If this is your first visit to an Orthodox church there are some unique features that most people have questions about. This sections will cover the basics of what you see going on at services and inside the church.
You may be here evaluating if this is the right church for you and your family. St. Nicholas is part of the Orthodox Church in America. www.oca.org
The word Eastern Orthodox sounds foreign. What Orthodox means is “true worship” or “correct belief” which originated in the Eastern part of the Christian world—Jerusalem, Antioch, Cyprus and Greece. Simply put we are the Christian church started by the disciples of Jesus Christ 2000 years ago.
What We Aren’t
We are not a church that has a coffee bar, musical entertainment, babysitting and offers you a “feel good” break on the weekend. We understand that appeal, but like a sweet cookie, it can leave you wanting some “substance”. Chances are that if you have already had these thoughts about today’s mega churches, Orthodox Christianity will give you what you are looking for.
What We Are
Substance. Worship of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church established by Jesus Christ in his Great Commission to the Apostles. We practice the original Christian faith and maintain a rich and beautiful liturgical tradition with many customs that date back to Apostolic times, including fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, receiving Communion on an empty stomach, ancient liturgical prayers and chants, frequent sacramental confession, standing or kneeling during services instead of sitting, and baptizing by full immersion.
Through prayer, through participation in the Church’s sacraments and the study of Holy Scripture, through struggle against our strong inclinations to sin and selfishness, and through gestures of loving self-sacrifice for others, we strive to enter more deeply into communion with the God who is Love. Union with God constitutes man’s only true and lasting happiness. It is this union and this happiness which Jesus Christ longs to give us, and the Church exists to make that happen. The Christian life consists in opening our hearts, minds and bodies to the merciful grace of God’s healing, and this life-long endeavor requires faith and perseverance.
Yes, being an Orthodox Christian is serious and takes some commitment. We all do our best to follow the teachings of the Church. Do we succeed 100% of the time? No. The only perfect one was Jesus Christ himself. We all struggle to fast, pray, and be at church services. It is an ongoing fight—a cross we bear for our salvation.
Orthodox utilize all of their senses in their worship.
Incense floats through the air representing the prayers ascending into heaven. A bell is rung during the call to worship and at other key times in the worship. Altar boys, deacons and the priest dressed in a blaze of vestment colors serve in the altar area, chanting prayers and hymns, bowing, performing prostrations, acknowledging the heavenly hosts of saints and angels whose worship we are entering into.
Parishioners do not sit primly in the pews but may walk throughout the church lighting candles, venerating icons. The hands of parishioners are not quiet and closed but making the sign of the cross, reminding the one who makes it that Christ loved us enough to die for us. Later communion will be available so that one can even utilize the sense of taste during worship. There is a sense of holiness and worship.
At first the activity of worship may seem almost distracting to you but it will become natural. The Orthodox believe worship is ongoing in the heavenly kingdom. They believe heaven is a place where worship doesn’t cease, that those who have gone before and have been faithful are worshipping the Holy Trinity continuously. When earthly Christians join together to worship we join the heavenly throng and begin participating in that worship.
Singing and Chanting
About 80% of the service will be sung. The choir leads the people in a beautiful a cappella harmony (no instruments).
The practice of personally lighting a candle as you enter the church is a powerful way of relating one’s own prayer with the prayer of the church, and with Christ, the “light of the world.” They are an expression of your own prayers.
The Sign of the Cross
Blessing one’s self by making the sign of the cross takes place whenever the Trinity is invoked (mentioned), whenever we venerate the cross or an icon and many other places in the Liturgy.
We cross with our right hand, touching forehead, chest, right shoulder and then left to end over the heart. Our hand is held in a prescribed way: thumb and first two fingertips pressed together (Representing the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and the last two fingers pressed down to the palm (Representing the two natures of Christ: man and God).
You will notice the priest or deacon using the censor at different points in the Liturgy usually preceding an important event such as the Great Entrance. They will cense the icons, church and then the choir and congregation bowing as they do so and we bow back. Since we all were created in God’s image and likeness, we bow acknowledging the “God” which is within each of us. Incense is an offering and a visual symbol of our prayers rising heavenward to God.
The Eucharist (Communion) is the main event. This is when we are in communion with God and is the whole purpose of the Divine Liturgy. It unites us with God. Jesus said, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (John 6:56).
The Three Doors
The Icon Screen (Iconostas) has 3 doors. The central opening in front of the altar has 2 doors called the “Royal Doors” because that is where the King of Glory comes out to the congregation in the Eucharist. Only the priest and deacon, who bear the Eucharist, use the Royal Doors.
The other two openings on either side have doors with icons of angels. They are called “Deacon’s Doors.” The altar boys, deacons and others with business behind the altar use these doors.
12 Feast Days
The 12 Major Feast Days of the Orthodox Church and Pascha are listed below and are depicted across the middle section of the icon screen inside the church.
September 8 Nativity of the Virgin Mary
September 14 Elevation of the Cross
November 21 Presentation of the Virgin Mary in the Temple
December 25 Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ
Greeting: Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
January 6 Theophany (Baptism) of Our Lord
February 2 Meeting of Our Lord in the Temple
March 25 Annunciation to the Virgin Mary
Sun. before Pascha: Palm Sunday, Entrance into Jerusalem
Holy Pascha Feast of Feasts, Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ
Greeting: Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!
40 days after Pascha Ascension of Our Lord
50 days after Pascha Pentecost. The Descent of the Holy Spirit
August 6 Transfiguration of Our Lord
August 15 Dormition of the Virgin Mary
The very first thing you will probably notice about the interior of the church is that it is covered in icons. There is Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints and angels, martyrs and disciples.
In the Orthodox Church an icon is a sacred image, a window into heaven. An image of another reality, of a person, time and place that is more real than here and now. More than art, icons have an important spiritual role. When an Orthodox Christian gives honor to an icon by kneeling or bowing before it or by kissing the icon the Christian is not paying respect to wood and paint. Instead he acknowledges that the icon represents much more and that the link between the icon and the person in heaven is real. He believes that in some mystical fashion the veneration given to the icon will be received by the person it portrays.
The primary purpose of the icon is to aid in worship. The Orthodox believe that surrounding themselves with icons help them to acknowledge the constant presence of Christ and the saints in their lives. When parishioners stand in the pew during worship they only need to look around to see the saints surrounding them. In this way the icon is a reminder of a larger reality. It reminds us that we have stepped out of one world and into another.