From our Parish Service Book: Twelve Things

Twelve Things I Wish Id Known:
Learning how to Live and Love Orthodox Worship

Welcome to the God-protected, God-loving parish of St. Michael’s!

Here are some things that we hope will increase the profundity of your worship experience here, whether you are an experienced member of this parish, a visitor from another Orthodox parish, or this is your first time ever in an Orthodox church.

Orthodox worship is different! Some of these differences are apparent, if perplexing, from the first moment you walk in a church. Others become noticeable only over time. Here is some information that may help you understand and enjoy Orthodox worship.

1. What’s all this Commotion?

During the early part of the service the church may seem to be in a hubbub, with people walking up to the front of the church, praying in front of the iconostasis (the standing icons in front of the altar), kissing things and lighting candles, even though the service is already going on. In fact, when you came in the service was already going on, although the sign outside clearly said “Divine Liturgy, 9:00.” You felt embarrassed to apparently be late, but these people are even later, and they’re walking all around inside the church. What’s going on here?

In an Orthodox church there is only one Eucharistic service (Divine Liturgy) per Sunday, and it is preceded by several short preparatory services that same morning. There is no break between these services—one begins as soon as the previous ends, and posted starting times are just educated guesses. Altogether, the priest will be at the altar on Sunday morning for over three hours, “standing in the flame,” as one Orthodox priest put it.

As a result of this state of continuous flow, there is no point at which everyone is gathered together waiting for the entrance hymn to start, glancing at their watches waiting for the big hand to get to the twelve and the small on to nine. Orthodox worshippers arrive at any point from the beginning of the preparatory services through the early part of the Liturgy, a span of well over an hour. No matter when they arrive, something is sure to be already going on, so Orthodox don’t let this hamper them from going through the private prayers appropriate to just entering a church (such as venerating the icons and lighting candles). This is distracting to newcomers, and may even seem disrespectful, but soon you begin to recognize it as an expression of a faith that is not merely formal but very personal.

You will also notice a lot of movement throughout the Liturgy: clergy and servers come in and out of the altar, the altar doors are opened and closed, children move about from parents to godparents and back, and people stand up and sit down, cross themselves, bow, and queue up for Communion and to kiss the Cross. While all this motion might seem chaotic, it is not. In fact, this movement is one of the great joys of our worship, something that has been referred to as a “liturgical dance.” It is not hard to learn the steps, so move away from the wall and join in!

2. Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus.

In the Orthodox tradition, the faithful stand up for the entire service. Really. In some Orthodox churches, there won’t even be any chairs, except a few scattered at the edges of the room for those who need them. Expect variation in practice: some churches, especially those that bought already-existing church buildings, will have well-used pews. In any case, if you find the amount of standing too challenging you’re welcome to take a seat. No one minds or probably even notices. Long-term standing gets easier with practice.

There are certain times when only the truly infirm should remain sitting. Everyone who can should stand at the beginning of the service (“Blessed is the Kingdom”), the Entrances (first with the Gospel and later, the Chalice), during the Gospel reading, the Creed, the Anaphora (from “Let us stand aright” through the hymn to the Birthgiver of God”, the Lord’s Prayer, the distribution of Holy Communion, whenever the priest is giving a blessing or the deacon is censing the people, and the Dismissal (our service is book is marked accordingly).

Note that it is never wrong to stand for the entire service, especially on Sunday (nor is it ever wrong for the truly infirm to remain sitting the entire service!); in fact, all healthy Christians are encouraged to follow this ancient Christian tradition.

3. With Love and Kisses.

We kiss stuff. When we first come into the church, we kiss the icons at the entrance and up front (Jesus on the feet and other saints on the hands, ideally). You’ll also notice that everyone kisses the chalice after receiving Communion, some kiss the edge of the priest’s vestment as he passes by, subdeacons and servers kiss his hand when they give him the censer, and that we all line up to kiss the cross and the priest/bishop’s hand at the end of the service. When we talk about “venerating” something we usually mean crossing ourselves and kissing it.

