Let all things be done decently and in order.
I Cor 14,40
In response to those who have asked about Orthodox worship, I have written the following.
Although worship is fundamentally inward, in the rule of prayer, because we are incarnate and have bodies, we also need to follow outward disciplines. These physical disciplines help us to deepen our attention and prayer, making sure that our bodies, as well as our souls, are involved in the worship of the Holy Trinity, and that we are not distracted. For are not our bodies ‘temples of the Holy Spirit’ (I Cor 6,19)? We avoid distraction all the more when we follow these disciplines together in public prayer, as the Body of Christ. For we do not pray ‘My Father’, but ‘Our Father’.
Thus, we dress modestly for church; men do not come to church in dirty work clothes, or in open shirts or shorts; women do not enter church in trousers, mini-skirts and low-cut dresses, and modestly cover their heads in obedience to the Apostle (I Cor 11). We also make sure that mobile phones are switched off. In church we stand, we do not sit (unless we are ill), for in church we are in the presence of the Risen Christ. In some churches, they still follow the pious custom of children standing at the front, men on the right and women on the left. There are also some basic outward disciplines of piety which we physically observe very frequently during Orthodox worship. Before we can explain when we follow these disciplines, we first have to know what they are. This is explained below
a) The Sign of the Cross and the Bowing of the Head
In making the sign of the cross, we sign ourselves or bless ourselves, placing over ourselves the cross of Christ. To make it, we always use the right hand. First, we put the tips of the thumb and the tips of the two fingers nearest to the thumb together in the name of the Holy Trinity. Then we lay the little finger and the finger nearest to it across the palm, recalling that Christ is both God and man, that He has two natures. Then with the tips of our thumb and the two fingers, we touch our forehead, our stomach, the right shoulder and the left shoulder, making a cross. (Not left shoulder and then right shoulder, as the Roman Catholics have been doing since the late Middle Ages when they altered the sign of the cross). After this we bow our heads.
According to St Ambrose of Milan, in this way ‘the seal of Christ appears on our forehead, on our heart and on our arms. On our forehead so that we will always confess Christ, on our heart so that we will always love Him, on our arms so that we will always do good’. In signing our head, we remember God Who dwells in the Highest and also the Head of the Church, Christ the Word, Who was born from Him, just as our own words also come from our heads. In touching our stomach, we remember the earth and the descent to hades of the Son of God and also the conception of the Son in the womb of the Mother of God. In touching the right shoulder, we remember the sitting on the right hand of the Father, in touching the left, we recall those who are condemned and receive eternal torment on the left hand. In touching our shoulders we also recall the Holy Spirit, ‘Who is everywhere present and filleth all things’.
b) The Sign of the Cross and a Bow from the Waist or Small Bow
In the words of the Typikon, the book which contains the instructions for Church services, a small bow is when, having made the sign of the cross, we incline the upper body from the waist, in such a way that we touch the ground with our right hand, neither kneeling, nor touching the ground with our head.
c) The Sign of the Cross and a Bow to the Ground or Prostration
A prostration is when we first make the sign of the cross and then bow down to the ground, in such a way that we bend our knees, and touch the ground with our knees, our hands and our foreheads. Then we at once raise ourselves up. As St Basil the Great says, this symbolizes our fall into sin and also the fact that we have been raised up again by the Redemption of Christ, receiving our calling to heaven. (The English word heaven actually means to heave, that is to raise up).
For this reason, on days when we think especially of the Resurrection, we should not make prostrations. These include all the Lord’s Days, that is Sundays, known as the day of the Resurrection. This was decreed by the canons of the First Oecumenical Council in the year 325, repeated in Canon 91 of St Basil the Great and again in Canon 90 of the Sixth Oecumenical Council in 681. Other non-prostration days are the fifty days between the Resurrection (Easter) and Trinity (Pentecost). This is because these are days of the Resurrection, when, raised up with Christ, we naturally stand. Finally, there are all those feast days when the Polyeleion is sung at Matins. On all these days, we celebrate the victory of Christ over death. We celebrate this by standing, like the angels who stand at the throne of God.
An apparent exception to this is at Pentecost Vespers when we kneel at the ‘Kneeling Prayers’ of St Basil the Great. However, we should remember that this Vespers, though taking place on a Sunday afternoon or evening, is actually the Vespers of the Monday of the Holy Spirit. According to ancient tradition, we should not kneel during these prayers, looking upwards, as is common practice at present, but should in fact kneel with our heads touching the ground. (This is also the case at the Great Entrance at the Liturgy of the Presanctified). Exceptionally, on the Third Sunday in the Great Fast, the Sunday of the Cross, and on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, if it falls on a Sunday, we do make prostrations in honour of the Precious Cross, the source of our salvation.
2 General Observations
On entering and leaving a church, we make the sign of the cross and a small bow three times. During the Great Fast we make the sign of the cross and prostration three times. Each time we say the prayer: ‘O God, cleanse me a sinner’.
