A Guide to the Field Guide

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What is the Orthodox Church? And why a field guide? Put simply: she is the world’s oldest Church, and as such, she has matured and grown over time in her daily practices and liturgical expression, so understanding how to navigate her services and daily life is an important issue for anyone in the Church, or those exploring her for truth.

To those who have never been to an Orthodox worship service, the first few visits can be scary, and the services so intense, it can be confusing. Add to this, many times the services are conducted in strange languages that a visitor may not understand. And sometimes, even those who feel at home in the Orthodox Church, having spent many years experiencing her faith and worship services, may not have reflected on the meaning of this or that particular practice.

The Church is unchanged in a very real sense—she has carefully preserved, promoted, and died for the faith entrusted her by Jesus Christ in the first century. But that does not mean that she didn’t have to occasionally expand on or rephrase how she articulated that faith (usually to combat errors), or develop new customs over time. This process of maturity is not unlike life for any ordinary human being—we learn from our mistakes, grow from our trials, and try to find better ways to communicate.

The purpose of any field guide is to assist an observer in appreciating and understanding what he sees. This blog is no different. Its goal is to be a practical help and handy reference, designed for use with the shortest notice and easy to navigate answers about whatever a person may observe in a typical Orthodox church.

This guide tends to focus on North American Orthodoxy, with a primary emphasis on the United States, but we will do our best to be faithful to worldwide Orthodoxy. There is a recognizable beautiful and organic unity among the various church jurisdictions, most of which makes no difference whether it is a Russian parish in San Francisco, a Greek parish in Nashville, a so-called Pan-Orthodox parish in Hawaii, or even a Ukrainian parish in Odessa, Ukraine. Yet with more visits, and more familiarity with the services, a visitor will begin noticing subtle differences in liturgical customs.

While not a precise set of categories, for the sake of these blogs, the lower-case “t” tradition of the Orthodox Church are categorized broadly as Slavic-Russian or Byzantine-Greek. The category of Slavic-style parishes may include Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, and Romanian churches—among a few others. The category of Byzantine-Greek parishes is typically inclusive of Greek, Turkish, Antiochian/Syrian, and Serbian churches—again, among a few others. This blog attempts to be as universal as possible, and where “Slavic” and “Byzantine” practices are different, an attempt will be made to note such differences, at least in a general way. (Somewhere, someplace, at some time there will almost certainly be exceptions to these generalizations. (And at this time posts will not focus on differences within the Orthodox Western Rite—that would likely require its own treatment.)

The approach this blog takes may appear random at first. But eventually a trajectory to the posts will emerge. If this field guide were a physical book, one would open it to find two sections. The first section would be a step-by-step walk-through of a typical Divine Liturgy, our most sacred and central service. The Divine Liturgy is the heartbeat of the life of Church, and without it, there is no Orthodoxy. The second section would be an A-to-Z reference of the Orthodox Church, with a special emphasis on the services and daily disciplines of her people.

The most important thing we hope to communicate with these posts really isn’t the nuts and bolts of Orthodox worship and discipline, but the One who is the reason for our worship and discipline: Jesus Christ. The whole point of Orthodoxy is to life a Eucharist life in Christ for our salvation, and for the life of the world.

Nothing in this guide blog is the final word. The author is a mere layman, and it is quite likely he will overgeneralize and make an occasional mistake. There is always a danger at interpreting local practices as universal, perhaps not realizing that the Greeks or Russians in the old countries have never done it like this or that. Charitable comments, corrections, suggestions, or notable exceptions are always welcomed.

A similar version of this post appears here.

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How to Make the Sign of the Cross

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The sign of the cross is one of the most ancient and revered customs of the Church. St. Gaudentius of Brescia, a fourth/fifth century saint, said: “Let the sign of the cross be continually made on the heart, on the mouth, on the forehead, at table, at the bath, in bed, coming in and going out, in joy and sadness, sitting, standing, speaking, walking; in short, in all our actions. Let us make it on our breasts and all our members, that we may be entirely covered with this invincible armor of Christians.”

The Orthodox Church engages in worship using all five senses, and the sign of the cross is a physical prayer. And we use it a lot! In some parishes, you might see someone cross him or herself hundreds of times in a single service!

The general idea of the sign of the cross is identifying and calling to mind the death of Christ on the cross. It’s a prayer for God to bless you. It’s an acknowledgement of prayer, and a calling on the mercy of God. Some might even see it as a reminder of their baptism and chrismation, when they entered the Church and the sign of the cross was made on them many times, declaring them a beloved child of God!

