On Sunday morning we usually have 30-40 people in Church, among them, a number of children. The beauty of Orthodox worship must be experienced to be understood. The Divine Liturgy expresses the entire Christian faith in a continuous song of praise and prayer addressed to God. It is focused on God, not on us. There is nothing just for amusement or entertainment. Since much of the service is the same every week, worshippers know it and can participate personally, either by singing along or just by prayerful attention. Worshippers are surrounded by icons (pictures of Christ and the saints), which remind us that we are participating while on earth in the worship of all the angels and saints in heaven. The entire service (except for the sermon) is sung, mostly to Russian chants and melodies. No organ or other instruments are used. The words are all from Scripture or ancient Christian texts — no rhyming metrical hymns are used. All our services are in the English language.
The normal Saturday Evening Service is called Great Vespers. It lasts about an hour. Orthodox Christians, like the Jews before them, believe the new day starts on the evening before. Great Vespers is a preparation for, not a substitute for, worship at the Sunday Liturgy. It consists mainly of singing of Psalms, especially Psalms 104 and 141, the “evening offering of incense,” and the hymns “O Gladsome Light” and “Lord, Now Lettest (Luke 2:29).” It has themes of Creation and Resurrection as the “eve” of the Day of Resurrection, the first day of the week.
The normal Sunday morning service is called the Divine Liturgy. With sermon, it lasts about an hour and a half. It includes:
- Responsive prayers called litanies.
- Praise, usually Psalms 103 and 147 and the Beatitudes (St. Matthew 5: 3-12)
- Procession with the Gospel Book
- Hymns of the day, on Sundays especially of the Resurrection, and the hymn Holy God.
- Epistle and Gospel readings and sermon
- The Great Entrance, a solemn procession carrying the Gifts of bread and wine to the altar, representing the offering of our lives to God
- The Nicene Creed, the summary of the Faith
- The Eucharistic Prayer. We “lift up our hearts” to join the angels in singing Holy, Holy, Holy and offering thanksgiving (Eucharist) to God for all His works, especially remembering Christ’s saving work, and asking the Holy Spirit to transform our Gifts into Christ’s Body and Blood. It concludes with the Lord’s Prayer.
- Communion. Orthodox who are prepared by repentance and fasting receive the Holy Gifts as a means of union with Christ. Our children receive because God’s work in us is not limited to what we can understand.
What does Theotokos mean? Theotokos (Mother of God) is a title for the Virgin Mary. Orthodox love and honor (but do not worship) her because of our union with her Son. The attention given her in the Church also expresses our faith that Jesus Christ is truly human, born of a woman as we are, yet mysteriously has always been God, so His human mother can be called the Mother of God. In many hymns she is a sign of the Church as the beloved bride of God; her exaltation as “more glorious than the Seraphim” is a sign of the exaltation awaiting all who “hear the Word of God and keep it” as she did.
What are Icons? Icons are paintings of Christ and the Saints. They must be painted according to a strict tradition because they are an important way the Faith is handed down and taught. Icons and crosses are kissed (”venerated”), but not worshipped, as a sign of our belief that in Christ God took a physical body, and became part of our physical world so we could know Him. Other human beings who unite themselves with Christ become holy and the image of God becomes visible in them so we honor their icons, as well.
Incense, vestments, candles are part of the imagery of heavenly worship in the Book of Revelation. In the Liturgy we participate while still in this world in the worship of the angels and saints in heaven. Many people buy candles and place them in the church as an offering of light to the Lord, who told us to let our light shine.
Standard prayers and hymns are used rather than extemporaneous or modern ones because they contain the accumulated insights of many centuries of Christians, and most of them are packed with Biblical quotations. They are repetitious because that way they become rooted in our minds. They are chanted or sung rather than spoken so we are less conscious of the personality of the individual reader.
How can I join this church? We don’t hurry anyone to join; many people “visit” for years. But after visiting a while, if you wish to be a member, speak to the priest. Those wishing to be members are received as catechumens (learners), and usually spend at least a year attending the services and learning the Faith. Then if they have not already received Christian Baptism they are Baptized, and in any case are Chrismated (anointed with oil as the “Seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit”) and given Holy Communion, which makes them full members.