One of the most overlooked areas of Orthodox church etiquette is our behavior in entering and exiting the temple. There are a number of considerations we should make before simply waltzing through the doors into the church. Likewise, we should think twice before simply walking out, whether it’s to use the restroom or to head home for the day. In this post, we lay out some guidelines for how to properly enter and exit the church.
Entering the church
1. Say a prayer
Just as we prepare our bodies for entering an Orthodox church by dressing with modesty, we should also prepare our souls and minds with prayer. Your prayer can be as simple as making the sign of the cross. Some people quietly pray the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Others may read or recite Psalm 83, or say something else from their prayer books.
We must take time to spiritually prepare for entering the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. This time allows us to reflect on where it is we are going once we step through the door, and why we are there to begin with: to give thanks, receive Holy Communion and become ever closer to God.
2. Venerate the icons
When you enter the narthex of an Orthodox church, you will see quite a few holy images, of saints, the Theotokos, or Christ Himself. In Orthodox tradition, we venerate these icons and pay honor and respect (not worship!) to those pictured in them. Customs for venerating icons vary from parish to parish, depending on the archdiocese. In general though, most Orthodox venerate the icons by crossing themselves and then kissing the icon.
Once you venerate the icons in the narthex, you can proceed into the nave of the church, or the main area. You can venerate any of the icons you see in the nave, so long as you remain quiet and reverent and do not disturb other worshipers. Some parishioners choose to find a seat first, while others prefer to venerate all the icons and then find a place to stand or sit.
Where to kiss the icon?
In the Orthodox practice of venerating icons, we always kiss either the hands or the feet of the person depicted. You can also kiss the scroll, Gospel book, or hand cross in the saint’s hand. We do not kiss the faces of saints, as such a practice is disrespectful.
3. Light a candle
In the narthex, Orthodox Christians often light a candle(s) and offer prayers, either for our personal needs or for those of family members or friends. Many Orthodox churches have candles available for a small donation. While in the narthex, you can also add your name to the parish guest book, and add the names of loved ones (living or departed) you wish to be remembered in prayers during the Liturgy.
4. Arrive before the service starts
Arriving before the service gives us plenty of time to say personal prayers, light candles, venerate icons, find a place to sit or stand, and spiritually prepare for the service. If you are a visitor, it also gives you the opportunity to take in everything around you.
Arriving late can cause distractions to the rest of the faithful, and is an inconsiderate, irresponsible way to manage the gift of time God has given us. If you do happen to be late for whatever reason, enter the narthex quietly and try to figure out what is happening. There are a few times when you should not enter the nave of the church:
- Anytime the priest is standing in front of the Holy Doors in the center of the church; this applies whether he is facing the congregation or has his back to them.
- During the recitation of the Creed or the Lord’s Prayer
- Whenever the priest is out of the altar, censing the congregation, carrying the Holy Gospel, carrying the Holy Gifts, or giving the sermon.
- During the reading of the Epistle or Gospel
- While the Holy Gifts are being consecrated
If you arrive while any of these things are happening, wait quietly in the narthex until they have concluded. Then you can enter the church, venerate icons, and find your place. Unsure if it is okay to enter the church? Ask the greeter for some assistance!
Quick rule of thumb:
If an Orthodox Christian arrives late to the Divine Liturgy, he or she should refrain from receiving Holy Communion. When we plan to partake of the Eucharist, we fast from food and drink from midnight onward and prepare spiritually through prayer.
We are already unworthy of the Holy Gifts; therefore, it would be unwise to further compound that unworthiness by partaking of them after showing up late or preparing inadequately. See your local parish’s service schedule for times, to make sure you are not late!
Exiting the church
1. Don’t leave until the service ends
This goes without saying, but we should not leave the church until the service ends. This goes for any service, not just the Divine Liturgy. While the service takes place, you should partake in it with the rest of the parish. Of course, in the case of emergency you can leave. But we should always strive to remain in the temple while we are worshiping God. The coffee and food downstairs can wait. Administrative duties can wait. Your favorite TV show can wait. The outside world can wait.
We come to church to worship God and give Him thanks, to ask for His mercy, forgiveness and love. When we are here, all our attention must be on Him, not on the distractions that wait for us outside the church’s walls. God is more important.
2. Receive a blessing from the priest
Additionally, we should only leave an Orthodox church after receiving the final blessing from the priest, and after venerating the cross in his hand. You do not have to be Orthodox to receive the blessing, so please feel welcome to approach the priest after the service. In many parishes, a reader will remain behind to chant the Prayers of Thanksgiving. If you choose to leave before the reader completes these prayers, please exit the church quietly. Do not stop to have conversations with others, as this can distract others who wish to pray.
3. Venerate the icons again
After receiving the blessing, most Orthodox venerate the icons near the altar and might say a few prayers before heading back to the entrance to the church). In the narthex, they might venerate a few more icons or relics, or perhaps light another candle or two, as they make their way out. After leaving, it is customary to face the entrance of the church, bow, and make the sign of the cross before walking away.
When entering or exiting an Orthodox church, remember you are in the House of God. It is a holy place, and therefore should be treated with reverence and respect. Say a prayer before crossing the threshold. Light a candle and send up your intercessions to God. Venerate the holy icons and show honor to those who came before us and lived godly lives. Be sure to arrive on time, and remember not to leave until the service ends and you have received a blessing from the priest.
Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments!
Keep Reading: Church Etiquette: The Ultimate Guide