In current Orthodox practice, the sign is made by holding the right hand’s thumb, index finger, and middle finger together, and tucking the ring and pinky fingers into the palm, side-by-side. The three fingers together symbolize the Trinity, and the two remaining fingers represent the two natures of Christ. Then, the sign begins by touching the forehead with the three fingers, bringing the hand straight down to the torso or chest, over to the right shoulder, then to the left shoulder.

Typically the signing is completed by a slight bow of the head, or by a full bow, where the signer reaches all the way to the ground and touches it briefly. In some cases, the crossing is punctuated with a full, facedown prostration on the ground.

We cross ourselves many times throughout the day, and throughout a worship service. It is customary to cross oneself when entering and exiting a church building. We cross ourselves before venerating an icon or a relic. We cross ourselves during prayer, sometimes at the beginning and the end of a prayer. Many will cross during litanies, as we sing, “Lord have mercy!” or “Grant this, O Lord!” We cross near the end of reciting the Nicene Creed, before and after the Gospel reading in the service, and many cross themselves when the Holy Gifts are brought out in the midst of the congregation during the Great Entrance.

Crossing yourself is acceptable just about any time. However, it is preferred that you don’t cross yourself “at” a priest or bishop, even when he is blessing you, and it’s generally frowned upon to cross yourself when receiving the Body and Blood of Christ at communion (accidents happen!).

Sidebar: The Russian “Old Believers” or “Old Ritualists” cross themselves slightly differently. They place their thumb, ring finger, and pinky together in the palm, and have their index and middle fingers together in a pointed fashion. There are a few Old Believer communities in communion with the worldwide Orthodox communion of Churches. If you belong to one of these communities, this would be the way to cross yourself. If you do not, then don’t. Cross yourself in unity with your worshiping community.

Deer in the Headlights Baptist Visits an Orthodox Church

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When one first enters an Orthodox church, it may be a scary or intimidating experience. There is often confusion about what everyone is doing, when and why they’re going around kissing things, and what a visitor should do or how to behave. “And did those people really just kiss the hand of that man in the Matrix outfit? Yes, I’m pretty sure that just happened.”

So let’s demystify this a bit with a story. In this imaginary Sunday morning experience we meet George, a lifetime Orthodox Christian, and Sally, a recent inquirer.  Not every detail of this story is replicated in every place, but rather this story is told to give you a sense of what one might see.

George arrived for liturgy, and greeted a few friends on his way in. Fr. Sergius, a semi-retired priest who serves the parish in a limited capacity, was just coming through the doorway, too. He greeted Fr. Sergius by saying, “Father, bless!” and then swept his right hand to the ground, bending at the waist. While he was doing that, Fr. Sergius made the sign of the cross over him, and said, “The blessing of the Lord be upon you!” while George placed his right hand, palm up and open, into the palm of his left hand, and Fr. Sergius placed his own hand into George’s hands, while George kissed it. George followed this pious custom out of reverence for the Lord and respect for hands that were tools in the hands of God—hands used in the great task of bringing the incarnate Son of God to the people of God through ordinary bread and wine. These hands were holy, for they have handled the holiest things on earth.

Sally watched all this from a few steps behind George.

After this greeting, George entered the foyer and venerated several icons. Sally observed awkwardly from the side, noting that George crossed himself twice, bending over and touching the ground, standing up to kiss the icon, and then crossing and bowing one more time, touching the floor with one hand. When George venerated a second icon, Sally watched closely, and saw that George was kissing the hand of the figure on the icon, rather than the face.

Next, George walked over to some boxes of candles and what appeared to Sally to be a sand-filled litter box. George dropped a few dollars in a bin, and took several candles. Sally wasn’t really sure what to do, so she just awkwardly smiled at a few elderly ladies in head coverings eyeing her, then quickly looked away.

George walked into the nave—the main part of the church, where the congregation stands—and made his way to the front. Sally entered right behind him, but lingered along the rear wall. He stood for a few brief moments in front of several icons, apparently praying, and repeated the triple crossing and bowing kissing thing, and occasionally would light the candles he had, cross himself yet again, and place the candles on these interesting-looking gold or bronze stands.

Eventually, George made his way to a place in the congregation to stand. Like many other Orthodox parishes in America and around the world, this church had pews, and he took a place, but he did not sit.

Something then occurred to Sally—there were chanters up front and off to the side, and a priest was swinging a thing full of incense and muttering some barely audible words. It appeared to her that the service was already in progress, but people were still milling about, kissing icons and lighting candles.

Much of the service was a blur for Sally. There were a lot of hymns, a lot of “Lord have mercys,” and a number of strange words, like “Theotokos.” Some of the service was in a language she didn’t recognize—perhaps she even heard several languages, she could not be completely sure.

