When we go to Church

by St. Innocent Irkutsk Orthodox Church

Originally Printed in Orthodox America

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-feats, he looks upon all men as his brothers. Nikolai Gogol

The following was originally written in 1979 for the mission parish of St. Innocent of Irkusk in Medford, Oregon, Because parishioners came from a variety of Orthodox backgrounds, there was felt a need to provide a certain standard of church behavior which would bring a greater sense of unity into the services, as well as to instill traditional attitudes and comportment something which is rapidly dying out in Orthodoxy today. The guidelines offered do not presume to be hard and fast rules-even within traditional church behavior there are many subtle variations; they merely reflect the standard usage of the St. Herman of Alaska Mission territory. This may be of interest to other clergy and laity-particularly in new mission parishes, as well as to those new to Orthodoxy who are often confused about the “should” and “should not’s” of Orthodox church comportment.

The church is the earthly heaven in which the Heavenly God dwells and moves.

Patriarch German us 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 should 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.


Upon entering the church on Sunday morning, 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 breast, and the right and left shoulders, reverently asking God’s mercy on us, sinners. This also reminds us that every power of our mind, heart, and soul is to be dedicated to the service of God.

Near the entrance is a table where we may obtain prosphora (altar-loaves) 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 Proskomedia. Here we also obtain candles to light before the icons as an offering to 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 profound 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.

If we wish to receive the Holy Gifts in Communion (and have fasted from all food and drink from midnight), we quietly join the line of those going to confession. Otherwise we stand with the rest of the faithful.

As a rule there are no chairs or pews in the central part of the church, This. is because we worship after the manner of our holy forefathers, standing. The custom of sitting in some Orthodox churches was not introduced until this century. This unique aspect of our worship is a precious quality that sets us apart from others whose pews have made their services become regimented and stylized. As one Orthodox writer has said, “We are not troops on a parade ground, but children in our Father’s house.” 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.

It is important to remember that at no time before, during, or after Divine Liturgy should there be talking, laughing or visiting, as this shows disrespect to God, Whose guests we are at this banquet,


The priest will still be preparing for Divine Liturgy and hearing confessions when we arrive. At this time a service called the Hours is read for the worshippers by the Reader. This is a collection of Psalms and prayers which the early Christians read in order to greet the day and commemorate specific events in the life of our Saviour. if there is time, other prayers and hymns may be sung. We listen to all of these attentively, as part of our preparation.


Shortly before the Liturgy the priest 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.

The priest now puts aside the censer and 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 sing the responses in the Liturgy. Congregational singing shows that we are not spectators at the Liturgy, but actual participants, as the Apostolic Fathers intended. And so, although it has become the custom in many churches to have a choir sing the responses in the Liturgy while. the rest listen, it is better to follow the most ancient tradition and have everyone sing.


If we are receiving the Holy Gifts, 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 Prayers Before Communion.

The order for receiving Communion is as follows:

After the priest finishes the prayer on the ambo, the servers come forward, followed by babies in arms and young children, 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. If, however, we have received the Holy Gifts we kiss only the Cross, not the priest’s hand. At this time the priest will also give each one a piece of antidoran (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, it may only be received by those who have fasted from midnight, and only by those who are Orthodox Christians.

The priest now intones three times, “Glory to Thee our God,” and the Prayers after Communion are chanted by the Reader. 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.

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