We also kiss when we meet one another, both in and out of church (“Greet one another with a kiss of love,” 1 St. Peter 5:14). When Roman Catholics or high-church Protestants “pass the peace,” they give a hug, handshake, or peck on the cheek; that’s how Westerners greet each other. In Orthodoxy different cultures are at play: Greeks and Arabs kiss on two cheeks, and Slavs come back again for a third. Follow the lead of those around you and try not to bump your nose.

We greet our priests and bishops with a different kind of kiss: we ask for their blessing and plant one on their right hands. How does this work? Approach the bishop or priest with your right hand over your left and say “Father (or “Vladyka,” in the case of a bishop), bless.” When you receive such a blessing it is Christ Himself who offers the blessing through the hand of the priest or bishop. Who of us would not want all of Christ’s blessings we can get?

4. In this Sign.

To say that we make the sign of the cross frequently would be an understatement. 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. Some people cross themselves three times in a row, and some finish by sweeping their right hand to the floor.

As mentioned above, the faithful venerate the primary icons of the church when they first arrive. This is kind of like paying respect to hosts when visiting their home for a feast. At each of these icons, the faithful make a “metania”—crossing themselves and bowing with right hand to the floor—twice, then kiss the icon, then make one more metania. This becomes familiar with time, but at first it can seem like secret-handshake stuff that you are sure to get wrong. Don’t worry, you don’t have to follow suit until you are ready and no one is keeping score. We don’t do this to impress others, but to pay our respect and pray.

We make the sign of the cross with our right hands from right to left (push, not pull), the opposite of Roman Catholics and high-church Protestants. We hold our hands in a prescribed way: thumb and first two fingertips pressed together, last two fingers pressed down to the palm. Here as elsewhere, the ritual actions reinforce the Faith. Can you figure out the symbolism? (Three fingers together for the Trinity; two fingers brought down to the palm for the two natures of Christ, and his coming down to earth.) This, too, takes practice. A beginner’s imprecise arrangement of fingers won’t get you denounced as a heretic.

5. Blessed Bread and Consecrated Bread.

Only Orthodox Christians who have properly prepared themselves 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. Here’s the surprising part: the priest places the “Lamb” in the chalice with the wine. When we receive Communion, we file up to the priest, standing and opening our mouths wide while he gives us a fragment of the wine-soaked bread from a special spoon. He also prays over us, calling us by our first name or the saint-name which we chose when we were baptized or chrismated (received into the church by anointing with blessed oil).

After receiving Communion, communicants can have some of the zapivka (blessed bread and wine). They are encouraged to take extra portions of the bread (a.k.a. “antidoran”) 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. The same is true of the bread that you are given when you come up to kiss the Cross at the end of service: it is shared with everyone in our hope and anticipation of the Great Feast that is to come.

Visiting Orthodox Christians who have prepared themselves for Communion through the disciplines of the Church and have notified the priest of their intent are welcome to come forward for Communion.

Non-Orthodox visitors are sometimes offended that they are not allowed to receive Communion. Orthodox believe that the act of receiving Communion is broader than a person and his/her relationship with Christ; it acknowledges faith in historic Orthodox doctrine, obedience to a particular Orthodox bishop, and a commitment to a particular Orthodox worshipping community. There’s nothing exclusive about this; everyone is invited (and encouraged!) to make this commitment to Christ and His Holy Orthodox Church. But the Eucharist is the Church’s treasure, and it is reserved for those who have united themselves with the Church. An analogy could be to reserving marital relations until after the wedding.

We also handle the Eucharist with more gravity than many denominations do, further explaining why we guard it from common access. We believe it is truly the Body and Blood of Christ. We ourselves do not receive Communion unless we are making regular confession of our sins to a priest, have fasted and prayed appropriately, and are at peace with other communicants. We fast from all food and drink—yes, even a morning cup of coffee—from midnight the night before Communion.

