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Essence-Energies distinction

Eastern Orthodox worship in this article is distinguished from Eastern Orthodox Prayer in that 'worship' refers to the activity of the Church as a body offering up prayers to God while 'prayer' refers to the individual devotional traditions of the Orthodox.

The worship of the Orthodox Church is viewed as the Church's fundamental activity because the worship of God is the joining of man to God in prayer and that is the essential function of Christ's Church. The Orthodox view their Church as being the living embodiment of Christ, through the grace of His Holy Spirit, in the people, clergy, monks and all other members of the Church. Thus the Church is viewed as the Body of Christ on earth which is perpetually unified with the Body of Christ in heaven through a common act of worship to God.

This article will deal first with the various characteristics of Orthodox worship, aside from its theological foundations as laid forth above, and will then continue to give the services of worship themselves and their structure.

Characteristics of Orthodox Worship


Because, as explained above, the Orthodox draw no distinction between the Body of Christ in heaven and those on earth viewing both parts of the Church as inseparable and in continuous worship together of God. Orthodox worship therefore expresses this unity of earth and heaven in every possible way so that the earthly worshippers are continually reminded through all their senses of the heavenly state of the Church. The particular methods for doing this are very far from arbitrary but have been passed down from the earliest periods in Christian history through what the Orthodox call "Holy Tradition".


Probably the most striking aspect of Orthodox worship are its visual characteristics. These are many and varied always conveying in the most striking colors and shapes possible the various phases and moods of the Church both as they change throughout the year and in individual services.


Icons are used to bring the worshippers into the presence of those who are in heaven, that is, Christ, the Saints, the Theotokos and the angels. The Orthodox believe these icons do more than visually remind the viewer of the fact that there are saints in heaven, they believe that these icons act as 'windows' into heaven through which we see those saints, Christ and the Theotokos. It is for this reason that God the father is traditionally not represented in icons because He has never shown His form to man and therefore man should not try to represent His form in icons. It is because of the connection which these sacred pictures have with their subjects that Orthodox Christians regularly venerate (but do not worship) them even as Orthodox still living on earth greet one another with a kiss of peace, so do they venerate those who have passed on through their icons.


Both the internal and external forms of Orthodox churches are designed in imitation of heaven. The internal layout consists of three main parts: the narthex, nave and altar. The Royal doors divide the Narthex from the Nave and the Iconostasis divides the Nave from the Altar. The Narthex or porch is the entrance to the church building and not yet the actual 'church' proper, and is a small open space often with some candles to buy before entering the church itself. Once through the Royal Doors (a term often applied now to the doors in the center of the Iconostasis as well) there is the Nave, which is the main and largest part of the church building. Here all the laity and choir stand (there are often few or no seats in the building) during worship; it is shaped rectangularly in the back, opening into two wings forming a cross towards the front. Through the Iconostasis (always done through the 'Deacon's doors' on either side except during processions by the clergy) lies the Altar (or Sanctuary). This area is considered the most holy of the whole church, and laity other than church personnel are discouraged from entering. The Altar is square (completing the cross shape of the church building) and at its center is the altar table on which the Eucharist is celebrated and which only clergy may touch. There is no direct entrance to the outside of the church to the altar, only the deacons' doors and a door to the sacristy (which usually will lead outside). The main entrance from the nave to the sanctuary, the "Beautiful Gate", cannot be used by deacons and laity, only by priests or bishops.


All those above lay status (the choir is considered to be lay as it sings in place of the congregation) wear some form of vestment to distinguish their office. There are many offices and each has its own distinctive vestment and each set of vestments becomes increasingly elaborate as the rank of the wearer increases; this principle also holds true for how weighty a service is being served. All these vestments are in the style of robes (or designed to go with robes) made of colored and decorated cloth. The colors of all the vestments change according to what feast the Church is celebrating (these changes occur in a seasonal fashion, not with the seasons but on a similar timescale). For instance, for about two months after the celebration of the Resurrection, all church vestments are bright white and red whereas during the solemnity of Lent they are dark purples; thus, vestments serve to express the 'mood' of the Church.


