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INSTRUCTIONS FOR JOINING

THE ORTHODOX CHURCH 

CHAPTER 12

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CHRISTIAN BEHAVIOUR

 

CONDUCT IN CHURCH

 

What is the proper conduct for Christians on entering the Church and during the service. Many converts to the Orthodox faith were born and raised in Non Orthodox countries and had little contact with the Church, they did not grow up in an Orthodox environment to know the rights and wrongs of Church conduct. We see many things happening during the service, people lighting candles at various times, others kissing Icons, others crossing themselves, others making bows, others standing, others sitting and others talking. For a stranger looking at all these things it can be very bewildering especially when all these things are happening at the same time, but without any uniformity.

 

The Greek word for order is “Τάξη” and disorder is “Αταξία”, which in the modern sense also means being naughty. Thus, when adults behave disorderly in Church, they are like naughty children that need to be corrected, which is not something Priests likes to do, but occasionally, when so many start talking at the same time, we are forced to stop the service and comment on their behaviour. Much of church etiquette is based on common sense and showing respect for God and for others.


Our conduct in Church actually begins from the home and how we prepare ourselves to go to Church. By this I don’t mean only spiritually, but also how we dress to present ourselves before God. There was a time when people had their everyday wear and then they had their “Sunday Best” reserved just for Church and special occasions. While some people took this dressing up a bit too far and even scandalized others which their eccentric and flashy dress sense, today we have gone the opposite way and dressing for Church has become too casual. We are going to Church to pray, but at the same time we are going to be standing before our Creator, our King and our God. Too much casualness is not appropriate. If we were invited to stand before the Queen of England we would not only put on our very best, but we would probably spend a small fortune on our attire just to make ourselves presentable. Should we not make a similar effort for our heavenly King? Of course, Christ doesn’t require us to spend a fortune on our clothing, he accepts us no matter how we are: he looks at our heart and not our clothing, but our attitude is important for that shows how we do not take him for granted. Just because Christ accepts us for who we are, this doesn’t give us the liberty to appear before him in rags. In all areas of our lives, we should offer Christ our best. And the same is true of our dress. We should offer Christ our “Sunday best,” not our everyday or common wear. And we should dress modestly, not in a flashy way that would bring attention to ourselves. Our dress should always be becoming of a Christian. As a guideline, women’s dresses should be modest. No tank tops or dresses with only straps at the shoulders, no mini-skirts, and no skin-tight dresses. Dresses should have backs and not be low cut in the front. Shorts of any type are not appropriate for church and women should avoid wearing trousers, not because they are indecent, but because many of the older generation still consider trousers to be attire only for men and become scandalised when seeing a woman entering Church wearing trousers. This is beginning to die out, but is it still very relevant in small villages where the population is mostly old people.

 

Women should also have their heads covered, which is something we rarely see nowadays, especially in Greek Churches, but Russian women still attend church in this manner. St. Paul says that:

“any woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head: it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a woman will not cover herself, then she should cut of her hair: but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God: but woman is the glory of the man.” (Cor. 11: 5-7)

 

Men should also dress modestly. Jeans and T-shirts are not proper attire for Church. While one is not expected to wear a jacket and tie (especially in the summer), a descent trousers and shirt with collars is desirable and preferably with the shirt buttoned up and not open-chested. Young children need not be too formal, but again they should be trained from a young age to respect the Church as the place they go to meet God and to dress accordingly. T-shirts with any kind of writing on them are too casual even for children. At best, their clothing should be clean and tidy and their shoes or sandals should be clean and tied.


So now with our “Sunday Best” we make our way to Church and should remember before entering to switch off our mobile phones. There’s nothing quite as annoying as when, halfway through the service, someone’s phone rings and not only do they answer it, they begin chatting as though they were at the market place. So with phones off, or on silent mode, we quietly enter the Church. The first thing we do is cross ourselves. This is something that we will do several times during the service which can be interpreted differently each time. We cross ourselves as a form of bodily prayer, as an outward sign of reverence and veneration, or to protect ourselves, or as a confession of faith, or as a blessing. The cross we make on entering the Church is like a confession, a “mini-creed or statement of faith”. It is also a remembrance that after we were baptized, we were sealed on our foreheads with holy chrism: we were sealed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It is saying that we are Orthodox. St. John of Damascus wrote:
“This was given to us as a sign on our forehead, just as the circumcision was given to
Israel: for by it we believers are separated and distinguished from unbelievers.”


