St. John the Theologian Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America
Diocese of New York - New Jersey
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What's an Orthodox Church Like?

Procession of the Eucharistic Gifts
Procession of the Eucharistic Gifts
Procession of the Eucharistic Gifts

There are a number of things about Orthodox Christian worship that are different from the services of other churches, whether Roman Catholic, liturgical Protestant, or Evangelical.  Orthodox worship can often be considered "exotic" and "other-worldly", and most definitely springs from different origins and traditions than does Western Christian worship.
 

We're "catholic" - but not Roman.  "Orthodox" - but not Jewish.  "Evangelical" and charismatic - but not Protestant or Evangelical.  We're not a denomination - we're pre-denominational.  We're the original church founded by the Apostles through the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.  If you've ever wondered, "Whatever happened to the Church the Apostles left behind?" you're not alone.  Orthodoxy is the original Church - an ancient Faith for a modern world drowning in doubt and confusion and searching for meaning, relevance, and true, heavenly worship.


In an effort to help you better understand what a visit to an Orthodox church would be like, and to help you anticipate the various customs and practices that are both common to various Orthodox churches as well as particular to the way worship unfolds at St. John's, here are a few things that you should know prior to planning your first visit to an Orthodox Christian church.
 

A Sense of Holiness

If you are from a Protestant or non-liturgical tradition, you may feel overwhelmed the minute you walk in the door of an Orthodox church. Orthodoxy has sometimes been described as an "audio-visual extravaganza" - a total-sensory experience that involves the whole person: mind, body and soul.  You will find yourself surrounded by a blaze of color in the priest's vestments, altar coverings, and the icons that adorn the walls. The sweet and aromatic fragrance of incense will envelope you. Rich, deeply moving music will fill your ears. All around you people will be doing things—lighting candles, kissing icons, making the sign of the cross, bowing, standing in prayer—everything but sitting still. To someone accustomed to four bare walls and a pulpit, all this may seem very strange.
 

It's important to remember that none of this is an end in itself. Everything we see, hear, smell, touch, taste, or do in the Orthodox Church has one purpose and one purpose only: TO LEAD US CLOSER TO GOD. Since God created us with physical bodies and senses, we believe He desires us to use our bodies and senses to grow closer to Him.

 

Holy Communion
Holy Communion
Holy Communion
Candles lit for prayers
Candles lit for prayers
Candles lit for prayers
Venerating Christ's tomb during Holy Week
Venerating Christ's tomb during Holy Week
Venerating Christ's tomb during Holy Week
The Music

Traditionally, Orthodox use no musical instruments in any of their divine services; everything is sung A Capella. St. John's is particularly blessed to have an extensively trained and experienced choir director lead the faithful in the singing of the responses and hymns.  The style of music varies as well, from western-sounding four part harmony in a Slavic church to the exotic-sounding chants of the Byzantine tradition, with lots of variations in between.

This constant singing may be a bit overwhelming at first; it feels like getting on the first step of an escalator and being carried along in a rush until you step off ninety minutes later. It has been fairly said that he Liturgy is one continuous song.

Before long you know it by heart. Then you fall into the presence of God in a way you never can when flipping from prayer book to bulletin to hymnal.

 

Standing, Sitting, and Kneeling

Paschal Midnight Vigil
Paschal Midnight Vigil
Paschal Midnight Vigil

Some Orthodox churches may have chairs, some may have pews, but since ancient, apostolic times the attitude or position of the body meant as much as the attitude and position of the soul; therefore, Christians have always stood during divine worship.  Too much sitting encourages the person attending a worship service to become too much of a passive observer of worship rather than an active participant in worship. 

While Orthodox Christians may sit when they need to, they stand for most of the service out of respect and love for our Lord, especially during times when He and/or the Holy Spirit is speaking directly to us: in the Gospel reading, the recitation of the Nicene Creed, the Eucharistic Prayer, the Our Father, and the reception of Holy Communion, for example.  If you find the amount of standing too challenging, you're welcome to take a seat. It get easier with practice.

Generally, we don’t kneel on Sundays, but sometimes we do "prostrations."  This is not like prostrations in the Roman Catholic tradition, lying out flat on the floor. To make a prostration we kneel, place our hands on the floor, and touch out foreheads between our hands. At first, prostration feels embarrassing, but no one else is embarrassed, so after a while it feels natural. In Orthodoxy there is an acceptance of individualized expressions of piety, rather than a sense that people are watching you and getting offended if you do it wrong.
 

One former Anglican priest said that seeing people prostrate themselves was one of the things that made him most eager to become Orthodox. He thought, "That’s how we should be before God."
 

