Are non-Orthodox welcome to attend services?
Just as our Lord welcomed all, so do we gladly receive all who wish to be with us in our worship of God in the Divine Liturgy. No one should feel intimidated or uncomfortable while worshiping the Lord, and we freely welcome anyone who wishes to join with us in our services.
What can I expect to see in an Orthodox worship?
If you are coming from a non-Orthodox background, you will probably see the Divine Liturgy as very “different.” But what is important to remember is that it is not Orthodoxy that is different, but that it is the Western churches that have introduced new and different traditions of worship over time. Orthodoxy endeavors to hold fast to the Apostles’ doctrine, and we retain the form of worship of the early Christians which is called “liturgical.” This means that we follow a liturgy, a word meaning in Greek “the work of the people.” While the service is presided over by a priest, it is co-celebrated by all the people as one Body. Service books are available to the right just inside the narthex (main entrance). Please feel free to take and use one through the Liturgy.
To your right as you enter the narthex you may see people lighting candles before icons of our Lord. Candles play an historic role in the Orthodox Church. Though candles were originally used as a means of lighting, the symbolism of the light of many candles to represent how we as Orthodox Christians are to allow Christs light to shine in our own lives remains extant in our worship to the present day.
Once you enter the sanctuary you will see many icons. These are pictorial representations of Christ, the Holy Theotokos (the Virgin Mary, the Mother of our Lord), and of the Holy Saints and Apostles. Orthodox Christians do not worship these images, but we do venerate them to show honor to those whom the icons represent. In a way this is something like the honor an American may show to the flag of the United States when he salutes it or places his hand over his heart during the national anthem. It is not worship (for worship belongs to God alone) but is a sign of respect and honor. In similar fashion we honor the Saints who have helped guide us by demonstrating the Christian walk in their lives while here on earth.
Will I be expected to venerate icons too?
The important thing to remember is that you should do only that with which you are comfortable. You will not offend anyone if you choose not to venerate icons, cross yourself, or stand for the entire Liturgy. (Orthodox Christians stand during most of their worship.) None of these things are requirements, even for the Orthodox, and should you feel uncomfortable participating, simply stand or sit reverently and observe. Many Orthodox converts have been exactly where you are, and no one will feel affronted should you wish to limit your participation in the Liturgy to simply watching and listening.
May non-Orthodox receive Communion?
Because the Orthodox Church views Communion (or the “Eucharist” as it is more commonly known) as the Body and Blood of Christ and not as a mere memorial, it is treated with greater gravity than it is in many other churches. Because of this, the Church may only distribute the Eucharistic elements to faithful Orthodox believers. This is not meant to offend or ostrasize those of other faiths, since even some Orthodox will not come forward for Communion if they have not made regular confession or feel they have not prepared themselves properly to receive the Holy Gifts. However, although non-Orthodox may not participate in the Eucharist itself, everyone is welcome to come forward for the blessing at the close of the Liturgy and receive some of the blessed bread (called antidoron). The antidoron is not that which has been consecrated and mystically changed into the Body of Christ, but is merely bread that has been blessed by the priest which may be received by all as a sign of fellowship. You may even be offered some of the antidoron by an Orthodox worshipper as he or she returns from receiving the Eucharist. Feel at ease accepting it as a token of our appreciation for your presence with us.
What do I do when going forward for the blessing?
Traditionally at the close of the Liturgy the congregants will line up to receive the priest’s blessing before departing from Church. As they approach the priest they cross themselves, and the priest will hold out a cross which each individual in turn will kiss and then kiss the hand holding the cross. While doing this the priest blesses each individual by name. Following the blessing the individual may turn to the left where there will be a basket of antidoron from which all may take freely. Non-Orthodox visitors are welcome to come forward for the blessing along with everyone else, but even so remember to do only whatever you feel comfortable doing. If you prefer not to cross yourself or kiss the cross or the priest’s hand but prefer merely to stand reverently as he blesses you, this will offend no one. Should you prefer to remain in your place and forego the individual blessing, that also will be fine.
How long should I expect the Liturgy to last?
When you first arrive you will probably think you have come late, even though you may have come in several minutes before the Liturgy is to begin. That is because in the Orthodox Church there are services called Matins that occur during the hour preceding the Liturgy. Matins consists mainly of prayers and readings that are designed to help participants focus on the worship ahead. There is no pause between the end of Matins and the beginning of the Liturgy, but once the Liturgy begins (almost always precisely at 10:00 in our parish) you should have no difficulty following along, especially if you have a service book. Orthodox worship is extremely focused on God and the Holy Trinity, and the service itself is slightly longer than those in many Western churches. The earliest known Liturgy lasted about five hours (!), but around A.D. 400 St. Basil edited it down to about half that. St. John Chrysostom later reduced it down even more, to about one and a quarter to one and a half hours. Most Sundays St. George uses the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, so the Liturgy generally concludes between 11:15 and 11:30.
When do I get to meet everyone else?
Because the worship itself in the Divine Liturgy is so focused on God, we do not use this time of corporate worship to spend visiting with friends and neighbors. Sometimes outsiders get the impression that the Orthodox don’t care much about visitors, but this is entirely incorrect. Visitors are always welcomed and are encouraged to remain at the parish for coffee hour immediately following the Liturgy. This is the time for socializing and greeting one another on a personal level. Be sure to stay for at least a few minutes in the social hall after the Liturgy so that we can meet you and answer any questions you might have.