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A Primer on Orthodox Christian Worship

By Fr. Michael Shanbour


Welcome!  We invite you to experience the beauty, majesty and transformative power of Orthodox Christian worship.  This manner of worship has its origins in first century Christian Palestine, in continuity with the historical Church of the first 1,000 years.  For this reason, it may initially appear “foreign” or unfamiliar to our modern sensibilities. 

However, we encourage you to take the time to observe and to absorb this form and “language” of worship that has communicated the glory and grace of God to countless Christians who have desired to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8).  Orthodox worship is like a rich spiritual banquet that cannot be consumed or digested in one sitting.  Deeply rooted in the language and culture of the Bible and the experience of the saints, it is greater the sum of its parts.

We hope the explanation below will provide you with some understanding of what you will encounter in Orthodox worship, a sort of “primer” to aid your first experience.  Our prayer is that the Lord Himself, the All-holy Trinity, will grant you insight into this heavenly, liturgical, apostolic and holy worship, and that the church temple itself will also help to enhance your blessed experience.

Heavenly Worship

Orthodox Christian worship is patterned after the heavenly liturgy, i.e. the worship that goes on continually in the kingdom of heaven.  By Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection, the kingdom of God has broken into this world and, in His Church, heaven and earth are united (Eph. 1:10).  Therefore, Orthodox worship resembles the worship we see depicted when God opens heaven to human eyes, for example in Isaiah chapter 6 and Revelation chapters 4 and 5.

Liturgical Worship

From apostolic times, Christian worship has been liturgical (c.f. Acts 13:2; “as they ministered” is, in the Greek, “liturgized”). This means worship follows a pre-determined, prescribed form and is not altered according individual preferences or tastes.  As in Old Testament times, the pattern and modes of Orthodox Christian worship are not the inventions of men, but revealed by God and faithfully passed down to successive generations. 

The first Christians continued using the basic liturgical forms prescribed by God to Israel, but now in a way that reflected how Jesus Christ fulfilled these forms and gave them their ultimate meaning.  The most distinctive new element in Christian worship was the replacement of the Temple animal sacrifices with the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist, which was understood as a perpetual participation in the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ – the Lamb of God – on the cross.

Therefore, except for the Sunday Lord’s Supper, the first generation of Christians did not even feel the need to separate from their Jewish origins but “were continually in the temple” (Lk. 24:53).   The Eucharist (literally, “Thanksgiving”) itself was also patterned after a well-established Jewish liturgical meal, giving thanks to God over bread and wine for all of God’s saving work. 

Apostolic Worship

As the apostles founded churches they imparted the pattern of Christian worship as transmitted by Christ and inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Evidence from the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries shows that Christian worship was almost identical whether in Spain, Gaul, and Italy, or Syria, Greece, and Asia Minor.  This was not by chance.  All of these local congregations were simply following the prescribed liturgy handed down to them by the apostles and their immediate successors.

Holy/Holistic Worship

Orthodox worship is also sensory.  It seeks to sanctify (i.e. make holy) not only the spirit and soul but the body and the senses.  In Orthodoxy the “spiritual” and material are not separated or opposed to one another.  As man is created both spiritual and material, so Orthodox worship appeals to and addresses the whole human being.  The Son of God Himself took on all of human nature, becoming flesh and blood like us (Heb. 2:14, 17) in order to sanctify the entire human person. 

The senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste all participate in the praise of God.  Of course, our sensory experience is not an end in itself, but a means to penetrate the heart.  Orthodox worship is not meant to appeal to the emotions, nor merely to the reasoning power, but to the deepest place of the heart (1 Pet. 3:4), the place of spiritual perception (Eph. 1:18) where man encounters God and hears His voice.


The Church Building/Temple

Since the church building is where the heavenly worship of God takes place, Orthodox architecture is full of meaning and theological symbolism.  Although our church temple was not constructed in a traditional architectural style, the interior space has been set up to approximate it.  The following are some points of interest.

         1.  The Entry (Narthex)

The initial entry place of the church building is called the Narthex.  In this space one is reminded to put aside the cares of this world and to gather one’s mind for prayer.  In the early Church this space, which was often very large, was where the non-baptized stood for church services and where baptisms took place.

         2. Candle Stands

Traditionally, upon entry into the Narthex, Orthodox Christians light candles accompanied by a prayer for a loved one or for a special need.  The light indicates Christ who said, “I am the Light of the world” (Jn. 8:12).  The continual flame reminds the believer of the need for zeal and unceasing remembrance of the Lord.  The pure bees wax is a symbol of that purity of heart which one must have to “see God” (Matt. 5:8).  The burning of the wax reminds of the sacrificial nature of the Christian life summarized by John the Baptist: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30).

         3. Holy Icons

One is quickly struck by the presence of icons throughout the sanctuary.  These are images of holy men and women from every generation who lived in Christ and could say with the apostle Paul, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).  They are now residents of heaven but still members of the Church for “God is not the God of the dead but of the living” (Mk. 12:25-27).  The icons remind us that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) who encourage us by their example and cheer us on in our spiritual struggles (see also Rev. 5:8).

The honor given to the icon is ultimately given to Christ who lives in and through those depicted.  As the Christians of biblical times were commanded to “greet one another with a holy kiss,” so the images of these extraordinary Christians are kissed in love and reverence for the One who sanctified them.  Icons draw us to reflect on the lives of those Christians who in an extraordinary way gave themselves to Christ.  We are challenged and encouraged to likewise submit our whole selves to him, to fight the good fight, finish the race and keep the faith (2 Tim. 4:7).  The same God that strengthened them is also with us!