There were distinctly familiar moments, such as Scripture readings—but even such moments felt unusual to her, since they were chanted instead of simply read. And what was with all the crossings? She must have seen the sign of the cross made a thousand times around her.

There was a sermon in the middle of the service. Everyone sat down, and there were even a few people in flip-flops who just plopped down on the floor along walls and in corners. The sermon was nice, but it felt strange to her. No pulpit, no detailed verse-by-verse exposition, and certainly no emotional altar call. Perhaps most striking was that the sermon clocked in at 15 to 20 minutes or so (who’s counting?) instead of the 45 minutes or more she was used to at her old church.

After the sermon, there was a great deal of commotion up front, behind a strange wall with a lot of icons on it, while a choir in a balcony above sang a cappella hymns. She found it a little jarring when the priest chanted for something or other to depart—over and over he said a strange word about some people and told them to depart. Yet, she never saw anyone depart (except for people with fussy babies, but this didn’t appear to have any correlation with the command to depart!).

After that, more litanies were sung, and the priest prayed a lot of prayers. George appeared to be at home, crossing himself and bowing his head slightly just about every time the choir sang “Lord have mercy.”

At one point, Sally felt really awkward when a long line of people came out from behind the icon wall…a few kids, a couple assistants, and the priests literally paraded down the north side of the nave carrying a cross, some disc-like things, incense, a chalice, some cloths, and other mystifying items. And as they rounded the corner at the back, she realized she was in the way, and stumbled her way to the opposite side of the center aisle. The entourage rounded another corner and headed down the main aisle toward the altar, praying for various names of people.

The rest of the service was pretty much a blur to Sally. She occasionally glanced at George, but he seemed right at home, crossing himself and occasionally singing along to “Amens.” The service felt long, and sometimes she got tired from standing, so she would  rest in a pew set along the back wall.

The one moment that stood out to Sally was toward the end of the service, when it was time for communion.

The priest announced, “Holy things are for the holy!” and the choir responded, “Only one is holy, only one is the Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father!” Then a minor rustling began as men, women, children, and the elderly alike began lining up in the center aisle with most crossing their arms against their chests, while a few carried small children. Up front, it looked as if the priest was spoon feeding each person from a golden chalice, but it was difficult to see from the back of the nave. Whatever was happening, it looked pretty special to Sally.

As people moved past the priest, they took a few pieces of bread from a bowl and returned to their places in the building. One stranger greeted Sally with a piece of bread and said to her, “Christ is in our midst!” She sheepishly replied, “Thank you,” and took the bread.

After the service was over and the priest made a few announcements, Sally was more-or-less swept away into a river of people going down to the front of the Church and speaking with the priest. People were kissing a cross and the priest’s hand, and then receiving more pieces of bread from a bowl held by a young child. Sally was greeted warmly by the priest and invited to stay for coffee hour afterward. Still processing everything that she just witnessed, Sally thanked him, and made her way toward the door.

Orthodoxy in America

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Orthodoxy came to America in four waves. The first wave was by missionary activity in Alaska, a land that belonged to Russia at the time. Russians began trading with natives for fur in the 18th century, and a very successful fur trading company was established on Kodiak Island—the Russian-American Company—along with a school for the indigenous people. Over time, under influence of the fur traders and with quite a bit of intermarrying, many natives converted to the Orthodox faith.

With a slew of Orthodox converts and no priest to care for them or administer the sacraments, the fur traders appealed to the Russian Holy Synod of Bishops to send a priest. Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia, decided that it would be better to establish a genuine mission to the local peoples, not merely send a stopgap priest.

In September 1794, a small group of monks arrived on Kodiak Island to spread the Gospel to the natives. And though it was very successful, it was not an easy mission. The monks were upset with the way the Russians behaved, and how they treated the native population. Often, the natives’ greatest advocates and protectors were the missionaries.

Over the years, a number of monks, priests, and bishops came to Alaska to minister to the Russians and natives, traveling land and sea to bring the Gospel to the people. In the process, many saints were shown forth in the Americas, including protomartyr of All-America, St. Juvenaly of Iliamna, St. Herman of Alaska, St. Tikhon of Moscow, St. Innocent of Alaska and Moscow, and St. Peter the Aleut.

Today, there is a notable Alaskan expression of Orthodoxy that took root and grew over the last 200 years. It was the Orthodox who taught the natives how to read, and translated the Scriptures and services into the native languages. It was through this mission that Orthodoxy first came to America, and various historical situations and missionary endeavors led the Russian mission to expand to the United States and Canada.