6. Fasting – Are You Serious?

This leads to the general topic of fasting. When newcomers learn of the Orthodox practice, their usual reaction is, “You must be kidding.” We fast from meat, fish, dairy products, wine and olive oil nearly every Wednesday and Friday, and during four other periods during the year, the longest being Great Lent before Pascha (Easter). Altogether this adds up to nearly half the year. Here, as elsewhere, expect great variation. With the counsel of their priest, people decide to what extent they can keep these fasts, both physically and spiritually—attempting too much rigor too soon breeds pride, frustration, and defeat. Nobody’s fast is anyone else’s business. As St. John Chrysostom says in his beloved Paschal sermon, everyone is welcomed to the feast whether they fasted or not: “You sober and you heedless, honor the day…Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast.”

Not only do Orthodox Christians of sound health fast from Saturday night on (regardless of whether they plan on taking Communion), the only food and drink that is allowed in the church is the bread, wine, and water that are served during the Liturgy.The one exception is for babies and toddlers. By the time children are three to four years old, they should be able to make it through Liturgy without eating anything, and by the time they reach seven (the age of their first confession), they should begin fasting on Sunday morning for Communion (or at least make an attempt at fasting by cutting back on the amount of breakfast and eating “fasting”-type foods – talk to your priest about this). Chewing gum and eating candy during Liturgy is a No-No for everyone! If you have questions about this, please see your priest – these disciplines are pastoral not penitential!

The important point is that the fast is not rigid rules that you break at grave risk, nor is it a punishment for sin. Fasting is exercise to stretch and strengthen us, medicine for our souls’ health. In consultation with your priest as your spiritual doctor, you can arrive at a fasting schedule that will stretch but not break you. Next year you may be ready for more. In fact, as time goes by, and as they experience the camaraderie of fasting together with a loving community, most people discover they start relishing the challenge and appreciate the added spiritual muscles fasting has grown for them.

7. Prayers before and after Church? Yes!

It may seem as much an overkill as snacking before and after going out for dinner, but praying before and after the Divine Liturgy is essential to our deeper enjoyment of it. For people who have spent their whole week in prayer (following a prescribed “Prayer Rule”), participating in the Divine Liturgy is like the going to the Super Bowl with your home team after following them all season. Fair-weather fans enjoy the game, but real fans feel every moment much more profoundly. Part of every Orthodox Christian’s “Prayer Rule” is the prayers before and after Communion. As with all our written prayers, these prayers serve at least two purposes: pedagogical (teaching us through the repetition of good information) and effective (God really does hear us and respond!).

If you do not have a prayer book or would like to learn more about Orthodox prayer, ask the priest! Our parish has made audio recordings of the principle components of the Orthodox “Prayer Rule” (morning and evening prayers, prayers in preparation and thanksgiving for Communion) available for free on the parish website ( and via podcast (iTunes: OrthoAdoration). Many people find that listening to their prayers during the commute to and from work and church transforms a stressful activity into a blessing.

It is also traditional for Orthodox Christians to attend the Resurrection Vigil on Saturday evening (we follow the Jewish custom of marking the beginning of the liturgical day at sunset, so this is the first service of Sunday). In fact, in many parishes, no one would even think about coming to Communion without having come to Vigil and Confession on Saturday evening! This is not required in our parish, but the Vigil is a beautiful service whose solemnity, poetry, and music deepens our life in Christ. Make it – and a good “Prayer Rule” – part of your life and mark how your peace and joy increase!

8. Music, Music, Music.

About seventy-five percent of the service is sung – please sing along! Orthodox use no instruments other than their voices. Usually a small choir leads the people in a cappella harmony, with the level of congregational response varying from parish to parish. The style of music varies as well, from very Oriental-sounding solo chant in an Arabic church to more Western-sounding four-part harmony in a Russian church, with lots of variation in between.

This constant singing is a little 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 the liturgy is one continuous song.

What keeps this from being exhausting is that it’s pretty much the *same* song every week. Relatively little changes from Sunday to Sunday (with the exception of the Saturday evening Vigil, which varies quite a bit!); the same prayers and hymns appear in the same places, and 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.

This repetition is intentional and, like all the rituals and guidelines of the Church, specifically designed to guide us towards a perfect union with God and one another (theosis). Again, if you have questions about why something in the service is done, ask the priest! He loves sharing his love of the Divine Liturgy by answering questions.

