Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory Forever! This simple guide is for those unfamiliar with the worship of the Eastern Church, and who plan on visiting an Eastern Church in the future.
Sign of the Cross.
To say that we make the sign of the Cross frequently would be an understatement. We sign ourselves whenever the Trinity is invoked, whenever we venerate the Cross or an Icon, and on many other occasions in the course of the Liturgy. But people aren’t expected to do everything the same way. Some people Cross themselves three times in a row, and some finish by sweeping their right hand to the floor. On first entering a Church people may come up to an Icon, make a “metania”—crossing themselves and bowing with right hand to the floor—twice, then kiss the Icon, then make one more metania. This becomes familiar with time, but at first it can seem like secret-handshake stuff that you are sure to get wrong. Don’t worry, you don’t have to follow suit.
We cross with our right hands from right to left (push, not pull), the opposite of Roman Catholics and high-Church Protestants. We hold our hands in a prescribed way: thumb and first two fingertips pressed together, last two fingers pressed down to the palm (Three fingers together for the Trinity; two fingers brought down to the palm for the two natures of Christ, and his coming down to earth.) This, too, takes practice. .
About seventy-five percent of the service is congregational singing. The cantor (or small choir) leads the people in a cappella harmony, with the level of congregational response varying from parish to parish. It has been fairly said that the Liturgy is one continuous song. What keeps this from being exhausting is that it’s pretty much the *same* song every week. Relatively little changes from Sunday to Sunday; the same prayers and hymns appear in the same places, and before long you know it by heart.
The Holy Theotokos and the Saints
A constant feature of our worship is the veneration of the Virgin Mary. We often address her as “Theotokos,” which means “birth-giver of God.” In providing the physical means for God to become man, she made possible our salvation.
But though we honor her, as Scripture foretold (“All generations will call me blessed,” Luke 1:48), this doesn’t mean that we think she or any of the other saints have magical powers or are demi-gods. When we sing “Holy Theotokos, save us,” we don’t mean that she grants us eternal salvation, but that we seek her prayers for our protection and growth in faith. Just as we ask for each other’s prayers, we ask for the prayers of Mary and other saints as well. They’re not dead, after all, just departed to the other side. Icons surround us to remind us of all the saints who are joining us invisibly in worship.
Most Eastern Churches will have an Iconostasis before its altar. “Iconostasis” means “Icon-stand”, and it can be as simple as a large image of Christ on the right and a corresponding image of the Virgin and Child on the left. In a more established Church, the Iconostasis may be a literal wall, adorned with Icons. Some versions shield the altar from view, except when the central doors stand open.
The basic set-up of two large Icons creates, if you use your imagination, three doors. The central one, in front of the altar itself, is called the “Holy Doors” or “Royal Doors,” because there the King of Glory comes out to the congregation in the Eucharist. Only the priest and deacons, who bear the Eucharist, use the Holy Doors. The openings on the other sides of the Icons, if there is a complete Iconostasis, have doors with Icons of angels; they are termed the “Deacon’s Doors.”
All Catholics (Eastern and Western) in good standing, who are properly prepared (prayer and fasting) are invited to receive communion. In the Byzantine Tradition, the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist involves the use of leavened bread, out of which is cut one major particle, a square “Lamb of God” that bears the imprint IC XC NIKA (Jesus Christ Conquers) on it. Out of this Lamb is cut the many particles that will be consecrated and placed into the holy paterion (chalice or cup) containing the consecrated wine. When the faithful approach the Holy Mysteries, they traditionally make the sign of the Cross at a safe distance from the chalice, not while standing directly in front of the priest (or deacon). As you approach, fold your arms in the Cross of Saint Andrew (X) across your chest. Please move in as close as possible to the iliton-commnion cloth that is being held by the altar server. The priest/deacon will then recite, “The servant/handmaid of God, (name), receives the most precious and holy Body and Blood of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ for the remission of all his/her sins and for life everlasting. Amen.” Tilt your head back slightly and open your mouth widely. Do not extend your tongue. Do not say, “Amen.” The priest/deacon will gently place the Eucharist into your mouth using a spoon. Wait for the priest/deacon to bring his hand away from your face, then close your mouth.