Crossing one’s self recalls this seal, and the invocation that is said while making this holy sign calls on our God - the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost - and is a sign of our belief; it asserts our belief in the Triune God, and at the same time it is a prayer that invokes Him. We seal ourselves with the seal of Christ and as we touch our forehead we confess Christ with our minds, then as we touch our stomachs or heart, we confess Christ with our hearts and the innermost parts of our very being, and then on our arms to confess that we will always do good, the right first to show that good prevails over evil. I’m sure you all know how to make the sign of the cross, but maybe you don’t know the symbolic meanings. To make it, we always use the right hand as the right is always symbolic of being correct and good and the left as being wrong and evil. Christ placed the good, gentle sheep on his right hand and the undomesticated and wild goats on his left. We bring together the thumb, the index finger and the middle finger together. This is symbolic of the Holy Trinity. Then we lay the little finger and the finger nearest to it across the palm, recalling that Christ is both God and man and that He has two natures. Then with the tips of our thumb and the two fingers, we touch our forehead, our stomach, the right shoulder and the left shoulder, making the sign of the cross.


The three fingers together symbolize the Unity of the Holy and undivided Trinity. As we touch our forehead we remember our God the Holy Trinity Who dwells in the Heavens. We remember that Christ is the pre-eternal Son of God and as we touch our stomachs, we remember that he came down to earth for our salvation, that he took his abode in the womb of the Mother of God that he might be born a man like us. As we raise our hand to touch our right shoulder we remember how Christ was raised on the Cross, but also that he defeated death and ascended to heaven and sits on the right hand of the Father. It is also a petition where we ask God to place us on his right side with the Just. In touching the left, we recall those who are condemned and receive eternal torment on the left side and thus beseech the Lord to not put us on the left with the sinners. It can also mean that when Christ descended to earth, he passed from the Jews, who were then those on the right hand, and passed over to the Gentiles, who were then those on the left. The Roman Catholics on the other hand cross themselves from left to right symbolizing that from misery (left) they must cross over to glory (right) just as Christ crossed over from death to life, and from Hades to Paradise. After making the sign of the Cross we should also make a small bow because we have just shown the Calvary Cross on ourselves and we bow to it.


So having done this, the next thing we do on entering Church is to buy a candle and light it at the designated place, which varies from Church to Church. This again should be anticipated before entering the church. One shouldn’t wait to enter before reaching for the purse and then trying to find a suitable coin to place in the counter slot. Apart from the clanging of the coins, it draws unnecessary attention to ourselves and distracts others from their prayer. Priests in general don’t like talking about money because many people think that the church is a business, trying to milk the people for whatever they can. This is not the case: every church has certain overheads like wages for the Priests, the chanters, the cleaners, heating and air-condition expenses and many others. The only way for the church to find money to pay for all these things is through the money for candles, the money she charges for weddings, baptisms, memorials and feasts and your contributions.

 
Keep in mind also the amount of candles you light. Some people take up to 10 or more candles, one for each member or their family and others for their deceased loved ones. This isn’t at all necessary: one candle does the same as ten. Candles produce a lot of heat in the summer, which can be uncomfortable and also a lot of black smoke which blacken the whole church. Having the church repainted is a costly expense which can run into thousands of Euros. In most churches with frescos on the walls, candles have been banned or placed in the Narthex or specially built pre-chambers.


After taking our candle we proceed to the Icon stand usually found in the centre of the church, then crossing ourselves and bowing, we kiss the Icon which is usually an Icon of the saint the church is dedicated to or the Icon of the Feast we are celebrating. Kissing the Icon should be accompanied with our prayer, we then cross ourselves again and bow and then proceed to light our candle. Many people especially in villages then proceed to the Iconostasis to venerate the Icons on the Screen. This may be done if the person has come to church before the service begins, but once the service has started, this should be avoided as again we draw attention to ourselves and disrupt the attention of others. Instead of their minds being on prayer their eyes follow you until you go to your seat. Very often it can also disrupt the Priest as he comes out of the Sanctuary to give a blessing and finds you standing in front of him. When kissing an Icon we should also take care to kiss the Icon in the correct place. We may kiss the fringe of saints garments, their hands, their feet, the Cross or Gospel Book if they are holding one, but we avoid kissing the holy faces on Icons. We would not go and kiss them on the lips if they were standing in front of us, so the same respect should also be given to their Icon by kissing them in the appropriate place.

 

Women should refrain from wearing lipstick in Church, but if they can’t do without, then they shouldn’t kiss the Icons. It is irreverent not only to God and his saints, but also to our fellow Christians. Its disgusting to go and kiss an Icon only to find it covered in greasy lipstick or when having communion to see the communion spoon covered with this substance as it enters our mouths. In general women should not wear any makeup in Church. It is like putting a mask over the face that God has created, a false image like Jezebel in the Old Testament who painted her face in order to seduce her enemy. God doesn’t need painted faces to worship him and certainly doesn’t need to be dazzled or seduced with what many women consider beautiful. God sees the beauty and pureness of our hearts and our faces should reflect that inner beauty. There is a time and place for all things and painted faces might be appropriate for an evening out, but definitely not for Church.