9. Stepping outside time – and learning patience.

Is there a concise way to say something? Can extra adjectives be deleted? Can the briskest, most pointed prose be boiled down one more time to a more refined level? Then it’s not Orthodox worship. If there’s a longer way to say something, the Orthodox will find it. In Orthodox worship, more is always more, in every area including prayer. When the priest or deacon intones, “Let us complete our prayer to the Lord,” expect to still be standing there fifteen minutes later.

The original liturgy lasted something over five hours; those people must have been on fire for God. The Liturgy of St. Basil edited this down to about two and a half, and later (around 400 A.D.) the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom further reduced it to about one and a half. Most Sundays we use the St. John Chrysostom liturgy, although for some services (e.g., Sundays in Lent, Christmas Eve) we use the longer Liturgy of St. Basil.

One of the challenges of our culture is that we do not take enough time to do important things well, if at all. People rush through meals together, neglect their personal prayers, and generally over-schedule all of their time. As a result, they increasingly find it difficult to concentrate, to relax, and to live the kind of joyful and contented lives humans are called to live. Something important has been lost and it needs to be reclaimed!

Prayer and worship are vital to restoring our spiritual and mental balance. In prayer and worship, there can be no hurry. We miss the point and the benefit of the healing God is offering us when we try to force our fallen sense of “hurry up so we can fit this in” onto a Divine Liturgy which exists outside time.

Clear everything off for Sunday morning (to include children’s sports) and let the Sabbath become your spiritual spa treatment, reminding you of how great it is to be alive!

While it is best to arrive early, if you get to church after the Divine Liturgy begins, try to enter the church quietly. If the Epistle or Gospel is being read or an Entrance is taking place, wait until it is finished to find a place inside. If Father is giving the sermon, stay in the back until he has concluded. If in doubt, check with one of the greeters to see if it is a good time to find a place.

Arriving on time is as important for our enjoyment of the liturgy as fasting and saying the pre-Communion prayers. Even the most devout of Orthodox Christians should not partake of the Eucharist if they arrive after the reading of the Gospel.

10. Our Champion Leader.

A constant feature of Orthodox worship is veneration of the Virgin Mary, the “champion leader” of all Christians. We often address her as the “Birthgiver of God”. In providing the physical means for God to become man, she made possible our salvation.

But though we honor her, as Scripture foretold (“All generations will call me blessed,” St. Luke 1:48), this doesn’t mean that we think she or any of the other saints have magical powers or are demi-gods. When we sing “Holy Birthgiver of God, save us,” we don’t mean that she grants us eternal salvation, but that we seek her prayers for our protection and growth in faith. Just as we ask for each other’s prayers, we ask for the prayers of Mary and other saints as well. They’re not dead, after all, just departed to the other side. Icons surround us to remind us of all the saints who are joining us invisibly in worship.

Speaking of icons, they have been part of Christian worship from the very beginning. Icons affirm one of the fundamental theological truths of Christianity: that Jesus Christ was both fully God and fully man. We cannot depict His divinity (any more than we can His/our Father’s), but we can and should depict his humanity. We must also remember that the prayer offered in front of icons is not offered to the wood and paint of the icon, but to the prototype depicted thereon (and, in the case of the saints, through them to the One God in Trinity).

11. The Iconostasis and Altar.

The Orthodox have maintained something this world has largely lost: a sense and appreciation for sacred space. The most obvious example is the altar. In the Jewish Temple, only one priest was allowed to enter the “Holy of Holies”, and he only did it once a year after substantial preparation. Moses was commanded to take off his shoes before the burning bush because the ground on which he stood was holy. Our veneration of the altar is no less than it was then. The Jewish High Place held the Ten Commandments, ours holds the Gospel of Christ; it held the budded staff of Aaron, ours the Cross of Christ; theirs held the blessed manna which fell from heaven, ours the Body and Blood of Christ Himself. Our architecture, iconography, and movements within the church reflect the centrality and sanctity of the altar.

Every Orthodox church will have an iconostasis before its altar. “Iconostasis” means “icon-stand”, and it can be as simple as a large image of Christ on the right and a corresponding image of the Virgin and Child on the left. In a more established church, the iconostasis may be a literal wall, adorned with icons. Some versions shield the altar from view, except when the central doors stand open.