By This Sign

We sign ourselves whenever the Trinity is invoked, whenever we venerate the cross or an icon, and on many other occasions in the course of the Liturgy. But people aren't expected to do everything the same way, and there are variations in the way in which and number of times the faithful cross themselves, according to the custom and tradition they were raised with.

We cross with our right hands, touching forehead, chest, right shoulder, then left shoulder to end over the heart, the opposite of Roman Catholics and Anglicans. We hold our hands in a prescribed way: thumb and first two fingertips pressed together, the last two fingers pressed down to the palm. Here as elsewhere, the Orthodox impulse is to make everything we do reinforce the Faith.—The three fingers held together represent the Trinity; the two fingers against the palm represent the two natures of Christ.

 

The Kiss

We kiss things. When we first come into the church, we kiss the icons. During Holy Communion the faithful kiss the chalice after receiving the Holy Gifts.  The acolytes kiss the priest's or bishop’s hand when they give things to him or take things from him (such as the censer), and we all line up to kiss the cross at the end of the service.

Both Ss. Peter and Paul admonish us to kiss one another (e.g., "Greet one another with a kiss of love," 1 Peter 5:14) as a sign of the love we share in our Lord Jesus Christ.  When Roman Catholics and Anglicans pass the peace, they give a hug, handshake, or peck on the cheek. In Orthodoxy different cultures are at play: in our tradition at St. John's, heavily influenced by our roots in Russian Orthodoxy, we kiss each other three times, one each in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  During this time, we greet one another with "Christ is in our midst," with the response, "He is and always shall be." The greeting is not the previously familiar "The peace of the Lord be with you," nor is it "Hi, nice church you have here."
 

Blessed Bread and Consecrated

The priest prepares the bread and wine
The priest prepares the bread and wine
The priest prepares the bread and wine

Only Orthodox may take communion, but anyone may have some of the blessed bread. Here’s how it works: the round communion loaf, baked by a parishioner, is imprinted with a seal. In the preparation service before the Liturgy, the priest cuts out a section of the seal and sets it aside; it is called the "Lamb." The rest of the bread is cut up and placed in a large basket, and blessed by the priest.

During the eucharistic prayer, the Lamb is consecrated to be the Body of Christ, and the chalice of wine is consecrated as His Blood. The priest then places the Lamb in the chalice. When we receive communion, we file up to the priest, standing and opening our mouths wide wile he gives us a portion of the wine-soaked bread from a spoon. He also prays over us, calling us by our first name or by the saint’s name which we chose when we were baptized or chrismated (received into the Church).

At the end of the service, as we file past the priest and venerate the Cross he is holding, we come to a basket of blessed bread. People will take portions for themselves and for visitors and non-Orthodox friends around them. If someone hands you a piece of blessed bread, do not panic; it is not the eucharistic Body. It is a sign of fellowship.

 

Confession is never "General"

In our experience, we don’t have any general sins; they’re all quite specific. There is no complete confession prayer in the Liturgy. Orthodox are expected to be making regular, private confession to Christ in the presence of their priests (i.e., the "presbyters" or "elders" St. Paul talks extensively about).

The roll of the priest/pastor is much more that of a spiritual father than it is in other denominations. He is not called by his first name alone, but referred to as “Father First-Name.” His wife also holds a special role as parish mother, and she gets a title too, though it varies from one culture to another. Some of the titles used are: "Matushka" (Slavic), which means "Mama"; or "Khouria" (Arabic) or "Presbytera" (Greek), both of which mean "priest’s wife."

Another difference you will probably notice is in the Nicene Creed. In the Creed we affirm that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, but we don’t add "and the Son," as Western denominations do (such addition was one of the greatest theological reasons the western Roman Catholics broke from their eastern Orthodox Catholic brethren, a split that has lasted over 1,000 years). In this we adhere to the Creed as it was originally written in Nicea at the First Ecumenical Council of 325 A.D.

 

No Shortcuts

Proclaiming the Good News
Proclaiming the Good News
Proclaiming the Good News

During the first 300 years of Christian worship, liturgical worship lasted well over four hours. St. Basil the Great edited this down in his liturgy to about two and a half hours, and later (around 400 AD) the Liturgy ascribed to St. John Chrysostom further reduced it to about one and a half hours. For most of the year, the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is used, while during Sundays in Lent the longer (and more ancient) Liturgy of St. Basil is used. Also during Lent, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, traditionally ascribed to St. Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome, is served on the weekdays of Lent when normal liturgical services are not served.