Having then kissed the Icon or Icons and lit our candle we then proceed to take our place to follow the service. The traditional posture for prayer and worship in the Orthodox Church has always been to stand. Pews in Churches are fairly new and probably an influence from the west. In older times one could only find seats along the walls, but the whole area in the middle was empty which allowed for prostrations. This we still see in monasteries and Russian churches. In fact the Greek word for the type of seats we see in church is “Στασίδια” which means a place for standing. An English equivalent would be the word “stall” (not stool) which according to the Collins Concise Dictionary comes from the Old English word “Steall” meaning a place for standing. Originally the stalls didn’t have the lift up seats that we see they have today. People rested by leaning on the arms of the stall or by half sitting on a sloping semi circle seat attached to the back of the stall. These have now been replaced with the lift up seat, but in many places we can still find the original sloping seat.

 

Nowadays our churches usually have enough seating for everyone and people have accustomed themselves to sitting during the service, so much so that there are times when it is compulsory to be standing and yet they remain seated. It seems that we have become so lazy that we cannot raise ourselves to pray in a proper fashion. So when should we be standing and when do we cross ourselves? This is probably the most bewildering for people coming from western churches who are accustomed to the service book telling them when to stand and when to sit and when to kneel.


There are two morning services, Mattins and the Divine Liturgy. To explain each occasion for both services would take too long so we will restrict ourselves with the beginning of the Doxology which is the end of Mattins. This begins with the third and last ringing of the bells. The first bell ringing is at the start of Mattins, the second at the singing of the Katavasia and the third at the singing of the Doxology. As the bells ring we should be standing and cross ourselves with a small bow. Towards the end of the Doxology the choir sing the Thriceholy Hymn. As each holy begins we again cross ourselves and make a small bow. After this you should know that there is only one more short hymn before the Divine Liturgy begins. As the hymn comes to an end, we cross ourselves and bow to the waist waiting for the Priest to make the opening blessing – Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit… then raising our body we may then sit. You might have noticed that the old woman or old man next to you didn’t make his cross in the normal way, but instead made the sign of the cross only on his forehead using only his/ her thumb. Many of the old people cross themselves in this way at the start of the Liturgy and after the consecration of the Holy gifts when they hear the words “More especially for our most blessed and glorious Lady Mother of God and Ever Virgin Mary”. This might seem strange to many of the younger generations. But it is something that has passed down from one generation to the next. If you were to ask them why they do it, they would not be able to explain, but what they are actually doing has been traditionally passed down for two thousand years. This was the first and original way people crossed themselves and we can trace it as early as the second century, but it could even go right back to the Apostles. Early Christians crossed themselves with the thumb on the forehead, over the mouth when reading Scripture and in general, over anyone or anything Christians wished to consecrate. That it has survived to our present age is a testimony to how strong holy Tradition is.


So coming back to our Liturgy, people usually remain seated during the petitions, but stand and cross ourselves when they hear the petition “Mindful of our Most holy and undefiled Lady Mother of God…” and the exclamation at the end, when the priest glorifies the Holy Trinity. During the Antiphones one may be seated until the singing of “O only begotton Son and Word of God…” where people stand and remain standing for the Little Entrance with the Gospel Book. If you are paying attention you will hear the Priest exclaim “Wisdom Stand steadfast” which is telling us that we should be standing to attention. At the singing of “O come let us worship and bow down.. we again cross ourselves and make a small bow. Next follows the singing of the hymns for the Feasts and various Saints where we may sit, but stand again during the singing of the Thrice-holy hymn crossing and making small bows at each Holy. One should remain standing until the reading of the Apostle, sit during it, and stand again as soon as it is finished.

 

Next follows the censing and the reading of the Gospel. As a rule one should be standing whenever the Priest censes, whenever he blesses and in general whenever he comes out of the Sanctury and faces the people. As the Priest announces the Gospel reading he reminds the People that they should be standing. He says “Wisdom Stand steadfast. Let us hear the Holy Gospel.” We cross ourselves as the reading begins asking God to enlighten us to understand his Gospel and again at the end thanking and glorifying him for his saving words of wisdom. At the singing of the Cherubic Hymn we should be standing as very shortly the priest will begin censing. As the gifts pass us during the procession for the Great Entrance we should cross and bow but not in a prostrate position because the gifts have not yet been consecrated, but also because it is forbidden by the holy canons of the Church to prostrate and bend the knee on Sundays. This is because on Sundays we celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord. Kneeling is seen as denoting falling to the ground and death. It is a symbol of repentance, mourning in Christ and the beseeching of the Divine mercy. The Resurrection has delivered us from mourning and death and so we show our belief and hope in the Resurrection by remaining in a standing position. Again we should be standing for the Kiss of peace and the reciting of the Creed which should be said by everyone. We should cross ourselves at the beginning of the Creed and at the end, but you will also notice that many people cross themselves at every article of the Creed while others at particular moments during it.

