The Prophet Elias was a hero of faithfulness to God in Israel and a courageous prophet. He was an ascetic, clad in skins and a leather girdle, dwelling in mountain caves. He appeared abruptly when King Achad executed many priests of God, and announced to him God’s vengeance. On Mt. Carmel, he overcame the priests of Baal by calling down fire from Heaven. He was persecuted by Jezebel and fled to Mt. Horeb where God consoled him, fed him with bread brought by ravens, and told him to appoint Elisha as his successor. St. Elias was carried into heaven in a fiery chariot, while his mantle fell on Elisha. He appeared along with Moses at Jesus’ Transfiguration. His scroll reads, “See your son lives” to commemorate his raising of the widow’s son by the power of and foreshadowing Christ’s Resurrection.
What is Orthodoxy?
Do you know that there are some 225 million Orthodox Christians worldwide and over 6 million right here in the United States? It’s the second largest body in all of Christendom. Despite its size, relatively few Americans are aware of the Orthodox Church. It’s America’s best-kept secret. The truth is, you need to know about the Orthodox Church. Our Church has deep and lasting roots in Christian antiquity and is steeped in a rich biblical tradition. It has been the context of Christian living for millions and millions of Christians for almost twenty centuries. Though you can learn a lot about Orthodox Christianity by hearing it described, it really must be seen and experienced firsthand to be fully understood. And perhaps there is no better place to see and experience the heart of Orthodoxy than in her worship.
Let’s look at a few characteristics of Orthodox worship which may be different from your past experience. Knowing about these practices in advance will help make your experience of worship with us far more meaningful.
The Work of the People
The main Sunday morning worship service of an Orthodox Church is called the Divine Liturgy. The term Liturgy means “work of the people.” Participation is the key word here. The whole congregation is active in worship, even the children. As such, the Liturgy is the common act of prayer, worship, teaching and communion of all those who constitute the Church. In the Liturgy we participate, by grace, in the life of Christ. We thereby come to know Christ in us, the hope of glory. What happened almost 2000 years ago becomes vital and alive and contemporary to us in the Liturgy.
The Physical Side of Being Spiritual
Since the times of the New Testament, Christians have believed that when worshipping God, we who are earthbound enter by the spirit into “heavenly places.” In Orthodox worship, we can step out of the pandemonium of time into the peace of eternity. Therefore everything in our worship has heaven as its point of reference.
But this heavenly focus by no means turns worship into a mental religion. A human being is not merely soul or spirit. Being human involves the unity of soul and body. Accordingly, worship calls not only for the action of the mind, the emotions, and the will, but also of the body with all its senses. So, as the Scriptures describe, in worship there are things to see, hear, touch, taste and smell. Our whole being is to actively participate in worship.
Windows to Heaven
One of the first things you’ll probably notice as you enter an Orthodox Church is the icons or pictures – pictures of Christ, the Virgin Mary with her Child, angels, Saint John the Baptist, Christs’ Apostles, and other holy and heroic Christians of the past.
An icon (icon is a Bible word which means “image”) is a dramatic and constant reminder that there is infinitely more to reality than what we see day by day on this earth. Icons help impart the presence of heaven to us in our worship. Many Churches display photos of their missionaries so that they may keep them in mind. The Orthodox Church displays those who faithfully finished the race, that we might keep them in mind. We don’t worship the icons, of course: worship is for God alone. But we do honor them, believing that the honor given to the icon passes on to the person it images. One of the functions of icons is similar to that of the pictures of loved ones you probably have in your wallet – visual images that represent real people and significant events. But icons are far more than simple visual aids in our worship, and as such have long been called “windows to heaven.”
What About Incense?
The pattern of heavenly worship described in both the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation is also reflected by the use of incense in Orthodox worship. Incense has always been used to honor the presence of the Divine. Thus the altar is censed because it represents the throne of God. The icons are censed because they depict God’s Son and the saints through whom God worked. The people are censed because each of them is made in the image of God. Through the use of incense, even our sense of smell beckons us to worship.
The Sign of the Cross
From the beginning, the most prominent symbol of Christianity has been the cross. The cross draws us to remember God’s supreme expression of love for us: the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Of that reality we can hardly be reminded too often!
Christians commonly display the cross in their Churches, on their pulpits, around their necks, on their Bibles, and in their homes. But many are unaware that, from the Church’s earliest days, Christians have freely and frequently made the sign of the cross on themselves. Using the sign of the cross gives us a personal, physical, and visible means to fulfill Saint Paul’s scriptural admonition to “glory in the cross.” The sign of the cross is a handful of divine truth.
Saint Paul says to “greet each other with a holy kiss.” Therefore, in early New Testament times, Christians began exchanging the “holy kiss” in their worship. This was done just before Communion as an affirmation between the people that they were at peace with God and also were truly reconciled to each other. “The Peace,” as it came to be called, has continued in Orthodox worship and in many other Churches to the present.
A People of Thanksgiving
A major focus of the Liturgy is our thanksgiving to God the Father for the once and for all atoning sacrifice of God the Son. Orthodox worship is so steeped in the giving of thanks that it is often referred to as the “Eucharist” (Eucharist is a Bible word that means thanksgiving). The Church has always believed that, in a mystery, God the Holy Spirit transforms our gifts of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of our Savior Jesus Christ. The grateful reception of these Holy Gifts provides nourishment for the union that Orthodox Christians have with the God who made and redeemed them. Non-Orthodox Christians are welcome to observe this holy sacrament, and to share in the “blessed bread” offered at the end of the Liturgy. Only baptized Orthodox Christians, however, may partake of the eucharistic elements.
Reprinted with permission from Conciliar Press, now Conciliar Media Ministries