church stress free and enjoyable:

Do - Call the church you want to visit in advance. Tell the person who answers, whether it is the priest or a secretary, that you are interested in observing their Sunday service. Many Orthodox churches in America are used to students coming to their church as a part of a religion class, so this should not seem unusual. You should mention the size of your group and whether those coming will be Christians and what type. Ask when their service actually begins. At a divine liturgy the service is actually about four hours long, but usually the first two hours is preparation and you will not be expected to come to that because very few people actually do. Ask specifically when would be the best time for you to arrive.

Do - Accept the offer of a pre-service orientation. At some Orthodox churches a lay leader will appoint him or her self to explain the church and its traditions to visitors. While you should expect this person to sing the praises of their church, realize that what they say is very important for how the people of the church view themselves. This person will probably also answer questions afterwards and is used to visitors asking him things using Protestant terminology, which can be infinitely helpful if you don't know their theological terminology.

Do - Make an effort to greet the icons of the Church as you see other worshippers doing. Do not actually kiss an icon if you are wearing lipstick, and if you do, wipe off the mark with a clean handkerchief. In cases such as these, and especially if the icon is not covered in glass, old, precious, or in an awkward place, it is entirely permissible to kiss one's fingers and then to place the kiss, de facto, onto the icon. Where you kiss an icon is also very important. If Jesus appeared before you right now you would not go and kiss him on the cheek, you would fall to his feet in humbleness and adoration. An icon is treated the same way and so when you greet Jesus or Mary or any of the saints, one should kiss the feet on the person depicted in the icon. Icons may also be kissed on the hand, but as a visitor you are best off sticking to the feet. At an icon depicting an event, such as the baptism of Christ or Pentecost, it is best to kiss the icon in one of its lower corners.

Do - Ask for a book of the Liturgy. This will help you follow along with what's going on and why. Some of these books come with pictures and explanations, others don't. On certain days this liturgy can get switched up a little, or you can get lost while it switches to another language, but a person standing by is likely more than willing to help you find the right spot to follow along again.

Don't - Cross the legs. This includes both the female version of crossing both legs at the knee and the male version of resting the ankle across the knee. This is very important! In the culture many of these churches come from, crossing of the legs is a sign of disrespect and laziness, two things that have no place in church. This is a difficult habit to get out of. If the church is very Americanized they may not care too much about this, but in churches made up of many immigrants expect to be reminded of this rule by a slap to the back of your head by the adorable little grandmother sitting behind you. You may want to write yourself a reminder and place this in the hymn rack in front of you.

Do - Make an effort to join the congregation in what they do during the service, whether it be standing, kneeling, singing, or saying the creed. Not only does this make you less conspicuous, one can learn much more by actually partaking in what is going on. Certain churches have unique traditions, such as crossing themselves from left to right instead of right to left, genuflecting to the floor, bowing to an altar, removing shoes, or giving the Peace. People understand if you do not know how or when to do these things and will not be overly offended if you respectfully do not copy everything everyone else is doing. On the issue of women having their hair covered, if the church wishes women to cover their hair at all times, they should provide you with scarves, in which case, please wear them. This practice is relatively rare, especially in America, and if they do practice it it is only required to be worn while receiving the Eucharist, in which case it is unnecessary to you anyways. 

Don't - be annoyed if some, or all, the service is in a language you don't know. Try to follow along as best you can in the liturgy book, unless you are very far from home, the whole liturgy should be translated into English in there. In these cases, I sometimes just bow my head and pray quietly to myself. If the foreign language continues for a long time I can get a lot of praying done and the icons and the incense and the singing aids in the quality of my prayers. 

Don't - Expect to receive the Holy Eucharist. Rules on who can partake in the Eucharist are very strict, much stricter than the Roman Catholic rules. The Eucharist is closely guarded because the priest himself wants to make sure that no one takes the Eucharist "unworthily". In the Orthodox church there are rules about confessing sins, fasting, and praying for some time before receiving the Eucharist. So even if you can assure the church that you are a Christian, which is unlikely without many years of constant contact and discussions, you wouldn't have met the other requirements.

Do - if invited feel free to receive the leftover consecrated bread. In Syriac this is called the "brikhto" (“antidoron” in Greek) and most other branches of Orthodoxy will understand what you mean by this. This is simply bread that was prepared to be a part of the Eucharist and was prayed over by the priest, but was not actually used. Since it was sanctified it can not be thrown away and since many of the congregants have fasted before receiving the Eucharist, and in ancient times had to walk many miles to reach home, the practice arose of distributing this extra bread to the people after the service. If you claim to be a Christian you will likely be invited to have some of this bread, which is usually received by greeting the priest after the service. In some services this comes at the very end of the service, and in others it is after the service and even after the priest has removed his vestments. In any case, one usually joins the line to the priest in front, and then one greets the priest, either by kissing his hand or a crucifix held in his hand, and the priest will say a short blessing for you, sometimes with his hand on you head, and then you will be given the bread. Most Orthodox understand if you find this strange and sometimes they will not invite you to join the reception line but will simply get some bread for you and bring it to you. In any case, it is understood that American Protestants will find the practice of kissing the priest's hand strange and will readily accept you giving the priest a small handshake accompanied by a slight bow.

Do - eat this brikhto bread carefully. Do not bite off pieces with your mouth but carefully break off a small piece with you fingers, making sure not to make too many crumbs, and put this piece in your mouth. Repeat as needed. Ask someone to explain to you the significance of the various ingredients used to make the bread, also if there are any designs stamped on the bread ask about that too.

Do - stay and talk to people after the service. Many Orthodox churches continue the practice of eating together and if you are invited to join them feel free. Hospitality is a major part of the culture of many of these churches and you may offend them by refusing. In general, many of these churches will have someone who will come up and talk to you afterwards, and I have always found that these people are very nice and I have had very engaging conversations with them.

Don't - be intimidated by all the protocol surrounding the priest. In their official role they are as respected by the people more than if the President was there, but, like a President should be, they are nice people who genuinely care about you. Every priest I have ever met has always impressed upon me the depth of their humbleness, so as long as you try to show them some respect the best you know how, the priest won't care too much about the things you do wrong or don't do. The best thing to do is to remember to address him as "father" and you will be fine. If you are brave you can ask the priest to give you a blessing before you leave, which means that the priest will say a prayer for you, most priests will be quite willing to do this for you.

Don't - approach the very front of the church. The nearest you should go to the front is only to right before the first step to the platform. The wall of icons, called the iconostasis, and the altar(s) behind it is strictly off-limits to all but certain people. If you are invited to go up to the iconostasis for a better look realize that this is a honor and be prepared to remove your shoes if that is the practice of that church.

Please visit: http://www.socdigest.org/  for more information and understanding of the Syriac Orthodox Church.

 

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