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.
Jamey Bennett is curator of A Field Guide to the Orthodox Church and attends St. Mark Greek Orthodox Church in Boca Raton. He lives in South Florida with his wife Alison and three beagles. You can follow him on twitter.