The basic set-up of two large icons creates, if you use your imagination, three doors. The central one, in front of the altar itself, is called the “Holy Doors” because there the King of Glory comes out to the congregation in the Eucharist. Only the priest and deacons, who bear the Eucharist, use the Holy Doors (and they must be vested for the purpose).

The openings on the other sides of the icons, if there is a complete iconostasis, have doors with icons of angels or deacons; they are termed the “Deacon’s Doors.” Altar boys and others with business behind the altar use these, although no one is to go through any of the doors without a blessing and an appropriate reason. Altar service—priests, deacons, subdeacons, and acolytes—is restricted to males within the parish. Females are invited to participate in every other area of church life, especially sainthood! Their contribution has been honored equally with men’s since the very founding of the Church; you can’t look at an Orthodox altar without seeing Mary and other holy women. In most Orthodox churches, women do everything else men do: lead congregational singing, paint icons, teach classes, study theology, read the epistle, and serve on the parish council. In Christ, there is no male or female – we are all called equally to perfection and unity in Him!

12. How does a non-Ukrainian, non-Orthodox fit in here? How do you fit in?

Flipping through the Yellow Pages in a large city you might see a multiplicity of Orthodox churches: Greek, Romanian, Ukrainian, Carpatho-Russian, Antiochian, Serbian, and on and on. Is Orthodoxy really so tribal? Do these divisions represent theological squabbles and schisms?

Not at all. All these Orthodox churches are one Church. The ethnic designation refers to what is called the parish’s “jurisdiction” and identifies which bishops hold authority there. There are more than a million Orthodox in North America and 250 million in the world, making Orthodoxy the second-largest Christian communion.

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. One could attribute this unity to historical accident. We would attribute it to the Holy Spirit.

At Saint Michael’s, we affirm and share Holy Orthodoxy as it was brought from Greece to Ukraine by Saint Volodymyr in 988, from Ukraine to Woonsocket in the early 20th century, and celebrated by the faithful of many backgrounds for generations here since then. Our “Ukrainian Orthodoxy” here at St. Michael’s is a local cultural expression of the One Universal Faith – we do not so much protect and preserve this faith as we do live, share, and grow it. It is not a museum to past glories (as great as they have been!) but the living Gospel of Christ, meant to be shared as our Lord commanded!

The faith we live together and offer to you here at St. Michael’s is nothing less than salvation itself. It is the Pearl of Great Price, the fullness of the faith, and everything needful.

Orthodoxy may seem strange, but as the weeks go by it gets to be less so. It will begin to feel more and more like home, and will gradually draw you into your true home, the Kingdom of God. I hope that your visit with us will be enjoyable, and that it won’t be your last.

Invitation: Join Us as We Pursue Christian Perfection Together!

Whatever your current religion or your ethnic heritage, our home – the Lord’s home – is your home. We hope that you will stay. Every one of you, regardless of whether you are Orthodox or not, is welcome to worship with us as often as you are able. If you are not an Orthodox Christian, our prayer is that as you grow in love and in Christ you will naturally be drawn to become so. We have classes that can help you to discern this calling and learn more about Orthodoxy. Becoming Orthodox is a serious step, so please expect this process of discernment to take some time.

If you are Orthodox and do not have a parish, we would love for you to become a member here. As a priest once said; “there are no free agents in Orthodoxy”; every Orthodox Christian – indeed every human being! – should be a member of a Eucharistic parish community. If St. Michael’s does not meet your needs, there are several other Orthodox parishes in this area; our priest will be happy to help you find one that will.

Membership in this or any parish should not be taken lightly: perfection is serious business! Sacrificial giving, participation in the ministries of the church, regular attendance at Sunday services and feast days: these are a real commitment. But for the one who has fallen in love with God, these things are an easy expression of their devotion; and for the one who has accepted His salvation, there can be no end to the thanksgiving he offers!

– adapted from Frederica Mathewes-Green’; “Twelve Things”,
found at