The second wave of Orthodoxy coming to America was through immigration. Massive immigration of Arabs, Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians, Serbians, Albanians and others entered America through Ellis Island and other ports. Greeks especially came in several heavy waves of immigration—there’s a saying, wherever there is a seaport, there you will find Greeks!

Many times, the first things these immigrant groups did was form a “society of ________ (ethnicity)” and that society would rent or build a church, and try to get a pastor from their home country (who spoke their language) to come to America. There are many cases where multi-ethnic communities existed, and perhaps a Bulgarian priest might serve an Antiochian and Greek dominated parish, or something similar. It was an interesting and exciting time of new beginnings.

Indeed, Greek, Arab, and Slavic immigrants established the first congregation in the lower 48 states in New Orleans, Louisiana. Prior to their establishment as a congregation, they had a society that even raised up a militia to fight for the Confederate States in the American Civil War. This church—Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church—still exists, and has grown to be a large community today.

This period also saw the heirs of the Alaskan mission spread their reach to Canada and the lower 48 states. By 1900, the Holy Synod in Russia established the Diocese of the Aleutians and North America, with St. Tikhon of Moscow at the helm. St. Tikhon traveled from coast to coast tirelessly working to care for his growing flock, dedicating and consecrating churches for more recent Russian immigrants.

Soon, there were so many ethnicities represented in this country with largely disconnected and overlapping jurisdictions. Squabbles among the clergy, and trouble brewing back in the Old Countries—think Communism in Russia or Hitler’s invasion of Greece, for examples—led to increasing ethnic separations, or even splits within ethnic jurisdictions (the Russians, in particular, had a bitter split).

The third and fourth waves of Orthodox expansion in the Americas were by conversion. The third wave began when Fr. Alexis Toth, an Eastern Rite Roman Catholic priest, ran into conflict with the local Roman Catholic bishop who was trying to suppress Eastern Rite practices and other Roman Catholic ethnic groups. Livid from an unsatisfactory meeting with the local bishop, Fr. Alexis began to re-evaluate the nature of the Church and the claims of Rome, and eventually concluded that he needed to jump ship to the Orthodox Catholic Church.

In March 1892, he and 361 Eastern Rite Catholics were received into the Russian Orthodox Church. He began to evangelize other Eastern Rite Catholics, explaining why the Orthodox Church was the true ark of salvation. By the time of his death in 1909, approximately 20,000 so-called Uniates had come into the Russian Orthodox Church, and by 1916 an estimated 100,000 had entered. Many of these parishes are still operational today as Orthodox churches. We now honor Fr. Alexis as St. Alexis of Wilkes-Barre.

The fourth wave of growth has been slow and steady over the last generation. Evangelicals, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and non-Christians alike are discovering the Orthodox Church, especially as many parishes have now embraced the English language, and the average parishioner has assimilated into the fabric of America (usually while holding onto his ethnic identity). People are discovering that this ancient, unchanged faith is surprisingly relevant to their lives today, and embracing it wholeheartedly.

One of the more interesting stories of this fourth wave was when 2,000 evangelicals came into the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese in 1987. The short of it is that a group of Campus Crusade for Christ ministers were seeking to be true to the ideals of the early Church in their ministries, and through investigation, over time, their ministries and faith began to resemble that of the early Church (and consequently, the Orthodox Church). Despite having doors slammed in their faces by several Orthodox hierarchs, they found a warm reception in the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese. They were received en masse, and since then have integrated nicely into this Arab-Syrian jurisdiction, bringing a new enthusiasm and refreshment into American Orthodoxy.

Skipping over a great deal of history and grossly oversimplifying, these four waves did not successfully create a single Orthodox administration in this country. As the churches here grew, new churches were established, and more cohesive structures connecting the various churches developed—usually along ethnic lines. This is why a phone book may have “Russian Orthodox,” “Greek Orthodox,” or “Albanian Orthodox” entries.

In 1970, many of the Russian churches (both from the original mission and from immigration) desired a uniquely American-run administration, independent of Russia. It was hoped that all of the other groups of Orthodox people would be excited about this idea of “The Orthodox Church in America” and all join together in a single infrastructure. A few Romanian, Bulgarian, and Albanian churches shared this idea, but many Orthodox in America were not thrilled with what is now known as the OCA. After squabbles in the 1920s and 1940s within the Russian churches, the creation of the OCA deepened the existing schism with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR)—a schism that has since been healed, thank God. (There are a few intramural arguments about the timing and canonical propriety of Moscow creating the OCA, but that discussion is for another time and place.)