         4. The Nave

The Nave is the main space outside the Altar area where Orthodox Christians stand in worship of God.  This area corresponds to the place in the Old Testament Temple where only the Priests could enter to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people.  But now, through Christ, we all “have access…to the Father” (Eph. 2:18) and believers have become a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9).  Therefore, all of the baptized stand here participating in the prayers of the Church and in the Eucharist, which is a participation (not a repetition) in the eternal sacrifice of Christ, “once, for all” (Heb. 7:27).

         5.  The Censor

Incense has great significance in the Bible.  God’s glory (his presence) often appears as a cloud or a cloud of smoke (Ez. 10:4; Isa. 4:5; Rev. 14:15).  Prayer is also imaged by incense (Ps. 141:2; Rev. 5:8).  Zachariah was burning incense in the Temple when the angel announced to him the birth of John the Baptist (Lk. 1:9).  The Magi brought incense (frankincense) in worship of the Christ Child (Matt. 2:11).  And the Prophet Malachi prophesied that, after the Messiah came, incense would be offered to God by all the Gentiles (Mal. 1:11).  Incense is used therefore by Orthodox Christians in the worship of God both for blessing and as an expression of the presence of God among his people.

         6. The Iconostasis

Between the Nave and the Altar area is the Iconostasis or “icon stand,” one of the most prominent features of an Orthodox church.  Some might initially perceive the iconostasis as a way of separating the Altar from the rest of the church.  Yet while it does act as a boundary in the physical sense, the spiritual function of the iconostasis is to provide a tangible sense of unity between God and man, between the heavenly and earthly realms.  The Son of God become Man, the Lord Jesus Christ, who reconciled man to God is always depicted at the first place on the right.  The first place to our left always depicts the Virgin with the Christ Child, an image of the Word who became flesh (Jn. 1:14).  On the right of Christ is John the Baptist who prepared the way for Christ and pointed Him out as the expected Messiah.  To the left of the Virgin Mary is depicted the patron saint(s) or feast day of the local parish, in our case, the Three Hierarchs (see your Welcome Packet for an explanation of these holy men).

         7.  The Altar (We kindly ask you not to enter the Altar area)

The Altar area is considered the holiest space in an Orthodox church and is reserved for those ordained or blessed to minister there.  In some sense it corresponds to the “Holy of Holies” of the OT Temple where the High Priest could only enter once per year (Heb. 9:7).   Yet now, those who minister at the Altar have continual access to this holy place.  In the Orthodox Church the priest stands, most commonly, in front of the Altar in prayer with his back to the people, facing the same way as the congregation.  Along with the people, he looks to Christ who is the “Head of the Church” (Eph. 5:23).

         8.  On the Altar

         8a  The Gospel Book

On every Orthodox Altar is enthroned the Book of the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark. Luke and John.  Contained there in words is the life of Christ Himself.  The Gospels are a sort of a verbal icon of the Lord, a written image of God in the flesh.  The Gospel Book is read regularly and often throughout the cycle of Orthodox services.  Typically, it is not merely read but intoned (sung) so that the words and life of Christ are proclaimed joyfully and powerfully.


         8b  The Blessing Cross

To the right of the Gospel Book is a hand cross which is used for blessings.  At the end of services, the faithful venerate (kiss) the cross as the instrument of their salvation and the cause for joy.   The cross is the glory of Christians.  As the apostle confesses: “But God forbid that I should glory, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (Gal. 6:14).


         8c  The Tabernacle

At the back and center stands the large Tabernacle (the metal structure resembling a church) whose purpose is to hold the reserved Sacrament of the Body of Christ.  The reserved Communion is used in cases of emergency and for those who are ill and unable to attend church.  Before the Tabernacle is placed an eternal flame, typically lit at all times to designate the continual presence of Christ in the Word and Sacrament.  A seven-branch candle is also traditionally behind the Tabernacle.


         9. Fulfilling the Old Testament:

The Holy of Holies of the Old Covenant Temple contained:

1) the Ark which held the Ten Commandments (literally, “words”) of God,

2) the Rod of Aaron that miraculously budded, and

3) the Jar of Manna, a bread-like food sent by God from heaven to His people. 


These are all fulfilled in Christ on the New Testament altar in the following way: 


9a. The Gospel Book: Instead of the laws of God written on stone tablets, we have the written testimony of the Word of God (Jn. 1:1) in the flesh, Jesus Christ.  By the Holy Spirit the commandments of God are written not on stone, but on the hearts of His people (2 Cor. 3:3).

9b. The Blessing Cross: The dead wood of Aaron’s rod, which budded (Heb 9:4), was a foreshadowing of the wood of the cross by which Christ died.  Although the cross was the symbol of hopelessness and death, by His death it has become the cause of the flowering of eternal life for those who believe.


9c. The Reserved Eucharist:  As Israel reserved one jar of the precious and miraculous bread (Manna) sent to them from heaven (Heb. 9:4), the Church reserves the consecrated Body of Christ, the “Bread of Life” (Jn. 6:35), which is the fulfillment of that Manna that came down from heaven and fed the people in the wilderness.  As Christ taught, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world” (Jn. 6:51).

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