Things to Know Before Entering an Orthodox Church
What We Believe About God
We believe that God is One and the fullness of perfection; we believe that He is a perfect spirit, timeless, without beginning, all-powerful and all-wise. God is everywhere, sees all, and knows all beforehand. He is good beyond measure, just, and all-holy. He needs nothing and is the reason for everything that exists.
We believe the one true God has appeared to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the Trinity, one in Essence and indivisible. We believe that all the Persons of the Holy Trinity are equal in divine perfection, greatness, power, and glory. That is, we believe that the Father is true and perfect God, the Son is true and perfect God, and, the Holy Spirit is true and perfect God. Therefore, in prayers, we simultaneously glorify the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as one God.
What We Believe About God and the World
We believe that the entire visible and invisible world was created by God. In the beginning God created the invisible, great angelic world, otherwise known as Heaven. As stated in the Bible, God created our material or physical world from nothing.
This was done gradually during periods of time the Bible are calls “days.” God created the world not out of necessity or need but out of His all-good desire in order that His other creations might enjoy life. Being Himself endlessly good, God created all things good. Evil appeared in the world from the misuse of free will, with which God has endowed both angels and people. Although the Devil (Satan) and his demons were at one time angels of God, they rebelled against their Creator and became demons. In turn, they were cast out of Heaven forever. From that moment on, they became our enemies and the enemies of our salvation. With that, we believe that God is in full control of His creation, He works all things together for good to each person who loves Him and trusts in Him.
What We Believe About the Church
We believe that our Lord Jesus Christ founded the Church on earth for the salvation of all who believe in Him. He sent the Holy Spirit to the Apostles on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit abides in the Church, that grace-filled community or union of believing Christians, and preserves her in the purity of Christ’s teaching. The Holy Spirit cleanses those who repent of sins, helps the believers grow in good deeds, and sanctifies them.
We believe that the Church is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic The oneness of the Church depends on oneness of Faith and Grace. The Church is Holy because her faithful children are sanctified by the word of God, prayer, and the Sacraments.
The Church is the Body of Christ in the world today. Through this Body, Christ continues to be present and active in the world.
We believe the Orthodox Church is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic is the true Church of God on earth because it has kept the fullness of Christ’s truth, the complete deposit of faith, in continuity with the early apostolic Church that was founded by Jesus.
The Church is not to be identified with a building, but with God’s people in whom He dwells and through whom He is active in the world by His Spirit.
What We Believe About the Sacraments
We believe that the sacraments are physical symbols of a mysterious act of grace through the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Orthodox Church practices 7 sacraments: Baptism, Chrismation, Holy Eucharist, Marriage, Priesthood, Unction of the Sick, and Confession. Each of these sacraments represents an unseen Grace that is performed by the Holy Spirit through the Priest or Bishop. We believe that these sacraments are life-giving and sacred.
What We Believe About The Last Times
We believe that before the end of the world Jesus Christ, accompanied by angels, will again come to the earth in glory. Every person, according to His Word, will resurrect from the dead. A miracle will occur in which the souls of people who have died will return into the bodies which they possessed during their earthly life. All the dead will come to life. During the General Resurrection, the bodies of the saints, both those resurrecting and those still living will be renewed and become spiritualized in the image of the Resurrected Body of Christ. After the resurrection, everyone will appear before the Judgment of Christ, to receive what he is due, according to what he has done when he lived in his body, good or evil. After the Judgment, unrepentant sinners will enter into eternal torments and the righteous into eternal life. This will begin the Kingdom of Christ, which will have no end.
Alfeyev, Fr. Hilarion, “The Mystery of Faith: An Introduction to Orthodox Dogma and Spirituality.”
Coniaris, Fr. Anthony M., Introducing the Orthodox Church. Light and Life Publishing (1982).
Mileant, Bishop Alexander (Editor), Missionary Leaflet 2E (“The Principles of the Orthodox Faith”) The Holy Trinity Orthodox Mission, 2001.