To this day, there is a multiplicity of “jurisdictions” in this country, with many overlaps and unfortunate situations out of line with canonical norms. Still, we remain a single Church, a genuine expression of the universal Body of Christ, united in our sacraments and faith, and guided by the one Holy Spirit.

Administrative unity is on the horizon now. Over the years, several groups have been established to work toward this end; most recently the Episcopal Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America was established to determine the way forward, and bind our many people, ethnicities, and clergy together more tightly—and over time, to correct any canonical irregularities that may exist.

The Iconostasis

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One of the central and most notable features of nearly every Orthodox church is the iconostasis (all, save the Western Rite parishes). “Iconostasis”—simply “iconostas” among Slavs—means nothing more than “icon stand,” and it separates the nave from the sanctuary and altar. It may consist of icons set up on two easels in a mission church, or be as large as a gigantic wall with dozens of icons and three doorways.

The iconstasis developed over time, but it is not without precedent in antiquity. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that certain groups of ancient Jews decorated their synagogues with icons depicting biblical figures and events, and in at least one archaeological excavation, there is a full wall of icons separating the gathering room from a sort of Torah shrine.

Around the 5th century, it became customary in eastern churches to construct a templon between the nave and altar. In the west, a similar development occurred with a “rood screen.” Over time, these elements came to be adorned with icons, and eventually became what we know as the iconostasis. There are many variations in these icon stands, but the general set-up is guided by Church rubrics, and so several features are fairly common. (And despite many years of separation from the mainstream Chalcedonian Orthodox Church, even some of the so-called “Oriental Orthodox” churches, especially the Coptic Orthodox, have embraced the iconostasis.)

Beyond the basics, liturgically, the iconostasis is equipped with three important entrances: two “deacon” doors, and one central entrance. Anyone with a blessing from the bishop (or by proxy, the priest) can enter the deacon doors, but only ordained clergy (bishop, priest, or deacon) may enter the central doors. In churches where there are several deacons, these doors are used frequently in services, and it’s hard not to imagine the workings of a cuckoo clock! These deacon doors are typically adorned with icons of deacons or archangels (and are sometimes called “angel doors” due to the icons of Archangels Michael and Gabriel).

The middle entrance usually consists of two doors, sometimes called the Royal Doors or Beautiful Gates, and a curtain. This doorway is used exclusively by clergy for liturgical purposes. These two doors are frequently adorned with icons of the four evangelists (Gospel writers) or of the Annunciation, displaying the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. Since these are the gates through which the life-giving flesh and blood of God will enter the nave of the Church to be given to the people, it is fitting that the Virgin Mary is depicted on these gates (or similarly, it is fitting that sometimes the Gospel writers who brought us the message of God incarnate are depicted).

Directly above the Beautiful Gates (or Royal Doors), you may see an icon of the Mystical Supper (Last Supper), or perhaps Christ enthroned, and very likely a large cross.

The central doors are always flanked by an icon of Christ to the right, and the Virgin Mary and with the Christ child to the left. Next comes the patron saint or patronal feast of the parish—in Byzantine parishes, the patronal icon goes next to the Virgin Mary, but in Slavic parishes, the patronal icon is next to Christ. Often—though not always—St. John the Baptist is depicted to the right, either next to Christ or after the patron saint. Other well-loved saints, such as St. George or St. Nicholas, may be depicted on other panels.

Depending on the size of the iconostasis, you may see one or more rows of icons above the first tier of icons. These rows may depict the major feasts of the Church (based around Christ’s and the Virgin Mary’s lives), the twelve apostles (sometimes St. Matthias is replaced by St. Paul), and/or Old Testament patriarchs and prophets.

Though not part of the iconostasis, when looking at the iconostasis you may be struck by a large iconographic representation behind the altar. In Byzantine parishes, this is almost always an icon of the Virgin Mary and Christ, known as the Panagia (all-holy). She usually has her arms open wide, and Christ is making a blessing, or may have his arms open wide, too. These open arms symbolize that she is “wider than the heavens” having “contained the uncontainable one” in her womb—and some see the open arms as an invitation of love to the world.

Slavic parishes sometimes depict the Resurrection of Christ, the Mystical (Last) Supper, or Christ enthroned in heaven and surrounded by angels in this space instead.

In a very real sense, the iconostasis and curtain separate the nave from the sanctuary—the common area from the Holy of Holies. But unlike the Holy of Holies in the Old Testament temple, this Holy of Holies is accessible. We can see it, and in fact, the icons draw our eyes toward it. And at the apex of every Liturgy, God enters the Holy of Holies in his body and his blood, and then condescends to come to us through the Beautiful Gates. And finally, he gives himself to us.

This is the true faith that established the universe!