As most actions in Orthodox worship, processions are most often used to commemorate events and also, of course, to display items of religious, and particularly Orthodox, significance. Their most fundamental purpose however is, as everything in Orthodox worship, to aid in the edification and salvation of the worshippers by giving glory to God. Processions are always led by a number of altar servers bearing candles, fans (ornamented discs with angelic visages represented), crosses, banners or other processional implements relative to the occasion. After them come the subdeacons, deacons and archdeacons with censers (ornamental containers of burning coal for burning incense), then priests and archpriests and so on up the clergical ranks. This is the very 'ideal' in processions, most do not contain all these elements because the occasion may not warrant it. The reasons for why various processions are done at various times vary greatly.


Candles are used extensively throughout the church during services and after. They are viewed as continual, inanimate prayers offered by the candle's 'benefactor' to God or saints usually on behalf of a third party, although they can be offered for any purpose. Candlestands are placed in front of particularly significant icons throughout Orthodox churches, these always have a central candle burning on behalf of the church as a whole but have room for Orthodox to place candles. In particular candlestands are placed in front of the four principle icons on the Iconostasis: the icon of Christ, the Theotokos, John the Baptist and the temple's patron. Candles are not restricted to this usage however, besides being used in processions a candle is kept burning above the Royal Doors in the Iconostasis, candles in a seven-branched candelabrum are burned during services on the altar (following in the footsteps of the seven branched candlestand in the Old Testament) as well as other candles used at various times in the church year for special purposes. (see Dikri and Trikri)


The Orthodox Church traditionally does not use any instruments in the liturgy, instead relying entirely on choral music and chanting. Essentially all the words of Orthodox services, except sermons and such, are either chanted or sung by readers and choirs and when possible the congregations.


Nothing in Orthodox worship is simply said; it is always sung or chanted. Chanting in the Orthodox tradition can be described as being halfway between talking and singing; it is musical but not music. One or two notes only are used in chanting, and the chanter reads the words to these notes at a steady rhythm. The notes and rhythms used vary according to what the occasion is, but generally chanting is relatively low-toned and steadily rhythmic creating a calming sound. Chanting not only is condusive to a calm and elevated state of mind but also allows chanters to read through large portions of texts (particularly Psalms) more clearly and quickly than possible with normal speech while also conveying the poetry in the words. That is the essential reason for chanting. Worship at its heart is a song and is beautiful; therefore the words of Orthodox worship cannot be simply said but must be melodiously chanted to express the true nature and purpose of the words.


Words not chanted in Orthodox worship are sung by a choir. Originally singing was done by the entire congregation, however this rapidly became cumbersome and a select group of singers was selected to represent the congretation. Since then Orthodox church music has expanded and become more elaborate. The Church uses eight 'tones' or 'modes,' which are broad categories of melodies. Within each of these tones are many small more precise melodies. All of these tones and their melodies rotate weekly so that during each week a particular tone is used for singing music. Singing naturally developed from chanting but, unlike in the west, Orthodox music developed from a Greek musical background. Even though Orthodoxy has spread and its music adapted to its various regions, still Orthodox music is distinctive from European music. Singing is used in place of chanting on important occasions thus some things which are chanted at minor services are sung at more important services. Singing is as varied and multi-faceted in its forms as chanting and vestments, it changes with the Church 'seasons' of commemoration thus singing during Great Lent is always somber and during Holy Week nearly becomes a sorrowful durge while during Pascha (Easter) and the Paschal season the notes are high and quick and as joyful as they were sad during Lent. The power of music is not lost on the Orthodox and it is used to its full effect to bring about spiritual renewal in the listeners.


