Friday, February 08, 2008

What to Expect in (a Western Rite Orthodox) Church

Here is a nice overview for prospective, non-Orthodox visitors, from the website of St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church (Western Rite), Houston, Texas:

What to expect in Church

Orthodox Christians in the United States and Europe have the rare privilege to experience see a variety of Orthodox rites and customs, in both Eastern and Western Rite churches. Most customs are shared in some form by both East and West. All of us make the sign of the cross, light candles, use incense and have our own hymnody. As brothers and sisters in the faith we are united by one and the same faith which we express with customs that we share and with customs that are uniquely our own.

A Processional
In the Western Rite liturgy, the priest and acolytes start at the back of the church and process down the center aisle up to the altar. The acolyte, who carries the cross, is called the crucifer and leads this procession. Following the cross are the torch bearers, 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. There may also be a processional when the Gospel book is carried out to the congregation to be read.

Worshipping with our Body, Mind, and Soul
As in the Eastern Liturgies we who use the Western Liturgies worship the Lord with our entire being, both body and soul. The manual or outward physical acts we use express our inward and heartfelt faith. For example, it is customary to show veneration or respect to the cross by bowing slightly as it passes you by. Respect for the celebrant and clergy is shown the same way, by a modest bow when the clergy pass.

Another manual act is that of making the sign of the cross. This act reminds us of the Lord's death and His resurrection and is a custom which all Orthodox share, both East and West.


The Orthodox Christian often inscribes the sign of the Cross on his body. This devotional act is as ancient as the Church and may be considered: a.) a confession of faith in the Holy Trinity; b.) a silent declaration of faith in Christ as the Savior and Redeemer of mankind; c.) 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 his private devotions, when he enters the church, venerates the icons, the Holy Gospel, or the Holy Cross. He makes the sign of the Cross when the name of the Holy Trinity, the Mother of God, and Saints is pronounced during the Divine Liturgy or any Divine Service. Finally, he makes the sign of the Cross 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 Your 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."

How to Receive Communion
To receive the sacrament, all Orthodox must be properly prepared. However, the method of giving and receiving communion differs between East and West.

At Eastern Rite parishes, the priest stands with the chalice, and the people approach one by one. In Western Rite parishes, the people come to the Altar rail and kneel while the priest moves from person to person distributing communion.

The Host, which is made of leavened bread—baked into a thin round wafer—and has become the Body of Christ is given first, followed by the wine, which has become the Blood of Christ. To receive the Sacrament, you may open your mouth and the priest will place the consecrated wafer on your tongue. To receive the wine, lightly grasp the base of chalice as the priest holds the chalice in his hands and guide it to take a sip. You may notice that after each communicant the priest cleans the lip of the chalice with a white linen cloth.

How to Participate 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.

To receive a blessing, come up to the altar at the proper time, along with everyone else. Fold your arms across the chest in X-fashion. In the Western tradition, this indicates that you are not receiving the sacrament. When the priest reaches you, he will give you a blessing, making the sign of the cross on your head. After receiving the blessing, you may return to your seat.

It goes without saying that one should pay absolutely no attention to who is receiving the sacrament and who is abstaining. Non-Orthodox may also receive the “Pain Benit.” This is bread which has been blessed, but not consecrated. Eastern Rite parishioners will recognize this as the Antidoron distributed at Byzantine services. Dating back at least to 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 new parish. Please do not worry at first about whether you are to stand, kneel or cross yourself. We are here to help you learn this, and all of us have been in your situation. Don’t worry or be concerned with externals now; just join in the worship and all else will follow.

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Blogger Eric Jobe said...

That's my parish! A wonderful bunch of people there at St. Paul's (two of them are my dear parents).

7:49 PM  
Blogger Gil Garza said...

I was just passing by and thought I'd leave a comment on why those from the Greek tradition cross themselves right to left while those from the Western tradition from left to right.

In Greek, one says, Doxa Patri (head) ke Io (stomach) ke Agio (right) Pneumati (left).

In Latin, one says, In nomine Patris (head) et Filii (stomach) et Spiritus (left) Sancti (right).

You'll notice immediately that in both formulas, one touches the left shoulder past the heart when saying the word for Spirit. One touches the right shoulder in both formulas when saying the word for Holy.

This is the reason that Byzantines go right to left and Westerns to left to right.

4:30 PM  

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