First Time? 12 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Visiting an Orthodox Service

What is Going on Here?
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If this is your first time visiting an Orthodox church, you’re bound to see a lot of beautiful, but unfamiliar, things about which you’ll have many questions. So, here’s a few answers to get you started. Read on or watch: An Overview of the Orthodox Liturgy
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What’s all the activity?
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During the early part of the service, the church may seem to be in a hubbub, with people walking up to the front of the church, praying in front of the iconostasis (the standing icons in front of the altar), kissing things and lighting candles, even though the service is in progress. Many Orthodox Christians go through private prayers and devotional practices upon entering a church. This is often distracting to newcomers – or may even seem disrespectful – but if you attend several services, you will begin to recognize it as an expression of a faith that is not merely formal, but very personal.
 
We Stand Up
 
In the Orthodox tradition, the faithful stand up for nearly the entire service. If you find this amount of standing physically challenging, then you are welcome to take a seat. Long-term standing gets easier with practice.
 
A Physical Expression of our Love
 
People naturally express affection, as in kissing a loved one. We, too, express our devotion, love and respect in various activities that we call “veneration.” For example, when we first enter the Church, we may kiss, and make deep bows before icons that represent Saints whom we love and respect.
 
Our Champion Leader
 
A constant feature of Orthodox worship is our veneration of the Virgin Mary, the “champion leader” of all Christians. We often address her as “Theotokos,” which means, “the one who gave birth to God Himself,” or – more properly – “God-bearer.” In providing the physical means for God to become man, she made possible our salvation. We honor her, as the Bible foretells: “All generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). We venerate her and ask her to protect us and help us by her prayers, just as we might ask one of our friends or family to pray for us. We do not worship her – we offer that activity to God alone.
 
Venerating the Cross
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At the end of the Divine Liturgy (our communion service) we line up to venerate the cross being held by the priest. You are welcome to:
1) not come forward at all; or
2) come forward, say hello to the priest (who would like to meet you), and not kiss the cross; or
3) come forward, say hello to the priest, and kiss the cross as your own personal expression of gratitude for the saving work our Lord Jesus Christ performed for us through His crucifixion.
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Coffee Hour
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After Divine Liturgy, we make time for food and friendship. We call it “Coffee Hour” for lack of a more creative term and we would love for you to join us. After venerating the cross – or immediately following the announcements if you prefer – get yourself a cup of coffee and make yourself at home.
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*text provided by St. John’s Orthodox Church in Memphis, TN and adapted from 12 Things I wish I’d Known: First Visit to an Orthodox Church by Frederica Mathewes-Green

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