Visiting for the First Time?

When visiting our Parish for the first time, please remember that, whoever you are, we are very honored by your visit and happy to meet you. This is the most important thing. Matters of dress, church etiquette and piety, while also important, are clearly secondary.

As well, the Church building itself is often objectified, almost as if the building itself were alive. In a certain way it is, and we love our “Church” and its appointments. Truly, we believe that God has sanctified this building. However, the building is not the Church and if we were to lose it, the parish would not cease to exist. For this reason, when you visit us we are anxious to meet and receive you as our guest, so please stay long enough following the service so that we can do so. We also invite you to sign our guest book which is on the candle desk in the Narthex.

The Church Building
On your visit you will note two things immediately. One is that the Church is divided into three distinct spaces, which are called the Narthex (the first space where baptismal font is located), the Nave (the center most part of the Church), and the Altar (where the Altar and Table of Preparation (Proskomedia) are located). Located behind the altar is also a small room where the vestments are kept. This tri-partite structure is very old and relates to both pagan and Jewish temple structure. The Narthex was traditionally where catechumens and penitents would remain; in modern practice it is where the exorcism prayers at Baptisms, betrothals at Weddings and churchings are performed, and where candles are sold. The Nave represents the world, sanctified by God’s presence and the mighty acts he has performed for our salvation. For this reason we see icons here celebrating the major feasts of the Church year. The Altar area represents the Kingdom of God and the altar table proper, the throne. Here the mysteries of the faith are celebrated and from this table, the central most mystery of the Church, the Eucharist, is offered.

The second thing you will notice is the icon screen (called the “iconostas” or “iconostasis”), which separates the Altar from the Nave. On this screen you will see icons of Christ, the Mother of God (called “Theotokos” or “Panagia” in Orthodox tradition), St. Nicholas and our patron, St. Andrew the First-called of the Apostles.

Much has been written about this screen and the separation it causes; some view this separation as a barrier to prayer. In Orthodox tradition, however, it is generally not understood in this way. Rather, the Iconostas makes “visible” that which would remain invisible even if the screen were to be removed. Since as created beings we cannot cross the gulf between creature and Creator, we must rely on a negative theology (apophatic) that recognizes and affirms this inability to positively disclose God’s being. Much like Elijah on Mt. Horeb, we are brought to recognize that there are aspects of God that we cannot see face-to-face. We can experience His presence however, His divine “energies,” and it is this experience that the Iconostas seeks to foster by directing our focus and attention. The Iconostas and all of the icons in the Church form a theological mosaic of sorts. With the hymnography, liturgical music, vestments, Church architecture, and all of our liturgical arts, these creaturely forms celebrate and communicate God’s entrance into the “flesh” of our world.

At the center of the Iconostas are the Holy or Royal Doors, which are opened during the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and at other times when the clergy enter the Altar area. Immediately beyond these doors stands the Altar, on which is placed the Holy Gospels, the Hand-Cross and the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle is a small, wooden repository for the Holy Eucharist, which is reserved here for use when bringing Holy Communion to those who are housebound or seriously ill. Holy Chrism, used at the mysteries of Baptism and Chrismation, is also kept in the Tabernacle. It is worth noting that the presence of the Holy Gospels on the Altar is not simply for convenience since the Gospel is read during the Liturgy: their presence on the Altar illustrates our understanding that although all can read the Gospels privately, it is only in the Church’s reading and proclamation of this good news that their true meaning and interpretation can be found. The Liturgy, then, forms the context in which the Gospels, and by extension all of Holy Scripture, find their place as part of Holy Tradition, and not separate or opposed to it.

Entering the Church
Upon entering the Church, Orthodox Christians usually pause in the Narthex to purchase a candle and to list the names of any special intentions on the prayer list, which is on the candle desk. Then they will enter the Nave and proceed to venerate the icons that are held on icon stands, called “analogion” or “analoi” stands. These are narrow, chest-high wooden tables on which smaller icons of Christ and the Theotokos rest, immediately before the Iconostas. If a feast is taking place or has just taken place, the festal icon will usually be on an analoi stand in the center of the Church. To venerate an icon means to bless oneself and bow before the icon, twice, then to reverentially kiss the icon, and then to bless oneself and bow a third time. In some Churches the custom is to venerate each icon, starting on the right side of the Nave, and slowly moving from icon to icon across the Church to end on the left side. It is also possible to venerate the icons that are on the Iconostas, although the smaller icons (which are actually duplicates of those on the Iconostas) are provided for the faithful to venerate in lieu of them having to approach and venerate the Iconostas itself. In the Russian tradition (which we follow), these icons are just in front of the Iconostas; in the Greek tradition, they are located in the Narthex of the Church.