In Russian Orthodox churches bells are often used. The size of the bells can vary widely as can their number and complexity of tone. Generally however they are rung to announce the beginning and end of services or to proclaim especially significant moments in the services. They are not used as musical instruments in the strict sense, that is, they are not used in conjunction with a choir and are not a part of the worship itself and are always positioned outside the church building.


In Orthodox worship, even the sense of smell is used to enlighten the minds and hearts of the worshipers, bringing them into closer communion with God. This is done primarily through the use of incense, but it is not uncommon at certain times of the year to decorate the interior of Orthodox temples with aromatic flowers and herbs.


Incense in the Orthodox Church is burned at essentially every worship service usually multiple times. This is always done by burning granulated incense on a hot coal inside a censer. The censer is essentially two metal bowls suspended by chains and which can be raised and lowered to allow more or less smoke out. Incense is burned, in accordance with Old Testament tradition, as an essential mode of worship to God and is burned in token of reverence to objects of sanctity such as relics, bishops, icons, the congregation and many other besides. During the course of every service, all objects of repute will be censed by the deacon or priest. This is done by swinging the censer forward and bringing it back sending a cloud of aromatic smoke towards the object being censed.

Other aromas

Scented oils are also used, sometimes to anoint the feast day icon, or added to the olive oil which is blessed for anointing during the All-Night Vigil. Or the faithful may be blessed by the priest sprinkling them with rose water.

There are also times when fragrant plants are used. For instance, on the Great Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos there is a special "Blessing of Fragrant Herbage" which takes place after the Divine Liturgy. On the Great Feast of Pentecost it is customary to fill the church with greenery, sometimes fresh hay or grass will be spread about the floor, and the faithful often stand holding flowers during the services on this day, especially at the Vespers service on the afternoon of Pentecost Sunday.


The Orthodox Churchis fully conscious of the importance of the physical in general and of the human body in particular. As a result, Orthodox worship does not neglect to incorporate the body into its worship and to enlighten the worshippers through it as through any other medium.

The Sign of the Cross

The sign of the cross (three fingers imprinted on the forehead, torso, right then left shoulders) is the most fundamental religious action of the Orthodox Church and is performed very frequently in Orthodox worship. This action is, of course, done in remembrance and invocation of the Cross of Christ. This can be meant for protection from adverse powers, in reverence for something or someone, in cumpunction or love or for a multitude of other reasons not nearly so specific. The Orthodox view it as a way of purifying the body and soul and the Orthodox oral tradition is very strong in viewing it as a weapon against demons and their activities.

Standing and Kneeling

To express the respect and fear of God which is congruent with the worship of Him, Orthodox stand while in worship as if they were in the presence of a king. Originally women were designated to stand on one half of the church in front of the icon of the Mother of God while the men stood on the right side of the church in front of the icon of Christ, now however this is rarely done and worshippers simply stand in any open space in the Nave facing the altar and praying silently or singing as they stand. Kneeling is done in expression of penitence and deep cumpunction and is done almost exclusively during Lenten services. For instance, during the Presanctified Liturgy (done only in Lent) when the Lord's Prayer is said all people, clergy and laity, in the Church kneel. In contrast, no kneeling is ever done during the celebratory Paschal season.

Bowing and Prostrating

A bow in the Orthodox Church consists of a person making the sign of the cross and then bowing from the waist and touching the floor with their fingers. This action is done extensively throughout all Orthodox services and is a fundamental way that the Orthodox express their reverence and subservience to God. For instance, at the culminating point of the consecration of the Eucharist all the Orthodox make a bow while saying "Amen". Bows are used more extensively in Lent than at any other time. Three bows are done when entering an Orthodox church and a series of bows are performed when venerating the central icons in the Nave. A prostration in the Orthodox tradition is the action in which a person makes the sign of the cross and, going to his knees, touch the floor with his head. Prostrations express to an even greater degree the reverence evinced by a bow and both are used as tools to train the mind in reverence of God through the obeisance of the body. A prostration is always done upon entering the Altar (Sanctuary) on weekdays. They are used in the most profusion during Lent.