When we see a bishop or a priest, we always take their blessing. Approaching the priest, we do not make the sign of the cross, but bow our head, placing our hands in front of us, with our right hand placed flat on our left, to receive his blessing. In the case of a bishop, we make a small bow first, without the sign of the cross and then ask for his blessing.
After we have bought candles (and also at the Divine Liturgy prosphora), we go up to the holy icons or relics. We make the sign of the cross and two small bows, or prostrations (according to the day – see above), kiss the icon and then make a third sign of the cross and small bow, or prostration. Then we say our prayer, lighting our candle. We take care to kiss the icon in the correct place. If it is an icon of the Saviour or the Mother of God, we take care to kiss the fringe of their raiment, if a martyr, we kiss the cross they hold, if a bishop, the Gospel they hold. In any case, we take care never to kiss the holy faces on the icons. From this moment on, we do not wander around the church without a good reason, but take up a place and stand silently in worship.
At the beginning of a service, we should make the sign of the cross and a small bow three times. In general, whenever we hear ‘Come let us worship…’, or the Thrice-Holy Hymn, or ‘Blessed is the Name of the Lord…’ (all of which are read or sung three times), we make the sign of the cross and a small bow three times. (The exception is at the beginning of Matins and at the triple Alleluia in the middle of the Six Psalms, when we simply sign ourselves three times). According to the Typikon, during the Six Psalms all candles should be blown out, for this moment is night and we await the appearance of Christ.
During litanies we should make the sign of the cross and small bow once at the first petition and at the exclamation at the end, when the priest glorifies the Holy Trinity. (Some pious people do this at every petition, like the clergy).
During the singing of stichira or other hymns, we make the sign of the cross and a small bow once at the end of the stichira, if appropriate, for example after the words ‘and save our souls’ or ‘glory to thee’. At the reading of the Kathisma and the threefold singing of ‘Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Glory to Thee, O God,’, we make the sign of the cross and a small bow three times, except on Saturdays, Sundays and feast days, when we simply make the sign of the cross and incline our heads three times.
At the Ninth Ode of the Canon at Matins, we make the sign of the cross and a small bow once at the end of every ‘More honourable…’.
When we are censed or the priest says to us ‘Peace be unto all’, we do not make the sign of the cross, but bow our heads. Similarly if a bishop blesses us with the double and triple candles, we bow our heads, without making the sign of the cross. However, if we are blessed with the Gospel, the Holy Gifts or the cross, then we make the sign of the cross and a small bow, or prostration, according to the day. When a priest says, ‘Bow your heads to the Lord’, or, ‘Let us bow our heads to the Lord’, we do so, like the priest, and raise them only when the priest gives the exclamation. In such a way, we show both humility and our gratitude to God.
3. At the Divine Liturgy
At the Little Entrance at the Liturgy at ‘Come let us worship…’, we make the sign of the cross and a small bow once.
Before and after the Gospel reading, at the singing of ‘Glory to thee, O God, glory to Thee’, we make the sign of the cross and a small bow once. We should listen to the Gospel with our heads slightly bowed, for Christ is speaking to us.
At the Great Entrance, we make the sign of the cross and a small bow once, for the gifts are not yet consecrated. We incline our heads as the priest makes the commemorations. After the Great Entrance, at the end of the Cherubic Hymn at the triple Alleluia, we make the sign of the cross and a small bow three times.
At the beginning of the Creed, we make the sign of the cross and a small bow. Some devout people make the sign of the cross at every article of the Creed, others at particular moments during it.
At the end of ‘We sing to thee’, during which the gifts are consecrated, we make a small bow, or prostration, once, according to the day.
At the end of the Hymn to the Mother of God, ‘It is meet’, we make a small bow, or prostration, once, according to the day.
Before the Lord’s Prayer, we make the sign of the cross and a small bow, or prostration, once, according to the day, and at the exclamation at the end we make the sign of the cross and a small bow once.
At the exclamation ‘The Holy Things for the Holy’, we should make the sign of the cross and a small bow three times.
When the holy gifts are brought out at the words ‘With fear of God and faith, draw near’, we make the sign of the cross and a small bow, or prostration, once, according to the day. We do the same when they are brought out again at the words ‘Always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages’. (We do not make prostrations if we have received communion).
Such are some pious customs for our conduct in the church of God. However, it should be remembered that there is great variety of practices in the Orthodox Church. Different Orthodox people have different customs. Thus, in some countries it is customary to kneel during the Gospel, or during the Great Doxology at Matins, even on Sundays and between Easter and Trinity. Others may follow few of the above physical disciplines and perhaps dress for church carelessly or make the sign of the cross negligently. In such cases, we should not be tempted to pass judgement on the piety, or seeming lack of piety, of others like the foolish pharisees, but rather think of our own sins and lack of piety, seeking our salvation and not our condemnation.