 

Immediately after the Creed, the Priest says “Let us stand upright, let us stand with fear: let us take heed to present the holy offering in peace”. From here until after the consecration of the Holy Gifts one should be standing. During the actual consecration of the Gifts we should be bowed to the waist until we here the words “More especially for our most blessed and glorious Lady Mother of God and Ever Virgin Mary”. After this we may sit for a short while, but again stand for the Lord’s Prayer and remain standing until the end of the service. As a rule, when in doubt, stand: it is never wrong to stand in church. At the exclamation “The Holy Things unto the Holy”, we should make the sign of the cross and a deep bow. Next begins the preparation for Holy Communion. Many people very wrongly and irreverently treat this time similar to an interlude at the theatre and start talking among themselves: all that is missing is the popcorn. Far from being an interlude, this time should be used to recollect our thoughts and pray from the heart that God may find us worthy to partake of the fearful Mysteries without condemnation.

 

Sadly many people don’t partake regularly, which in theory and theologically, they shouldn’t even be in church at this moment. The Divine Liturgy is served so that Christians can partake of the Holy Mysteries. Let’s assume though that you are going to approach for Holy Communion: what is the correct way to do this? At all times there must be absolute order. The Priests comes out of the Sanctuary holding the Holy Chalice and says “With fear of God, faith and love draw near”. At this time we should all cross ourselves and bow irregardless of whether or not we are going to partake. Now how we approach has just been pointed out to us when the Priest said “With fear of God, faith and love draw near”. Fear of God means with reverence and if we have this fear then we will also know how to approach. That means without talking and making a noise and without pushing and stepping on other peoples toes. So often during the Great Feasts when a great many come for Holy Communion we see a disorderly madness with everyone pushing to reach the Chalice first. People must learn to approach in an orderly and humble manner and it is the Priest’s duty to teach them how to do this. Babies and children should come first as they get restless very easily. The very old and those who cannot stand for too long would do better to sit and wait till the end and then approach. We should approach in a single file and if there are many in the file, then wait until we can join ourselves to it. But our stance is also important. If we stand looking around at people and things, then our minds are not on what we are about to do.

 

With the early church people received the Body and the Blood separately and they approached similarly to how Priests approach when there is a bishop presiding over the Liturgy. We Priests place our right hand over our left forming a cross and wait for the bishop to place the body in our palms. Today, people receive both elements together from the spoon directly into their mouths, but we can still approach in a similar manner. Having our hands crossed like the Priest do, we then bring them up to our hearts and approach with our heads slightly bowed so that we see the ground and nothing else. This humble and reverent approach assists us to keep our mind on prayer at all times without seeing what others are doing. If we have the need to cross ourselves we should do this before we reach the Holy Chalice. Having reached the chalice, never ever cross yourselves as you might accidentally hit the chalice with you hand. The same goes for after taking Communion. Don’t cross yourselves until you are well clear of the Chalice. After communion immediately return to your place. Many people feel that it is irreverent to turn their back to the Chalice and wait around that area until Communion has finished before returning to their seats. This very often causes a congestion of human bodies which blocks the passage for others to return.

 

After Communion the Priest shows the Chalice saying “Save O Lord thy people and bless thine inheritance”. Here again we cross ourselves and bow and again when the Priest shows the Chalice saying “Always, now and ever, world without end.” With this the Liturgy comes to an end and it remains for the Priest to give the dismissal. As he mentions certain saint’s names people will cross themselves accordingly and again as he says “By the Prayers of our holy fathers…” Then as the Antidoron is distributed we kiss the Cross if the Priest is holding one and also the hand that gives us the Antidoron.

 
There are a few things we shouldn’t do even though we might see others doing them. When we are censed or when the priest blesses us saying “Peace unto all” we do not make the sign of the cross, but bow our heads. We should not light candles during the Epistle or Gospel readings, during the Little or Great Entrances, or at any other time other than the candle we lit on entering the church.


We should not cross our legs in Church. This is a taboo and considered to be very disrespectful. I’m not sure is there is a traditional explanation why, but we tend to cross our legs to get comfortable while sitting. It is a too relaxed and casual attitude for Church and keep in mind what was said in the beginning, that churches at one time didn’t have seats, so sitting in church is a concession and not the normal position for prayer. Being too comfortable and relaxed makes your mind wander off and might even send you into a deep sleep.
Never talk during the services even if others talk to you. If you see friends and family members, acknowledge them with a nod, but leave greeting and talking with them until the end.


Everything we have mentioned is just plain common sense. The rule is to always remember that you are in Church to worship God. If you do this with fear of God, faith and love, then you will probably have good Church etiquette.

 

 

 

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