Greetings and Blessings

Even as Orthodox venerate and do reverence to icons and the church building as being physical objects filled with divine grace so too they greet one another. Traditionally this is done whenever or wherever Orthodox meet one another but in common usage the traditional greetings between lay people are usually done in ritual contexts (during services or such activities). Orthodox greetings are, just like the veneration of icons, expressions of love and reverence for the person being greeted. Greetings between lay people of equal rank are done by the parties grasping one another's right hand and then kissing each other on both cheeks, the right first, then left and right again. Between clergy of equal rank the same is done but at the end the parties kiss one another on the hand. Orthodox of lower ranks (lay people, altar servers and deacons) when meeting Orthodox priests (or higher ranks) receive a blessing by folding their hands (right over left) palm upwards while he of the priestly office makes the sign of the cross in the air with his hand over the folded hands of the lay person and then places that hand on the folded hands of he of lower rank for him to kiss. This is done because the Orthodox view the priestly office as the one through which Christ lives with his people and thus the blessing is the essential bestowing of Christ's love and grace through His priest to the Orthodox person being blessed. Blessings like this are also used during services to signify the approval of Christ and the Church for some action a lower order person is going to do.


Orthodox worship, in keeping with the earliest traditions of Christian worship, involves eating as part of services probably more than any other denomination. Besides the bread and wine in the Eucharist, bread, wine, wheat, fruits and other foods are eaten at a number of special services. The kinds of foods used vary widely from culture to culture.


Bread is by far the most common Orthodox repast in worship and is always levened. Bread is viewed theologically as the quintissential food, the symbol of sustenance and life. As such, it is also considered to be the central component of communal meals and a mainstay of brotherhood. Although its use for Prosphora and in the Eucharist are ancient and universal, the various other kinds of ecclesial breads and their purposes vary widely from country to country as do their associated services. These services usually are associated with seasonal prayers, such as the harvest.

The most common non-Eucharistic bread is the artos. This is in two forms: five smaller loaves which are blessed during a portion of the All-Night Vigil known as the Artoklassia (literally, "breaking of bread"); and a single, large loaf which is blessed during the Paschal Vigil and then remains in the church during Bright Week (Easter Week). This Artos (capitalized because it symbolizes the Resurrected Jesus) is venerated by the faithful when they enter or leave the church during Bright Week. Then, on Bright Saturday, the priest says a prayer over the Artos and it is broken up and distributed among the faithful as an evlogia (blessing).


The continual companion of bread in the Church is wine which is also seen with it in the Eucharist and Prosphora. Wine is viewed theologically as the symbol of the joy and happiness which God gives to man. Thus it is also thought of as the essential component of meals and the community, to 'drink of the same cup' is a theological allegory to intimate spiritual union. In its various local usages, wine is always taken with the bread, usually poured over it or used for dipping as with Prosphora.


As the corollary to bread, wheat is very frequently seen in Orthodox services as well. Though it does not hold nearly as central a place theologically or in use, it is seen as a symbol of resurrection and rebirth because a grain of wheat must be buried in the earth, 'die' and then be 'born again' with new growth and life. Because of this it is often seen in prayers for the dead; in the Greek and Russian tradition Koliva is a boiled wheat dish eaten at the end of a service for a deceased person.


As wheat is to bread, so water is to wine or even more so because it holds a much more prominent position and use and theology. Wine in the Orthodox Church, as in early Christian history, is always mixed with water. It is associated with cleansing of the soul and thus the Holy Spirit and Baptism. Besides its use in Baptism, holy water, water specially blessed by a priest, is used extensively for many sanctification purposes and is usually sprinked on objects. At certain services, particularly at Theophany, holy water is partaken of in service by the congregation each in turn.







Structure of Orthodox Worship Services

The Hours



Midnight Office


First Hour

Third Hour

Sixth Hour

Ninth Hour

The Liturgy

Other Kinds of Orthodox Services

Western rite


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