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Orthodox Christians in the United States and Europe have the rare privilege to experience a variety of Orthodox rites and customs in Eastern and Western Rite churches. Both East and West make the sign of the cross, light candles, use incense but our liturgies and hymnody vary (aesthetically, not theologically).
The Western Rite liturgy begins when the crucifer, the acolyte who carries the cross, leads the altar party from the narthex to the chancel. Following the cross are the torchbearers, the thurifer (the acolyte with the thurible or incense), attending clergy, the celebrant, and the bishop (if present). In some parishes the choir also processes.
- The Gospel book is read after it is processed into the congregation.
- The Gifts are consecrated after they are processed to the Altar.
Worshipping with our Body, Mind, and Soul
Orthodox Christians worship the Lord with our entire being, body and soul. Our outward physical acts silently communicate our internal faith. For example, it is customary to show veneration or respect to the cross by bowing slightly as it passes by. Respect for the celebrant and clergy is shown by a modest bow when they pass.
Making the sign of the cross reminds us of the Lord’s death resurrection.
The Sign of the Cross
The Orthodox Christian often ascribes the sign of the Cross on his body. This devotional act is as ancient as the Church and may be considered:
- a confession of faith in the Holy Trinity;
- a silent declaration of faith in Christ as the Savior and Redeemer of mankind;
- as a prayer.
It is a confession of faith in the Holy Trinity because as we cross ourselves we say: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. It is a prayer, because by inscribing it on our bodies we bring to mind the fact of the Crucifixion of Christ from which springs up the power of our salvation.
The Orthodox Christian makes the sign of the Cross
- to begin and end private devotions,
- when entering the church,
- while venerating icons, the Holy Gospel, or the Holy Cross,
- when the names of the Holy Trinity, the Mother of God and Saints are pronounced during services,
- at prayers before and after meals,
- and at any appropriate times as an act of piety.
St. Kosmas Aitolos, concerning the sign of the Cross, writes the following.
Listen, my brethren, how the sign of the Cross is made and what is means. First, just as the Holy Trinity is glorified in heaven by the angels, so should you join your three fingers of your right hand.
And being unable to ascend into heaven to worship, raise your hand to your head (because the head means heaven) and say, “just as the angels glorify the Holy Trinity in heaven, so do I, as a servant glorify and worship the Holy Trinity. And as the fingers are three separate, and are together, so is the Holy Trinity three persons but one God.”
Lowering your hand to your stomach, say: “I worship you and adore you my Lord, because you condescended and took on flesh in the womb of the Theotokos for my sins.”
Place your hand on your right shoulder and say: “I beg you, my God, to forgive me and to put me on you right with the just.”
Placing your hand again on your left should say: “I beg you my Lord, do not put me on the left with the sinners.”
This is what the Cross means.
All Orthodox must be properly prepared to receive the sacrament; however, the means of reception varies between parishes.
Eastern Rite Parishes
- The people approach the priest, one by one, with arms crossed over their chest (left over right), speak their Saint’s name and open their mouths wide to receive the sacrament.
- The priest serves the wine soaked bread to the communicant on a spoon.
- The mouth remains opened while the priest upturns and removes the spoon.
Western Rite Parishes
- The people approach the priest in small groups with arms crossed over their chests (left over right).
- The communicant speaks their Saint’s name and presents their tongue when the priest approaches.
- The priest places the Host (leavened bread, baked into a thin round wafer) on the communicant’s tongue while speaking the blessing
- and then moves to the next person.
- The priest returns to the first person with the chalice.
- The communicant assists the priest by lightly grasping the base of the chalice to guide it for a small sip.
- The chalice is wiped after each sip with a white linen cloth and rotated for the next communicant.
- When all have been served, the next group approaches the priest.
- A deacon may assist the priest in distributing the sanctified Eucharist.
After receiving communion, the Antidoron (“Pain Benit”, blessed bread) is eaten while returning to one’s seat. No matter the parish, communicants are to wait until after they have left the priest to cross themselves. Care must be taken when receiving communion.
Participating without Receiving Communion
Communion is regarded as the ultimate expression of unity between those who share the faith, discipline and order of the Orthodox Church. Accordingly, it is given only to Orthodox Christians. Other persons attending the service, such as inquirers, visitors, catechumens, or family members who are not Orthodox, may come forward at the time of communion to receive a blessing. Orthodox may also do this when, for whatever reason, they are not taking the sacrament.
People receiving a blessing join with those receiving communion; however, they do not cross their arms. Arms should be at one’s side. After receiving the blessing, the Antidoron (“Pain Benit”, blessed bread) is eaten while returning to one’s seat.
Dating back to at least the 6th century, the custom of giving out blessed bread to non-communicants was prevalent in England, France and Germany. The English Sarum liturgy, an inspiration for the Orthodox liturgy of St. Tikhon, contains a specific prayer to bless the bread. Western rite parishes use this prayer today. It is a kind and helpful custom for today, since persons who do not share our understanding of communion might otherwise feel uncomfortable at not being able to receive the sacrament.
One final word about visiting a parish. Please do not worry about whether you are to stand, kneel or cross yourself. We are here to help you and all of us have been in your situation. Don’t worry or be concerned just in the worship and all else will follow.