1. What could possibly take 2.5 hours??
Just so you know, the liturgical prayers we now use (written by St. Basil) are the shortened version of the original 5+ hour liturgy of the early church. You will probably ask yourself several times during the service “is there a concise way to say this? Can extra adjectives be deleted?” Here is the truth, if there’s a longer way to say something, the Orthodox will find it. Although you may not see it at first, each prayer is intentional and very critical to the liturgical service. Don’t forget that the center of our life as a church family is the Eucharist; each prayer is vital in preparing us to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.
2. Simon Says, “Stand up!”…Simon Says, “Sit Down”
In the Orthodox tradition, the faithful stand up for nearly the entire service. Really. In most Coptic churches, there will be pews or rows of chairs. In any case, if you find the amount of standing too challenging you’re welcome to take a seat. No one minds or probably even notices; you’ll likely see others doing it as well. Don’t lose heart, standing gets easier with practice.
3. The Sign of the Cross.
To say that we make the sign of the cross frequently would be an understatement. We sign ourselves any time the Trinity is invoked, whenever we venerate an icon, and on many other occasions in the course of the Liturgy. You’ll notice it a lot when you hear specific words like “worship” or “glorify.” There is no set rule of when you should and shouldn’t, it’s a personal thing.
We cross with our right hands from left to right. Traditionally we hold our hands in a prescribed way: thumb and first two fingertips pressed together, last two fingers pressed down to the palm. Can you figure out the symbolism? Three fingers together for the Trinity; two fingers brought down to the palm for the one nature of Christ that is both fully human and fully divine, and his coming down to earth. This, too, takes practice. Don’t worry: a beginner’s imprecise arrangement of fingers won’t get you denounced as a heretic.
4. Kissing in the Church.
Alright, I know what you’re thinking. The Orthodox church is supposed to be super strict…how then can we allow kissing at church? The reality is we kiss stuff. It’s an expression of love- sincere affection. We kiss icons, the relics of saints, and a priest’s hand when greeting him. We even kiss each other shortly after the sermon during the liturgical service. You’ll hear the deacon say “Greet one another with a holy kiss…” (1 Peter 5:14). It’s not a secret handshake that only Coptic people know, don’t worry; just follow the lead of those around you: both palms touching with thumbs crossed over each other, touch the hands of your neighbor and then kiss your own hand. Repeat.
Exchanging the kiss of peace is a liturgical act, a sign of mystical unity. It’s a reminder that Christ’s Spirit is what unites each of us although we may not know each other very well. Don’t worry there is also a time for coffee, chatting, and fellowship later.
5. We’re not just breaking bread at the Olive Garden
The entire liturgical service is focused on one main event, which is the Holy Eucharist (or Communion). In the Orthodox Church, we believe that the Eucharist is the actual Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Communion is reserved for those who are baptized in any one of the 6 non-Chalcedonian Churches. This is not a way to exclude people, but the Eucharist is the Church’s treasure, and it is reserved for those who have united themselves with the Church. It’s kind of like reserving marital relations until after the wedding (baptism).
After the liturgy is over, everyone lines up and gets a piece of bread from the priest. This bread is not the Eucharist, but is bread that was prayed on by the priest during the “offering of the Lamb.” After the priest chooses the best bread as the Lamb offering, the rest is cut up and distributed by the priest as a sign of fellowship after the liturgy. The bread is made in the shape of a circle representing that God has no beginning or no end. It is also pressed with a stamp that represents Christ’s wounds, His apostles, and more. We can get into that later….
6. Fasting: The Orthodox Diet
When newcomers learn of the Orthodox practice, their usual reaction is, “You must be kidding” or “I can’t live like that for 55 days.” We fast from meat, fish and dairy products nearly every Wednesday and Friday, and during five other periods or “seasons” of the year. Here, as elsewhere, expect great variation. With the counsel of their priest, people decide to what extent they can keep these fasts, both physically and spiritually—attempting too much rigor too soon breeds frustration and defeat. Nobody’s fast is anyone else’s business. As St. John Chrysostom says in his beloved Easter sermon, everyone is welcomed to the feast whether they fasted or not. Fasting is a tool the Church teaches us to use in order to discipline our bodies and feed our spirit. Fasting is exercise to stretch and strengthen us, medicine for our souls’ health. In consultation with your priest as your spiritual doctor, you can arrive at a fasting schedule that will stretch but not break you. Next year you may be ready for more.