Standing vs. Sitting
As noted above, Orthodox Christians have a great love and respect for the Church building, and as a result when they enter a Church their conduct and dress typically reflect that love and respect. During liturgical services and except at certain times such as during a Sermon or while announcements are made following the Liturgy, those gathered will usually stand and not sit. Standing for prayer may strike Western Christians as peculiar, since in the Western tradition Christians often sit or kneel to pray. But in thinking about it, even in conventional life we will often stand when we are engaged in any serious activity. One would never think to sit when in the presence of a King or Queen, for example, so why would we take the liberty of sitting when in the presence of God? Thus, when you visit our Church, be prepared to stand during the services, unless you are unable to do so for reasons of health. In this case, you will see that we do have pews and some chairs in the Nave, and if you need, you should use them without feeling any embarrassment. Traditionally, Orthodox Churches never had pews (which even in the Western Church, date only to the Reformation) and even today many still do not, but in some parishes and especially in North America, pews were installed in our Churches as an accommodation to Western custom.

Venerating Icons
The practice of venerating icons is very old and is central to the piety of Orthodox. In the West, this custom may also seem peculiar and indeed, much attention has been given to the question of whether such veneration is idolatry. However, no Orthodox Christian would ever consider this practice to be a form of idolatry. Icons, like relics of the saints and the Gospel book itself, are always and immediately offered for veneration as a sign of the love and respect that we have for God and for his action, his incarnation, in the created and material world. We believe He is present among us and that His presence is reflected in the Holy Things that he has touched, blessed and sanctified for our salvation. To draw a hard and fast line between the “sacraments” and all of those other things that God uses to communicate with us, seems to Orthodox Christians to be arbitrary and unnatural. God is in the world and we experience His presence in this world, a “theophany” or manifestation of God. As far as icons are concerned, at the heart and root of iconography, we believe that there really is only one icon, the icon of Christ, the incarnate Son of God. As a result of His incarnation, we can picture God, indeed we are made in His image, and the icons of all the saints are thus simply images of their participation in the divinized humanity of Christ. They are the signposts along the road of the Christian life, pointing the way for us to go.

Moving around during the service
Another characteristic of Orthodox piety is that we tend to feel at home in the Church. Because we are comfortable there and familiar, we tend to move about the Church somewhat more freely than other Christians may do. This is at least what visitors will most often report, that our worship is not static and mechanical, but that there is movement and perhaps what appears to be disorder. For example, even when entering the Church somewhat late for a service (or later than would be ideal), Orthodox Christians will still usually purchase candles and venerate the icons and put their candles in the candle stands. Sometimes this will occur during the sermon, or even later, for example. Other than highlighting the fact that many do come to church late, which is not a good thing, this freedom of movement seems to be a good thing, as we should be comfortable.

Dressing appropriately
Even though Orthodox Christians feel comfortable in Church, they still tend to show respect by the way they dress and how they conduct themselves when they attend services or just enter a Church. Some Orthodox parishes retain the old custom by which the men and women stand on opposite sides of the Church (men on the left, women on the right). In some parishes, women must cover their heads and wear skirts. Although these customs are not observed in our parish, women are free to wear skirts and cover their heads if they like to do so. What we do try to do, however, is to avoid wearing anything that is distracting, and this practice applies to both men and women. For example, we would avoid wearing clothing that is too short, too tight, too casual: we try to wear clothing that is dignified and shows respect to God. We do not wear revealing clothes, shorts, clothes that have words or logos emblazoned on them, sports uniforms, bathing attire, anything that is likely to catch someone’s attention and distract them from prayer. So, if you wouldn’t wear it to a business meeting you can pretty much be sure that you shouldn’t wear it to Church, either.

Speaking while in church
And in line with showing respect and not causing distraction, we try to avoid unnecessary conversation in Church. There is a balance here and frankly, this is difficult to achieve. We are not expected to be stone-faced, absolutely silent when in Church. As we see those we know, the demands of Christian fellowship require that we greet each other in joy. At the same time, we don’t need to extend these greetings into long, laborious accounts of what is going on at home, at the job, etc., or for telling jokes or slapping each other on the back. For that, there is a time and place in the Community Room following the Liturgy. And that fellowship is genuine and wholesome, but it is just not at place in the Church proper, and especially not right before, during or after a service has been celebrated.

Regarding the reception of the sacraments, we refer you to another section of this website that discusses our practice. We hope the foregoing has been helpful to you when you visit with us, and that you will return to pray with us again. If you have any questions, please speak with any member of the parish, the altar servers or the priest. Again, your visit is important to us, we are delighted to see and pray with you, and we ask that you pray to God for the welfare and growth of our parish community.

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