The effect of the Divine Liturgy is great. It is celebrated openly and visibly before the eyes of all the world, and yet it is full of mystery. If the worshipper follows every action reverently and diligently, his soul attains to a high state, the commandments become possible for him, Christ’s yoke becomes easy and His burden light. After leaving the Temple in which he has attended the Divine Love-feast, he looks upon all men as his brothers. — Nikolai Gogol.
The following is meant to provide a certain standard of church behavior that would bring a greater sense of unity into the services, as well as to instill traditional attitudes and comportment- something that is rapidly dying out today. The guidelines offered here reflect the standard usage of the Cathedral parish. They may be of interest to those new to Orthodoxy who are often confused about the “shoulds” and “should nots” of Orthodox church comportment, and can serve as a refresher for us all.
“The church is the earthly heaven in which the Heavenly God dwells and moves.” — Patriarch Ghermanos of Constantinople (†733)
For Orthodox Christians the crown of the week is the Divine Liturgy, the “Heavenly Banquet.” We come to church to offer praise to the Most Holy Trinity, to entreat God’s blessing on our lives, and to be spiritually fed at the Mystical Supper. God expects a certain behavior from us, for we are His guests at this divine banquet.
We begin to prepare ourselves inwardly and outwardly for Divine Liturgy on Saturday evening. We should be at peace with all and must avoid all feelings of displeasure toward anyone. From the evening on we dwell with our mind on spiritual things, reading our prayers and thinking of the Liturgy to come, so that our very thoughts become consecrated. Whenever possible, we attend services (both Vespers and Matins) on Saturday evening, as part of our preparation.
At this time we also take care for the clothes we will wear at church. We should be dressed modestly and befittingly as we come into the presence of the Master of the Universe. Women and girls may wear a scarf or other covering for the head; no pants or short dresses. Make-up should be avoided, particularly lipstick because of kissing icons and the priest’s hand. Men should have their shirts buttoned up to the neck and tucked in; no tight trousers. We should avoid fashions that make us stand out or cause a distraction to others in church.
In the entrance (narthex) is a desk where we may obtain prosphora (altar-bread) to be used in the Liturgy. It is proper to write the names of living and dead Orthodox Christians who are dear to us on two separate slips of paper provided for this purpose. These are then sent up to the priest with a prosphora, so that he may pray for them in the Preparation part of the Service, called the Proskomidia. Here we also obtain candles to light before the icons as an offering to God.
Upon entering the church proper, we salute the temple of God by crossing ourselves three times. The Sign of the Cross is made with the thumb and the first two fingers of the right hand joined at the tips (the third and fourth fingers being closed on the palm), as a symbol of the Trinity. We touch the brow, the stomach, and the right and left shoulders, reverently asking God’s mercy on us, sinners. This also reminds us that every power of our mind, body, and soul is to be dedicated to the service of God.
Having remembered our living and dead ones, we go to the icon of the day, placed in the center of the nave before the Altar. According to ancient custom, icons are reverenced in the following manner:
We cross ourselves twice, each time making a low bow, i.e. from the waist; we then kiss the icon (the face on an icon is never kissed-only the hands or feet); we conclude by crossing ourselves once more and making another bow.
We worship after the manner of our holy forefathers, standing. We also stand during services to remind us of a candle flame of faith, rising straight to God; and, just as a candle burns slowly down, we remember the shortness of our life. Chairs are provided for the elderly and the infirm.
It is important to remember that at no time before, during, or after Divine Liturgy should there be talking, laughing or visiting within the church, as this is disruptive and rude, and shows disrespect to God, Whose guests we are.
The priest will still be preparing for Divine Liturgy and hearing confessions when we arrive. If we wish to receive the Holy Gifts in Communion (and have made a recent Confession before the priest, and have fasted from all food and drink from midnight), we must arrive early and quietly listen to the Prayers before Communion and the Holy Hours with the rest of the faithful. This is a collection of Psalms and prayers that the early Christians read in order to greet the day and commemorate specific events in the life of our Savior. We listen to all of these attentively, as part of our preparation.
Shortly before the Liturgy the priest or deacon censes the icons and fills the whole church with a sweet fragrance, greeting us as guests at the Mystical Supper. As he walks through the congregation with the censer, we incline our heads to him to acknowledge his greeting.
At the end of the Hours the priest stands before the Holy Table with the servers. He crosses himself and bows three times, and we do likewise, bowing before the Throne of the Almighty God. Divine Liturgy begins as the priest exclaims:
Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, both now and ever and unto the ages of ages.
We respond, Amen.
All of the faithful may sing the responses in the Liturgy. We are not spectators at the Liturgy, but actual participants. We should stand in one place and not move about the temple, or come and go. Parents should keep their children at arms reach at all times, never allowing them to wander or climb on the cathedra or crawl on the floor, and when they become noisy, they should be removed promptly and quietly until they have quieted down again.
If we are receiving the Holy Communion, it is a pious custom to reverence the main icons in the church during the time when the priest is receiving Communion in the altar. After this we turn to the congregation and make a profound bow (but not crossing ourselves), silently asking for forgiveness of all present before we dare to approach the Heavenly Meal. During this time the Reader chants the Canon Before Communion.
The order for receiving Communion is as follows:
After the priest finishes the prayer on the ambo, the altar servers come forward, followed young children and babies in arms, with other adults last. We cross our arms humbly upon our breast as we approach the Holy Gifts. We do not cross ourselves in front of the chalice either before or after receiving Holy Communion so as not to accidentally hit the Chalice; this is important. Immediately after receiving the Holy Gifts, we kiss the chalice and step to the side where we take a sip of wine and a piece of prosphora.
At the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy the priest comes forth holding the Cross. We approach, each of us first reverencing the main icon and then kissing the Cross and the priest’s hand. At this time the priest will also give each one a piece of antidoron (literally “instead of the Gift”). This is a small piece of bread cut from the prosphora after the required pieces were cut for the Holy Gifts. Since it is holy bread, only those who have fasted from midnight, and who are Orthodox Christians may only receive it.
The priest now intones three times, Glory to Thee our God, and the Reader chants the Prayers after Communion. Those who have received the Holy Gifts return to their places after kissing the Cross and silently listen to these thanksgiving prayers, not leaving the church until they are completed.
The Heavenly Banquet has now come to an end. But Sunday, the Day of the Resurrection, is not over. It is extremely important to spend the rest of this holy day in a befitting way because church services attune the soul to receive spiritual truths. As one of our bishops has told us: “Do not spill the grace you have received this day.” Hence, we should not plunge back into worldly concerns, entertainments, and bad habits, but return to our homes with exultant joy in our hearts and thanksgiving on our lips, and plan to do some spiritual reading as soon as possible.