When you arrive for Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning, worship will already be in progress and you will feel chagrined at arriving late. You are not late; the priest, reader and some parishioners are just winding up the Third Hour, which began about a quarter of an hour before. Before the Third Hour, the priest and deacon had other preparatory services; they will be at the altar for a total of over three hours on Sunday morning, "standing in the flame," as one Orthodox priest put it. Orthodoxy is not for people who find church boring.
 

About Mary

Mary's icon on the Iconostas
Mary's icon on the Iconostas
Mary's icon on the Iconostas

We love her and it shows. What can we say? She’s His Mother. We often address her as "Theotokos," which means Birth-giver of God. In providing the physical means for God to become man, she made possible our salvation. It is important to note that, after the Lord Himself, the most important personage in the Orthodox Church is that of a woman - the Holy Birth-Giver of God, and Ever-Virgin Mary the Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Not that we think she or any other saints have magical powers or are demigods. When we sing "Holy Theotokos, save us," we don’t mean "save" in an eternal sense, as we would pray to Christ; we mean "protect, defend, take care of us here on earth." Just as we ask for each other’s prayers, we ask for the prayers of Mary and the other saints as well. They’re not dead, after all, just departed to the other side. Icons surround us, in part, to remind us that all the saints are joining us invisibly in our worship.

Mary is also particulary loved as our own Mother in Christ and as the spotless and pure image of the Church as the Bride of God.

Windows into Heaven

St. John the Baptist
St. John the Baptist
St. John the Baptist
Our Lord
Our Lord
Our Lord
St. John the Theologian
St. John the Theologian
St. John the Theologian

Every Orthodox church will have an iconostas before its altar. "Iconostas" means "icon-stand." The basic set-up of two large icons creates, if you use your imagination, three doors. The central opening, in front of the altar itself, usually has two doors, called the “Holy Doors,” because that is where the King of Glory comes out to the congregation in the Eucharist. Only the bishop, priest and deacon, who bear the Eucharist, use these Doors. The Holy Doors are also flanked by two icons of Jesus Christ (on the right) and the Ever-Virgin Mary (on the left).

The openings on the other sides of the two main icons have doors with icons of two particular deacons: Stephan, one of the first 7 deacons and the Church's first martyr, and Lawrence, a Roman deacon who was also a martyr. Altar boys and others with business behind the altar use these, although no one is to go through any of the doors without an appropriate reason. On the outer sections of the iconostas are icons of the parish' heavenly Patron,
St. John the Theologian (on the far right) and the greatest (and last) prophet of the Old Testament, St.
John the Baptist (on the far left).

Altar service - bishop, priests, deacons, altar boys - is restricted to males. Females are invited to participate in every other area of church life. Their contribution has been honoured equally with that of males since the days of the martyrs; you can’t look around an Orthodox church without seeing Mary and other holy women. In most Orthodox churches, women do everything else men do: lead congregational singing, paint icons, teach classes, read the epistle, and serve on the parish council.

Everyone is Welcome!

Burning our Mortgage, 2007
Burning our Mortgage, 2007
Burning our Mortgage, 2007
Donating to Emmaus House, Harlem
Donating to Emmaus House, Harlem
Donating to Emmaus House, Harlem

There are about 1.5 million Orthodox in North America and over 300 million in the world, making Orthodoxy the second-largest Christian communion.

Flipping through the Yellow Pages of a typical city, you’ll find a multiplicity of Orthodox churches: Ukrainian, Greek, Romanian, Russian, Antiochian, Serbian, and others. 
All these Orthodox bodies are one church; the "ethnic" designation simply refers to the parish's origins (similar to "Irish" Catholics or "Swedish" Lutherans).

The astonishing thing about this ethnic multiplicity is its theological and moral unity. Orthodox throughout the world hold unanimously to the fundamental Christian doctrines taught by the Apostles and handed down by their successors, the bishops, throughout the centuries. They also hold to the moral standards of the Apostles. One could attribute this unity to historical accident. We would attribute it to the Holy Spirit.

Why then the multiplicity of ethnic churches? These national designations obviously represent geographic realities. Since North America is also a geographic unity, one day we will likewise have a unified national church, an American Orthodox Church. This was the original plan, but due to a number of complicated historical factors, it didn’t happen that way. Instead, each ethnic group of Orthodox immigrating to this country developed its own church structure. This multiplication of Orthodox jurisdictions is a temporary aberration, and much prayer and planning is going into breaking through these unnecessary walls.

Orthodoxy seems startlingly different at first, but as the weeks go by it gets to be less so. It will begin to feel more and more like home, and it will draw you into the Kingdom of God. We hope that your first visit to an Orthodox church will be enjoyable, and that it won’t be your last.

© Based on the Conciliar Press pamphlet "12 Things I Wish I Had Known" by Frederica Mathewes-Green. Used by permission of the author.