7. Music, music, music.
Traditionally, Coptic Orthodox use cymbals and a triangle during the service. Old school, we know. You will also notice that more than half of the service is sung by the congregation… if you’re comfortable, sing along! Participation is key if you hope to stay focused during the liturgical prayers.
Now the hymns of the church pack a lot of meaning, not only in the words but also in the tune itself. Each season of the church has its own tunes and hymns.
8. Wait, is that smoke?
Don’t worry we have it under control. The smoke you see is actually the incense that the priest releases from the censor. In the Orthodox Church, incense represents prayers and repentance that ascend into heaven. Each time the priest passes by with the censor, your prayers and those of everyone in the church are rising before the throne of God Himself. Don’t believe it? “Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” Revelation 5:8
9. Our Champions the Saints
A constant feature of Orthodox worship is veneration of the saints and in particular, the Virgin Mary. We often address her as “Theotokos,” which means “Mother of God.”
The saints who have departed this world are still alive, and very much a part of our church. We believe that they are the victorious church (since they have finished their race and received the prize of eternal life) and we are the struggling church. We do not pray to saints, contrary to popular belief, but we ask for their prayers on our behalf the same as you would ask a spiritual father or friend to pray for you. We also believe that the church is Heaven on earth and that although the saints are not with us in the physical church they are with us in the heavenly Church, praying with us and for us.
10. Where does a non-Orthodox fit in?
You may or may not know this, but there is a multiplicity of Orthodox churches: Coptic, Greek, Romanian, Russian, Antiochian, Serbian, and on and on. There are about 6 million Orthodox in North America and 250 million in the world, making Orthodoxy the second-largest Christian community.
You are likely to find that some Orthodox churches are still so close to their immigrant experience that they are mystified as to why outsiders would be interested. These same churches tend to pray in their native languages as well. At St Justina’s Church however, the liturgical services are completely in English on certain days of the month but you’ll also notice that English is often intertwined with Arabic and Coptic. That’s because we want to share the treasure and spiritual depth that the Orthodox Church has. In addition, you’ll always find someone who can answer any questions you might have along the way.
Orthodoxy seems startlingly different at first, but as the weeks go by it gets to be less so. It will begin to feel more and more like home, and will gradually draw you into your true home, the Kingdom of God. Come and check it out for yourself, especially now that you have the inside scoop.
Adapted from a list created by Frederica Mathewes-Green.
Limitless AcceptanceWe believe that every person who enters our church is the most important person in the world. That person is sent by God and should be loved and accepted as such.
Authentic CommunityWe believe God created the church to fulfill our relational needs in addition to our spiritual needs. We reject superficiality in relationships with one another just as we reject superficiality in our relationship with God.
Transformational Communal WorshipWe gather to be transformed by the real Presence of God in our midst every time we meet. Liturgical prayer is not just a routine; it is life-giving and real. It is the center of our life as a family.
Passionate Pursuit of GodWe don’t stop worshiping after we leave the church. We seek to live passionate lives for God, pursuing Him every day through prayer, Bible reading, giving, witnessing and everything we do.
Christ-like IntegrityWe believe that our personal integrity is the greatest reflection of our relationship with Christ. We know that true spiritual maturity is measured by obedience, not knowledge.
Faith-filled VisionWe believe in a big God and we rely on Him to do extraordinary things in our lives. We are not surprised when God does a miracle; we are more surprised when He doesn’t.
Irrational GenerosityWe genuinely believe it is more blessed to give than to receive and we seek opportunities to express our love to God by sacrificing our time and our money.
Faithful Stewardship of Talents/GiftsWe believe that each one of us is entrusted by God with specific talents and gifts. It is our duty to use those gifts to further Christ’s mission on earth.
Personal Call to EvangelismWe believe that the call to evangelism and witnessing applies to us just as much as it did to the Apostles in the early church. God will hold me accountable to its completion.