Welcome back to Church Etiquette 101! In our previous post in this series, we explained how to greet an Orthodox priest or bishop properly. In this next article, you will learn about how and when to enter an Orthodox church.
Entering the Church
There are a number of considerations we should make before simply waltzing through the doors into the church. After all, we are entering the House of God. We must properly prepare ourselves before doing so, and make sure we conduct ourselves accordingly once we have gone inside. Here are some guidelines to help:
Say a prayer before entering
While it is important that we prepare our bodies for entering an Orthodox church by dressing with modesty, we must also remember to 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 pray some other prayer from their prayer books.
We must take the 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.
Light a candle in the Narthex
The narthex is the entrance of the church, the small “anteroom” that leads into the main body of the church. 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. (Here at St. John’s, we do not require a donation for lighting a candle. However, if you feel led to donate something, we do have a collection box.)
Candles serve as a sign of our faith and hope in God, that He will always come to the aid of those who turn to Him in prayer. They also express our love for God, and symbolize the Light of Christ and the flame of the Holy Spirit.
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.
Venerate the icons
When you enter the narthex of an Orthodox church, you will see quite a few icons, or holy images, of saints, the Theotokos, or Christ Himself. In Orthodox tradition, we venerate the 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. Here are some of the generally accepted veneration practices:
- Simply cross yourself, then kiss either the hands or feet* of the saint in the icon
- Cross yourself, then bow before the icon twice. Kiss the icon, and then cross yourself again and bow a third time.
- Cross yourself, and bow three times. Then kiss the icon.
Which method you choose is entirely up to you! 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.
*If the hands or feet are not visible in an icon, you can kiss the scroll, Gospel book, or hand cross the saint is holding. We do not kiss the faces of saints; we view such a practice as disrespectful.
Arrive on time
Punctuality is important. One of my favorite teachers once said, “The best time to be anywhere is early.” Arriving before the service gives us plenty of time to say personal prayers, light candles, venerate icons, find a spot in the nave, 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 leave the narthex to 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 engage in many ascetical efforts, including fasting from food and drink from midnight onward and preparing spiritually by engaging in prayer and arriving on time to receive the blessing given by the priest at the beginning of the service.
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.
The best way to avoid any of this is simply to arrive early. Our parish celebrates the Orthros/Matins service before the Liturgy. If you budget your time well, you should plan to arrive between the beginning of Matins and the beginning of the Liturgy. See the service schedule for times, to make sure you are not late!
When entering an Orthodox church, remember you are entering 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. And be sure to arrive on time!
In the next post of our series, we will discuss when to stand, sit, and kneel during a typical Orthodox service. Have any suggestions for our Church Etiquette 101 series? Let us know in the comments below!